Broken Dome: The trial of Frank Gable

Broken Dome

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It took more than a year, but investigators finally nabbed a suspect in the murder of Oregon’s prison chief Michael Francke — a brutal slaying that shocked the state.

But as detectives narrowed in on Frank Gable, others were not convinced that police were looking in the right direction — a car robbery gone terribly wrong — and instead believed the circumstances surrounding Francke’s death were far more nefarious than the official story.

Gable himself insisted on his innocence in a jailhouse interview with a KOIN 6 reporter, and despite a cast of questionable witnesses for the prosecution, the smalltime criminal would ultimately be convicted of multiple counts of murder.

However, as the investigation closed in on a murder suspect, another investigation revealed deeper levels of corruption within Francke’s Department of Corrections — corruption that Francke had been tasked to clean up before his untimely death.

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1989 was a year of shocks in Oregon’s capital. In January, the state’s prison system director was found brutally slain outside of his office at the Dome Building a day before he was set to testify before the state Legislature on departmental misconduct allegations.

By spring of that year, weeks without a major development in the investigation into Michael Francke’s murder was leading to rumors of something more sinister, which in turn were being fanned by the victim’s brothers.

In September, then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt announced the appointment of a special investigation led by retired Judge John C. Warden. It would be the second investigation into Oregon’s Department of Corrections within three years — and this time the investigation would be guided by someone who promised 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 told reporters after Goldschmidt introduced him. “Those are the kind of standards I am used to.”

Unlike the 1986 probe, Warden’s investigation would look to answer more sinister questions: Was there corruption inside the state prison system and did that corruption lead to murder?

While Warden went to work, the grand jury appeared to be focusing at least some of their subpoenas and questioning beyond the botched car prowl scenario that detectives were publicly pursuing.

Several state officials testified to the grand jury. Dick Peterson, a former top assistant to Michael Francke and the man who led the search of the Dome Building grounds the night Francke was killed but failed to find his body on the steps, testified twice.

Peterson eventually took a lie detector test at the request of Marion County officials. According to the Marion County district attorney, he passed. So did others, including the man who took and passed his polygraph at the request of Marion County investigators, four weeks before the grand jury was seated: Former assistant Attorney General Scott McAlister.

Meet Scott McAlister

In 1987 Scott McAlister was working as an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice. He was assigned to the Corrections Department where he worked with, and for, Michael Francke from virtually the moment Francke took the helm of the state prison system.

McAlister and Francke were friendly, if not friends, and were known to have taken at least one trip to a conference together. However cordial their relationship may have been in their 19 months of working together, it appears to have taken a turn late in 1988.

“The two of them got into some kind of disagreement and Francke requested a different attorney,” said Jim Redden, a reporter with KOIN 6 media partner Portland Tribune. “So McAlister was going to be reassigned.”

In December, before he could be reassigned, McAlister quit his job. He left Oregon and began working for the Utah Department of Corrections the same month Francke was found dead on the steps of the Dome Building.

Why, exactly, Francke wanted McCalister reassigned and why McAlister quit before he could be, has never been fully explained. Francke’s death prevented that. However, when it was learned that McAlister had taken, and passed, a polygraph related to the Francke murder investigation, KOIN 6 reporter Eric Mason went digging and uncovered some questionable behavior in McAlister’s past.

According to documents Mason uncovered: In 1982, McAlister claimed to be working undercover while paying sexual favors at Salem-area massage parlors. McAlister said, under oath, he was conducting an investigation with the permission of the Oregon Attorney General.

A spokesperson for the AG’s office told Mason, in 1989, that no such permission was provided to McAlister. No criminal charges were ever filed as a result of McAlister’s undercover work.

Later in his career in Oregon, McAlister was called to testify in legislative hearings on allegations of corruption within the prison system. Despite the results of the 1986 probe of the Oregon State Police investigation into the Department of Corrections that highlighted major malfeasance, while McAlister was working there, he denied ever having seen any organized corruption.

These days, McAlister is working as a private practice attorney in Arizona. While conducting interviews for this project, KOIN 6 News reached out to McAlister several times attempting to ask questions about his relationship with Michael Francke, Francke’s murder and corruption within the Oregon Prison System.

