On the morning of June 13, 1996, Angie Dodge was raped and stabbed to death in her apartment in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She was 18 years old, and her body was found after she didn’t show up for work.
The city’s police department investigated the killing, but the summer and fall came and went without an arrest. That changed in early 1997, after a man from Idaho Falls named Benjamin Hobbs was arrested on January 5 in Ely, Nevada, and charged with sexual assault. After learning of the arrest, Idaho Falls police interviewed Hobbs and then began interviewing his friends, trying to build a case against him. One friend was 20-year-old Christopher Tapp. He and Dodge were part of a sprawling group of young people, so-called “River Rats,” who hung out by the trails along the Snake River not far from Dodge’s apartment. Tapp had also been seen with Dodge at a gathering the night before she died.
Tapp was first interviewed by the Idaho Falls police on January 7 and then released. He was interviewed again on January 10, and police scheduled another interview with him the following day. Before that third interview took place, his parents hired an attorney, and Tapp didn’t show up for the scheduled interview. The police went to his house, where Tapp’s mother told them that her son would come to the station on January 13 with his attorney to answer questions. Rather than wait, the police returned with an arrest warrant and charged Tapp with being an accessory to a felony.
In the first interview, Tapp said neither he nor Hobbs were involved in Dodge’s death, and that he knew nothing about it. Then, at the interview on January 10, Tapp said that Hobbs had killed Dodge and asked him to provide an alibi. On January 15, his story changed again, and he said that he had been with Hobbs when Hobbs killed Dodge. He said Hobbs was angry at Dodge for trying to break up his marriage.
During most of these interviews, a videorecorder was running. In addition, Tapp’s attorney watched on a monitor from a separate room. One of the officers who questioned Tapp was Jared Fuhriman, who had been a school resource officer and was seen as a person Tapp trusted.
On January 15 and 17, Tapp entered into a series of immunity agreements with prosecutors. Under the terms of these agreements, Tapp had to provide truthful information about the crime, and in return he would only be charged with and allowed to plead guilty to aiding and abetting an aggravated battery.
Tapp was interviewed on January 18, but there was now was a problem. DNA tests had come back and excluded Hobbs and Tapp as the source of the semen found on Dodge’s body and clothes. The police suggest a fix, offering up the idea that a friend of theirs named Jeremy Sargis was also involved.
Tapp changed his story again, and now said that Hobbs and Sargis raped and killed Dodge.
On January 27, the DNA tests on Sargis came back. They were negative. In addition, Sargis’s alibi had checked out. Prosecutors were angry, and they voided Tapp’s immunity agreement on January 29 because they said he had been untruthful. Also on that day, Tapp was taken to the crime scene. His attorney declined to go. Afterwards, Tapp changed his story again. Now, Tapp said, he had held Dodge down during the rape and stabbing. Hobbs was still there, but Sargis was no longer present, replaced by a friend of Hobbs’s named “Mike,” whom Tapp didn’t know.
On January 30, Tapp took his fifth polygraph test. During the questioning, police told him that he could possibly get a more lenient sentence if he had been in fear of his life after witnessing the attack on Dodge. Eventually, Tapp said he cut Dodge across the breast, joining the assault, because Hobbs threatened to kill him. The police officer told him he “passed” the test, but would note on his report that Tapp was “deceptive” in his answer about participating in the crime.
On February 3, Tapp was charged with first-degree murder, rape, and use of a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony, which was a sentencing enhancement. Hobbs, although convicted of the Nevada assault, was never charged in Dodge’s death. Sargis had been initially charged as an accessory, but the charges were dismissed.
Tapp’s trial in District Court for Idaho’s Seventh Judicial District began on May 12, 1998. Tapp’s attorney tried unsuccessfully to suppress the confession, arguing that it had been coerced, but Judge Ted V. Wood said the vast majority of Tapp’s statements to police could be used against him.
The confession tapes and the police explanations of their contents took up much of the trial. In the first interviews with Tapp, it was clear that police were focused on Hobbs as the suspect, and trying to get Tapp to implicate his friend. They falsely told Tapp that Hobbs had already placed Tapp at the crime scene, and that they could help Tapp if he cooperated. Tapp said he would help if he could, but he didn’t know anything; he was just a “scared little man.” In later interviews, under pressure from the detectives, Tapp’s involvement would steadily increase, and he would eventually say that he helped hold down Dodge, while Hobbs and the third man raped and stabbed her, and then forced Tapp to slash her right breast. During the interviews, he would be threatened with the death penalty and told that he couldn’t remember what he had done because he had repressed the memories of his brutal actions. At trial, Fuhriman testified that Tapp knew what Dodge was wearing before he was shown crime-scene photos. But a later examination of all the polygraph and confession videos showed Tapp did not mention the clothing until after seeing the photos.
