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Ryan Matthews

Other Louisiana DNA Exonerations
At about 6:30 p.m. on April 5, 1997, a gunman shot 43-year-old Tommy Vanhoose in the office of his store, Comeaux’s Grocery at 1700 Bridge City Avenue in Bridge City, Louisiana. Two store employees, Sheree Falgout and Anthony Garabold, told police that when they saw a man put a gun to Vanhoose’s head and demand money, they ran out. They heard gunshots while they were outside. Falgout ran to a nearby house to call 911.

At about that time, Edward Falgout and his wife, Gloria, pulled up in a car to stop and buy a lottery ticket. He saw the employees run out and then saw a person wearing a ski mask and a checkered flannel shirt emerge carrying a silver revolver. The gunman fired a single shot. Gloria said the man was a Black male.

Terrance Czop was standing outside of a nearby bar that evening when he heard gunshots and saw Garabold running towards the bar yelling, “Call 911.” Czop saw a rust-colored Ford LTD, with one person inside, pull from 11th Street onto Bridge City Avenue at a high rate of speed. Czop went to Comeaux's, found Vanhoose lying face down in the back office, and performed CPR. Vanhoose died. A nine-millimeter pistol was found under his body.

The store employees said the shooter was Black, wore a dark-colored shirt, and was 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 6 inches tall.

Brent Cheramie and his cousin, Dale Blanchard, were in a car turning onto 11th Street from Bridge City Avenue when they saw a person wearing a flannel shirt, gloves, and a ski mask running from the direction of Comeaux's to a car parked on 11th Street. The person was carrying a nickel-plated gun that he shot at them before he jumped through the passenger window of the waiting car, which they described as a gray Chevrolet Monte Carlo or Pontiac Grand Prix. Cheramie said he saw the gunman's face when he took off the ski mask and flannel shirt in the car.

When the gray vehicle sped up behind them on 11th Street, Cheramie would not let it pass. Cheramie saw the flannel shirt, ski mask, and gloves tossed from the car. When the two vehicles reached the end of the street, Cheramie went left onto River Road, and the other vehicle went right. After Cheramie dropped his cousin off at Comeaux's, he tried to catch the vehicle. When he could not, he returned to 11th Street to retrieve the articles thrown from the car. Cheramie returned with a ski mask, flannel shirt, and a glove.

Police drove Cheramie and Blanchard to the police station where, after looking at photographs of makes and models of cars, they said the getaway car looked like a 1985 Monte Carlo or older model Ford LTD. Police sent out a bulletin of the car’s description. At 10:20 p.m. that same night Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s officer Thomas Bryson stopped a primer gray 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix in Gretna, Louisiana, because it resembled the description of the getaway car, neither occupant was wearing a seat belt, and the inspection sticker was expired. The driver identified himself as 17-year-old Travis Hayes, and the passenger said he was Damien Johnson, who was later identified as 17-year-old Ryan Matthews.

In contrast to the initial descriptions, Matthews was 5 feet 9 inches tall, and Hayes was 6 feet tall.

Police took Blanchard and Cheramie to the scene, and both identified the car as the one they saw fleeing the shooting. Cheramie identified Johnson as the gunman. Neither witness identified Hayes.

At about 11:00 p.m., police took the two suspects to the station, photographed them, and created photographic lineups. Several witnesses viewed the lineups, and no one was positively identified. Police then began interrogating them.

Over the course of several hours, Hayes gave four statements.

The first taped statement began at 11:45 p.m. Hayes said that he had left his house at around 3:30 p.m. to pick up his mother from work. He explained that he dropped his mother off at his sister's house in Terrytown. He claimed that he rode around Marrero, Louisiana, and Gretna, Louisiana, and later visited some friends named Buzz and Brian. He said that around 9:00 p.m., he picked up his brother-in-law and brought him to work at West Jefferson Hospital. After leaving the hospital, he ran into his aunt and her boyfriend who were walking down Ames Street. According to Hayes, he spoke to them about his passenger window not working—that it could not be lowered. He said he had picked up Johnson who was walking down the street and that he had only known him for a couple of days. Soon after picking up Johnson, they were stopped by the police.

The second statement began at 1:05 a.m. on April 6, 1997. In this statement, Hayes said that he picked up his mother at 3:30 p.m. on April 5, 1997, and brought her to his sister's house. He said he then was with Buzz and Brian around 6:00 or 6:15 p.m. when the sun was going down, before going back to his sister’s home at 7 p.m. He picked up his mother and took her home. He explained that he then went joy-riding until 8:45 p.m. when he picked up Johnson. Hayes said that he and Damien picked up his brother-in-law. He said they stopped and talked to his aunt, Barbara Allen, and her boyfriend, Joe, about the broken passenger window because Joe worked on cars. He said had only known Johnson for a couple of days.

After the second statement, Hayes was given a polygraph examination. Police told him he failed. Subsequently, Hayes gave the third taped statement, which began at 4:58 a.m. on April 6, 1997. In the third statement, Hayes referred to the passenger as Ryan Matthews. He said that he and Matthews had picked up his mother at 3:30 p.m. on April 5, 1997, and brought her to his sister's house. He said that, after dropping his mother off, Matthews directed him to Bridge City to see a girl. According to Hayes, as they approached Bridge City, they stopped at a corner store because Matthews wanted an oatmeal pie and a cold drink. Hayes said that Matthews did not have a gun in his hand when he went into the store. He said he heard gunfire and that Matthews ran out of the store and told him to drive. Hayes said he thought that Matthews was running trying to get out of the store. He said he and Matthews then picked up Hayes’s mother at 7:00 p.m.

