PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Prison corruption. Murder of a state official. A possibly innocent man behind bars.
The state of Oregon’s conviction against Frank Gable for the 1989 murder of Department of Corrections chief Michael Francke was challenged in April 2019 after a federal judge declared the state had to retry Gable or set him free after determining the convicted killer’s right to due process had likely been violated in the course of the investigation and prosecution.
But before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta’s ruling, conspiracy theories had swirled for nearly 30 years, with some, including Francke’s brothers, believing that the state prison director had been slain in connection with his uncovering of corruption within the Department of Corrections.
Did an investigation into criminal corruption within Oregon’s prison system lead to murder? Why did another person confess, and why wasn’t that confession introduced during the trial? Was the murder of Francke pinned on Gable? Or was Gable guilty the entire time?
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Corruption on the inside
Josh Marquis spent most of his career trying to put people behind bars in Oregon. As a longtime prosecuting attorney, Marquis has an in-depth, first-hand knowledge of the workings of the state’s prison system. According to him, Oregon “was not a pit of corruption” in the late 1980s, and that “all prisons have problems.”
Whether or not all prisons have problems and the likelihood the Oregon Department of Corrections was not an outlier doesn’t really matter. What matters is there were problems — big problems — within the state’s prison system in the 80s.
In June of 1986, two state corrections officers claimed substantial illegal activity was being carried out within the prison system under the direction of high-ranking Department of Correction officials. The allegations got the attention of then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh and spurred an investigation of the department by Oregon State Police.
While doing research for this report, KOIN 6 News obtained a once-confidential, redacted Oregon State Police memorandum dated Aug. 13, 1986. It is one of the few available, official documents that confirm the 1986 state police probe into Oregon’s prison system took place and one of even fewer that contain any results of the investigation.
The memo makes it abundantly clear that both unethical and illegal activities were taking place within the prison system, coordinated by a “power structure” of department leadership. Employees were bringing drugs into prisons, recruitment and hiring systems were defective and assets were being mismanaged. Although the names on the confidential memo are redacted, it is widely believed that Oregon State Penitentiary Warden Hoyt Cupp was alleged to have spearheaded some of the corruption and was one of the top officials targeted in the state police investigation.
Atiyeh tried to fix a broken system, including creating new leadership positions, implementing new rules for searching for contraband and establishing a new Internal Affairs Office to investigate allegations of misbehavior; however, the fixes didn’t take, and his predecessor Neil Goldschmidt inherited a state prison system that was still broken and corrupt as he took office in 1987.
By spring of that year, Oregon’s 33rd governor decided to hire a man who had a reputation for cleaning up problem prisons: Michael Francke.
Where there is smoke…
“It was common knowledge that Michael Francke had been hired to root out the remaining corruption in the corrections division,” explained Jim Redden, a reporter with KOIN 6 media partner Portland Tribune.
A good example of the kind of malfeasance Francke was brought to Oregon to rectify centered around a satellite prison facility near the coastal town of Tillamook known as the Farm Annex. The 1986 state police probe into the prison system uncovered a variety of illegal activities being conducted at the Farm Annex where, at the time, security regulations were laxer than those at the State Penitentiary in Salem.
“The Farm Annex was a working farm and had cattle,” Redden said. “Heads of cattle were stolen [from area ranches] and sold. Cattle rustling was going on as a part of this.”
The illegal activity didn’t stop there: the state police’s 1986 investigation found that corrections department employees were taking advantage of the less strict security and teaming up with inmates to steal state property and smuggle drugs into the prison system.
Drugs would be brought into the Farm Annex, and from there would be taken into the penitentiary system by inmates who had been drug dealers on the outside — all with help from some of the employees, according to Redden, who has reported on corruption within Oregon’s prison system for decades.
During the latter half of the 1980s, the Farm Annex was managed by a Department of Corrections partner known as Prison Industries. When Francke took control of the DOC in 1987, he inherited Prison Industries, the Farm Annex and the problems that came with them. The following summer, another PRison Industries operation came under the microscope.
On July 28, 1988, the dry heat of the late afternoon gave way to a summer breeze-filled, warm evening. The first signs of trouble came from the smell of smoke, then came the crackle of flames: a barn on the grounds of the State Penitentiary in Salem was on fire.
Commonly referred to as the “A-Shed,” the barn was a storage place for high-quality furniture made by inmates. Not only was the furniture used in state offices, but it was also being sold out-of-state as part of an agreement that allowed Prison Industries to move freight delivery across state lines.
Less than two months before the inferno, an inspection revealed serious faults and safety concerns with the A-Shed. The 65-year-old, 18,000-square-foot barn was considered such a hazard, inspectors attempted to condemn it and recommended it be torn down. The degraded condition of the building made the fire almost impossible to fight. By the time the last embers stopped smoldering four days after the fire started, there was nothing left.
In its insurance claim, the Department of Corrections listed damages totaling $782,000; $330,000 for the barn and $464,000 for the furniture. However, a subsequent 1989 investigation into the A-Shed fire and accusations of ongoing corruption within the prison system could not back up the dollar amounts listed in the DOC insurance claim.
“The Ombudsman revealed the shed was, in fact, empty at the time of the fire,” Redden said of the insurance claim. “The inventory list they submitted to the insurance company was made up. It was just plain fraud. Insurance fraud.”
By the time revelers rang in the last year of the decade, whatever honeymoon period there had been between Goldschmidt and the man he hired to clean up a corrupt prison system had begun to sour. Several reports surfaced that Goldschmidt and Francke were at odds over spending and there was talk within the Department of Corrections that Francke was looking to leave Oregon, potentially to return to his position with the New Mexico Department of Corrections.
Then, on Jan. 11, the Statesman Journal put the problems at the DOC in the public spotlight with a front page story; Francke and the spending in his department were under new scrutiny from state lawmakers.
