Search for Justice: New Evidence May Free Convicted Kidnapper
(Story by Carol Thompson) 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. Not long after, someone went into the store and no one was in there. The customer left money on the counter and flagged down a sheriff deputy who happened to be driving by.
A purported witness gave varying accounts of what he had seen as he drove by the store that morning. Court papers to vacate the Thibodeau’s sentence, filed late last month, state, “In his various accounts, Christopher Bivens claimed to have left his house in Oswego at either 7:30 a.m. or between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., to have driven east on Route 104 past the D&W at a speed of at least 30 (and as many as 45) miles per hour, and to have seen either a blue Chevy or Dodge van (that either did or did not belong to Richard Thibodeau) or a pickup truck in the parking lot of the store, near individuals who were either merely arguing or who were actively abducting Allen with one strong and husky white male restraining a white female (who he once claimed to know was Heidi Allen and at other times claimed merely to believe could have been Allen) in a bear hug as another strong, husky white male stood nearby.”
Neither Thibodeau would be described as strong and husky. At that time Richard Thibodeau drove a white van, not blue, as Bivens had testified and investigators found no trace of Allen in the vehicle. Gary Thibodeau had voluntarily taken a polygraph test and passed. Investigators concluded that Richard and Gary Thibodeau had been together and had abducted Allen.
Richard Thibodeau was acquitted in a jury trial in 1995. Not long after, a separate jury convicted Gary Thibodeau of kidnapping based on the alleged statements of two jailhouse inmates who claimed Thibodeau had relayed to them information about the kidnapping. He has been imprisoned since that time and has maintained his innocence. In letters to friends and family, he signs them “Gary ‘the innocent’ Thibodeau.”
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.
Among the new evidence are witness statements from persons who claim that, over the years, a man named James Steen had told them that he abducted Allen, dismembered her body and hid her remains under a cabin floor in a thickly wooded area.
Steen is in prison, serving a life sentence for the 2010 murder of his estranged wife and her boyfriend. He has recently denied involvement.
Also among the new evidence is compelling information that was withheld during both Richard and Gary Thibodeau’s trials. Peebles has proof that Allen was working as a confidential drug informant for the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department sometime in 1991 or 1992. The information was never passed to Thibodeau’s defense lawyer, Joseph Fahey, who is now an Onondaga County, NY court judge. Fahey’s affidavit is included in the court filing.
In the motion to vacate Thibodeau’s conviction, Peebles cited the informant information fell under the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense.
Allen’s uncle, a town justice at the time, reportedly told someone at the Sheriff’s Department that Allen had information in regard to drug distribution.
According to exhibits filed, sometime in 1991 or 1992 then-Deputy Christopher Van Patten, along with another officer, spoke with Heidi Allen and her parents, at which time Van Patten took down Allen’s personal information and photographed her.
Sometime after that, Van Patten stopped at the D&W Convenience Store and used a phone booth. He claims he dropped the photograph and the index card with all of Allen’s personal information in the parking lot.
The index card and photograph were later retrieved when another officer on routine patrol stopped into the store and was given the items by an employee. Van Patten could not put a date on when he lost the card. The officer who retrieved the card and photograph gave a timeframe of late 1991 or early 1992.
In pre-trial hearings, Oswego County Judge John Brandt directed the district attorney to disclose to the Thibodeaus’ lawyers all information about Allen’s possible activities as an informant.
At that time, then-Undersheriff Reuel Todd, who is now the sheriff, said that the sheriff’s office had no formal “confidential informant” file on Allen because Allen was not really an informant.
Allen’s family members also said at that time that they had no knowledge of their daughter being and informant.
Following Allen’s abduction, Van Patten said he could not recall working with Allen as an informant, yet he recalled the details of the day he met with her and her parents and also recalled dropping the index card and photograph in the parking lot of the convenience store.
It is unknown if the disclosure of Allen’s identity as a confidential drug informant was reported to Allen or her parents and it is unknown if the Sheriff’s Department provided Allen with protection.
Allen had attended a local Catholic school and excelled in sports. It was reported that she lived with her grandmother, who lived nearby her parents’ home.
Sheriff Todd, who is friends with the Allen family, maintains the right person is behind bars.
(Crime Scene Tape Photo: Flickr | Ariane Middel)