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Released from prison after 14 years, Helmig says, 'I never gave up'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2010 - MAYSVILLE, Mo. -- Dale Helmig, set free Monday by a judge who found him innocent of his mother's murder, says he hopes to reconnect with his family, particularly a 15-year-old daughter who never knew Helmig outside of prison.

Helmig walked out of the Crossroads Correctional Center in northwest Missouri late Monday afternoon, and at 5:50 p.m. was set free on a $50,000 bond secured by a $5,000 cashier's check from his father, Ted Helmig. Some suspect Ted Helmig was responsible for the murder of Norma Dean Helmig, Dale Helmig's mother and Ted Helmig's estranged wife.

"I never gave up," Dale Helmig said. "I always knew one day I would walk out a free man. Today is that day."

Earlier Monday, a judge for the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that Helmig could be released while his case works its way through the court. Home for the Christmas holidays, Helmig plans to live with a younger brother, Richard, who lives in a mobile home in Rocky Mount near Lake of the Ozarks.

Before releasing him on bond, DeKalb County Circuit Judge Warren McElwain ordered Helmig to stay out of trouble, remain in Missouri and to refrain from having any contact with Osage County Sheriff Carl Fowler, who helped put Helmig in prison more than 14 years ago. McElwain ruled Nov. 3 that Helmig was an innocent man who became the victim of a fundamental miscarriage of justice.

Basing his findings on evidence that unfolded during a three-day hearing in July, the judge ruled Helmig did not murder his mother, and that his trial was corrupted by an inept defense, prosecutors' misconduct and police statements that were not  true.

At that time, the judge gave the state 180 days to retry Helmig or appeal the decision. Attorney General Chris Koster's office appealed McElwain's ruling to the appeals court in Kansas City, and Sean O'Brien, Helmig's lawyer, filed a motion seeking Helmig's release while the case was pending. The court approved that motion Monday morning.

"The fact that the court of appeals gave this bond tells us they are looking favorably on this case," O'Brien said as Helmig's release unfolded. "If they at this point felt like they were going to rule against Dale, we wouldn't be here right now today. I take this as a good sign."

'I want to be exonerated'

Helmig, 54, has been serving a life sentence without parole since a jury in Gasconade County convicted him of first-degree murder in March 1996. The cinder-block-weighted body of his mother, who was 55 at the time of her death, was found floating in the flooded Osage River near Linn on Aug. 1, 1993.

O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law school professor and an attorney with the Midwestern Innocence Project, has been working to win Helmig's freedom since 1998. After thanking O'Brien, Helmig said that while in prison, he stayed out of trouble, kept busy and "stayed focused." He could only remain in contact with his children through photographs. Helmig has a son, 21, and a daughter, 19, from one marriage, and from another, a 15-year-old daughter who was born at about the time he was facing trial for his mother's murder.

The last time Helmig saw her was at the hearing in July.

"Before that, when I saw her she was in diapers," Helmig said. "She is almost 16 years old now. I very much want to have a relationship with my children again."

Helmig also has a girlfriend whom he has been writing for the past 10 years. He telephoned her Monday morning with the news that he was getting out.

Two corrections officers brought a shackled and handcuffed Helmig, along with his prison possessions, to a courthouse where O'Brien, Richard Helmig and more than a dozen reporters were waiting.

After changing from a prison uniform into a pair of gray slacks and a cranberry colored shirt, Helmig was brought before Judge McElwain for a nine-minute proceeding that included signing the bonding papers.

"It's going to be a great feeling," Helmig said of his freedom. "It's all overwhelming. It hasn't hit me yet."

Asked whether his long-term plans might include suing the state for a wrongful conviction, Helmig said, "I don't really know much about that. But I'm sure something on that order would be the proper thing to do."

Helmig said that in the short term, he was interested in getting justice. Asked what that was, he responded, "I want to be exonerated, my name cleared, first of all. There are a lot of people who went out of their way to put me in prison and then purposely kept me in prison. Those people need to be held accountable for their actions. That's about the only way I can put it. And when that happens we have justice in my case."

McElwain's decision faulted Kenny Hulshof and Robert Schollmeyer, who prosecuted the case, and Christopher J. Jordan, Helmig's defense lawyer at his trial in 1996. The judge's ruling said Hulshof and Schollmeyer coaxed false testimony from witnesses. Among the witnesses were Missouri State Trooper Robert Westfall and Fowler, the county sheriff, whose statements on the witness stand did not conform to the facts and misled the jury. The ruling also said the prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped Helmig's case.

Asked whether he was angry at what had happened, Helmig replied that if he said "no" he'd be lying.

"You've got to learn how to control it and move on and put this behind me," Helmig said. "If I stayed angry, it would eat me up, and it would eat away what years I have left. I'm going to have to try to move on with it."

Dale Helmig did not discuss his father, Ted Helmig, who was undergoing a bitter divorce from his wife at the time of her murder. While Ted Helmig denied killing his wife, he acknowledged that he continued to collect his wife's mail for about two weeks after her death. Later cancelled checks that had been processed after Norma Helmig's death were found in a purse that went missing at the time of her murder.

During questioning at the July hearing, Ted Helmig denied putting the checks in his murdered wife's purse and throwing it in the Missouri River, but the judge ruled that Ted Helmig's admission that he collected his dead wife's mail "is very significant new evidence directly tying him to the crime.'

While Dale Helmig has said before that he believes his father was responsible for his mother's murder, O'Brien said it was "a hard thing for him to talk about.

"What you first have to understand is if his dad is the killer, for Dale, he's lost both of his parents. He doesn't like to talk about it. He can't think of another plausible alternative. That's the sad part about it."


Terry Ganey is an independent journalist in Columbia, Mo. 

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