June 9, 2012 in City

TV host’s DNA at issue in Spokane County murder trial

‘America’s Most Wanted’ re-enactment used real hat from homicide scene
By The Spokesman-Review

(Full-size photo)

The last-minute discovery that a famous TV show host and an actor handled a hat worn by a killer sought in Spokane County since 1992 could derail the trial of a man arrested for the crime last year.

DNA samples from “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh and the actor, Spokane County native Trevor St. John, have been processed at the Washington State Crime Lab and could be presented as evidence in the trial of suspect Patrick Kevin Gibson.

Prosecutors recently learned that a sheriff’s detective sent the hat to Washington, D.C., in 1993 to be used in a filmed re-enactment of the botched robbery and shooting at a Spokane Valley furniture store on Nov. 7, 1992, that left Brian R. Cole, 48, dead.

Prosecutors say they told Gibson’s lawyers as soon as they realized the hat, which underwent DNA testing in 2004, had been used in the show. But Gibson’s lawyers say the last-minute discovery in the midst of an already complicated trial is unfair.

They’ll meet again Monday to decide how to proceed. Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen said a mistrial is possible.

“This doesn’t look good, folks, in terms of the integrity of this entire trial,” Eitzen said.

Craig Chamberlin, spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, said detectives can’t comment on the case or discuss changes in how evidence is handled because of the ongoing trial.

At the time of the homicide, DNA testing was not standard.

“They didn’t search for that back then,” said Jack Driscoll, who is prosecuting the case with Tony Hazel. He declined to comment outside of court.

Gibson’s lawyer, John Whaley, said allowing the hat to be handled for a television show was negligent even before DNA technology.

“People were excited about being on TV and didn’t think about what it would do to the evidence,” he told The Spokesman-Review.

It wasn’t until 2004 that a detective reviewed the case and submitted the hat for testing. The test was inconclusive on a DNA profile because there were so many types present and analysts didn’t know who other than the killer may have handled the hat. It wasn’t until prosecutors watched the 1993 episode in recent weeks and recognized the hat St. John wore that prosecutors realized what had happened, according to Whaley.

Obtaining samples from Walsh and St. John could allow prosecutors to narrow the DNA profile and possibly link Gibson to the hat.

Previously, the main piece of DNA evidence connecting Gibson to the murder was a piece of a fake beard that was tested for DNA in December 2010 and led detectives to identify him as a suspect.

Whaley is asking Eitzen to reconsider her decision to allow prosecutors to introduce the hat and DNA samples as evidence.

Gibson, 60, has been in the Spokane County Jail since shortly after detectives arrested him in Stanwood, Wash., in May 2011.

He is a career criminal who made the unusual choice to forgo a jury trial and have his case decided by a judge.

“It’s extraordinary to have a first-degree murder bench trial,” Eitzen said. “I don’t know of anyone in my 18 years on the bench who’s done it in this county.”

Gibson, who told detectives he has prostate cancer and had been refusing treatment, declined an interview request by The Spokesman-Review.

Prosecutors sealed court documents detailing his arrest last year, but police reports filed in preparing for the trial say Gibson was a member of one of the most secretive government programs: the federal witness protection program.

Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Michael Drapeau told Gibson just after his arrest that he was aware he was a member of the program. Drapeau told him he didn’t have to tell him why but that he was curious to know.

Gibson told Drapeau that he shared a prison cell with a man who admitted to killing government witnesses and executing a family that included children. That man and his girlfriend, identified through federal prison records as Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson, were sentenced to death and are in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., for the murder of five people, including two girls ages 6 and 10. Johnson’s sentence was overturned by an appellate court in March.

Gibson’s information from his jailhouse stay with Honken apparently helped prosecutors solve the case.

“I decided to do the right thing,” Gibson told Drapeau, according to court records. “I just tried to make amends for my past wrongs.”

Gibson told Drapeau he would need to be isolated at the jail because he is a protected witness. Drapeau said he informed the jail of that, according to court documents.

Gibson denies killing Cole or even being in Spokane at the time of the slaying. A friend testified last week that he was fishing with Gibson in the Puget Sound on Nov. 7, 1992.

But prosecutors believe that, three hours before killing Cole, Gibson robbed a children’s clothing store in Coeur d’Alene at gunpoint. Steve and Teresa Brenner have identified Gibson as the man who robbed their Kid’s Fair clothing store in the Sunset Mall. The couple’s two children, ages 5 and 2, were present. The Brenners told police at the time that he was wearing a fake beard and a black baseball hat that said “Solid Gold.” That hat and a piece of the beard were found at the crime scene at Cole’s Furniture Store in Spokane Valley.

Investigators say the method of the robberies and the disguise worn by the robber are consistent with robberies Gibson committed in Oregon in 1992 and 1993.

Gibson’s criminal history includes convictions for rape and robbery in Oregon in 1979 after he robbed a Portland restaurant, forced a waitress into his car and raped her at a rest stop. He also was convicted of robbing a gas station in 1978, kidnapping a 17-year-old boy and a 19-year-old woman, then sexually assaulting the woman and leaving both tied up. He was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for bank robbery in California in 1996.

By that time, the investigation into Cole’s murder had gone cold.

It had been three years since St. John donned the hat and re-enacted Cole’s fatal shooting.

St. John, who is the first cousin by marriage of Spokesman-Review reporter Thomas Clouse, said in an email to the newspaper that a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department swabbed his cheek for a DNA sample and sent it to Spokane.

“As mundane as it sounds it was actually very exciting,” St. John wrote. “It’s funny, I’ve played cops and detectives and criminals before in film and tv – shot guns and pretended to get shot and been in car chases – but none of it was exciting as the two minutes it took that LAPD to swab my cheek!”

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