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June 8th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

FRANCKE FRACAS

What to make of Portland's media murder-mystery smackdown.

     
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Mainstream newspapers rarely call each other full of it, except in the most delicate terms. But that unspoken agreement exploded last month in Portland between The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune.

The feud has its roots in January 1989, when Oregon prisons chief Michael Francke was found stabbed to death. Small-time meth dealer Frank Gable was convicted of the murder after prosecutors portrayed him as the lone killer in a car prowl gone bad.

Then-Oregonian columnist Phil Stanford argued that Francke was killed to keep him from tackling prison corruption. And Stanford has not changed his tune since joining the Trib (see "The Murder That Would Not Die," WW, Nov. 23, 2004).

On May 22, the O responded with a two-page Sunday spread, billed as the most exhaustive examination ever of the killing. Reporters Les Zaitz and Noelle Crombie examined thousands of documents and re-interviewed witnesses and key players, writing that Stanford has pushed a theory with "no substance" and been "effective in sowing doubt but not much else." A headline said the investigation "rules out all but a lone figure: the man already behind bars."

The Trib's response: The O "left out facts," and its "huffing and puffing" is "comical." The O, in turn responded online and let its reporters be interviewed by WW. What follows are the highlights of the two papers' clashing takes, followed by our own.

FRANK GABLE

Trib: Stanford has declared Gable innocent.

The O: Concludes Gable's alibi doesn't hold up.

WW: Stanford goes too far-he can't prove Gable didn't do it. And the O does a decent job shooting holes in Gable's alibi without addressing others' allegations that Gable conspired with others to kill Francke. Former Salem Statesman Journal reporter Steve Jackson, who covered the case, believes "if Gable was a part of this, so were others."

MICHAEL FRANCKE

Trib: Pushes the theory that Francke feared for his life because he was curbing widespread internal corruption and drug trafficking, thus implying another reason for his slaying than a random car-prowl.

The O: Says no credible proof exists that Michael Francke was afraid, and brings up corruption only to say there's no proof of a link to the murder.

WW: Documents and interviews show that Michael Francke met with whistleblowers before he was murdered to discuss corruption and was working to demote or remove prison officials. An informant told cops that shortly before Francke's murder, the prison boss was causing widespread concern among inmates, even to the point of wanting him dead.

SCOTT MCALISTER, former assistant attorney general, forced out of his prisons job by Michael Francke

Trib: Makes much of the statement by a former girlfriend of McAlister's that he'd implicated himself in the Francke murder.

The O: Notes the ex-girlfriend sought electroshock treatment for depression. Describes McAlister merely as an admitted "womanizer and hard drinker" later busted for possessing kiddie porn.

WW: Who knows? But McAlister appears more shadowy than depicted in the O, which left out inmates' allegations that he threatened them physically, as well as a Salt Lake City Tribune investigation finding that McAlister participated in a whitewash of a Utah prison official caught in the act of raping an inmate. Asked whether the O glossed over some of McAlister's past, Zaitz and Crombie noted that none of that information implicated McAlister in the murder.

RANDY MARTINAK, former Oregon Department of Justice investigator

Trib: Notes that Martinak, who participated in the Francke investigation, believes Gable was innocent.

The O: Omits this information, then defends the omission in an online response to Trib, saying Martinak's testimony in Gable's first unsuccessful appeal did not exonerate Gable.

WW: With limited space, the O had to make choices.As Zaitz told WW, "How often do you print everything that you've gathered?" Still, it seems an odd omission. Martinak doesn't have smoking-gun evidence, but the retired cop knows more about the Francke investigation's internal dynamics than any reporter.

POLYGRAPHS

Trib: Doesn't mention the results of polygraphs given during the Francke investigation.

The O: Notes that police said Gable flunked one and McAlister passed one.

WW: The O's Zaitz says the article merely noted the polygraph results and let readers judge for themselves. What the article did not note: Local law-enforcement types and polygraphers say the devices can be misused and have often been flat-out wrong. Ken Simmons, the dean of Oregon polygraphers, told WW the Francke probe's use of polygraphs was way out of line ("True Lies?," WW, Dec. 1, 2004). Because they are unreliable, polygraph results are no longer admissible in court.

TIM NATIVIDAD, an alternate suspect

Trib: Points out that four people told police Natividad, a now-dead drug dealer, was the killer.

The O: Says the four people cited by the Trib are "unreliable and vague." The O instead favors the four trial witnesses who fingered Gable and whose testimony had its own problems.

WW: Which not-very-credible four people do you believe?

BOTTOM LINE

Until something new breaks, the Francke murder mystery will be Oregon's version of the JFK assassination: Several people appeared to have a motive, but it's not clear any of them did it.

Stanford calls the O's piece dishonest, but Zaitz stands by his paper's conclusions, saying, "There's lots of information out there to pick and choose...but proving it and believing it are two different things."

 
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