First-degree murder charges dismissed in Yakima triple homicide

CHRIS BRISTOL YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICOctober 11, 2012 

YAKIMA -- Yakima County prosecutors dismissed all but two comparatively minor charges against triple-murder suspect Kevin Harper, the latest and most stunning of all the twists in the unsolved slayings of three members of the Goggin family last year.

"I'm just blown away," said Mike Morrisette, a friend of Bill and Pauline Goggin, moments after a hearing Wednesday in Yakima County Superior Court where three counts of aggravated first-degree murder against Harper were dismissed. "When will we know who committed those murders?"

Prosecutors who, along with sheriff's investigators, are under fire for their handling of the case, were not saying. They left the courtroom without comment and did not return phone calls later.

Harper's lead attorney Pete Mazzone, however, said new evidence not only exonerates his client but also raises new questions about the conduct of investigators.

"Whoever's responsible for this needs to be found," he said. "Kevin Harper could not be responsible for it, and the community needs to know that."

Harper was arrested two weeks after the bludgeoned bodies of Bill Goggin, owner of a civil engineering firm in Yakima; his wife, Pauline; and his 98-year-old mother, Bettye, were found Feb. 18, 2011, in their home in the gated Falcon Ridge community, west of Yakima.

At the time, sheriff's detectives said Harper was found in possession of property stolen from the Goggin home, including an antique .22-caliber revolver. That formed the basis of the charges Harper plead to Wednesday: one count each of first-degree unlawful possession of firearm and second-degree possession of stolen property.

In exchange for his plea, Harper agreed to a sentence at the bottom of the standard range of just more than seven years on the charges. The high range would call for less than 10 years. A sentencing date has not been set.

Harper, 30, would have faced an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole had he been convicted of the three counts of aggravated first-degree murder leveled against him by prosecutors.

Prosecutors also agreed to dismiss an accessory charge against his wife, Crystal Gray-West, and unrelated charges out of Spokane County.

Ramm told Judge Ruth Reukauf that the plea deal stemmed from the emergence two weeks ago of a new witness that "shifted the timeline" by several hours and thus appeared to bolster Harper's alibi.

Ramm did not go into detail, but he was apparently referring to a new motion by Harper's attorneys that accused sheriff's detectives of dismissing a report of suspicious activity on the night of the deaths by a neighbor of the Goggin family.

According to Harper's attorneys, the neighbor recently told a defense investigator the sheriff's detectives dismissed her statement as not fitting their theory of the crime and that they didn't even take her statement, which was made the same day the bodies were found.

Mazzone said that statement provided a clear alibi for his client, who could show he was elsewhere at that time.

Her statement was not turned over to Harper's defense team in violation of fair-trial rules and may not have even been turned over to prosecutors, Harper's attorneys said.

The complaint about the investigation's failure to follow up on the neighbor's statements was only the latest in a series of accusations against prosecutors and investigators in the case.

Before the case went to trial, prosecutors were repeatedly admonished by Judge Reukauf to more quickly turn over evidence to defense attorneys. When they failed to do so, the judge found deputy prosecutor Ramm in contempt of court and fined him $1,000.

The case was further roiled when it was disclosed that lead sheriff's detective Brian Jackson accessed at least eight recordings of privileged phone calls from jail between Harper and his attorneys.

The allegations of eavesdropping were serious enough that Reukauf appointed former Yakima County prosecutor and U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan to investigate. The status of that investigation, and whether it is now necessary to continue, remains unclear.

Lost in all the procedural skirmishing has been the fact that the state's case against Harper relied heavily on circumstantial evidence. While announcing that he was rejecting the death penalty against Harper last year, Hagarty described the case as less than airtight.

Despite the bloody nature of the crime scene, the only physical evidence potentially putting Harper inside the Goggin home was DNA collected from a small flashlight found in the hallway.

Lab testing of the flashlight revealed mixed DNA from up to four people -- possibly the victims and possibly, but not definitively, Harper's.

His attorneys had been seeking to suppress that evidence as well as a handwritten letter and found in Harper's jail cell in which he describes his role as merely a lookout to a botched burglary.

In addition to Harper and his wife, two other people were charged as accessories in the case. One of them, Tennance Buckingham, was released on bail shortly after his arrest last year for allegedly fencing stolen property. The other defendant, Tracy Culton, has been held in custody ever since she made incriminating statements that put her at the scene of the slayings. She faces charges of felony murder as accessory. It was not immediately clear what the effect of Harper's plea would have on her case.

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