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Tulsa private investigator gives away years of his time on wrongful incarcerations: 'Rewards come another way'

While Eric Cullen was in Tulsa County District Court working to have a judge vacate Malcolm Scott’s and De’Marchoe Carpenter’s 1995 murder convictions, a man named Eric Colbert pointed Cullen to the 1991 murder case of Scott’s older brother, Corey Atchison.

“It took me a minute to even catch that what he was saying was real,” Cullen said. “I’m gonna be honest: 80 to 90% of the time, it doesn’t pan out. I instantly went into my mode of questioning him, pressing him, so I’m making sure my time wasn’t being wasted. We talked for an hour straight. I knew by the answers that he had for me that I wanted to take the case.”

Now Atchison, too, is a free man, with Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes on July 16 declaring her determination that Atchison — like Scott and Carpenter before him — was actually innocent. She based her decision at least partly on statements from witnesses Cullen and attorney Joe Norwood found and summoned to testify.

Holmes said she believed that Atchison suffered a “fundamental miscarriage of justice” related to his conviction in the Aug. 3, 1990, shooting death of James Lane east of downtown Tulsa.

“I’m looking at 1988 to 1995 specifically in Tulsa County, and I have been for 12 years. Over and over and over, there are facts — and all my investigations are led by facts — there are facts that point toward a knee-jerk reaction to the crack epidemic,” Cullen said, referencing the demographics of those wrongly convicted.

“Mind you, the quote-unquote ‘War on Drugs,’ which gave law enforcement and the Department of Justice et al. keys to the kingdom to perpetrate that war, was 16 years in the making.”

Norwood agreed, saying he believed “there were practices” employed in each case that prioritized obtaining a conviction over finding who was actually responsible.

The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office has said it will appeal Holmes’ decision.

‘I know the rewards come another way’ than financially

When Cullen started in the private investigator business in 2005, he hadn’t been at work as a defense attorney long enough to cultivate a broad network of contacts or colleagues.

“My father (Clay Cullen, a former police detective) and I did a ton of research on what was available to individuals who were convicted. And it was very slim,” Cullen said of his beginnings. “The Innocence Project was doing great work, but there was nothing locally that I could find. The nearest one was Kansas City, and they were just getting off the ground. So I decided at that point that I might want to start my own project.

“But that was kind of naive, being only a year or two out and having no money. Really, the timing with society wasn’t even right in ’05 or ’06, in my opinion.”

So Cullen created a pamphlet and mailed it to all the men’s prisons in Oklahoma. He said those who are incarcerated spend a lot of time writing letters without receiving a reply and that they often had little to no awareness of organizations focused on proving innocence after a conviction.

“I figured word would get around, and it did,” he said. “I spent a lot of time vetting letters. I had just enough experience in the criminal justice realm to kind of be able to tell what a good case was and what wasn’t.”

Then a letter from Scott arrived in the mail, followed by Carpenter’s about a week later. What would follow was 10 years of pro bono work on their case and their eventual exoneration and release, also in Holmes’ courtroom, after another person confessed to the crime before being executed in an unrelated murder case.

“I knew they were co-defendants. I thought, ‘Did they sit down next to each other and write this?’” Cullen said of Carpenter and Scott. “And then I learned that wouldn’t be possible because they went to prison as co-defendants and they can never be in the same prison. And that really spurred me on. So that’s what got me into it.”

Once Scott’s and Carpenter’s case concluded, Cullen began looking into Atchison’s murder conviction. Colbert, a friend of Atchison’s, told the Tulsa World previously that he told Cullen about Atchison during one of Scott and Carpenter’s court appearances.

“I knew that if he could have someone to listen to his story, he would be able to come home. All he needed was someone to hear his story,” Colbert said at the time.

Today, Eric Cullen has his company, Cullen and Associates, and a nonprofit organization called Another Chance Justice Project. He also uses the expertise of those he’s helped exonerate to work on other potential cases across Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas.

Among those involved with Cullen’s efforts are Michelle Murphy, who was exonerated in 2014 in a 1994 murder case, and Perry Lott, who was exonerated by DNA and released last summer after spending 30 years in prison in a Pontotoc County rape case.

Women who are incarcerated received information in a letter sent out last year about Another Chance Justice Project, which focuses on clemency requests and innocence cases.

Murphy, the first female exoneree in Oklahoma, and Carpenter have seats on the group’s board of advisers, along with music executives Jason Flom and Paul Morris.

When asked about the challenges of working with people who often can’t afford to pay a lawyer or investigator, Cullen said, “I just do it, and I know the rewards come another way” than financially.

He recently helped set up an online fundraiser with the hopes of crowdfunding a pickup truck for Atchison, who on Thursday was expected to obtain an Oklahoma ID so he can begin applying for jobs.

‘At the end of the day, you can’t dispute facts’

Cullen said Atchison’s case took place during a time of national unrest and coincided with what he called “the beginning of the gang epidemic.” He noted that the jury in Atchison’s trial before then-District Judge Clifford Hopper, who has since died, was allowed to hear testimony about gangs in Tulsa despite what he and Norwood said was a lack of evidence proving Lane was killed because of a gang conflict.

“I think it gave the public a lot of fear,” Cullen said of the national climate. “I think that’s what motivated this department (Tulsa) to ‘take it to ’em,’ so to speak. Those aren’t my words. I believe several times leaders in the local law enforcement community stated that to the press at the time.”

Norwood told the World that authorities leaned on information about gangs, as well as statements from a teenage witness who later recanted his identification of Atchison, to obtain a conviction. He said six people have said someone besides Atchison was responsible for Lane’s death.

“I knew that Corey was probably getting out at some point after I spent several months looking into the case,” Norwood said. “I had kind of accepted that reality, and maybe that’s part of what you do to get the case done. It wasn’t a huge overwhelming thing because I had already seen it for a while in my own mind.”

Statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations indicate that black people have been seven times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than white people and comprise nearly half of all known exonerations in the U.S. Black exonerees, according to the registry, spend three years more in prison before their releases on average than white exonerees.

Cullen, a lifelong Tulsan, said he’s pleased to see the conversation around the issue of wrongful convictions change over the years, particularly with regard to racial disparity of those incarcerated. He said courts initially had little interest in hearing post-conviction relief cases, but he said awareness has grown exponentially, which has made more attorneys become motivated to work on them.

Cullen said he’s even seen conviction integrity units pop up in places such as Philadelphia and hopes Tulsa County will one day consider a similar concept, at least for cases from 1988 to 1995.

“There’s arguments on how to (address wrongful convictions), but at the end of the day, you can’t dispute facts,” he said.


Featured video

Corey Atchison and attorneys react after he was released from custody, where he spent 28 years serving time on a wrongful murder conviction

Read the story: Man set free after 28 years in prison for crime he didn't commit now adjusts to life outside


News
AP
Gunman posted online minutes before killing 3 at festival

GILROY, Calif. — Before a 19-year-old gunman opened fire on a famed garlic festival in his California hometown, he urged his Instagram followers to read a 19th century book popular with white supremacists on extremist websites, but his motives for killing two children and another young man were still a mystery Monday.

Santino William Legan posted the caption about the book “Might is Right” with a photo of Smokey the Bear in front of a “fire danger” sign. He posted another photo from the Gilroy Garlic Festival minutes before he shot into the crowd Sunday with an “AK-47-type” weapon, killing a 6-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl and a recent college graduate.

Under it, he wrote: “Ayyy garlic festival time” and “Come get wasted on overpriced” items. Legan’s since-deleted Instagram account says he is Italian and Iranian.

The postings are among the first details that have emerged about Legan since the shooting injured 12 others and sent people running and diving under tables. Police patrolling the event responded within a minute and killed Legan as he turned the weapon on them.

He legally purchased the gun this month in Nevada, where his last address is listed. He would have been barred from buying it in California, which restricts firearms purchases to people over 21. In Nevada, the limit is 18.

Legan grew up less than a mile from the park where the city known as the “Garlic Capital of the World” has held its three-day festival for four decades, attracting more than 100,000 people with music, food booths and cooking classes.

Authorities were searching for clues as to what caused the son of a prominent local family to go on such a rampage. His father was a competitive runner and coach, a brother was an accomplished young boxer and his grandfather had been a supervisor in Santa Clara County.

Police searched the two-story Legan family home and a dusty car parked out front, leaving with paper bags. Authorities also searched an apartment they believed Legan used this month in remote northern Nevada. Officials didn’t say what they found or were looking for in either place.

Jan Dickson, a neighbor across the street from the Legan family home, described them as “a nice, normal family.” She said Santino Legan had not lived there for at least a year.

“How do you cope with this? They have to deal with the fact that their son did this terrible thing and that he died,” Dickson said.

A law enforcement official said investigators believe the gunman used a WASR-10, a variant of an AK-47, that he bought from Big Mike’s Gun and Ammo in Nevada earlier this month. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Big Mike’s Guns and Ammo, which appears to be a home-based internet gun shop in Fallon, posted on its Facebook page that “we are heartbroken this could ever happen” and that Legan “was acting happy and showed no reasons for concern” when the store owner met him.

Police had just completed training in how to respond to an active shooter. They never expected to put their skills to use in Gilroy, a city of about 50,000 about 80 miles southeast of San Francisco known for the pungent smell of the prize flowering crop grown in the surrounding fields — garlic.

The city had put in place security for the festival. It required people to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched. Police, paramedics and firefighters were stationed throughout the event.

But Legan didn’t go through the front entrance. He cut through a fence that borders a parking lot next to a creek, Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said. Some witnesses reported a second suspect, and a manhunt stretched into Monday, but it was unclear whether that person was armed or just helped in some way.

Smithee praised officers for stopping Legan with their handguns in a small area without injuring anyone else.

“It could’ve gotten so much worse, so fast,” he said.

The gunfire sent people in sunhats and flip-flops running away screaming and crying in terror. Some dove for cover under tables. Others crawled under a concert stage, where a local band had started playing its last song.

The youngest victim, Stephen Romero, described by his grandmother as a kind, happy and playful kid, had just celebrated his sixth birthday in June at Legoland in Southern California.

“My son had his whole life to live and he was only six,” his father, Alberto Romero, told San Francisco Bay Area news station KNTV after the shooting. “That’s all I can say.”

Also killed was a 13-year-old girl, whose name was not released, and Trevor Irby, a biology major who graduated in 2017 from Keuka College in upstate New York.

The wounded were taken to multiple hospitals. At least five have been released.

Trevor Towner said his sister was at the festival selling garlic and habanero honey for her business, the Honey Ladies, when she saw a man with a gun climb over the fence. She yelled at him “no, you can’t do that!”

The gunman turned to her and her husband and opened fire. She was shot in the leg and her husband was shot three times, while a 10-year-old girl dragged their 3-year-old son under a table, Towner wrote on a fundraising page he set up for his sister.

Legan then approached the couple as they lay motionless on the ground and asked “are you all right?” They didn’t move, fearing he would finish them off, Towner wrote.

The band TinMan was starting an encore Sunday when the shooting started. Singer Jack van Breen said he saw a man wearing a green shirt and grayish handkerchief around his neck fire into the food area.

Van Breen said he heard someone shout: “Why are you doing this?” The reply: “Because I’m really angry.”


State-and-regional
Tulsa dive team to search Picher site where missing Welch girls are believed to have spent their final days

VINITA — The area surrounding a former mobile home site where authorities believe Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman were kept the last week of their lives will be the subject of a search by investigators and the Tulsa police dive team starting Tuesday.

The search will be centered on the former residence of Warren Phillip Welch II in the abandoned town of Picher.

Welch is implicated by prosecutors, along with David Pennington and Ronnie Busick, in the fatal shootings of Danny and Kathy Freeman and the burning of their mobile home on Dec. 30, 1999.

Authorities believe the Freemans’ daughter and her friend were kidnapped, tied up, raped and held at Welch’s mobile home for a “matter of days” before being strangled, according to an arrest affidavit filed in Busick’s case.

According to court documents, multiple witnesses have told authorities that the men threw the bodies of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible into a pit or mineshaft or dumped them in a cellar that was later covered in concrete.

For decades, mine workings and shafts have collapsed and filled with water, creating ponds that can measure up to 100 feet wide and 25 feet deep.

This week’s search will be conducted by several agencies, including the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Quapaw Nation and District Attorney Matt Ballard’s office.

“There is no greater, or lesser, expectation that this week’s searches will result in recovery of the remains, compared to all past searches,” Ballard’s spokeswoman Michelle Lowry said in a news release Monday.

She said it is not known how long this week’s search will last.

In an earlier interview, investigator Gary Stansill said investigators continue to search for possible locations of the girls’ remains in the Picher mining field, but they have not concluded the girls are in a mine shaft.

Welch has since died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and Pennington died in a drug-related death. Busick remains in the Craig County jail on a $1 million bail charged with several counts of murder, kidnapping and arson.

Lauria and Ashley were 16 years old when they disappeared.

Busick has denied any involvement or knowledge of the whereabouts of the girls’ remains.


Crime-and-courts
Judge revokes bond for former Oklahoma governor candidate in case alleging University of Tulsa threats

Correction: This story originally misstated the status of two University of Tulsa employees related to a civil lawsuit brought by Trey Barnett. The story has been corrected.


