Coerced Confession, Miracle Exoneration: The Case of Ex-Monster Jerry Hobbs
Stephen T. Asma | Sunday 30 January 2011
"How will you make sure the dirt stays inside the sandwich?" I asked my brother Dave. He was trying to figure out how to send a dirt sandwich to Nancy Grace, the shrieking CNN legal analyst and gossip show host. In 2005, Grace told viewers she was so convinced Jerry Hobbs killed his daughter that she would gladly eat a dirt sandwich if police failed to turn up the physical evidence. My brother Dave and a handful of public defenders finally proved that Jerry was innocent and paved the way for his release in August 2010.
On Mother's Day, May 2005, as the sun began to set in a rural part of Zion, Illinois, Jerry Hobbs grew anxious that his eight-year-old daughter Laura was not back home yet. Laura and her friend, nine-year-old Krystal Tobias, were last seen sharing a single bike around the wooded suburban community north of Chicago. But by nightfall, it became clear that both girls were missing. A frantic search ensued. Jerry and others searched throughout the night and, at daybreak, it was Jerry himself who found his daughter and her friend stabbed to death in the nearby woods of Beulah Park. Several hours later, the distraught father found himself sequestered in a legal "blacksite" - unlocatable to family, friends and legal representation - and under intense interrogation by police.
Within forty-eight hours, Jerry Hobbs, now "Monster Hobbs," was arrested for the murder of Laura and Krystal. This is the inside story of Hobbs' exoneration five years later and his drive back to Texas with my brother Dave.
In the days before Hobbs' release, Dave was driving around town with a backpack of clothes in the trunk of his car. No one knew when or even whether Jerry would be released, but if his case was dismissed, he'd be set free in his prison jumpsuit. Jerry, now 39, had no family in the Zion area anymore, so he told his defense team that he wanted to get back to his mom in Texas. Because Jerry had no identification and was deathly afraid of planes, my brother, together with attorneys John Bailey and Greg Ticsay, agreed to drive him down to Wichita Falls, Texas.
When Jerry was finally released on August 3, 2010, he changed into the civvies his attorney had bought for him and climbed into a minivan driven by my brother Dave. "Welcome to the outside, Jerry," my brother exclaimed. As they headed for the expressway, one of the attorneys handed Jerry a cell phone. "Do you want to call somebody?" Always a man of few words, he dialed the phone and left a message on his mother's voice mail.
"Ma." Jerry paused. "I'm on my way home."
A False Confession: "They Broke Me"
When Jerry's mother, JoAnn Hobbs, first saw her incarcerated son back in 2005, he greeted her by blurting out, "Mama, they broke me." He was referring to the grueling 20-hour interrogation, which took place after his sleepless 48 hours of searching and the traumatic discovery of the bodies. Hobbs, like so many others before him, succumbed to the mysterious suggestibility of sleep deprivation, desperation and fear. He confessed to murdering his daughter and Krystal Tobias.
Our common sense still rejects the notion that you could ever falsely admit to killing your own daughter. And yet, case after case illustrates surprising levels of psychological breakdown and manipulation under certain interrogation scenarios.
According to Dave, Jerry became an easy scapegoat for the murder because he fit three common suspect criteria. First, he found the bodies. That looks bad to law enforcement - how could he find them when no one else could? In point of fact, he didn't find the bodies directly, but found the bicycle and worked a search in the vicinity until the final dread discovery. Two, Jerry had a previous criminal record. In addition to a variety of drug and domestic violence charges in Texas, Jerry had been arrested for chasing a man with a chainsaw during a trailer park argument in Wichita Falls. That also looks bad. But as bad as it looks - and it was widely reported in 2005 media accounts - the guy he chased explained it differently. My brother Dave found and interviewed the chased guy, who had relocated to Wausau, Wisconsin; he shrugged it off, bearing Jerry no ill will. It was a fight, apparently. "Jerry brought a chainsaw to the fight," the guy explained, "I brought a gun." Third, and perhaps most damning, Jerry was a family member of the murdered girl, having rejoined the family after a release from a short Texas prison stay on a parole violation. That alone, given the sad facts of domestic violence, is enough to make any relative a suspect in a crime.
Jerry's confession was vague and incoherent, and it was typed for him by police - all he had to do was sign it. He was angry, the document said, because his daughter Laura was supposed to be home - having been grounded for stealing $40 from her mom - but she was out on her bike with Krystal. When Jerry found them in the forest preserve at Beulah Park, he supposedly flew into a rage, punching Laura to the ground. Nine-year-old Krystal supposedly pulled out a knife and tried to defend Laura. Jerry supposedly took the knife and then stabbed Laura 20 times and Krystal 11 times.
While Jerry sat in jail, my brother studied the grisly crime-scene photos of the girls for a year straight, subjecting the images to every kind of low-tech public defender analysis he could try. Things didn't add up. After careful study, one could see that the bodies were arranged in a very peculiar manner.
