PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — More than 30 years ago, Oregon’s prison system director was found brutally slain outside of his office at the Dome Building in Salem in what authorities have called a car robbery gone wrong.
The man convicted of killing Michael Francke — Frank Gable — was behind bars for 29 years when a U.S. magistrate judge ruled in his favor, ordering his release pending a retrial by the state of Oregon after determining prosecutors likely violated Gable’s right to due process during his original trial after a confession from another petty criminal before Gable’s arrest surfaced years later.
Although some are convinced of Gable’s innocence, others believe that the case against him was solid. Despite it all, questions linger 30 years later.
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Francke living in fear?
In the weeks leading up to his brutal murder, the people closest to Michael Francke steadfastly agree on one thing: His behavior changed. His family and the people he shared an office with noticed something different.
Evelyn Meeks worked as an office assistant for Francke. She said that at the time, Francke was acting strangely, especially in the weeks and days before he was murdered.
“He was, you know, seemed to be awfully nervous about a lot of things, because he would run in and out,” Meeks told KOIN 6’s Eric Mason. “He was always in a hurry to get somewhere. It just seemed like he was always looking over his shoulder for something.”
Francke’s performance at the DOC was also under a microscope with the release of a report in the Statesman Journal, on Jan. 11, 1989 detailing state lawmakers concerns surrounding out-of-control spending within the prisons system, which Francke blamed on the rising costs of building new prisons and housing new inmates. In the article, Francke said he welcomed more oversight from lawmakers on how DOC money was to be spent.
Whether or not Francke was in fear for his life, he was absolutely not alone in being concerned about security in and around the state offices housed at the Dome Building. KOIN 6 obtained minutes of a meeting from the day Francke was killed. He told his co-workers, “If someone is out to get you, there is no way to prevent it.”
It just wasn’t his co-workers that noticed change in the prison director’s behavior. His brother Kevin said Francke told his family that his life might be in danger and that he had undercovered corruption within the prison system, according to a Portland Tribune report.
Investigators looking into his death found a shotgun and a handgun in Francke’s home and there was evidence he had been practicing with them.
In the weeks and days leading up to his murder, Francke had been looking into the fire at the A-Shed. According to Portland Tribune reporter Jim Redden, Francke had just wrapped up a day of preparing testimony on the fire for a state legislature committee scheduled for the following day.
“Everybody knew it burned down and people on the inside knew there were questions about it,” Redden said. “The day Michael Francke was killed he was preparing to testify to the Oregon Legislature on Corrections budget matters.”
Crime scene investigation
Further fueling the fire of conspiracy are the descriptions of the crime and what exactly happened at the scene. Despite the custodian’s testimony that only two people were there the night in question — Francke and Gable, according to prosecutors — multiple witnesses testified at Gable’s trial that they had seen three people running away from the Dome Building that night.
On the night Francke was stabbed, the first reports that something was amiss came from a pair of state employees who noticed Francke’s car door was open. Not noticing that anything was out of place and seeing no sign of Francke, one of them closed the car door. A few hours later, when it became clear that Francke was not at home a small search party, led by Francke’s top assistant Dick Peterson, combed the grounds of the Dome Building. They didn’t find any sign of Francke, and went home.
It wasn’t until early the following morning when a security guard found Francke’s body on the steps leading to the door leading to his own office. Based on the state’s case against Gable, if Peterson and his search group had walked from Francke’s car to his office they should have seen some of Francke’s blood from the fatal wound and they absolutely would have found his body. If they didn’t walk from the car to the office, why not? If they did, how did they miss Francke’s body?
Perhaps the most difficult question to answer for those who believe in Gable’s innocence, how did someone who struggled with and fatally attacked Francke as part of a botched car robbery not leave one shred of physical evidence behind?
If one subscribes to the conspiracy theories, there are tantalizing tidbits contained within crime scene photos and, in particular, the autopsy.
According to the Francke family members who told KOIN 6’s Eric Mason that they saw them, the photos show wounds other than the fatal stab wound and those wounds are not accurately described on the autopsy. They claimed the photos show a substantial head wound that the autopsy refers to as a “superficial abrasion”
The autopsy notes “cuts and abrasions” on the hands and arms that are defensive in nature but fails to mention additional bruises on Francke’s arm and knee.
