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Robert Fenenbock

Other California Murder Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Fenenbock,%20Robert%20image.jfif
The trouble at Hawkins Bar, a remote hamlet along the Trinity River in Northern California, began on September 30, 1991, when Barbara Adcock told the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office that 37-year-old Gary Summar had molested her four-year-old daughter.

Summar, known as “Hop” because of a crippling deformity, occasionally lived with Adcock, her three kids, and Bernard “Bird” MacCarlie, her boyfriend. They were all part of the sprawling Hawkins Bar community, and the campground where they lived had a reputation for partying and lawlessness.

As the sheriff’s office investigated, Adcock began telling others about Summar’s alleged behavior and saying he needed to be punished. A few days later, on October 2, 1991, MacCarlie fought with Steven Thayer and Bert Jones, and then stabbed Jones. Witnesses would say it was either because Jones had stolen food, had a fight with a woman, or because he had taken up for Summar and said he hadn’t abused the girl.

After the stabbing, Thayer and Jones called the sheriff’s office. When deputies arrived at around 9:30 p.m., the men described the attack on Jones and said that Summar might be in danger. Summar was not around, and while the authorities made no concerted effort to locate him, they suspected he might be in trouble.

Summar’s body was found on October 6 near a log landing on a dirt road that wound through the woods backing up to the river. He had been stabbed more than 70 times. His left eye was said to have been gouged out and his left ear had been cut off while he was alive. His genitals showed signs of blunt force trauma; the bones of his face were fractured. MacCarlie’s knife was found nearby. A forensic examination later determined it held traces consistent with Summar’s blood.

Even before Summar’s body was found, the sheriff’s department had begun making arrests related to the Jones stabbing. MacCarlie was charged with assault and related crimes on October 2, as were Anthony “Tex” Lockley and Ernest “Tattoo Ernie” Knapp.

While investigators had a theory of the murder based on an act of vigilantism, initially they had no witnesses to the killing itself. Instead, they had statements from residents of the campground at Hawkins Bar, many of whom had been drinking heavily on October 2, that Summar had been in several fights that day and that others had made vague references about Summar’s disappearance before his body was found.

Two of the people deputies questioned were Robert Fenenbock, a 38-year-old Army veteran, and another man named Robert “Redbeard Bob” Bond. Bond, with Fenenbock present, had confronted Summar about the abuse allegations, and in the altercation that followed, each had punched Summar in the face. Both men denied any part in his death.

On October 3, deputies arrested Fenenbock, initially charging him with assault with a deadly weapon and attempted homicide. On October 18, he was rearrested and charged with murder in Summar’s death.

Eventually, nine people would be charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder in Summar’s death: MacCarlie, Fenenbock, Bond, Adcock, Lockley, Knapp, Leafe Dodds, Sue Hamby and Cherri Frazier. Knapp’s charges were later dropped.

During the investigation, deputies seized Lockley’s red flatbed pickup. They found blood spatter inside the truck, as well as blood stains on the outside and on the driver’s seat. Investigators found a shovel in the back of the truck, and a subsequent analysis showed that traces of blood were consistent with Summar and MacCarlie.

A second vehicle, Adcock’s white Ford Ranchero, was also of interest to investigators. It was first spotted on October 2, parked at a bit of a distance from the campground near the main road, because another car was blocking the access. At the time, deputies said that they also saw what appeared to be a pool of blood near the car. They searched the inside of the car and didn’t find any blood but waited until late October to impound the vehicle. By then, any potential evidence – if it existed – was gone.

Deputies had seen several other things of interest when they arrived at the campground on the evening of October 2. First, MacCarlie had a fresh cut on his finger and his knife sheath was empty. In addition, they also spotted nine-year-old Randy Hogefre, Adcock’s son, in the bed of the Ranchero. Hogefre was taken into child protective services the next day. Initially, Randy told investigators that he had seen MacCarlie stab Jones and didn’t know anything about Summar’s murder. But during the next few months, as he was repeatedly questioned and coached by sheriff’s deputies and social workers, another story emerged.

