CHAPTER 4: THE TRIAL
When the three defense attorneys came to court on Monday, they arrived to find another surprise: Cruz had a motion in hand, asking to revise the date of the crime from April 15 to April 17.
It wasn’t an insignificant change. For one, it was the only day that week that Larson hadn’t clocked in at work, and Cruz knew that. Prosecutors had actually known for months that Larson worked an overnight shift at a tile company on April 15 — making it unlikely that he was involved in the robbery — because Partovi had sent them Larson’s entire time card.
In fact, the day after prosecutors learned of Larson’s alibi, Detective Bill Francis went out and re-interviewed one of the victims. The victim remembered calling a friend after the robbery, and Francis looked at some of the victim’s phone records and concluded the crime probably occurred on April 17.
No one bothered to tell the defense attorneys. Until the day of trial.
“This is a big deal — this changes the case,” Judge Tari Eitzen said. The defense attorneys urged her to toss out the case, but instead the judge came up with an unusual solution: She would fine prosecutors $8,000 and delay the trial three weeks. Eitzen would later say that the case would “undoubtedly” end up in appeal.
“I am sanctioning the state for what I consider to be — I’m not willing to say purposeful — but for a careless handling of these cases,” she said. Prosecutor Cruz declined to answer questions for this article, but he is appealing the judge’s sanctions.
At trial, several other facts would get murkier. For one, the victims, who themselves were involved in the drug trade, couldn’t specify what day or what time the robbery occurred, saying everything from 6 pm to midnight. Matt Dunham would also be questioned about how he named “Andrew” as an accomplice and later changed it to “Bobby.”
But before that, Detective Francis took the stand. Defense attorneys tried to paint his investigation as flimsy. Why hadn’t he checked the shotgun investigators recovered to see whether any of the accused men’s fingerprints were on it, the attorneys wondered.
They also pressed him on why he hadn’t done more to determine when the robbery occurred. The phone record used to pinpoint the date was an incomplete print-out of five calls the victim made. Francis hadn’t bothered to subpoena a more complete phone record.
“You don’t know that the incident actually happened on April 17, do you?” asked Larson’s public defender, Anna Nordtvedt.
“No. Not exactly,” Francis said. At the end, the defense had one final question for the detective. “Other than the statements of Mr. Dunham made while he was negotiating his plea agreement, what independent corroborating evidence do you have that either Mr. Statler, Mr. Gassman or Mr. Larson were involved in this alleged robbery?” Francis said, “I have no additional other than Mr. Dunham.”
It was finally Matt Dunham’s turn to take the stand. With the prosecutor questioning him, Dunham talked about the April 17 robbery. They arrived at the house, purportedly to sell Oxy, and instead robbed the people of $4,000.
“How confident,” the prosecutor asked, “are you that the persons who were with you … [were] Paul Statler, Tyler Gassman and Robert Larson?”
“A hundred percent confident,” Dunham said.
On cross examination, the attorneys pressed Dunham about how he mistook Andrew for Bobby. Then they drilled to the heart of their defense.
“Isn’t it true that the whole point of your testimony today is to insulate your brother Larry from criminal prosecution?” one of the attorneys asked.
“Excuse me?” Dunham said. “You’re here today to protect your brother … Correct?” “No. My plea bargain had nothing to do with my brother at all,” Dunham said.
The attorneys then brought in family and friends as alibi witnesses, all of whom believed they had been with the men at the time of the robbery. They also called Statler’s probation officer, who said Statler was at home at 10:14 that night, taking an alcohol test.
The case was finally put in the hands of the jury. But first the judge read off instructions on what to consider in their deliberations.
Then, as required, came this specific caution: “Testimony of an accomplice given on behalf of the state should be subject to careful examination … [and] you should not find the defendant guilty upon such testimony alone unless, after carefully considering the testimony, you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of its truth.”
The jury began deliberations on a Friday. They had Monday off and upon returning to court on Tuesday reached a decision. They came into the courtroom seeming upbeat and relaxed, say the attorneys. Then the jurors delivered their verdict: guilty, guilty, guilty, all three defendants.
Gassman was later sentenced in the tear-filled hearing to 25 years. Larson, who had a drug offense on his record, got 20. Statler, because of his robbery as a juvenile, got 41 years.
CHAPTER 5: THE CONFESSION
Kongchunji followed developments in the case from his Spokane County Jail cell, poring over the Spokesman- Review for any news. He says he read about the judge sanctioning prosecutors $8,000 and thought everything would work out — the men accused by Dunham seemed poised to beat the rap. Then he read about the men being convicted.
“I didn’t think there was any way” a jury would find them guilty, Kongchunji says. “I honestly didn’t.”
It all became real then, Kongchunji says. He felt guilty that he helped put away innocent people. What must their families think? He decided to write Paul Statler’s dad. “I just wanted to let him know. I didn’t want him to be disappointed in his son or in any of them,” he says. “If anything, be disappointed in me.”
The letter was postmarked March 2, about two weeks after the verdict. He writes, “I thought that I should let you know that Paul, Tyler and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents and the reason I know this is because I was involved. The other individuals involved were Larry Dunham, Matthew Dunham and Nicholas Smith.”
This seemed to open the door to retry the case. The three defense attorneys fi led for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence and attached the letter and other testimony from Kongchunji. To them, Kongchunji’s admissions qualified as “newly discovered” because in their previous attempt to interview him, Kongchunji asserted his right to remain silent.
Judge Michael Price disagreed. Price took over the case for Eitzen, who had a scheduling conflict, and in his ruling said the defense attorneys erred by not calling Kongchunji as a witness during trial. Kongchunji, the judge said, didn’t have any Fifth Amendment protections because he had already pleaded guilty. Price said he would have ordered Kongchunji to talk, had anyone put him on the stand.
“The fact that Mr. Gassman’s lawyer chose not to call Mr. Kongchunji at trial … does not make Mr. Kongchunji’s testimony, whatever it may have been, ‘newly discovered.’” The motion for a new trial was denied.
CHAPTER 6: THE PRISON
Kongchunji isn’t excited about re-telling his story when I visit him at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. None of his cellmates know what he’s doing, and he’d like to keep it that way.
“I don’t want it getting out like I’m some kind of rat or something like that because that’s not the kind of thing you want to have, especially in here,” he says, sitting across from me at a table, un-cuffed, wearing a T-shirt. He adds ominously, “I wouldn’t be able to walk out there.”
Kongchunji talks candidly but without much emotion, as though a whole lifetime has passed. He dropped out of school around 16, he says, when he started doing meth and then began selling it to pay for his own use.
This went on for a couple of years until he met a nice girl and cleaned up. But when was about 20, that relationship soured, and he tried Oxy for the first time.
“There’s nothing like it, to be honest with you,” he says flatly, squirming at the memory. “They grab a hold of you like no other way that I’ve ever had.”
He got kicked out of his house and ended up living with the Dunham brothers. “They were all addicted. They probably spent more money on [pills] than I did,” he says. A big weekend might cost him $1,000, and so they were soon robbing drug dealers. He talks about Larry and Matt Dunham as though they are still close,and he can’t bring himself to condemn Matt for snitching.
“He did what he had to do… He’s got to live with that,” he says. “I’m not going to hate anybody. Once you care about somebody, you can’t just turn away.”
After Kongchunji returns to his cell block, guards escort Tyler Gassman to the interview room and lock him in a small holding cell. Unlike Kongchunji, Gassman is wearing an orange jumpsuit and is cuffed behind his back. Gassman lives in segregation — meaning he’s got a small cell to himself and gets out for only a couple of hours a week. It’s where troublemakers often end up, explaining the increased security. But that’s not why Gassman is in segregation. He’s there by choice, for his own safety.
His cellmates, he says, ordered him to do a “mission.” “I was supposed to haul off and assault a guy,” he says. “I didn’t get it taken care of in time. I didn’t do it. I thought about it too much, and it got to me… I pissed off a lot of people and they said, ‘Look, if you don’t do it by this time, we’re going to send a missile after you.’” So Gassman ended up in segregation. “I don’t want to screw up,” he says. “I have two strikes… If a fight happened bad enough, I could get struck out from that fight.”
Gassman talks about getting arrested at 15. He was living at a friend’s house — his mother had lost the family home — and one day he was drinking with Paul Statler and a third teen. They got drunk and decided they wanted a gun they had seen at a local pawnshop. Statler, who grabbed it and ran, got five years in prison. Gassman got 14 months.
“Everything kind of woke me up when I did that 14 months and I got out,” he says.Once released, he worked at a restaurant, fixed up cars with a friend, remodeled houses and got into construction. He completed his probation. Life wasn’t bad. He had money in his pocket, a car and a girlfriend.
But then came the accusations. The arrest. The trial. Matt Dunham accusing him in court: “In my head, I wanted to jump up and call the kid a liar. I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve never even seen you. I don’t know who you are.’ I didn’t know what he looked like until he came in and sat down on the stand.”
Then the guilty verdict. And, finally, the sentencing hearing.
“Once my family got on the stand and started crying, it was too hard for me,” Gassman says, tearing up again as he recalls it. A prison administrator who listened to Gassman recount his story begins sobbing, too. “Even though I know I didn’t do it, I felt disappointed because I let my family down.”
Gassman says he’s trying to remain positive, and he’s hopeful for his appeal. He’s written the attorney assigned to his case but hasn’t heard back. “If I have to do the time, I don’t want to have to sit in here and tear myself up about it, because it’s just going to make it worse on me,” he says. “I just want to do the best I can.”
At the end of the interview, three guards return to the room, handcuff Gassman and escort him down a long hallway to his cell.