However, in an interview with KOIN 6, Kevin Francke insisted that there were even more wounds that proved it wasn’t just a flailing stab wound by someone trying to get away that killed his brother.
“There were some wounds, or what appear to be wound marks on his body that were not addressed in the autopsy,” he said. “They were not, to my way of thinking, injuries that were sustained anywhere else but in a struggle that occurred the night of the [Jan.] 17.”
According to his reading of the autopsy report and the omissions he alleges, Kevin Francke told KOIN 6 that the wounds solidified his belief that his brother may have been held by several people and beaten before he was stabbed.
When KOIN 6 reporter Eric Mason approached Marion County DA Dale Penn with the Francke brothers’ concerns about the autopsy, he denied there was an attempt to cover up clues that may contradict the case presented by his office.
“Oh, absolutely not,” Penn said. “The focus of the report is to document the injuries that are the cause of death.”
Penn said state law only requires the cause of death to be listed on the autopsy report. Injuries not connected with the death can be omitted.
The Jodi Swearingen situation
She was the teenage meth addict, a self-described outlaw who told the grand jury she saw Gable stab Francke only to switch sides at trial and recant on the stand. That’s when Jodi Swearingen told the jury she didn’t even know Gable until six months after the murder. Her changing stories were a clear target for prosecutor Sarah Moore during her closing argument. Swearingen testified she told the grand jury she had seen Gable stab Francke because she had been threatened by police to play along. Moore disagreed.
“Two months before police had an opportunity to interview her. She’s telling people at Hillcrest that she was there with Frank Gable and she saw him kill Michael Francke,” Moore told reporters when asked about Swearingen after Gable was convicted.
But, did she?
Police notes of those conversations staff at Hillcrest had with Swearingen reported she admitted to being at the scene of the murder that night with her boyfriend, but not with Frank Gable. In more than 10 pages, Gable’s name doesn’t come up once. One worker at Hillcrest told KOIN 6’s Eric Mason that, as best as she could recall, she never heard Swearingen use Gable’s name.
Because she admitted to being at the scene of the murder, Swearingen was concerned about being charged as an accessory. After Gable was convicted, she sought legal advice. In notes from those discussions originally introduced during Gable’s appeals process, Swearingen identified the boyfriend she said she saw kill Michael Francke.
A man named Timothy Natividad.
The tale of Timothy Natividad
In the spring and summer months following Francke’s murder, there were whispers that a Salem-area drug dealer may have been involved in killing the state prisons director. If for nothing else than he resembled a man who had been seen in the Dome Building the afternoon Francke was killed.
“The composite sketch was released,” Redden said. “No one in the office really knew who he was but he was seen inside the building. Tim Natividad did, in fact, resemble that sketch.”
Those whispers about Timothy Natividad turned into shouts when Gable’s defense team was working on their first appeal of his murder conviction. A man who had spent most of his adult life in and out of the Oregon State Prison System came forward and tabbed Natividad as Francke’s Killer.
In a signed affidavit, Gregory Allen Kellcy, told Gable’s defense team that he drove Natividad to the Dome Building on Jan. 17, 1899. The night Francke was killed outside his office. Kellcy said he dropped Natividad off and returned to pick him up an hour later. According to the affidavit, Natividad was covered in blood and “appeared shaken” when he got back in the car. When Kellcy asked what happened, he says Natividad told him they could wind up dead if either of them talked.
Kellcy’s signed statements go even further. He says a few days later he drove Natividad to a meeting where a man in a car with Oregon state-government license plates handed him an envelope containing $20,000. Kellcy also said that one of the men in the car was the warden of the state penitentiary, Hoyt Cupp.
Other affidavits filed as part of the appeal tabbed Natividad as the killer. Two of them came from former friends of Natividad, who claimed he had made statements about intending to kill a “high-ranking” prison official who was trying to crack down on the drug trade within the prison. The other came from his girlfriend.
Elizabeth Godlove says Natividad, who was living with her at the time of the murder, came home after three on the same morning Francke’s body was found. She says he claimed he had been in a fight only to change his story to her three days later during an argument. That’s when Godlove says Natividad told her he had killed a man.
Despite an apparent resemblance to the composite sketch and sworn testimony years later, Natividad was never questioned in connection with Francke’s murder. By the time his name surfaced, he was dead.
“His girlfriend killed him during a domestic dispute,” Redden said. “So there was no way for law enforcement to interview him and hear what he had to say.”
Godlove shot and killed Natividad two weeks after he had told her he had killed a man, she later said. She was charged but acquitted on all counts by a Marion County jury.
The Crouse Confession
Natividad wasn’t the only name that came up while lawyers were working on Gable’s appeals. Years after the trial, thanks to an investigator who worked the Francke murder case, Gable’s defense got a lot more insight into the story of another Salem criminal who was trying to take the fall for killing Michael Francke.
A small-time crook, Johnny Crouse’s name came up when he reached out to investigators a few months after the murder, before Frank Gable was identified as a suspect. He originally told police that he was there the night Francke was killed and that had seen a “group of Mexicans” attack Francke.
“He said he ran to try to break it up but it was too late,” Redden said. “He went to investigators with that story, and nobody believed that.”
One investigator, Randy Martinak, followed up with Crouse.
“He [Martinak] thought it so strange that a person would interject himself into the investigation,” Redden said. According to Martinak’s notes, Crouse started the discussion with his original story but didn’t stick to it.
During a subsequent interview, Martinak says he got Crouse to break down crying an admit to killing Francke. According to Maritnak’s notes, Crouse says he was in the area the day Francke was killed to visit his parole officer. A fact that is backed up by court records. After that meeting, Crouse told Martinak he tried to break into a car in the parking lot of the Dome Building. Francke interrupted him and, tried to arrest him, Crouse said. During a scuffle, Crouse said he hit Francke in the head and then pulled out a knife and stabbed him once in the arm and once in the heart. Crouse allegedly ran off while Francke stumbled away from the scene.
The description of the attack matches what the Dome Building custodian recalled seeing and investigators considered Crouse as a suspect for many months.
It isn’t clear why investigators stopped focusing on Crouse as a possible suspect. During Gable’s appeals process, Martinak told the defense team that he believed Crouse had details about the crime that were not publicly known.
Eventually, Crouse changed his story.
“It [the confession] was tape-recorded,” Redden said. “Yet, the state did not arrest Crouse. The next time anybody had any contact with him, he was then denying he had done it. But his exact story is what they charged Frank Gable with having done.”
Before any of the attorneys working on Gable’s appeals could contact him, he was dead. While conducting interviews for this project, KOIN 6 contacted the now-retired Martinak. He declined to be interviewed, but in an email he said, “I took a confession from the person I believe was responsible for the death of the Director of Corrections and all for not.”
Throughout the inevitable, drawn-out and ongoing appeals process, the themes haven’t changed much: The state maintains Frank Gable is guilty; his defense team calls into question the reliability of the prosecution’s witnesses and the fairness of the trial.
Reporter Jim Redden from our media partners at the Portland Tribune has been covering the Gable’s appeals and believe his attorneys have always made a good case.
“He was convicted, basically, on the word of people who were like him in Salem,” Redden said. “Drug users. Drug dealers and petty criminals. Even before his trial, several of them had changed their story. After the trial, almost all of them have.”
After Gable’s defense team had exhausted his state-level appeals, federal defenders took up his case and filed their appeal, this time armed with the confession of Crouse.
“It had a huge impact on the judge,” Redden siad.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled that had Crouse’s confession been admitted during Frank Gable’s trial the jury may have not convicted him. The state fired back, using legal precedent that basically said it’s not enough to convince one juror of a defendant’s innocence, there has to be enough evidence to convince them all.
“You know, it’s not enough to be able to raise doubt in the minds of several jurors,” Redden explained. “It’s gotta be so compelling that if that evidence would have been presented at trial, no juror would have convicted him”
The state won again and Gable remained behind bars.
Finally, in April 2019, fortunes changed for Gable and his defense team.
In a conviction relief ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta ordered the state of Oregon to either retry or release Gable. He called the conviction in the case ‘legally flawed’ and gave the state 30 days to respond.
Acosta’s ruling was based, in part, on the fact that Crouse’s confession to Martinak, loaded with details not publicly released, was not introduced during Gable’s trial.
“There were some details that only Crouse knew,” Redden said. “And that really made a big impact.”
The state appealed Acosta’s ruling on May 15. That appeal was denied and on June 28, Frank Gable was released pending a decision by the State of Oregon on whether or not to take him to trial again.
KOIN 6 was there when Gable walked out of a Kansas prison, and out from behind bars, for the first time in almost 30 years.
“I’m just glad to be out and thankful to the judge for exonerating me. Just looking at the case finally,” Gable said in a brief statement.
However, despite the fact that he is out of jail and his insistence otherwise, Gable has not been exonerated. In August, the state filed yet another appeal, asking that Gable be returned to jail in Oregon as he awaits a retrial.
A retrial they still seem to be intent on carrying out.
An opposing viewpoint
Although former prosecuting attorney Josh Marquis did not work on the Francke murder case and in full disclosure admits to being professional or personal friends with some who did, Marquis can provide some context to the state’s position at a time in which the state can’t, since neither the Department of Corrections nor the Department of Justice will comment on an ongoing case.
According to Marquis, two things could possibly happen in the case now.
“He’ll be retried in Marion County,” he said. “Or, they’ll cut a deal for time served, which I suspect is the most likely scenario.”
Marquis said he doesn’t see the state walking away and vacating Gable’s conviction. “I would be surprised if the DOJ, the AG or the DA of Marion County would do it,” he said.
In an extended conversation, Marquis took KOIN 6 through his opinions on the case, the conspiracy theories and why he feels the jury was right in convicting Gable. Starting at the scene of the crime.
“I don’t think he [Gable] went out that day with the idea that he was going to kill anybody,” Marquis said. He went on to say that he didn’t doubt for a minute that the murder was not premeditated.
The prosecution’s assertion that Gable was breaking into or trying to steal Francke’s car and didn’t want to get caught makes sense to Marquis. “Relatively few carjackings turn into murders, he said. “Some of them do.”
The differing testimony at trial from an ex-con and drug user after current inmate and drug dealer didn’t surprise Marquis, even though witnesses from both the prosecution and defense struggled with credibility.
“There’s really no nice way to say this,” Marquis explained, based on his history as a prosecutor. “People from that milieu, basically constant drug users. They’re always looking to make a deal.”
Marquis took special care to criticize the “ramping up” of Jodi Swearingen’s different stories. He said, by version 16 or 17, she probably wasn’t of any use to either side.
As far as the fact that there is no physical evidence tying Gable to the crime scene, despite an alleged struggle between him and Francke, Marquis insisted that it isn’t all that unusual.
“That’s very, very common,” he said. “Unless there is a prolonged physical struggle between the victim and the suspect, there is usually nothing.”
And, what about the confession of Johnny Crouse?
“I know Martinak, he’s a good cop,” Marquis said. “He locked in on Crouse, early on, and nothing was going to take him off that. In law enforcement, it’s called falling in love with your case and it is something you have to be very careful about. To not get too married or fall in love with a particular theory because it may not be right.”
To Marquis, a career prosecutor, the simplest explanation of Michael Franke’s murder fits the case against and conviction of Frank Gable. He grows agitated anytime he is asked to address the conspiracy theories in the case.
“People, in my experience, whose family members have been murdered, at least certainly by strangers, always want to believe that murder has been, was meaningful,” He said. “It is very, very hard for them to accept that shit just happens.
“The sad truth is most murders are done for stupid, pitiful, meaningless reasons. It doesn’t take away from Michael Franke’s death.”
Where was Frank Gable?
Since his arrest, one of the biggest problems with Frank Gable’s declaration of innocence is his alibi or lack thereof. He never took the stand in his own defense. One of the only recordings we have of his side of the story of the night Michael Franke was killed, in his own voice, is what he told KOIN 6 reporter Melissa Mills. The two spoke in a jailhouse interview after Gable was arrested in Coos County.
Right off the bat, Mills asked him where he was that night.
“I’d say it’s my assumption or guess I was at Chris Orillo’s,” Gable told her.
Only an assumption. Only a guess.
Throughout the course of the case against him, Gable has been inconsistent in recounting where he was the night Francke was killed. He has claimed he was at a party with a few friends, he has claimed he was babysitting for a woman he knew and he has claimed he’s not sure where he was. All of his confusion, he blames on the crowd he was running with and the drugs he was doing.
“I know it was supposed to be the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Gable told Mills. “Is that supposed to be some special day for me in my life? No. So a killing happened, but I don’t go running around checking every killing, checking the date on a calendar and marking it down. So why should it stand out as a special date? Drug people don’t keep a calendar. The just run and they party and go to rock concerts and tweak out. That’s it.”
During the interview, Gable insisted, as he would after he was officially charged with murder, that he was being set up by people who wanted revenge because he had implicated them in crimes while he was working as an informant for the police.
Again, no department or agency has ever confirmed Gable was assisting in operations or working undercover as an informant.
The woman in Utah
In 2004, the Portland Tribune published an explosive story about the murder of Michael Francke. The same woman who told the FBI they would find child pornography in Scott McAlister’s Utah home, for which he had been convicted, had more to say.
Linda Parker worked for McAlister in Utah in 1989, shortly after he arrived from Oregon. She claimed that McAllister was still receiving case files on the investigation into Francke’s murder. Parker says the files were being shipped to McAlister from someone in Oregon even though he had no right or legal reason to be receiving them.
Reporter Jim Redden interviewed Parker and he believed her.
“It would be very strange for her to make up the kind of stuff she was telling me,” he said.
Parker told the Redden she was in fear for her life from McAllister, claiming when she testified against him in the child pornography case, all of the tires on her car were slashed. When she threatened to sue McAlister and the Utah Corrections system for sexual harassment, Parker claims she received a note at her home saying, “drop the suit, or your dead.”
The most damning information in the Tribune report on Parker was her claim that she overheard a conversation in which McAlister made an apparent reference to Francke’s death.
“She said it was at a party,” Redden said, Parker said she overheard McAlister say “that Michael Francke’s death was supposed to look like a suicide, and it had been botched.”
As mentioned before, when contacted by KOIN 6, McAlister denied any connection to the Michael Francke case and refused to comment further.
Gable was convicted of stabbing Francke while trying to break into his car. At the beginning of this report, we insisted that this is not an effort to retry the case. Right now, that decision is up to the State of Oregon, and all signs are pointing to another chapter.
Simultaneously, there are still those that believe there was a cover-up surrounding the death of the state prisons chief and that Gable is an innocent man who has been serving time for a crime he didn’t commit.
“It is a travesty of justice and the State of Oregon has fought to keep him in jail,” reporter Jim Redden said.
The jury agreed with prosecutors that interrupting his intended car burglary was motive enough for Gable to kill Francke. He didn’t want to go back to jail. The fact that it happened the night before Francke was set to testify to the state lawmakers about budget overruns within the corrections department and the A-Shed fire, could be just a coincidence.
But 30 years later, the timing and circumstances surrounding of Francke’s murder still seem suspicious – and killing someone to cover up corruption and illegal activity within the prisons, which was uncovered in both the 1986 OSP probe into the department and the Warden report, would be motive too.
A lot can be accomplished in 30 minutes.
Inside the Group Living Section at the Oregon State Penitentiary, there was a special office. In this office worked an inmate clerk. Judge Warden, in his report on corruption within the prison system, details how this inmate clerk, “made cell assignments, controlled prison jobs and payroll and gave orders to inmates and corrections staff alike.” Warden’s report describes how this “con boss” was allegedly being protected by a senior officer who, “chastised subordinates who challenged his authority.”
According to Warden’s report, inside this inmate clerk’s office, this inmate clerk had a telephone he could use to make calls within the prison. The office was furnished nicely, featured an entertainment set up and, most strangely, a computer for his personal use. A computer in an office in which he was, “permitted to deny access to anyone else, including staff.”
In the course of his investigation, Warden, who had been charged by Governor Neil Goldschmidt to find out if corruption inside the prison was connected to Michael Francke’s murder, became aware of the questionable arrangement with the inmate clerk. Investigators carried out an unannounced visit on the office and made some startling discoveries.
According to Warden’s report, the computer had been “supplied by the inmate” and was being operated with systems even the computer’s manufacturer could not comprehend. The passwords were known only to the inmate. Investigators also found “tools and devices” that would have allowed the inmate’s computer access to Oregon State Prisons computer systems.
Warden’s investigators also confiscated several floppy disks from the inmate clerk’s office in “an attempt to determine the full extent of the inmate’s activities.” At least six of the files on the floppy disk had been “modified” by the inmate clerk, less than a half-hour before the unannounced visit.