In Chillicothe, Missouri, a farmer knew what kind of year he’d had by early November. The grueling harvest season, when combines ran day and night swallowing up crops and soil turned men’s hands the color of old pennies, was finally over. Farmers tallied their corn, wheat, and soybean yields at the grain elevator. If the numbers were high, children would find stacks of presents under the Christmas tree and farmworkers would pocket bank envelopes fat with cash bonuses. If the numbers were low, the holidays would be spare for many of the town’s 9,000 residents.
After the harvest, whether good or bad, there was always a holiday parade. In mid-November, farmers washed the grime from their tractors and applied fresh coats of wax, preparing the machines to pull holiday floats down Washington Street, Chillicothe’s main drag. Along the ten-block route, people huddled on sidewalks and bundled up in lawn chairs, drinking hot cider that shook in cups as the heavy bass drums of the high school marching band walloped past. The crowd waved gloved hands at homecoming kings and beauty queens beaming from the backseats of pristine antique convertibles. A man dressed as Santa Claus glided by atop a fire truck, while cheerleaders tossed candy to children.
The week of the holiday parade in 1990 started out well for farmers Lyndel Robertson and Claude Woodworth. The harvest had been robust, a relief to the former high school classmates and longtime business partners, who co-owned a few thousand acres. Their families lived in ranch houses built facing each other across Highway 190, a narrow country road snaking west and then north of Chillicothe. Life followed a familiar routine: farmwork, sports practices, piano lessons, home-cooked meals, church on Sundays. At night the inky sky absorbed the glow of lamplight from the families’ living rooms, situated 300 yards apart. The Woodworths’ seven children and the Robertsons’ five had grown up playing together on that stretch of earth, running around the thin trunks of young pine trees.
On the night of Tuesday, November 13, 1990, Lyndel and his 11-year-old son, Scott, lounged in the living room watching John Candy flip giant pancakes with a snow shovel in the movie Uncle Buck. Rhonda, the Robertsons’ 15-year-old daughter, arrived home around 9:30, after eating dinner at her boyfriend’s house. When the film ended, Rhonda and Scott, along with their sisters Renee, 13, and Roxanne, 8, went to bed. Lyndel and his wife, Cathy, stayed up to watch the news. They were in their early forties and had been together for more than two decades, since meeting as teenagers at a picnic. Lyndel was slope shouldered and shorter than Cathy, and he had a pronounced limp from a severe case of childhood polio. Cathy had green eyes that softened around the edges when she laughed. She was a stay-at-home mom who liked to keep her hands busy: She fashioned Easter baskets in spring and cultivated strawberries in the backyard every summer. That night, Cathy had made progress on a 4-H craft project at the dining room table.
When the news ended, the Robertsons went to their room. They made love before falling asleep. They didn’t hear someone stealing through the house just before midnight.
That person left the floor safe in Lyndel’s office, where he kept bricks of cash, and Goldie, the family dog, undisturbed. They approached the door of Cathy and Lyndel’s bedroom and pushed it open. They raised a .22-caliber weapon and fired six shots. Cathy was struck twice, in the skull and in the chest. Lyndel was hit by the other four bullets. One ripped through his cheek and shattered his teeth. Another lodged near his liver.
No one else in the house heard the gun or the shooter fleeing. Scott was roused from sleep by the sound of his father groaning. He walked across the hall to his parents’ room and flicked on the light. The glare revealed Lyndel, naked and struggling to hold himself up against a wall beside his bed. His arms and torso left streaks of blood wherever they touched. Fragments of teeth were scattered on the bed.
With his mangled mouth, Lyndel managed to tell Scott to wake up his mother. The stunned boy did as he was told, walking to where Cathy lay in blood-soaked sheets. Scott repeatedly asked his mother to get up, louder and louder each time, until he was yelling. She didn’t move. Scott’s cries woke Roxanne, who appeared in the hallway outside the open bedroom door. “Go get Rhonda!” Scott said through tears, and Roxanne ran to her sister’s room in the basement. “Something happened to Mom and Dad!” she screamed, banging on the door.
The girls rushed to their parents’ room, where Scott had already helped his father into a pair of underwear. Their younger sisters watched as Rhonda and Scott maneuvered Lyndel down to the floor, resting his head on a pillow so he wouldn’t choke on the blood streaming from his mouth. Rhonda then corralled her siblings into the living room; their bare feet left bloody tracks on the soft carpet. Rhonda picked up the white phone beside the couch and called her boyfriend’s house and 911. When he arrived at the scene, Brian Alexander, her boyfriend, called the Woodworths.
The family across the road was asleep when ringing cut through their dark, still house. The Woodworth kids were spread among various rooms and the basement, where the eldest, 16-year-old Mark, had his own space. Claude’s wife, Jackie, groggily lifted the phone’s handset. She heard Brian Alexander say there was an emergency. “I’ll be right over,” Jackie said, now alert. She told her husband where she was going. Claude later recalled thinking that maybe one of the Robertson kids had appendicitis.
To avoid the late-autumn chill and get to her neighbors’ as quickly as possible, Jackie slid behind the wheel of her family’s red Chevrolet truck. As she was heading up her driveway, she spotted the lights of emergency vehicles flashing on Highway 190. After arriving at the Robertsons’ and learning what had happened, she turned the truck around, sending its headlights flashing across her house’s windows. By the time she parked, Claude was in the doorway.
“Something terrible happened,” Jackie said, tears filling her eyes. “You’ve got to go over there.”
When Claude arrived at the Robertsons’ house around 12:30 a.m., paramedics and police were rushing around the scene. He stepped through the front doorway, across a threshold he’d passed hundreds of times before, and was told about the shooting. The children were waiting for investigators to swab their parents’ blood, drying on the young Robertsons’ skin and nightclothes, for evidence. Lyndel, miraculously, would survive. He would be airlifted to a medical center in nearby Kansas City for surgery to remove bullet fragments from his sinuses and jawbone. He wouldn’t return home for several weeks, which meant that he’d miss the somber event scheduled for the same day as the holiday parade: his wife’s funeral.
Word of Cathy’s killing sent a jolt through the community. Violent crime was uncommon in Chillicothe, but by sheer coincidence the town was already reeling from a series of murders perpetrated by an elderly couple. Not two weeks before the Robertson shooting, Faye Copeland had been convicted in a Chillicothe courtroom of helping her husband, who was awaiting his own trial, kill several itinerant farmworkers. On the morning of November 14, in coffee shops and hair salons along Washington Street, people were incredulous. First a farmer’s wife was party to murder, now another one had been shot dead in her bed. This wasn’t the stuff of a quiet, God-fearing town.
At Terry Klein’s maintenance garage, Claude talked about the crime with other farmers and their hands, perched on a smattering of stools. Among the men was Chris Ruoff, a sturdily built 25-year-old with a black mustache and a touch of baby fat lingering in his face. Ruoff didn’t work on the Woodworth-Robertson farm, but his crew shared a radio frequency broadcast from a small tower near Lyndel’s house; workers used it during harvest season to call for backup on walkie-talkies. Ruoff told the men that he’d driven past the Robertsons’ not long before the shooting, on the way home from dropping off his girlfriend after eating dinner at Golden Corral. From Highway 190, he’d seen a car in the Robertsons’ driveway that looked like a Ford Bronco or a truck with a camper attached. It was near the front door, where visitors usually parked. Given the late hour, Ruoff thought that the car belonged to one of the daughter’s boyfriends, probably Brian Alexander, who had a Bronco. At the garage, however, Ruoff reconsidered his assumption.
“Now that I think about it,” he said, “that couldn’t have been that Alexander boy’s truck, because didn’t he get into a wreck in that Bronco—wasn’t that him last month?” The men agreed, recalling that Rhonda had been in the accident and had worn a neck brace during her recovery. So whose car had been in the driveway?
Later that day, Ruoff walked into the squat Livingston County sheriff’s office in downtown Chillicothe, where he told the deputy on duty about the car. The department informed the Missouri Major Case Squad, which mobilizes law-enforcement agencies in proximity to a serious crime, and it connected the tip to a suspect: teenager Brandon Hagan, whose family had a white Ford truck with a camper. Brandon was the boyfriend of the Robertsons’ eldest daughter, 20-year-old Rochelle.
Once crowned the prettiest girl at the Livingston County fair, Rochelle had slender hips and long hair, with bangs she liked to tease to a crisp high above her forehead. She often dated boys her mother didn’t approve of. Brandon, Rochelle’s latest beau, was a competitive wrestler four years younger than she was, and he had a violent temper. He’d given her a black eye at least once and threatened her on several other occasions. Rochelle had ignored Cathy’s concerns about Brandon, insisting during screaming matches with her mother that she was in love, often punctuating the point with a slammed bedroom door. Now away at college in St. Joseph, about 75 miles west of Chillicothe, on the Kansas state line, Rochelle lived with a roommate and worked at a clothing store called the Brass Buckle. She came home frequently, however, and she was still seeing Brandon.
Lyndel himself accused Brandon of being the shooter. When he awoke at the hospital, Lyndel told doctors and police that he was “almost 100 percent sure” the 16-year-old had committed the crime because Brandon was a “psycho” whom the Robertsons had wanted Rochelle to stop dating. Brandon, however, had an alibi. His family had recently moved 100 miles southwest of Chillicothe, to Independence, Missouri, closer to a job site where his stepfather operated a crane. When investigators interviewed them, Brandon’s mother and sister said that he was home the night of the shooting. As for the truck, Brandon’s mother claimed that he wasn’t allowed to drive it.
Investigators concluded in a report, “No information has been developed which can put him anywhere but home that night.” Eventually, Lyndel stopped pointing a finger at Brandon. Rhonda, who became the family’s de facto spokesperson, would later explain, “We thought it was Brandon just because that’s who we thought could do it.”
Law enforcement considered a few other individuals—men with personal or professional beefs with Lyndel, for instance—but no evidence stuck. The Robertsons didn’t give up hope that a perpetrator would surface. Nothing in the house had gone missing the night of the shooting, which indicated that robbery wasn’t the intruder’s motive. Most likely whoever it was had simply wanted the Robertsons dead. Lyndel began to wonder if it was someone he and Cathy had trusted intimately, someone who lived close enough to cross Highway 190, fire a weapon six times, and get back home without anyone noticing.
In early 1991, Lyndel told some farmhands that Claude might have been involved. Because they were in business together, the two men had taken out a $100,000 life-insurance policy on each other; maybe, Lyndel speculated, Claude had decided to collect. Claude denied wrongdoing, and he passed a polygraph test. Yet there was no saving the bond between the two men’s families from Lyndel’s chilling suspicion, which to many people in Chillicothe seemed to come out of the blue. The farming partnership, sealed with a handshake 17 years prior, dissolved in the spring of 1991. A lawsuit ensued. Lyndel kept a portion of the land but sold his house and moved his children closer to town.
For the next two years, police made no arrests in Cathy’s murder, leaving Chillicothe in a state of perpetual unease. Eventually, rumors and mistrust engulfed the town, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. The narrative of the killing and the ensuing investigation challenged the town’s very idea of itself. In the middle of it all, a culprit emerged and paid the price for Cathy’s murder.
The Law Offices of Michael R. Bilbrey, a 15-person firm just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, were generic in every sense of the word. The attorneys took on workplace-injury cases, specializing in claims of asbestos poisoning, while a squad of administrators handled paperwork and court filings. They operated out of a nondescript brick building with frosted glass doors and dark-wood accents in a suburban office park. Every day was a race for billable hours.
When Robert “Bob” Ramsey arrived at Bilbrey’s in 2008, he didn’t quite fit into the culture. He was a defense attorney and a journeyman who’d roamed around St. Louis for two decades, working at firms large and small and even trying his hand at a private practice. The constant movement was a product of Ramsey’s desire for independence and his tendency to abruptly leave a firm as soon as he learned of any unsavory legal behavior. He’d come to Bilbrey’s as something of a favor to a friend, who’d departed the office to accept a seat as a circuit judge. Ramsey took over a slate of complex cases with potentially lucrative payouts.
Yet big-ticket litigation wasn’t Ramsey’s favorite part of his job. He had a soft spot for underdogs and what he sometimes referred to as ten-foot-pole cases: ones that seemed so unwinnable, no other lawyer would touch them. Sixty years old, with dense gray hair and a goatee to match, Ramsey had inherited his conscience from his father, Brooks, a Southern Baptist minister. In the early 1960s, in Albany, Georgia, the elder Ramsey used his pulpit at the First Baptist Church to advocate desegregation, much to the consternation of some of his own congregants, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and one man who nailed a 95-point doctrine on white supremacy to the church’s front door.
In 1962, Brooks Ramsey took his son, then 14, to see Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a stirring sermon on racial tolerance at a black church. The next day, King was supposed to do the same thing before Pastor Ramsey’s white flock. When the civil rights leader arrived at the First Baptist Church, however, he was met by an angry crowd. Ushers prevented him from entering, throwing King and some of his entourage down the front stairs. A riot ensued along bitter racial lines, spreading throughout Albany until the National Guard arrived.
That night, a cross was staked in the Ramseys’ front lawn, hot orange flames engulfing its wooden arms. At school the next day, Bob Ramsey arrived to find “nigger lover” scrawled in big letters on the chalkboard of his homeroom. Soon after, his family left Albany. “It made me question the whole religion,” Ramsey recalled, “how the church always told us that everyone is equal in the eyes of God—and then to treat whites and blacks so differently.”
Ramsey studied English at St. Louis University. When he decided to go to law school, he prepared for the LSAT by reading classic Russian novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Once practicing, he made a name for himself mounting cases to free women imprisoned for killing their abusive husbands. He also took on what he believed to be wrongful convictions. In one instance, he embarked on a freedom march from St. Louis to Kansas City in honor of a woman whose original lawyer had been paid off by her boyfriend and codefendant, forcing her to take the fall for a murder she didn’t commit. Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, had pledged clemency for the woman before he died in a plane crash; Carnahan’s successor made no such offer. Ramsey, who represented the woman, decided to go on a five-day, 175-mile walk to draw media attention to her appeal. Among the people who saw Ramsey’s bold stunt was a state lawmaker who’d taken a particular interest in what he believed was another miscarriage of justice, this one in the town of Chillicothe. He asked Ramsey to take a look at the case. Ramsey did one better: He agreed to represent the defendant.
