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Nearly 20 years later, questions nag in murder of Chillicothe woman

Sunday, August 2, 2009 | 5:31 p.m. CDT; updated 9:19 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 31, 2011

CHILLICOTHE — It's been almost 20 years since the crime — a farm wife shot to death in her bed, her husband critically wounded.

Fourteen years have passed since the conviction of Mark Woodworth, a neighbor who was just 16 at the time of the attack. After that decision was overturned, Woodworth was convicted again of murder. That was a decade ago now — and still folks in this farming community believe the wrong man is in prison.

Even Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox, who took office in 2000, says: "I have concerns about this entire case. I wish I could find a clear-cut piece of evidence supporting either innocence or guilt."

A five-month examination of the case by The Associated Press suggests the doubts about who killed Catherine Robertson are not misplaced.

Evidence pointing to other possible suspects — a mystery fingerprint, the reported sighting of a suspicious vehicle — was discounted or not fully explored by investigators. Motives ascribed to Woodworth had little support. A prosecutor suddenly dropped out of the case, to be replaced by an ambitious special prosecutor who would be accused of misconduct in another case, in which a convicted youth had to be released after years in prison.

Even jurors expressed doubts. Soon after Woodworth was sentenced to four consecutive life terms plus 15 years, members of the jury told the judge they'd given in to pressure. But their plea for reconsideration was silenced.

Woodworth insists he's innocent. Among those who agree is Phil Thompson, a former Missouri state trooper and police officer.

"In the 40 or so years I was involved in law enforcement," said Thompson, who worked as an investigator for Woodworth's defense, "there were only a handful of times I felt that justice wasn't done. And this was one of them."

Early leads

Cathy and Lyndel Robertson were asleep in their bedroom when the shooting started, just before midnight on Nov. 13, 1990.

The 41-year-old mother of five, shot twice in the head and chest, was dead. Her husband survived bullet wounds to his mouth, cheek, neck and shoulder.

Claude Woodworth, Mark's father, was one of the first to arrive at the hospital to check on his farming partner.

According to the elder Woodworth and others, Lyndel Robertson identified his eldest daughter's boyfriend, Brandon Thomure, as the likely shooter.

Thomure denied any involvement. But the 16-year-old had punched Rochelle Robertson and vandalized her car, according to investigative reports. One friend told investigators that Thomure threatened Robertson's daughter with a gun. Another reported witnessing Thomure grabbing Rochelle Robertson's neck and vowing to choke her.

Rochelle Robertson learned she was pregnant just before her mother's death. She agreed to an abortion but worried about her parents' reaction. They already wanted the two to break up.

Rochelle Robertson obtained a restraining order after the shooting. "He may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father," her court petition said.

At first, investigators focused on Thomure.

They swabbed his hands for gunpowder residue, and the test came back positive — though prosecutors would later minimize this evidence, saying too much time elapsed before the test.

Thomure had an alibi: He said he was asleep at home in Independence, 90 miles away. He had no car. His mother, stepfather and younger sister vouched for him.

Rochelle Robertson said she talked with him on the phone at about 10 p.m. But Thomure testified he didn't wake up after going to bed hours earlier, and neither he nor his family members mentioned that phone call at trial or in interviews with investigators before Woodworth was charged.

Thomure called irrelevant four instances when judges granted protection orders against him between 1994 and this year.

And he asserted his innocence.

"I never did it," he said. "They made a judgment in that courtroom. Not once but twice. I told them everything I knew."

A thumbprint and a bullet

A single thumbprint and a common manufacturing defect found in his father's gun put Mark Woodworth in prison. 

The print was found on an ammunition box inside the Robertsons' shed. Woodworth, a high school dropout who helped his father and Robertson, said the box had been moved to the shed from Robertson's pickup truck. At trial, a farm employee said Robertson regularly moved ammo boxes between his truck and the shed.

None of Mark Woodworth's fingerprints were found on his father's revolver, the purported murder weapon. An identical gun owned by Lyndel Robertson wasn't dusted for prints. No fingerprints were found on the shed or the front door of the Robertson home.

An unidentified fingerprint was found in the Robertsons' bedroom. Police and prosecutors offered no explanation for that print.

They theorized that Woodworth removed a loaded gun from his parents' bedroom while they slept and walked across the rural highway between the two homes to shoot his neighbors — but not before emptying his father's weapon and reloading it with bullets from Robertson's shed. After the shooting, he placed his father's bullets back before returning the weapon, the state suggested.

Microscopic markings on Claude Woodworth's gun connected the weapon to a bullet removed from Lyndel Robertson's liver.

But the state's forensics expert, Steven Nicklin, acknowledged that there was "not enough detail agreement ... to conclusively link these bullets to this weapon."

Nicklin testified that he also requested Robertson's gun for testing, but it was not provided. Nor was an identical gun owned by an employee of the two farmers.

Among 10,000-plus pages of trial transcripts and other documents reviewed by the AP were tips from five people who reported unfamiliar cars or suspicious drivers in the area hours before the crime.

 

"We spent years trying to put a suspect with a vehicle with a weapon. And no pieces would fall together," said Gary Calvert, who as Livingston County chief deputy took charge of the investigation when the major-case squad left. He was later elected sheriff.

Private investigator Terry Deister, hired by Lyndel Robertson, helped persuade Calvert to focus on Woodworth, and two interviews with him would prove pivotal to the prosecution's case.

The teenager used profanity to describe his father's former partner. Although by most accounts the partnership was thriving before the shooting, the fractured business relationship was cited as a motive. With his partner's death, Woodworth's father could cash in a $100,000 life insurance policy each man carried.

No evidence was presented at trial showing Mark Woodworth knew about the insurance policy.

Procedural concerns

A grand jury indicted Mark Woodworth in October 1993. Just before it was impaneled, Livingston County prosecutor Doug Roberts asked a judge to release him from the case. Now in private practice, Roberts declined comment. 

But in an Oct. 5, 1993, letter to Circuit Judge Kenneth Lewis, the prosecutor noted that Lyndel Robertson asked that he be disqualified for a "lack of enthusiasm." Roberts reminded the judge that soon after the crime, Robertson "was adamant that we charge another young man" — Thomure.

In a letter to the state Attorney General's Office asking for a replacement prosecutor, the judge said Roberts "boycotted the grand jury proceedings."

"The prosecutor up there never really believed in Mark's guilt," said Phil Thompson, the retired state trooper who worked as Woodworth attorney Wyrsch's investigator. "He never felt there was enough evidence to warrant charges. That's why Kenny came up."

Kenny was Kenny Hulshof, a special prosecutor who assisted overmatched small-town prosecutors. Hulshof went on to serve six terms in Congress and won the 2008 Republican nomination for governor before losing in the general election.

As a prosecutor, his behavior sometimes raised questions. In February, a Cole County judge cited prosecutorial misconduct by Hulshof in the trial of Joshua Kezer, who was convicted as a teen of killing a college student. The ruling led to Kezer's release.

Asked about the Woodworth trial, Hulshof cited the verdicts by two juries "who considered the evidence and dispassionately applied the law."

But three jurors in Woodworth's second trial said it was not so clear cut.

"There just wasn't enough evidence to say he was guilty," juror Lisa Routh said. She and two other jurors interviewed by AP said they were pressured by the other panel members to convict Woodworth — partly out of a desire to go home after the weeklong trial.

"They just wanted us to all agree to the facts so they could leave," juror Dorothy Witt said.

Afterward, Routh and Witt approached the judge to discuss their concerns. He ordered them not to speak with the prosecutor or the defense. He did not respond to AP interview requests.

Holding onto hope

Inmate No. 514406 at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron works at the prison welding shop, follows Kansas City sports teams and reads his Bible. His parents visit most weekends.

Earlier this year, the state parole board denied his request for an early release.

"There were some holes in the case," acknowledged Robert Robinson, a recently retired parole board member. "But it wasn't enough to persuade anyone to feel contrary to what the two juries decided."

Woodworth hasn't exhausted his appeals. He says he takes comfort from the support of friends in Chillicothe. And he insists on his innocence.

"I didn't kill them. I had no reason to," he said.


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Comments

Amelia Kurgas March 10, 2011 | 3:17 p.m.

Mmmm How about the balistics test ??? As I recall, the balitics test on the bullets removed from the victims matched the gun found in the Woodworths Home, & that the woodworth family admitted to owning the gun. I bet Brandon Must have tip toed in the woodworth house to fetch a gun then went to the robertsons commited the crime then took the gun back to the woodworths home n magically no one seen him. Also, the other magic trick would be for Brandon to put
Marks finger print on the box of bullets that just
so happened to be just the same exact type of
bullet used and the perfect number of bullets that were missing out of the box used in the crime. Furthermore, being jerk don't make u guilty. Evidence that connects u to the scene of the crime make u guilty. No doubt Brandon is not the perfect role model. But, that don't Make woodworth innocent.

(Report Comment)
Dana Williams June 11, 2011 | 10:11 a.m.

Amelia, if you read the information correctly, you would read that the ballistic test on the Woodworth's gun was "inconclusive" which means that the gun may or may not have been used in the crime. This was stated by the state's expert forensic investigator, Steven Nicklin.
What I want to know is why the Robertson gun, which was exactly like the Woodworth's gun, wasn't tested?
Also, the box of ammunition found in the shed had several partial prints on it. There were many prints on that box and many people that touched that box.
And what about Brandon's gunpowder residue? And what about the reports by several seeing Brandon in town early the morning of the shooting? And what about the fear that Kathy had with Brandon around her? And what about the restraining order that Rochelle got against Brandon after the shooting and stating that he possibly killed her mother? And what about the testimony that Mr. Robertson made in the hospital to "several" people that Brandon had shot him and Kathy?
Hmmmm, sounds to me like a setup!!!!! Amelia, please get all the facts before responding to another murder trial like this one, especially when Kenny Hulsof is involved!

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