Traverse City Record-Eagle


Debra Parmentier
Debra Parmentier

Botches follow botches

Error-strewn case costs millions

February 23 - 25, 2003
Record-Eagle staff writer

      GAYLORD - It began with a mystery that has never been solved and a question that has never been satisfactorily answered.

      On a winter morning in 1986, the frozen body of 31-year-old oilfield worker Jerry Tobias was discovered in the back of his pickup truck on a quiet Gaylord street. There was blood on his body, and it appeared his hands had been bound with a pair of jumper cables. At an autopsy performed the next day, the Otsego County medical examiner decided Tobias had been struck in the head by a blunt instrument of some kind.

      The police wasted no time in pursuing the incident. Before the week was out, they raided a butcher shop owned by Waters resident Laurie Moore and seized a metal skewer used for roasting chicken, which the medical examiner identified as the probable murder weapon. Moore was arrested in what the authorities began calling "a drug deal gone wrong."

      But instead of solving the mystery of Jerry Tobias' death, the arrest of Laurie Moore was only the beginning of a 17-year ordeal that deepened the confusion.

      Since 1986, the Tobias case has absorbed millions of taxpayer dollars. Suspects were arrested, prosecuted and jailed, only to be freed when the evidence against them turned out to have been fabricated. Police and prosecutors have been accused of serious violations of ethics. And the case itself remains a convoluted web of official misconduct, perjury and outright craziness.

    At the center of that web is the strange and enigmatic figure of Debra Parmentier, also known as Debra Herrick or Brieanna Herrick, the witness whose testimony eventually sent four men to prison for the Tobias murder, and who disappeared into the Utah desert in 1995 after confessing that it had all been an elaborate lie. Parmentier was arrested in January by federal agents near Salt Lake City before being brought back to Gaylord earlier this month to face perjury charges.

      If it can be believed, her testimony may finally answer some of the most troubling questions about the behavior of police and prosecutors who allegedly encouraged her perjury, intimidated other witnesses and withheld or destroyed evidence that contradicted her story.

      But it may never answer the central question: Who, if anyone, killed Jerry Tobias?

      Police were certain they knew the answer to that question in 1986. They had long suspected the existence of a drug ring that was using the Gaylord area as a central distribution point for large amounts of cocaine and other illegal drugs, and they were certain Moore had killed Tobias during a drug-related disagreement. Those suspicions seemed confirmed when laboratory tests showed a large amount of cocaine in Tobias' body.

      Second-degree murder charges were filed against Moore by Otsego County Prosecutor Norman Hayes, who had known Moore from high school. In fact, Moore had married Hayes' former girlfriend, a fact that was later stressed by defense attorneys in the case.

      That is when Debra Parmentier first entered the picture - although no one paid much attention at the time. About a month after Moore's arrest, Parmentier met with an investigator from the prosecutor's office and told him that she had witnessed the murder and could implicate several other people in the killing. She also told a series of wild stories about international drug smuggling, gun-running and the theft of weapons from the Michigan National Guard armory at Camp Grayling.

      The investigator decided Parmentier's testimony was unbelievable, especially after seeing psychological evaluations that showed she had a history of lying and of mental illness. Her story was ignored.

      It didn't seem necessary, anyway. In November of 1987, Laurie Moore was convicted of involuntary manslaughter before Cheboygan Circuit Judge Robert Livo - even though defense attorney Dean Robb tried to argue that Tobias had simply frozen to death after passing out from a drug overdose. Moore was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison.

      Case closed? Not really.

      Three months later, four jurors in the case announced that they wished to change their votes. They revealed that 10 members of the 12-member jury had wanted to acquit Moore and had only gone along with a guilty verdict after they were falsely informed that a hung jury would harm Moore's chances for a new trial. It was the first sign that something was seriously wrong about the entire Tobias case, and would eventually lead to Moore's release from prison in 1991.

      But in the meantime, investigators were once again listening to Debra Parmentier, who told them that she and another woman named Sherry Payton had actually been in Moore's butcher shop and had seen the murder. She implicated Moore's brother Walter "Terry" Moore and two other local men, Mark Canter and Donald Heistand, as participants in the killing. She also said a fourth man, Doug Brinkman, helped them load Tobias into the back of the pickup.

      Police immediately took Parmentier into protective custody and had her make taped telephone calls to Terry Moore in an unsuccessful attempt to provoke him into revealing information about the case. In April of 1988, relying almost entirely on Parmentier's statements, Hayes filed charges against Terry Moore, Canter, Heistand and Brinkman. As police said at the time, none of the four "were Boy Scouts," and the announcement met with little surprise.

      Terry Moore was convicted of second-degree murder - even though defense attorney Michael Hackett produced evidence that Parmentier had a history of mental instability and lying. Several months later, Canter was convicted of aiding and abetting in the murder, entirely on the testimony of Parmentier and Sherry Payton. Both men were sentenced to life in prison. Heistand and Brinkman, offered a chance at reduced sentences, confessed to lesser charges.

      And that, it seemed, was the end of the story. A dangerous crew of murderous drug dealers and thugs had been put away, thanks to the efforts of hard-working police, an aggressive prosecutor and a courageous public-spirited witness. Now at last, the case could really be closed.

      Instead, it slowly began to unravel.

      Since Terry Moore was out of money and no local lawyers were interested in taking his case, the court appointed former Grand Traverse County prosecutor Stuart Hubbell to handle his appeal. Hubbell, a shrewd and well-connected attorney, immediately smelled a rat. He began talking to Gaylord attorney Ray MacNeil, who was representing Canter, and they were able to persuade the Michigan Attorney General's office to investigate the case.

      The attorneys' investigation led them to prosecution witness Sherry Payton, who had begun having second thoughts about her testimony. She told them that she had never seen any murder, but had been forced to corroborate Debra Parmentier's story by a Michigan State Police officer who told her she would go to jail and never see her newborn baby if she refused to go along.

      Armed with Payton's new testimony, the state Court of Appeals ordered Judge Alton Davis to consider possible new evidence in the Canter case, but after several days of testimony, Davis decided there was not enough new evidence to justify a new trial.

      Meanwhile, prosecutor Hayes decided to look for a new job. In November of 1990 he was elected to the newly created second judgeship in the 87th District Court.

      In March of 1991, Laurie Moore's original conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals, which ruled that Judge Robert Livo's instructions to the jury were incorrect. One member of the three-judge panel went even farther; he issued a scathing denunciation of police - and of Hayes in particular - charging the newly elected judge with "severe and reprehensible prosecutorial misconduct" and of pursuing Moore in a spirit of personal vindictiveness.

      Hayes had known Moore from high school. In fact, Moore had married Hayes' former girlfriend.

      Finally, after three years behind bars, Laurie Moore was a free man. So were Douglas Brinkman and Donald Heistand, who had served their sentences and were back on the street.

      But Terry Moore and Mark Canter were still in prison, and their attorneys began redoubling efforts to have their convictions overturned. By early 1992, Hubbell persuaded the Michigan Supreme Court to appoint him as a "one-man grand jury" with unprecedented powers to gather information about the way police and prosecutors handled evidence in the case.

      Hubbell, now joined by fellow Traverse City attorney J. Bruce Donaldson, immediately began to uncover more signs of wrongdoing. When the Court of Appeals ordered Canter's case returned to the circuit court - with specific instructions to find out if his rights had been violated - the whole sorry mess was exposed to public view. A box filled with evidence about Parmentier's instability and unreliability - evidence that had never been revealed to defense attorneys - was suddenly discovered at the state police post in Gaylord.

      By this time Parmentier had moved to Utah, gotten married and changed her name to Debra (sometimes Brieanna) Herrick. Police found her and brought her back to Gaylord for a series of hearings in the summer of 1993. Although she refused to retract her story, parts of it began to look less and less believable.

      Three of her former boyfriends, for instance, took the stand to testify that Parmentier had hired them to shoot into two homes where she was staying in order to boost her credibility and persuade police that her life was in danger.

      Other facts emerged. She had committed crimes while under protective custody, faked her own kidnapping and carried on a sexual relationship with one of the officers assigned to guard her.
      What's more, defense attorneys presented evidence showing that she had been "thoroughly coached" for her testimony by someone who provided her with court transcripts and newspaper clippings about the case.

      And her former roommate, Cynthia Glesen Steele, revealed that Parmentier had actually been at home the night she was supposedly witnessing the Tobias murder. Steele said Parmentier later persuaded her to tell police she was gone that weekend, and even had her change her diary to reflect the official story.

      Unfortunately for Canter and Moore, the hearings ended suddenly when the presiding judge was overheard making a derogatory remark about one of the witnesses. They resumed again in February 1994, but were almost immediately suspended again when Hubbell developed serious health problems.

      By May, however, Judge Porter agreed to consolidate Canter's and Moore's appeals into a single case. In June he ordered Parmentier arrested on perjury charges.

    Debra Parmentier still had a trick or two up her sleeve. In March of 1995, she jumped bond and disappeared from view, leaving behind a 129-page statement in which she recanted most of her previous testimony, admitted that she had lied and said she had been extensively coached by police.

