Out of prison, Dale Helmig says, 'I think this New Year will be my year'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2010 - ROCKY MOUNT, Mo. - In December 2009, Dale Helmig, inmate no. 521238, mailed Christmas cards from his cell in the Crossroads Corrections Center in Cameron, Mo. to his friends, family and others interested in his case.
"I think this New Year will be my year," Helmig, 54, predicted in a handwritten note on the bottom of the Hallmark card. "I sure hope so. This has all taken a toll on my brother."
As it turned out, Helmig would need nearly every day of 2010 to reach his ultimate goal, freedom, and a reversal of the 1996 conviction that he had murdered his mother. On Dec. 13, Helmig was released from prison on bond by a judge who had found him innocent. Now Helmig is awaiting a final disposition of his case through the state appeals court in Kansas City.
As he waits for the court to act, Helmig is in the process of rebuilding his life, reconnecting with family and collecting the documents he'll need to start anew. Perhaps most of all, he's re-establishing a relationship with his younger brother, Richard Helmig, who for the past 14 years pressed anyone who would listen about his belief that his older brother was innocent.
"He's done this time right along with me," Dale Helmig said. "He just stuck by me from day one."
Richard Helmig, 52, is disabled. He said he has chronic pain in his neck, shoulder and spine that got worse from the stress of his brother's incarceration.
"It's taken its toll on my health and my life," he said.
But Dale Helmig knows his case isn't over. The Missouri Court of Appeals still must deal with the claim by Attorney General Chris Koster that the circuit judge was in error when he ruled that Helmig was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. And Helmig knows he could be retried.
Still, he is optimistic he will win in the end and that 2011 will be the year that he gets his life back.
"I think if there was even a little bit of a chance that they were going to rule against me on this and remand me back to prison, they wouldn't have given me bond," Dale Helmig said in an interview earlier this week.
Since he was released on a $50,000 bond by DeKalb County Circuit Judge Warren McElwain, Dale Helmig has been staying with Richard in his mobile home at Rocky Mount near the Lake of the Ozarks. For the first few days, Dale Helmig had a mental list of the things he wanted to accomplish, the people he wanted to see and the paperwork he needed to accumulate to restart his life. He needed a driver's license, a birth certificate and Social Security documents.
"After my hearing in July and up to the hearing, I thought there was a real good chance that I was going to get out," he said. "I just didn't know when. No matter how well you think it out, the best laid plans never really turn out quite like that.
"So the first day or two, my mind is going in all these directions," he added. "I've got so many things and I'm trying to get them all done. I'm confused and run in a circle and get nothing done. I did that for a couple of days and I realized not to put so much into a day."
For the first three days of freedom, Helmig spent most of his time being filmed by a crew of America's Most Wanted, a television program that has featured his case periodically over the past couple of years. While the program usually goes after people who might be guilty of crimes, Helmig's case is one that the television show has highlighted as a potential case of the wrong man being sent to prison.
The program was one of three fact-based broadcasts that featured Helmig's case. Others were entitled "Was Justice Denied?" and "A Case of Innocence." Some newspapers devoted attention to Helmig's case as well.
While it turned out that a court of law had to decide to give Helmig his freedom, the media played a role in bringing his case to people's attention and raising questions about his conviction. From Helmig's point of view, the media attention helped rally people to support him.
It also brought him friends.
A television documentary broadcast in 2000 generated interest from a woman in Pennsylvania who began corresponding with him. She wrote that she believed he was innocent. Now that he's free, Helmig hopes to have a meaningful relationship with her.
"I just basically fell in love with her," he said. Now Helmig is preparing for the woman's visit to Missouri. "We'll see what happens," he said. "I hope it turns into a really good relationship. I think it will, but we'll just see."
And since he has been released, other people have reached out to Helmig, some of whom he doesn't even know. A person in Kansas City has offered to give him a used car. A St. Louis University Law School professor sent a $100 check in a Christmas card. A former high school classmate has come forward with an offer of a place to stay and a possible job in Sedalia.
"I would be a janitor and there are probably a couple of other things I could do there," he said. "It's a start."
For now, Helmig is taking his life a day at a time. He said if there is one thing he learned in prison it was patience.
Helmig, 54, had been serving a life sentence without parole since his conviction in 1996 for the murder of his mother, Norma Dean Helmig. Her body, weighted with a concrete block, was found floating in the flood-swollen Osage River near Linn on Aug. 1, 1993.
Judge McElwain ruled on Nov. 3 that Helmig was innocent of the crime, that prosecutors and police had misled the Gasconade County jury that convicted him and that his defense lawyer had failed to represent him adequately. The judge also said that new evidence indicated that Helmig's father, Ted Helmig, 79, may be connected to the death of his estranged wife.
Speaking in the kitchen of his brother's mobile home, Dale Helmig said the two issues he preferred not to discuss were his relationship with his father and whether he intended to sue the state or Osage County for wrongful conviction. Helmig has said in the past that he believes his father killed his mother; he said at the time of his release from prison that a lawsuit over his wrongful conviction was the proper thing to do.
Helmig's father provided the $5,000 cashier's check that was needed to secure Dale Helmig's bond.
"He's glad that I'm out because it just kind of tore up our family," Dale Helmig said. "From the time mom was gone and I was under a lot of stress, and I was arrested and was awaiting trial on bond and then getting 15 years in prison, it's been a hard thing on our family. That would tear any family apart, but we stuck together pretty good."
Ted Helmig, who has denied murdering his estranged wife, is recovering from heart bypass surgery.
Meanwhile, Dale Helmig has been trying to reconnect with his children, four altogether from two previous marriages as well as a relationship with a woman. He played pool with a son, and when he met with his oldest daughter, he learned for the first time she had a child.
"I've been a grandpa for four years, and I didn't know I was a grandpa," he said. "I took 20 pictures."
Also last week he spent four hours with his youngest daughter, now nearly 16, who was a baby at the time of his court case. After Helmig went to prison, his wife at that time divorced him.
"She had a lot of people telling her she needed to move on; I'd never get out," Helmig said. She has since remarried, but Helmig is on good terms with her as well as his daughter.
Since his release, Dale Helmig has been sleeping on an inflatable mattress in a small room of his brother's place. He says it's much preferable to a prison cell. In fact, Helmig said sleeping in a tent was better than staying a night in prison.
Helmig said that he learned some things at the beginning of his prison experience that proved beneficial. He heard a Corrections Department sergeant tell another inmate, a prisoner with a sentence of life without parole, that one never knows whether someday laws may be changed. The sergeant suggested that if an inmate stayed busy, stayed out of trouble, kept his job and tried to be a model inmate, if they ever do change the laws and start dropping sentences into sentences eligible for parole, then the model inmates would be at the top of the list to be released.
"I remember what he said like it was yesterday," Helmig said. "And that's when I put together a plan. And I held onto those words and also I got closer to God. I always believed in the power of prayer. I believed that before I came to prison and I believe that even more now. I got closer to God when I came to prison."
One of the things that sustained him behind bars was a scrapbook, now tattered, containing the pictures of friends and family. He made friends in prison, too, and he gained support from inmates and staff because of the media attention that focused on his possible innocence.
Helmig believes his health improved, too. At about 5 feet, eight inches tall, he weighs about 185 now. Before entering prison, he weighed as much as 210. He said he exercised by walking and playing handball.
And before prison he smoked pot and drank alcohol. "I can safely say I will never go back to that lifestyle," he said. "I have no desire to. I've got a lot of things in mind, and I don't want to jeopardize the rest of my life."
Helmig said he hoped to eventually do some traveling, visiting high schools, colleges and churches, to "just tell people my story."
When he left the prison in Cameron, Helmig traveled like a Navajo, carrying just what he needed, personal items, a box of clothes and legal documents -- possessions collected during more than a dozen years in prison. He left behind an oscillating fan and a 13-inch television set that he said was on its last legs.
One of the places Dale and Richard Helmig visited for the America's Most Wanted film crew was their mother's grave site at a cemetery near Judge, Mo., a village not far from where their mother was murdered. In the more than 17 years since her death, no headstone marks Norma Helmig's final resting place.
"We talked about that and we are going to get one soon," Dale Helmig said.
Terry Ganey is an independent journalist in Columbia.