Chris Tapp sues Idaho Falls and former IFPD officers for wrongful conviction
IDAHO FALLS — Christopher Tapp, the man wrongfully accused and convicted for the killing of Angie Dodge, has sued the city of Idaho Falls and several officers involved in the case.
The 57-page complaint was filed in federal court Thursday. In the lawsuit, Tapp’s attorneys say he was subject to some of the worst police misconduct in history, which resulted in his wrongful conviction. They also reiterate that no physical evidence tied Tapp to the crime scene and say officers on the case coordinated to wrongfully convict Tapp of murder through “abusive interrogations and sham polygraphs.”
“The police lied to him, threatened him with death, fed him false details about the crime and then lied and claimed the details originated with him,” Peter Neufeld, one of Tapp’s attorneys, told EastIdahoNews.com.
After being convicted for the 1996 rape and murder of Dodge by a jury, Tapp spent nearly half of his life behind bars. After more than two decades, new DNA evidence came to light that pointed at another suspect, 54-year-old Brian Dripps, as the killer of Dodge. On July 17, 2019, a judge exonerated Tapp of the crime. Dripps was later arrested and awaits a jury trial scheduled for 2021.
“Because of what the Idaho Falls Police did to me, I lost the opportunity to raise a family, pursue a career, and to share in the most basic freedoms that we all live for,” Tapp said in a news release, “I continue to live every day with the nightmare of the 22 years the Idaho Falls police stole from me.”
The investigation and conviction of Tapp
The entire case centers around the June 12, 1996, death of Angie Dodge. Police records show that officers arrived at her I Street apartment and found her body lying in the bedroom. Officers collected samples for a rape kit and collected other bodily fluids from the home. As the investigation unfolded, police learned Dodge had a group of friends who spent time along the Snake River. Among them was Tapp.
The lengthy lawsuit goes into great detail about everything that happened leading up to and following the arrest of Tapp.
The court documents describe how investigators spoke with then-19-year-old Tapp, who truthfully told them he had never been to Dodge’s apartment. Tapp provided a blood sample, and investigators kept working the case. But after six months, they still hadn’t determined a killer.
On Jan. 6, 1997, Tapp’s friend, Benjamin Hobbs, was arrested for the rape of another person in Nevada.
“Facing mounting pressure to solve this high-profile crime, defendants, out of desperation, decided to focus their investigation on Hobbs and his friends to the extent they might provide evidence incriminating Hobbs, despite the fact that absolutely no evidence linked Hobbs or any of his friends, including Tapp, to the crime,” attorneys write in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit and past media reporting show Tapp was picked up by officers and driven to the police station on Jan. 7, 1997. While there, Tapp denied any knowledge of the crime as detectives allegedly wanted to use Tapp to give up Hobbs as the perpetrator.
“In an effort to break Tapp’s will, (IFPD) subjected him to about 60 hours of coercive interrogations and seven sham polygraphs, repeatedly threatened him with execution, and fed him multiple secret details about the crime that only the real perpetrator would know and then falsely reported that Tapp had volunteered those details,” Neufeld said.
Eventually, Tapp confessed to participating in the killing, and on Jan. 11, 1997, officers arrested Tapp for accessory to murder. Six days later, investigators learned that the DNA found at the crime scene did not match Tapp or Hobbs but belonged to another person.
“But despite this conclusive evidence of Tapp’s innocence, defendants continued their campaign of coercion and manipulation to force Tapp to falsely confess to multiple versions of the crime that fit defendants’ evolving evidence and theory of the case,” the lawsuit states.
On Feb. 3, 1997, a warrant of arrest was issued for Tapp and he was charged with first-degree murder. A trial for Tapp followed over a year later on May 12, 1998. Prosecutors on the case were seeking the death penalty.
During the trial, the jury was told that Tapp confessed to the rape and murder of Dodge. The confession was corroborated by the multiple non-public facts given by Tapp that were actually fed to him by the detectives interrogating him, Tapp’s attorneys allege.
Additionally, a witness told the jury that Tapp confessed to the crime. However, attorneys say the statements made by the teenage girl were coerced and false.
After 13 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and a judge sentenced Tapp to spend up to life in prison. Hobbs was never charged or prosecuted, despite officers’ working theory he committed the crime with Tapp.
“Tapp’s wrongful conviction was the result of unconstitutional policies and practices of the Idaho Falls Police Department,” the lawsuit reads. “The widespread and extraordinary misconduct in the Dodge investigation was also part of a broader pattern of IFPD investigative misconduct.”