McAlister finally called back, after business hours, and left a voicemail that said, “I am returning your call as a courtesy. I don’t know anything about that particular case and my name was never brought up in that particular case, at least by anybody reputable. And, so I won’t have any comment about it.”

McAlister’s name was brought up in the Francke case. He took and passed a polygraph. And, KOIN archive footage shows him testifying to state legislators about corruption in the prison system. However, in all the research done for this project, KOIN 6 News found no record of McAlister being tied to illegal activity connected to Francke’s death or prison corruption.

By the time Goldschmidt appointed Warden to probe the Oregon Department of Corrections in late summer of 1989, McAlister was in his eighth month as the Inspector General for the Utah Corrections department. By all appearances, he had severed all ties with his former employer.

So, why would someone be sending him confidential files related to the investigation into his former boss’s murder?

A killer has a name

As 1989 wore on, Marion County detectives working the Michael Francke case were starting to come across some inmates, convicts and local drug dealers who, at least according to their statements, all seemed to have one name on their mind when it came to the murder of the state prisons chief: An ex-con named Frank Gable.

KOIN 6’s Eric Mason talked to one of those people. Mike Keerins, a former cellmate of Gable’s, claimed he and Gable stayed in touch and that during the investigation into Francke’s murder Gable had told him that he was the one police were looking for.

LISTEN: Broken Dome, Episode 1 – Oregon prison chief Michael Francke slain

LISTEN: Broken Dome, Episode 3 – Questions linger 30 years later

“I guess he [Frankce] was holding him [Gable] for police or trying to arrest him himself, and he [Gable] just didn’t want to be arrested at the time,” Keerins told Mason. “I don’t believe he intentionally stabbed him in the heart, trying to kill him or whatever. It was just probably a quick reaction.”

A teenaged meth addict named Jodi Swearingen told the grand jury that she saw Gable attack Francke. So did another convict, a man named Cappie Harden.

Another person who met with the grand jury talked to KOIN 6 reporter Eric Mason under the condition that his identity be protected. He claimed he had heard Gable bragging about killing Francke as retribution for slowing the drug trade inside the walls of the state prison system.

That same former associate told Mason that on the day Francke’s body was found, Gable had told him he “screwed up big time.”

“When he was asked what he meant, he commented that everybody would be reading about it in the paper,” he told Mason. “And, it was like a half-hour, if that long, after that comment that I heard it on the news.”

As prosecutors began outlying their case against Gable, KOIN 6 and other media outlets began reporting that sources close to the investigation had confirmed Gable’s apartment and his mother-in-law’s house had been searched. During one of the searches, investigators found a piece of clothing that could connect Gable to Francke’s murder.

Despite those reports that there may have been a significant lead in the case, detectives were struggling to find physical evidence connecting Gable to Michael Francke’s murder or to the grounds of the Dome Building. The murder weapon has never been found.

“There was no physical evidence against Frank Gable,” Jim Redden, a reporter with our media partners at the Portland Tribune, said. “There hasn’t been any physical evidence connecting anybody to the murder.”

Even with the apparent challenges to the investigation, Marion County prosecutors believed they had their killer. Gable was indicted on murder charges April 6, 1990. He was arrested in Coos County two days later.

KOIN 6 reporter Melissa Mills was one of the first people to sit down and talk with Gable after his arrest. From the outset of their conversation, Gable insisted he didn’t kill Francke.

“If I go down on the case it’s not what I am going to do, it’s what the citizens of Oregon and the public is going to do,” Gable told Mills. “Because, if I go down on this case, then they got a killer running around out there.”

Gable didn’t stop there. He went on to tell Mills that the reason ex-cons and members of the Salem drug world were pointing the finger at him was due to his work as an undercover informant.

“That’s the type of people them drug people are. They don’t care if they sell their own mom out to get out of jail or get their next fix,” Gable said. “They just want out of jail. They don’t care. They could care less about me or you or anybody else and that’s why I started working for the police.”

No agency or department has ever confirmed that Gable was an informant or working undercover.

He arraigned in Marion County and officially charged with six counts of aggravated murder and one count of murder on April 9, 1990. He pleaded not guilty and would stay behind bars for the next 29 years.

The judge has his say

Just a little over a month shy of the first anniversary of Francke’s murder and at the same time Marion County investigators were building their case against Gable, Judge John C. Warden dropped his report on the Department of Corrections. Just like the 1986 investigation by Oregon State Police, the results were bad.

Released on Dec. 14, 1989, the Warden Report detailed how as many 15 prison officials may have been involved in wrongdoing or significant illegal activities. The laundry list of bad behavior by prison workers included planting contraband to entrap inmates, drugs and alcohol provided to inmates, and officials stealing inmate money, among other charges.

While the names of those prison officials weren’t included in the report, their positions ranged from high-ranking security officers within individual prisons to those within DOC offices at the Dome Building.

“We don’t know who those people are,” Redden said. “The names were never released. It was called a personnel matter. We don’t know if they were disciplined or not. But, [Warden] said, ‘yes’ there was corruption.”

Talking to reporters following the release of his report, Warden explained he wasn’t surprised with the results, but he was disappointed in the discovery of the systemic harassment of employees who tried to report on wrongdoing by fellow employees.

“I was troubled by it, particularly within some of the institutions,” Warden told KOIN 6’s Eric Mason. “The almost siege mentality that they had in some of them. Where, if there was something that didn’t look quite right, the aim was to get it covered up.”

Warden’s report made three assertions in the first three pages that are very important to note: One, time limitations and a lack of candor among prison officials made it tough for Warden and his team of investigators to develop a “complete, clear picture,” of the atmosphere within the prison.

Second, that despite the nefarious activity Warden and his team did uncover, they determined it was the work of individuals and there was not an “organized, sinister conspiracy among the staff.”

Finally, Warden was not able to establish a link between any illegal activity or wrongdoing within the prison system and the murder of the former prison chief, Michael Francke. Francke had hired to root out the types of problems with the prison system identified by Warden’s probe and the preceding 1986 investigation by Oregon State Police.

“We had lots of rumors, lots of people making scenarios,” Warden told Mason after the report was released. “But, we found no solid evidence. None.”

With the release of the Warden Report, Goldschmidt was forced to face the fact that the prison system he had brought Francke to Oregon to clean up was still riddled with problems, which, according to Warden, couldn’t be solved until there was a better system in place for employees to report wrongdoing.

“I do recognize after talking to the judge that there are individuals who continue to be frustrated about the circumstances in which they find themselves,” Goldschmidt told reporters the day Warden released his report. “They have always feared reprisal if they say anything.”

Kevin Francke never believed that Warden’s investigation would produce any real results and the release of the Warden Report did little to change that feeling. However, he did find some solace in Goldschmidt appearing to finally be facing the reality that criminal activity inside the prison system was being covered up.

“I am encouraged that Gov. Goldschmidt has come around 180 degrees from just a few months ago, from when he as asking, ‘where does all this B.S. come from?’” Francke said in an interview with KOIN 6 News. “It is now abundantly clear that all this B.S. was certainly right in front of him and all he needed to do was pick up his shoe to find out what he stepped in.”

A different kind of investigation

On the heels of the Warden Report release, the Francke family remained steadfast in their belief that his brother was murdered because he had uncovered corruption within the state’s prison system and was preparing to talk about it.

They weren’t alone.

Many pointed to the illegal activity identified in the Warden Report as a perfect motive to kill the person trying to put an end to it and, now again, state lawmakers wanted answers.

State Sen. Jim Hill was still in the House of Representatives in 1986 when the Oregon State Police conducted their 1986 probe into the state prison system. Two years later, he was one of the lawmakers hearing testimony on problems within the prison system.

“I think that both of the investigations into corruption and into Michael Francke’s murder should continue,” Hill said during the hearings. “I am not convinced at this point that those two things might not intersect at some point.”

During that round of hearings, lawmakers heard testimony from a familiar face. Former Assistant Attorney General Scott McAlister had returned to Oregon to answer the committee’s questions.
Sen. Hill wanted to know how it was that McAlister thought his former boss had died.

“I think that Michael Francke interrupted somebody in the process of either attempting to break into his car or opening his car and attempted to intercede and was stabbed,” McAlister answered.

Around the same time he was testifying in Oregon, McAlister was under investigation back in Utah. A woman told the FBI that McAlister was in possession of child pornography. He eventually convicted pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of distribution of pornographic material.

He served seven days in jail.

The never-ending stories

By the time the one-year anniversary of Francke’s murder came and went, there were so many theories about who may have done it, even Goldschmidt was starting to wonder.

“It almost defied the imagination that somebody who is physically strong and intellectually powerful as this man could be killed by either a planned or a random act of violence,” Goldschmidt told reporters at a tree-planting ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of Francke’s death. “It does tend to make people wonder if there isn’t some kind of bigger thing lurking behind all of this.”

One story had Gable teamed up with California con who had been charged with attempting to kill a prison official in that state.

Those who believed Francke was targeted found evidence in a new interview by KOIN 6’s Eric Mason with a man who claimed to have seen the attack.

“From what I saw, it was professional,” the man who only spoke to KOIN 6 on the condition his identity remained hidden out of fear. “He was dressed like someone I took to be a professional businessman. He looked like a businessman to me. He didn’t look like nobody that just came from underneath a bridge.”

A friend of Francke’s, attorney Chuck Sides told KOIN 6 he thought the prison director’s past had come back to haunt him and believed that the killing was connected to Francke’s work in New Mexico.

Sides was convinced that a bigger reward than the one that was being offered at the time would help get to the truth. But, he said that the people who could make that happen didn’t want to.

“I have been shocked, I guess, at the amount of people who want this story to die,” Sides said.

The prosecution of Frank Gable

Eight hundred thirty-four days after Michael Francke was found dead in a pool of his own blood on the steps of the state offices at the Dome Building in Salem, the trial against the only man ever charged with his murder finally began. Gable had been behind bars since he was arrested in Coos County 13 months before the trial officially started with jury selection on May 1, 1991.
Even as opening statements were presented, Marion County District Attorney Dale Penn knew there was still a long way to go in what had already become one of the most extensive and expensive investigations in Oregon State history.

“I said the very first day when we announced this crime that it was going to be a very, very difficult crime to prosecute,” Penn told reporters as the trial got underway. “Nothing has happened in 18 months to change my mind about that.”

Throughout the trial, prosecutors remained focused on their lone theory: Gable was a convicted felon who got caught trying to steal a car and didn’t want to wind back up in jail. Prosecutor Tom Bostwick didn’t pull any punches with his opening statement.

“We’re here because Frank Gable murdered Michael Francke,” Bostwick told the jury. “He committed a deliberate act and he didn’t want to be caught. He stabbed him in the heart.”

Following opening statements, prosecutors presented a parade of ex-convicts and associates of Gable’s. Seven of them, who served as material witnesses for the prosecution, were either currently serving time or had served time in the past. Two of them, Keerins and Harden, testified that not only did Gable kill Francke, he bragged about it.

With the help of detectives and expert witnesses, the prosecution presented scale models of the crime scene and a chronological breakdown of what they insisted was an increasingly violent criminal history.

Before the prosecution rested their case, jurors heard from Gable’s ex-wife who backed up prosecutors’ insistence that he was a violent man. Janyne Gable testified that while the two of them were married, Gable had twice broken her arm and cut her with a broken plate.

Prosecutors insisted that after the attack on Michael Francke, Gable got rid of the knife he used. Detectives never located it. During the trial, the state showed the jury a knife like the one they believed Gable had used in the stabbing. Gable’s former mother-in-law testified that a knife similar to that one had vanished from her house shortly before Francke was killed.

The defense

Whatever weapon was used to kill Francke wasn’t the only thing prosecutors couldn’t account for.

“There hasn’t been any physical evidence connecting anybody to the murder,” reporter Jim Redden said. “No suspect has ever been physically tied to that scene.”

Building on a lack of physical evidence tying Gable to the crime or the crime scene, his defense team went to work countering the testimony of the ex-cons and inmates who pointed the finger at Gable with ex-cons and inmates of their own.

One defense witness, Adam Hernandez told jurors that Harden was a “liar and a fat mouth” who couldn’t be trusted and had been overheard bragging that he was going to be a “million dollar baby” because he stood to make a lot of money for telling on Gable.

Gable’s defense team also took issue with the state’s botched car burglary story and the assertion that Gable acted alone the night Francke was killed.

Another inmate, testified that a fellow inmate had told her he saw two corrections officials walking out of the Dome Building that night and that one was carrying a club that had been used to hit Francke before he was stabbed. The inmate she was referring to never talked to investigators because, according to her, he was scared for his life.

A man by the name of Dale Harp did testify. He was one of three people to tell the jury he saw a group of three men near the crime scene the night Francke was killed. In Harp’s version of events, the three men were running towards a van just after 10 that night.

One star witness for the defense was Jodi Swearingen. Along with Harden, Swearingen had told the grand jury that she had seen Gable stab Francke. But, when it came to the trial, she testified on Gable’s behalf.

On the stand, Swearingen recanted her statements to the Grand Jury and when asked if she saw Frank Gable stab Michael Francke, she simply replied “No.”

Swearingen told the jury the only reason she made up her statement to the grand jury because police had threatened to take her away from her father’s home and send her back to reform school if she didn’t play along.

“He told me that he was going to flush me like a fucking turd if I didn’t get the story straight,” Swearingen testified. “And that his job was on the line and I had better tell it like they – get the story straight.”

Swearingen went on to say that she didn’t even know Gable until six months after Francke had been killed.

She also admitted that she met with Harden before she talked to the grand jury the year before. She told jurors in the Gable trial that she and Hardin, “hugged, kissed and got our stories straight before we went in.

THE VERDICT

It took five weeks of motions, procedure and, at times, tense testimony before it was finally time for both sides to present their closing arguments.

Prosecutors stood by the simple supposition that they had started their case with more than a month before: Gable got caught breaking into a car and didn’t want to get caught, Francke was the one who caught him, Gable killed Francke.

In wrapping up their case, the state went after the credibility of the defense witnesses that attacked the credibility of its own witnesses. In particular, prosecutor Sarah Moore focused particular attention on the ever-changing stories of Jodi Swearingen.

Moore wanted the jury not to focus on what Swearingen told the grand jury or what she said on the stand during the trial. Instead, Moore wanted jurors to focus on what Swearingen said, according to prosecutors, when she was first talked about the night Francke was killed to the staff at Hillcrest Reform School, where she had stayed. Statements in which, according to prosecutors, Swearingen put Gable at the crime scene.

Much like their counterparts, Gable’s defense team crossed the finish line carrying, generally, the same arguments, and baggage, as they had started with: No physical evidence connected Gable to the crime scene. What evidence there was pointed to the overwhelming possibility that more than one person was involved in Francke’s death, they said. Both, according to Gable’s defense team, should make for reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

In the end, Gable’s criminal history, the simple explanation of the crime prosecutors presented and Gable’s inability to provide a solid alibi for the night Francke was killed proved too strong a case for the jury. On June 27, 1991, Judge Gregory West read the verdict. According to the courts, Frank Gable killed Michael Francke.

Outside the courtroom, Bostwick and assistant prosecutor Sarah Moore talked to reporters about winning the case and justice being served.

“Twelve, 12 citizens decided that Franck Gable killed Michael Francke,” Bostwick told a crowd of reporters. “They heard the evidence. They heard admissible evidence. They heard the facts. And, they decided. That’s what the system is and it is a good system and it works.”

Two weeks later, and after six more hours of deliberation, the jury returned with their sentence. On July 11, 1990, Frank Gable was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

As he was being returned to jail following sentencing, Gable shouted to the courtroom, “I didn’t kill Michael Francke. I don’t know who did. I wasn’t there.”

It was, virtually, the only thing Gable said in court during his entire trial. He never took the stand in his own defense. His wasn’t the only story the jury never heard.

Almost exactly 29 years later, as the state of Oregon insists on continuing its fight to return Gable to prison, their simple explanation of the last night of Francke’s life hasn’t changed much. Francke left work on the evening of Jan. 17, 1988, interrupted Gable breaking into his car, the two fought and Francke was stabbed. He managed to stumble back to a side door of the Dome Building where he collapsed and died of the fatal wound while trying to get back inside.

That version of the story was backed up by one of the few credible witnesses that claimed to have seen the crime.

A Dome Building custodian, Wayne Hunsaker, testified at trial and told KOIN 6’s Eric Mason that saw two men, physically scuffling by a car for a moment and then one man ran off and the other walked back toward the Dome building.

While Hunsaker could testify to what he saw, presumably, happen to Francke in the last moments of his life, he couldn’t testify to the moments, or days, or weeks or years leading up to those last moments. That time in which, Michael Francke’s brothers, conspiracy theorists and some reputable journalists covering the story, believe this story actually begins.

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