At Bilbrey’s, word spread through the office grapevine that Ramsey had brought a longshot case to the firm. It involved the murder of a woman named Cathy Robertson and a man convicted twice for the crime who was now serving a quadruple life sentence. Over the nearly eight years he’d been working the case, Ramsey had regularly driven up to Chillicothe and to the small town of Cameron, where the convicted murderer was in a state penitentiary. He’d gathered court records and taken depositions, amassing several brown boxes’ worth of documents that he believed supported his client’s innocence—or, at the very least, the right to a retrial. The odds that he would get the conviction overturned were slim. As far as the state of Missouri was concerned, the case was closed; it had already been subjected to the scrutiny of one appeal.
Still, Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003. A fit man who regularly practiced the martial art of aikido, Ramsey suffered sudden cardiac arrest while working out at a YMCA. He was revived with a defibrillator, then fell into a coma; the doctors told his wife and two children that he had little chance of recovering. Ramsey underwent surgery, during which his heart stopped a second time. When he woke up and finally seemed to be out of the woods, he told his client’s family in Chillicothe that if they wanted to get a different lawyer he’d understand. But they’d nurtured an almost religious faith in him after struggling for many years to retain good counsel. Ramsey’s client went to the bare-bones prison chapel to pray that his lawyer would live to defend him in court.
When Ramsey’s health returned, he got back to the matter of proving his client’s innocence. Not everyone was pleased. “You’re going on a fishing expedition,” a judge told Ramsey when denying his request to depose a key figure in the case. An occasional fly-fisherman, Ramsey found the statement encouraging: A person only fishes where there’s something to catch.
Ramsey wasn’t the only staffer at Bilbrey’s struggling to acclimate. So was Kelly Williams, recently hired as an administrator. Williams was 35 and a single mom of two kids. In her twenties, she’d worked as a blackjack dealer at the Alton Belle, a riverboat casino on the Mississippi. She stood just over five feet tall, smoked Marlboros, and had a brash, infectious laugh. She was good at her job—organized, quick, intuitive—but she ran afoul of a supervisor with her outspokenness, to the point that her job was on the line.
Ramsey liked Williams. She’d worked with him on a few settlement cases, and he was impressed with how her mind worked, particularly her memory for little details tucked away deep in legal filings, the kind that could make or break a case. When he heard about the trouble with the supervisor, Ramsey took Williams on as his assistant.
He ushered Williams into his office, where stacks of paper, legal pads, and court documents were on every surface, including the floor. Ramsey settled into his desk chair and pointed to the infamous brown boxes full of his work on the Chillicothe case. Williams had heard chatter about how it was a lost cause.
“I need your help,” Ramsey told her.
Williams knew that Ramsey had saved her job, but she didn’t think that was any reason to run a fool’s errand with him and said so. Ramsey’s client had been convicted by two juries. “Anyone in their right mind would believe he was guilty,” Williams said.
When Ramsey began to explain why he believed otherwise, Williams was adamant that she would prove him wrong. “Since I was itty bitty,” she said, “if I’m right, then I’m going to find out one way or another to prove that I’m right.” Williams announced that she would pore over the case files and find what she needed to disabuse Ramsey of his misplaced certainty.
That night she took one of the boxes home. Eventually, she took another, then another. Using a color-coding system, she organized depositions and created timelines based on witness testimony. After feeding her kids dinner, she sat on the couch, documents scattered around her, filling up legal pads with notes. Instead of proof of guilt, Williams kept finding holes in the prosecution’s case. At the casino, she’d caught a few cheats; she believed she had an instinct for when a system was being gamed.
After she was done going through the files, she walked back into Ramsey’s office. “Alright, he’s innocent,” she said, giving her boss no chance to say I told you so. “How do we get him out of prison?”
The client in question was Mark Woodworth, Claude and Jackie’s son. Nineteen when he was arrested, Mark had spent almost his entire adult life behind bars. Ramsey was convinced that the case “stunk like a dead skunk in the road,” and Williams now agreed. Their determination to free Mark would throw Missouri’s legal system into turmoil.
As a teenager, Mark kept to himself. Shy and awkward, with doleful brown eyes and a narrow chin sprinkled with pimples, he was more comfortable building cabinets in shop class than memorizing formulas in algebra. He wasn’t one to join clubs or sports teams. In his free time, he preferred to work in his dad’s fields and listen to farmhands talk about what rain does to seeds and the nuances of chemical fertilizers. In 1990, Claude set Mark up with a few acres of soybeans to manage, a trial run to determine if the teenager would be a good addition to the family business.
The morning after the shooting, Claude treaded mournfully down the stairs to his basement and jostled Mark, then 16, awake. Mark was characteristically quiet, even in the face of tragedy. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I couldn’t believe that happened, and I didn’t know what to say.”
Initially, Mark flew under law enforcement’s radar. His parents said he’d been home the night of the murder. His gentle temperament and modest intelligence, friends pointed out, didn’t fit the profile of a killer. “I knew that boy ever since he was born,” George Quinn, a farmer, said once. “If I’d asked him to go out and handle a dying animal, Mark sure couldn’t even shoot a cat out of its misery.” Where some people saw innate virtue, however, others started to wonder if there was simmering menace. “He was very much a loner,” Rhonda Robertson said of Mark as a child. “Scott would always ask him to come out and play, but he just wanted to sit alone in his room.”
Soon after the murder, investigators located a box of ammunition in a shed behind the Robertsons’ house. The .22-caliber shells, a few of which were missing from the box, were the same type the shooter had used. They were sitting on a workbench; according to Lyndel, they were usually stored under a stack of cigar boxes. To law enforcement, this suggested that someone might have taken the shells out on the night of the crime. Investigators lifted a thumbprint from the box and tried to find a match in Missouri’s legal databases. No luck. Then, during an interrogation with investigators, Mark gave his prints. One of them was a match.
Asked whether he’d ever visited the Robertsons’ shed, Mark gave inconsistent statements. He first claimed that he’d never been inside. Then he said he’d once helped pour concrete in the structure and maybe entered it a few other times on some weekends. A ballistics expert analyzed a bullet from the crime and decided that it was probably shot from a Ruger revolver found in the Woodworth home, where Claude kept it in his and Jackie’s bedroom. Law enforcement suspected that Mark had taken the weapon, used it, and put it back without his sleeping parents realizing.
By the fall of 1993, the sheriff’s office was ready to arrest Mark. He was a high school dropout living at home, working on his dad’s farm, and attending vocational classes for his GED. Police showed up outside one of those classes on the morning of October 20, put him in handcuffs, and read him his rights.
Mark’s parents were bewildered. As far as they knew, their son didn’t have anything against Cathy, a woman who’d cared for him as a kid when Jackie ran errands. Even as he sat in jail, held without bail, Mark told his father that he wasn’t worried, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t think he realizes what he’s charged with,” Claude told the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. “It has not really soaked into him.” Jackie had trouble sleeping and struggled to comfort her six other children. Ashley, then in the third grade, would get off the school bus some afternoons in tears because kids had teased her about having a murderer for a brother.
While awaiting trial, Mark failed a polygraph test. In a report dated July 18, 1994, the test’s administrator wrote, “I advised Mr. Woodworth that he had lied to me and was responsible for shooting the Robertsons.… I told him it wasn’t a question of who any longer, but rather a question of why.” Mark nodded, but when asked directly why he’d committed the crime, he answered, “I didn’t.” The administrator pressed him, reminding Mark that “if he was a cold-blooded murderer and found guilty of capital murder, he could be taken and executed for the killing, but if the shooting and death were accidental, that was another situation altogether.”
“Well,” Mark replied, “we all have to die someday.”
People in Chillicothe interpreted the statement in one of two ways. Some thought that Mark was referring matter-of-factly to the prospect of his own death. Others thought he was talking about Cathy’s murder and revealing his dark personality. Rhonda Robertson would later describe the comment as displaying “unbelievable callousness.”
The Robertsons’ relationship with the Woodworths had only grown more toxic since 1990. When their partnership dissolved, Claude hired an accountant to go through their books, which Lyndel had always been responsible for. The accountant discovered records indicating that Lyndel had siphoned cash from grain sales and skimmed extra money from a shared bank account to purchase cars and home appliances. Claude sued Lyndel for $150,000 in damages, but Lyndel claimed that he was innocent. If anything, he said, Claude hadn’t done his fair share in the partnership.
“The breakup broke my heart,” Claude later said. When Mark was arrested for Cathy’s murder, that sense of betrayal cut even deeper. “I was feeling sorry for him, that he just lost his wife, and taking the whole thing pretty hard, too,” Claude said. “Then it was like he stabbed a knife in my back.”
After the indictment in October 1993, a year and a half passed before Mark’s case went to trial in Clinton County, 70 miles from Chillicothe. Lawyers hoped to find there what they couldn’t in Mark’s hometown: an impartial jury. Everyone in Chillicothe had an opinion on the case. Woodworth defenders would clam up when a Robertson supporter came into the local bank to make a deposit. In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.
The divide was so intense that Lyndel felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Constitution-Tribune answering charges that he’d “swindled” Claude—Lyndel would eventually settle the embezzlement suit for $17,500—and that Mark had been “railroaded.” Lyndel wrote: “I am completely bewildered by this type of reaction. It is not my place, nor is it the responsibility of the people of this community to decide the guilt or innocence of this 19-year-old individual—that decision belongs to a selected jury.” Privately, though, the Robertsons told friends that they were sure Mark was guilty.
Mark’s trial—as an adult, though he’d been a minor at the time of the shooting—began on March 13, 1995. Kenny Hulshof represented the state. A special prosecutor and rising star in the Missouri attorney general’s office, Hulshof was a farmer’s son, tall and blond, with a folksy, winning demeanor. He’d captivated jurors in small towns all over the state while prosecuting murder cases, including the one against Faye Copeland in Chillicothe right before Cathy Robertson’s killing. Fellow lawyers sometimes traveled hours to watch Hulshof’s arguments.
On the other side of the courtroom was Mark’s attorney, a mild-mannered man named James Wyrsch, who tried to undercut the evidence against his client. The thumbprint on the box of .22-caliber shells in Lyndel’s shed? It could have been left there while Mark was target-shooting with some farmhands or when he was moving things around in the shed to find some stored item. Wyrsch briefly homed in on the absence of a clear reason Mark might have wanted Cathy dead. “I will submit to you that a 16-year-old boy with no motive whatsoever, trying to get on in life, did not shoot this individual,” Wyrsch told the jury. When he tried to suggest other suspects, however, the judge rebuffed Wyrsch on the grounds that investigators hadn’t amassed sufficient physical evidence to support another theory of the crime.
Hulshof addressed motive while questioning Lyndel on the stand. Hadn’t the Robertsons been angry at Mark for not paying expenses associated with the soybean crop he’d grown on the patch of land his father had given him to manage? Lyndel said yes. And wasn’t it possible that Mark had decided to shoot his neighbors to keep them quiet about his failure to pull his financial weight? Possibly, Lyndel said. For his part, Mark testified that he didn’t know the Robertsons were upset with him about the soybeans.
Later, in his closing statement, Hulshof played to an emerging cultural fear, stoked by the media, that some American teenagers were just bad seeds—kids like the so-called West Memphis Three, convicted the year prior in Tennessee for allegedly murdering three young boys as part of a Satanic ritual. “We flip on the news and we see these senseless crimes. And that’s exactly what it is—it’s senseless. There is no reason,” Hulshof said. “Folks, yes, [Mark] was 16, but how has our society changed such that we have 16- and 15- and 14- and 13-year-olds that are doing things that we can’t comprehend?”
Hulshof drew attention to Mark’s affect while giving testimony, which had been hushed and stilted. “Put yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of someone who was, according to them, falsely accused of a crime,” Hulshof instructed the jurors. “Are you just going to sit up there and [say], ‘No, never, no, never,’ with this flat tone?… You’re going to see some emotion. You’re going to see some tears. You’re going to see some anger. You’re going to see something other than what you saw.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hulshof said, “I think you saw a glimpse right then of the cold-blooded nature of Mark Woodworth.”
Dana Williams, a farmhand’s wife who attended the trial, marveled at Hulshof’s oration. “He was just, wow, a standout, like an actor starring in his own movie,” Williams later said.
After close to 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Mark guilty of murder in the second degree, burglary, assault in the first degree, and two counts of armed criminal action. The judge sentenced him to 31 years in state prison. The trial had lasted four days.
Crossroads Correctional Center sits about 40 miles due west of Chillicothe, atop a gentle, grassy slope. The complex’s tan walls and green roof blend into the surrounding farmland, broken only by country highways and a Walmart. When Kelly Williams accompanied Bob Ramsey to the prison for her first visit with Mark, she felt like she knew their client already. She imagined a man hardened by the legal system, but the prisoner who slid into a chair across from her in the visiting area was far from bitter.
Mark was 34, and his dark cropped hair was tinged with silver. In a soft, steady voice, he asked Ramsey questions about his case. He knew the main players, but he didn’t grasp all the details. The man Hulshof had cast as seething and threatening seemed to Williams guileless and meek. “His demeanor, how simple he was—it broke my heart,” she recalled.
Williams listened to Mark talk about how he passed his days: welding metal cabinets, rehabilitating rescue dogs for adoption, praying in the chapel. She thought about everything he’d missed on the outside—weddings, Christmases, the births of nieces and nephews, finding love. Williams excused herself from the visiting area and went to the bathroom. She stayed there until she stopped crying.
Mark and his family had already had their hopes dashed once. Two years after Mark’s conviction, an appeals court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the judge had improperly excluded evidence about other suspects’ potential motive and opportunity. Mark was released from prison and went home to await retrial, which took place in 1999. Hulshof had recently been elected to Congress, after campaigning on his record of locking up violent criminals, so another prosecutor argued the case before the same judge who’d presided over the first trial. The Woodworths hired a new lawyer, too. According to the family and a paralegal who spoke under oath, the attorney struggled to remember where he’d placed key documents. He often rang up Wyrsch’s office to obtain new copies. At trial he questioned Brandon Hagan, who maintained his alibi, with support from his mother’s and sister’s testimony, and Lyndel, who described his initial accusations of Brandon as purely speculative. “I was real disorientated and didn’t know what was going on,” Lyndel said of waking up after the shooting. The Woodworths were so dissatisfied that they asked if a different lawyer could handle the closing argument. Their request was granted, but Mark was convicted nonetheless. This time the judge gave him the maximum penalty: four life sentences plus 15 years.
Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”
She didn’t. Jackie coordinated weekend visits to Crossroads, staggering various siblings’ and other relatives’ time with Mark. On the two weekends each year when visitors could bring food to prisoners, Jackie made Mark’s favorites: lasagna, corn casserole, and peanut brittle. Every August, the women in her Sunday school class sent Mark birthday cards. At home, Jackie kept Mark’s room the same as he’d left it, with a quilt neatly smoothed over the bed and boxes of toy John Deere tractors stacked under a window.
When Williams and Ramsey visited the Woodworths in Chillicothe, they sat elbow to elbow with the family around a long farm table for meals, passing platters of homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, and beef. As she had been with Mark, Williams was struck by Jackie and Claude’s apparent lack of anger. The Woodworths had been together since they were teenagers, when Jackie, thin and blond, would watch Claude, heavyset and strong, compete in tractor pulls. Middle-aged now, the couple were resolved about Mark’s situation. They kept living and working in a community where many people believed they’d raised a killer, and they were confident that if anyone could get their son out of prison, it was Ramsey.
Ramsey had several concerns about the way investigators had handled Mark’s case. Why had the prosecution been so comfortable with Lyndel recanting accusations, first against Brandon Hagan, then against Claude? How had suspicion landed on Mark at all, and so many months after the shooting? What happened to witness testimony—Chris Ruoff’s sighting of a car, for example—that suggested someone other than a close neighbor was the killer?
Ramsey shared these thoughts with Williams and the Woodworths. “He was asking the right questions,” Claude said. Answering them, though, would require Missouri’s judiciary to accept a new appeal of Mark’s case. Only then would Ramsey have free rein to collect new evidence as part of pretrial discovery. In late 2008, a court considered an appeal, which Ramsey and Williams built around the charge that Mark’s rights had been violated by incompetent counsel and a secretive grand jury. The motion was summarily denied. Ramsey and Williams went back to square one, scrambling to figure out another way to reopen the case.
One day, Ramsey got a phone call from an Associated Press reporter named Alan Zagier. While working on a profile of Hulshof when he was gearing up to run for Missouri governor—a race he lost—Zagier had found something interesting in the state attorney general’s office: documents pertaining to Mark Woodworth that had never been discussed in court. In fact, they didn’t appear anywhere in the case files, suggesting that they’d never been made available to Mark’s lawyers. If so, they represented new, potentially exculpatory evidence.
The documents were letters dating back 15 years, and they were the keys that Ramsey and Williams needed to unlock their investigation. “We sped off,” Ramsey said, “like we’d been let loose on the Autobahn.”
The correspondence had a convoluted backstory. Several months after the shooting, Lyndel hired a private investigator named Terry Deister, a recent arrival in Chillicothe, to dig up information on Cathy’s murder. The case was going nowhere; maybe a fresh set of eyes would help. A few days after taking the job, Deister met with Gary Calvert, chief deputy of the Livingston County sheriff’s office, whom he’d worked with on an undercover narcotics sting at a previous job as a vice-squad officer. According to Deister’s notes, the men convened to “evaluate the possibilities of a working relationship” on the Robertson case. They agreed to pursue “the remainder of this investigation as a team.” (Calvert and Deister declined to comment for this story.)
Two years later, based on interviews and forensic evidence, Deister, Calvert, and Lyndel hoped that the county prosecutor, a man named Doug Roberts, would bring charges against Mark. Roberts refused, because he didn’t think the case was strong enough. Indicting Mark, then, would require assistance from a more powerful force who wanted to move the case forward—someone like Ken Lewis, a circuit judge in Livingston County.
Lewis’s interest in Mark’s case seemed to have strange roots. In December 1990, about a month after the Robertson shooting, a local newspaper had published an article detailing how Lewis, an avid duck hunter, had been instructed by county commissioners to remove a barrier he’d placed on a public road alongside his property to keep other hunters away. Lewis took umbrage with language in the article, insisting that it jeopardized his authority as a judge. He sued the county commission—a move so rare for a member of the bench that several legal scholars interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of it happening. Lewis lost the case, but he kept his sights trained on the county commission.
Lewis’s personal lawyer at the time was Brent Elliott, who’d been the county prosecutor prior to losing the post to Doug Roberts. Elliott was friendly with Calvert and talked with him and Deister regularly—sometimes several times a week—about their work on the Robertson case. Calvert and Deister expressed to Elliott their frustration that Roberts wouldn’t indict Mark. Deister later recalled Calvert dismissively describing Roberts as being “good at traffic tickets.”
The letters that eventually landed at the AP began on September 24, 1993. Lyndel addressed one—actually written by Deister on his behalf—to Lewis, imploring that Roberts “be released of his duty in my particular case” so that evidence against Mark could come before a court. “Until this time, I do not feel that justice has been served and my life is at a standstill,” the letter read. “I am pleading with you to act upon this, within your power, to have this case presented before a grand jury.”
Ten days later, Roberts wrote his own letter to Lewis. “It has come to my attention that the complaining witness in this matter has requested you disqualify me for ‘lack of enthusiasm.’ Mr. Robertson confuses my desire to make a thorough review of all the reports in this case,” he wrote. “I can understand his frustration, but recall that soon after this crime, Mr. Robertson was adamant that we charge another young man.” Still, Roberts acknowledged that he should step away from the case. “The appropriate disposition of this matter requires that the prosecuting official have the confidence of, as well as confidence in, the complaining witness. This I do not have,” he wrote.
Two days later, the next of the Lewis letters, as they would come to be known, was sent by the judge to Kenny Hulshof. It referenced “various telephone conversations” the men had had about Hulshof coming to Chillicothe to take over for Roberts on the Woodworth case. Lewis noted that he’d already initiated the convening of a grand jury; he and a county clerk would select the 12 members, including a foreman who was friendly with Lewis and who had worked as an accountant for Lewis’s law firm before he became a judge. In his letter to Hulshof, Lewis included a copy of Lyndel’s pleading missive and noted that the three-year statute of limitations on several of the crimes committed against the Robertsons—“felonious assault, burglary in the first degree, and armed criminal action charges”—would soon run out.
The proceedings against Mark began on October 15, 1993, and they moved swiftly. Hulshof successfully argued for the state to file charges. Over subsequent months, the grand jury considered a laundry list of other issues, including whether the county commission had misused money in the form of modest charitable donations. With Lewis presiding, the grand jury indicted several commissioners. They would eventually be exonerated, but not before spending tens of thousands of dollars defending their support of a food bank and a children’s hospital.
On the evening of the grand jury’s final meeting, in 1994, someone strung a long white banner along the stone base of Chillicothe’s courthouse, which faces Washington Street. A photo of it ran in the next day’s edition of the Constitution-Tribune. Five words hastily painted on the fabric read, “Ding-Dong the Witch Hunt’s Dead.”
When Ramsey read the Lewis letters, he was stunned. Was it possible that at the heart of Mark’s convictions sat a judge who wanted to hunt ducks in solitude and needed a case substantial enough to justify convening a grand jury that could also adjudicate complaints against his political enemies, a state prosecutor eager to strengthen his tough-on-crime persona, and a shooting victim, private eye, and deputy sheriff collaborating against the son of that victim’s former business partner? The whole scenario seemed outlandish in the way only small-town business can.
For the purposes of an appeal, what mattered was that the documents appeared to be new evidence of possible due-process violations against Mark Woodworth. Ramsey was astonished that the letters even existed. “I can’t believe people put this stuff in writing,” he said. “So many rules were being broken.”
All the more peculiar was the fact that various other documents from the grand jury chapter of Mark’s case had gone missing, including the transcript of the proceedings. The first time Ramsey visited Chillicothe, after sipping tea with the Woodworths in their living room and promising to fight for their son’s release, he’d stopped by the courthouse to pick up whatever files from the case were available. The clerk had nothing from the October 1993 hearings. When Ramsey asked why, the sentencing judge in both of Mark’s trials said that the transcriber hadn’t done his job—an odd claim given that he’d diligently recorded other sessions of the same grand jury.
Ramsey and Williams hoped to get to the bottom of that mystery during discovery, but first they had to file an appeal. This time, based on the Lewis letters, the pair made the case that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial because Lewis had abused his power and acted beyond the purview of his role; they also asserted that Lyndel had wielded undue influence over the empaneling of the grand jury. The appeal was denied twice in lower courts, but Ramsey and Williams kept pushing, and in mid-2010 their petition reached the Missouri Supreme Court.
The judges ruled in Mark’s favor, putting his case on their docket. They assigned a special master, Judge Gary Oxenhandler, to preside over hearings where lawyers could present evidence and question witnesses. The hearings wouldn’t lead to a verdict; rather, Oxenhandler would submit a report to the Supreme Court, which would use it to rule on whether Mark’s constitutional rights had been violated.
When Ramsey called to tell the Woodworths, Jackie answered the phone in her kitchen. She yelped with joy, startling her sons, Chad and Colin, who were eating lunch between shifts working in the fields. “It was the first big break we’d gotten,” Jackie remembered. “Everything we tried to do, we’d run right into a wall. But all we needed was one little chip in the wall, and the little chip would keep getting bigger and bigger until we could break the wall down.”
In the fall of 2010, Oxenhandler scheduled an evidentiary hearing for the following May, giving Ramsey and Williams about five months to prepare. They quickly got to work. Williams had grown close to the Woodworths and was indignant about Mark’s situation. “She was pissed,” Ramsey said, “and fearless.” Williams made lists of people to interview, files to access, evidence to track down. She marked boxes and file folders with sticky notes indicating what was inside them. She worked nights at home, sleeping an hour or two before heading into the office each morning.
High on Williams’s list was locating the missing transcript of the grand jury hearing. She drove to Chillicothe and insisted her way into the dusty attic of the county courthouse, where she searched through hundreds of boxes of stenography. Every court reporter has a unique shorthand they use to record what a trial’s speakers say out loud; the reporter then uses those raw notes to generate a complete transcript. In the folder where the stenographs for Mark’s hearing should have been there was nothing. Williams went downstairs and told the clerk, who agreed that it was unusual for the notes to be missing. The clerk began searching for them in cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer. If there’d been a mix-up, the stenographs had to be somewhere in the building.
In the meantime, Williams hoped that the court reporter, a man named Bernard Faustenau, might provide some answers. He’d worked in Missouri’s legal system for 31 years before retiring. In early February 2011, Williams and Ramsey called Faustenau to be deposed on March 2. Then, a little over a week before the deposition, Faustenau died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 68.
Dismayed, Williams called Faustenau’s wife of 51 years. Williams offered her condolences, explained the situation as gently as she could, and asked the widow if Faustenau had kept any of his court notes at home. Faustenau’s wife said she wasn’t sure but she’d keep an eye out. She soon called Williams back to report that she’d found three perfectly typed pages of the opening minutes of Mark’s grand jury hearing. The text confirmed Judge Lewis’s animus toward Doug Roberts; Lewis accused the prosecutor of speaking to the local press about the grand jury despite not being present for its proceedings. “I have reprimanded Mr. Roberts … because he is not involved in this matter here today,” Lewis said. Roberts had denied telling journalists that the Robertson shooting was the grand jury’s main focus, which Lewis said “brings to my mind a line from Shakespeare, when he said, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’”
If Faustenau had typed up the first portion of the hearing, it stood to reason that he’d done the same for the rest of it. But the remaining pages were nowhere to be found. Back at the courthouse, the clerk finally turned up some materials, including the grand jury’s attendance sheet and a copy of the gag order preventing members from talking about the hearing outside the court. The documents weren’t what Williams wanted, but the location where the clerk found them gave her pause: They were tucked inside the county’s adoption files, considered among the most sensitive records in any courthouse and thus accessed by very few people. The papers had been either bizarrely misfiled or deliberately hidden. By whom was yet another mystery.
The dead end regarding the transcript was “a big setback for us,” Williams later recalled. She and Ramsey focused their attention elsewhere, hoping it would bear more fruit. Terry Deister was arguably the biggest enigma of the case. The private eye employed by Lyndel had never been called to testify at either of the murder trials, yet his copious case notes showed that he’d played a pivotal role in the investigation.
When Lyndel hired him, Deister was in his early fifties, with a paunch, a wide black mustache, and the low, craggy voice of a heavy smoker. He’d spent 17 years in law enforcement in Platte County, Missouri, and he acted the part of a hard-bitten detective, using gruff language and wearing a beleaguered demeanor proportionate to his sacrificial duty before the high calling of the law. His one-man private-eye business was called DunCourt and Associates, a fictional name he’d chosen because he liked how it sounded.
Lyndel paid Deister $40 an hour for his work, which involved more than just probing the shooting. Lyndel also wanted Deister to look for evidence to counter Claude’s accusations of embezzlement. The dual assignment represented a conflict of interest. Deister seemed to realize that the work was shady: His notes indicate that in at least one instance he and Calvert met in an “undisclosed location” near a cornfield, where they were unlikely to be seen together. He also recorded Calvert, who shared the case files on the Robertson shooting with Deister even though law enforcement isn’t supposed to let private parties access information about active investigations, as urging him to “keep a very low profile.”
For several months after the murder, law-enforcement officials tried to find out all they could about the suspicious car in the Robertsons’ driveway; they were confident it would lead them to the killer. Chris Ruoff said he’d seen an SUV or truck. When examining the scene, police noted what appeared to be tire tracks from an accelerating vehicle. Moreover, Scott Robertson initially told investigators that he’d heard a car engine when he was in his parents’ room helping Lyndel. Ruoff, Scott, and Lyndel saw a hypnotist a few weeks after the shooting, a visit that investigators hoped would draw more specific evidence or even a lead out of the trio. It wasn’t productive.
Then one day in 1991, Deister did something that shifted the entire course of the investigation. According to his records, he suggested in one of his meetings with Calvert, “What if there hadn’t been a vehicle parked at that location? Would this open up a new area of thought?”
“Definitely, yes,” Calvert replied.
If a car “didn’t exist,” Deister continued, “it made Mark Woodworth a prime suspect in the case.”
The leap seemed sudden and huge. Not only was there no evidence at the time implicating Mark, there was also no reason to doubt Ruoff’s story or the tire tracks indicating that a car had left the crime scene.
When Ruoff got a phone call from Calvert in January 1992 asking him to come downtown to recount what he’d seen the night of the murder, Ruoff was glad to do so. In a small witness room, he sat across a table from Calvert, who casually thumbed through the case files. The deputy sheriff introduced Ruoff to Deister, who was puffing on a cigarette. Smoke gathered above the men’s heads as Deister began to talk.
“She ever come on to you?” he asked Ruoff, referring to Cathy Robertson.
Ruoff thought Deister was kidding. He was dating a woman who would soon become his wife. Cathy had been a devoutly Catholic mother two decades his senior. She’d been cordial with farmhands, sure, but there was no unsavory subtext to it. Ruoff laughed; Deister kept looking at him, stone-faced. The farmhand realized that the question wasn’t a joke.
“So who put you up to this?” Deister asked in his hoarse voice, suggesting that Ruoff had lied about seeing a car outside the Robertson residence.
“I was just trying to help Lyndel out,” Ruoff said, “to help them find out who shot Cathy.”
Deister came at Ruoff from several angles, questioning the young man’s eyesight, mental health, and short-term memory. He and Calvert also described driving out on Highway 190 one night when a car was parked in the Robertsons’ driveway. They weren’t able to see it in the dark. Ruoff maintained his certainty until, after two hours of interrogation, he finally gave an inch. “Maybe I didn’t see it,” he said.
At Mark’s first trial, Ruoff would stick to his story, saying that he’d bet a million dollars he saw the car. But the seed of uncertainty served the prosecution’s purposes: If it was possible that a car hadn’t been in the Robertsons’ driveway, then it was possible that the killer had arrived on foot—the most logical way for someone who lived nearby to get to the house without attracting attention. Kenny Hulshof undercut Ruoff by calling him an “overprepped” witness and attacking his recollections of a “mystery vehicle.”
The other evidence of a car mattered little. Police had never tried to match the tire tracks outside the Robertsons’ house with a particular make or model, and Scott had reconsidered his original story. He hadn’t heard an engine, the Robertsons’ only son said at trial. Lyndel testified, “A young kid may not have heard what he thought he heard.”
Connecting Mark to the crime was more difficult. Deister and Calvert staked out the Woodworths’ house on Fourth of July weekend in 1992, waiting for Jackie and Claude to leave for a visit with family in Illinois so that they could approach Mark alone. They asked him to come to the sheriff’s office for questioning. Mark was cooperative; he didn’t request a lawyer, and he agreed to be fingerprinted, which would lead to the match with the print on the box of .22-caliber shells found in the Robertsons’ shed. Mark didn’t express outrage or suspicion when Calvert and Deister dropped the pretense of why they’d brought him in—a vandalism complaint that went nowhere—and accused him of murdering Cathy. He simply denied doing it.
A second interrogation went much the same way. This time, Mark gave the conflicting statements about when he’d been in the Robertsons’ shed. He also agreed to draw a rudimentary layout of his family’s house and indicated that his basement room was near a back door, which Calvert and Deister suggested he could’ve used the night of the murder without his parents and siblings knowing. Mark seemed confused in the interview, as if he didn’t follow all the questions he was being asked.
When his parents, who’d again been away when Mark was picked up the second time, heard that he was at the sheriff’s office, they were furious. They drove downtown and burst into the building. In the ensuing confrontation, captured on video, Claude yelled, “You’re fucking with somebody you don’t have no fucking business with—you’re talking with a kid there. To start with he’s dumber than hell. You know that. You can talk to him and tell that. He ain’t well educated.” To Deister, who was in the room, Claude said, “Who’s paying you for being here now?” Deister replied, “I don’t even know if I’m being paid right now or not but I am—Lyndel has been paying me.”
By then, Calvert and Deister had already turned their attention to the ballistics evidence in the case. Of the six bullets fired by Cathy’s killer, five were recovered at the scene. They were too damaged to be analyzed for legal purposes, but based on X-rays, the bullet stuck near Lyndel’s liver looked to be in decent shape. So the Livingston County sheriff’s office covered the $25,000 expense of surgically removing it. In August 1992, after a three-hour operation, the bullet came out. Shortly after the surgery, Calvert confiscated Claude Woodworth’s Ruger pistol as part of a purported reexamination of potential murder weapons.
According to Calvert’s report, he “sealed the [bullet] in an evidence bag and transported it to Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in the evidence room for safekeeping.” However, there is no record that the bullet was ever signed in to the property room, and Deister’s notes contradict Calvert’s, indicating that the private investigator was the one who took the bullet from the hospital and kept it in his custody:
Lyndel’s surgery at Research Hospital.
10:55 a.m. entered surgery—1:55 p.m. received bullet from [Nurse] Woodson
2:20 p.m. spoke with doctor
At the time, Deister was married to a woman from England, and during visits to his wife’s home country he’d befriended a man named Roger Summers, who was the head of forensics for the police department in Derbyshire. A few weeks after Lyndel’s surgery, and after two separate analyses in Missouri had indicated that the extracted bullet wasn’t fired from Claude’s revolver, Deister called Summers to discuss the case. Ten days later, Deister sent Summers a letter detailing his involvement in the shooting investigation. The letter wouldn’t be introduced into legal evidence until Ramsey subpoenaed Summers’s lab almost two decades later.
“I was hired by Lyndel Robertson (the husband) to investigate the murder of his wife,” Deister wrote, adding that before he came aboard, the “Livingston County Sheriff’s Department had pretty much given up on the investigation.” He continued, “I zeroed in on the business partner’s 16-year-old-son, who lived across the highway,” because he sensed that Mark saw an opportunity to enact vengeance, and to gain his father’s approval, as the farming partnership deteriorated. Then Deister wrote:
As I mentioned during our telephone conversation, our case against this boy is very weak without the ballistic evidence, and even though I’m not a quitter, I really don’t think we will ever have a good case if this firearm can’t be identified as the shooter’s weapon. Therefore, we are willing to take whatever steps necessary, within reason, to identify this weapon.
On October 20, Deister packed the bullet and gun in his luggage and flew to England for a nine-day visit. Calvert sent a FedEx package containing other bullet fragments from the crime scene; instead of signing the mailing slip with his title at the sheriff’s office, Calvert indicated that he was an employee of DunCourt and Associates. An investigator ran tests on the evidence. When Deister returned from his trip, he submitted annotated expenses—airline tickets, lodging, meals, sundries—to Lyndel for reimbursement.
A forensic investigator named Steve Nicklin issued three reports based on his analysis, a preliminary one in April 1993 and two finalized versions that June. The first stated that Claude’s gun could have fired the bullet removed from Lyndel but that there was not “enough detail agreement to show a conclusive association between the two items.” Consequently, Nicklin was “unable to rule out the possibility that some other weapon fired the bullet.” A June 7 report stated much the same, though Nicklin said that details of the analysis “in my opinion, strongly suggest” Claude’s gun fired the bullet. The final report, from June 22, went further: While it reiterated that there was no “conclusive association” between the pieces of evidence, it also described a scratch on the ridges inside the gun’s barrel as being “a very unusual feature.” The scratch appeared to line up with a marking on the bullet, leading Nicklin to conclude that “the likelihood of some other weapon being responsible … seems extremely small. I hope this clarifies the position for you.”
He was addressing Deister. According to Nicklin’s subsequent testimony and Deister’s own notes, Deister spoke multiple times with the lab in England when it was completing its reports.
Claude and Jackie insisted there was no way Mark had used the gun. They said they kept their bedroom door locked while sleeping and the gun loaded at all times on top of a dresser near the bed. Deister suggested that the lock was easy to pick and that Mark had reloaded the gun with Lyndel’s ammunition after using the weapon to shoot the Robertsons. Somehow he’d been so quiet as he moved that no one in the Woodworth or Robertson house heard him.
“If a boy was going to slip in a bedroom and snatch a gun off the chest of drawers, go over, and shoot somebody, do you think he’d bring it back empty?” Deister asked.
“Do you think that after you shot somebody you would be really in your right mind to think, yeah, I’ve gotta load this gun?” Jackie replied.
“To be real honest with you, Jackie,” Deister said, “with somebody with emotions as quiet as your son, yes.”
In the lead-up to the Oxenhandler hearing, Ramsey and Williams were running ragged. Long days and late nights kept Ramsey from cooking Sunday dinner for his family and in-laws, a weekly tradition. He slept little and ate rarely, which worried his wife, given his heart problems. Williams saw her children only in brief spurts, which weighed on her maternal conscience. Still, she considered the work she was doing important, and she hoped to be an example to her kids.
Sensing that, like the dealings revealed by the Lewis letters, Deister’s involvement in the case might constitute a violation of Mark’s legal rights, Ramsey and Williams wanted to talk to Deister under oath. Ramsey dispatched a paralegal from Bilbrey’s to meet with Deister, who was then 77 and semiretired, at a Panera Bread in Kansas City. Deister consented to a deposition and, according to the paralegal’s notes, said he “had done nothing wrong” and “never had a doubt that Mark Woodworth was guilty.” Deister continued, “Mark should have just quit after the first trial. He would probably already be out by now.”
The deposition took place on March 1, 2011, at the Chillicothe library, located behind the courthouse. Children read picture books about heroes and villains in a nook by the front windows. Ramsey and Williams met Deister and a representative of the state attorney general’s office in a conference room. Deister’s black mustache had long since turned gray, his belly hung over his belt, and a bald patch had given way to a liver-spotted scalp with wisps of faded hair. Though he looked world-weary, he was combative when he spoke.
“Why were you concerned about how they were going to react?” Ramsey asked, referring to Deister’s decision to keep the full extent of his and Calvert’s work—Deister’s access to the case files, for instance—private from other law enforcement.
“Why not?” Deister retorted.
“I’m asking you, sir,” Ramsey said.
“Because I’d be concerned about anybody having objections to me working the case with the sheriff’s department, with Gary,” Deister said.
“Why would the troopers have an objection to you?” Ramsey asked.
“Why would they?” Deister said, again using a coy restatement of Ramsey’s question. “For no reason other than the fact that there’s a civilian out there doing some of the work.”
“It had nothing to do with the reason you resigned from the Platte County sheriff’s department?” Ramsey asked, hitting on a sore subject.
“Why don’t you go look up a different street?” Deister said, his tone now tense. “No, it didn’t have anything to do with that.”
Ramsey was referring to an incident from 1981, when Deister was still on the vice squad in Platte County and was leading an investigation of a prostitution ring tied to a business called Utopia Health Studio. Allegedly a massage parlor, Utopia boasted several mirrored rooms with mattresses on raised, carpeted platforms, as well as a rock-cave suite equipped with heavy chains, a padded stockade, and leather whips. The FBI suspected that Deister might have been doing more than probing the business, and Deister faced possible criminal charges for promoting prostitution. He resigned from his job. Soon after, he hung out his shingle as a private eye.
At the conference table, Williams pulled a document out of a plastic box. Ramsey handed it to Deister.
“Page 76,” Ramsey instructed.
“Who is Brent?”
“Who is who?” Deister said.
“It talks about a Brent. I’ve got a telephone number here.” Ramsey directed Deister to an entry on the private eye’s call log from the Woodworth investigation.
“Brent Elliott,” Deister said, referring to the former Livingston County prosecutor who had also served as Judge Lewis’s personal attorney.
Ramsey grilled Deister about his interactions with Elliott, which seemed to incense the investigator. “I have no respect for your kind, believe me,” Deister said to Ramsey. “You’re nothing but a parasite.” Ramsey had anticipated this turn in the exchange. “One of my goals was to knock him off balance, kind of an aikido move,” he later explained. “Getting under his skin, it took about two minutes to do that.”
Ramsey and Williams presented another page of Deister’s notes, on DunCourt and Associates letterhead. “I guess you don’t remember the September 1, 1992 phone call you had with Brent Elliott, do you?” Ramsey asked. The call occurred during a week when Deister spoke multiple times with both Elliott and Roger Summers, his friend at the forensics lab in England.
“Apparently not, no,” Deister said.
In tabbed folders arranged by Williams, Ramsey had the full scope of Lyndel’s payments to Deister, totaling about $35,000 in the form of checks, the title of Cathy’s Suburban, and wheat that Lyndel sold in Deister’s name. Ramsey grilled Deister on the apparent malfeasance of his concurrent involvement in the shooting investigation and the embezzlement case. “I got about as much respect for you as I do a flea on the ground,” Deister said at one point. “You’re not even looking at the real issues on who killed this woman.” Afterward he called Calvert, with whom he was still friendly, to say how mad he was.
