St. Louis Courier-Journal

Innocence Project claims man spent 11 years in prison for rape he didn't commit

May 30, 2010

For almost 30 years, Michael Ray VonAllmen said he didn't do it -- he was not the man who abducted and then raped a 22-year-old woman in Iroquois Park on Oct. 10, 1981.

Even after he was convicted, he lobbied for and passed two polygraph tests. And even after his release from prison -- after serving 11 years -- he unsuccessfully urged the Kentucky State Police to tell him if any physical evidence still existed in his case.

Now 16 years after his parole, VonAllmen is still maintaining his innocence -- and willing to risk his freedom to prove it.

On Friday, backed with evidence gathered by the Kentucky Innocence Project, he'll ask a Jefferson Circuit Court judge to set aside his conviction, though he knows that if the request is approved, prosecutors could move for a new trial.

And if he were convicted again, VonAllmen could be sentenced to the time he has already served in prison. But a jury also could recommend a term longer than the 35 years he received in 1981.

However unlikely it is that he would be convicted again and returned to prison, there is a risk, VonAllmen acknowledges.

"Why take the gamble? It's better than walking around being a convicted rapist," he said. "I've been wanting to tell this story for years."

Similar cases

VonAllmen's argument is that the real rapist was Ronald Tackett, who was convicted of a very similar rape in 1978.

The two crimes were eerily similar -- young women abducted at gunpoint from the same area and taken to Iroquois Park, where they were beaten, robbed and raped by a heavy-set white man with a thick shock of curly, dark hair.

The first rape occurred Feb. 21, 1978, when a man abducted a 16-year-old girl from a gas station on Taylor Boulevard and took her to Iroquois Park, where he beat, raped and robbed her. The suspect was described as about 5-foot-9, more than 200 pounds and having curly dark brown hair.

Tackett was charged with rape, robbery and being a persistent felony offender after the victim identified him and his vehicle. But he was convicted only of misdemeanor assault and given 90 days in jail after the prosecution said the key witness did not want to testify, according to court records.

That victim, who is not being identified because of the nature of the assault, now says she doesn't remember telling prosecutors she did not want to testify and was under the belief that Tackett went to prison for the rape, according to an affidavit in court records.

In the October 1981 case, a 22-year-old woman was abducted at gunpoint outside a bar two blocks from Taylor Boulevard and taken to the park, where she was beaten, raped and robbed before being forced to drive her attacker back to the area near the bar. The description: A man about 5-foot-11, weighing more than 200 pounds, and having curly dark brown hair.

A tip about a car in the area at the time of the rape led police to VonAllmen, whose conviction was based almost solely on the victim's testimony.

Ted Shouse, who represented VonAllmen with the Kentucky Innocence Project and has taken the case with him to private practice, said there is clear evidence VonAllmen deserves to be exonerated, starting with the similarities between the rapes and the two men.

Among the evidence he will present in court this week:

*VonAllmen's appellate attorney got prosecutors to agree to give him two polygraph tests after he was convicted. He was so convincing that the polygraph examiner was able to persuade former Louisville Police Chief Richard Dotson to write a letter on his behalf to the parole board.

*While at the Kentucky State Reformatory in the early 1990s, VonAllmen was approached by another inmate named Mark Marshall, who told him he had met a woman who had been married to Tackett. Marshall said the woman, Rayetta Smith, told him Tackett may have committed the rape VonAllmen was serving time for. Smith confirmed this in a March court affidavit.

*Smith, who was married to Tackett for six years, also said that Tackett often took her to Iroquois Park and beat her , according to court records.

*Tackett was 30 when he died in a 1983 high speed car chase with Jefferson County Police. He was driving a 1971 green Mercury, which matched the description of the vehicle the 1981 rape victim said her attacker drove.

*Tackett lived just blocks from where the 1981 victim was abducted, according to court records. And police took a gun from Tackett after arresting him on robbery charges just months after that rape.

*The victim in the 1981 case described the rapist as having blue eyes. Tackett had blue eyes, and VonAllmen has brown eyes.

And, Shouse notes, the only evidence against VonAllmen was the eyewitness identification.

In an interview, Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel said that after reviewing what Shouse has presented, he is 75 percent to 80 percent sure Tackett -- not VonAllmen -- committed the 1981 rape.

But without any supporting physical evidence, such as DNA, there may not be much prosecutors can do, he said, noting, "We are stuck with a legal conviction."

"There is not enough evidence to dismiss the case," he said.

Assistant Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney Kristi Gray, who is handling the case, said the office has asked Louisville Metro Police to investigate VonAllmen's claims before it decides what stance to take on Shouse's motion.

"We are trying to do an independent verification of everything they put forward," she said.

Police declined to comment on the case.

Tip leads to conviction

Shortly after the 1981 rape, a tipster called police with two license plate numbers the person claimed may have been on the suspect's vehiclet.

Police found one of the plates was registered to a vehicle belonging to VonAllmen, and the other to a neighbor in his apartment complex. The neighbor's vehicle also was similar to the description of what the victim had seen.

According to court records from the original case, the victim quickly identified VonAllmen after seeing his picture in a photo pack.

Louisville police said VonAllmen didn't make a statement when he was arrested, except to say that he "was confused in regards to his activities" on the day of the crime, according to testimony in the 1982 trial.

VonAllmen, who was charged with rape, sodomy and robbery, later testified that he didn't initially remember what he had been doing that night because his arrest came three weeks later. He subsequently recalled that he had been at a party.

During the trial, the victim claimed her assailant was in a bar at the same time she was there celebrating a friend's birthday. She said he walked up to her as she got in her vehicle and abducted her at gunpoint and then drove her to the park in her car. He punched, raped and robbed her, she said, before forcing her to drive him back near the bar.

When asked by then-Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Ernie Jasmin if she was sure VonAllmen was her attacker, she responded, "No doubt," according to a trial transcript.

The victim in the 1981 rape, who was at the time a student and Census worker who lived in New Albany, Ind., could not be located by the newspaper.

After reading the trial transcripts, Stengel said he thought Jasmin, who died in 2004, "overreached" in his prosecution of VonAllmen, especially when trying to link VonAllmen's neighbor's vehicle to him. The neighbor testified VonAllmen did not have access to the vehicle.

Attorney David Busse, who was the public defender who represented VonAllmen at trial, pointed out during his questioning of police that officers never searched VonAllmen's apartment for a gun or anything stolen from the rape victim; did not look for fingerprints in the victim's vehicle and did not canvass the area or bar for witnesses.

The primary detective on the case, John Tarter, who is no longer with Louisville Police, said he had a vague memory of the case but couldn't recall specific details, given the amount of time passed

Also, three witnesses testified that VonAllmen had been at the party with them the night of the rape, with one man saying VonAllmen had given him a ride home about 3:30 a.m.And VonAllmen's then-girlfriend testified she talked with him by phone after that, eventually spending the night with him.

But Jasmin poked holes in the witnesses' testimony, noting they differed on how many people were at the party, what time it ended and what, exactly, VonAllmen did that morning.

In the end, Jasmin said, jurors would have to decide who they believed: VonAllmen or the victim.

After several hours of deliberation, the jury found VonAllmen guilty of rape, sodomy and robbery. He was sentenced Feb. 18, 1983.

"There was so much disbelief," VonAllmen said of the verdict, adding that he could hear his family's sobs behind him but could not turn around. "It was killing me."

Polygraphs and parole

Twice in the early 1980s, VonAllmen's appellate attorney persuaded prosecutors to allow him to take polygraphs, which he passed. In fact, VonAllmen passed a 1985 polygraph so convincingly that test examiner Gordon Duff asked Chief Dotson to do something.

Dotson, according to a recent court affidavit, wrote a letter to the parole board about the polygraph. But VonAllmen was turned down by the parole board repeatedly.

In 1993, he said, he was approached by fellow inmate Marshall, who told him what Tackett's former wife had said.

"My response was, 'What did he look like,' " VonAllmen said in an interview. "And he says, 'big, curly headed guy.' ... I thought, 'That answers that.' "

VonAllmen said that after he was paroled in 1994, he contacted the Kentucky State Police lab looking for any physical evidence, but received no response. He said he also called The Courier-Journal but did not get any help, so he moved on.

"I began the business of getting on to living," said VonAllmen, who reunited with his girlfriend and married her in 1997.

After seeing a newspaper article about the Kentucky Innocence Project in April 2009, VonAllmen contacted the organization. Shouse found Smith, learned about the 1978 rape, and began compiling evidence.

"I was stunned when I read the police files because of the similarities," Shouse said of the rapes, calling them "signature offenses."

Retrying case a challenge

Yet the case presents challenges for Shouse and prosecutors --the police file of the VonAllmen case is missing, there is no useful physical evidence and the polygraph test results couldn't be found. Plus, Tackett is dead.

Gray said that, coupled with missing witnesses and the age of the case, may make it impossible to try the case again.

"If the court grants a new trial, we have to make a decision whether we could go forward," she said.

No bitterness, but regrets

VonAllmen said he is not especially bitter about his situation, nor angry with the 1981 rape victim -- especially after seeing the similarities between him and Tackett.

He regrets, however, being imprisoned in his late 20s and 30s, a time when he might have married and had children of his own -- he has three stepchildren.

But he said he believes his stay in prison had some positive impact.

"I have an appreciation for life that ... I would not have had had I not experienced this," he said. "...You have to let it go and get to the business of living."

Reporter Jason Riley can be reached at (502) 584-2197.

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice