© City of Roses Newspaper Company, 2007
For 18 years, Gregory Allen Johnson kept a secret.
Recently, he shared it with WW .
If Johnson is telling the truth, his story opens a door into one of the great mysteries in recent Oregon history.
In a series of four jailhouse interviews, Johnson, 45, made explosive claims about the 1989 murder of Michael Francke, the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.
The official story is that the murderer is already behind bars. In 1991, a Marion County jury convicted Frank Gable, a hapless ex-con, for Francke's killing. But Johnson says Tim Natividad, a Salem meth dealer, was the real killer.
Others have previously speculated that Natividad, not Gable, murdered Francke. What's new about Johnson's claims is that he says he knows how and why Natividad did it.
Johnson, who is currently serving 20 years for armed robbery at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, says the night Francke died he drove Natividad to the murder scene. That claim, however incendiary, is less shocking than his explanation of who ordered the killing.
A couple of days after Francke's death, Johnson says, he accompanied Natividad to pick up a payment for the hit from Hoyt Cupp, the former longtime warden of the Oregon State Penitentiary, and another senior corrections official.
There are reasons to doubt Johnson, but there are also grounds to believe what he has to say.
To a couple of former lawmakers who worked closely with Francke, Johnson's claims ring true.
"It's the first thing I've ever heard about Michael's death that makes sense," says former state Rep. Chuck Sides (R-Salem), who was a close friend of Francke's and also knew Cupp.
"I've never believed that Frank Gable killed Francke," says former two-term state Treasurer Jim Hill, who as a state senator in the '80s was involved with an investigation into prison corruption. "The feds need to get to the bottom of this once and for all."
Though Francke was killed 18 years ago, a lot of Oregonians continue to doubt Gable's guilt and believe something more sinister was afoot. Mary Botkin, an AFSCME union lobbyist who represents prison guards and was scheduled to meet with Francke the morning after he was found dead, says, "Like a lot of other people, I've never felt the whole story has been told."
Elyse Clawson, Francke's assistant, says she has always found the Gable conviction unconvincing. "I have always thought there was more to it," says Clawson, now director of the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston.
The bare bones of the official story are these: Then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt hired Francke in May 1987 to fix the state's troubled Department of Corrections. A former New Mexico judge, Francke had previously reformed that state's prison system.
Goldschmidt wanted Francke to modernize Oregon's archaic prisons, which were overcrowded and run like "independent fiefdoms," in the words of an investigator who examined the system in the late '80s.
On Jan. 17, 1989, Francke led a staff meeting about selling a prison expansion to the Legislature. After the meeting, he left to go home and was fatally stabbed in the Department of Corrections parking lot.
According to a chronology established by Oregon State Police investigators, an attacker stabbed Francke, 42, near his car shortly after 7 pm. The corrections boss bled to death on nearby steps.
Lacking a suspect, a murder weapon and witnesses, detectives sifted through Salem's underworld and grilled Francke's subordinates at the Department of Corrections for clues.
Finally, on April 8, 1990, nearly 15 months after Francke's death, police arrested an ex-con named Frank Gable, then 30, for the crime.
At trial, prosecutors said Francke caught Gable breaking into his car. In a panic, Gable stabbed him. A jury found Gable guilty and sentenced him to life.
But for many, the verdict—which has twice been upheld on appeal—brought little closure.
"Gable's conviction never made any sense to me," says Mike Burton, a former state representative who served on a prison siting committee with Francke. "I always thought there was something more nefarious involved."
Skeptics pointed out that investigators never found a weapon or other physical evidence tying Gable to the crime. Gable did not confess, nor were there any witnesses.
The prosecutors' case turned on testimony provided by Gable's battered ex-wife and a handful of criminal associates—many of whom received leniency in return for their testimony or benefited in other ways.
Doubters wondered why Gable would break into a car parked in a well-lit, patrolled lot and why he did not take Francke's car, his wallet or even his watch. Some questioned how Gable, whom one prison guard says "couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag," could overpower Francke, a physically fit, 6-foot-3-inch 200-pounder.