The right to post bond was revoked Monday for a former candidate for Oklahoma governor charged with threatening an act of violence against the University of Tulsa.

Bail for Christopher Jonathan Barnett, 36, was set at $1 million after he was arrested late Thursday on a charge of threatening an act of violence in connection with what police called “violent” posts on a website he uses for his organization Transparency for Oklahomans. Barnett posted a $75,000 bond earlier Thursday on a complaint of shooting with intent to kill related to the shooting of a process server outside Barnett’s south Tulsa residence Wednesday night.

Though the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office has not yet charged Barnett in the shooting, it asked Special Judge April Seibert to keep Barnett in custody without bond during hearings on Friday and Monday.

Seibert on Friday set Barnett’s bond at $1 million and ordered him to get an ankle monitor if he were released, as well as refrain from posting on his website or social media and surrender his passport.

Barnett, speaking on video from the Tulsa County jail Monday morning, said he would be able to post a $1 million bond and was willing to comply with Seibert’s previous conditions after prosecutors asked her to reconsider her decision.

But Seibert said she would deny Barnett the chance for release on bond at all, telling him she reviewed video and audio footage of the shooting and found “there seems to be an acceleration of speech into action.”

“I don’t think there are any bond conditions I can take to ensure public safety,” Seibert said.

But Barnett and his husband, Trey Barnett, testified that they believed the footage was altered to remove what Trey Barnett said was the process server attempting to goad Chris Barnett to meet him outside in the couple’s yard.

They also claimed they could see the process server’s gun when his shirt lifted, which made them fear for their lives.

“They somehow digitally made things happen that didn’t happen?” Assistant District Attorney Mark Collier asked, to which Trey Barnett replied, “I mean, it’s pretty easy to do nowadays.” He also said he has a pending lawsuit against a different process server, to whom he said he showed his gun because, he alleged, she tried to break into his home.

The process server recorded audio of the altercation, while two cameras at the Barnetts’ home recorded video, according to testimony. Tulsa Police Homicide Detective Max Ryden said the footage does not demonstrate Chris Barnett was within his rights when he shot the process server in the elbow.

Police allege in a probable cause affidavit that he made a Google search inquiring, “Can you legally shoot a process server?” Police also allege that he said at one point that the only good process server is a dead one.

On a web page titled “How would Chris Barnett take down TU?” he wrote a disclaimer about how his comments were “all hypothetical and not a threat and of course will never happen, but it’ll drive the far left crazy so here it goes.”

“Wait for football season to come, start getting every single AR-15 put into place on the highest floor,” the post states. “Rig up a system that will fire all of the guns at once. … Wait until almost half time or when everyone is leaving the game. When people start to flood the gates to leave, the automatic system built starts firing.”

But Brendan McHugh, Barnett’s attorney, argued that his client’s comments on process servers and TU are legally protected speech. McHugh asked Ryden, “You can’t hold somebody in jail because of a fear, right?”

Ryden later told Collier the process server made no threats in the audio or video. He said the process server had a large build and was wearing a long T-shirt, which concealed his weapon from view.

“I think he’s a very dangerous individual,” Ryden said of Barnett, adding: “Everyone we have interviewed is scared to be a witness against Mr. Barnett.”

Barnett’s post regarding “hypothetical” plans for a shooting at TU named theater professor Susan Barrett and administrator Winona Tanaka, who are witnesses in a lawsuit over the suspension of Trey Barnett from the theater department. The suspension followed accusations of harassment on the part of Chris Barnett, who claimed authorship of negative posts on social media.

Trey Barnett told Collier on Monday that “it’s my belief that I can protect myself” if someone such as a process server went to his and Chris Barnett’s home and did not leave within a few seconds of being told they were trespassing. When asked whether Chris Barnett believed he was within his legal rights to shoot someone in that situation, Trey said, “You’re asking the wrong person. I can’t vouch for what he believes.”

Chris Barnett, in his testimony, said the process server turned around to face him while the man was still on his property, which he believed gave him license to shoot. Barnett spoke last week to local media outlets, including the Tulsa World, and told several he thought he was “in imminent danger.”

During cross-examination, Collier asked Barnett to confirm his statements during McHugh’s questioning about shooting the process server, an offense for which he is not yet charged. In response, Barnett said, “I’d have to ask counsel that before I answer that question.”

Barnett will be arraigned Thursday on the charge related to threats against TU.


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