The courtroom was full of tears. Tyler Gassman, a 22-year-old Spokane kid, had just learned his fate — 25 years in prison — and his sister, mother and friends wept. So did David Partovi, his lawyer. Partovi had lost cases before, but this felt different. He couldn’t understand how the system he believed in could railroad someone like Gassman, who, despite troubles at age 15, had become a hard-working young man.
Partovi, goateed and stout as a football player, strode to the lectern and addressed the court, red faced, with tears welling.
“I just want the record to reflect and mankind to know that this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen come out of the courts,” Partovi says. “For the first time in my entire career, I’m ashamed to be an officer of this court.”
Last February, a jury found Gassman and two friends guilty of robbing drug dealers in April 2008 — despite the men’s insistent pleas that they were innocent. Their conviction was the final stroke in a long and, at times, bizarre case.
Indeed, just hours before the trial was set to begin, prosecutors changed the date of the crime from April 15 to April 17, wiping out the men’s alibis.
“I’ve never seen somebody who was not only so obviously innocent, but against whom the evidence was so thin,” Partovi says. “The system had so many clear-cut opportunities to step in and stop it, but it never did.” To evaluate the men’s claims of innocence, The Inlander examined hundreds of court records and interviewed scores of people.
Among our findings:
- The Spokane sheriff’s detectives’ investigation was spotty. They failed to perform basic forensic tests or follow up on leads that may have potentially excluded the men, including a lie detector test that Gassman passed.
- The only evidence against Gassman and his friends is the word of a jailhouse snitch, who got an exceptionally light sentence in exchange for testifying.
- One of the snitch’s friends now says he and the snitch decided to pin their crimes on someone else to protect themselves and their friends, who were actually involved.
Taken separately, none of the evidence alone definitively proves that Gassman or the others are innocent, Partovi acknowledges. But by assembling all the pieces and seeing the whole story, he says, a troubling picture emerges.
“There was some sneaky effort put into this, and a lot of effort was required,” Partovi says. “Anybody could have been Tyler Gassman. What’s to stop somebody from accusing me of doing something like this tonight?”
CHAPTER 1: THE CRIME
“Get the f--- down! Get on the ground! Empty your pockets!” Armed with a shotgun and wearing a mask, a 20-year-old drug addict named Anthony Kongchunji burst in the front door of a Spokane Valley apartment on April 23, 2008. According to sheriff’s and court records, this is what happened next: Kongchunji barked orders, sending people to the floor. Kongchunji had bought Oxycontin at the apartment many times before, but now, addicted and broke, he was there to steal the pills.
With Kongchunji came a 17-year-old skinny kid named Matt Dunham, who held a baseball bat to a woman’s head, ready to swing.
“Stay down!” Two other accomplices ransacked the apartment looking for drugs. But as Kongchunji shouted his orders, his mask slipped down, and the drug dealers recognized him. They also recognized one of the accomplices as Matt Dunham’s older brother, Larry.
About an hour later, Kongchunji (pronounced “coh-jen-JEYE”), the Dunham brothers and a fourth accomplice were in handcuffs. They all quickly fessed up, except for Matt Dunham, whose story kept changing. But it didn’t matter — it was an open-and-shut case.
The robbery, it turned out, was only the latest in a series of similar crimes where armed men busted in the doors of people suspected to have money or drugs:
On Feb. 28, three armed men broke into another apartment in the Valley, demanding cash and jewelry.
On or about April 15, a group of men stole $4,000 in a drug deal gone bad on Cataldo Avenue.
April 21, armed robbers tried to break into a mobile home on Dishman
Road, but residents were able to block the door.
But until the robbery team of Kongchunji and the Dunham brothers was caught red-handed, investigators had not solved any of these other crimes.
That would soon change.
CHAPTER 2: THE SNITCH
Matt Dunham, a tall, thin 17-year-old with a mess of dark brown hair, was treated as an adult and housed in Spokane County Jail. Through his attorney, he contacted detectives, saying he had information for them. The investigators, however, didn’t need any help shoring up the case against the Dunham crew. It was a slam dunk. Instead, Dunham offered them something they didn’t have — details about the other unsolved crimes.
Dunham told investigators that he was the getaway driver in several robberies, according to a sheriff’s detective’s report. But his older brother wasn’t involved in any of these crimes, he said. This is when he started giving detectives other names.
In regard to the April 21 robbery, for instance, Dunham said he had done that particular job with Kongchunji and two others guys: A 21-year-old named Paul Statler and someone called Andrew. (He had yet to claim that Gassman was involved in that robbery.)
Detectives and prosecutors quickly struck a deal with Dunham: He would plead guilty, testify truthfully as a witness and spend 18 months in a juvenile facility.
Sheriff’s investigators re-interviewed Dunham a week later. “We asked Dunham again to explain who he had been with,” the detective’s report reads.
This time, Dunham added that Tyler Gassman had been involved. He also clarified that the guy he initially called Andrew was actually someone named “Bobby.” It just so happened that detectives had brought with them a photo montage of Paul Statler’s cousin, Robert Larson — whom Dunham soon confirmed was just the “Bobby” he was talking about.
