We’ve all seen Crime Stoppers advertisements offering money in exchange for crime tips. In 1994, a man responded to one of these with the wrong information, setting in motion the wrongful convictions of Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins.
Donna Meagher’s body found in the Colorado Gulch
Just after midnight, on January 12, 1994, 34-year-old Donna Meagher was working the closing shift at her brother’s bar, the Jackson Creek Saloon, in Montana City, Montana. When she did not make it home that night, her family members started to worry and went to the saloon to look for her. Instead, they found the safe unlocked with $3,000 missing. Donna’s truck was behind the building with the door ajar and the keys in the ignition.
At about 9:30 a.m. that same morning, Donna’s body was found 18 miles away from the saloon in the Colorado Gulch. Investigators inferred that while closing the bar that night, Donna was robbed, abducted, and struck in the head 10 to 12 times with the claw end of a hammer.
This violent case went cold until Crime Stoppers offered a reward for anyone willing to provide information. It was only then, around nine months after the crime, that Dan Knipschield stepped forward. Hoping to cash in on the reward, he told police that his 31-year-old son-in-law, Fred, was involved.
In an attempt to assist authorities and incriminate Fred, Dan agreed to wear a concealed tape recorder and talk to Fred about the crime. Dan later told authorities that Fred admitted to committing the crime with 39-year-old Paul. However, due to a supposed malfunction with the tape recorder, there was no actual recording of this alleged confession.
This did not prevent detectives from interviewing and confronting Fred. While Fred denied involvement in the crime, under duress, he implicated Paul and Jimmy Lee Amos, a mentally impaired man under the care of Paul and his wife. Fred recanted the statement shortly after.
Despite this recantation, detectives pushed ahead and interviewed Paul and Jimmy Lee. They also interviewed Paul’s wife, Mary Jenkins, for around eight hours. It was during this lengthy interview that Mary confessed to witnessing Fred, Paul, and Jimmy Lee kill Donna.
The detectives conducting this interview said it was recorded. However, the tape was never produced because it was lost in the mail. Following the interview, in the fall of 1994, Fred and Paul were both charged with Deliberate Homicide, Aggravated Kidnapping, and Robbery.
Convicted based on unreliable testimony
In January 1995, a forensic psychiatrist examined Mary, who had given the testimony implicating Fred and Paul. The psychiatrist concluded that Mary suffered from dementia and organic brain damage and had an IQ of 70. An IQ of this level was low enough to suggest restricted mental capacity. She died within five years of the trial from complications related to Alzheimer’s Disease.
The Court declared Mary competent to testify despite the results of the examination. The case’s prosecutor, Mike McGrath, who went on to become the Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, went as far as to declare that he did not have a case against Fred and Paul without Mary’s testimony.
Fred and Paul were tried in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The prosecution’s case relied on Mary’s testimony and eyewitnesses who claimed to see cars resembling Fred’s Ford Torino and Paul’s Toyota drive through Colorado Gulch on the night of the murder. There was no physical evidence linking Fred or Paul to the crime.
On February 24, 1995, Fred and Paul were wrongfully convicted by separate juries who heard the case at the same time. Each was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
A new suspect emerges
In 2015, MTIP took on the case and filed a motion for DNA testing of physical evidence from the crime scene, including vaginal swabs, hair fibers, fingernail clippings, rope, and a cigarette butt found near Donna’s body. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted the motion in August 2016.
While waiting for the DNA test results, Fred Nelson implicated his uncle David Nelson in the murder. This was not the first time he brought this information forward. He told lawyers and law enforcement in 1998, but they said nothing could be done without corroborating evidence.
By this time, David was incarcerated for murdering two other people in Deer Lodge, Montana, in 2015. Similar to Donna, both victims were beaten to death with a hammer. When investigators interviewed David, he denied killing Donna. However, he did admit to driving a white Dodge in 1994, which one witness saw driving away from the bar around closing time on the night of Donna’s murder.
DNA testing proves innocence and implicates serial murderer David Nelson
None of the DNA on the evidence tested was consistent with Fred or Paul’s DNA. But a DNA profile extracted from the rope found near Donna’s body was consistent with David’s. Based on this discovery, MTIP filed a motion to vacate the convictions in January 2018. Judge Seeley granted the motion based on the newly discovered DNA evidence and because David’s confession to his nephew was more consistent with the physical evidence than the case against Fred and Paul.
The prosecution dismissed the charges on June 1, 2018, and Fred and Paul were released from prison on April 17, 2018, after serving 23 years each.
Watch Montana Right Now’s special feature on the case: