As the Lawless investigation progressed, witnesses changed their stories

Monday, April 14, 2008
Joshua Kezer's mugshot that was used in a police lineup. The witness who identified Kezer had earlier named someone else, according to a police report.
Joshua Kezer's mugshot that was used in a police lineup. The witness who identified Kezer had earlier named someone else, according to a police report.

Editor's note: In the beginning of 2006, Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened a case resolved by Missouri courts in 1994. Unconvinced the right man was sent to prison for the murder of a Benton, Mo., college student named Angela Mischelle Lawless, Walter has been investigating old evidence. In less than two months, a judge will determine whether there is enough evidence to retry the case. This is the second of three stories detailing old and new aspects of the case.

In the late summer of 1993, Shawn Mangus wrote several letters from his cell at the Cape Girardeau County Jail where he was held on first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.

In one, addressed to Charles Weissinger, another county inmate, he explained that he'd just spoken with Joshua Kezer's attorney, and given a statement telling him the truth: that Kezer never in any way said he killed a girl in Benton, Mo.

He wrote that he felt better now that all of it was out in the open, although he worried that he might get a new charge added to his rap sheet because of the lie, he said.

Mangus also sent a letter to Kezer, apologizing for what had happened.

"I did what I did, there's nothing that I can do to change that, but I told them, and your lawyer, the truth," the letter said.

He ended the note telling Kezer to take care of himself and pass his apologies along to his mother and grandparents.

In a separate letter to Weissinger, Mangus cursed his consort for blaming the whole situation on him and said he just hoped "those El Porkos didn't charge him with obstruction of justice."

Weissinger and Mangus were jailed together in Cape Girardeau County in February 1993. According to statements and testimony given by Weissinger, who faced up to a 10-year sentence as a prior and persistent offender, he was discussing his plight with Mangus when the other man told him he knew a way he could do better for himself.

Mangus and Kezer were friends of about two years.

On Feb. 27, Mangus informed jail staff he wanted to speak with officers investigating the Lawless homicide.

He had information about the case.

In Mangus' original statement, Mangus said he had been at a friend's apartment with Kezer and Weissinger when Kezer said he had to get something off his chest.

Mangus told investigators that Kezer then confessed to killing the girl on the interstate near Benton, Mangus told investigators.

Four months, no leads

Until the interview with Mangus, the investigation into the murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless languished for nearly four months. Every friend and relative the 19-year-old nursing student had known was questioned and re-interviewed about her death Nov. 8, 1992. Investigators struggled to retrace Lawless's steps the night she was found dead in her car at an exit ramp of Interstate 55.

They knew she'd spent the night driving around Sikeston, Mo., with her best friend, Lelicia O'Dell. O'Dell told them Lawless took her home around midnight and wanted to sleep over, but that there was nowhere for her to stay because O'Dell's room was being painted.

Lawless left, but she didn't head for home yet. She stopped at a boyfriend's for a while. About an hour an a half later, police responded to a call that a Buick Somerset was seen parked near the northbound Benton exit of the interstate, lights on and engine running. Inside, reserve officer Rick Walter and Roy Moore of the Benton police found Lawless's body slumped in the driver's seat. She had been shot three times and struck twice in the head with a heavy object.

There were no strong suspects. No one touched the reward fund set up by friends of the Lawless family.

Kezer's name was never mentioned until Mangus came forward. Weissinger gave an identical statement the same day investigators interviewed Mangus, only Weissinger said Kezer admitted killing a girl in Benton, Ill.

"Even though it was a complete lie, elaborately worked up by Shawn, I decided to take Shawn's story and tell it to the police to see if I could also work out a deal on my sentencing," Weissinger would later testify.

Another man, Steve Grah, was also at the friend's apartment and heard the confession, Mangus later told police.

Grah stated he'd been at a party at the apartment in February, and Kezer bragged about "shooting a guy with a .380 gun." He didn't mention anything about Kezer confessing to the murder of Lawless. Investigators interviewed Grah a second time. Again, he didn't mention Lawless, or Benton, Mo., but mentioned that Kezer said he was a member of the Latin Kings gang and he'd seen him with guns.

At some point, Grah told investigators that Kezer admitted to the crime, but no written statements from Grah were found by Walter documenting the confession. Grah received a 10-year sentence on assault charges relating to beating up and killing an indigent person.

