Can You Unring A Bell?
The Story of Robert L. Dana
By Don B. Laws and Nicole Johnson
It was April 19, the Monday after Easter, 1976, when Robert L. Dana was working in a farm field in the agricultural area of Sutter County in Northern California—not the place you would expect to capture a double murderer. The thirty-seven year old farmer on his tractor was surrounded at gunpoint by plain-clothed sheriff deputies and ordered off the equipment. Life as he knew it was over for Robert L. Dana.
Dana had grown up tending the fields and the dairy cattle on the family farm in the North Central area of California. It was not an area of gangs and violence but of solid hard-working Americans raising their families, living the family values lifestyle and looking out for one another. They use to say that “an acorn never falls far from the tree” and that was true of the Dana family. Robert, his parents and his brother Junior all lived very close together and all worked on farms in the area.
The area is well known for abundant streams and farm levees and the large schools of fish that swim in them. A big past time for Robert and his friends was fishing the nearby waterways, downing a few beers, and telling fish stories.
Some twelve years earlier his brother Junior had introduced him to Herschel Koller who went by the name Gene. Gene was employed by the Sutter County Highway Department. Outside of work, drinking and fishing were something Robert and Gene enjoyed together. Like a lot of buddies, they sometimes worked too hard, drank too much and spent too much time fishing. That was just the way of life and they developed a very good relationship.
The area was dotted with a number of small taverns where fishermen could pick up supplies, fuel or launch their boats and naturally, have a few drinks. They did not have the fancy watering holes of the big cities.
During the three or four months prior to Easter of 1976, there seemed to be an undercurrent in the relationship between Robert, his brother Junior and Gene. From time to time Robert would see his brother and Gene talking to two mysterious Hispanic looking men not from the area. Many times the relationship between the two unknown men, Junior and Gene appeared strained or even threatening. Robert, trying to be a good friend, offered on several occasions to intervene and attempt to mediate the problem if they would just disclose the situation. They told Robert not to get involved and said they would work out the issues themselves.
Robert was known in the area as a happy go lucky type of guy—the kind who knew everyone and whom everyone knew. He volunteered with the Department of Fish and Game, was an active member of the NRA, and carried a Concealed Weapons Permit issued by the Sheriff of Sutter County. It was not unusual for residents to be armed in this part of the country. There were bears and other wild game along with an abundance of large rats and snakes that enjoyed drinking from the waterways of the area. Much of the time Robert worked alone in the fields and had dispatched a number of rats and snakes from the gun he always carried with him.
In the months leading up to Easter 1976, the unknown Hispanic men where seen more often around Gene and Junior and the situation seemed to be more threatening. When Robert tried to talk to his buddies about it they told him not to worry if they needed help they would call on some of their friends who were with the Sutter County Sheriff’s Office. One day he was approached by the two mysterious men and questioned whether he was holding a briefcase for Gene. Robert told them he was not and even if he was it was none of their business.
Things started getting serious one day when Gene, Robert and his two sons went down to the levee fishing. They had only been fishing a short time when six gunshots, apparently shot from tall grass nearby, bounced off the ground between them. Robert quickly recovered the .30-.30 he carried in his truck and squeezed off a couple of rounds at the two figures they saw running from the area. They tried to give chase but they had too much of a head start. After arriving back home Robert called the Sheriff’s Department and filed a report about the incident. Nothing else happened.
On Easter 1976, after working in the fields all day, Robert met up with his buddy Gene and Gene’s live-in girlfriend Elaine Matte at Joe’s Landing Tavern around 7:30. Gene and Elaine had been out fishing and drinking during the day so they had a head start on Robert when he arrived late afternoon. As the evening wore on and the drinks kept flowing, Gene and Robert had gotten into one of those “buddy” arguments. Gene had made some remark about Robert’s wife and Robert took offense and told him if he ever did it again he would just shoot him. Minutes later they were back to being old buddies.
Denise Williams was tending bar that night and she, Gene, Robert, and Elaine were the only one’s left in the establishment. Around 10:30 P.M. Denise told them because of Easter, she would like to close early if they didn’t mind. To help Denise they all jumped in and helped clean the bar then headed for the parking lot—around 11 P.M. by this time.
Gene and Elaine headed out in the truck with their fishing boat still in tow. In a few minutes Robert followed but then turned off to go another direction to do a couple of errands. The last of those errands was to stop by Gene’s shed and pick up a couple of short boat oars Gene had given him. He was a little surprised that Gene and Elaine were not yet home as they should have been there well before him. He thought maybe Gene had stopped by the county garage to check on some equipment or something but when he drove by he saw no signs of Gene. He drove home, checked on his livestock and climbed into his own bed for the last time. It was April 19, 1976.
The bell begins to ring.
As Robert climbed down off the farm tractor, one of the deputies told him he was being arrested for the murders of Herschel (Gene) Koller and Elaine Matte. Robert wasn’t sure what he was feeling—shock, sorrow about the death of his friends, confusion—and was having a difficult time trying to piece it all together in a few moments.
The bodies of Gene and Elaine where found near their truck and boat on a levee road. Both had been shot to death. The discovery was made at 5:30 A.M. In less time than it would take most law enforcement agencies to process a double murder crime scene, Sutter County’s finest had arrested their only suspect, Robert L. Dana. It was Noon.
It seems earlier that morning someone heard of the murders and informed the investigators about the “buddy” argument Robert and Gene had the night before. With that scant bit of information, Robert was arrested and jailed. The investigation was headed by Sutter County Detective, Frank Harrison Jr. Harrison spent the next several hours interrogating Dana who denied any knowledge or involvement in the murders of his two friends. Harrison had taped the first interrogation. Two days later he returned and said the tapes were flawed and he wanted to record the interrogation again.
Harrison would ask more questions and Dana repeated his answers and explanation. Harrison would stop the tape and tell Dana to answer only “Yes” or “No” to the questions. Dana never admitted to any crime and had no facts about the case with the exception of what had occurred the previous evening at Joe’s Landing.
Harrison then called in someone from the Department of Justice to conduct a Gun Shot Residue (GSR) test on Dana’s hands. Before conducting the test they ask if he had recently shot a gun. Dana answered that he had on Sunday in the farm field to kill a snake. He told them where they could find the snake and bullets. They never looked. He was then asked if he worked around lubricants. He told them he did daily maintaining the farm equipment. Lubricants can give false GSR test results. Later the person doing the test returned to the room and informed Harrison that they may have a problem. The GSR test was positive but due to the fact he had shot a gun and had worked with lubricants it could be inconclusive. Harrison instructed him to write up the test as positive for GSR.
Over the course of the next several months Dana was offered plea deals by Harrison and District Attorney H. Ted Hansen. Still having faith in the justice system, Dana would not admit to anything he had not done. He had been assigned a Public Defender, Attorney Roy D. VanDenHeuvel.
Almost a year later as his trial neared, Dana became concerned that his Public Defender wasn’t focusing enough on his case and his defense but rather seemed to have little time at all for Dana due to his busy schedule. Reports surfaced that Hansen and VanDenHeuvel had been seen together discussing Dana’s case over lunch. In one last attempt, Dana says Hansen visited his cell to offer him one more plea bargain. Hansen said he had a number of unsolved murders in the county and the public was getting restless. He promised Dana that if he pleaded guilty to all the murders he would insure Dana would not get the death penalty. Dana stopped short of physically throwing Hansen out of his cell.
At trial the District Attorney put on a strictly circumstantial case. There was no physical evidence linking Dana to the murders. Denise Williams testified concerning the argument she witnessed that fateful Easter evening. Prosecutors said that was the motive. They recovered a gun from the river but ballistic experts testified the tests on the gun and bullets to be “inconclusive”. They did have testimony that his hands tested positive for gun shot residue.
The Public Defender seemed to do very little to dispute the evidence or lack thereof presented by the Prosecutor. There was no confession, no blood evidence, no witnesses, inconclusive balistics and inconclusive GSR testing. Instead he seemed to focus on a defense he had devised along the lines of “diminished capacity”. He was trying to show the jury that if Robert committed these murders it was because he was drinking and taking prescription medication and just could not determine right from wrong. The flawed defense did not impress the jury.
On March 22, 1977, Robert L. Dana was found guilty and sentenced to seven years to life for the murders. His appeals, also filed by Public Defenders, have been rejected. District Attorney H. Ted Hansen, now a Superior Court Judge in Sutter County, has fought all attempts at parole by Dana. Dana states that Parole Board members once told him that if he would admit to the crimes and show remorse he would have a better chance at freedom. Dana remains defiant.
The Bell Has Rung.
There is some recent hope. Someone has come forward in 2004, nearly 28 years later, who may have information that had not been discovered at the time the case was tried. That person has indicated an interest in helping the search for truth.
(This information is compiled from information provided by Robert L. Dana and transcripts of the court case. It’s authors represent Time For Justice Foundation dedicated to those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. firstname.lastname@example.org).
||Truth in Justice