Before his own deposition a few weeks later, Calvert agreed to meet Ramsey and Williams at a small hotel in Chillicothe sometimes frequented by fabric enthusiasts because of its proximity to the Missouri Star Quilt Company. Calvert, a thin man with large-frame glasses and a tendency to speak in a mumble, no longer worked at the sheriff’s office. He’d become sheriff of Livingston County in the 1990s and then left public service in 2001, securing lucrative work doing background checks and other investigative assignments in the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. military and various contractors. He’d returned home in 2006 and started working for a security firm from a desk at his home on the outskirts of Chillicothe. Calvert had recently married a woman named Slavica, who had a thick Eastern European accent and accompanied him to the hotel room. She sat stiffly to one side during the conversation, staring at Williams.
Ramsey wanted to talk with Calvert before the deposition in hope that the former lawman’s instinct for self-preservation would kick in once he heard what he’d be asked under oath. Ramsey showed Calvert the Lewis letters; Calvert said that he’d never seen them before. “Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been saying,” Ramsey replied. (Judge Lewis, who by then had retired and was frail from a battle with cancer, was adamant in his own deposition that the letters revealed nothing unethical. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.)
Ramsey also asked Calvert about Lyndel recanting his initial accusation against Brandon Hagan. “Lyndel never changed his story in his testimony,” Calvert insisted. Which was technically true: Lyndel had never said Brandon was the killer under oath. By the time Lyndel gave sworn statements, Brandon had an alibi and the Robertsons were suspicious of Mark.
A few weeks later, at his deposition, Calvert claimed that he was unable to recall many of the details of his work with Deister—the result of a poor memory that Slavica sometimes complained about, he mused. The exchange was largely uneventful. Then, near the end, as Ramsey and Williams were getting ready to pack up their files and equipment, Calvert offered to explain how he’d once obtained Brandon’s fingerprints. “No, that’s OK,” Ramsey said, since it seemed like trivial information at best. Then he changed his mind. “Well, yeah, what happened?”
Calvert said he’d gotten the prints from police in Independence, who took them after Rochelle Robertson filed a complaint against Brandon for ignoring a restraining order that she’d obtained a week after her mother’s death. “He violated that order of protection,” Calvert said.
Ramsey and Williams were confused. They knew about the protective order, but Rochelle had testified under oath years before that Brandon had never violated it. Moreover, in the records Ramsey and Williams had obtained from law enforcement, there was no mention of Brandon breaching the order’s terms. “Would that show up in the court file?” Ramsey asked.
“I’m sure,” Calvert replied. Ramsey and Williams thought that they saw a slight smirk on his face.
Williams made a beeline for the courthouse. As with Faustenau’s transcription, it turned out that documents weren’t where they should have been. There were indeed records of Brandon making harassing phone calls to Rochelle on multiple occasions, but they’d been put in a folder separate from the protective order itself. And for some reason, the second folder had been transferred to a courthouse in another county—where none other than Brent Elliott, who’d been Rochelle’s attorney when she obtained the order, was now a judge. The records had never been produced at Mark’s trials to contradict Rochelle’s testimony about Brandon and call her credibility as a witness into question.
Several mysteries suddenly emerged: Why had Rochelle lied? Was there a good explanation, or was she trying to hide something? Who would go to the trouble of burying evidence of Brandon’s continued, illegal contact with Rochelle—and why?
Ramsey and Williams’s goal in the Oxenhandler hearing would be to show that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial. But they could also argue that the Lewis letters represented an evidentiary gateway to examine information that suggested a compelling new theory of the crime. The violations of the protective order might be that sort of information. It turned out there was more.
If she wasn’t quarreling with Brandon, Rochelle was arguing with her mother about Brandon. He was a prototypical bad boy who got into fights after drinking enough beer at high school parties. He twice beat up another guy Rochelle had dated. When he got mad at his girlfriend, he sometimes hit her, too. One time he choked Rochelle on a bed and threatened to break her neck. According to a friend of Rochelle’s who spoke under oath, if Brandon didn’t feel like his girlfriend was respecting him, he’d sometimes drive her through the countryside, accelerating to reckless speeds until she begged him to stop. If ever they broke up, Brandon threatened, he’d commit suicide.
Still, Rochelle loved him, and she hated that her mother told her what to do. Cathy said she’d buy Rochelle a car if she ended things, but Rochelle said no. Her relationship, however fraught, was her business.
Cathy’s sister later told investigators that, when Rochelle lived at home, she was “disruptive” and “self-centered.” Lyndel’s brother reported that Cathy had once “told Rochelle that she should leave and not come back.” In her own interview with police, Rochelle said of her mother, “I loved her and everything, but it’s just that—it seemed like she didn’t like any of my boyfriends and I never did anything right.”
“I could never look her in the eye,” she said in the same interview, “because I always felt that she didn’t like me very much.”
Even when Cathy was hardly speaking to their eldest child, Lyndel would slip Rochelle cash to cover her expenses. The situation with Brandon coincided with a rough patch in Lyndel and Cathy’s marriage. Farmhands sensed it on the walkie-talkies they used while working in the Robertsons’ fields. “Cathy would just rip into Lyndel on the radio,” Chris Ruoff said. On a car trip with their children the summer before the shooting, Lyndel ended an argument he and Cathy were having by slapping his wife across the face. She didn’t speak to him for several days afterward.
At the Hy-Vee grocery store, where she worked at the deli the summer before going to St. Joseph, Rochelle talked to her colleagues about the problems at home. According to her manager, Loronda Corbin, Rochelle said she “hated” her mother, “wished she was dead,” and “wished somebody would shoot her.” (Corbin was not called as a witness at either of Mark’s trials.) Later, at the Brass Buckle in St. Joseph, Rochelle was again candid about her relationship problems. Keri Lehmer, her boss, told investigators that she “knew Rochelle’s parents wanted them apart.”
A few hours after the shooting, police came to Rochelle’s apartment in St. Joseph. She didn’t answer their knocking, so the officers unbolted her door. She said she’d been sleeping with a fan on and hadn’t heard them. Not long after, Kevin Price, a construction worker sent by a family friend, picked Rochelle up to bring her back to Chillicothe. During the drive, Rochelle said little, and Price didn’t try to draw her out. At one point, Price recalled Rochelle asking if her parents were hurt badly in the accident. Price said he told her about the shooting and her mother’s death. As they got closer to Chillicothe, Price mentioned that Brandon was a suspect. Rochelle insisted that Brandon hadn’t done it. According to Price, she said she’d spoken with her boyfriend on the phone at his home in Independence at 11 p.m., placing Brandon too far away from her parents’ house to have arrived there by the time of the shooting.
Price dropped off Rochelle at the home of Rhonda’s boyfriend, Brian Alexander, where the Robertson children had been taken from the crime scene. Soon after, Brandon arrived, too; Rochelle had called him as soon as the police showed up at her apartment. Brandon would later tell investigators that a friend drove him to Chillicothe, where he borrowed a Jeep that his old wrestling coach sometimes lent to athletes. Amy Baldwin, a friend of Rhonda’s, rode with Brandon from Chillicothe’s high school to the Alexanders’ house. Baldwin remembered Brandon saying, “I can’t believe this happened. I feel sorry for the family.”
The house was bustling with friends, relatives, and investigators, who were interviewing the Robertson kids one by one. Brandon gave Rochelle a hug and stood with her for a while, then walked over to Rhonda. “Do you think I shot them?” Brandon asked. Rhonda turned away and didn’t answer.
Brandon asked again, “Do you really think I did this?”
“I don’t know,” Rhonda said.
At some point, Brandon and Rochelle went upstairs into a room and closed the door behind them. According to Rochelle, they talked about questions that investigators might ask Brandon. The secrecy of the situation didn’t sit well with Marvin Alexander, Brian’s father, who knocked on the door and told them to come out.
Brandon went to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed. He gave his alibi, which his family confirmed: He’d been in his room by 9 p.m., and his sister placed him asleep in bed at 10:40 p.m., when she went in to get a blanket. His mother had been up until 1 a.m., when her husband came home from a swing shift, and she never saw Brandon leave. Brandon also confirmed that Rochelle had called him from St. Joseph before Price picked her up that morning. He described her as “real hysterical, and she was crying and everything, and she told me what happened.”
This seemed to conflict with Price’s version of events, in which he was the first to tell Rochelle that there’d been a shooting, not an accident. However, investigators either didn’t catch the disparity or didn’t think it was important enough to pursue. The same day, about 12 hours after the shooting, Brandon’s hands tested positive for gunshot residue. In Mark’s second trial, a forensic chemist would testify that the analysis fell outside the time frame for obtaining reliable results.
In her own interview, with Calvert and other investigators, Rochelle reiterated that she thought Brandon was innocent. One detail in her story had changed, however: She did not tell police that she’d spoken to Brandon on the phone the night of the shooting. Instead, she said that she’d gone home after work, read part of a Danielle Steel novel, and fallen asleep before midnight. This version of events fit neatly with Brandon’s alibi, even more so than the one in which the pair talked before bed. If his sister said he was asleep before 11 p.m., Brandon couldn’t have been on the phone then.
Law enforcement confirmed that Rochelle had been at work the evening of the murder, and they interviewed her roommate, Baniki Dawson, who described Brandon as “very jealous and possessive.” The report didn’t indicate whether the officers had asked Dawson about Rochelle’s activity the night of the shooting. Similarly, if the investigators had checked the phone records from Brandon’s house, that information wasn’t included in the case files.
The tone of Rochelle’s interview shifted when an investigator suggested that the shooter must have known “right where they were going” and “had the gall to walk by” two of the Robertson children’s bedrooms before killing their mother. “The way I pictured it in my mind,” Rochelle responded, “was somebody went and opened the door, and they just stood right in the doorway, and it was dark. I don’t know how the moon was outside, but this is how I picture it in my mind. The curtains are open, and you can see because of the moonlight, and they shot my mom and then they shot my dad. That’s all that I can think of.”
An investigator asked what Rochelle imagined Lyndel doing when he woke up, before being shot. “I picture it happened so fast, he doesn’t really—I picture bang, bang,” she said. “I picture them shooting her and then him right after, before he even has a chance to sit up.”
“You think it was done with a pistol or a rifle?”
“When I picture it, I think of a pistol. But I don’t know,” Rochelle said. “I pictured myself behind the person, [looking] around their shoulder and looking right at the gun.”
Rochelle’s description of the crime made investigators suspicious. In a second interrogation, they asked about Brandon’s abuse. At first, Rochelle said that he’d never been violent with her. When investigators pressed her, she recanted. “I lied about one thing,” Rochelle admitted.
“You’ve lied about a lot more things than one thing,” an officer replied. “If you think that you’re going to skate on us just because you’re an attractive, nice-looking girl, you’re not going to skate. If you’re dirty, we’re going to prove it.”
“I’m not covering for him,” Rochelle said of Brandon. “I’m telling you everything I can tell you.”
“But what’s your gut tell you?” Calvert asked.
“When I first heard, I didn’t know who could do that. Everybody’s been talking about Brandon, Brandon, Brandon—and I started getting doubt in my mind,” Rochelle said. “In my heart, I don’t think he did that to me.”
Unbeknownst to most people in Chillicothe, at the time, Rochelle was pregnant with Brandon’s child. Nine days before the shooting, on a trip home from St. Joseph, Rochelle had shown her friend Carmen Kinsella the positive results of a pregnancy test from her college clinic. She was about three months along. She also shared the $500 estimate for the abortion she was scheduled to have a few days later in Kansas City. Brandon had offered to pay for the procedure, but he’d also waffled on whether he actually wanted Rochelle to go through with it. They’d talked about keeping the baby. Crying on a sidewalk in downtown Chillicothe, Rochelle told Kinsella that she wasn’t sure what to do.
Ultimately, Rochelle skipped her abortion appointment. Lyndel would later tell investigators that he and Cathy weren’t aware of the pregnancy. But Brandon told Rochelle he suspected that Cathy knew because she had a mother’s intuition.
Whether this was true or not, Cathy tried in earnest to break the couple up in the weeks before the shooting. One day she called Brandon’s mother, Renee Thomure, and demanded that she tell her son to stop seeing Rochelle. Cathy threatened to take out a restraining order if Brandon kept coming around, and she said that he needed professional help to get over Rochelle. Thomure reportedly tried to calm Cathy down. “I’ve never done nothing to you, you don’t know me from nowhere, and I’ve been nice to you,” she said, according to Brandon. “I’d like to expect the same from you.”
The call didn’t work, and Cathy kept her word. She went to the Chillicothe police station and got the paperwork for a restraining order. The night of the shooting, she left it sitting on the kitchen table.
In the days after the crime, Rochelle’s family told her to terminate the pregnancy as well as her relationship with Brandon. She called Brandon to tell him that she was taking out a protective order against him. The next day, she wrote on the legal form in wide script that he “has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls.” She added that he “may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father.” Soon after, a friend drove Rochelle to get the abortion. (The pregnancy was not mentioned at the first trial and was brought up only briefly at the second.)
Two months after the shooting, Rochelle took a polygraph test. One of the questions was “Did you shoot your parents?” She failed. Polygraphs are controversial; their accuracy in identifying lies is a matter of scientific debate. The examiner largely attributed the outcome of Rochelle’s test to her trying to control her breathing instead of acting and speaking naturally. She agreed to take another one but never did. A few days later, Claude Woodworth heard from friends that Lyndel was telling people his business partner might be involved in the murder.
Rochelle arrived at her deposition with Ramsey and Williams in the Livingston County library wearing a pink T-shirt that said “Fashion Is Not a Luxury.” Metal bracelets clanked on her wrists, and a silver cross hung from a chain around her neck. Her last name was Koehly now, and she and her husband had two sons. She still lived in Chillicothe and was involved in 4-H like her mother had been.
According to Williams, the goal of the exchange was to “get onto the record all of the things that had been swept under the rug at the first two trials, all the inconsistencies” that she and Ramsey had discovered in the case files and in interviews. During the deposition, Rochelle claimed 59 times that she couldn’t recall details of events surrounding her mother’s death and the murder investigation. She attributed this to a bad memory she’d had since she was a child.
“Did you tell anyone after you found out your parents had been shot that Brandon couldn’t have done the shooting,” Ramsey asked, “because you called him at a time when he couldn’t have been in Chillicothe?”
“I don’t remember saying that to anybody,” Rochelle said.
“Did you ever see any reports of any persons, especially from a person named Kevin Price, that indicated that?
“Would you have any reason to dispute Kevin Price if that’s what he said?”
“Who is Kevin Price?”
“Do you know Kevin Price?”
“I don’t think so. That name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t think of who that is.”
Ramsey glanced at Williams, who pulled a document from a folder.
“I’m going to show you what’s been marked as Exhibit 13,” Ramsey said, sliding over the portion of Rochelle’s interrogation from shortly after the murder in which she’d conceded that Brandon had been violent with her. Among the instances she’d described to investigators was one in which Brandon punched the dashboard of her car. Rochelle sat silently as she read over her own words.
“How do I answer this? Because I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Rochelle said, glancing over at a representative from the attorney general’s office who was present for the deposition. “I mean, if somebody said it—and I’m not disputing that I had said it to them, but I don’t remember saying it to them. How do I—how do I—what do I do?”
“I’m just asking you if you dispute it,” Ramsey said.
“He never damaged my vehicle.”
“Do you dispute that you then later said, ‘The only thing I lied about was being punched in the eye.’”
“No, I don’t dispute that.”
Later in the deposition, Ramsey asked Rochelle why she’d lied about the abuse. “Because I was embarrassed,” she said, looking down at the table. “But then I came back later and told them.”
Ramsey directed Rochelle to another passage from her 1990 interrogation, in which she asked the officers questioning her whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to think it,” Rochelle said.
Ramsey asked if Rochelle disputed that the exchange had occurred. She said she did not.
Williams took on the task of compiling documentation of Brandon’s criminal history. Ramsey referred to Williams as his right arm, but she preferred the nickname Ramsey’s Google, given to her because she could find any detail in tens of thousands of pages of case files in a matter of minutes. Williams also proved as unflappable as a seasoned investigator when it came to tracking down police reports, cold-calling witnesses, and showing up at people’s doors.
She learned that, in 2006, Brandon was sentenced to six months in jail for drunk driving. Three years later, Sandy O’Connell, the mother of a young woman who was pregnant with Brandon’s child, approached police near the town of Lake Ozark, where Brandon was living. “He has beaten on my daughter,” O’Connell reported. “Brandon Hagan has personally threatened to kill me and has told me that he would kill me and my ‘white trash family.’” In the midst of Williams gathering evidence, police in Jefferson City received another abuse complaint against Brandon, this time from neighbors of his then girlfriend, Amanda Feuerborn. An officer observed in a report that Feuerborn’s “left eye was starting to turn black and blue,” which she said was from Brandon punching her; when she tried to get away, “he slapped her and threw her on the floor.”
Brandon’s persistent violence against women was shocking, but it didn’t implicate him in the Robertson shooting. Then a report from a man stopped Williams in her tracks. She got her hands on the document after law enforcement near Lake Ozark passed it to the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, where a man named Steve Cox was now in charge. According to the report, an individual named Aaron Duncan had approached law enforcement and said that Brandon had bragged about being a “number-one suspect” in a murder investigation that “had gone on a long time.”
Williams drove from St. Louis to visit Duncan, a 26-year-old mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighter who’d got to know Brandon when the former wrestler was cutting his teeth as a fight promoter, one of a few careers Brandon had tried on for size. Duncan and his wife greeted Williams and sent their children to play so that Duncan could tell his story, which he later repeated in a deposition.
One night in 2008, Duncan had gone over to Brandon’s house. The men were drinking in the garage when Brandon started rifling through some boxes. There were wrestling trophies inside, but Brandon was more interested in newspaper clippings from a time when, he told Duncan, he’d been accused of murdering his girlfriend’s mom. The girlfriend’s parents “had wanted her to stop seeing him,” Duncan recalled. “Brandon said they’d fought all the time, this and that, him and the parents. And they thought he was too aggressive for her.” Brandon also talked about “someone named Mark,” Duncan said. “He was really talking down about this Mark guy, like how stupid he was.”
Duncan said that Brandon had made self-incriminating disclosures in the past, about cooking meth in college, selling ecstasy pills, and beating someone in Chicago with a golf club. Talking about being a murder suspect was, however perversely, in character for the Brandon that Duncan knew. “I didn’t think twice about it,” Duncan said.
Two weeks after the conversation in the garage, Brandon came to Duncan and asked for a $5,000 investment in an MMA venue he was hoping to open. Duncan had young kids at home, and money was tight, so he said he couldn’t help. “He flew off the handle,” Duncan said of Brandon. When Duncan told him to calm down, Brandon threatened to kill his friend’s family.
“I’ve killed before and got away with it,” Duncan recalled Brandon saying. “What makes you think I can’t do it again?’
Williams was dumbfounded. “It was a holy-shit moment,” she said. Then again, the case was full of those, so she was getting used to how they felt. “You realize there are ten more holy shits you’re going to find after that,” Williams said. “For each one, you’re going to go back through everything in the case file to see if that changes the way you see anything you thought you understood already.”
Williams had to wonder why Brandon would boast so cavalierly about murder and risk getting caught. Maybe he had a twisted reason for bragging about a crime he didn’t actually commit. His alibi, after all, had never been contradicted in court. Then Williams and Ramsey, along with Steve Cox at the Livingston County sheriff’s office, started getting calls from people in Chillicothe with other stories about Brandon.
June Cairns was used to her son Matt’s friends coming over to the house. A high school wrestler popular among his peers, Matt often held court in the Cairns living room with guys on his team. Matt wasn’t particularly close with Brandon, whom he found cocky and a little too quick to pick fights over stupid things. Still, Brandon sometimes crashed at Matt’s house after parties or hung out on the family’s couch watching TV. He even kept coming by after he’d moved to Independence. June thought Brandon had worn out his welcome.
One weekend in October 1990, Brandon stopped by the Cairns house to see Matt. He also wanted to use the family’s phone. Standing in the kitchen, he dialed the Robertsons’ number, and Cathy answered. Brandon asked to speak to Rochelle, who was home that day from St. Joseph, and Cathy said no. Brandon began yelling.
“You bitch!” June heard him say. “I’m going to slit your throat!”
June shot up from the dining room chair where she was sitting and went into the kitchen. “You don’t talk that way on my phone,” she told Brandon. She recalled him leaving the house without apologizing.
June saw Brandon again the morning of November 14. Sometime between 6 and 7 a.m., she was having coffee with her daughter and son-in-law when Brandon breezed into the house and went upstairs. Hours later, June heard about the murder of the shooting from the night before and Cathy Robertson’s death. She gave a formal statement to investigators, detailing what she’d heard Brandon say to Cathy on the phone and his arrival at her house the morning after the shooting. The investigators’ report, however, noted only that “Brandon started ‘bitching out’ Cathy Robertson and made threats toward her and Rochelle.” It didn’t include the time frame when June said Brandon had arrived at her home on November 14—which was around when Brandon had told police he’d left Independence.
An additional witness encountered Brandon at Chillicothe’s high school earlier than would have been possible if he were telling the truth. Bob Fairchild, the assistant principal, claimed to have seen Brandon in a hallway between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Angie Smith, a teenager who lived down the road from the Robertsons, told law enforcement that, later that day, Brandon approached her and asked if she’d seen anything the night before. Smith said she hadn’t. She told investigators that she “thought that Brandon was more concerned with covering himself than his concern over what had happened.”
At least three other people claimed to have seen Brandon in Chillicothe the night of the shooting. Melissa Suchsland, a fellow high schooler, said she spotted him at an Amoco station between 9 and 10 p.m., standing next to what looked like a Bronco. After news of the shooting spread, Suchsland’s mother took her to the sheriff’s office to report what she’d seen; Suchsland would testify at Mark’s second trial, during which the prosecution questioned her memory and suggested that she was just looking for media attention. Mike Thistlethwaite, who’d once played sports with Brandon, told a friend that he’d seen his former teammate at the town’s bowling alley around 11 p.m. The friend approached the sheriff’s office with this information, and Thistlethwaite later testified that law enforcement never contacted him to follow up.
Then there was Linda Zurmiller, who had a daughter about Brandon’s age. According to Zurmiller, around 10:30 p.m. she pulled up to a stoplight near Chillicothe’s Sonic drive-in, and she saw Brandon in the car next to her. When Zurmiller spoke to law enforcement shortly after the shooting, she noted that it was strange to see Brandon on a weeknight, and at such a late hour, because he didn’t live in Chillicothe anymore. After Mark was convicted, Zurmiller approached the chief deputy sheriff to ask why her report hadn’t influenced the case. “Deputy Calvert told me that Brandon Thomure Hagan’s mother had given him an iron-clad alibi and they couldn’t go above what his mother said,” Zurmiller stated in an affidavit. Calvert told her that Brandon’s mom “opened his bedroom door and he was asleep in bed” the night of the shooting.
“And I told him no,” Zurmiller said, “he was not.”
Ramsey and Williams had gathered nearly 200 pieces of evidence that they planned to submit during the hearing. At Bilbrey’s, with just a few weeks to go, they took stock of what the raft of testimony and documents told them about the case. Much of it pointed to faulty police work and an undue focus on convicting Mark. More evidence than they’d anticipated, however, made Brandon look guilty. It was all circumstantial, which wasn’t enough for a prosecutor to build a case on—and that wasn’t their job anyway. Still, the legal team hoped to use the hearing to at least air what they’d learned about Brandon.
They also wanted Brandon himself to testify, which meant tracking him down. Williams volunteered to go to bars he’d been known to frequent in and around Lake Ozark. “I wasn’t afraid of him. I thought he was a bully, and bullies never scared me,” she said. Ramsey, though, wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re not putting you in harm’s way,” he told Williams.
Instead, Williams contacted Brandon on the phone. He bounced around a lot; his various run-ins with the law didn’t help him hold down steady employment, and when child-support payments and tax liens piled up, he sometimes moved back in with his mother in Independence. Recently, though, he’d got an apartment in Jefferson City. When Brandon answered, and Williams explained who she was, he was defensive. “Every time I talk to someone my words get jumped and turned around,” he said. Brandon declared himself innocent. “I don’t know why everyone is focused on me,” he said. “You should talk to Rochelle.”
The statement took Williams by surprise. She’d assumed that Brandon and Rochelle had stopped talking many years earlier. Why would they still be in touch?
“Do you have a number for her?” Williams asked.
“I call my mom if I need to get ahold of her,” Brandon said. “She calls Lyndel and gets Rochelle’s number for me to talk to her.” (In her deposition, Rochelle told Ramsey that she and Brandon hadn’t spoken since 2003 or 2004.)
Williams asked what Brandon’s mom and Lyndel had to talk about. Brandon said “newspaper articles about the case”—a reference to Alan Zagier’s AP reporting from a few years prior. Williams planned to inquire next about what he and Rochelle had to discuss, but Brandon cut things short.
“How would talking to me help anything?” he asked. The call suddenly dropped. When Williams tried Brandon’s number again, it went straight to voice mail. On a later call, Brandon told Williams and Ramsey that he wouldn’t talk without a lawyer. His mother also said she had no interest in talking.
A few weeks later, Williams and Ramsey showed up at Brandon’s apartment. Because of his wrestling and MMA experience, Williams expected him to have a commanding physical presence. The man who opened the door was small and compact. He held a shirt in one hand, and he had shaving cream on his face. Williams explained that he was needed to testify at the hearing about his past statements to police. “They raped me for years,” Brandon said of law enforcement. “I’m not going back to court. I’m the victim here.”
When Williams tried to ask Brandon questions, he said, “I’m not talking to you—you have to talk to my lawyer.” She pointed out that he’d eventually have to speak under oath, and he asked defiantly, “Well, what if I don’t come?”
There, on the doorstep, Brandon was served with a subpoena.
On Mark Woodworth’s 3,498th day in prison, he woke up at 5 a.m. He put on a gray uniform, and guards placed his wrists in shackles. He walked down a series of sterile corridors until he reached a door. Outside was a car waiting to take him away from Crossroads Correctional. It was a nearly three-hour drive to Boone County, where the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to begin that day—May 31, 2011—in Judge Oxenhandler’s court. From the car’s backseat, Mark looked out the windows as mile after mile of flat farmland zipped by. A leaden dawn eventually gave way to bright sunshine. Mark saw green pastures, roaming cattle, and rows of freshly planted crops fading to a blur on the horizon. Once this had all been familiar; now it was foreign.
At the courthouse, officers escorted Mark to a small room, where he traded the uniform for a dress shirt, slacks, and shiny black shoes. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than a decade. His parents, who’d brought the outfit from Chillicothe, were waiting in the courtroom with dozens of friends. Members of the Free Mark Woodworth campaign, which had raised money for his legal fees and designed T-shirts and license-plate holders promoting the cause, had met early that morning in the parking lot of Chillicothe’s Hy-Vee. Loaded down with home-baked cookies and thermoses of coffee, they’d piled into rented vans and caravanned to Boone County.
Among the supporters was Chris Ruoff, who was sure Mark had been bulldozed, and Kathy Smith, whose backyard shared a border with the Robertsons’. After Cathy was murdered, Rhonda, still in high school, would call up Smith to ask how to get a grass stain out of her brother’s baseball pants or what kind of soup goes well with grilled-cheese sandwiches. “I said ‘I would do chicken noodle soup’ and just have tears in my eyes, because that’s not something a 16-year-old girl should be thinking about,” Smith said. But while her heart went out to the Robertsons, she didn’t think Mark was guilty. “I needed to hear myself, firsthand, some of the things that had been rumored about in town,” Smith said of her decision to travel to Boone County.
