The Billy Gasnick Trial – Part 3

Parts of this post were used in Aggravated.

This is a long one.

The Gasnick family did not take kindly to Steve and Dad agreeing to testify against Billy. According to the book, A Gruesome End, during the two years leading up to his trial Gasnick told his attorney and his family a number of times that he thought Steve would have been capable of murdering Jenny. Steve told me that, when the rest of the Gasnicks found out that he was planning to testify, they turned on him too.

Gasnick’s sister, Melanie, even threatened to have Steve killed. According to Beau, who was only ten years old at the time, they were in Steve’s truck shortly after Gasnick had been arrested when Melanie walked up to the truck and said to Steve, “You don’t think he did it, do you?” Steve answered her with what he thought was the truth, saying, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did.” Melanie paused for a second before saying, “You’re his friend. You have to stand behind him.” Steve said, “No, I don’t.” Beau told me that Melanie “got right in [Steve’s] face and told him that she’s got people, that she knows people, and they could put him where no one could find him.” Being just a kid at the time, Beau said he must has been  visibly upset, but Steve told him he shouldn’t worry, that he would be safe. Steve told me the same story, differing only slightly in the wording. He remembered Melanie saying “I know people in Mississippi. They’ll never find your body.” He admitted to me that the encounter was frightening, but he wouldn’t have let Beau know that. Steve testified against Gasnick anyway. The subject of the threats against Steve by the Gasnicks was never mentioned. Not in the trial, and not in the book, A Gruesome End.

Steve said that, both before and after Gasnick was convicted, his family launched assaults on dual fronts. They campaigned to convince everyone that Billy was a good Christian boy who would never do anything bad. His parents were both preachers, but at the same time they tried to boost Billy’s image, they also worked to discredit Steve, and offer him up as an alternate suspect. I know that doesn’t seem like a very Christian attitude, but, according to Steve, the family had done this sort of thing for him several times before, and this time was no exception. The family mounted a relentless barrage of misinformation to divert attention away from him.

At some point in the investigation, Gasnick’s mother, Martha, claimed that an unnamed man had walked up to her at Billy’s house, and said he had some information. She said he told her that, on the night Jenny went missing, a man with curly red hair had been driving up and down the road in a tan-colored pickup truck, yelling obscene things at kids in the neighborhood. Martha said she had seen that pickup parked by the roadside, so she wrote out a note for the detectives, and claimed she handed it to Steve. She said Steve and several other people heard her conversation with the man, and that she saw Steve walk over, hand the note to Deputy Otto Walton, and tell him about the man. She said that Deputy Walton pocketed the note, but did nothing, saying, “We have another lead; we’ll look at this later,” but if Martha was close enough to hear what Deputy Walton told Steve, why didn’t she just hand him the note herself?

A couple of people, friends of the Gasnicks, testified that they witnessed this, but Steve doesn’t remember it happening. I asked Steve about it, and he said that Martha’s statement was “a great lie.” He said he didn’t think Martha was even at Gasnick’s house much during the search, maybe a little toward the end. He was positive, though, that if Martha did write any notes for the officers, she didn’t give them to him. He said that Gasnick’s brothers and sisters were around, but “kind of in and out some.” As far as helping with the search, he said “they hung out on the porch with Billy more than they did anything.”

Martha’s red-headed stranger surfaced again through Erica Gasnick, when she took the stand at Gasnick’s trial in 1995. By this time, though, the mysterious man’s presence had evolved into an alibi of sorts, and Billy’s family tried to connect the man to Steve. Erica testified that she drove in from Langford, Texas, as soon as she heard about Jenny’s disappearance, and started investigating. She said that she and a couple of her friends went to a motorcycle shop about a half-mile away to question people. She said a man in a tan pickup, with red hair and a mustache, was there. She described him as acting “kind of off-the-wall.” Gasnick’s defense attorney, Roy Lane Dunnigan, asked her if she had noticed anything covered up on the floorboard,” which seemed like leading the witness to me, but the judge let the question stand. Erica said that she saw a blanket covering a lump of something on the floorboard, and that she got the license number of the truck, and thought they had given it to the police.