On October 18, 1991, Detective Dan Kartchner with the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office and a social worker named Donna Gordon accompanied Randy to Hawkins Bar and the log landing. Randy told Kartchner that the only time he remembered being in the Ranchero was when MacCarlie was driving Fenenbock and Bond home later on October 2, and that they didn’t make any stops. Kartchner told him that was wrong, that Bond had already said as much to investigators. That was false. Bond had made no such statement.

Gordon, who had been appointed Randy’s legal guardian while he was in protective services, then encouraged Randy to play detective and pretend he knew what happened. Randy told Gordon that he guessed that four men had stabbed Summar. Gordon quickly called Kartchner, who then interviewed Randy again, also asking the boy about what he thought happened. Randy eventually said he was hiding in the back of the Ranchero and he saw Fenenbock, Bond, MacCarlie and Leafe Dodds stab and beat Summar to death.

Because of the number of defendants and the statements some defendants had made to investigators, the case was split into three trials. Each trial was moved out of Trinity County due to pre-trial publicity. Fenenbock’s case was joined with Hamby and Frazier, and their case went to trial first, in Solano Superior Court. Randy’s statements didn’t mention either of the two women.

As prosecutors prepared for a preliminary hearing on Fenenbock’s case in May 1992, a therapist named Sally McFall told Randy that Fenenbock’s attorney was likely to be crabby and to try to trick him. She even gave him a trick to remember the names of the four men prosecutors said killed Summar. “Two Bob’s, a Bird, and a Leafe. Two Bob’s a Bird, and a Leafe. That, maybe that’ll help me remember it, too. Okay. Alright. I just want you to think about Bob, uh, Fenenbock today, okay?”

As attorneys for Fenenbock would later note, “There was no conceivable therapeutic value in providing Randy a mnemonic device to remember the names of the defendants.”

The trial of Fenenbock, Frazier, and Hamby began on November 16, 1993. Fenenbock was represented by James Dippery. While prosecutors had testimony from several witnesses supporting a vigilante theory of the crime, Randy was the only witness who said he had seen the killing.

The state had limited forensic evidence. Department of Justice Criminalist Carmel Suther testified that tire tracks found near Summar’s body were consistent with the tires on Lockley’s truck, and that the blood found on shoes inside the truck was consistent with Summar’s.

Suther also examined blood found on Fenenbock’s knife and said that there were insufficient antigens to determine its source. While acknowledging the blood was most likely from an animal, she left open the possibility that the blood was human. Fenenbock’s girlfriend testified that Fenenbock had recently used the knife to skin a deer.

Kartchner testified about his interview process with Randy, acknowledging that he had lied to the boy about the number of other witnesses who saw him in the Ranchero.

Randy testified that he had been hiding under a blanket in the back of the Ranchero. “I had a hole where I could peek,” he said, and he watched the men set upon Summar. “When they were done they dragged him over the stump and left him there.”

During the trial, Judge William Jensen conducted a hearing on whether Randy’s therapists had played favorites by letting prosecutors but not defense attorneys talk to the boy ahead of trial. One of the therapists said the access had been limited to keep the boy from going through the trauma of talking about the incident again and again. When Dippery asked the therapist why prosecutors were allowed to keep talking to the boy, she said the prosecutors were only “informing a child about what he’s going to be testifying to.”

During Dippery’s cross-examination of Randy, this exchange took place:

Q: You could have lied to [Officer Kartchner]?

A: Yes. If I was younger, around nine when the murder started, yes, I would have lied to him.

Q: Do you think that everything you told him would be a lie?

A: No.

Q: Most of it?

A: I don’t know.

Q: How did you decide what you would lie about and what you would tell the truth about?

A: Well, when I started – when I went to tell some of the truth, I would stop to think about it. And when I would lie, I would not think about it.

Q: Just say whatever came up?

A: Whatever I could get out of my head first so the cop wouldn’t have to talk to me.

At this point, a therapist signaled that Randy was getting tired, and he was excused for the rest of the day.

Dippery presented expert testimony from Dr. Norton Roitman about the use of psychotherapy in ferreting out the truth, but his testimony didn’t address whether the therapists who had been treating Randy had also been grooming his testimony.

Fenenbock testified in his own defense. He said that after his altercation with Summar, he had dinner with some friends and then got a ride to the house where he was staying. He would later claim that Dippery gave him little notice that he would be taking the witness stand; there had been no pre-trial preparation.

Crucially, Dippery never asked Fenenbock whether he had killed Summar and would later state that was a tactical decision. Dippery said he thought that prosecutor Robert Maloney would ask the question, allowing Fenenbock to issue a forceful denial. But Maloney didn’t ask, and neither did Dippery on his re-direct examination of Fenenbock.

While Randy’s testimony was at times conflicting and confusing, the state presented it as credible, in part because of the boy’s account of the brutal manner in which Summar was killed.

Kartchner testified that these details had not been made public, and therefore only a person who had witnessed the crime would know these facts. In closing arguments, Maloney hammered this point home. He said that Randy “described to you wounds on that body that nobody, unless they were there and saw that, could have guessed … That's the kind of detail that just paints credibility right there. He was there. He saw that. He saw Bob Fenenbock, too.”

But Kartchner’s testimony and the closing arguments were false; newspaper accounts of the crime had described the wounds Summar received on his legs and eye.

On February 4, 1994, the jury convicted Fenenbock of first-degree murder but acquitted him of conspiracy. Hamby and Frazier were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder but acquitted on the murder charges. They all received sentences of 25 years to life in prison.

MacCarlie, Bond and Dodds went to trial later that year. MacCarlie presented a defense based in part on mental illness and alcoholism. He testified that he had been sexually abused as a child and that he snapped after hearing the accusations Adcock made against Summar. He said the last thing he recalled was forcing Summar into the red pickup and driving to the log landing. MacCarlie said the events that followed happened in a type of dream sequence, as he sat in a tree and watched a man beat Summar to death, only later realizing that he was that man. MacCarlie said that he did not see Bond or Dodds, and he never mentioned Fenenbock’s presence or another vehicle.

At this second trial, prosecutors sought to admit Fenenbock’s knife into evidence, because it supported Randy’s testimony that he saw four men kill Summar. The attorneys for the three men objected. With the jury not present, Suther said that she had tested the knife and she “received no indication of human [blood] at all.” While the judge ruled in favor of the defense, Suther also later testified in front of the jury that based on testing and her experience, the blood on the knife was from an animal.

On December 16, 1994, a mistrial was declared, with jurors unable to reach a verdict on the murder charges against MacCarlie and Bond. Each was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Dodds was acquitted.

A year later, on November 2, 1995, Adcock was convicted of murder, robbery, and conspiracy to commit murder. Lockley was convicted on the conspiracy charge.

Fenenbock’s initial appeal through the California courts system claimed that the trial judge should have instructed the jury to consider lesser charges, such as manslaughter. California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal denied his appeal in 1996. Despite MacCarlie’s testimony, Fenenbock was initially unable to present this evidence in a state habeas petition, because the law at the time said that new evidence had to “completely” undermine the prosecution’s case and point “unerringly to innocence.”

Instead, Fenenbock took his claims to the federal courts. He filed an initial habeas petition in 1997 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, and then amended it through the years. It culminated in a broad claim filed in 2009 that took into account MacCarlie’s testimony, Suther’s shifting testimony, as well as a 2002 statement from Dodds that said Randy was confused and wrong about the times he had been in the Ranchero on October 2, 1991.

On May 20, 2010, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charlene Sorrentino recommended denying Fenenbock’s petition. She wrote that MacCarlie’s testimony about his out-of-body experience was not exculpatory to Fenenbock. She wrote that the jury hung on whether to convict MacCarlie because its members couldn’t agree on whether his mental state allowed him to form the necessary intent for first-degree or second-degree murder. Sorrentino also dismissed Dodds’s statement and said that because of his acquittal, Dodds could be “inclined to assist a former friend whose trial outcome was not as felicitous as his own.” She also said that there was “no real difference” between Suther’s testimony at the two trials.

In 2017, California amended its penal statute to allow granting habeas relief in instances where “New evidence exists that is credible, material, presented without substantial delay, and of such decisive force and value that it would have more likely than not changed the outcome at trial.”

Fenenbock filed a state habeas petition on August 17, 2017. It cited MacCarlie’s testimony, the false statements by Kartchner and Maloney about the media blackout on the details of the crime, and the intense pressure applied to Randy by social workers and therapists. The petition also said that Randy’s testimony was just wrong. He was confused about what he saw and when he saw it, and that there was no physical evidence that the Ranchero was ever at the log landing.

The petition also said that Dippery had provided ineffective assistance to Fenenbock by failing to prepare him to testify, by not effectively challenging the state’s evidence, and by pushing Fenenbock to go to trial before MacCarlie and the others.

Among other deficiencies, the petition said, Dippery had not objected when the state proposed a jury view of the crime scene that included a local landmark called Ziegler’s Point. In the script read to the jury, Ziegler’s Point was referred to as “the rock fall,” collaborating Randy’s account that he may have gone past a rock fall while in the Ranchero. (At trial, Randy did not testify about actually seeing a rock fall, but his therapists said he had told them about seeing it, and they said that because he repeated different versions of this detail in his therapy sessions, it showed consistency in his core statement.)

An evidentiary hearing was held on April 25, 2019, before Judge Michael Mattice of Solano Superior Court. Dodds testified, but MacCarlie did not. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but his trial testimony from years earlier was admitted into evidence.

On August 23, 2019, Mattice granted Fenenbock’s writ of habeas corpus and vacated his conviction. Mattice said that MacCarlie’s trial testimony was new evidence of innocence that conformed with the change to California’s habeas laws.

MacCarlie’s testimony appeared to contradict Randy’s testimony, he said, and presented a different chain of events and participants. It was also consistent with the lack of physical evidence tying the Ranchero to the crime scene.

“When testimony in one trial results in an acquittal or mistrial and the absence of that testimony results in a conviction," Mattice wrote, "a court may reasonably conclude that the evidence would have more likely than not changed the outcome.”

Fenenbock was released from custody on August 30, 2019, although the state suggested it planned to retry the case.

“It took nearly three decades, a team of lawyers, an amazing investigator, a new law and a great judge to set Bob free, even though all they had against him was a kid who had been asked to make up a story that was completely contradicted by the physical evidence,” said Paige Kaneb, Fenenbock’s lead attorney with the Northern California Innocence Project. “This case shows how easily a wrongful conviction can happen, and how hard it is to fix one.”

As part of the Innocence Project’s investigation, Kaneb had located Randy Hogefre, who was now in his 30s and had been haunted by the events of his past. Kaneb emailed Hogefre transcripts from the trial and other court documents, and Hogefre recanted his testimony in 2019, saying that he never saw the murder and was coerced into testifying about something he never witnessed. He filed a lawsuit against Trinity County and other parties, claiming that their tactics had traumatized him and left him suicidal.

“Immediately after the murder,” the lawsuit said, “claimant told respondents, and each of them, numerous times that he did not witness this murder, but was repeatedly told in response that he did witness the murder, that he was there, that he was lying, and that he 'had to tell them it happened' and was repeatedly fed the story that he was supposed to tell and coerced into repeating and believing it.”

This recantation was added to Fenenbock’s motion to dismiss the case based on outrageous government conduct. Judge Carlos Gutierrez of Solano Superior Court held an evidentiary hearing at which Kartchner and Hogefre both testified. He then granted the motion on August 24, 2020.

In his decision, Gutierrez said Kartchner had falsely testified about his investigation and witness statements and that he had manipulated Randy to testify falsely against Fenenbock. He noted that when Randy told his therapist that he didn’t remember seeing the murder, the therapist told him that it was important to not say “I don’t know” when being questioned on the witness stand by “his” attorney, referring to prosecutors.

“To implant a memory in a nine-year-old child that, in the Court's view, is such conduct that is grossly shocking, it's outrageous, and it violates the universal sense of justice,” Gutierrez said.

Following Gutierrrez’s order, the state moved to dismiss its appeal of the case. The motion was granted on October 14, 2020. In 2021, Fenenbock was granted a certificate of innocence. He then filed a claim for state compensation.

After he was released from prison, Fenenbock said, “I just always believed that some time and at some point, somebody was going to have to take a look at this if I kept sticking it in people’s faces. And with the help of my attorneys, here I am.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/1/2021
Last Updated: 4/20/2021
State:California
County:Trinity
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1991
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:25 to Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No