Wrongful conviction case draws national attention
by Carol Thompson
A Brady hearing is underway in a small upstate community that has gained national media attention, including Dateline.
On Easter Sunday 1994, 18 year old Heidi Allen vanished without a trace from the D&W Convenience Store located in New Haven, New York, a small, tightknit community located less than an hour from Syracuse. Following an exhaustive search she nor any clues to her whereabouts were ever found.
Despite any real lack of evidence, brothers Richard and Gary Thibodeau were charged with kidnapping the teenager. Richard Thibodeau had stopped at the store shortly before Allen was reported missing and purchased two packs of cigarettes. Upon learning of the cashier’s disappearance, he notified local authorities, which purportedly made him a suspect and was later alleged that he and his brother acted together.
Following a jury trial, Richard Thibodeau was found not guilty and in a separate subsequent trial Gary Thibodeau was found guilty, something that many in the community couldn’t understand.
Last year, federal prosecutor Lisa Peebles came upon new evidence in the case and she is determined that Gary Thibodeau is innocent and has been wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Thibodeau has maintained his innocence.
In the motion to vacate Thibodeau’s conviction, Peebles cited the new evidence falls under the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense.
That evidence included proof that Allen was acting as a confidential drug informant for the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department. At the time Allen was acting as an informant, she would have been 15 or 16 years old. According to documents obtained by Peebles, Allen’s parents gave permission for her to be an informant.
The information was never passed to Thibodeau’s defense lawyer, Joseph Fahey, who is now an Onondaga County, NY court judge.
It was later learned that an index card containing Allen’s personal information and picture used to identify her as a confidential informant was lost in the parking lot of the D&W Convenience Store by a sheriff’s deputy, the same store Allen was taken from.
Peebles argues that this information falls under the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense.
The new evidence surfaced when former Oswego County resident Tonya Priest came forward with information pertinent to the case. Priest, who now lives out of state, was flown to the county as a witness in the hearing, however, her testimony was cancelled.
Three men– James “Thumper” Steen, Roger Breckenridge and Michael Bohrer– are new suspects in the case. Steen is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his estranged wife and her boyfriend.
Thus far, the hearing has been drama-filled with Peebles complaining that District Attorney Gregory Oakes turned over massive amounts of documents at 5:10 pm, the Friday before the Monday hearing commencement.
Also scheduled to testify is Sheriff Reuel Todd who was the undersheriff at the time of the kidnapping. Some allege that he mishandled the case.
The case is being heard by Judge Dan King of Lewis County, NY. King said if all testimony isn’t heard by Friday, January 16 that he would adjourn the hearing for two weeks.
Image: Gary Walts/Syracuse.com/Gary Thibodeau in court this week.