Francke blamed the spending overruns on prison overcrowding. A month earlier, the Statesman Journal reported the population of Oregon’s prison system had topped 5,000 for the first time. Francke had also claimed Oregon’s prison were the second-most crowded in the U.S.
Still, lawmakers wanted answers.
Six days after the bombshell Statesman Journal report, Francke met with several leaders within the DOC to discuss his strategy for testifying to a legislative committee looking into spending within the state prison systems. The meeting wrapped up around six that evening.
As he left for the day, Francke donned his light brown trench coat, grabbed his briefcase and walked out the Dome Building, the state office building that houses DOC offices.
“In a conference room, he had a big board with butcher paper where he was writing down all of the topics he was planning to discuss,” Redden said. “The very last line was ‘A-Shed.'”
Before Francke could testify the following day, he was dead.
According to authorities, two state employees leaving the Dome Building for the day found Francke’s state-issued car in the parking lot with the door wide open. After finding no sign of Francke, they closed the car door and contacted DOC officials. By 8 p.m., a small search party led by Francke’s top assistant, Dick Peterson, was scouring the grounds of the Dome Building. Unable to find Francke, they called off the search.
Francke’s body was finally found by a security guard patrolling the grounds of the Dome Building a few hours later, just after midnight on Jan. 18, his lifeless form sprawled on steps underneath a side door that would have led him back into his office.
The official explanation of Francke’s death hasn’t changed much since the early morning hours after his body was discovered. As Marion County detectives surmised and prosecutors eventually used at trial, Francke interrupted someone breaking into, or attempting to break into, his car, and that the prison system director tried to hold his assailant in the midst of a struggle and was stabbed. Francke stumbled back to the side door of the Dome Building in an attempt to get help before he succumbed to his fatal wounds as his attacker fled.
One witness, a custodian at the Dome Building, told KOIN 6 News reporter Eric Mason at the time that had seen two men — one presumably Francke — scuffling by a car for a moment before one man ran off and the other walked back toward the building. He said he turned around when he heard someone gasp as if they had been punched. He saw them facing each other for just an instant before a man, wearing a trench coat, ran away from the building.
By the time winter of 1989 turned into spring, whispers that Francke was killed because he had uncovered corruption within the Department of Corrections had turned into full-fledged screams, led in part by Francke’s brothers.
“Kevin and Patrick Francke are pursuing the possibility that their brother was killed by corrupt prison officials who had a contract put out on him,” Redden explained. “In their hearts, they believe it was some kind of conspiracy of corrupt corrections officials.”
Kevin Francke told KOIN 6 that in the weeks leading up to his brother’s murder, Michael Francke had uncovered corruption within the department and that he had even warned his family that there had been a threat on his life.
Within three days of the murder, Kevin Francke had told detectives that his brother had told him he had had mad “a lot of enemies within the prisons of Oregon,” according to the Portland Tribune.
Eventually, investigators were able to release a composite sketch of a man seen in the Dome Building the afternoon of Francke’s murder. Employees say a man was there, claiming to be a copy machine repairman. Detectives were able to track him down and dismissed hin as a lead because he didn’t match the composite drawing. However, he didn’t look like the man who had claimed to be there to fix the copy machine, either. When the state offices reopened following Francke’s murder, those employees said they found the copy machine left in pieces. It hadn’t even been repaired.
Even with an apparent lack of progress in the investigation, the state wasn’t buying into the conspiracy theory. Despite the results of the 1986 investigation that uncovered significant wrongdoing within the prison system, officials continued to assert there was no corruption within the corrections department for Michael Francke to uncover; therefore, there was no reason to conspire to kill him.
The second investigation
Two summers after he hired Michael Francke, Goldschmidt had more problems on his hands.
The man he brought in to run the Department of Corrections was dead, stabbed to death outside his own office. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be any real leads in the investigation at that point. The grand jury that had been empaneled by July to look into Francke’s murder had yet to hand up any indictments, and rumors of corruption were becoming impossible to ignore.
By September 1989, in an attempt to address the talk of potentially deadly corruption within the prisons system, Goldschmidt appointed Judge John C. Warden to lead a special investigation.
“If I can be a little blunt, it is put up or shut up time,” Goldschmidt told reporters during a press conference announcing the special investigation.
With a penchant for being thorough that appealed to Goldschmidt, Warden had served as the district and circuit court levels before retiring as a judge from the Oregon Court of Appeals.
“My job is to give this an independent look,” Warden told KOIN after he was introduced by Goldschmidt. “Completely independent and exercise my independent judgment.”
Kevin Francke didn’t see Goldschmidt’s move to appoint a special investigator as anything more than political posturing.
“I’ve got a lot more faith and confidence in the outcome of the grand jury than the rather toothless individual that the governor hired with no subpoena powers and no power to swear people in and hold them for perjury in the event that they lie,” he told KOIN 6 shortly after Warden’s investigation was announced.
Goldschmidt’s appointment of Warden to pull back the covers on the DOC launched the second major probe into nefarious activity within the department in three years. The 1986 probe conducted by Oregon State Police uncovered drug trade, asset mismanagement and other serious problems. While a few lower-level officials were punished for their roles in those crimes, the flames didn’t reach any upper-level offices.
“They let a couple of low-level people go,” Redden said. “They didn’t discipline any higher-level employees.”
With Warden’s appointment, the DOC was under the microscope again — and this time from someone promising to play it straight.
“A lot of my career has been, in deciding as a judge, whether there is sufficient evidence to believe that a certain crime has been committed,” Warden said. “Those are the kind of standards I am used to.”
Unlike the 1986 investigation, Warden would look to answer more sinister questions: was there corruption inside the state’s prison system that would potentially lead to murder?