News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 24, 2014

Cold case homicide: 15 years later

Advances in technology, witnesses, confession yield details about night of victim’s death

TERRE HAUTE — Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a payoff when it comes to arresting a suspect in a homicide investigation.

But the payoff finally came this week for the family of Erika Case, a West Terre Haute girl stabbed to death at age 19 while house-sitting in northwestern Vigo County.

The arrest of 33-year-old Clinton Bryan Mackey came after months of renewed investigation by the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department into the case.

Mackey, now of Vinton, Iowa, waived extradition to Indiana and was arraigned Friday morning in Vigo Superior Court 1 on a charge of murder for the Sept. 6, 1998, death of Case.

Facts of the case

Some details of the renewed investigation came out in the probable cause affidavit filed with the court and in a news conference Friday morning following Mackey’s court appearance, in which he was given a July 14 trial date.

“This has been a 15-year process,” said Sheriff Greg Ewing, explaining the renewed interest in the case. “A lot of hard work was done 15 years ago and additional work here as of late.”

The case was reopened about six months ago, when the Indiana Sheriff’s Association contacted Ewing to ask if the VCSD had a cold case that could be featured by the television program “Cold Justice” on the TNT network. Ewing said he contacted former Sheriff Bill Harris, and they immediately thought the Erika Case homicide would fit the television program’s needs.

Ewing then directed Capt. John Moats and his detectives to review the Case files.

“We ramped this case up. We went through the entire thing from start to finish. Essentially, what we did is we turned up the heat,” Ewing said.

“We put the case on the front burner,” agreed Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt.

Moats and Detective Derek Fell, who is now a crime scene investigator, reviewed files and contacted retired deputy Jake Compton, who was a detective on the case in 1998.

Working in retirement

Compton told them that when he arrived at the crime scene, he found Case lying on the floor of the home wearing a swimsuit and black T-shirt. She was covered in blood, and there were no signs of life. Her body was sent for an autopsy.

The court record states that the autopsy revealed that Case had 33 stab wounds to various parts of her body, but concentrated on the lower face, neck and chest, with defensive wounds to both arms. Both her left and right carotid arteries had been severed. Her death was classified as a homicide.

The victim’s sister told police that she found her sister dead upon returning to the residence where they were house sitting. The sister told police that a male friend of Erika’s had spent time at the home as well. And the sister reported that a large cutting knife was missing from the home.

Police reviewed the statement of the friend who had been at the home. Compton reported that the male friend stated that he had brought Mackey – a recent acquaintance of his – to meet up with Erika. They then went to the house where she was staying. The friend told police that he, Erika and Mackey swam in the home’s pool and consumed alcohol and marijuana. The friend said that they ate pizza, cutting it with the large kitchen knife that was later reported missing. The friend also reported that Mackey said he had made sexual advances toward Erika, but she refused him. The friend said Mackey dropped him off at his home at about 3 a.m., and Erika was alive when he last saw her.

In Compton’s interview of Mackey on Sept. 6, 1998, the teenager admitted that he had made sexual advances toward Erika, but she didn’t feel well later, so “we just decided to delay on that.”

A former girlfriend of Mackey’s also told then-Sheriff Bill Harris that she dated Mackey after the killing occurred, and he had talked about the night of the homicide with her. The woman said that Mackey told her he had been found not guilty of the killing during a trial in Evansville. The woman also said that Mackey became violent with her more than once during their relationship, and she was afraid of him. That former girlfriend, Mackey’s former stepfather and another friend all reported to police that Mackey was unable to handle rejection.

Withheld confession

During the renewed investigation in November, another woman told police that she knew Mackey at the time of the Case’s death. She said he went to her house a few weeks after the killing, wanting to talk to her. The woman told police that she and Mackey drove to an isolated area in the middle of a cornfield, and he began to cry and admitted to consuming alcohol and drugs on the night that Erika died. The woman said that Mackey admitted to being angry that Case had turned down his sexual advances. The woman said she was afraid of Mackey, and he threatened to harm her if she told anyone about his confession.

In November, Detective Fell went to Vinton, Iowa, to talk to Mackey about the Case homicide. That interview lasted only 30 to 40 minutes before Mackey ended the conversation.

By then, Sheriff Ewing said Friday, Mackey knew that police were doggedly investigating the Case homicide and were considering him a suspect. Ewing said that family members and friends of Mackey who were contacted by police for information and interviews were contacting Mackey to tell him that police were investigating the case. That put a lot of pressure on Mackey, Ewing said.

When Mackey went to Iowa police on Tuesday, he recounted his actions on the night that Case died. The court document states that Mackey admitted to consuming alcohol and doing LSD with his friend and Case, and that Case later got sick and passed out. Mackey told police that he took his friend home and returned to the house, where he grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter and stabbed Case repeatedly.

Mackey told police that he went to his grandparent’s home and took off his clothing, which he put into a bag along with the knife. He then drove to the Wabash River and threw the bag into the water. He then went back to his grandparent’s house and fell asleep.

Solid building blocks

Moats stated Friday that the renewed investigation was able to build on the evidence collected in 1998. He said the assistance and input from the investigative team from “Cold Justice” helped, but that team did not take over the investigation.

“They came in and said, ‘we’re just another pair of eyes,’” Moats recalled. But the technological advances in forensics during the last 15 years also helped as well.

“Technology in 1998 is not near what it is today,” Moats said.

Investigations usually include sending evidence to the Indiana State Police Laboratory for analysis. But the volume of evidence that can be submitted in each case is limited, and the turn-around time for testing can be a year or more. But the resources of “Cold Justice” allowed for additional testing by a private lab, which sped up the investigation.

“Due to the budget constraints of an office, we can’t afford to send it off for private testing,” Moats said. “This time, we were able to send it to a paid lab and get the results back in days.”

Former Sheriff Harris said that computer technology and the Internet also helped the investigation.

“When we started in May, within 15 minutes we knew when he moved from Terre Haute to Texas and to Iowa, and we knew where in Iowa,” Harris said, adding that social media was helpful in putting pressure on Mackey because friends and relatives were getting contacted by investigators, and they were then contacting the suspect about the investigation.

More evidence

Chief Deputy Clark Cottom said that investigators have been able to identify possible physical evidence in Florida and California, as well, and plans have been made to examine that evidence. Cottom said that Mackey knew about those plans.

“This was never going to go away,” Cottom said of the investigation and Mackey’s realization that an arrest was imminent.

Sheriff Ewing said that the recent interviews did turn up new information for the case, and if that information had been presented 15 years ago, the crime could have been solved then.

“It’s a typical situation, and it becomes frustrating with any case,” Ewing said of people withholding information. “That’s why we have Crime Stoppers, where people can call in and tell what they know anonymously.”

He urged people to give tips to police, even when the information may seem irrelevant.

“It takes a community to keep people safe,” he said. “The police can’t do everything. Someone may have the piece of the puzzle that makes the story clearer.”

Harris agreed that investigators at the time of the crime had hoped that Mackey would have shared information with someone who would then tell police.

“For 15 years, we searched for ‘that person’ he talked to,” Harris said. “He claims he told no one. But it turns out he did.”

Unrelated cases

In 1998, when police were investigating the homicide, Mackey received a lot of attention from investigators.

Just more than a month after Case died, a criminal accusation of rape was filed against Mackey in Vigo Superior Court 3.

In that case, investigators were told by a relative of Mackey that he had raped her at some time before the homicide.

A jury trial was conducted in January 2000 in the rape case, ending with a mistrial when the jury could not reach a verdict. The trial was reset and venue was changed to Vanderburg County in 2001. The case resulted in a plea agreement to a lesser charge.

In November 1998, just a month after the rape case was filed against Mackey, an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor was also filed against him. That case went to a jury trial in August 1999, and a jury returned a not guilty verdict.

He was not charged in the Case homicide until this week.

Moving forward

Ewing said that even without the involvement of the “Cold Justice” team, the case was moving forward.

“It was only a matter of time before he would have been placed into custody,” Ewing said. “The difference is he chose to turn himself in.”

Prosecutor Modesitt agreed. “The case was moving forward one way or another,” he said.

“It’s not over,” Cottom added. “We want a sold case. A confession alone is not enough for a conviction. We have to have supporting evidence.”

Ewing also said the investigators believe there was no one else involved in the death of Case, despite the public speculation that has followed the case for many years.

“We have no reason to believe there is anyone else involved other than Clint Mackey,” Ewing said.

Mackey’s recent statement to Iowa police also had the result of changing the upcoming episode of “Cold Justice,” set to air Feb. 14.

“They came in and taped a different ending yesterday,” Ewing said of the television team.

During Friday’s court hearing, a July 14 trial date was set. Another hearing is planned for Feb. 7.

Some family closure

Often mentioned during the Friday news conference was the hope that the family of Erika Case would find some closure with the renewed efforts in the investigation and the arrest of a suspect.

The family of Case — including her father, sister, brother and others — sat quietly in the courtroom during the hearing and at the news conference that followed the hearing. Case’s mother died last fall.

A family representative — Erika’s brother —  made a brief statement before the news conference.

“On behalf of our family, I would like to thank all of the law enforcement who have been involved in the past 15 years,” Jury Case Jr. said. “We are grateful that we finally have closure. However, it’s unfortunate that our mother couldn’t be here to witness this day.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@trib star.com. Follow her on Twitter

@TribStarLisa.

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