Dunnigan asked her if she had seen this red-headed man at any other time. She said she saw him a couple of weeks later at the Gas-n-Sip, a convenience store in the area, and that Steve and this man were talking. She said, “Steve Sirois told the man that he had two weeks to get him his money, or else,” but when they saw her they stopped talking. She also said that the two of them left when she did and boxed her in on the road, Steve in front of her, and the red-headed man behind her, frightening her. After trying to speed up and slow down to shake them with no luck, she said she finally got away from them when other traffic appeared. Then, apparently to seal the deal, Erica told the jury that the day before they found Jenny’s body Steve told her that he knew that Billy had killed Jenny and he had proof. Presumably, this was to push suspicion back on Steve, and make it seem like Steve was trying to blame Billy to disguise his own guilt.

Note: I need to pause for one second to mention something. Roy Lane Dunnigan, Gasnick’s attorney for this trial, had also been Steve’s attorney for his 1982 marijuana conviction, but in Billy’s trial he tried to use that information to discredit Steve. Fortunately, the judge wouldn’t allow him to do that. I cover Steve’s marijuana conviction in the chapter, The First Trial, in Aggravated.

Dunnigan asked Erica about two other things, possibly trying to cast doubt on the sheriff’s investigators. He wanted to know if she had driven Billy’s Ford Escort the night that Jenny disappeared, and if she had later inspected the culvert where they found Jenny’s body. Erica said she was asked to move the car so the REACT volunteers could get through the gate, but said there were no unusual smells, and she didn’t see any blood inside the car. About the culvert, she said that, after Jenny’s body was found, she and her brother, Randy, took some video of what she said was a wet bloody hand print inside the culvert. The video, when played in the courtroom, showed an unfocused smudge, though.

On cross examination by the Ashwell County DA, Erica added to the confusion by admitting she didn’t arrive at the house until nearly 11:00 pm the first night. Earlier, she had testified that it was just beginning to get dark when she got there, but the police weren’t called until after 9:30, and Erica was called after that. The DA also established that the video was actually taken a day later than Erica claimed, and after other people had already been inside the culvert.

Even after the trial was over, during the appeals process — the Gasnicks continued their campaign to free Gasnick. It went on for years. In 2000, last minute re-testing of the DNA evidence established that Gasnick was guilty by such a huge margin that there was no doubt. One of the lab technicians said the DNA could only have come from Billy Gasnick or an immediate family member of his. The identification was absolute. Interestingly, Steve said that once that lab report came out, showing the likelihood of a family member as the only other possible candidate for Jenny’s murder, the Gasnicks seemed to back away from Billy temporarily. He said that Erica even apologized to Karen outside the courtroom after the lab technician’s testimony.

The damage to Steve’s reputation was already done, though. By the time Gasnick was executed four years later, his family had spread the rumors so widely that when Steve was indicted in 2004 they surfaced again. That’s when Roland Mathis said he was contacted by the editor of the Deep Springs Gazette with the news that private investigators were asking about the trial because they still thought Steve could have been the one who killed Jenny.

The publication of the book A Gruesome End in 2002, halfway between Gafken’s execution in 2000 and Steve’s indictment in 2004, just added more fuel to the local gossip fire. All of the book’s untrue references to Steve being Billy’s best friend, and the author saying that the Gasnicks believed Steve could have murdered Jenny, only made it more likely that parts of the local populace would already have a bias against Steve by the time of the trials, and a few online reviews of the book have echoed that.  America apparently loves a conspiracy theory. Steve told me that A Gruesome End was so popular in the Deep Springs area that it sold out at the local bookstore immediately. He had to order a copy and wait several weeks before he could try to read it. I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that it was published around the same time that Hanna might have started telling her friends about the older man she had been having sexual experiences with.

Michael Sirois

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