A federal lawsuit filed Monday accuses Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and other defendants of suppressing and fabricating evidence in the case of an Oregon man convicted of killing his teenage girlfriend 20 years ago.
The case has been featured twice on ABC’s 20/20 program, the first time in 2010 when Nick McGuffin was arrested for the murder of Leah Freeman in 2000, and a second time in February after McGuffin was released from an Oregon state prison after the charges were dismissed by the Coos County (Oregon) District Attorney’s Office.
After serving nine years for manslaughter, McGuffin was released from prison on Dec. 17, 2019. His conviction was vacated when the judge in the post conviction trial found that McGuffin’s constitutional rights were violated — among other reasons — by the “suppression of the exculpatory DNA evidence.”
Although Freeman vanished in 2000 — her decomposing body was found a few days after her disappearance in Coquille — the case went cold. According to the 48-page complaint, there were at least two pieces of evidence that pointed away from McGuffin, but those were never pursued. The most significant was male DNA found on Freeman’s sneakers that did not belong to McGuffin, the lawsuit shows. The other was a tiny gray paint chip found on Freeman’s tank top.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene Division, claims the first investigation involved fabricated and suppressed evidence.
“McGuffin was wrongfully convicted because Defendants fabricated and suppressed evidence and otherwise violated McGuffin’s rights under the United States constitution, the Oregon constitution, and the law,” the complaint states. “
Dannels, who became police chief of Coquille in 2008, was instrumental in getting McGuffin prosecuted in 2010, the complaint shows. The lawsuit blames Dannels and his investigators for following in the footsteps of the first investigative team which McGuffin’s attorneys say “fabricated and suppressed evidence.”
“As the Chief of Police, Defendant Dannels re-opened the Freeman investigation and assembled a team of police officers to try to obtain a conviction for the Freeman murder (the “Cold Case Investigation”),” the lawsuit states. “Officers involved in the Cold Case Investigation included Defendants Dannels, McNeely, Sanborn, and Webley of the City of Coquille Police Department; Defendants Karcher and Zanni of Coos County; Defendant Schwenninger of the City of Coos Bay Police Department; and Defendants Hormann and Wilcox of the OSP Lab (the “Cold Case Investigators”)
“The Cold Case Investigators knew that the Original Investigating Officers crafted a false narrative of McGuffin’s guilt based on junk science, including a “statement analysis,” fabricated polygraph results, and other fabricated evidence as alleged above.
“The Cold Case Investigators also knew about exculpatory evidence establishing McGuffin’s innocence, including McGuffin’s alibi, which they attempted to undermine by fabricating additional evidence, and the exculpatory DNA evidence, which they suppressed through McGuffin’s trial and for years thereafter. Despite their knowledge of the Original Investigating Officers’ misconduct, lack of credibility, unreliable and unconstitutional methods, and violations of McGuffin’s rights, the Cold Case Investigators relied upon the Original Investigating Officers’ prior investigation and built upon that investigation using unconstitutional tactics of their own in furtherance of the same goal: arresting and prosecuting McGuffin for a crime that he did not commit.”
“McGuffin was wrongfully convicted because Defendants fabricated and suppressed evidence and otherwise violated McGuffin’s rights under the United States constitution, the Oregon constitution, and the law,” the complaint states. “After fighting for his innocence for nearly two decades, McGuffin was exonerated when his conviction was vacated and the Coos County District Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against him.”
Dannels declined comment for this article on Thursday, saying that he had not yet been served with the complaint.
But the sheriff did appear on ABC’s 20/20 in both 2010 and in February after McGuffin was released. The documentary produced by 20/20 was titled “Last Seen Walking,” and it includes clips from 2010 when McGuffin was routinely tailed by Coquille police, including Dannels. The 2010 segment also features McGuffin’s arrest by Coquille investigators, which 20/20 was invited exclusively to record. Dannels and the former Coos County district attorney who prosecuted McGuffin also appear in the February 20/20 segment.
According to the lawsuit, Freeman and McGuffin had been high school sweethearts. She was 15, he was 18. She disappeared the night of June 28, 2000, after leaving a friend’s house in a huff after an argument. McGuffin had dropped Freeman off at her friend’s residence at 7 p.m. that evening and agreed to pick her up at 9 p.m. When he arrived to fetch her, the friend told McGuffin that she and Freeman had argued and Freeman had walked out and toward town. McGuffin drove off to look for Freeman.
He never found her. The following day, McGuffin and Freeman’s mother went to Coquille police and reported her missing. The mother would later appear on 20/20 in 2010 and tell reporters that police never took her seriously, telling her at the time that Freeman was probably a runaway.
Investigators realized that Freeman was not a runaway when they found her right sneaker on the sidewalk where she had last been seen by witnesses the night she vanished. A few days after that her left sneaker was discovered and the shoe had Freeman’s blood on it. The teen’s body was found shortly thereafter in a wooded area off a logging road in Coquille.
Because of the elements, the body was decomposing. But McGuffin’s attorneys said police had spotted a small amount of DNA on both the girl’s shoes that belonged to a male. They also found a tiny gray paint chip attached to her tank top.
The DNA on the shoes was sent to the Oregon State Crime Lab, but an official there who was interviewed on 20/20 said DNA technology was in its infancy in 2000. Additionally, the official said the DNA profile left behind was not significant enough to send to the FBI’s national database for a possible match.
In the 2010 20/20 segment, Dannels was featured a handful of times talking about the investigation. The latest installment of the news program also includes now-retired reporters, as well as McGuffin and his attorney, Janis Puracal.
In one interview in the 2010 segment, Dannels told the reporter that “No matter which way we went, at the end of the day it pointed to McGuffin.” Investigators under Dannels’ direction tailed McGuffin routinely and police allowed reporters to tag along and film as they shadowed McGuffin.
“We weren’t trying to hide from Nick,” Dannels told 20/20 in 2010. “We wanted to see what he was doing.”
The day McGuffin was nabbed by Coquille police, 20/20 was invited to film the takedown. As Dannels and his investigative team planned the arrest, 20/20 was in the room recording.
Despite the ruling of the post-conviction judge, Dannels remained unconvinced.
In the February segment of 20/20, the sheriff said, “Nick McGuffin is directly responsible for the death of Leah Freeman.
“I was confident the jury made the right decision,” he added. “I’m as confident as I talk to you today.”
When asked about the ruling in the post-conviction court, Dannels said, “They didn’t say Nick was innocent ... ”
McGuffin, who returned to Coquille after he was released from prison, told 20/20 that although he is grateful to be free, the nine years he spent incarcerated left him mentally broken.
His attorneys are requesting a jury trial on the complaint. They’re also requesting judgment against the defendants on seven claims for relief, an award of plaintiffs’ economic and non-economic damages and an award of punitive damages.
The ABC 20/20 episode of “Last Seen Walking” can be viewed at: https://abc.com/shows/2020/episode-guide/2020-02/28-last-seen-walking.