Attorneys for Tapp alleged that officers throughout the 1990s had a pattern of coercing false confessions, fabricating evidence, and systematically failing to supervise and discipline officers.
“The Dodge murder investigation is itself a striking example of the IFPD’s systemic failure to supervise, train, and discipline its officers and detectives. In this investigation alone, seven IFPD officers and detectives coordinated to coerce multiple false and fabricated confessions from a suspect and to coerce a false and fabricated witness statement,” according to Tapp’s attorneys.
Jared Fuhriman, Steven G. Finn, Ken Brown, Curtis Stacey, Phillip Grimes, Kent Livsey, and Steve Roos, seven former Idaho Falls Police Officers associated with the case are all listed as defendants in the lawsuit along with the city. Fuhriman served as mayor of Idaho Falls from 2006 to 2013.
On Thursday, in response to the lawsuit, the city of Idaho Falls issued the following statement.
“The city has an obligation to the public to exercise great care in all legal matters,” Idaho Falls spokesman Bud Cranor said in a statement to EastIdahoNews.com. “In any pending litigation, public statements always carry the possibility of being used by the various parties involved to the benefit or detriment of the others, which is why we generally do not provide comment on legal matters. We are aware of the lawsuit and demands being made by Mr. Tapp’s attorneys and intend to respond to them through the proper legal channels in the course of the legal process.”
An unlikely ally and exoneration
Tapp’s story didn’t end with his conviction. The lawsuit also details the long-fought effort to prove Tapp wasn’t guilty.
Not long after Tapp’s conviction, Dodge’s mother, Carol Dodge, began fighting for the young man’s innocence. As Tapp continually filed for appeals and was denied, Carol Dodge saw the recorded confession tapes and the new DNA evidence that pointed to someone else. Attorneys for Tapp say these things assured her of Tapp’s innocence.
As DNA technology improved, the Idaho Innocence Project asked IFPD in 2009 to run samples collected at the crime scene to point to the real killer. Police declined to run the new tests while Tapp remained in an Idaho Department of Correction prison.
As 2012 rolled around, IFPD then sent off items collected at the crime scene that again ruled out Tapp and Hobbs as the perpetrators of the crime. Further tests over the years kept running out Tapp as he remained behind bars.
“In 2017, faced with the totality of the evidence that Tapp and his defense attorneys had assembled since his conviction demonstrating that Tapp was not the perpetrator, the state finally agreed to release Tapp from prison,” Tapp’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
The rape charge was dismissed, but the murder conviction stuck as Tapp was no longer behind bars but still not free from being called a killer.
That spring, investigators sent off a sample of the DNA again, and the use of DNA databases helped construct likely relatives of the actual killer. Two years later, the investigation continued as police were led to Dripps and obtained his DNA from a discarded cigarette butt. It came back as a match to the DNA found at the crime scene.
Police arrested Dripps on May 15, 2019, and charged him with the rape and murder of Dodge. Police have said that Dripps confessed to the crime and acted alone.
On July 17, Tapp appeared before a judge as the new evidence pointed to a new suspect. In a 30-minute hearing, Judge Alan Stephens formally exonerated Tapp, clearing his name and removing the murder conviction from his criminal record.
“Christopher Tapp spent more than 20 years incarcerated and 22 years wrongfully convicted for a horrific crime he did not commit,” Tapp’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “He must now attempt to make a life for himself without the benefit of those life experiences and resources that normally equip adults for that task.”
The lawsuit focuses on the fact that Tapp lost his basic freedom, he suffered physically and mentally in prison, and he lost the chance at a normal life. His attorneys claim that those named in the lawsuit violated Tapp’s First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It also includes claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, conspiracy and defamation, among other violations.
“This lawsuit has two purposes: One is to bring some measure of justice to Chris Tapp, but it’s also about police accountability,” Neufeld said. “The police who did this to him have never been held accountable. … This lawsuit will do that.”
Tapp’s lawsuit doesn’t specify an amount he is seeking, but he does demand a federal jury trial.
“We are quite confident that when the good people of Idaho who have been so supportive of Chris to date hear all the facts and see the evidence, they will be convinced (of) what justice requires,” Neufeld said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article indicated that some of the police officers listed in the lawsuit were current members of the department. That was incorrect. All of the officers are retired. EastIdahoNews.com apologizes for the error.