Wednesday, October 5, 2016

“Let’s Convict Him and Get It Over With”: The Framing of Lanny Smith

A picturesque landmark in a troubled county: The Idaho Falls LDS Temple

James Swogger
was a terrified 25-year-old awaiting trial on a charge of sexual misconduct with a child when
he contacted Detective Victor Rodriguez of the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office with an offer to testify against a former cellmate, Idaho Falls resident Lanny Smith. Rodriguez headed the investigation into the murder of Leo and Mary Downard, an elderly couple who lived next door to Lanny, a mentally handicapped 24-year-old man with no prior criminal record or known penchant for violence. 

Swogger had been arrested before on relatively minor charges, but he now faced the prospect of a lengthy prison term. In his cell at Burley’s Mini-Cassia Jail, Swogger told Rodriguez and Bonneville County Prosecutor Tom Moss that in exchange for “considerations,” he was willing to testify that Lanny Smith had confessed to the murders, thereby supplying the prosecution with a piece of evidence it otherwise couldn’t find. 

The Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office had originally arrested Lanny’s adopted brother, Jeffrey Lynn Smith, as a suspect in the murder. Jeff, as he was commonly known, had a lengthy history of violent crime, including rape, kidnapping, theft, and several documented murder threats. The charges against Jeff were quickly dropped, however, leaving the BCSO without a credible suspect. 
Former Bonneville County DA -- and Federal Prosecutor -- Moss.
No physical evidence connected Lanny Smith to the murders, and he had no known motive to murder a couple he regarded as friends. For reasons that remain elusive, Rodriguez devised a bizarre theory that Lanny was sexually attracted to elderly, heavy-set women like Mary, and that this fixation eventually found expression in murderous jealousy after Mrs. Downard rebuffed the younger man’s attentions. 

The detective was able to recruit a neighbor named Beverly Huffaker who was willing to share gossipy speculation under oath, and testify that on the night of the murder Lanny was distraught over “something bad” that had happened to the Downards. She was not a direct witness to the killing, however, nor did Lanny make a confession to her. Huffaker’s recollection of an anguished conversation on the night of the murder would later be impeached in court. She claimed that it happened just after she and her son had returned to Idaho from a trip to Nevada that actually happened six weeks prior to the killings. 

Roughly two years had passed by the time Swogger contacted Det. Rodriguez. He had read about the Downard murders in the newspapers, and discussed the case with both Lanny and his sister Viki. 

“I took what he [Lanny] had told me and kinda turned it as if he was confessing instead of someone who was confiding in me and was scared,” Swogger would later explain. “He just kinda broke down because they were accusing him.” Lanny was heartsick over what had been done to his friends, and horrified by the prospect of a life sentence or perhaps the death penalty – but he never confessed to his cellmate. 

This didn’t trouble Rodriguez and his comrades, Swogger recalled. For his part, the prisoner – accused of molesting his daughter – was willing to say anything expected of him in exchange for promises of protection.  Convicted child molesters are particularly vulnerable targets in the Regime’s rape academy, and Swogger was both a “short eyes” and a snitch.
Ironically appropriate floor design at the Bonneville Co. Courthouse.
During Swogger’s subsequent visit with Detective Rodriguez and deputy prosecutor Jay Rosenthal, they reconfigured his story by “basically leading me through what they wanted me to say. I had several conversations from the prison afterwards and I think one before they took me down to Idaho Falls telling me not to worry [and] that you will be safe....”

“After I had originally talked to Victor [Rodriguez] and [Tom] Moss, that is when I told them … I wanted to get out of it, and they said no. If you back out now, we will prosecute you along with Lanny.” The detective and county prosecutor warned Swogger that “if I didn’t go through with it [perjuring himself on the witness stand], and not cooperating, and that I knew about this capital murder case and basically told me that if I don’t go through with it, I was through.”

This tactic -- "solving" a murder by using a combination of threats and promises to elicit perjury -- could be called the "Chris Tapp Interrogation Strategy," and it seems to be something of a Bonneville County law enforcement tradition. Unlike the hapless Chris Tapp, however, Swogger was able to tag someone else before the game ended, and there was enough residual decency in him to make him regret what he did.

“I was young and scared and if I knew then what I know now, I would have said to find someone else and do what you need to do,” Swogger disclosed in a lengthy September 12, 2011 statement to Elisa Massoth, the attorney representing Lanny Smith in his ongoing federal appeal. Unlike his jailhouse conversations with Det. Rodriguez and the prosecuting attorneys, Swogger had nothing to gain by speaking with Massoth, apart from reclaiming a measure of self-respect. 

Swogger had returned to his native Oregon, remarried, and was trying to build something akin to a normal life. As he pointed out to Massoth, by speaking out he left himself vulnerable to potential reprisals. There is no evidence that his subsequent conviction on drug and theft charges was the result of official retaliation – nor does it invalidate his admissions against interest in 2011.
A stolen life: Lanny Smith in court.
“I was trying to make things better for myself and not considering someone else’s life,” Swogger lamented.  “I know what it is like to be in a prison and having to live with that as a result of self-centeredness and selfishness,” Swogger elaborated, acknowledging that he had been punished for “the sexual assault on my daughter.” Now he was out of prison, he wanted to make restitution to an innocent man whom he had helped put there “for no apparent reason.”

“I cannot imagine Lanny and what he is going through [after] being convicted for something he never did,” Swogger explained to Massoth. “I really want my integrity all intact. I want some integrity in doing this.” 

Swogger’s years of incarceration had left him with a functioning conscience burdened with the knowledge of what he had done to Lanny Smith. The same isn’t true of former Detective Rodriguez, who is now drawing a tax-plundered pension after retiring from the Nampa Police Department He currently serves on that city’s planning and zoning commission and is occasionally called on by the media to offer “expert” justification for controversial fatal police shootings

“James who?” Rodriguez asked by way of a reply to a question about Swogger during a May 2010 deposition. A moment later the former detective dimly recalled that “I know that he testified in trial – I think he was in a cell with him, with Lanny, I believe, but I don’t know how we elicited his information or if we did.”
Untroubled conscience: Rodriguez.
Rodriguez didn’t respond to a recent email seeking a response to Swogger’s disclosures. He may soon be required to respond to them under oath. On August 23, a habeas corpus petition was filed on behalf of Lanny Smith that describes, at some length and in great detail, the suppression of exculpatory evidence during his 1995 trial, the chaotic chain-of-custody regarding that evidence, the use of speculative and unreliable “expert” testimony regarding a solitary shoeprint found at the murder scene, and several other due process violations.

Among the major topics in that petition is the bizarre solicitude shown by Rodriguez and the prosecution toward original murder suspect Jeff Smith, a habitual violent criminal who terrorized nearly everybody in his family -- including his ex-wives, the first of whom was forced to marry him against her will at age 15 after he impregnated her through rape.

In a 2011 letter to Lanny Smith, Julie Woodall – formerly Julie Smith – recalled an incident from 1986 in which Lanny intervened to protect his brother from beating, and perhaps killing, his ex-wife.

“I looked out the window and saw you running up to my front door with your brother, Jeff, right behind you,” Woodall wrote. “I saw you stand in front of my door when Jeff caught you, pushed you in front of my window and began beating you viciously…. I will always remember … that you tried your best to keep me from being hurt by your brother, all at the cost of being assaulted yourself. I have always been touched by the fact that you were willing to do this, even though you didn’t even know who I was.”

The man who took that beating is now in prison, convicted of a double-murder most likely committed by the man who assaulted him – and who was later called as a prosecution witness at the trial. Julie Woodall, the woman who was saved from that beating, reported more than a half-dozen crimes of violence committed against her by that witness. She was not called to testify at Lanny’s trial.

Viki Smith, Lanny’s biological sister and sister to Jeff by adoption, was likewise not called as a witness during Lanny’s trial, or during his post-conviction hearing. In a subsequent affidavit she testified that Jeff had been “sexually inappropriate” with her as a teenager, and that he attempted to rape her when she was 16 years old.

Lanny, by her account, was entirely unlike Jeff, a “kind, caring, gentle and soft-spoken” young man who “would always come to the defense of others.” This included, as mentioned previously, Lanny’s ex-sister-in-law, Julie. Contrary to the prosecution’s insinuations about a deviant sexual preoccupation with elderly women, Lanny had “crushes on my friends that were my age,” Viki recounted.

Like nearly everybody else who knew Lanny and Jeff, Viki Smith was perplexed by the BCSO’s determination to see Lanny prosecuted for the Downard murders.

“Victor Rodriguez, the primary investigating detective in Lanny’s case, hounded me and hounded me to make a statement,” Viki declares in her affidavit. “Victor Rodriguez told me that Lanny would go down for the Donward murders no matter what anyone said or did.”
Jeff Smith’s second ex-wife, Robbin, likewise described Lanny as “the opposite of Jeff Smith.” As had happened with Jeff’s first wife, Lanny became aware that Robbin was being abused and tried to help and protect he when he could. This didn’t prevent Jeff from repeatedly threatening to murder Robbin. This included several explicit threats made during Lanny’s trial that should have led to charges of witness intimidation – if Lanny’s defense attorney had the presence of mind to call Robbin as a witness.

Detective Rodriguez, who perjured himself on the witness stand during the trial by claiming that Jeff Smith was no longer considered a threat, was aware of the fact that Smith was abusing and threatening his wife.
Predatory psychopath: Jeff Smith
“In late June 1995, I witnessed an argument between Jeff and Robyn [sic] Smith,” testified former co-worker Heidi Libert in a 2004 affidavit. “Jeff had asked Robyn for her paycheck, supposedly to pay the bills. Robyn knew that he would not pay the bills, so she refused to give him the paycheck…. Jeff then slapped her on the face and said `You will pay for this.’”
“I advised Robyn to call the police, but she told me that the police would not believe her,” Liebert continued (emphasis added). 

Concerned that her husband would kill her, Liebert urged Robyn to divorce him “because of the abuse she was going through.” Eventually Jeff learned of that advice and “came to my residence and threatened me. He told me that `if you ever tell my wife [Robyn] to divorce me, I will kill you and your husband.’”

Leibert’s husband confronted Smith and ordered him to leave. Understandably concerned, they called the sheriff’s office to report the threat.

That call was routed to Det. Rodriguez.

Not content to ignore Jeff Smith’s ongoing crime rampage, Det. Rodriguez and Tom Moss (who a few years later was appointed by George W. Bush to be US Attorney for Idaho) actively protected him after he had offered what was tantamount to a confession before the grand jury.
The only scrap of potentially useful physical evidence at the murder scene was a shoeprint left on the dusty hardwood floor of the Downards’ master bedroom. Rodriguez photographed the print, but did so at an angle, and neglected to place a ruler next to it in order to define its size. 

After bungling what should have been a rudimentary crime scene investigation, Rodriguez sought out a mathematician employed by the Idaho Nuclear Energy Laboratory, who devised an exotic computer program that supposedly corrected the distortions in the image and found that the print had been made with a size eight and a half “Footjoy” tennis shoe.

Both Lanny and Jeff owned Footjoy shoes that were seized as evidence. Lanny’s shoes were reportedly size eight and a half, but they were disassembled by police investigators prior to the grand jury hearing. When called to testify, Jeff Smith stated four times under oath that “I usually wear an eight and a half” and that to the best of his knowledge, Lanny’s shoes were a size nine and a half.

According to the prosecution’s theory of the case, Jeff Smith was admitting that he was the one who left the incriminating shoe print at the scene of the murder.

A brief recess was called, during which Rodriguez held a brief, furtive conference with Jeff. When the hearing resumed, Bonneville County Prosecutor Tom Moss asked four additional questions about Jeff Smith’s shoes – and in reply to each of those questions, Smith invoked the Fifth Amendment.

If the State’s expert witness was correct, Jeff Smith had identified himself as the murderer. Yet the BCSO and the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office remained perversely determined to prosecute Jeff’s mentally challenged and apparently benevolent adopted brother for the crime.

James Swogger knew the participants in what was a conspiracy to obstruct justice by protecting a murderer and framing an innocent man. He had played a key role in that conspiracy himself. In his 2011 statement to Elisa Massoth, Swogger said that the attitude of his co-conspirators was, “We found somebody, let’s convict him and get it over with.”

To his credit, Swogger – notwithstanding his admitted acts of criminal indecency – is trying to make amends for his crimes against Lanny Smith. Tragically, neither retired Detective Rodriguez, nor his former colleagues in Bonneville County, can summon the strength of character displayed by an admitted child molester.

 Listen to Carol Dodge, mother of Idaho Falls murder victim Angie Dodge, describe how the IFPD has impeded her efforts to find the killer -- on this week's Freedom Zealot Podcast:

Dum spiro, pugno!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe the court house floor design is a Native American (as odd as it may seem) sign for peace. They appear throughout the West. Originally the symbol (a "swastika") first appeared in India. At least that is my understanding.