The next day, detectives sought arrest warrants for Gassman, Statler and Larson. And with Dunham’s cooperation, authorities would soon charge the men in other unsolved crimes.
While Dunham was helping detectives, his brother Larry was cutting a deal of his own. He would plead to the one robbery in exchange for four years in prison — a light sentence on charges that could have put him behind bars for 20 years or more.
Like the Dunhams, Anthony Kongchunji hoped to get leniency as well. Kongchunji, with jet black hair and cheeks pocked with acne, contacted detectives to see if he could help them. The investigators questioned him but decided not to offer him a deal.
As it turned out, Matt Dunham and Kongchungi were housed in the same wing of the county jail and could mingle whenever they were let out of their cells. During this time together, Kongchunji would later say, he and Dunham formed a plan: Pin their crimes on some other guys to get sweet deals for themselves and protect their actual robbery partners, Dunham’s brother Larry and a friend named Nicholas Smith. (See “Personal Connections” above.)
“[Matt Dunham] is pretty much like, ‘I know this sounds kind of f---ed up or messed up or whatever that I’m going to do this, but we should say that these guys did it, not us, and I’ll get my brother off … I’m going to try to get a good deal. I’m sure you could get a good deal, too,’” Kongchunji says.
It wasn’t entirely random that they chose to frame Gassman, Statler and Larson, Kongchunji says. As a kid, Kongchunji knew Gassman and Statler from the neighborhood and occasionally rode bikes with them. He also knew that the two friends had been arrested at age 15 for robbing a pawnshop. Kongchunji says, “I told [Dunham] about when that stuff happened when they were juveniles.”
The attorneys representing the three men didn’t know any of this yet. One day, Kongchunji, having failed to cut a sweetheart deal for himself, seemed ready to spill his guts. The next day, however, he clammed up, asserting his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Kongchunji now says that he suddenly stopped talking out of fear: He was left alone with sheriff’s Detective Doug Marske, who, Kongchunji claims, threatened him with perjury charges if he testified. (Actually, because Kongchunji had never given any sworn statements, he was in no danger of perjury.)
“Marske just looked at me … and pretty much called me a liar,” Kongchunji recalls. “He said, ‘If you get on that stand, I guarantee you’re going to do a perjury charge … and I will make sure you do more time than you already have to do. I will make your sentence hard.’” Marske declined to comment for this article.
However, the other main investigator, Detective Bill Francis, says he doubts Marske threatened Kongchunji. But Francis says Marske may have advised Kongchunji that by talking now he could be making a “false statement or perjury-type statement.
“I don’t think there was an intimidation,” Francis says. “Again I think [Kongchunji] was informed probably of the process that could take place.”
Francis points out that he was the one who arrested Gassman and Statler back when they were 15.
“They’re convicts,” he says. “They con people. They con you, they con me. After they get in that prison environment, they know how to manipulate people.”
CHAPTER 3: THE DISMISSAL
Dunham’s help, the detectives could finally close some of the unsolved
cases. It would prove to be a little trickier in court, however.
First, there was the Feb. 28 robbery in which three men burst into a Valley apartment, demanding cash and jewelry. The authorities charged Paul Statler and Tyler Gassman in that one.
But two facts killed the trial as soon as it started: 1) It came out that the victims had inadvertently been shown two photo montages in two consecutive days, one by a deputy and another by the follow-up detective, Doug Marske. The first time, the victims didn’t recognize anyone. The second time — when shown a different montage with the same suspects — the victims picked Statler out. 2) The other problem involved Marske’s report. In his first version, he wrote that one of the victims identified “Gassman as looking like one of the robbers.” Later Marske revised the report to read, “[the victim] identified Tyler Gassman in a photo montage” — a subtle but important change that was made without ever interviewing the witness again. Prosecutors quickly dropped the charges and sent the jury home.
The second case to reach court wouldn’t fare much better. This one centered on the April 21 robbery where armed men tried to break into a mobile home, but were blocked at the doorway. Based on Dunham’s statements, prosecutors charged Gassman, Statler, Larson and Kongchunji.
But as the trial date got close, Kongchunji took a plea bargain and was off the case. Then Paul Statler was out, too; his lawyer had a death in the family and asked the court to try Statler’s case later. Which left only Gassman and Larson. (Larson, it’s worth noting, had a solid alibi, as he was clocked in at work at the exact time of the April 21 robbery.)
The trial was scheduled to continue on a Monday, but the Friday before, prosecutor Eugene Cruz simply dropped the charges. Instead, Cruz announced, he wanted to start a new trial on Monday for the next robbery case in line — leaving little time for the defense to prepare.
The facts of the case were similar to the rest: Drug dealers were robbed, this time of $4,000 outside their home. No one ever reported the crime to authorities, so it only came to light when Matt Dunham began talking to detectives. Again the 17-year-old was the sole link connecting the robbery to Gassman, Statler and Larson.
Their attorneys would spend the weekend cramming to get ready.