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Michael Politte has served 22 years for murder. Experts say he’s innocent

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Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Politte, photographed Sept. 8 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, has never wavered in his claims of innocence.

Almost two decades ago, Michael Politte was sentenced to life in prison for one of the most heinous crimes imaginable: beating his mother to death and then setting her body on fire.

But a growing body of evidence suggests not only that Politte, who was 14 at the time of the murder, didn’t do it — but that in a rush to judgment, law enforcement officials overlooked other possible suspects and ignored substantial evidence pointing to Politte’s innocence. They also relied on chemical analysis that was demonstrably false at the time of Politte’s trial. Their flawed analysis of his tennis shoes was the only physical evidence tying the teenager to the beating or the fire.

Jim Trainum, a former Washington, D.C., police officer with 27 years' experience, 17 as a homicide detective, examined the case file at the request of Politte’s attorneys. He was appalled by what he saw.

“They rushed in, they came to their conclusions too quickly, they cherry-picked their evidence, they didn’t document it very well, and then they used tactics during their interviews and interrogations that were very, very problematic,” Trainum told St. Louis on the Air. “Plus, when you add that to the scientific findings that turned out to be faulty, the whole investigation just falls apart.”

Now legal advocates and experts are calling for the Missouri Supreme Court to give the case the attention it deserves.

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MacArthur Justice Center
Rita Politte

Politte’s attorneys filed an appeal making the case for his innocence earlier this month. It was rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District less than a week later. But Megan Crane, co-director of the Missouri office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said the attorneys see the Missouri Supreme Court as their best avenue.

They plan to file there next week.

“What we're fighting for is that they'll appoint a special master who has the time to really dig in, and to read our over 100 pages of a petition and the hundreds of pages of exhibits supporting it,” Crane said. “And there is some precedent for this in Missouri, that these special masters have been appointed and that it leads to an evidentiary hearing.”

The Washington County prosecuting attorney at the time of Politte’s second-degree murder conviction, John Rupp, did not respond to numerous requests seeking comment. The current prosecuting attorney, Joshua Hedgecorth, was not part of the office at that time. He declined to comment.

As for Politte, he sat down with St. Louis on the Air for more than an hour in a visiting room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a wide-ranging interview for which neither Politte nor his attorneys put anything off-limits. Now 37, Politte has spent roughly two-thirds of his life behind bars.

He acknowledged that he could have gotten out long ago. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain in which he’d serve just 15 years. With credit for time served, he’d have been out in less than a decade.

He said he has never regretted turning down that offer.

“I’ll die in here,” he said. “I didn’t murder my mother. And she’s going to get her justice.”

Listen to St. Louis on the Air's special on Mike Politte's case
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MacArthur Justice Center
This undated family photo shows Mike Politte, center, with his sisters Chrystal and Melonie and parents, Rita and Ed Politte. Mike's sisters were grown and no longer living with their mom at the time of her death.

On Dec. 4, 1998, Michael Politte's friend Josh Sansoucie slept over.

Politte and his mom lived in a trailer in Hopewell, Missouri, about an hour and a half south of St. Louis. That evening, Rita Politte, who was then newly divorced, went to the bar with friends. She came home around 11 p.m. with sandwiches for Mike and Sansoucie. They ate while she checked her answering machine. Then she announced she was going to bed.

The boys both went to bed in Mike’s room not long after. The door was closed, the radio was on, and they’d smoked marijuana.

Perhaps that’s why they both have said it wasn’t a noise that woke them up just after 6 a.m. It was a smell. Smoke.

“It was a light haze. It reminded me of when my mom had burnt bacon — the way my room was filled with smoke, it reminded me of that,” Mike recalled. “But I asked Josh if he was smoking a cigarette, and he said no. And I threw the blankets off of me and I went to my door and opened my door and there was a wall of smoke, and it was white.” The smoke detector in the dining room was going off.

Mike called out to his mother but heard no response, he said. He began to choke on the smoke. Running outside, he saw his mom’s truck parked in front of the trailer. Certain she was still inside, he grabbed a hose and tried to reach her room.

“When the slack gave out, I dropped down to my knees to see what I could see. And I see my mother's legs, I seen blood and I seen fire from essentially her waist up,” he said.

Rita Politte was dead. Investigators would later say she’d been killed by blunt force trauma to her head, then set ablaze.

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MacArthur Justice Center
Rita Politte's trailer, shown in an evidence photo taken just after her murder.

Almost immediately, sheriff’s deputies decided Mike Politte was a suspect. He’d been the only family member at home that night. They would also testify that he didn’t act the way they thought he should act.

He had no idea. “I don't think I realized that they were treating me like a suspect until they were actually interrogating me,” Politte recalled.

Trainum said a rush to judgment led to many, many errors. He points to numerous pieces of evidence deputies disregarded or failed to properly document in their haste to build a case against the teen. They never took plaster casts of the footprints found outside the trailer. They didn’t follow up on a neighbor’s report about her dogs barking viciously around 3 a.m., suggesting an intruder — noise that had also awoken Politte’s friend Josh Sansoucie.

They never found a murder weapon. They also never found blood on any of Politte’s clothes, which Trainum says points to his innocence. Where could he have disposed of a weapon or bloody clothing? An intruder would have had a much easier time discarding both.

And while investigators were skeptical that Politte and Sansoucie could have slept through an attack on the other side of the trailer, Trainum takes a different view.

“They kind of assumed that the attack was this long, drawn-out thing,” he said. “But when you look at the crime scene, it was a blitz. She couldn't fight the person. He attacked her, and she was probably down and out very, very quickly. And so the amount of noise could have been minimal.

“Second,” he added, “they don't take into account the boys’ sleeping habits. With my teenage boys, they could sleep through just about anything.”

And then there’s the forensics analysis. Prosecutors essentially had one piece of physical evidence tying Politte to his mother’s death: Their expert found traces of gasoline on his shoes. They believed that showed he’d drizzled the accelerant and then set the body ablaze.

But that conclusion has since been debunked. John Lentini is a forensics expert and a past chairman of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Criminalistics Section. He wrote the book on fire analysis in criminal cases — literally. It’s called “Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation.”

Asked to examine the evidence by Politte’s attorneys, Lentini found no gasoline on Mike’s shoes. Shoes come with a variety of chemicals on them, particularly tennis shoes. Tests show that’s all that was present, Lentini said.

For 25 years, he said, investigators have known that shoes are “problematic evidence in arson cases.” A paper published in 2000 explained the precise error made by the analyst in Politte’s case. Politte didn’t go to trial for two more years after that.

Even so, Lentini said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn someone was in prison solely due to such an erroneous conclusion. “There's lots of people in prison for crimes that they didn't commit or crimes that never even happened,” he said.

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MacArthur Justice Center
Ed Politte, shown in a family photo with his son Mike.

Lawyers for Mike Politte note in their filings that there’s not only a substantial body of evidence pointing to Politte’s innocence — there’s also evidence suggesting someone else had a better motive for killing his mother.

At the time of Rita Politte’s death, she had just finalized an ugly divorce with Mike’s dad. Rita Politte was awarded child support, half of her ex-husband’s retirement money and attorney’s fees, at a hearing a week before she was killed. A witness reported that Ed Politte told her she’d “never see a penny” of the money. Other witnesses alleged he called her at the bar where she worked that same night and threatened to kill her.

Ed had an alibi for the morning of Rita’s death. Phone records show that he answered a call at home, right around the time of her death. Law enforcement never seemed to consider the idea that he might still be involved.

Witnesses reported seeing a cousin of Ed’s, a man who lived a few miles from Hopewell, in the vicinity of the trailer on the morning of Rita’s death. One witness reported that he was wearing a wet shirt and walking away from the trailer. Another witness reported seeing the cousin’s distinctive two-tone truck parked not far from the trailer early that morning.

Ed and his cousin were known to be close. Yet investigators didn’t explore the idea of a connection.

“They did not dig into it,” said Megan Crane of the MacArthur Justice Center. “And there are law enforcement [officers] on the public record since the trial saying they continue to suspect Ed Politte was involved. But no real legwork has been done to do anything about that.”

Neither Ed nor his cousin responded to letters seeking comment. No phone number listed for either man in publicly available databases led to them.

In a 2016 MTV documentary series that explored Michael Politte’s case, Ed Politte said he knew his son didn’t commit the murder, and suggested deputies made the case against Mike only because phone records stood in the way of making a case against him. He declined to discuss his divorce from Rita Politte.

Neither Mike nor his sisters have had contact with their father for years, Mike Polittle said.

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MacArthur Justice Center
Mike Politte, in a school photo not long before his mother's murder.

Mike Politte was 17 when he was put on trial for his mother’s murder — a significantly bigger, and older, kid than he’d been at the time of her death. Represented by an overworked public defender, he didn’t testify on his own behalf, even though he wanted to. His lawyer said he hadn’t had the time to prepare Politte for his testimony. The defense he put on lasted less than a half-day.

Found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, Politte was 18 when he was sent to maximum security prison.

“It took time to adapt,” he acknowledged. “Because there's a certain way you're supposed to carry yourself and there's a certain way that you're supposed to move in prison. And it takes a while to fully grasp what those strings and what those moves are, right? Because you're always being watched. Especially being so young, everybody's got their eyes on you, including predators. ... It takes a lot of mental strength to adapt at that young age to this kind of life with these kinds of people.”

For years, Politte held out hope that the lawyers hired by his father would triumph on appeal and get him out. It was only years later, after a friend intervened, that he learned the lawyers had been let go and the deadline for his last chance at appeal had passed. Devastated, he turned to heroin.

But he never gave up on the idea of proving his innocence. And after he finally got the opportunity to sit down with people from the Midwest Innocence Project and beg them to take his case, he felt a raw shot of hope that changed his life.

He never took heroin again.

“From that moment on, I knew that I had help,” he said. “And I knew that they were going to get me out of here.”

That was more than 10 years ago, but Politte said he’s never lost his optimism. As the attorneys have painstakingly built the case for his innocence, he’s been buoyed by the possibility of seeing life outside prison again.

Even beyond his innocence claim, he now has a good shot at release; the Supreme Court ruled in another case that sentences like his, with juveniles being sent to prison without a chance at parole, are unconstitutional.

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MacArthur Justice Center
Mike Politte as a child with his mother, Rita.

Crane was intimately involved in the litigation to ensure that precedent was applied in Missouri and helped former juveniles get fair parole hearings. She said she believes he has an excellent case.

“The only thing that may work against him, to be honest, is his innocence,” she said. “Parole boards have been known to hold innocence against prisoners, because they want to see a showing of remorse, a showing of accountability. And even in a case like Mike’s, where there is ample scientific, compelling evidence of innocence, that works against them, because where's the remorse? Where’s the ‘I’m sorry’?

“But aside from that, we are extremely hopeful that Mike will be released on parole, because somehow, despite going into adult prison as a kid, he has managed to not only survive, he has thrived. And he has made every effort to make his time in prison productive. He often talks about how his guiding mission is to make his mom proud and follow her example. And he absolutely has.”

Even so, parole isn’t good enough for Mike Politte. To him, his innocence claim is not just about getting out of prison. It’s about clearing his name — and, yes, finding his mother’s killer.

“I'm gonna throw punches,” he said. “I'm gonna keep throwing punches. If the Supreme Court denies me, I'm gonna throw another punch. I'm not gonna stop fighting. And justice for Rita.

“I wish people would yell it out there. I wish people would picket with signs.”

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MacArthur Justice Center
Mike Politte, center, with fellow volunteers in the Puppies for Parole program.

Learn more about Mike Politte's case

Read the petition Mike Politte's attorneys filed with the Missouri Appeals Court:

Read former law enforcement officer Jim Trainum's expert report on the Politte case:

The audio version of this story was co-produced and edited by Emily Woodbury.

Transcript

Sarah Fenske: Welcome to this special edition of St. Louis on the Air. I'm Sarah Fenske. We invite you to join us for the next hour as we dig into the details of a murder case from 23 years ago. The story has new relevance today.

Next week lawyers plan to file an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court on behalf of a man named Michael Politte. They have spent more than a decade painstakingly building the case that he is not guilty of the crime that sent him to prison 22 years ago as a teenager, the brutal murder of his own mother.

Mike Politte: I feel like in a lot of ways they disregarded a lot of things, like my mother's fingernails. They never tested a rape kit. Why would you not test a rape kit of a woman who's just been murdered?

Sarah: And they offered you a plea bargain.

Mike: They did offer me a plea bargain. They offered me 15 years of voluntary manslaughter.

Sarah: And that would have included time served time served.

Mike: I would have been home probably in 2008. I'd have been home about 12 years ago.

Sarah: Were you tempted at the time?

Mike: No.

Sarah: No? Looking back on it now?

Mike: No.

Sarah: I mean, you would have been out in 2008.

Mike: I'll die in here. I didn't murder my mother. And she's gonna get her justice.

Sarah: Thousands of Missouri prisoners claimed to be innocent, but few receive the backing of not only the Midwest Innocence Project, but also the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center as they advance their claims.

Megan Crane: We're talking about a 14-year-old kid who found his mother's body burning on the floor of her bedroom, and from the moment police arrived at the scene was suspect number one. They never looked at other suspects in a meaningful way. Because they misjudged him from the second they encountered him. They thought, “He's not acting the way I think someone should react when their mother dies.” And because of that, he was taken into custody that day, relentlessly interrogated for 48 hours. And he never left.

Sarah: Megan Crane is the co-director of the Missouri chapter of the MacArthur Justice Center. Mike's case is the first her team took on after they started representing people they believed had been wrongfully convicted. Megan explains why Mike Politte’s case captured the office’s attention and its resources.

Megan: Mike's family is the victim's family. So they have staunchly believed he is innocent from day one. So it's the rare case where the victim and our client's family are one in the same. And then no one remains or ever existed connected to the victim and the victim's family who believed Michael was guilty or that he should be behind bars.

Sarah: Mike's first meeting with the Innocence Project was 12 years ago, but it was only this summer that his attorneys filed a petition with the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Western District. Megan says the delay was because it's a tough battle to overturn a conviction already in place.

Megan: In a case like Mike's it shouldn't be that hard. We have the evidence with scientific certainty now that the only physical evidence at Mike's trial was false. That was the centerpiece of the state's case; it was the state's only physical evidence. Without it their case entirely falls apart. So it shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't take this long. And in other states, it doesn't. But in Missouri, it does. And part of why it took that long for our team to work up the case is that we know the herculean hurdles we're up against in the Missouri court system. And so we are going to put in the time it takes to put together as rock-solid a case as we possibly can. We've had for years this key scientific evidence, but we wanted to do the legwork to gather all of the other pieces we possibly could before he went into court.

Sarah: Today you'll hear about some of those pieces. You'll hear from one of the nation's top experts in chemical analysis, who confirms what Megan previously alluded to: that the only physical evidence tying Mike to his mother's death has been thoroughly and completely debunked. It wasn't just bad science, but it had been proven to be bad by the time of Mike's trial.

You'll also hear from a veteran homicide detective who reviewed the case file and says the Washington County Sheriff's Department made serious errors in its investigation. And you'll hear from Mike himself. We sat down together at the Jefferson City Correctional Center for nearly an hour. He put nothing off limits.

You won't hear from the prosecuting attorney who sent Mike to prison. He ignored our request for comment. And you won't hear from the prosecuting attorney in Washington County, Missouri today. He chose not to give a statement defending this prosecution. Yet, Mike now 37, remains in prison.

And if Megan and her fellow attorneys are correct, it doesn't just mean that the state of Missouri wrongfully convicted a grieving teenager and sent him to prison for life without chance of parole. It also means someone else got away with murder.

[BREAK]

Sarah: On the night of December 4, 1998, Rita Politte went out to a bar with her friends. Rita was a newly divorced mom living in Hopewell, Missouri, a rural area about an hour and a half west of St. Louis in Washington County. She came home around 11 p.m. with sandwiches for her 14-year-old son Mike, who then went by the nickname Bernie.

They were joined by Mike's friend Josh Sansoucie, who is sleeping over. The two teens ate the sandwiches while Rita checked her answering machine. Then she said she was going to bed. Not long after the two boys did the same. It was a normal evening in every way.

The two boys slept in Mike's room. But both Mike and Josh have said they woke up early the next morning, just after six. Mike says both immediately noticed the smell of smoke.

Mike: And it was a light haze. It wasn't real thick in my room. It was just like a light haze. It reminded me of when my mom had burnt bacon. She fell asleep, she started cooking breakfast, she burnt bacon. The way my room was filled with smoke. It reminded me of that. But I asked Josh if he was smoking a cigarette. And he said no. And I threw the blankets off of me and I went to the I went to my door and opened my door and there was a wall of smoke and it was white. And when I opened my door, there was a smoke detector five feet from my door and I can barely hear it.

Sarah: It was going off?

Mike: It was going off. But just, the smoke was so thick. It was so thick up top, mid to up top. It was thinner at the bottom. Where the smoke detector was positioned was at the very top of the wall near the ceiling in the dining room area, which is about five feet, six feet away from my bedroom door.

Sarah: So at this point, you know something's really wrong. What did you do?

Mike: Yeah, your house is on fire.

Sarah: What do you do at that point?

Mike: Well, we ran out. Josh is behind me. As we're running through the door from my bedroom, I have a straight visual shot at my mom's bedroom and I could see an orange glow near her door or just on the inside of her door. And Josh, I believe, said “call the fire department.” By the time we get to the foyer area, I see my mother's truck. And I told Josh, “My mom's still here.” Josh went past me and he went out of the house. And I stayed in that area between the foyer and living room and I called out my mother three or four times. I didn't get an answer. At that time I tried to run to her towards her room and I was standing up so my eyes were burning. I was starting to choke. And I turned back out, ran outside, catch my breath, and I seen a yellow water hose, and as I'm grabbing a water hose I see Josh coming from the left side. I asked him to turn the water on, and I grabbed the hose and I run as fast and hard as I can through the living room. And when the slack gave out I dropped down to my knees and see what I can see. And I see my mother's legs, I seen blood and I seen fire from her essentially her waist up. And I

don't know how long I was there.

I turned the water over because it was a brass nozzle. One that you turn and it sprays wide, and the more you turn it, the narrow stream gets. I turned a water hose on and I had it pointed towards the fire until I ran out the house, I ran out the front door. I seen Josh near my neighbor's house that was lit ahead of us. And I ran to him. And my cousin Leanne Skiles was hanging out her door. And I said, “My mom's dead, somebody killed her” or something to the effect of, “I'm going to get the mother who did this.”

And she ran back in her house and me and Josh ran back down to my house. And the next thing I seen Josh, he was tapping on my window, my bedroom window, as I'm standing outside the house. He's tapping on my window and I look over and he's pointing down at a little marijuana plant I had in a fishbowl, and I motion for him to get out of the house. And he ran out of the house and he ran beside the house. And that was the last time that I actually remember seeing Josh.

The next things I remember -- I don't know, I can't remember specifically what order they happen. But I remember talking to both my sisters from behind the curtain in the back of a patrol car. I remember being in an ambulance or a fire truck or something and an EMT lady was shining the light in my eyes and she was trying, she was looking down my throat to see how much smoke I've inhaled or whatever.

Sarah: This sounds like it was just just a lot of chaos. And it sounds like you were almost in a state of shock.

Mike: I was in shock, yeah, yeah.

Sarah: I mean, at that point, it sounds like you understood that your mom was dead. This was something that you got right away. But everything around it sounds like it's just …

Mike: There was a lot of chaos. There's a lot of people, there's a lot of movement and people. I remember seeing my two sisters. I remember seeing my Aunt Patsy, they were reaching for me through the window of a patrol car. And they were reaching for me, and I was trying to grab their hand.

Sarah: So you were there in a patrol car? When did you realize that they were acting like you were a suspect?

Mike: I didn't. I don't think I realized that they were treating me like a suspect until they were actually interrogating me.

Sarah: And was that ... pretty soon after? That was part of that same day, I mean, there was no going to bed between the fire and when they started interrogating you?

Mike: When Kurt Davis drove me from the scene to the sheriff's department, I asked him if he was going to be able to find out what happened to my mom. And he said, Well, what do you mean? And I said, Well, if her throat was cut or something, would you be able to tell that? Are you gonna be able to find out what happened to my mom? And they used that against me, as me trying to interpret whether or not they're going to be able to find out what I did. And that's how they used that against me. And it was an innocent question: Are you going to be able to find out what happened to my mom? And they used it against me.

Looking back on it, at that moment, they were considering me as a suspect. Right. But I didn't realize that they were considering me a suspect until after I wrote a written statement about the events of the fourth and the fifth. They gave me a CVSA test, a voice stress tests I answered all their questions. They asked me, “Did I murder my mother?” I said, “No.”

“Do you know anybody that want to murder your mother? I said, “No.” They told me I was lying. They would ask me again, “Go over the details of what happened.” And I would relay the same set of facts and the same set of circumstances. “Okay, okay, Bernie, now tell us what really happened.” And again, I would relay the same set of facts. And at one point, I think, as I was in accounting, I actually counted I think it was 26 consistencies amongst me and Josh in his statements.

Sarah: And they even tried to tell you at one point that Josh had turned on you, right?

Mike: Yeah, they lied and said that Josh had said you did it. This -- they said that it was a tactic they use -- they would put their badge at the edge of the desk in front of me. I want to point that, you know, they asked for my shoes during the interrogation. And they took them outside the room. He said your shoes are evidence. I'm like, evidence of what? Well, evidence that you murdered your mother. I didn't murder my mother. And they played this … it's almost as if they were trying to convince me that I did something. That's what it felt like. Because every time I would get to the point where I would say I woke up seeing smoke -- “No, no, Bernie, go back.” Like they wanted me to fill in a gap for them. And it was like they were trying to convince me that that there was a gap there.

Sarah: And they kept coming at you. I mean, they came at you for about 48 hours. And you know, you mentioned this voice stress analysis test. They said you exhibited significant levels of stress. I mean, looking back at that, I got to think you had a number of reasons to be stressed out at that point.

Mike: Well, I just found my mother burning to death on the floor at 14 years old. The best of my knowledge is not in the literature or how-to manuals how to handle that. But apparently the Washington County Sheriff's Department has one. I've yet to read it. Right, but it's their opinion that I acted strange or acted funny.

Sheriff Ron Skiles, he said that I didn't act the way that he acted when his mom passed. You know, well, I'm sorry that he lost his mom, because I know what that's like. But I would like to know the circumstances of which he lost his mom.

Sarah: So they ended up arresting you pretty quickly.

Mike: They arrested me December 7, 1998.

Sarah: So this is basically 48 hours later. You begged the officers to take your fingerprints.

Mike: I did.

Sarah: Because you said somebody was trying to frame you for something you didn't do. You felt like if they could just look at your fingerprints and compare that to what was there that you'd be exonerated.

Mike: I offered everything I cooperated with them to the point where they just didn't want my cooperation anymore. As a matter of fact, when they wanted to exhume my mother because they had failed or forgot to take her fingernails, my attorney at the time Wayne Williams looked at me at this court proceeding and said, “Bernie, we can object to this.” I said, “Don't, because I'm trying to give them evidence to exonerate me.”

Sarah: And so what would be under her fingernails might be DNA from the person who killed her. You're looking at this like a chance to get to the bottom of this.

Mike: Justice for Rita.

Sarah: Rita's funeral was the day after Mike was arrested, he attended the service in an orange jumpsuit with feet chained

Mike: I was in leg irons. And it was very emotional. It was very, I think, even then I knew that she was the only person that would have helped me in this situation. I knew I wasn’t gonna win.

Sarah: Mike has never changed his story about what happened that morning. Neither has Josh. That's even though the boys haven't seen each other since that day. And that's even though law enforcement charged Josh with a pair of unrelated crimes in a bid to get him to cooperate in the case against Mike. Josh didn't waver.

At his trial, prosecutors claimed Mike had once briefly confessed. They pointed to a day one month after his mother's murder. When Mike made a suicide attempt while in custody, they claimed that he said, quote, “I have not cared since December 5. That's when I killed my mom.” Mike has always insisted that is not actually what he said.

Mike: The day I tried to kill myself, I was overwhelmed. I was done. I'd had enough. It felt like this was the only way out. At that time, I tried to tie a sheet to the vent. As I'm standing on the toilet I got it tied around the event. And I'm tying it around my neck. And just as I get it tied around my neck, they all rushed into my cell. They set me on the bed. And I was like, man, what's going on? Why are you trying to kill yourself? I said I haven't cared. I haven't cared since they killed my mom. And it's really, really frustrating when law enforcement is there to uphold the law and protect us really and the courts understand that and they give their word, I think at times more credit than what it deserves. Because a law enforcement officer or person, by my case, in my experience, can say he confessed. “We heard this is what he said,” with no recording, no signature, no laid-out detailed events of the crime, just “he said he did it.” And that's upheld in a court of law in Missouri.

Sarah: Prosecutors offered Mike a deal: plead guilty and he’d do just 15 years in prison. He'd already spent nearly four years in jail waiting for trial. If he took the plea he'd be out in less than a decade. He turned down the deal. He said he wouldn't plead guilty to something he didn't do.

When we come back from the break, we'll look at what happened at Mike's trial. This is St. Louis on the Air on St. Louis Public Radio.

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Sarah: Welcome back. This hour we're talking about the details of a murder case from 23 years ago: the murder of Rita Politte. Mike Politte refused to plead guilty to his mother's murder because he said he didn't do it. It was never even an option to him. So four years after Rita Politte’s death, Mike went on trial for her murder.

Mike didn't testify at his trial. He told his lawyer and the judge at his sentencing that he'd wanted to, but his lawyer was a public defender without much time to devote to the case. He told Mike he wasn't prepared for him to testify. Mike's lawyer wrapped up his part of the case in less than half a day. The jury found Mike guilty of second degree murder. Four months later, in April of 2002, he was sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole.

Such sentences have since been found unconstitutional for juveniles. The Supreme Court ruled that kids’ brains are immature, they don't fully understand the consequences of their actions, and they deserve a chance to change. But that wasn't the case in 2002. Mike was 18 years old when he arrived at the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center. That's a maximum security prison in Calloway County. In prison in Jefferson City, Mike recalls that moment:

Mike: Well, it took time to adapt. Because there's a certain way you're supposed to carry yourself and there's a certain way that you're supposed to move in prison. And it takes a while to fully grasp what those strings and what those moves are. Right? Because you're always being watched. You're so confined that, especially being so young, everybody's got their eyes on you, including predators. There's a lot of sexual predators in prison. And that's in part what I was fighting for. So it takes a lot of it's all it takes a lot of mental strength to adapt at that young age, to this kind of life with these kinds of people.

Sarah: And were you thinking at this point, I'm innocent, somebody's going to figure out a mistake has been made. I'm going to get out of here?

Mike: The only thing that -- and this is what's unique about the situation -- is that I was still relying on my father, even though I had my thoughts about his possible involvement. But I was still relying on my father to try to help me. I guess the family did make him hire a lawyer after I was convicted. And it was Margulies & Margulies of Clayton, Missouri. And they did my direct appeal. And he informed me and assured me that he hired the same lawyers to file my 2915, to further my appeals. And roughly a year, year and a half goes by, and I'm not hearing anything from any lawyers, they don't accept my calls. So I had a friend email Arthur Margulies from Margulies & Margulies law firm and ask them where my case was at. And they wouldn't respond. And finally, I had that friend, you know, say, “Hey, listen, if you don't answer, if you don't give us some explanation what's going on, we're gonna contact the Missouri bar.” And they shot a letter to me, and pretty much told me that they don't represent me, and they haven't represented me since my direct appeal. And that was the end of my relationship with my father.

Sarah: And so that had to have been, even beyond the betrayal from your father, which is a horrible thing in and of itself, the idea that you lost out on getting to do this appeal because you didn't realize it wasn't already underway -- how did you even deal with that knowledge?

Mike: You really want to know how I dealt with it?

Sarah: I do.

Mike: Heroin.

Sarah: And you could get that in prison?

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: Did that mess you up?

Mike: It did, but in a way, it clarified things for me, right. Like, it put me so far on rock bottom that when I was done, I was done. And it came from, I wrote a letter to Renee Murphy, my very first public defender. I wrote her; I asked her for help. I told her the situation. And she wrote me back pretty immediately, and she said that she doesn't do post-conviction litigation. But she gave me a sheet that had a bunch of Innocence Project websites on it, and within four months, a gentleman named Kim Blucher and about six law students come down to visit me.

Sarah: And this was finally a group of people that were willing to hear what you've been saying all along.

Mike: It was my chance.

Sarah: What was that like?

Mike: A little bit nerve racking, because this is my chance.

Sarah: What if they didn't believe you at that point?

Mike: This is my opportunity right here. And I left that visit. I paced myself for four days, I wore a hole in the floor, right? And I'm reliving everything that I told him. And I'm reliving the expressions that I'm seeing as I'm telling my story. And they were just discussing, they were just in awe, and they were just you can see in the faces of “how did this happen?” And from that moment on, I knew that I had help. And I knew that they were going to get me out of here.

Sarah: Mike says that after that day, he never took heroin again. And the Midwest Innocence Project did take Mike's case.

Even though Mike was just 14 when his mother died, he was tried as an adult and given an adult sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Megan Crane is the co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center's Missouri office, which joined the Midwest Innocence Project on the case last year.

Megan: I strongly maintain that the reasons Mike was initially suspected, and the reasons he was convicted have everything to do with his youth. He had a public defender, who was, didn't have the time, didn't have the resources, but also was ill-equipped to know how to relate to and represent an adolescent client. And Mike was unable to be an effective advocate for himself. At that time, he didn't understand the system. He didn't understand his rights. And that played into why he ended up in that trial in the first place. He didn't know what was at stake when he was interacting with law enforcement.

Sarah: So what went through your mind the first time you were able to read the transcript of what actually went down in this trial all those years ago?

Megan: I think two things struck me most prominently: how thin the state's case was from the get-go. Even when they had this alleged physical evidence tying into the crime, it was still circumstantial evidence, and that's really all they had. There's this theme of him being a cold, remorseless killer, because of his lack of emotion or an effect at the scene when he's a traumatized kid who just saw what he saw. That's essentially their entire case. That, and the fact that Mike essentially did not receive a defense. His defense attorney put on three witnesses, much less than a day of the trial was dedicated to his defense. And his defense attorney didn't consult with a single expert, even though the heart of this case was scientific evidence that he had no experience with and no knowledge of.

Sarah: Less than a day? They sent him away for life as a kid, after less than a day of evidence in his defense?

Megan: That's right.

Sarah: So you've mentioned the sole physical evidence they have here is the shoes and that the shoes allegedly had gasoline on them. How important was that to the state's case? Could they have won this conviction without what we now know was false evidence?

Megan: No. I would argue this case may have never been brought to trial without that evidence. They had no physical evidence, any direct evidence and even other circumstantial evidence other than that gasoline.

Sarah: John Lentini dug into that alleged evidence from Mike shoes on behalf of his attorneys. John is a forensics expert and a past chairman of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences criminalistics section. He wrote the book on fire analysis in criminal cases. Literally, it's called “Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation.” John Lentini says there was no gasoline on Mike shoes. Shoes come with a variety of chemicals on them, particularly tennis shoes. For 25 years investigators have known that shoes are quote, “problematic evidence” in arson cases. Scientists discovered this problem in 1996, two years before Rita police was killed. But John tells me those findings didn't get much publicity until years later.

John Lentinin: There was a chemist by the name of Sheryl Kerry. And she presented a paper called “Arsonist Shoes: Clue or Confusion? I saw this when I was attending the meeting in Nashville in 1996. And so we did a paper called “The Petroleum-Laced Background,” which was published in 2000. So in 1998, if you didn't go to the Nashville meeting or read the abstracts, you would not know that shoes were so problematic.

Sarah: Okay, so now I'm looking at the timeline of this case. The trial was actually in 2002. If the prosecutors were paying attention, should they have known by then that this was a problem?

John: Prosecutors don't pay attention to scientific papers. The chemist who did the analysis should have been paying attention. But even so, two years is not not a very long time in the greater scheme of things. It takes takes a while for advances in science to percolate through the community so that people get the idea that maybe we need to be careful with shoes.

Sarah: Today, we have tools that distinguish things that look like gasoline from real gasoline. In this case, the chemist for the state didn't take those steps. They found “aromatic solvent,” not gasoline. Even so, John Lentini says he would not be surprised to learn that someone is still in prison because of this type of error.

John: There's lots of people in prison for crimes that they didn't commit or crimes that never even happened.

Sarah: But looking at this, if the only physical evidence was this kind of testimony, that would indicate to you a big problem?

John: Yes.

Sarah: Well, so looking at this case, you were brought in after the fact to look at the science. It sounds like you feel pretty strongly that this science is not science that should have been used to convict Michael Politte.

John: That's correct.

Sarah: Even beyond the physical evidence, experts say the investigation was flawed in critical ways. Jim Trainum is a former Washington, D.C. police officer with 27 years of experience, 17 as a homicide detective. He examined the entire case file at the request of Mike's attorneys. And he notes that Sheriff Ron Skiles zeroed in on Mike from the start.

Jim Trainum: And you know that there was reason to, as Michael was one of the last people in the house. However, he based his conclusions solely on the way Michael was behaving. And he was projecting how he thought he would behave on to Michael, even though his experience was nothing like Michael was going through. And this is something called false consensus bias. And there's so many cases out there where the wrong person, especially juveniles, have been wrongfully identified as suspects based on this sort of projection.

Sarah: As Jim acknowledges, Mike was the one family member known to be in the trailer at the time of the attack on Rita politte. Sheriff's investigators were skeptical that Mike and Josh could have slept through the attack. But Jim Trainum says that's a foolish conclusion.

Jim: They thought, they kind of assumed, that the attack was this long, drawn-out thing. But when you look at the crime scene, it was a blitz. She confronted the person, he attacked her, and she was probably down and out very, very quickly. So the amount of noise could have been minimal.

Second, they don't take into account the boys’ sleeping habits. I don't know about your experience, but my teenage boys sleep through just about anything. Plus they had been smoking marijuana that night. And there was this big deal about Michael and the radio. He had a radio turned on in his room plane that night. The detectives were saying well, it was very, very low. But when you look at where the radio was, it was right over top of his head. Standing at the foot of the bed or standing outside the room, it's not going to be that loud. But if you're sleeping right under the speakers, like Michael was, you know that that's totally different.

Sarah: Longtime homicide detective Jim Trainum adds that based on the bloody evidence from the crime scene, the killer likely would have had blood on his clothes or on his body. Mike didn't. Also the autopsy found that Rita Politte had been killed with a blunt object before she was set on fire. If Mike was the killer, he would have had to quickly hide the weapon somewhere, even as his friend Josh slept in his bedroom. That object has never been found.

Megan: Tammy Belfield, who was the evidence tech, searched Mike's bedroom repeatedly. Multiple searches, and they found nothing found that could have been used to make the blunt force trauma that led to Rita Politte’s death.

Sarah: Again, that's Megan Crane, co-director of the Missouri chapter of the MacArthur Justice Center.

Mega: But days after that, a family member of Mike Politte’s came to the police station and reported -- a relative of Ed politte and his wife had been in the trailer, who knows why, and found supposedly a bloody tire iron sticking out of Mike's closet. So the police law enforcement reclaimed the scene, went and searched the room again, and this tool was there. The evidence tech said this looks like rust, not blood, and testing later confirmed it was rust, not blood. But the evidence tech who searched the scene said, “I'm 100% certain this was not there the day of the crime.” Somebody planted this evidence. Yet no one followed up on that lead. There's not a single report that mentions that after that fact and there's not a single indicator that he was interviewed.

That's something they knew before Mike everyone's trial, and what we have learned since and what could have been discovered if there'd been an adequate investigation, is multiple people saw him walking down railroad tracks through the woods away from Rita Politte’s trailer, right as the sirens were approaching the house -- so, very soon after this crime had occurred.

So there's reason that people may have wanted to question this guy, but that never happened.

Sarah: Many people who've studied this case have questions about Ed's cousin. And those questions lead back to Mike's dad, Ed Politte. Ed has an alibi for the morning of Rita's death. Phone records confirm he answered his phone at a time when he couldn't have been home if he'd set the fire in the trailer.

But Mike's attorney says Ed and his cousin were close. And attorneys say Ed had good reason to want his ex wife Rita dead.

Megan: Mike's father Ed Politte was looked at to some extent as a suspect, but he had a loose alibi. And it seems that once he had that, they stopped digging, they stopped looking. The law enforcement who's come forward in this case, because she believes in Mike's innocence, she said he was tossed out of the suspect pool very quickly. And she never really understood why, except for the fact that the lead detectives on this case just had their mind set on Mike from jump.

Sarah: And Ed Politte, Mike's dad, he had good reason to be very angry at the murder victim here, Mike's mom. There's also some allegations that he made threats. And it doesn't sound like that's something that the police dug into. They just looked to see if he had some sort of alibi, and that was it.

Megan: They did not dig into it, that's right. And there are law enforcement on the public record since trial saying they continue to suspect Ed Politte was involved. But no real leg work has been done to do anything about that.

Sarah: And we'll have more on the question surrounding Mike's father Ed after a quick break. This is St. Louis on the Air on St. Louis Public Radio.

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Sarah: Welcome back. Mike Politte’s mother was murdered when he was 14. He was found guilty of the crime and sent to prison as an 18 year old, but he always insisted on his innocence.

Mike didn't really have a motive for wanting to kill his mother. But Mike's lawyers note that Ed, his father, did. Ed and Rita had recently gotten divorced, and the fight over money turned ugly. Witnesses say Ed police threatened Rita when she was awarded half his pension the week before her murder. He allegedly said she'd never see a penny of it. The only way he didn't have to pay was if she remarried or if she died.

Ed Politte could prove he was home when Rita was killed. But Mike's lawyers say that doesn't rule out his associates,

including Ed's cousin, who was seen not far from the trailer soon after the fire. Neither Ed nor his cousin responded to my letter seeking comment about these allegations. We also attempted to reach them by phone, but none of the phone numbers listed in public databases led to either man.

In 2016, Ed Politte was interviewed for an MTV documentary about his son's case. They didn't focus on his involvement, although Mike's sisters did raise their suspicions about him on camera. Ed told the filmmakers about an interaction with law enforcement after Mike's arrest.

Ed Politte: In August of 99, I drove down to visit Mike. One of the officers says, “You know, we really don't think Mike did this.” Well, that didn't sit well with me. And I asked him, I said, “What the hell's he doing in jail?” They said, “We don't have anybody else.”

I've since become a Christian. I repeat what I said. But I did try to provoke him. I wanted him to come at me. I wanted that, like nothing else. I called him every name in the book. “Come on.” And he would have had the other officer wouldn't have been there, and I’d have had my vengeance. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

Filmmaker’s voice: Why do you feel like they would say those things to you and just leave it at that?

Ed: Because they couldn't prove that I did it. Who's the first suspect? The ex. I was 90 miles away. Phone records prove it. I feel like if I wouldn't have picked up the phone at seven o'clock in the morning, I would be in prison right now.

Filmmaker: You ever wished you didn't answer it?

Ed: More times than you know.

Filmmaker: That phone call saved your life.

Ed: And ruined his.

Sarah: Ed Politte also told the filmmakers he knew Mike didn't do it. He declined to discuss his divorce from Rita Politte. Neither Mike nor his sisters have any relationship with Ed Politte today.

Jim Trainum is the homicide detective who examined the evidence on behalf of Mike's attorneys. He says initial investigators did not adequately consider alternative suspects. And that includes the possibility of any associates of Ed police.

Jim: I don't see anything in there whatsoever, he would have been the most likely suspect or associate of his simply because he had the motive. And he was the one who would benefit from her death. They say that they gave him a voice stress test. But I can't find the results anywhere. And so I find that to be rather curious. And let's be straight about the voice stress test. It's pseudoscience. It's, it really doesn't work. And there's so many detectives who use it as a tool in their investigation, which is really, really improper. They rule people in or out. But even so, they had three other, a few other people, I believe it was three, who showed some form of deception, just like they claimed Michael and Josh did. However, they do not perceive them as potential suspects in this case.

Sarah: The investigators also ignored other evidence that didn't fit their narrative that included blood on the outside door of the trailer and unidentified footprints just outside the trailer. To Jim Trainum, that suggests someone exited the trailer after killing Rita.

Jim: Even though they photographed the footprints and noted the footprints, they didn't note where they were. They didn't take plaster casts. There was this woman, a neighbor who reported her dogs going crazy at three o'clock in the morning at the fence line. And that really was put aside because it didn't fit in their timeline.

Sarah: Last month, attorneys for Mike pally laid out their case and a deeply researched appeal to the Western District of Missouri. The petition they filed was 109 pages, not including the many affidavits attached as additional evidence. The appellate court rejected the appeal just one week later. Here's what attorney Megan Crane of the MacArthur Justice Center tells me about that.

Megan: We were absolutely disappointed by the Western District’s denial, and we question whether they had the time to even read this filing. But we absolutely maintain hope. And we're going to continue fighting for justice for Mike and justice for Rita. And we will be refiling his petition in the Missouri Supreme Court in the very near future. And we're hopeful that unlike in the Western District that we actually get a meaningful and close review and the Missouri Supreme Court.

Sarah: Do you have better odds of that happening at the Missouri supreme court? I mean, once the appellate court has just turned this down, so summarily does that make it harder.

Megan: The Missouri Supreme Court historically in wrongful conviction cases will sometimes appoint a special master, which is an ability they have under Missouri statute. And so I do think we have a hope, and it is what we are aiming for here. What we're expecting, what we're fighting for, is that they'll appoint a special master who has the time to really dig in, and to read our over 100 pages of a petition and the hundreds of pages of exhibits supporting it.

Sarah: And there is some precedent for this in Missouri that these special masters have been appointed and that it leads to this sort of evidentiary hearing?

Megan: Yes, that's right.

Sarah: So there's another question here, even beyond the chance of getting that and I know that's your big goal, but in the meantime, there's also this question of could Mike get paroled after all these years behind bars. Where does that stand?

Megan: The Missouri legislature passed a statute this summer, SB 26. That finally gives him a chance for release. He now is eligible for parole and could go before the parole board for his hearing any time in the next coming months. SB 26 gives anyone who was convicted under 18 a chance at parole eligibility after serving 15 years. So Mike is one of the over 500 people that will benefit from this statute, and we're expecting to find out the date of his hearing any day now.

I mean a parole hearing. This is not automatic. They will look at his record in prison. They'll look at whether he's been rehabilitated. But this would be his first chance that he's ever gotten to even make the case that he deserves to be released.

Sarah: Do you think he's a good candidate for parole?

Megan: He's a stellar candidate for parole, Sarah. The only thing that may work against him, to be honest, is his innocence.

Sarah: How so?

Megan: Parole boards have been known to hold innocence against prisoners, because they want to see a showing of remorse, a showing of accountability. And even in a case like Mike’s, where there is ample scientific compelling evidence of innocence, that works against them, because where's the remorse? Where's the ‘I'm sorry’? But aside from that, we are extremely hopeful that Mike will be released on parole, because somehow he, despite going into adult prisons as a kid, he has managed to not only survive, he has thrived. And he has made every effort to make his time in prison productive. He often talks about how his guiding mission is to make his mom proud and follow her example. And he absolutely has.

Sarah: So not to get ahead of ourselves here, but if Mike is able to get that parole, and he's released from prison, does that make all of this a moot point? I mean, he would be out of prison, he has already served this time, that's not going to change no matter what happens. Will you keep fighting to try to make the case for his innocence?

Megan: Great question. We absolutely will one, because we're never going to stop fighting for Mike until he's cleared his name, too. Because as Mike himself says, finding his mother's true killer and getting justice for his mother is much more important to him than his freedom. And so we will honor that and do everything we can to force the state to truly investigate the real perpetrator. And third, because as we, as most of us know, living in our society with a felony conviction on your record is far from easy. And until that conviction is off his record, he's never going to be able to live a truly free life in America.

Sarah: The prosecuting attorney in charge of Mike's conviction, John Robb, is now a court Commissioner. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment in this case. The current Washington County prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth was not in office at the time of Mike's conviction. He declined to comment.

Mike tells me he's found ways to pass the years in prison. He volunteers for the prison’s puppies for parole program, which trains shelter dogs.

Mike: We have them for four to six months. And we train them and we make them more adoptable for families and so they can, I mean, they're essentially they're in jail too, right? Dogs love you no matter what. When I come home from work -- I say home; this ain't my home, excuse me for that -- but you know, I come back myself from work, “I'm just happy to see you,” tail wagging. They jump up on you. And I mean, “No, you can't do that. Don't do that. You can't jump.” “What did I do? I miss you.” So some of them, some of them are going to end up being service dogs for Contry. They've done that. Special dogs for kids with autism or kids who need a companion.

Sarah: Mike also has a job inside the prison. People in Missouri prisons are paid less than $1 an hour for their labor. For Mike the work isn't about the money.

Mike: I like being at work. You know, I work from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 in the afternoon. So that's 10 hours all day, where I'm in my own little world. I'm on swing-arm saw; I'm cutting panels out for desks. And then I read law. I'll watch some TV shows here and there. But man, I'm a gamer. I like my video games. They just pass so much time. It takes you out of the reality of prison. I've spent so many years in prison where it's like, I wonder what it'd be like to have just a Super Nintendo. Those thoughts, I mean, it brought it to reality. Now I got a tablet with the Super Mike on it. It calls me Super Mike, so I'm cool with that.

Sarah: And you were saying this has been for you just … it's not even nostalgic for you, it's kind of taking you right back to the last game you used to play. You were playing Super Mario. Now you're back to like the retro Super Mario.

Mike: Super Mario, Super Mike. Yeah.

Sarah: When you're there and you’re playing that game, do you almost feel like you're 13 and a half and life is fine?

Mike: I do. I even want to throw it sometimes, you know where you throw the remote control? Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah: Even with the big frustrations of life, you still have those little frustrations.

Mike: Yeah, you still have those little frustrations. Yeah, I revert back to 13 real quick.

Sarah: Mike Politte, of course, isn't 13 anymore. He's 37 and his lawyers are intent on getting him out before he spends another year in prison. The Missouri appellate court rejected their appeal last month, but next week, they plan to file again, this time with the Missouri Supreme Court. Again, they will include affidavits from forensics experts and from the Washington County Sheriff's deputy who was in charge of gathering evidence at the scene of Rita Politte’s murder. They will also include statements from jurors who have grave concerns about the verdict, their filing will again be more than 100 pages. This time, they hope the court will give it the attention it deserves. Mike says his mother deserves nothing less.

Mike: I'm gonna throw punches. I'm gonna keep throwing punches if the Supreme Court denies me, I'm gonna throw another punch. I'm not gonna stop fighting. And justice for Rita. I wish people would yell it out there. I wish people would picket with signs.

Sarah: Former homicide detective Jim Trainum is hopeful about Mike's claim. But he worries that Rita Politte’s murder will never be solved.

Jim: The problem with these cases is one they're so old. And there's so many missed opportunities. And then too, even if it's determined that Josh and Michael had nothing to do with it, oftentimes there's very little incentive on the part of the investigative agency to go back and try to find out who was involved, and many times they won't.

Sarah: So we may never know who killed Rita Politte.

Jim: Absolutely.

Sarah: More information on this story as well as photos of Mike police and his family can be found on our website, stlonair.show.

Special thanks to Emily Woodbury, who edited and co-produced the story.

St. Louis on the Air is a production of St. Louis Public Radio. Thank you for listening. I'm Sarah Fenske.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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