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Perry trial dominated by 2012 interrogation in which transgender suspect denied killing prostitutes

UPDATED: Wed., June 21, 2017

Transport deputies handcuff Donna R. Perry, 65, on Wednesday following testimony in her triple murder trial in Spokane County Superior Court that included a 2-1/2 hour taped interrogation by two detectives. (Thomas Clouse / SR)
Transport deputies handcuff Donna R. Perry, 65, on Wednesday following testimony in her triple murder trial in Spokane County Superior Court that included a 2-1/2 hour taped interrogation by two detectives. (Thomas Clouse / SR)

In a 2012 video, Donna R. Perry, dressed in jail garb, sits at the end of an interview table, nursing a cold soda. She runs her fingers through her long, graying hair and waits for what is to be a 2 1/2-hour grilling by detectives trying to convince her to confess to killing three women in 1990.

The video dominated testimony Wednesday in the second week of the triple-murder trial before Superior Court Judge Michael Price.

Perry’s interrogation came a couple of months after DNA evidence in 2012 linked her to the 1990 killing of Kathleen A. Brisbois, a young mother who also worked as a prostitute on Spokane’s East Sprague Avenue. Perry, who would undergo sex reassignment surgery in 2000, was known as Douglas R. Perry and identified as a man at the time.

Over the course of the interrogation, Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Jim Dresback worked slowly to gain Perry’s trust as Spokane police Detective Mark Burbridge brought the rhetorical hammer. Perry, for her part, recounted stories of her tortured youth, and more than once told the detectives that she wanted to die.

But against the detective’s main line of questioning she was consistent – she continually denied knowing the victims or killing anyone.

“I can’t confess to something when I didn’t do it,” said Perry. “I didn’t hurt those women.”

As the interrogation began, Perry repeatedly asked for an attorney as detectives slowly got to the point of the meeting.

“You are the prime suspect in not just one murder, but several,” Dresback told her.

“You are accusing me of murder? Of who?” she asked.

Dresback said he couldn’t answer. “It’s more than 20 years old. Are you doing the math in your head?”

“It has completely exploded,” Perry responded.

After questioning her for some time, the detectives left Perry in the room alone. They returned and convinced her to sign a Miranda rights card to show that she waived her right to an attorney and would talk to them.

Then the aggressive questioning, in which the detectives told Perry she was lying more than 60 times, recommenced.

Dresback handed her a series of photographs that included a dozen known prostitutes from 1990, and the pictures of Yolanda A. Sapp, Brisbois and Nickie I. Lowe. All three were found shot to death and discarded over the bank of the Spokane River within about a month of each other.

The photographs also included another prostitute, Clairann Gallaway, who was living with Perry at the time. Dresback testified that without medication, Gallaway had as many as 32 different personalities.

“Clair is the only one I know,” Perry said. “These other gals, I never met.”

Dresback asked Perry: “Could it be you did something like this and not remember?”

“God I hope not,” she responded.

Dresback cited Perry’s religion and the emotions of the victims’ families as he prodded her for more information.

“These families have to live with this. You are the person who can give something back to them,” he said. “Donna, you know what happened.”

“I did not kill those people,” Perry said.

“Doug did,” Burbridge shot back, citing Perry’s former identity.

“As far as I know, Doug didn’t kill them either,” Perry replied.

Perry later said she sought out the sex reassignment “as a permanent way to control my violence.” But she also said she sought the surgery because she felt more comfortable as a woman.

“I liked being a woman. I like staying by myself,” she said. “I like the cats.”

The homicide investigations went cold for decades until Perry submitted a DNA sample in 2012 as the result of her latest conviction as a felon in possession of a firearm. She said she has no love for guns, but she often seeks them out because of her paranoia.

Asked how her DNA ended up on or near two of the victims, Perry said she didn’t know.

“It probably was a date. I have no recollection of killing these women,” she said. “I don’t even remember these people.”

Burbridge, who promised to tear her former house apart and find evidence that he never located, said the detectives weren’t kidding about the strength of their case.

“ ‘Somebody put my DNA on hookers and killed them.’ That’s going to be your defense at trial?” Burbridge said. “Can Donna make up for what Doug did?”

Perry fired back, crying and yelling that she hadn’t killed anyone.

Perry said the prospect of spending more time in jail made her want to take her own life.

“I don’t know what you deserve,” Dresback said, “but I know you can make this better.”

“They are going to put me in prison for the rest of my life,” she said. “I guess not.”

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