On the other side of the courtroom were the Robertsons with a smaller group of allies. The siblings were now adults, raising kids of their own. The family had never wavered in their belief that Mark killed Cathy, but they were powerless to keep rival forces at bay in a place as small as Chillicothe. Rhonda and her husband had stopped buying farm supplies from a business that supported the Free Mark Woodworth crusade. Family friends had quit going to their church after the reverend offered up prayers for the Woodworths. Not long before the evidentiary hearing, an elementary school classmate of Rhonda’s son had approached him and said, “I don’t think he’s guilty,” before turning and walking away. The statement was a kind of shorthand, a fragment of knowing language that embodied the town’s intimacy and tapped into the powerful emotional charge that had pulsed through it since November 1990.
Mark, Ramsey, and Williams filed into the courtroom and took their places at the defense table. Ted Bruce and Stephen Hawke, representatives from the state attorney general’s office, sat across the aisle. Oxenhandler, a stern man with a white beard who talked rapidly, as if to convey that he didn’t have time for people to waste, called the court to order for the first of four days.
Ramsey’s plan was to petition Oxenhandler for habeas corpus relief, which would free Mark on the grounds that he hadn’t received a fair trial. To Ramsey’s mind, the case against his client represented a manifest injustice, and he would call some 30 witnesses to prove it. The prosecution, however, argued that the only question at stake was whether there was any new evidence to consider. They planned to show that all the exhibits Ramsey had mustered, including the Lewis letters, had been available to Mark’s previous attorneys. If past counsel made poor strategic decisions with that evidence, the state wasn’t to blame.
One by one, Ramsey called his witnesses. Terry Deister was on the stand for the longest stretch of time; it was the first court testimony he’d ever given about Mark’s case.
“You were working for Mr. Robertson in the capacity of helping him defend against a lawsuit, weren’t you?” Ramsey asked.
“I don’t remember anything about that,” Deister said.
Williams handed Ramsey another exhibit: a note from June 1991 in which the private eye had written, “I expressed my concerns about the profile of Mark Woodworth from what I had determined about the conversations I had with Lyndel Robertson.” What did Lyndel say about his neighbor’s son? Ramsey asked.
“I don’t remember,” Deister said.
Ramsey read directly from the evidence. “‘He seemed to be a prime candidate to fall under the profile of an individual who would do almost anything to get the approval [of] his father,’” Ramsey said. “What facts did you base that on? Was that the information you received from Lyndel Robertson?”
“Possibly, yes,” Deister said.
“You knew at that point that Mr. Robertson, your client, was being sued by Mark Woodworth’s father, alleging fraud, didn’t you?”
“No. I don’t remember,” Deister replied. “I don’t even remember much about the civil suit.”
“Are you telling me that you never discussed with Mr. Robertson that there was a lawsuit filed by Mark Woodworth’s father against him?”
“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t remember.”
After more than an hour of interrogation, Oxenhandler had a few questions of his own. The judge remarked on Deister’s unfettered access to the case files. “You’ve been in law enforcement since the sixties,” Oxenhandler said. “You know that in the course of an investigation, police files are not open to anyone.”
“Yes,” Deister said.
Oxenhandler then asked about conflicts of interest and a seeming failure to challenge Brandon’s alibi before inquiring, as a general matter, “Are you having second thoughts with regards to the investigation?”
Deister said no.
At the end of each day of the hearing, Mark changed into his prison uniform and rode back to Crossroads Correctional. Most Chillicothe residents went home for the night, too, but the Woodworths stayed in a local hotel. So did Ramsey and Williams, who worked around the clock in a war room outfitted with portable printers and a conference table littered with documents and boxes of Chinese takeout. Once, when the legal team ran into the Woodworths in the lobby, the family asked what Oxenhandler had said when he called Ramsey to the bench during Deister’s testimony.
“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity,” the judge had said. “You can’t beat a dead horse. Let’s move on.”
Kenny Hulshof flew in for his testimony. He now worked as a lawyer at the firm Polsinelli, which had offices in Missouri and Washington, D.C. After serving six terms in the House of Representatives and losing the 2008 Missouri gubernatorial race, Hulshof had faced scrutiny for his time as a state prosecutor. Investigations into his record would lead to several murder convictions being overturned or thrown out, including that of Josh Kezer, a teenager at the time of his alleged crime. The judge who reversed the conviction found that Hulshof had withheld evidence from Kezer’s defense and misled the jury. “We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in [his] final summary was true,” the judge wrote.
On the stand in Oxenhandler’s court, Hulshof looked poised in a crisp white shirt, dark navy suit, and Windsor-knotted tie. His straw-blond hair was parted over his tanned face. He assured the room that the Lewis letters had been provided to Mark’s defense team during the first trial.
“Do you recall what your process was for making sure that you complied with your obligations?” prosecutor Ted Bruce asked, referring to the sharing of potentially exculpatory evidence.
“My investigator or I, usually my investigator, would hand-number every single page that we received,” Hulshof said, “and then we would make a copy of those investigative reports and tender them to counsel for the defendant.”
Williams felt a jolt of recognition. She grabbed a pen and scribbled a note as fast as she could on a piece of paper. Then she reached over Mark, seated between the two members of his legal team, and jabbed Ramsey in the arm. Williams gestured for her boss to look down at what she’d written in all caps.
Williams then turned to a filing box next to the defense table and flipped through pages until she found copies of the Lewis letters. She yanked them out and handed them to Ramsey. “There were never any numbers. They never stamped these,” she said under her breath.
Ramsey stood to question the witness. “You said, I believe, earlier that it was your practice to put numbers on all the documents that you produced to the defense. Correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said.
Ramsey handed him the copies of the letters that Williams had retrieved. “There’s no numbers on those pages, are there?” Ramsey asked.
Hulshof studied the letters. Ramsey swore he saw the color drain from the former prosecutor’s face. There was a long pause.
“There are no numbers,” Hulshof said finally.
At the defense table, Williams beamed. “I knew it,” she whispered to Mark. She’d just showed the court that there was no proof that the Lewis letters had ever made it into the hands of Mark’s defense attorneys, which meant conclusively that they were new evidence. “I thought he was going to have a bowel movement on the witness stand,” Ramsey said of Hulshof.
Ramsey wasn’t done with the witness. “You also stated that this is the only case that you’ve ever prosecuted in which the victim had hired a private investigator to work with law enforcement,” Ramsey said.
“That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it?”
“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, can that raise issues as to a conflict of interest of the private investigator?”
“There are a host of issues. Conflict of interest is one of them.”
“Especially where that investigator is representing the client who is the victim on a civil suit in which one of the parties’ father sued him for defrauding him, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said, adding that he “wasn’t very conversant” about the civil case.
“And what did you do to resolve the doubts that you had … about Mr. Deister’s potential divided loyalty?” Ramsey asked.
“As far as putting on our case in the first trial, I tried to not have to use Mr. Deister.”
Hulshof, in other words, seemed to have known that questioning Deister on the stand wouldn’t have been smart. Still, he’d used the private investigator’s evidence to build his case against Mark.
Dana Williams, the Chillicothe resident who’d admired Hulshof’s performance at the first trial, was once again in the courtroom. The former prosecutor, she decided, was outmatched. “Ramsey had the facts down, and he was throwing questions at him like he’d done it for a hundred years,” she said. “Hulshof had tried to cover his tracks, and it didn’t go real well.”
Lyndel took the stand wearing a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, with an eyeglasses case protruding from the breast pocket. Like other witnesses, he said he couldn’t remember many details from the murder investigation, describing his memory as “a big blur.” He’d once said under oath that he was never aware that Roberts didn’t want to charge Mark. Now, with the Lewis letters in evidence, he acknowledged that he’d probably known that the prosecutor “wasn’t aggressive.” (Roberts testified at the hearing, too, noting, “If you allow the victim or alleged victim of a crime to remove the prosecutor every time the prosecutor disagrees with him, then you’re opening a door up to that happening any time the prosecutor doesn’t think there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a case or [that] a particular person should be prosecuted.”)
Ramsey had questions that went well beyond the Lewis letters—ones he knew were likely to provoke the prosecution. He asked Lyndel about Brandon’s violations of Rochelle’s protective order, and Ted Bruce immediately objected. “I don’t see how it’s relevant for any issue that this court has to decide,” the prosecutor said.
“This goes to the man’s motivation,” Ramsey replied. “It goes to the credibility of not only him but … of his daughter.”
Oxenhandler overruled the objection.
“Yeah, I think I did [know] at the time,” Lyndel said of Rochelle’s reports against Brandon, including that he’d harassed her new boyfriend, who later became her husband. “But it’s kind of foggy now. I don’t remember.”
“Did you talk to your daughter at all about all of that?”
“She didn’t really relay it to me that much.”
“So she went over to the sheriff’s department to complain about being threatened, but she didn’t tell you about it?”
“She probably didn’t want to bother me.”
Ramsey methodically presented other evidence casting suspicion on Brandon: the witnesses’ contradictions of his alibi, his threats against Cathy Robertson, and the confession he’d allegedly made to Aaron Duncan. For some of the people from Chillicothe who’d come to watch the hearing, what Ramsey revealed was news—but it matched their understanding of who Brandon was. “That fit right into Brandon’s personality,” Kathy Smith said.
Finally, Ramsey called Brandon himself to the stand. Brandon honored the subpoena, showing up on the appointed day with a clean-shaven face and gel-spiked hair. He wore a gray suit that looked to be a size too big. His ears were cauliflowered from years on wrestling mats.
Brandon came with his attorney, John Waltz, who approached the bench before his client was called to the stand. “Your honor, I represent Brandon Hagan,” Waltz said. “Because he is being targeted by the current sheriff of Livingston County and in the news media, I’ve instructed him to take the Fifth.” Once he was sworn in, Brandon dutifully followed his lawyer’s advice.
“Were you the boyfriend of Rochelle Robertson at one point?” Ramsey asked.
Brandon declined to answer.
“Did you tell the police when you were interviewed that you left Independence, Missouri, at ten minutes to seven the morning after the murder?” Ramsey asked.
Brandon again pleaded the Fifth.
“I don’t have anything further, your honor,” Ramsey said.
Before Brandon was dismissed, Oxenhandler waved Waltz back up to the bench. The judge turned off his microphone. He had some information that the lawyer and his client hadn’t expected. “As an officer of the court, I want you to be aware that there is a warrant for your client’s arrest out of another county,” Oxenhandler said. “When he leaves the courtroom, he is going to be arrested.”
“I’ll accompany him, of course,” Waltz replied.
Outside the room’s doors, officers detained Brandon for writing a bad check. They read him his rights, patted him down for weapons, and emptied the contents of his pockets. Among the items, according to Ramsey, Williams, and Steve Cox, was an index card on which Waltz had written, “If you forget, shut the fuck up.”
Oxenhandler told Ramsey and Bruce to prepare written briefs of their arguments, after which he’d bring them back into his court in November 2011 for a concluding session. At that hearing, Bruce tried to counter Ramsey’s witnesses, particularly those who’d testified against Brandon. “I have no idea whether or not they are intentionally lying, whether or not they are just completely wrong,” Bruce said. Wasn’t it telling, he continued, that the surviving witness didn’t think Brandon did it? “If Mr. Lyndel Robertson wanted to make this case an easy one, all he had to do is say, ‘I saw who did it,’” Bruce said. “I have been troubled all along at the willingness to assume misconduct on the part of people, and not just the police, not just the prosecutor, not just the judges. The victims as well.” Ramsey’s rebuttal hinged on the existence of the Lewis letters and on Deister and Calvert’s work on the case, which Ramsey said “immediately calls into question the integrity of the investigation.”
It would be several months before Oxenhandler issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mark remained in prison. The Woodworths, the Robertsons, and their respective supporters fell back into the uncomfortable habits of life as neighbors in Chillicothe. Williams and Ramsey returned to Bilbrey’s, where each time they logged on to the Missouri courts’ website, they hoped for an alert that Oxenhandler’s findings were available.
Finally, in May 2012, Ramsey received an email from the judge’s office. It said that the report would arrive in a few minutes, after which there would be a public release. Oxenhandler was ruling in Mark’s favor.
Ramsey and Williams yelled out, startling other staff in the office. In between tears, hugs, and jumping up and down, they read aloud lines from the report: “Woodworth had the burden to prove that he was entitled to habeas corpus relief, and he proved it, clearly and convincingly.” The Lewis letters and “all of the subsequently uncovered evidence … should have been disclosed years and years before.” Oxenhandler found Deister “not to be credible.” Calvert’s office “inexcusably” let Deister take the reins of the investigation. Lewis displayed “inappropriateness” and “lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness.” Lyndel’s employment of Deister in two conflicting legal matters was “problematic.” Hulshof’s prosecution was “as flawed [as] the investigation.”
Oxenhandler criticized the focus on Mark as a suspect when there was “an open and obvious ‘other’ person who may have committed the crimes”—namely, Brandon. The judge also criticized an “apparent pattern of not following up on witnesses and investigative leads which tended to contradict [Brandon’s] alibi.” Of Rochelle he wrote that she “was not being candid” about Brandon’s threats. “This demonstrated, at the very least, Rochelle’s intention to protect her boyfriend … from prosecution,” Oxenhandler said. “Either Rochelle was dishonest with the investigators or the investigators were not reporting what they really knew.”
In a fervent section, the judge said that he was “hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process: They could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”
Ramsey and Williams dialed the number for Crossroads Correctional to tell Mark the news. True to form, he thanked them calmly and politely. Williams, though, sensed a spark of excitement.
The Missouri Supreme Court still had to decide whether or not to take Oxenhandler’s recommendation. At a hearing in June 2012, the seven black-robed justices sat in a room paneled with dark oak and heard Ramsey and Bruce speak one last time. They also asked questions. Of particular interest to the court were the ballistics and their chain of custody.
“The evidence at the hearing was that [Deister] was given physical possession, without supervision, of the bullet?” a judge asked.
“That’s correct,” Ramsey said.
The Supreme Court released its decision six months later. The language was unequivocal: The court supported Oxenhandler’s findings and ordered the vacating of Mark’s conviction. He would be released on bond pending a new trial, which the attorney general’s office vowed to mount with the Robertsons’ support. “If seeking justice for the murder of Cathy Robertson takes a third trial and 100 years,” the family said in a statement after the decision came down, “we will do what it takes to hold Mark Woodworth accountable for his actions.”
On February 15, 2013, Mark was transferred from Crossroads Correctional to the Livingston County sheriff’s office. His family was waiting for him, along with Williams and Ramsey. Mark changed into a blue shirt and slacks, and he shook hands with various deputies who wished him congratulations. Mark hesitated when he got to the office’s glass doors. There were hundreds of people in the streets, some holding posters with messages welcoming him home. Media cameras lined the sidewalks. Mark looked around, expecting someone to lead him out. Instead he heard voices urge, “Go on.” Out he walked into the cheering crowd.
Elsewhere supporters of the Robertson family were furious. “I’m ashamed of this town that celebrates a murderer’s homecoming like he is a hero,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page Peace and Justice for Cathy Robertson. “How a two-time convicted murderer can be let free and a welcome-home parade given in his honor is just plain sick,” another wrote. “[That] this ‘person,’ and I use the term very lightly … has the gall to stay in this town and walk free is a little gutsy, don’t you think?”
After a barrage of hugs and questions, Mark was ready to go home, but he didn’t know how. What kinds of cars did his family drive now? Where had they parked? His sister led him to his brother’s truck, with the crowd trailing behind. Once they loaded inside, the siblings began the short trip to Claude and Jackie’s house. The last time Mark had taken the route was in the late 1990s. Back then he could practically drive it with his eyes closed. Now it felt like everything had changed. The roads were wider, and there was a new hospital in town. Outside his parents’ house, Mark couldn’t believe how tall the pine trees had grown.
The next day, Mark’s mom, grandmother, and aunt took him shopping. They went to Orscheln Farm and Home for jeans and to the Bootery for shoes. At an electronics store, his aunt got him an iPhone. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked. The last time he’d been free, cell phones were only just starting to become everyday items. At the Hy-Vee, he ogled the self-checkout machine. He was surprised to learn at a gas station that he didn’t have to go inside to pay. “Now you use your credit card,” he said. “That was an experience.”
Other things were just as Mark had left them. He moved back into his childhood bedroom and started working with Claude in the fields. “My dream was to farm,” Mark said that fall. “By now I should have my own land, my own equipment, and I don’t have any of it.” If he had to make up for lost time, so be it.
The anticipation of a third trial, however, made it difficult to get started.
A few months after the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling, a judge threw out the key ballistics evidence that allegedly implicated Mark in the shooting, citing “egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard for evidentiary procedures and process.” The following year, he removed the attorney general’s office from the prosecution of the Robertson shooting and sent the matter back to Livingston County. “From the inception of the ‘secret investigation’ in 1991 through two trials,” the judge wrote, “the concept of ‘due process of law’ for defendant Woodworth took flight and did not reappear until approximately 2009.” The Robertson family questioned the impartiality of the sitting county prosecutor, so the judge appointed a special prosecutor. Finally, in July 2014, the state dismissed all charges against Mark. “The wrong person was charged in the first place,” the special prosecutor told the press. There would be no third trial.
The call came from Ramsey when Mark was in his father’s workshop. “It’s over,” Ramsey said. “You’re not going to have to worry about this anymore.” Mark went into the house to tell his mother, who began to weep. “I felt like my life had been on hold, waiting for the third trial,” Mark said. “I didn’t want to jump out there until it was over.” Now he was ready to live.
The next month, Ramsey filed a civil lawsuit on Mark’s behalf against numerous defendants, including Deister, Calvert, Lewis, Hulshof, Lyndel and Rochelle Robertson, Brandon Hagan, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, the Chillicothe police, and other municipal authorities. The suit alleged:
Officials of the criminal justice system … conspired with civilians, who were acting under color of state law, to cruelly and cold-bloodedly frame Mark Woodworth for crimes he was innocent of. The conspirators accomplished their goals by conducting a sham investigation, fabricating false evidence, suppressing exculpatory evidence, and concealing their conspiratorial acts.
To Mark’s supporters in Chillicothe, it seemed obvious that he should get restitution for his time in prison. Other residents, however, saw the lawsuit as a fresh injustice. A professional spokesperson for the Robertson family, hired during the collapse of the case against Mark, said that the narrative of the shooting had tipped into lies and exaggeration. The people who believed the lawsuit’s accusations, she insisted, were like “children taking drugs from a dealer.”
Lyndel and other members of the Robertson family declined to speak for this story. But Rochelle, Rhonda, and Roxanne, the youngest sibling, agreed to meet in the dining room of Chillicothe’s Comfort Inn. When hotel staff fluttered near the table where the brown-haired sisters sat with water bottles, the women would pause their conversation, hoping to ward off any eavesdropping.
“When you go into town, it feels like you’re going into the mob,” Roxanne said.
“We vent to each other a lot,” Rhonda chimed in.
The sisters were frustrated that the town seemed to be forgetting what haunted them the most. “My mother is dead,” said Rhonda, herself a parent of three kids. “Mark has gained so much support. It seems like he has the whole town’s support. People get so wrapped up in this as a big story, and then they can close the book, throw away the newspaper, and turn off the TV. But my mom is still gone, and it’s something we have to live with every day.”
“They didn’t have to bury Mark,” Roxanne added.
“In the beginning here, it was us and the Woodworths,” Rhonda said. “They were our family. We thought of Jackie as a second mother, as much as we were with them.” Now if she saw one of the Woodworths at the Hy-Vee or at Walmart, she felt the urge to leave her cart half-filled and walk out of the store. Lyndel still owned the farmland adjacent to Claude’s, and he drove there every day for work, but he hadn’t spoken to his old business partner in many years. At a local preschool, Mark’s sisters avoided Rochelle, who worked as an aide in a classroom with some of their daughters.
“I would love to move,” Rhonda said, “but we’re anchored here with our farms. And, you know, part of me is like, ‘By God, we’re not going to let them run us off.’”
That finding justice for Cathy first required letting Mark go was an untenable notion for the Robertson sisters. They didn’t believe that someone could concurrently support Mark’s freedom and vindication for their mother’s death. It was an irreconcilable position.
Rochelle talked less than her sisters. Now and then, she cracked her knuckles under the table. “I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990,” she said. “She was the epitome of the perfect mom, in my mind anyway.” Rochelle talked about some of her earliest memories, when her siblings hadn’t yet been born and her mom took her on walks. “We’d go out in the creeks and collect these big ugly rocks, and then my dad would open them with a sledgehammer, and there’d be crystals,” she said. “They were the prettiest things inside. I always thought the crystals were diamonds.”
The sisters denied that there had been serious tensions between Rochelle and their mother. “It wasn’t this tumultuous thing,” Rhonda said. “Sure, there were a couple of fights, but they got along—they just disagreed about Brandon.” The sisters said the notion that Rochelle might have been involved in the shooting, which Mark’s lawsuit explicitly suggested, was baseless.
“If I found out that she had something to do with this, it’d be no problem for me to tell the world that,” Rhonda said. “Because that’s someone’s life that was taken, and that’s way more important to me than saving my sister.”
At another point, Rhonda said wearily, “I wish the shooter had been Brandon. My life would be a hell of a lot easier. I wouldn’t be going through this agony.”
“I’m sure Dad wishes it was Brandon,” Roxanne added.
Sheriff Cox, who took over the reopened investigation into the Robertson shooting, believed Brandon was likely responsible for Cathy’s murder. “If we were in Las Vegas and the line was you put your money down on who you think did it, all my money would go on Brandon,” Cox said in a deposition. The sheriff grew even more confident after the Oxenhandler hearing, when additional circumstantial evidence came to light.
In 2011, Caleb Carter saw coverage of the hearing and reached out to Ramsey’s office. Caleb’s sister, Casey, had dated Brandon around the time of Mark’s second trial. She’d since passed away, but Caleb remembered a disturbing encounter he’d had with his sister’s boyfriend, before Brandon became so physically abusive toward Casey that her father told him to stop seeing her.
In 1998, Caleb went with Casey, Brandon, and some friends to spend a few nights at a condominium near a lake. One afternoon the group went to Old Time Photos, a portrait studio that sold sepia-toned pictures of patrons dressed in period costumes. Brandon dressed up as a gangster in a saloon. He wore a vest and a hat, an unlit cigar dangled from his mouth, and he gripped a fake pistol. A few hours after the photo was taken, the friends were drinking heavily at the condo when, according to Caleb in a deposition, Brandon “got angry about something and said, ‘I don’t mind shooting somebody or doing what I have to do.’” Caleb said that Brandon then “went into detail about how he had shot a couple of people in Chillicothe because they didn’t want him to date their daughter,” who was pregnant at the time. Caleb remembered Brandon’s saying that “he went to the house and went inside and shot the mom and dad and then he left. They were trying to take the baby away or make her not have a baby.”
Caleb pointed out that, back in 1998, it wasn’t as if someone at the condo could look up Brandon or the Chillicothe shooting on the internet as easily as they could in 2011. “I just thought he was full of it,” Caleb said. “The last thing I remember was him mentioning that he never got caught for it.”
When Cox heard Caleb’s story, he was angry. How many confessions does this guy have to make? the sheriff wondered. The number, however, wasn’t the issue—and it still isn’t.
More than a quarter-century, two trials, and tens of thousands of pages of legal documents after Cathy’s murder, with the Robertsons still sure that Mark committed the crime, it’s likely that only a signed confession or murder weapon will lead to charges against anyone. And because virtually no one involved in the case has ever admitted wrongdoing and the mandate in Mark’s appeal was to prove his innocence, not convict someone else, the answers to several critical questions remain just out of reach.
If, as Ramsey has argued, Calvert, Deister, Lyndel, and others framed Mark, what was their motive? A frank if misguided desire to finish the case and bring closure to the Robertsons? A financial agreement benefiting certain individuals at Mark’s existential expense, and that of his family, too? Something more sinister, like a cover-up to protect the real killer?
If Brandon was the shooter, why has there never been any physical evidence found to implicate him? How likely is it, really, that a 16-year-old, no matter how volatile, could get away with murder, particularly after being the first suspect named by the surviving victim? Through legal representation, Brandon declined to comment for this story. “The claim that he was the true killer” and that he’d conspired with other people is “a bunch of bullshit,” attorney Ken McClain said.
Finally, what if someone else was responsible for Cathy’s murder, a suspect whom investigators missed completely? In a case so riddled with error, it’s not out of the question.
In Chillicothe, the shooting remains a tense, emotional issue. Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land. A complete reckoning of the wrongs done seems impossible so long as Cathy’s killer isn’t brought to justice. Until then, as surely as farmers plant and harvest their crops each year, so too will the memory of a violent death and the pain it wrought be perennial.
On an unseasonably warm winter day, Mark walked across a quiet piece of land stretching toward a stand of poplar trees. The sun was starting to set. Here, a few miles outside Chillicothe, was the construction site of his new house. Once it was completed, he would share it with his wife, Katy, whom he’d met when his sisters orchestrated a lunch to introduce them. They have a son, Miles, who is two.
The house, situated on a 365-acre farm, was funded by a confidential insurance settlement from Mark’s civil suit. The number of defendants had been whittled down as the courts weighed who was responsible for his pain and suffering. The Robertsons and Brandon Hagan were dismissed, for instance, but Calvert, Livingston County, and Chillicothe law enforcement were found liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages. When that legal action ended, another cropped up in its wake: From an eighth-floor office overlooking the Mississippi, where he now has a small firm with his daughter, Ramsey is fighting a lawsuit brought by Brandon against him and Mark. Brandon alleges that being named as a coconspirator in Mark’s civil suit degraded his ability to obtain gainful employment. “He’s been fired from jobs because they found out about the case,” his mother, Renee Thomure, said. The first hearing is scheduled for July 2019.
Brandon, Ramsey, accusations, and court hearings didn’t seem to be on Mark’s mind as he walked through his home’s unfinished rooms. He described the colors he and Katy wanted to paint each wall: a soft green, a warm brown. The place felt as humble as it did idyllic.
Kelly Williams walked beside Mark, looking on the work in progress with satisfaction. She’d gotten married recently, to an insurance adjustor. After finishing Mark’s case, she’d worked at a courthouse for a while and eventually landed an administration job with more manageable hours at the University of Missouri. She stayed in close touch with the Woodworths, coming to Chillicothe as often as she could.
“I told Mark that he’s got to deal with me for the rest of his life,” she said.
“I’m stuck with her,” Mark echoed.
From her purse, Williams took out a photo laminated with clear tape. It shows the moment Mark walked out of the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, in February 2013, and encountered a throng of supporters. In the middle of the swarm, Williams is behind Mark, smiling proudly as he melts into the crowd’s embrace.
Katy and Miles arrived at the construction site. The redheaded toddler dashed up to Williams to give her a hug. Mark bent down to adjust the Velcro straps on his son’s shoes. The group walked out of the house, to the area where Mark and Katy planned to build a back porch. “We wanted plenty of room,” Mark said of the acreage before him. There wasn’t a neighbor in sight.
Mark meandered back inside, to a room with tall windows facing east and south. This was where Katy would grow plants. “Succulents, those kinds of things,” Mark explained. “The sun comes in and warms the room.”
The moment echoed one from a few months after Mark first got out on bond in 2013, when he still didn’t know if he’d face another trial. One summer day, he drove in a truck—his truck—over a bumpy road on his father’s property, past a vast field of chest-high soybean stalks. He parked on a ridge and got out, then made his way down the slope to examine some of the plants. Harvest was nearing; he wondered how the crops were doing.
Soybeans are tough. In dry air, their leaves curl inward and toward the ground. “It’s how they survive against the summer sun while they wait for more rain,” Mark explained. “That’s their mechanism to defend themselves. That’s them doing what they can to fight.”