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For Years, the Murder of Michael Francke Has Been Oregon’s Biggest Mystery. Last Week, It Took a New Twist.

How did a nearly 30-year-old conviction get overturned? Here’s a timeline.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta ruled April 18 that Frank Gable, convicted in 1991 of the murder of Michael Francke, then director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, must be released within 90 days unless the state of Oregon decides to try him again.

The ruling is a remarkable twist in one of the most notorious murder cases in Oregon history, one that transfixed the state beginning in the late 1980s.

One sign of the strange saga Gable's case became: Francke's brothers, E. Patrick Francke, 76, and Kevin Francke, 65, issued a statement April 19 supporting the man convicted of murdering their brother. They say he didn't do it.

"We are happy in the extreme that the very real probability that Frank Gable will be released and his freedom is within sight," the brothers wrote. "The state can no longer afford to manufacture a case built on lies and half-truths."

How did a nearly 30-year-old conviction get overturned? Here's a timeline.

1989: Oregon Department of Corrections director Michael Francke, 42, is stabbed to death in the parking lot outside his Salem office early in the evening of Jan. 17, 1989. No murder weapon is ever found.

1990: Police arrest Frank Gable, a small-time Salem meth dealer, for Francke's murder.

The political climate feeds suspicions there is more to the case than a car burglary gone bad. Gov. Neil Goldschmidt had recruited Francke from New Mexico to clean up and expand Oregon's prison system, which was badly overcrowded and allegedly corrupt.

Some suspect Francke's efforts put him in the cross hairs of people who profited from the status quo.

1991: Gable is convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The state's witnesses are a motley collection of drug dealers and ex-cons who tell the court Gable admitted killing Francke.

2005: Oregonian and Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford writes more than 100 columns over 13 years, arguing Gable's innocence. But a 2005 Sunday Oregonian investigation concludes the evidence "rules out all but a lone figure: the man already behind bars."

2007: WW publishes a cover story about Greg Johnson, who claims he knows Gable is innocent, because he drove Francke's real killer, another Salem meth dealer, named Tim Natividad (now deceased), to the crime scene. He also claims he watched prison officials pay Natividad for the murder. Nell Brown, a federal public defender in Portland, takes up Gable's case. For the next seven years, Brown's investigators methodically track down the witnesses who testified against Gable, more than a half-dozen of them. They all recant their testimony.

2014: Brown files a 189-page brief arguing Gable was wrongly convicted.

2019: U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta orders the state to retry Gable or release him within 90 days. "Although the evidence presented at trial in 1991 resulted in a guilty verdict," the judge writes, "the court concludes that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would find Gable guilty in light of the totality of all of the evidence uncovered since that time, particularly the newly presented evidence of witness recantations."