"The bodies were staged and reassembled," Dave explained. "The girls were carefully laid out, side by side. They were facing upward, and their shoes were placed neatly nearby them. It didn't match the confession story of a furious attack." Then there were the markings on the bodies.
"By manipulating the color and the contrast of the images," Dave explained, "we began to see that the girls had been beaten with some object - I still don't know what it was. But it left bruises, shaped like little bagels, on their skin."
Then he began to notice that the girls were stabbed in very similar locations, suggesting something more ritualistic than frenzied. Strengthening this ritualistic thesis was the fact that many of the cuts revealed a three-step process. The murderer punctured the skin gently twice, almost like a hesitation, then delivered a full stabbing thrust. The media widely reported that Laura had been stabbed in the eyes. This heinous act seems sadistic in the extreme and suggests a furious, animalistic attack. But as Dave studied the wounds more carefully and invited forensic analysis, it became clear that the eye cuts were very carefully administered. The punctures were done methodically into the eye sockets, but above the orb of the eye itself; the eyes themselves were strangely spared by the perpetrator's knife. Lastly, the bodies appeared to have been undressed and then redressed and reassembled. None of these ritualistic aspects fit together with Jerry's confession.
There were other factors that didn't make sense, either. The murder weapon - the dubious knife from Krystal - was never found. Jerry was never seen by any witnesses near the crime scene in what should have been a conspicuously bloody condition. And, while his confession claimed that he had cleaned the blood off of himself with alcohol, it turns out that that would have been impossible - blood is not soluble by alcohol.
Originally, the pathology report claimed that there was no sexual assault. There was no obvious tearing or gross body damage to the genitalia, so the pathologist drew the reasonable conclusion. As dictated by protocol, they took evidentiary swabs of the bodies. Police submitted them to the local crime lab, but they only found partial male DNA under the girls' fingernails. The partial DNA didn't match Jerry and should have raised a red flag, but since Jerry had already confessed, the prosecution considered the DNA to be unrelated to the case. Whenever there's a confession, it seems, any conflicts with the evidence in the case can be downplayed, or discounted, or explained away.
The wrongful imprisonment and five-year pretrial custody of Hobbs is like a textbook case study of institutional inertia. Once a case starts moving in a specific direction, it is nigh impossible to redirect it toward a new path. It takes on a momentum of its own.
When my brother told me way back in 2005 that he thought Hobbs was innocent, that the confession was coerced and that someone else must have done it, I admit I thought he had overspent his big heart; he'd finally given himself over to some stereotypical public defender-leftie naivete. But then came the DNA.
Dave and the Lake County defense team submitted the swabs to their own evidence experts in California at SERI Labs. The anal, vaginal and oral swabs were examined, and, to everyone's shock, SERI found full "swimmers" - a pathology slang for full spermatozoa. Unbeknownst to the state, the now-flabbergasted defense team had not only uncovered evidence previously overlooked by the local crime lab, but they could show that the recovered spermatozoa DNA didn't match Jerry's. Moreover, this new DNA matched the previously discovered material found beneath the girls' fingernails.
"At first," Dave explains, "there was some discussion about taking this discovery straight to the media. But we also knew that the discovery of our 'mystery man' could cause the prosecution some embarrassment, and there was a cautious concern about their reactions and the already contentious adversarial relationship. We wanted the best for Jerry and eventually decided that we should 'play nice' with the prosecution. So, we quietly presented the state with our findings, thinking they would do the right thing - namely, confirm our results and throw out the case against Jerry. We even accepted the fact that the state would probably take credit for our discovery, but we were fine with that, if they just exonerated Jerry."
The defense team submitted all the evidence for the "mystery man" in 2008. The state did nothing with it; the evidence was ignored. A full year passed with no action from the state, so the defense tried to light a fire. They filed a motion to reduce Jerry's bond. The filing caused the judge to ask why, giving the team the opportunity to finally present the mystery man evidence. The judge ordered the state to retest the data, but he refused to lower the bond. Months went by without any significant movement in the case. Jerry sat in jail.
Frustrated, the defense team finally decided to sue the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in federal court. In an attempt to motivate the prosecutors, the defense went straight to the keepers of the national DNA database - the FBI - in order to force someone to run the mystery man's DNA. In late May of 2010, Dave served a subpoena to the FBI office in Chicago. In time, they agreed to run the DNA sample against the national database once the local crime lab submitted it. When the DNA was finally submitted, they came up empty; there were no matches of the mystery DNA with the national database of known DNA profiles. The defense team was disappointed, but even without a positive match for the mystery man, Dave had already started building a life-size silhouette mannequin with a large question mark and a DNA code printed across its chest.
"We were planning," Dave says, "on bringing this life-size mystery man to Jerry's eventual trial, standing it in the courtroom in order to drive our argument home: Someone else killed these girls!"
Next came a stunning turn of events. The local lab discovered that they had accidentally transposed some of the DNA profile numbers when they submitted them to the FBI, and, as a result, were unable to find a match for the profile. A corrected array was resubmitted and, at last, there was a hit.
"All of a sudden," Dave explains, "we get a call. There's a match. I almost fell off my chair. All I was told, at the time, was that it was some guy arrested in Virginia." A week later, the defense team learned his name: Jorge Torrez.
A Budding Serial Killer?
Jorge Torrez was in custody in a Virginia police department because he had allegedly abducted a local woman, raped her and left her for dead. The injured woman had managed to crawl to safety and report him. Further investigation into Torrez's history revealed that in 2005, at the time of the girls' murder in Zion, he was living down the street from the Hobbs and Tobias families. Torrez, sixteen years old at the time of the murders, was close friends with Krystal's older brother. After high school, Torrez enlisted in the Marines. According to his sister, Torrez gave her his knife collection before he left for basic training.
Torrez's violent past suggests that he might be a previously undetected serial killer. He was stationed in many places, including Okinawa, during his tenure with the Marines. Investigators are now interested in any missing persons or unsolved murders in these locations. More recently Torrez was working as a clerk in the Pentagon. In February 2010, he abducted two women at gunpoint and was eventually caught and convicted of fourteen charges, including two counts of abduction with the intent to defile and three counts of forced sodomy. The jury recommended five life sentences plus 168 years and a $190,000 fine.
"But here's the part that gives me chills," Dave explained. "We would have never linked this guy to the Hobbs case if we had run the DNA before. For years, we kept pushing them to run the DNA, but if they had, it would have come up blank, because Torrez was only arrested in February 2010 -that's when his DNA entered into the databank. And it's luckier still, because Virginia just happens to take DNA samples when you're arrested, whereas Illinois takes the samples after you're convicted. The timing was almost providential!"
Jerry Goes Home: "Well ... It's Been Interesting"
In July of 2010, the state began to consider dismissing the Hobbs case. The defense team continued applying pressure, pushing the court for bond review. In the midst of this crescendo, the state's attorney, Michael Waller, traveled out of the area for a couple of weeks. He informed everyone that he'd make a decision when he got back. Jerry remained in jail.
Finally, on August 3, Jerry was released from jail. My brother met him as he was released directly from the courtroom. After the prosecution announced their motion to dismiss charges, Jerry was led through the judge's hallway behind the courtroom and allowed to change out of his jail uniform. Deputies and corrections staff escorted him to a secured parking area, where Dave and another investigator waited in the minivan. Jerry had absolutely no possessions when he exited court.
There was a press circus around the front of the county courthouse, with reporters and cameras swarming. Jerry had already told the defense team that he didn't want to deal with the press just yet, so my brother had brought disguises and planned to shuttle Jerry out the back way.
"I had these crazy Guy Fawkes masks for all of us to wear," my brother laughed. "You know, the British revolutionary guy. It's those same mustachioed masks from the 'V for Vendetta' movie. We were proud of vindicating Jerry and also honored to be getting him back home, but the defense team didn't want the press to take our pictures - we did our job as public defenders, not as individuals."
The defense team never had to wear the masks. They managed to slip the press easily and hit the road for Texas. As they traveled south, Jerry displayed his usual reserve, but the team could barely contain their euphoria. Exonerations in death penalty cases during a pretrial stage are very rare. Public defenders rarely see these kinds of resolutions in capital cases. So many things were stacked against Jerry's exoneration: the public and the media had already decided that Jerry was a monster, the state's attorney had already earned "political capital" with Jerry's confession (but now had to eat crow) and similar DNA discoveries in other such cases had frequently failed to shift prosecutors' reliance on confessions. On the road, Jerry didn't seem to understand or acknowledge most of this. He was still stunned and wary about his freedom. His mood had been contoured by years of injustice and institutional life.
When my brother snapped a picture of Jerry outside their car at a barbecue restaurant in Bloomington, Illinois, Jerry automatically adopted the customary handcuff pose, with hands clasped to the front. When they all stopped at roadside dinners or restaurants, Jerry, thoroughly institutionalized, found it difficult to choose a menu item and just ordered whatever my brother was having. Finally, near the end of the trip down to Wichita Falls, Texas, Jerry sheepishly requested a bucket of KFC chicken as a modest celebration. Sadly, road construction and a dodgy GPS device detoured the KFC search, but Jerry was perfectly happy with a Texas Whataburger restaurant.
Jerry was weary and quiet, but he occasionally gave himself over to humble dreams about the future.
"What will you do now?" Dave asked him.
"Well, I look forward to getting back into tree-trimming," Jerry said. "That's something I always enjoyed." He would expound for a few minutes about the joys of a good chainsaw and the quiet environment atop roadside trees, then catch himself awkwardly and taper off.
"How does it feel to be a free man, Jerry?" Dave asked him near the end of the trip. Jerry was quiet. Sometime later, he grew philosophical about the last five years of his life - years spent wasted in jail while his daughter's killer roamed free.
"The last five years," he sighed. "Well ... it's been interesting."