      Moreover, she said, the police themselves threatened her with prosecution when she tried to retract her earlier statements. She said that police said she might find herself being prosecuted for the Tobias death, which police had labeled a "drug deal gone wrong."

      The damage to the prosecution's case was impossible to ignore. In January 1996 former 46th Circuit Court Judge William Porter ordered new trials for Mark Canter and Walter "Terry" Moore, whose brother Laurie earlier was convicted and later exonerated in the Tobias death. Two days later, after spending eight years behind bars, Canter and Terry Moore were released from prison to await a decision from prosecutor Norman Hayes' successor, Kevin Hesselink.

      Hesselink tried to bring charges against the two a second time, but the court ruled that Parmentier's testimony was no longer admissible and the charges were dismissed once and for all.

      But the aftershocks weren't over. In 1999, Terry Moore and Canter filed a civil suit against Otsego County, the State of Michigan, a number of state police officers (Lt. John Hardy, Sgt. Fred LaBarge, Detective Sgt. Douglas Wilt, Trooper Kenneth Bur and Detective Sgt. Carl Goeman) and private investigator Charles Rettstadt, who were involved in gathering the evidence that was used against them.

      Last year the county agreed to pay Canter and Moore $2.75 million in compensation in an out-of-court settlement, and they received another $1.25 million from the State of Michigan.

      Donald Heistand, who served 25 months of a three- to five-year sentence for aiding and abetting the murder and now lives in the Detroit area, has a similar case pending in federal court. In his suit, he says police coerced him into entering a no contest plea to the Tobias murder.

      Doug Brinkman, who allegedly helped dispose of the body, never managed to stay permanently out of trouble and is back behind bars on a parole violation.

      Many of the police investigators involved in the case have retired by now.

      Defense attorney Bruce Donaldson died in 1998, and an aging Stuart Hubbell has passed much of the remaining work on the Tobias case to his son Daniel Hubbell.

      Judge Hayes is still serving, now as a probate judge in Antrim County.

      And prosecutor Kevin Hesselink said he remains convinced, in spite of everything, that the prosecution really did put the right men in prison and that they should still be there.

August 17, 2003
Silence Trumps Justice

Terry Moore asked the question a lot of people would like answered some 16 years, three murder trials, three overturned convictions and a slew of civil cases after the fact: "Why isn't the state going after them?"

      The "them" Moore was referring to are the state police detectives and Otsego County law enforcement officials - including former prosecutor Norm Hayes -who took part in the shameful circus that was, and still is, the Jerry Tobias murder case.

      The occasion was a hearing at which state attorney general officials and a judge accepted a guilty plea from Debra Parmentier, the star witness in the Tobias case, who was facing a host of perjury charges related to her testimony.

      By accepting the plea, Attorney General Mike Cox effectively shut the door on what appears to be the last best chance that the truth, or some version of it at least, would come out.

      There still remains a federal wrongful prosecution civil suit filed by Tobias defendant Donald Heistand at which Parmentier is scheduled to testify, but it's unlikely Parmentier will tell her story there.

      Similar suits filed by Moore and fellow former defendant Mark Canter against state police detectives and the county were settled out of court, and there's no reason to believe that the Heistand case won't be, either.

      Parmentier's guilty plea can be seen as an affirmation of the claims made by Moore and Canter, who spent nearly eight years in prison on murder charges before Parmentier's testimony against them was determined to be unreliable.

      At the time, lawyers for the two men said Hayes, now Antrim County probate judge, and state police detectives coerced Parmentier into lying, withheld medical records concerning her and reports of criminal activity she was said to be involved in during the trials. A box full of Tobias case evidence that was never released to the defense team turned up at the Gaylord State Police post after the fact.

      Hayes has always maintained he did nothing wrong, as have state police officers and Otsego County deputies. But Hayes has never testified in court about the case, and the suits against the state police and Otsego County were settled before they could get to trial.

      The silence on the part of county and state officials about this case has been deafening. By settling the earlier cases out of court and, now, by accepting Parmentier's guilty plea without a trial, county and state officials have ensured that the silence would continue.

      That's not justice.

      People want to know if a former prosecutor withheld evidence and manipulated a witness. They want to know if state police detectives who had to believe Parmentier was lying never spoke up. They want to know why three men - Moore, Canter and Moore's brother, Laurie Moore - went to prison for murder only to be released. They want to know why Heistand and Doug Brinkman did time on lesser charges they now refute. They want some answers.

      And somewhere, the family of Jerry Tobias, a 31-year-old oilfield worker, wants to know how he came to be found frozen in the back of his pickup truck in December of 1986, who did that to him and why those people aren't in prison.
      Many, many questions. And, largely because county and state officials want it that way, very few answers.

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice