Helmig will not be retried for mother's murder
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - When Dale Helmig learned that Osage County Prosecuting Attorney Amanda Grellner would not re-try him for his mother's murder, he said it was like an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
"It's like I can breathe again," Helmig said. "It means I can get on with my life. It's kind of like happy days again."
For months Helmig had been awaiting word from the prosecutor's office after his case had worked its way through Missouri appeals courts. At 2:30 p.m. Monday, it became official.
Grellner sent a facsimile of the "state's dismissal of charge" in Helmig's case to the Gasconade County clerk in Hermann. Helmig had been convicted there in 1996, and spent 14 years in prison for the murder of Norma Dean Helmig. Last fall, a circuit judge ruled Helmig was innocent and was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Although Helmig walked free from prison on bond last December, justice in his case came in small increments when the Missouri Court of Appeals and then state Supreme Court let that ruling stand.
The last obstacle between Helmig and total freedom was whether Grellner would re-file the murder charge and seek to try Helmig again. Grellner released a prepared statement saying she decided to dismiss the case following a review of the case file, transcripts, witness interviews and all other available evidence.
"I have also consulted with the Osage County sheriff, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Missouri attorney general's office about this case," she said. "This case remains an open and ongoing investigation."
Grellner said she would not elaborate or answer any questions about the latest development in a saga that began in July 1993 when Norma Helmig was determined to be missing from her home at a Gasconade River access near Judge. Because Dale Helmig immediately suspected foul play in his mother's disappearance, Sheriff Carl Fowler focused on him as a suspect. But more evidence pointed to Norma's estranged husband, Ted Helmig.
At the time of her disappearance, Ted and Norma Helmig were going through a bitter divorce. A few days before her murder, Ted Helmig threw a cup of coffee in his estranged wife's face during an argument at a Jefferson City restaurant.
Sean O'Brien, who was Dale Helmig's attorney on many appeals, said Fowler interpreted Dale Helmig's reaction as an indication of guilt rather than looking more closely at other suspects. O'Brien called it a classic law enforcement mistake in which the police quickly narrow their hypothesis and begin searching for information that supports it, while ignoring other possibilities.
"At that point, he's narrowed his theory of guilt and didn't consider the most obvious suspect," O'Brien said.
Three days after Norma Helmig disappeared, her body (weighted by a cinder block) was found in the flood-swollen Osage River. In interviews and in a court appearance under oath, Ted Helmig, 80, has denied killing Norma Helmig.
O'Brien worked for more than a dozen years to win Helmig's release. He said the decision against retrial was expected but took a long time.
"There was never a question that it would be coming," O'Brien said. "I'm relieved for Dale because he can finally start trying to get his life back together. But it's still tough. In a lot of ways for Dale, this is just the beginning. He's got a lot of work ahead of him just to find a job and just to get his feet under him."
While Grellner's prepared statement said the charge against Helmig would be dismissed, it also said that there is no statute of limitations for murder. It said if additional information came to light, it would be reviewed and analyzed "in making a decision as to whether or not to re-file and re-try Dale Helmig."
But O'Brien pronounced the case done.
"In 18 years, the only new evidence that has come to light is evidence that points to his innocence and how badly the original investigation was botched," O'Brien said. "The fat lady has sung. It's over."
Rebuilding A Life
Since his release from prison, Dale Helmig, 55, has been living with his younger brother, Richard, in a mobile home near Lake of the Ozarks. Sometimes he and his brother fish in the lake and other times, Helmig visits his children in Jefferson City. He has four children from two previous marriages and a relationship with a woman.
When the dismissal of his case becomes final and when the judge lifts the restrictions that accompanied his bond, he is free to leave Missouri. A former commercial painter, Helmig has applied for jobs, but he said that the tough economy, coupled with the fact that he has to explain a 14-year gap in his work record, makes it tough to find a job.
During job interviews, Helmig takes along a stack of newspaper clippings to help explain his case to potential employers. On Monday afternoon Helmig was heading to another job interview.
"I think something is going to break loose pretty quickly," he said. "Now I can look for a job anywhere. I don't have to stay in Missouri if I don't want to."
He admitted to sometimes getting "a little discouraged." But he added that he has met strangers who recognize him from publicity about the case and they want to shake his hand and wish him well. People have given him donations, too, including a used car.
"I've definitely been blessed in that department," he said.
While in prison, Helmig began corresponding with a woman in Pennsylvania, whom he considers his girlfriend. Although the two have never met face to face, he talks to her frequently by telephone.
"If I don't get a job by the first week of September, I'm going to try to go out and visit her," he said.
Civil Lawsuit 'possibility'
Helmig is entitled to seek restitution from the court for some costs related to his case, O'Brien said. Paper work will be filed soon in DeKalb County, where Helmig's appeal was considered during a three-day proceeding last July. Since he prevailed in court, Helmig might be entitled to recover the costs of serving subpoenas, mileage for witnesses and fees connected to the taking of depositions.
"It's going to be a couple thousand bucks," O'Brien said. "Not a lot. Certainly he's entitled to it, so we're going to ask for it."
Some costs, but not legal fees, associated with his original trial in Gasconade County could also be recovered, according to O'Brien. And once he gets a copy of his dismissal paper, Helmig can recover the $5,000 bond that was posted in DeKalb County last December.
Helmig said that on the advice of O'Brien, he preferred not to discuss a potential civil lawsuit against Osage County or the state of Missouri. He would only say it was a "possibility."
Men who have been released from prison after it's been proven they were wrongfully incarcerated have received millions of dollars from local governments. Josh Kezer, who served 16 years imprisonment for a murder he did not commit obtained a settlement of "several million" dollars from Scott County in southeast Missouri, according to Kezer's lawyer.
Ted White, a businessman wrongfully convicted for the alleged molestation of his stepdaughter received a $15.5 million settlement from Lee's Summit, which once employed the policeman who developed the case against White.
Osage County has general liability insurance policy that has a maximum cap of $4 million, according to Patrick Steele, county clerk. He said there had been no discussions among commissioners about the subject of a lawsuit.
O'Brien said he had given Helmig the names of lawyers who might represent him in such a case. O'Brien doesn't do that kind of work.
Other states have statutes that enable wrongfully convicted people to obtain restitution based on the number of days behind bars. O'Brien said a man in California received $632,000 in compensation, based on $100-a-day for each day of imprisonment. Missouri does not have such a statute.
But based on his legal knowledge, O'Brien said "there are things in Dale's case that give him a leg up over other people in similar situations.
"He can sue for damages if he gets over the government immunity doctrine," O'Brien said. If Helmig's lawyer could show people acted in bad faith, he might be successful. Two issues that weigh in Helmig's favor might include the knowing and purposeful suppression of evidence and the use of perjured testimony.
During Helmig's trial, Robert Westfall, a highway patrol officer, gave false testimony on the witness stand, which he later recanted during Helmig's appeal hearing last summer. During that same hearing, Fowler admitted on the witness stand that he had no foundation for an answer he gave to prosecutor Kenny Hulshof at the trial that Helmig had an altercation with his mother on the Sunday before she died.
"They will give him a big boost," O'Brien said. "His chances of getting some recovery are good."
Terry Ganey is a freelance writer.