Weissinger was sentenced to just three years, instead of the potential 10 as a prior offender, and his attorney told him he "must have given up some good information" to get such a sweetheart deal, according to trial transcripts.

Mangus got a one-year sentence after his first-degree robbery and armed criminal action charges were dropped to a misdemeanor offense.

Three snitches. Three statements.

Abbot identifies Kezer

A few months later, Mangus and Weissinger would recant their story, saying it was a scheme the three of them cooked up because they wanted leniency on their own charges and knew a reward was offered in the case.

But their statements had given authorities something they hadn't had in over four months of investigating: A name. And a face.

That face was entered into a photo lineup with five other men. Mark Abbott, the young man who reported finding Lawless in her car, originally told investigators he had seen a man with a dark complexion in the vicinity of the crime scene, while Abbott was attempting to place a 911 call at a nearby filling station. The next day, Abbott said he saw a Hispanic man in a white car and couldn't tell how many other people were in the vehicle. According to Kevin and Terri Williams, who spoke to Mark Abbott the morning after the killing, he said the car was so dark he couldn't see the man's face. Ricky Clay, an inmate at Potosi Correctional Center, currently awaiting execution for murder, said he saw Mark Abbott at a party a few days after the Lawless killing, according to documents. At that party, Mark Abbott said it he'd seen a "car full of Mexicans."

Ten days after the murder, in a statement made to a Scott City officer, Mark Abbott named a man he knew. That statement did not surface until 14 years later when detective Branden Caid discovered it clipped to the page of a deputy's notebook, which the deputy had been using to take notes during the investigation. Kezer's trial attorney, Al Lowes, told Caid he hadn't known the statement existed or he would have used the trial to impeach Abbott's credibility.

But when investigators showed him the lineup, within "two seconds" he picked Kezer from the array of photos, Abbott said recently in a letter to the Southeast Missourian.

An investigator with the Missouri State Highway Patrol had already told Abbott their suspect in the Lawless murder was in the lineup, according to documents. Kezer's photo was the only one emblazoned with the words "police department."

Mark Abbott's identification provided the sole proof that Kezer was in Missouri the night Lawless was killed.

Charged with murder

At the time Lawless was killed, Kezer, originally of Cape Girardeau, was living in Kankakee, Ill., with his father.

The arrangement was far from perfect. His parents were divorced. He dropped out of high school at 17. In the past, Kezer and his father had a somewhat stormy relationship. They'd had fistfights.

But by April 1993, they were finally beginning to understand each other and had fused a tentative rapport, Kezer said in an interview with the Southeast Missourian. Kezer's mother still lived in Cape Girardeau, and he made trips to visit her and friends. He was also dating a girl from Benton, Mo. Her name was Amanda Drury. She knew Lawless because they both went to Kelly High School, but Drury had never heard Kezer mention her name.

Marvin Lawless said he had never heard his daughter mention Kezer either, and didn't think it was anyone he had known. None of Lawless's friends mentioned Kezer, and Lawless never made reference to him in her diary.

On April 8, 1993, Kezer, then 18, sat in the Scott County Sheriff's Office. He was arrested in Illinois on an assault charge and extradited to Scott County, where, hours later, he said then sheriff Bill Ferrell informed him he was facing a murder charge, saying "you killed my little girl."

The assault charge, in which a Sikeston couple alleged Kezer pointed a gun t them in December 1992, served as the vehicle to bring Kezer to Missouri so he could be charged with the murder.

The charge was dropped after the couple testified at a preliminary hearing they had never actually seen a gun, though they claimed Kezer had said he had one.

They also did not report the incident until approached by police three months after it happened.

While Kezer awaited trial without bond in the Scott County Jail, his attorney sent him a copy of Lawless's obituary that had run in the Southeast Missourian. That was the first time, Kezer said, that he had ever seen what Lawless looked like.

Also while in the jail, Kezer's cellmate, Samuel Wade Howard, told Ferrell that Kezer confessed to the murder. Like Mangus and Weissinger, he later recanted that statement, saying in February 1994 that Kezer clung strongly to his innocence, telling Howard and other inmates repeatedly that he was way up in Kankakee when Lawless was killed, and he did not kill her. Howard, who faced first-degree murder charges, was sentenced to 15 years for second-degree murder.

The trial

By the time Kezer's trial began in June 1994. Mangus and Howard had taken back their recantations and testified that Kezer had confessed to them. Howard said his recantation was a falsified statement drawn up by Kezer's attorney, and he denied saying it. Mangus testified that he lied because he was informed that "Kezer was making calls," and his life might be in danger if he were celled with any of Kezer's friends.

Grah's testimony was fraught with inconsistencies, including naming two different months he claimed to have been at friend's apartment where he said he talked to Kezer. Both dates were well after the date the friend said she'd moved out of her apartment, according to documents.

U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, then an assistant attorney general, was assigned to serve as prosecutor for the case, which was tried in Ste. Genevieve County on a change of venue. Hulshof did not return calls seeking comment.

At trial, Kezer's relatives testified they'd seen him at 11:30 p.m. the night Lawless died. His cousin had been in a minor car accident, and Kezer had stopped by to check on him at their home in Kankakee, more than 340 miles from where Lawless was killed.

Kezer's attorney tried unsuccessfully to suppress Mark Abbott's testimony, saying he was "wholly unreliable" as a witness.

During Mark Abbott's testimony, he denied giving the jailer at the sheriff's department the name "Matt," his twin brother's name, when he reported finding Lawless's body. He testified he'd identified himself as "Mark Abbott."

Mark hadn't had a driver's license at the time of the homicide, and had been drinking that night, Matt Abbott said in an interview with the Southeast Missourian. He'd frequently give his brother's name and driver's license in brushes with the law to avoid trouble, Matt Abbott said.

During his testimony, Mark Abbott also identified a white Plymouth Duster, a car belonging to a friend of Drury's, that Kezer had frequently borrowed. Kezer did not own a car. At different times during the investigation, Mark Abbott's description of the white car changed, according to documents. At one point he said it was a newer car, like a Saab, at another, he pointed to a Mercury Merkur.

The inside of the Plymouth Duster that Mark Abbott identified was tested for traces of blood by spraying it with Luminol. Hulshof said during trial it "glowed like a Christmas tree."

Tests did not prove the substance that reacted to the Luminol was Lawless's blood.

Recent tests conducted by an independent lab, funded by Kezer's current attorneys, using newer technology show the substance on the inside of the car was not blood at all.

During the trial, nothing connected Lawless to Kezer.

Until the end.

'I didn't kill her'

Chantelle Crider, a close friend of Lawless, was sitting in the Ste. Genevieve courtroom the whole time, listening to testimony about her friend's death so detailed and graphic that members of the Lawless family had to leave at certain points.

As the trial was wrapping up, Crider came forward with a stunning announcement. She recognized Kezer. At a party the Halloween before Lawless was killed, Crider said she had seen Kezer arguing with Lawless. The court permitted her testimony, though she had not been sequestered during the trial and wasn't on a witness list.

O'Dell, Lawless's best friend, had given statements to police before the trial that Lawless had argued with a man at the Halloween party. But it wasn't Kezer, it was Todd Mayberry, who had been a suspect for a brief time. Lawless had written about the incident in her diary entry from that time, and also named Mayberry.

The day after the trial, Dawn Worley, a girl who had hosted the party read about Crider's testimony. Confused, she spoke with Kezer's attorneys, saying she knew everyone at her party, and Kezer was not among them.

Another girl went with her, and said the same thing: They had never seen Kezer before. They provided a guest list of everyone who had been at the party. Worley described the altercation between Lawless and Mayberry.

Crider later gave a statement saying she thought she had made an honest mistake.

Kezer said when his cousin, with whom he was close, asked his permission not to attend the trial because he had an opportunity to record music in a Chicago studio, he told him not to worry.

He thought he'd be home right after the verdict, and wanted his cousin to have the opportunity to pursue his dream, he said.

When the jury returned after less than four hours of deliberation, Kezer didn't hear the foreman announce the verdict of guilt.

He didn't hear his mother begin screaming.

He just went numb, he said.

Then he began to cry.

He sobbed as bailiffs led him from the courtroom, wailing "No, I didn't do this. I didn't kill her, why doesn't anyone believe that?"

After the trial Lawless family took Mark Abbott to breakfast, grateful for his testimony.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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