On March 1, 1975, in Vicennes, Indiana, twenty-three year old Sherry Gibson was abducted, raped, stabbed, and left to die in a burning farmhouse. Her boyfriend, who witnessed the kidnapping, said that she was abducted by a man and a woman. Three years later, seventeen-year-old Johnny Jeffers told authorities that he, along with a male accomplice, committed these crimes.
Police initially identified Jeffers as a suspect in late 1977 when a fellow inmate at the Indiana Boys School claimed Jeffers had boasted of committing the crime.
In 1978, Jeffers confessed to investigators that he was the murderer. Jeffers’ initial confession in 1978 was inconsistent with known facts, but his story evolved over time to better match the facts, as he picked up clues from news reports and drew inferences from the questions of the investigators.
Jeffers claimed that a second man, Ken Shaner, was his accomplice. Despite this inconsistency with the eyewitness account of the victim’s boyfriend, the authorities concluded that they had sufficient evidence to charge both Jeffers and Shaner.
Charges against Shaner were ultimately dismissed, but Shaner was jailed for nine months before Jeffers recanted both his own confession of guilt and his assertion of Shaner’s participation in the crime. Jeffers himself eventually pled guilty to a murder he had never committed in exchange for dismissal of the rape and kidnapping charges pending against him. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
In 1983, five years into his thirty year sentence, Jeffers died of a drug overdose.
In November of 2001, the actual rapist and murderer, Wayne Gulley, was identified to authorities by Ella Mae Dicks, Gulley’s accomplice and ex-wife, who confessed they had committed the crime twenty six years earlier “for a thrill.”
On October 10, 2003, Wayne Gulley was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering Sherry Gibson after a trial at which the state acknowledged what had become obvious: that Johnny Jeffers had no part in these crimes.
Why did Jeffers confess to a heinous crime that he did not commit? According to his mother, it was because Johnny “always had to be the center of attention.” Why was he prosecuted (and the real criminals left at large) despite the obvious inconsistencies and errors in his confession? In the words of the Indiana state police sergeant who revived the investigation upon Dicks’ confession, “when a guy stands up and says, ‘I did it,’ that’s good enough for some people.”