Inmate denies link to Shauna Howe case
The Derrick, 3/22/02 By LISA THOMPSON
Special thanks to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted
JAMES O'BRIEN SAYS IN AN INTERVIEW FROM MERCER STATE PRISON THAT POLICE SHOULD BE USING DNA EVIDENCE TO CLEAR HIS NAME, NOT SMEAR HIM.
Prison inmate James O'Brien says police are using DNA evidence in the Shauna Howe case to smear him, when they should be using it to clear his name.
In an interview with The Derrick Thursday at Mercer state prison, O'Brien addressed recent reports that police have matched his DNA sample with DNA found on Howe, the 11-year-old victim of an unsolved 1992 abduction and murder.
O'Brien calmly denies involvement in the crime. In a strongly worded counter offensive to speculation about his role in the case, the 30-year-old former Oil City man says he thinks police are using what he believes are inconclusive lab results to launch a smear campaign against him to build public support for his arrest.
Contrary to clinching the case against him, O'Brien feels the DNA evidence in the case is "pro-justice."
A DNA profile state police and the FBI showed him in early March revealed only that his DNA was similar to that found on the child, not a perfect match, he says.
"I don't doubt the test shows something. It clearly said some things matched and some didn't," he said.
"If that DNA was my DNA, it would match, it wouldn't be similar. If it is mine, it should say its mine, not that it is similar to mine," he said.
Police want him to confess to the crime based on the DNA test, he says. But O'Brien says he has nothing to hide.
"I didn't do it, so I wasn't going to admit it," he said.
"My conscience is clear."
He says if he does not confess police have threatened to relocate him to a less hospitable prison and "drag his family and friends" into grand jury proceedings.
And so far, he claims, authorities have lived up to their alleged threats.
"Everything they said they'd do has happened," he said. "Except the grand jury."
O'Brien's has a past record that includes convictions for theft and other charges that date back to the early 1990s. He is serving 4 1/2 to 20 years in state prison after a Venango County jury convicted him of trying to abduct a woman from an Oil City street in 1995.
Many names have been associated with the Howe probe in the past, including other prison inmates. O'Brien's name surfaced publicly in recent weeks as news filtered through the community that the FBI lab in Washington had identified a DNA match in the long unsolved child abduction and murder.
Howe, the daughter of Robert Howe and Lucy Brown was kidnapped Oct. 27, 1992, at the corner of West First and Reed streets as she walked home from a Halloween party. A massive search ensued, but her broken body was found 2 1/2 days later in East Sandy Creek below an abandoned rail bridge. The spot was near the location where a relative found a piece of her clothing the day before.
The investigation has led police into area homes and back and forth across the nation. It has involved FBI profilers and the analysis of DNA evidence.
Police have long said Howe's body carried DNA, a genetic identification card of sorts that, if matched, could help lead them to the person or persons responsible for her death.
After weeks of visibly increased activity recently, including visits by the FBI and the retrieval of employment records from area businesses, police quietly converged for a late night search Thursday, March 14, at the Laurel Avenue home of Eldred "Ted" Walker. Sources indicated Walker had told police that O'Brien had lived in his home at the time of the abduction and was there the night it happened.
Walker declined to comment in much detail the night of the search. However, he told The Derrick he had been interviewed by police about the case in the past because he matched the description of the abductor. But he said he had recently given them new information after unspecified new events stirred troubling memories about the night that Howe was abducted. He said he now believed he might have taken in some "really bad" people once, who may have done, as he said, "a disgusting thing."
He declined to mention any names or say what he witnessed. He hinted that he believed someone might have taken his car that night.
Walker termed himself an innocent witness who was cooperating with authorities. He has not been charged with any crime.
On Friday, March 15, police continued their search at Walker's home, paying particular attention to a pile of ashes in a sideyard.
Meanwhile, O'Brien's mother, Linda O'Brien, in an interview with The Derrick the same day confirmed reports that her son had been questioned in the case and that police had told him that DNA found on Howe's body matched his. Linda O'Brien told the newspaper she did not believe the DNA tested came from Howe's body but from trash found at the scene where her son frequently camped. She said she knew her son was innocent.
Police remained steadfastly silent about developments in the case, saying only that they continued to investigate.
The report of a possible DNA match published Saturday stirred hope among residents that a resolution to the case may be within reach.
But O'Brien said it "flipped" his world "upside down."
Immediately after news broke in The Derrick about the reported DNA link to O'Brien, O'Brien says he was removed from the general population at the prison and placed in isolation.
"I am completely blocked off from everything and everyone," he said, noting that he cannot listen to a radio or write a letter.
Authorities, he says, told him it was for his own safety. But he feels he has support from his fellow inmates. He says he believes he's being punished for a crime he has not been formally charged with.
In Thursday's interview, he explained how the DNA results came about.
O'Brien said police questioned him about the Howe case in 1995 after he was arrested for trying to abduct a woman. They told him they wanted to test him due to the nature of the charge he faced and that they were just trying to "cover all their bases." He says they asked him for a blood sample for DNA testing. He consented. The blood was drawn and he never heard any results.
That was the last contact he says he had with police about the case until January of this year when a state police criminal investigator from Meadville visited him in Mercer. The trooper told him they were again trying to cover all their bases, and asked him for another DNA sample, this time saliva, O'Brien says. O'Brien consented and the trooper took a sample using a swab to wipe the inside of O'Brien's mouth.
O'Brien says he heard nothing more until earlier this month when two troopers arrived telling him they were going to take him to the Mercer County courthouse. But soon he found himself en route to Pittsburgh. The troopers told them they were supposed to take him to the federal building there. When he asked them why, he says they said they didn't know.
O'Brien said at that point he did not think the trip had anything to do with the January DNA sample he gave.
When he arrived at the federal building, he met with a trooper from Franklin and an FBI agent who said they had some follow-up questions about the Howe case.
O'Brien said he cooperated, answering all the questions until about an hour into the interview when police introduced a report from Washington.
"They said you're DNA matches what was found at the scene," he said.
O'Brien said at that point he told them he wanted a lawyer, a request he says still has not been answered.
"It blindsided me. It was almost like being in shock," he said.
O'Brien said all he could do at first is stare at the wall and think how far off the mark investigators were.
"I was sickened and I said I don't want to talk about it," he said.
"It's horrific. It's disgusting. It's not something I would do."
During the course of the approximately six-hour interview, O'Brien says that, in addition to telling him about the alleged DNA match, police told him that Walker was claiming that O'Brien had lived in his house at the time of Howe's abduction. And that Walker had seen him in his house the night of the abduction.
O'Brien said police told him they believe seven to nine people are involved in the crime. And that a friend of his who had lived with Walker had failed a polygraph test when questioned about the incident, but that Walker had passed the test.
One of the officers interviewing him accused him of sexually assaulting Howe, O'Brien says. He says they urged him to cooperate and outlined what would happen if he didn't.
O'Brien said they told him if he confessed they would not seek the death penalty.
And he alleges that they threatened to embark on a media campaign to gain support for his arrest, as well as move him to a different prison and initiate grand jury proceedings against him.
O'Brien said when police first told him about the DNA profile they just flashed a page at him. At some later point, they showed him the report and allowed him to read it for about two minutes. There were about 12 to 15 names on the first page and three or four on the second, he said.
His name was on the second page. He said a paragraph next to other names indicated there was no match. But next to his, text said that "some areas did match. Others areas did not match," he said.
O'Brien said he felt at that time the DNA was not conclusive.
"I'm looking at the paper and it said in spots it didn't match. He's telling me it did match. (I thought) you're contradicting what the paper says," he said.
O'Brien says he worked with Walker at a local restaurant in the early 1990s. But he said he has never lived with Walker and does not know why Walker would tell police he did. He said a friend of his lived at Walker's house at the time of the kidnapping. He said he sometimes would pick up and drop off that friend at Walker's home.
He does not know why Walker might implicate him in the crime.
"The only reason I could think of is the money," he said.
He also suggested Walker might be trying to shift attention away from himself.
"Considering the first report he would fit the description better than I do. I think he's turning people away from him, I'm not saying he did it. But he's being real suspicious, to accuse somebody of something and not know, is real absurd," he said.
O'Brien says he has an alibi for the time of the abduction. He says he knows "exactly" where he was at the time of the abduction, but that he does not want to comment on that information now.
He said he remembers hearing about the event about 9 or 10 p.m. Oct. 27 just about an hour or two after Howe was kidnapped.
He says he does not remember what he thought when her body was found. He said he did not get that engaged in the news of the crime because he did not know Howe or her family.
He said he, too, remains surprised by how long the case has remained unresolved.
"I don't know how you would go on living knowing you were responsible for a child's death like that. How can you hide a child for three days and have nobody not know about it," he said.
Though critical of police tactics, O'Brien said Thursday he understands their efforts.
"I understand why they want it solved. It's a horrific crime. Whoever did it needs to be caught," he said.
"It's been a long time. People see what they think is a glimmer of hope and they cling to it. I understand that. A horrific event took place. But like I said, a match is not mine."
O'Brien said that he feels in an effort to "overzealously" solve the case, DNA is being used in a kind of misguided campaign to drum up support for his arrest.
"I can see it going on in a political campaign, but not in somebody's life," he said.
"They should be using it to clear me. It's not a match. If you're going to use it to gain public support (of an arrest) then tell the public the truth...show them you have it," he said.
O'Brien says he once planned to return home upon his release from prison to open a barbershop. But he says he does not think he can do that now.
Still, he is grateful for support he has gotten from his family and friends.
"The ones who know me know I have nothing to do with this," he said.
He asked others not to judge him or his family.
"This has been a long drawn out investigation. Don't jump to quick conclusions and be quick to judge people," he said.
"The person who did it needs to be caught," he said. "But don't just throw out a rope to snag somebody," he said.
He described his life in the focus of the investigation.
"It's like I'm living a nightmare. I'm just blindsided."