The biggest cause for disbelief, however, was the reason Francke was in Oregon in the first place—the rot in the prison system.
People who knew Francke say he planned to fix the problems he saw in the system and get rid of the officials who saw it.
In fact, at the time of his death, he had already begun. In December 1988, Francke arranged the ouster of longtime corrections counsel Scott McAlister, the man whose job it was to police wrongdoing in the system. McAlister was a friend of Hoyt Cupp's.
"[Francke] told me was going to change the culture of the system, and he knew that threatened people," says then-Rep. Sides, whose legislative district included the Oregon State Penitentiary. "That's why he kept a gun in his car."
Burton says Francke told him on more than one occasion the corrections system was "rotten" and he was going to clean it up.
"He said, 'You can't imagine how many problems there are in this system,'" recalls Burton, now a vice-provost at Portland State University. "He said it was far worse than New Mexico."
The fundamental question that Hill, Sides, Burton, and others have asked was this: Was Francke killed randomly by Gable or deliberately by someone else because of his efforts to stop prison corruption?
State investigators searched for a link between prison corruption and Francke's death.
In September 1989, Goldschmidt appointed retired judge John Warden to take a look. After a three-month investigation, Warden found that "there are reasonable grounds to believe that some officials of the Department of Corrections are involved in significant illegal activities or other wrongdoing." His investigators found no link between the wrongdoing and Francke's death, however.
Warden placed a major caveat on his conclusions. "The single element that has been absent in the responses of some officials in the institutions is candor," he wrote.
Over time, some have moved beyond skepticism into a certainty that Francke died as a result of a shadowy web of corruption.
At the center of the conspiracy theorists is Michael Francke's younger brother, Kevin, who moved from Florida to Salem after becoming frustrated with the official murder investigation.
Nearly two decades later, he remains immersed in the demimonde of meth dealers, ex-cons and corrections sources, many of whom he thinks know bits and pieces of what "really" happened.
He insists his brother died as a crusader.
"Mike told me the system was corrupt and he was going to do something about it," Francke says.
The person who may be most closely associated with the belief that Francke was killed by someone other than Gable is Phil Stanford, who became The Oregonian 's Metro columnist the month after Francke's murder. Stanford would mention Francke in 102 columns over the next five years, usually in conjunction with questions about corrections corruption and Gable's conviction.
Other Oregonian reporters and editors wearied of Stanford's obsession, and management forced him out of the paper in 1994. Stanford joined the start-up Portland Tribune in 2001 and soon returned to the Francke story, poking at his former employer for accepting the conventional wisdom.
In 2005, The Oregonian responded by assigning its senior investigative reporter, Les Zaitz, to revisit the issue. Zaitz and another reporter, Noelle Crombie, spent six months plowing through 90,000 pages of documents and interviewing scores of people, including Gable.
"In the end, the paper found no substance to…the conspiracy theory," they wrote. "Nor does Gable's alibi hold up."
But Johnson says neither Stanford nor the Oregonian reporters ever heard his story.
Johnson says that he first got to know Tim "Rooster" Natividad—a California transplant who was partial to meth, guns, knives and guitars—around 1980, when both were hanging around Salem.
"We started dealing drugs and partying together in 1980 and '81," Johnson says.
In 1983, Johnson went to prison on robbery charges, an event that he says cemented his relationship with Natividad. "Tim felt I took the rap for him," Johnson says.
When Johnson was released from prison in 1986, the two men renewed their association. They shared interests in martial arts and drug dealing, Johnson says.
Johnson says he sometimes acted as a backup or "silent partner" for Natividad, showing up with a gun when Natividad thought he might need support. (Natividad's longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Godlove, confirms that he and Johnson were "very, very close.")
Johnson says the two sometimes used walkie-talkies to communicate during drug deals because cell phones weren't yet widely available.
On the night of Jan. 17, 1989, Johnson says, Natividad picked him up in a brownish Datsun 260Z and asked Johnson to drive to Center Street in Salem near the State Hospital (which is across the street from the Department of Corrections).
"I asked him what was going on. He said he would tell me later but I was to drop him off and remain close by in case he needed [sic] picked up," Johnson wrote in a statement he gave WW (go to wweek.com to see Johnson's statement).
Johnson says he went to his mother's house briefly and then to a tavern called Nobles. When Johnson was midway through his second beer, Natividad called him on a two-way radio and asked to be picked up.
When Natividad climbed into the car, Johnson says, he was wearing gloves that were bloody and he was carrying a briefcase.
"He was sweating real bad and seemed pretty shaken up," Johnson wrote in his statement. "I asked him if he was alright and he said its not my blood don't worry [sic]."
(Francke's briefcase, which some suspect contained information about prison corruption, has never been found. Johnson says he's not sure whether the briefcase Natividad carried belonged to Francke, but it remained in the car when Johnson got out.)
Johnson says Natividad didn't say where he'd been.
"I tried to ask Tim what was going on and he said it will be all over the news tomorrow and for me to keep my mouth shut or we could both end up dead," Johnson wrote.
"A few days later [after the killing], Tim asked me to meet him at The Duck Inn [a Salem tavern] on State St. He told me to make sure I was packing and be ready to back his play," Johnson wrote.
Natividad was already in the parking lot when Johnson arrived in his own car. "He told me he was getting a payoff and he was afraid it might be some kind of a setup," Johnson wrote.
"I saw a vehical [sic] with Oregon government plates pull up," Johnson continued. "I recognized the passenger to be [Hoyt Cupp], the ex-warden of OSP [Oregon State Penitentiary]. I also recognized the passenger but don't recall his name—he was also from OSP." (Cupp was the warden at OSP when Johnson served time there from 1983 to 1986.)
Johnson says he recognized the man in the car with Cupp as a former top lieutenant of Cupp's who had subsequently become one of Francke's top aides. Although he recognizes the man's face, he is uncertain of his name. Johnson says he and another inmate met in 1987 with Francke and that second official who was in the car with Cupp.
Johnson says one of the men handed Natividad a newspaper with a manila envelope inside. Natividad then jumped into Johnson's car, and they drove around to make sure they were not being followed.
"I watched him count out $20,000," Johnson says. "I asked him what was going on, and that's when he told me about the contract on Michael Francke."
It was then that Natividad made his deed explicit.
"They hired me to take that guy out," Johnson recalls Natividad saying.
Johnson's claims are explosive. They are also difficult to corroborate. Natividad is dead—shot to death two weeks after Francke's murder by his girlfriend, Godlove, who was later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. Hoyt Cupp died of cancer in 1990.
And, in many respects, Johnson is not the ideal source of new information about the Francke case.
For starters, the Oregon native is a serial felon who served three-year prison stretches in the '80s and '90s. Last year, after returning to Oregon for a visit, he relapsed into heavy meth use and went on an armed robbery spree that led to convictions in four counties.
Johnson's family first approached WW on June 25, right after he went to back to prison. Around the same time, Johnson also reached out to Stanford, who says he declined to talk to Johnson because he could see no way to verify the story.
Initially, the version of events Johnson presented seemed far-fetched.
When word got out Johnson was talking, at least one regular visitor to the site freefrankgable.com, where conspiracy theorists and Gable partisans chew over the details of the case, branded him as "not credible."
Even Kevin Francke, who for years has insisted that Natividad, rather than Gable, murdered his brother, is dubious. "It could have happened that way," says Francke. "But where's the proof?"
Johnson acknowledges he has critics and enemies. "When I've been caught, I've testified against people. People don't like that," he says.
There are, however, some reasons to believe Johnson, or at least believe that his story has remained consistent for some time.
For instance, records show that in 1991 during the Gable investigation, Johnson told police he and Natividad were together on the evening of Jan. 17, 1989, but said nothing about any role Natividad may have played in the killing.
Johnson's half-brother, Walt Kellcy, a Baptist minister near Tacoma, told WW that Johnson told him more than 10 years ago that somebody other than Gable killed Francke.
Another half-brother, Tim Kellcy, a Texas home builder, also says Johnson shared parts of the story long ago.
Johnson also has a connection to Cupp that either adds credibility to his story or erodes it, depending on one's point of view.
Hoyt Cupp retired in 1986 after 37 years in the Oregon Corrections system, 16 of them as warden of what was then the state's largest prison.
Nobody has linked Cupp to Francke's death before. But his name was prominent in previous prison corruption investigations.
As soon as Cupp retired, whistle-blowers came forward with details about corruption in the prison he had run. Two guards and two inmates provided information. One of the inmates was Johnson.
An ensuing State Police probe resulted in the firing of four guards. In the investigation, Cupp was implicated for using inmates to do work for Senate Republican leader Cub Houck of Salem, allegedly diverting cattle and other state property for private use and turning a blind eye to cronyism and drug dealing.
But neither Cupp nor any of his senior officials were disciplined.
"It is the opinion of this investigation that over the years a power structure developed under the leadership of Hoyt Cupp," wrote State Police Maj. Reg Madsen in an August 1986 summary of his findings. "The power structure and mismanagement was concealed by the fact that other Correction employees could not survive if they bucked the system."
Is it possible that three years after he retired, Cupp was still somehow entangled in prison corruption to such an extent that he wanted Francke dead?
Investigation reports make it clear that even after Cupp's retirement, his protégés held virtually every senior job in corrections—except Francke's.
Robert Merchant, the whistle-blowing guard most responsible for the 1986 investigation, told WW that he believes Cupp was the kingpin and that investigators purposely avoided expanding their reach to senior management.
"The investigation was basically a whitewash," Merchant says today.
So why is Johnson talking now?
He says telling what he knows now is the only thing that may keep him alive. He says the associates of those who killed Francke still hold power in Oregon prisons.
"The players may change, but the game will always be there," he says.
Johnson says he has always feared what he knew about Francke's death could get him killed, and that's why he left Oregon.
In 1994, after his release from prison, records show Johnson moved to Washington and changed his name (he is now Greg Kellcy, the surname of his half-brothers). In 2000, he moved to Texas.
But he returned to Oregon in 2006 to visit family, began smoking meth, carried out a string of robberies and ended up back in the Oregon prison system. Inside the walls, he believes, he is a marked man.
"Staying in the Oregon prison system is simply like suicide," he wrote in an Oct. 1 letter.
He's asked corrections officials to allow him to serve his 20 years in another state or the federal system.
Since entering the prison this summer, Johnson has requested to be placed in "administrative segregation," or protective custody. Officials initially turned him down.
In July, Johnson says he decided to enter "disciplinary segregation," also called "the hole," for his own protection. Prison officials confirm that Johnson took this unusual step voluntarily. ("The Hole" is a more isolated and less pleasant version of administrative segregation.)
He is now in a modified version of administrative segregation and awaiting a decision from corrections officials on his request for permanent placement.
Corrections Department director Max Williams says he's not aware of Johnson's allegations and can't assess his safety concerns. "But we take all possible allegations of threats of personal safety seriously," Williams says, adding he has no reason to believe anyone other than Gable was involved in Francke's murder.
One person who calls Johnson's story nonsense is Cupp's son Tom, an assistant superintendent at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution and a 28-year employee at the Corrections Department.
"My father would never be involved in anything like that," Tom Cupp says.
: Oregon Corrections Department director. Murdered Jan. 17, 1989.
Frank Gable: Serving a life sentence for Francke's murder.
Greg Johnson : a.k.a. Greg Kellcy. Convict who says Tim Natividad killed Francke.
Tim Natividad : Salem meth dealer whom many have linked to Francke's murder. Shot to death by girlfriend two weeks after Francke's slaying.
Hoyt Cupp: Warden at Oregon State Penitentiary during Johnson's first stay there.
Kevin Francke: Younger brother of Michael Francke. Skeptical of Gable's conviction and Johnson's story.
