Kansas City Star


Doubts about Mark Woodworth’s guilt persist
By TONY RIZZO
The Kansas City Star

August 20, 2011

Mark Woodworth studied soybeans the way other kids studied math or English.

In the fall of 1990, the 16-year-old farm kid looked forward to buying a pickup truck with the $6,000 earned from the first crop of beans he worked and harvested on his own.

All of that changed in the seconds it took someone to squeeze off six revolver shots into his neighbors as they slept in their farmhouse outside Chillicothe, Mo.

The acrid tang of fired gunpowder still hung in the air when the 15-year-old daughter of Lyndel and Cathy Robertson started placing frantic phone calls for help.

“My mom won’t wake up. My dad’s throwing up blood,” she pleaded that November night.

Shortly after that, someone called to notify the Woodworths, who lived across the road from the Robertsons. The 12:30 a.m. call rattled Jackie Woodworth from her sleep — and into a nightmare that has persisted for two decades.

The Woodworth and Robertson families had been close for years. They relocated from Illinois together to the Chillicothe area, where Jackie’s husband, Claude, and Lyndel Robertson established a large-scale farming operation.

When Jackie Woodworth got across the street, other friends already had the four Robertson children — ranging from age 8 to 15 — bundled in their car. Told that there had been a shooting, Jackie Woodworth went home to get her husband. By the time they returned, police were on the scene.

Inside the ranch-style home, Cathy Robertson lay dead, shot twice in her sleep. Four other bullets had injured her husband gravely.

When they got home, the Woodworths didn’t check on their son, Mark, or their other sleeping children — something they later would regret.

Late the next afternoon, detectives from the North Central Missouri Major Case Squad drove to Kansas City to interview Lyndel Robertson in the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center.

He told them the same thing he told a doctor and half a dozen friends who came to see him.

He believed his wife’s killer to be a young Independence man who dated his 20-year-old daughter, a college student living in St. Joseph. The Robertsons did not approve of her seeing him and promised her a car if she broke up with him. Robertson referred to him as a “psycho” and said he was “almost 100 percent sure” he was the killer, according to a police report.

He also told detectives that in the days before the shooting, his wife had two telephone arguments with that man, one “very heated” and another, just hours before the killing, that ended when she hung up on him.

When detectives questioned the young man, they also tested his hands and found the possible presence of gunpowder residue, according to court testimony. He and his family told investigators that he was home asleep in Independence, although at least one witness had spotted him in Chillicothe the night of the killing, according to police reports.

A week after the shooting, Robertson’s daughter obtained a protection order against that man, alleging he had abused her physically and made harassing phone calls to her.

“He may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father on November 13th,” she wrote in a court filing.

•••

As investigators dug into the case, they interviewed numerous people, including Mark Woodworth and his father.

They found no physical evidence in the Robertson house linked to the intruder. Inside the Robertsons’ shed, they lifted a fingerprint from a box of .22-caliber bullets. They also examined .22-caliber handguns owned by Claude Woodworth and Lyndel Robertson. And they sought to learn more about a vehicle a witness saw parked outside the Robertsons’ house near the time of the murder.

In early December, the major case squad disbanded, turning the case back to the Livingston County sheriff’s office. Months passed.

In March 1991, Claude Woodworth filed suit to sever his business partnership with Lyndel Robertson. By then, Robertson had accused Claude Woodworth of being involved in the shooting.

Robertson, meanwhile, grew frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation. So he hired Terry Deister, a private investigator and former Platte County sheriff’s deputy, to assist the Livingston County deputy assigned to the case.

Almost immediately, the investigation’s focus shifted to Mark Woodworth, court records show. Deister labeled him a prime suspect and suggested ignoring talk of a car seen at the house because Woodworth would have walked there from home.

He described Woodworth as “a very quiet individual (who) had no friends whatsoever and would do anything his father asked.”

Deister and a deputy twice questioned Woodworth without his parents or a lawyer present. They also obtained his fingerprints, which matched the print on the box of bullets.

Local ballistics experts could not conclusively match bullet fragments from the crime to Claude Woodworth’s gun. So Deister contacted a British crime lab official he knew. The British laboratory reported that a manufacturing defect in the pistol left a distinctive mark on one fragment recovered from Lyndel Robertson’s body.

Convinced that they had enough evidence to charge Mark Woodworth, Deister wrote a letter signed by Lyndel Robertson to the presiding circuit court judge and asked him to remove Livingston County Prosecutor Doug Roberts from the case for a “lack of enthusiasm.” That prompted Roberts to withdraw, but not before reminding the judge of Robertson’s initial “adamant” insistence that his daughter’s boyfriend had been the killer.

In need of a prosecutor, the judge reached out to the attorney general’s office.

He wanted Hulshof, who a few years earlier had prosecuted the high-profile serial murder trials of another Livingston County farm couple, Ray and Faye Copeland.

Eight days after his appointment to the case, Hulshof stood before a grand jury in Chillicothe and presented evidence that led to Woodworth’s indictment on murder and related charges. Woodworth’s parents testified, but because they hadn’t checked on Mark the night of the killing, they couldn’t verify his alibi that he was home asleep.

Officers arrested the 19-year-old in his GED class at a vocational school. For the first time in his life, Mark Woodworth found himself in a jail cell.

Supporters of the teen and his family soon packed a bond hearing, where Woodworth’s lawyer presented a petition signed by about 100 people who wanted Woodworth released on bond — a request the judge denied.

•••

When the trial began in 1995, townspeople crammed into a Chillicothe courtroom to watch.

Supporters of the Robertson family vied for space with friends, family and supporters of Woodworth. James Wyrsch, a respected defense attorney from the Kansas City area, represented him.

With no known motive to explain the killing, Hulshof seized on the “friendless loner desperate to please his father” theme developed by Deister. He told the jury that behind Woodworth’s “brooding eyes” lurked the mind of a “cold-blooded” murderer.

Woodworth, he told them, had crept into the Robertsons’ bedroom, turned on the light, lifted the gun and emptied it into their sleeping bodies.

He argued that ballistics testing proved that Claude Woodworth’s gun fired the fatal shots.

And he emphasized the freshness of the fingerprint on the box of bullets by saying that it “just lit up” for the deputy who lifted it, despite the fact experts say there is no scientifically valid method for dating fingerprints.

The defense countered that Woodworth could have handled the bullet box anytime he and other farm workers went target shooting on the property. They said that many similar guns could share a manufacturing defect present in the alleged murder weapon.

They were not allowed to present evidence about the young man Lyndel Robertson initially identified as a suspect.

During closing arguments, Hulshof brandished his dramatic, oratorical power.

“But when Rhonda Robertson (the victim’s 15-year-old daughter) was cradling her father and rocking him back and forth, she wondered if someday their family would receive some measure of justice, and right now you are it,” he told the jury.

Jurors deliberated for 10 hours.

Stunned when they found him guilty, Woodworth slumped facedown onto the defense table.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Woodworth said in an interview at the prison where he recently marked his 37th birthday. “I thought there was no way they can find me guilty. Boy, was I wrong.”

Woodworth said there was a reason for his disbelief.

He didn’t do it.

On appeal, he won a new trial. His attorneys should have been allowed to present evidence concerning the first suspect, the appellate court said. It called the case against Woodworth weak, noted the lack of a motive and added: “Had we been on the jury, we might well have voted to acquit.”

But a second trial, handled by another prosecutor and defense lawyer, ended the same as the first — with a guilty verdict.

•••

Doubts about Woodworth’s guilt persist today around Chillicothe.

Supporters have raised funds for his defense through concerts and other community-organized events.

Most significant, the current Livingston County sheriff, Steve Cox, has reopened the investigation into Cathy Robertson’s killing.

“I’ve always had concern about the outcome of the case,” Cox said.

And late last year, the Missouri Supreme Court granted Woodworth a new hearing to make his case.

Dozens of his supporters made the 240-mile round trip to Columbia for the four-day hearing this spring.

Ramsey, Woodworth’s attorney, says that in 30 years of practicing law, he never has been presented with such a “carte blanche” opportunity to litigate multiple appellate issues in an old murder case.

Attorneys for the state argue that because Woodworth was tried for a second time in 1999, any prior issues are moot.

But Ramsey has raised questions about how the grand jury was convened and what evidence Hulshof presented to it before Woodworth’s indictment.

Ramsey also alleges that investigators improperly withheld information beneficial to the defense before the first trial. In court documents, he alleged that Hulshof and the prosecutor for the second trial violated court rules that require prosecutors to exercise a “good-faith, diligent effort” to make sure any evidence helpful to the defense is provided.

At the hearing, he called 30 witnesses to show, among other issues:

•Leads that were favorable to Woodworth’s defense or that implicated the original suspect either were ignored or not properly followed up.

•Investigators worked to discredit witnesses whose testimony helped Woodworth.

•New evidence obtained in recent years builds a stronger case against the original suspect.

•Documents that could have aided Woodworth’s defense never were given to his attorneys.

Those documents include a series of pre-grand-jury letters written by Lyndel Robertson, the county prosecutor and the judge handling the case. The judge’s letter was written to Hulshof. They show, Ramsey contends, that the judge “acted as the de facto prosecutor/law enforcement officer” when the county prosecutor refused to charge Woodworth.

He says they also show that when Lyndel Robertson testified in court that he “never did point (his) finger at anybody” in the killing, Hulshof knew otherwise and had a duty to correct the “false testimony,” according to Ramsey’s court filings.

“Circumstances suggest direct complicity by Hulshof in misleading the defense,” Ramsey asserted in court documents.

Hulshof disputes that Robertson ever testified falsely. Robertson was consistent in saying he never saw who fired the shots, he said. And he provided the name of his daughter’s boyfriend when asked if he had any idea who could have done it. Investigators later eliminated the young man as a suspect, Hulshof said.

On the witness stand during the recent hearing, Hulshof said he could not recall seeing the letters in his file at the time of the trial.

Ramsey pointed out that the questionable letters did not contain the numbers that Hulshof said were typically placed on documents to track evidence to be turned over to defense attorneys.

Hulshof said the numbering system was used for investigative reports, not correspondence like the letters that were normally kept in the file.

The man initially named as a suspect also took the stand in Columbia, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions.

Deister, the private investigator, also testified. He later told The Star that he is angered by allegations that the investigation was unprofessional or wrongfully targeted Woodworth.

“We spent three years running down leads on that case,” he said.

However, publicity about the new hearing has generated several fresh leads that Cox has followed up.

One woman reported hearing the original suspect on the phone threaten Cathy Robertson about two weeks before the killing. She and two other witnesses told Cox that shortly after the murder, they gave their information to law enforcement. But no one ever recontacted them for follow-up.

In a statement released Saturday, the Robertson family affirmed their belief in Woodworth’s guilt.

“Mark Woodworth is not sitting in prison because of Kenny Hulshof. Mark Woodworth is in prison because of his own actions,” the statement said. “During the second trial in 1999, Mark was convicted again for viciously killing our mother Cathy Robertson and shooting our father Lyndel as they slept.”

The statement concluded: “We have confidence in the criminal justice system and believe the Special Master assigned to this case will stand by the jury’s decision and uphold this sad but just conviction.”

•••

The routine of Woodworth’s existence today includes working in the prison welding shop, watching a little television and helping to train dogs. More than anything, he savors the evening phone calls with his parents and his six siblings.

Those calls are what keep him going, Woodworth said.

Back home, Jackie and Claude Woodworth have kept their eldest son’s room much the way he left it. The wood plaque he carved for a 4-H project, “Mark’s Room,” is still there. So are the shelves filled with collectible model tractors.

On the bed is a prayer blanket from some church members Jackie Woodworth didn’t even know. She said it’s indicative of the support and encouragement the Woodworths continue to receive from friends and strangers.

They never have given up hope that Mark will come home, says Claude Woodworth, who always has remembered what his son said as deputies led him away to jail:

“Dad, please don’t forget me.”

About the story
The Star reconstructed events and dialogue in this story through conversations with Mark Woodworth, his parents and attorneys; by reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents and witness depositions; and from observing recent court testimony.

The Star’s Jason Noble contributed to this report. To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to
trizzo@kcstar.com.


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