By Linh Nguyen and Maxwell C. Myrhum
PALM SPRINGS, CA- In the aftermath of a triple homicide, Robert Pape and Cristin Smith became the prime suspects. However, there are several prosecutorial and investigative issues in this case that suggests it was a wrongful conviction of innocent men.
On Sep. 17, 2006, 18-year-old Rebecca Friedli, her 53-year-old mother Vickie Friedli, and Vickie’s 51-year-old live-in partner Jon Hayward were murdered at their residence in Pinyon Pines, California. Two of the victims were shot and the home was set on fire and burnt to the ground.
Friedli’s cause of death remains uncertain. She was found burning in a wheelbarrow at the back of the home. In 2014, Pape and Smith were arrested for the first time, this arrest coincided with the district attorney’s re-election campaign, but charges were dropped seven months later.
In 2016 Pape and Smith were rearrested and tried in 2018. After 27 days of trial and 10 days of jury deliberations, the jury voted to convict. Robert Pape and Cristin Smith were sentenced to life without parole.
The night before the murders, Rebecca invited Robert Pape, 18 at that time, to hike with her on the trails near her home. Pape had no intention of going on the hike and that following Sunday after work informed Rebecca of this.
Pape instead decided to spend time with his close friend Cristin Smith, the two engaging in a number of mundane activities through the course of the evening. Although neither Pape or Smith went to Pinyon Pines, they both voluntarily went to the sheriff’s headquarters later to offer their help, Pape interviewing the very next day.
Pape and Smith were together the night of the murders and provided law enforcement with detailed alibis. A full year after the crime was committed, a search warrant was executed on Pape’s and Smith’s homes and their DNA was taken. Nothing found within the homes connecting Pape or Smith to the crimes.
The defense argued that the DNA on the business card found at the scene was inconclusive. This business card came from MW, a previous Respect for Human Life director for the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino. MW had a close connection with Pape’s mother.
This business card was recovered 200 yards from the crime scene. The assertion that the location that the card was found in was related to the triple homicide was built on pure conjecture. The defense argued that it was not established when the weathered and bleached business card was left at the location where it was found. This is because the business card could have been dropped days before the murders rather than during the time of the murders.
Upon recovery, the business card was tested for DNA. A mixed sample was discovered with at least two contributors. Robert Pape was excluded. However, Cristin Smith could not be excluded with a 1 in 28 trillion probability that it could have belonged to him.
It should be noted that a business card is transient by nature. It is meant to go where the issuer does not.
The defend argued that, for instance, a salesman meets you at Starbucks and gives you his card, and, later that night, you are murdered in your home, does the fact that his card and his DNA are present in your home make him guilty of your murder?
A witness for the prosecution, Alma Flores, a fingerprint analyst from the California Department of Justice testified that the two fingerprints found on the business card showed enough points of similarity to be conclusively matched to Smith.
However, for 12 years prior, after analysis by two other state fingerprint experts, Pape and Smith were excluded as having left those prints. In fact, one of the prints was deemed unsuitable for comparison.
Flores was brought forward by the District Attorney only after the preliminary hearing, and just before trial. Flores never examined the business card herself, but instead conducted her analysis by way of a photoshopped copy of the prints – a copy generated by the lead detective on the case.
The defense did not bring in an expert witness of their own to refute the findings. Important to note is that Pape and Smith were excluded by DNA from every other item discovered at the crime scene. There were no ballistic matches to any guns the two later owned (they owned no guns at the time of the crime. And there was no match to their shoes from any footprints found at the scene.
Another witness for the prosecution and a confidential informant, JW, appeared to be a person of interest. JW did not physically testify in court due to his own legal troubles at the time; instead, the transcript of his testimony from the preliminary hearing was read.
This made it impossible for defense attorneys to cross-examine JW’s testimony in front of the jury. Because JW’s identity was not revealed to the defense prior to his preliminary hearing testimony, a complete cross-examination was impossible at any time.
JW testified to an utterance Smith made to him at their workplace at Knott’s Soak City the day after the murders. JW said that Smith’s demeanor was unusual and allegedly uttered “something went wrong and we torched the place” to him.
This should not have been admissible because it was hearsay. (This hearsay was deemed admissible because it was offered for “state of mind” not for truth) Also, it is not substantial proof that Smith committed or was involved in the murders and fire.
According to another witness, SG, who was also Pape and Smith’s close friend, JW was allegedly offered $100,000 to testify before the court. This reward money is another reason the testimony should have been disqualified; it made JW’s testimony unfairly motivated.
Furthermore, SG also said that JW is untrustworthy. When SG gave detective Marek Kasprzyk JW’s phone number instead of JC’s (JW’s neighbor), JW impersonated JC over text messages with the detective.
In another show of character, in 2016, JW was arrested for having a gun on the front seat of his car. There was a prior incident of JW aggressively flashing a gun at a man in a condo complex. A fellow employee at Knott’s Soak City also testified that JW had become increasingly aggressive towards Soak City customers.
It is unknown how much weight the jury put into considering JW’s testimony during deliberations, but his testimony should have been disqualified considering these reasons and the fact that he changed the story he told law enforcement upon initial contact in 2011, state defense experts.
JG, one of Rebecca Friedli’s best friends in 2006, also appeared to be of some interest to this case. The defense did attempt to raise JG as an alternate person of interest. This motion for third-party culpability was denied.
JG spent a significant amount of time with Rebecca and testified to the few days leading up to and after the murders. He provided the court with personal information and confirmed locations of activities, including the hike on the day of her murder, but did not seem to be pressed into his relations to and interactions with Pape and Smith.
Of particular interest is the relationship of both JG and Pape to Rebecca and how a possible romantic relationship affected either man’s involvement in this crime. However, as the third party Culp motion was denied, there was no opportunity to present this to the jury.
Another highly contentious piece of evidence among the prosecution and defense lies in the phone records and cell phone service on the night in question. More specifically, the apparent lack of service on both Pape and Smith’s cell phones between the hours of 7:13 & 10:23 PM.
The two were confirmed to have been together that night and their cell phones were outside their provider’s cellular service or turned off. Though this coincides with the timeline of the murders and arson it also coincides with their alibis.
And there was no reason for them to have their phones on. They were playing video games, paintball and later picked up Chapstick and gas at an AM PM. Both were in stable relationships and would either be calling their girlfriends later, or in Cristin’s case would be returning home to his live-in girlfriend.
However, several testimonies regarding the cell phone coverage and surveillance of such do raise some questions as to the validity of this evidence.
The first question relates to the whereabouts of the pair that evening after their phones went “dark.” The difficulty of assessing this at any time beyond 2006 is that the cell phone coverage in Palm Desert and Pinyon Pines and cell phone technology, in general, has changed dramatically. Any sort of cellular drive-test conducted by an expert witness from Gladiator Forensics or FBI agent Kevin Boles can only be used to show possible coverage, not definite coverage.
This was elaborated on by cellular expert witness Robert Aguero, who stated that even with the cellular drive-test, the variables like weather, subscriber traffic to the towers, obstacles, etc. were too great to have any confidence that the coverage generated by Gladiator maps in 2015 & 2016 was accurate to what that coverage was in 2006.
In addition, FBI Special Agent Kevin Boles revealed to the court that it was not uncommon for Cristin Smith to display inactivity on his phone during the hours in question. A sufficient amount of cellphone records were not obtained by investigators to even determine a pattern of cellphone habits.
Special Agent Boles also elaborated that the service in Pinyon Pines was so poor in 2006 that Rebecca Friedli wasn’t able to use her cell phone at home, but had to rely on a landline – confirmed by JG – which could very well contradict findings related to cell coverage in the 2010s.
There is even more forensics that point to the innocence of Pape and Smith.
Steve Carmen’s arson analysis and Elaine Pope’s body burn analysis present timelines that when viewed aside dispatch reports and testimony of those first on scene, basically prove that not only is it unlikely that Pape and Smith committed these horrific acts (for which motive was never produced), but that it would have been impossible for them to have committed this crime.
According to Carmen, the Friedli residence was set on fire at about 9:30. Burn analyst Pope places the time that Rebecca Friedli is set on fire at approximately 9:55.
Per a number of vehicle drive tests performed by investigators Bodmer and Harvey, the drive time from the crime scene to the area where Pape’s cell phone would ping at 10:23 p.m., that drive (and this performed exceeding the speed limit much of the way) was anywhere between 35 to 45 minutes. None of the neighbors who arrived first on scene saw a vehicle depart from the drive of the home.
The estimate of the arrival of neighbor TS is 9:55. And this essential witness also expressed a belief that someone involved in the crime may still have been present when he walked to the Friedli home and discovered Rebecca Friedli’s body. By TS’s account, and that of other first responders, it is almost certain that whoever committed this crime either parked a distance from the home or were able to vanish back into the neighborhood.
But even if they managed to exit the Friedli drive at 9:55 p.m. without being seen, given the fastest drive-time of tests performed, they would not have been able to get to the valley floor and the location where Pape pings Tower 88 by 10:23 p.m. The earliest arrival time would have been 10:30 p.m. And that’s only if they encountered zero obstacles and sped the entire drive there.
Robert Pape and Cristin Smith were convicted of a triple homicide and arson in 2018 that occurred 12 years prior-on evidence that, for the most part, was known to investigators and the DA since 2008. The evidence used to convict appears to have been based largely on conjecture, incomplete data and hearsay.
Linh Nguyen is a third year Political Science student at UC Davis, also pursuing a minor in Professional Writing. She is an aspiring investigative journalist from San Jose, California, who also shares interests in literature and baking
Maxwell C. Myrhum is a former intern from UC Davis
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