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Christopher Allen

Other Indiana Cases
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On the morning of August 25, 1990, three employees were found shot to death in an Osco Drug Store in South Bend, Indiana. Scott Dick, the 29-year-old assistant manager, who had been the first to arrive to open up the store, was shot in the head. Also killed were Tracy Holvoet, a 24-year-old pharmacist, and 43-year-old Connie Zalewski, a store clerk.

The crime was discovered when an Osco employee, Cheryl Jackson, arrived for work just after 8 a.m. and could not get in because the front doors were still locked. That was unusual because typically the first employee arrived around 7:30 a.m., shut off the burglar alarm, and unlocked the front doors for employees to come in even though the store was not yet open for business.

Minutes later, another Osco employee, Bernadette Claffey, arrived and noticed that Dick’s car was parked near the entrance rather than in its usual location. At 8:18 a.m., Claffey and Jackson walked to the back of the store and discovered the rear service doors were open and the alarm was sounding. The two women notified police, who arrived at 8:20 a.m. and found the three bodies in the rear of the store.

An audit revealed that $6,421 in cash was missing from the store safe. Next to Dick’s body was a bloody note that said, “white man armor car uniform & badge.”

Almost immediately, police focused on 27-year-old Christopher Allen, who had been manager of the store until several months earlier. Allen resigned on March 16, 1990 after he was accused of stealing cash, making long distance telephone calls on the company telephone and over-billing for rental equipment. The total loss was $5,400, but Allen had made full restitution. When Allen left, his keys were confiscated and the locks on the store safe were changed.

On September 11, 1990, police stopped Allen near his home in Indianapolis and questioned him. They also questioned Allen’s wife, Sharries Garrett, at her work place. They both said he was at home during the night and early morning hours of August 24-25 and that they attended a picnic in Indianapolis during the afternoon of August 25.

Jody Rannells reported to police that at about 8:17 a.m. on the morning of the crime, she was driving to a hair appointment in nearby Mishawaka and saw a two-door Ford Taurus car rapidly approach an intersection and do a “fast roll-through” in front of her. She said the driver was a black man in his twenties with short hair. Rannells was shown a photo lineup and selected the picture of Allen as the man she saw in the car, although she said she only had about three seconds to view him. Despite the identification, police had some doubt as to its accuracy because the intersection was not on a direct route from South Bend to Indianapolis, where Allen lived, and because Ford never manufactured a two-door Taurus.

Amy Avery, another Osco employee, told police she arrived at the store at about 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the murders and caught a glimpse of a man inside the store she thought might have been Allen. However, six days later, she told police she really did not know who she saw. Years later, when Allen was charged with the murders, Avery told police that Allen was not the man she saw in the store.

Detectives offered a $100,000 reward to Allen’s wife if she would implicate him—particularly after the couple divorced in 1991—but she always maintained that Allen was home during the night before and morning of the crime.

Police continued to pursue Allen as a suspect. South Bend police detective Michael Swanson repeatedly left his business card on Allen’s car and paid visits to Allen’s home and place of work in Indianapolis. In December 1990, Swanson anonymously sent Allen a Christmas card that contained a typewritten message: “FROM ALL YOUR FRIENDS AT OSCO’S PAST, PRESENT AND DECEASED. HAVE A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND…WE ALL HOPE TO SEE YOU BACK HERE IN SOUTH BEND REAL SOON.”

In November 1991, when the investigation was substantially complete, the chief of South Bend urged St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Barnes to “charge the case” and arrest Allen. Barnes declined, saying that there was conflicting evidence and to obtain arrest warrant, he would have to omit certain facts and circumstances and he could “not ethically do that.”

Five years later, in 1996, Christopher Toth, attorney for Phyllis and Maurice Holvoet, parents of the slain pharmacist Tracy Holvoet, filed a lawsuit seeking to force Barnes to either have the case assigned to a special prosecutor or to have the case presented to a grand jury. The lawsuit sought to force Barnes to turn over the entire investigative file. Barnes refused, and both the trial court and an appellate court rebuffed the lawsuit.

Thereafter, in 1998, Toth ran for election for St. Joseph County Prosecutor primarily basing his campaign on a promise to “prosecute the Osco Murders.” He was elected and took office on January 1, 1999. In November 1999, a grand jury indicted Allen on three counts of first-degree murder and robbery and Allen was arrested.

In April 2000, a judge dismissed the indictment because the prosecution had failed to notify Allen that the grand jury was hearing evidence and as a result, Allen did not have an opportunity to testify before the grand jury. However, before Allen could be released from custody, Toth refiled the charges based on a sworn affidavit of probable cause signed by Michael Swanson, who had been hired by Toth as commander of the Special Crimes Unit.

After Allen’s defense attorney, Kevin McGoff, claimed that Toth had a conflict of interest, two prosecutors from Allen County were named as special prosecutors. In addition, the case was moved about 160 miles downstate to New Castle, Indiana, in Henry County, due to all of the media publicity over the years.

Allen went to trial the first time in June 2001 and a mistrial was declared when the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

The second trial began on June 12, 2002. The prosecution presented the testimony of Rannells, who said she saw Allen, wide-eyed as if in a panic, speed through the intersection in front of her.

Amy Avery, the store employee who initially said she thought she saw Allen in the store shortly after 8 a.m., but later told police the man she saw wasn’t Allen after all, now testified that in fact she did see Allen in the store. She blamed her confusion on seeing an outdated photograph of Allen in the newspaper when Allen was arrested.

Other store employees testified about the circumstances of Allen’s resignation after he was caught embezzling. Detectives testified that they compared 198 footprints lifted from the crime scene with Allen’s shoes, but there were no matches. Of the 237 fingerprints lifted from doors in the store, two of them were said to be Allen’s. In addition, a partial palm print found on the rear door’s crash bar was said to be Allen’s, although an FBI analyst who did the comparison testified that he could not state whether the prints had been there for “five months, five minutes or five years.”

The defense pointed out that Allen’s prints were not found on the safe, the front doors, or an iron bar used to secure the rear doors, which was found on the floor.

Jurors were shown the bloody note found next to Dick, the assistant store manager. Bonnie Beal of the Indiana State Police laboratory testified that it was “less than probable” that Allen had written the note, although she claimed it was possible that he could have written the words “white man” on the note. Several Osco employees testified that they were familiar with Allen’s handwriting and that portions of the note looked like Allen’s handwriting.

The defense presented a handwriting expert who testified that it was “very unlikely that Mr. Allen…was responsible for writing any portion of the questioned bloodied note.”

The defense sought to introduce testimony from an accident reconstruction expert who performed several tests, all of which were videotaped, to assess the likelihood that Rannells could have made an accurate identification of the man she saw drive rapidly through the intersection on the morning of the crime. The expert, William Lumpkin, concluded that Rannells rapidly slowed down to avoid the crossing car and the rapid deceleration prevented her from making an accurate observation. Lumpkin concluded that at no time was the driver of the crossing car (whom Rannells said was Allen) “clearly visible, discernable or recognizable.”

The trial judge granted the prosecution’s objection to prohibit the expert from testifying.

The defense also called Curtis Crenshaw, an inmate at the Wabash County Correctional Facility, who testified at a hearing held outside of the jury’s presence. Crenshaw invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when he was asked if he was inside the Osco on the day of the murders, if he ever told Steven Bethel, another incarcerated inmate, that he was involved in the robbery and murders and if he had ever been in the Osco prior to the murders.

Bethel was then called to testify—also outside the jury’s presence. When asked what had happened at the Osco, he said, “I know that he didn’t do it, Allen. I know for sure of that.”

Bethel testified that he and Crenshaw went to the Osco several days before the murders. Crenshaw checked out the store while Bethel stayed by the front doors and bought some gum from a machine. Bethel said that they both looked at the back doors and that Crenshaw said it would be “an easy spot because it’s hidden like…it’s basically got buildings beside it. It’s like in the blind somewhat, if it’s at the right time.”

On the morning of the murders, Bethel said he was outside his sister’s home only a few blocks from Osco when Crenshaw approached on foot from the direction of the store. Bethel said he couldn’t remember the time, but that “the city buses had started running.”

Bethel said that Crenshaw told him “he had just got some money and some people got hurt and got killed in it, and he had to—he couldn’t tell me everything. He had to talk to me later on.”

Bethel said he learned about the murders by from the news media later that morning. That evening, Bethel said Crenshaw told him “it was a situation gone bad…three people ended up dead because of the robbery and they really didn’t need to end up dead.”

Bethel further testified that he offered to buy a handgun from Crenshaw, but Crenshaw refused to sell it, saying that “the gun was dirty” and that he “needed to get rid of it” because it had “bodies attached to it.” Bethel said he saw Crenshaw toss the gun into a river.

The trial court ruled that Crenshaw was an unavailable witness and that Bethel could testify before the jury. However, when the jury was brought into the courtroom and Bethel was asked to recount what Crenshaw told him on the morning of the murders, Bethel balked. He said that he was concerned that answering would put his life “in danger.”

The judge then halted the testimony and ruled that Bethel was refusing “to cooperate with the query being put to him by defense counsel.” The judge ordered Bethel’s limited testimony before the jury to be stricken and ordered the jury to disregard it.

The defense then requested that Bethel’s testimony outside of the jury’s presence be admitted into evidence. The prosecution objected and the judge excluded the testimony.

Allen testified on his own behalf and said he went fishing on August 24, the day before the murders. He said he returned to his home in Indianapolis and went to bed around 2 or 3 a.m. on August 25. His wife, Sharries, came to bed around 4:30 a.m. A family friend, Geraldine Blakely, testified that she called the residence at 8 a.m. and talked to Allen’s wife about going to the picnic that morning.

Nancy Harris, who was in the house when Blakely called, testified that Allen was in the house at the time of the call. Blakely video-taped part of the picnic and it showed Allen and his wife at the event.

On June 22, 2002, the jury convicted Allen of three counts of first-degree murder and robbery. He was sentenced to 144 years in prison.

On August 9, 2004, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The appeals court held that the defense should have been allowed to present the testimony of Bethel that he gave outside the presence of the jury as well as the testimony of Lumpkin, the expert who performed the tests challenging Rannells’ identification of the man in the crossing car as Allen.

The court concluded “that the trial court committed reversible error in excluding Bethel’s testimony that was exculpatory and vital to Allen’s defense. We also find that it was error to exclude the reconstructive evidence and testimony from Lumpkin.”

On November 17, 2004, Allen was released on bond pending a retrial. In June 2006, Allen went to trial for a third time. In an unusual procedure, Bethel gave his testimony—and was questioned by the judge, the defense and the prosecution—in the judge’s chambers, outside the presence of the jury. The session was recorded and later played for the jury. On July 20, 2006, a mistrial was declared after the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

On December 20, 2006, the prosecution dismissed the charges. No one else was ever charged with the murders.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/9/2016
State:Indiana
County:St. Joseph
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1990
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2006
Sentence:144 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:27
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No