In the fourth statement, taken at 5:34 a.m. on April 6, Hayes explained that he called Matthews Damien Johnson because that was the name Matthews told the police when they were stopped. Hayes said that, on April 5, 1997, they rode around Bridge City for ten minutes and stopped at a corner to buy some marijuana cigars. He explained that, after smoking them, Matthews got the “munchies” and directed him to stop at a store. He again said he heard gunshots, and Matthews ran out.

During the interrogation, police gave Hayes no food, water, or bathroom breaks. He had no lawyer or family in the room with him.

During the fourth statement, a detective asked Hayes: “When did [Matthews] tell you he was in fact involved in [the shooting]?”

“He ain’t never told me nothing,” Hayes replied.

“He never did?” the detective asked.

“I just found out,” Hayes said.

“You found out through us talking to you?” the detective replied.

“Yes, sir,” Hayes said.

Matthews, who also was 17, was interrogated for about three hours and never admitted involvement in the crime. Their statements were largely the same, except that Hayes, in his third and fourth statement, put both of them at Comeaux’s.

Later that day, police executed a search warrant at Hayes’s residence. They seized three magazine clips for a large caliber rifle, two 20-gauge shotgun shells, one plastic toy handgun, one knit cap, three bandanas, and two sawed-off shotguns.

The boys were arrested on April 6, 1997. Matthews was charged with first degree murder, and Hayes was charged with second-degree murder.

On April 20, 1997, a Bridge City resident reported finding a snubbed-nose .38-caliber pistol in a ditch. Police retrieved the weapon.

Prior to trial, Hayes’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress his statements, arguing that the statements made were involuntary and that Hayes had learning disabilities that made him vulnerable. Jefferson Parish District Court Judge Henry Sullivan rejected this motion.

Hayes’s trial began on December 1, 1998, at the 24th Judicial Court in Jefferson Parish. The prosecution’s case rested primarily on Hayes’s statements.

Dr. Fraser Mackenzie, a forensic pathology expert, performed the autopsy on Vanhoose. He said the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds. Louise Walzer, an assistant director at the Jefferson Parish crime laboratory and a firearms examiner, testified that the bullets from Vanhoose’s body were fired from the.38-caliber pistol found in the ditch. Walzer said the gun found under Vanhoose’s body had not been fired.

The defense sought to call Dr. Raphael Salcedo, a physician, who had examined Hayes and was prepared to testify to Hayes’s limited mental capacity. Judge Sullivan refused to allow the testimony. He ruled that the defense should have called Salcedo at the hearing on the motion to suppress Hayes’s statements.

Corey Bethley testified for the defense that in March 1997 he sold the car that Hayes was driving when arrested to Hayes’s sister. Bethley said he had replaced both doors on the car and installed power windows. However, when he sold the car, the passenger window did not work because the motor had burned out. Bethley testified that on the day of the crime, Hayes stopped at Bethley’s house to pick up the license plate and exchange the tire rims. He said Hayes was there at 4 p.m. and did not finish until it was getting dark. Sunset on that day was at 6:22 p.m.

Paul Cosma, a mechanic who had examined the Grand Prix, testified that the window that witnesses saw the shooter jump through could not be opened. He testified that he had examined the car in November of 1998. He said the motor for that window was burned out. He also said the rear windows were “aesthetic” and did not go up or down.

Julie Golden, a DNA analyst in the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office, testified that she analyzed DNA from a sample on the ski mask, specifically the mouth area. She said that the profiles of Matthews and Hayes were not present.

On December 6, 1998, the jury, by a vote of 10 to 2, convicted Hayes of second-degree murder. On January 11, 1999, Judge Sullivan sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

On May 7, 1999, a jury convicted Matthews of first degree murder. He also was said to have intellectual disabilities. A prosecution witness testified that he saw Matthews leave Comeaux’s store after the gunshots. The witness said he saw Matthews in the rear view mirror of his car. The following day, the jury sentenced Matthews to death.

On December 26, 2001, Hayes appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction and that the trial judge had erroneously barred the testimony of Hayes’s diminished mental capacity. In December 2001, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal of Louisiana affirmed Hayes’s conviction.

In 2003, while Matthews’s conviction was still on appeal, his defense team, led by Billy Sothern and Clive Stafford-Smith, sought a new trial based on newly-discovered DNA evidence from a separate murder case that occurred eight months after Vanhoose was killed. DNA tests showed that a man named Rondell Love was the source of the DNA found on the ski mask found at Comeaux’s Grocery. Love was in prison serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted of manslaughter for killing Chandra Conley.

Incarcerated people claimed that Love had bragged about the two boys taking blame for the crime he committed. Troy Abrons quoted Love as saying, “[Ryan] was just a [obscenity] duck.” Abrons said a duck “is a victim of circumstance, a person who gets [obscenity].” Abrons said Love bragged to others in the facility as well. Samuel Jones stated that Love’s bragging “was a rumor across the whole… jail.” The defense noted that descriptions of the height and weight of the gunman who fled from Comeaux’s were consistent with Love.

The defense also noted that the prosecution had obtained a report identifying Love’s DNA on the ski mask prior to the trials of Matthews and Hayes, but had not disclosed it to the defense attorneys.

In April 2004, Matthews was granted a new trial. He was released on bond on June 18, 2004. The prosecution dismissed the case against Matthews on August 9, 2004.

Hayes remained in prison while Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys fought to vacate his conviction. On December 19, 2006, Judge Sullivan vacated Hayes’s conviction and released him on bond to house arrest.

On January 19, 2007, the prosecution dismissed the case against Hayes.

In 2010, Hayes was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to narcotics charges.

– Maddie Garcia and Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/24/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes