What an Alabama crime spree might reveal about the Curtis Flowers investigation.
In October 2015, almost 20 years after the murders at Tardy Furniture, one of Curtis Flowers' lawyers was paging through his case file, when she saw a familiar face.
Katie Ali had been researching parallels between the Tardy Furniture murders and a string of similar crimes that had happened that same summer in neighboring Alabama. Both involved store employees who were shot execution-style, a .380 handgun that might have jammed, and a suspect wearing Fila shoes. Back in 1996, there had even been speculation in the media that the crimes could be connected, and investigators had told the local paper they were looking into it.
But there was no mention of the Alabama crimes and suspects in the investigative files the prosecution had turned over to Flowers' defense attorneys. The prosecutors had said repeatedly at trial that the only suspect seriously investigated was Flowers.
"I haven't heard anything about them," John Johnson, the investigator for the District Attorney's office, had said when questioned about the Alabama suspects at the sixth Flowers trial. "I don't know nothing about it."
That day in October 2015, Ali was looking at a photo lineup that law enforcement had used to implicate Flowers in the Tardy case. And there he was. Marcus Presley, the gunman in the Alabama crime spree, was staring up at Ali from among the six photos in the lineup.
"It just kind of jumped out," Ali said. For Ali and the other lawyers working on Flowers' appeal at the time, this was a significant revelation. The presence of Presley in the lineup raised some questions about the testimony of law enforcement witnesses who'd said under oath that Presley was never a suspect in the Tardy case.
Evidence that prosecution witnesses may have given false testimony could potentially get Flowers' conviction overturned, said Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor who now teaches law at Pace University.
"False testimony is a corruption of the truth-finding process of a trial," Gershman said. "[I]t's almost like a hair trigger that would cause a reversal if you've got ... false testimony that is significant."
Mississippi Highway Patrol Lt. Wayne Miller, the investigator who created the lineup, testified that the only suspect pictured in the lineup was Flowers. He testified in multiple trials that the other images in the photo lineup were just "filler pictures," chosen "at random" based on some resemblance to Flowers.
In fact, it appears Miller had specifically asked for the photo of Presley from an investigator in Virginia, where Presley and his accomplice, LaSamuel Gamble, were apprehended. Miller also asked the investigator to interrogate Presley and Gamble about the Tardy Furniture murders.
"They were investigating that intently back then. And that's what I know," said David Goldberg, now retired from his job as a detective in the Norfolk Police Department. "They wanted to put all these robberies onto Marcus and LaSamuel."
Marcus Presley — sometimes accompanied by LaSamuel Gamble — had committed a string of robberies in 1996 in and around Birmingham, with the same modus operandi. In the months before the Tardy Furniture murders, Presley hit a grocery store, a fireworks retailer, three gas stations and three liquor stores. In total, he killed four people and wounded three others in the space of just three months. But there was a three-week gap in the Alabama crime spree right at the time of the Tardy murders.
The suspicion that the crimes could be connected was a matter of public record at the time. An August 15, 1996, article in The Winona Times reported that law enforcement officials in three states "released statements that they believe [Presley and Gamble] could be linked to Winona's case."
The similarities between the crimes were striking. Presley shot and killed store employees execution-style on his way out the door. The weapon in at least some of the Alabama cases was a .380 handgun that tended to jam. The murder weapon in the Tardy Furniture case was a .380, and an unfired round was found at the scene; investigators believe that might indicate that the gun had jammed. And Gamble wore Fila sneakers — the same brand of shoe that left a bloody footprint at the Tardy Furniture scene.
Following their Alabama crime spree, Presley and Gamble fled north to Boston, where Gamble had relatives. The police there picked up the investigation and also apparently probed the Tardy Furniture connection. In the midst of the probe, the Mississippi Crime Lab sent a copy of the bloody shoeprint found at Tardy to the lead Boston investigator.
After a multistate manhunt, Presley and Gamble were arrested in Norfolk, Virginia. Detective Goldberg got Presley and Gamble to confess their roles in a pair of murders at a Birmingham pawn shop less than two weeks after the Tardy Furniture murders. But both denied having committed the Tardy murders and said they'd never even been to Mississippi.
Presley was the tougher of the two, and he didn't say much. Goldberg couldn't tell whether he was telling the truth. But he believed Gamble's denial.
"He would have just told me everything and anything at that point," Goldberg said. "Because once you get people on a roll to admitting to crimes, they just don't stop. It's not like you're going to say, 'Yeah I robbed this 7-11, but I didn't rob that 7-11.'"
Goldberg doesn't remember the alibis Presley or Gamble gave, but he said following up on those wouldn't have been his job. He said he would have sent a written report back to Mississippi, so authorities there could check out the stories.
Presley and Gamble were extradited to Alabama, and again Gamble was questioned, almost in passing, about Mississippi. Again, he denied ever being there.
"The best of my recollection, Mississippi was able to determine that our guys weren't the ones, or there was something that didn't make them right for the Mississippi case," said Mike DeHart, the Alabama sheriff's deputy who questioned Gamble.
Gamble and Presley are serving life in prison for their Alabama crime spree. It remains unclear why Mississippi investigators ruled them out as suspects. Miller, the Mississippi investigator who made the lineup and asked for the two to be interrogated, declined to answer questions from APM Reports. And the case file doesn't contain the report Goldberg says he would have sent to Mississippi authorities, or any indication of what might have been done to substantiate it.
It wasn't until Flowers' sixth trial that jurors heard anything about the Alabama suspects. Investigators John Johnson and Jack Matthews denied on the stand knowing anything about them. District Attorney Doug Evans insisted he'd given the defense access to all records of the investigation. They contained no mention of the Alabama suspects.
During the sixth Flowers trial, Matthews, who worked with Miller at the Mississippi Highway Patrol, said the only suspect in the case aside from Flowers was Doyle Simpson, whose gun the prosecution argued Flowers stole and used as the murder weapon.
Simpson's brother Emmett was an early suspect, too — a fact Matthews had himself testified to in the second Flowers trial. And in the first Flowers trial, in 1997, he testified that "there were numerous suspects" in the early days of the investigation.
Investigators said the Simpson brothers were eliminated quickly because they were both at work at the time of the murders.
Willie James Hemphill didn't come up until the sixth Flowers trial, and law enforcement officers said he was eliminated as a suspect in about five minutes.
Like LaSamuel Gamble, Hemphill wore Fila shoes and had a criminal record. And Hemphill had actually lived for a time in Winona. He told APM Reports that he was arrested and questioned in the early days of the investigation.
"Best I remember is somebody brought it to the attention of the investigators that they wanted us to talk to him, and he came in and we talked to him," Matthews said on the stand in the sixth trial. "After a short time, we realized that he didn't know anything about the case."
Hemphill was held in jail for 11 days, according to county records, though it's not clear why he was held. The investigative file contained no indication of what Hemphill said or why he was eliminated as a suspect.
"I think we pretty much ruled him out from the get-go," Matthews testified.