Elizabeth Godlove: Natividad's girlfriend for seven years. Now married to Kevin Francke, Godlove shot Natividad in self-defense. More inclined to believe Johnson.
Phil Stanford: Portland Tribune columnist and tireless chronicler of the Francke saga. Doesn't buy the official story.
To Francke conspiracy buffs, Tim Natividad is a well-known name.
Over the years, records show, about a dozen people have told police or defense investigators that Natividad, rather than Frank Gable, killed Michael Francke.
Until now, Elizabeth Godlove, Natividad's girlfriend of seven years and the mother of his son, has provided the most compelling links.
She told detectives in 1990 that Natividad had spoken of killing a man and had an unusually large amount of cash around the time of Francke's murder. Godlove, who shot Natividad in self-defense two weeks after Francke died, is sticking to that story and to her belief that Natividad killed Francke.
"Tim did it, I feel sure of that," Godlove told WW last week.
Separately, Melody Garcia, the wife of a prison inmate, told investigators in 1990 that Natividad tried to recruit her husband to kill Francke.
Gable's defense team tried to argue Natividad was the killer, but the trial judge and subsequent appellate judges have rejected the theory.
In 2001, ruling on an appeal by Gable's attorneys that the original trial judge had erred by excluding testimony about Natividad, Marion County Circuit Judge Frank Yraguen found that "there wasn't sufficient evidence for even a probable cause finding against Timothy Natividad, let alone an indictment and prosecution for the murder of Michael Francke." —NJ
Although investigators never established a connection between Michael Francke's death and prison corruption, records show they found plenty of drug dealing, theft, cronyism and other questionable dealings within the Department of Corrections.
One example was the "A Shed" fire.
On April 21, 1988, Francke wrote a memo to the director of Oregon Prison Industries, Fred Nichols, about a $625,000 payroll deficit, an issue he called "serious."
Part of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Prison Industries built furniture and did laundry for state agencies using inmate labor.
Three months after Francke's memo, "A Shed," where Prison Industries stored its inventory, mysteriously burned to the ground.
Fire investigators never determined a cause, but Industries collected a $764,000 insurance check. Nichols used the money to resolve his payroll deficit.
A state investigator later noted the fire's fortuitous timing. "Most of the property destroyed in the fire was largely junk, and the building itself had been condemned," wrote corrections ombudsman Darryl Larson in a 1990 investigation report. "Corrections substantially benefited from the fire."
Nichols, who was dismissed from his post in 1995, denied the fire was arson or that Prison Industries benefited from it improperly. —NJ
Earlier this year, the lawyer who defended Johnson on robbery charges, Paula Lawrence, was sufficiently intrigued by his claims about the Francke case that she ordered both a polygraph and a psychological evaluation for him.
The polygraph proved "inconclusive," examiner Gregory Anderson wrote, because he was "unable to obtain usable cardio response."
Johnson's psychological profile shows him to be of normal intelligence and not to suffer from mental problems associated with lying.
"Mr. [Johnson]does not score similarly to individuals with thought disorders, such as paranoia or delusional disorder," stated a psychological evaluation done last March.
Johnson says some inmates may consider him a snitch for his testimony in previous cases, but that's not what he's afraid of. "That might cause some fights, but it won't get me killed," he says. "What I know about Francke will get me killed."
Phil Stanford wrote a Hollywood screenplay about the Francke murder. One of the stars of Without Evidence, released in 1995, was Angelina Jolie.
Earlier this year, Fred Monem, the Oregon Department of Corrections food purchasing manager, was indicted for allegedly taking more than $1 million in bribes between 2000 and 2006. Monem is currently a fugitive.
Frank Gable, currently in a Nevada prison, has been unsuccessful in two appeals in state courts. A Portland federal public defender is preparing a habeas corpus challenge to his conviction.
"When one begins to investigate allegations concerning the Corrections institutions, one is absolutely amazed at the number of relatives, by blood or marriage, employed within the institutions," wrote then-Corrections Ombudsman Darryl Larson in 1990.
Frank Gable married one of his defense attorneys, Karen Steele.