Along with Tapp’s confession, prosecutors also introduced the testimony of a young woman named Destiny Osborne. She said she was at a party a few days after Dodge was killed, and she overheard Tapp and Hobbs talking about the crime. Osborne, who acknowledged being high on drugs at the party, said that she heard Hobbs say he had killed Dodge because she owed him money for methamphetamine. That was contradicted by Tapp’s statements to police, in which he said Dodge didn’t do drugs.
Tapp did not testify, but witnesses provided an alibi. They said that Tapp had spent the night with a woman, and the date was clear because Tapp’s girlfriend had caught them the next morning. But prosecutors presented other witnesses in Tapp’s circle of acquaintances who said he had the dates wrong.
The jury of nine women and three men convicted Tapp on all three charges on May 28, 1998. He was sentenced later that year to life in prison, with a minimum sentence of 30 years for the murder conviction and 10 years for the rape conviction.
Tapp fought his conviction through a series of appeals, challenging – among other things — the prosecution’s voiding of the immunity agreement, whether he had diminished mental capacity, and the effectiveness of his attorneys in suppressing his statements to police. Each was rejected, although a 2001 opinion by the Idaho Court of Appeals said Tapp’s Miranda rights had been violated during several – although not all – of his interviews with police. It also said that error was harmless.
Caroline Dodge, Angie’s mother, had initially pushed for Tapp to receive the death penalty. As years passed without any other arrests, however, she began to harbor serious doubts about Tapp’s guilt, and eventually she became one of the strongest advocates for his innocence. In 2013, after viewing the videotapes of Tapp’s confessions, she contacted Steven Drizin, one of the nation’s leading experts in false confessions and a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. He agreed to investigate the case pro bono. The report he published in 2014 concluded that Tapp’s confession was coerced, produced through deceit and pressure, and then enhanced by the officers supplying Tapp with sufficient details to lend credibility to his statements. Drizin helped recruit the Innocence Project of New York to work on Tapp’s case, and they joined the Idaho Innocence Project and Judges for Justice in the sprawling effort to secure Tapp’s freedom.
In May 2016, Tapp’s attorneys, led by John Thomas of the Bonneville County Public Defender’s Office, filed a motion for post-conviction relief. They asserted that Tapp’s confession was the result of police coercion and deception, and that videotapes of three of the seven polygraph tests that showed that coercion and deception had been withheld from Tapp’s trial team.
In addition, the motion noted that Tapp’s confession didn’t fit the evidence. He had told the officers that the crime took place about 1 a.m., but Dodge had been with friends at about 12:30, and an autopsy showed her bladder was very full, indicating she had been asleep for some time.
That motion would never be ruled on. On March 22, 2017, Thomas reached an agreement with Bonneville County District Attorney Danny Clark: Tapp’s rape conviction was vacated, and the sentence for his murder conviction was reduced to time served. He was released from prison. At the time, Clark said the deal made clear Tapp’s involvement in Dodge’s death. “Anyone who says the evidence proves Tapp is innocent is operating from a biased agenda or his or her own personal belief,” he said.
Separately in 2017, Osborne recanted her testimony, first to Dodge’s mother, then to Tapp. She said she didn’t even know Hobbs. Osborne said the police had threatened to arrest her on drug charges, and that when she had trouble remembering events as she practiced her testimony before trial, the officers reassured her that the difficulty was due to her drug use.
After Tapp’s release, the Idaho Falls police began working with a technology company called Parabon Nanolabs in an effort to find a match for the DNA sample. After creating a genetic profile from the sample, Parabon compared it with profiles submitted to genetic databases by people looking to identify relatives or discover their ancestry. Starting with samples in the database, Parabon was able to use other records to build a family tree of potential donors through the use of genetic genealogy. The first six samples from that tree didn’t match.
Then, the analysts learned that there was a seventh potential donor, a man named Brian Dripps. Dripps had lived across the street from Dodge and been questioned by police early in the investigation, before the focus turned to Hobbs and then to Tapp. Dripps now lived in Caldwell, on the other side of the state. The Idaho Falls police surveilled him, waiting for him to leave a DNA sample through a discarded cigarette or a drink can. Eventually, they recovered a cigarette butt, and the testing showed a match. Dripps was brought in for questioning, confessed, and was arrested on May 15, 2019 for murder and rape. He said he acted alone and did not know Tapp.
On July 17, 2019, Tapp’s murder conviction was vacated. “As far as the court is concerned, you are cleared of the charges you have been living under for the past 20-plus years,” Judge Alan Stephens stated in his decision. It was believed to be the first time that genetic genealogy has been used to exonerate a defendant.
Afterwards, Tapp said: “I’m so thankful that I’ve been given this second chance at life. I’ve wasted 20 years of my life for something I never did, but I also grew up over those 20 years.”
Clark, the district attorney who two years earlier had said Tapp was complicit in Dodge’s death, joined in the new motion to vacate the murder conviction. He said, “We stringently try to hold those who are guilty accountable. And sometimes that comes late.”
– Ken Otterbourg, NRE