Mark Woodworth grew up in the fields just outside Chillicothe. By the time he could walk, neighbors found the boy wandering between the cornstalks, chasing his father with the family dog in tow.
Woodworth, now 39, still pulls long hours harvesting these acres. His hair and goatee are salted with gray, his eyes heavy and tired. He has the same boyish grin that he flashed in a high school yearbook photo 23 years ago.
At dusk, Woodworth retires to his parents' basement; he still sleeps in his childhood bedroom.
Woodworth is at the root of a deep rift that has spanned a generation in this central Missouri farming town. The split opinions of him are summarized on a pair of Facebook pages.
"Peace for Cathy Robertson" gives the prosecution's account of November 13, 1990: Woodworth swiped his father's loaded revolver from his parents' bedroom. Suspecting that his father would notice any missing bullets, Woodworth skulked across Missouri Highway 190 to his neighbor's machine shed and stole six rounds from a box of Remington bullets. Then Woodworth crept through his neighbor's house, found the master bedroom, flipped on the lights and shot Cathy Robertson twice, killing the 41-year-old mother of five as she slept. Then Woodworth circled around and fired four rounds into Robertson's husband before slipping back into the night.
"The Mark Woodworth Innocence Project" provides an alternate history, a saga that has emerged from years of legal wrangling: Law enforcement failed to fully investigate a prime suspect and ignored critical witnesses, instead zeroing in on a shy neighbor boy. A private detective spearheaded an investigation that wrongfully locked Woodworth in prison for 17 years.
Many who drive past Chillicothe's elegant, century-old courthouse at the center of this town warily eye the hall of justice and wonder how they could ever again trust what happens here. But the people of this community of about 9,400 remain divided on how the criminal-justice system failed. Either the neighbor boy spent 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit or the system set a killer free.
Over the past two decades, the state has twice tried and convicted Woodworth of murder. Those convictions have been overturned, freeing Woodworth from prison, most recently in February 2013.
The history of State v. Woodworth is so rife with error, according to Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gary Oxenhandler (whom the Missouri Supreme Court appointed to review the case in 2011), that Woodworth's murder conviction constituted "a manifest injustice." In his 2012 report, Oxenhandler wrote that the case "could be the lyrics to a country-and-western song."
Despite that history, the state is attempting to try Woodworth for a third time.
In the mid-1970s, Claude Woodworth and high school friend Lyndel Robertson settled on the outskirts of Chillicothe in rural Livingston County. They built humble, one-story farmhouses on opposite sides of two-lane Highway 190.
Lyndel and Cathy Robertson would have five children, Claude and Jackie Woodworth seven. The families grew together. They baby-sat each other's kids, had mutual friends and barbecued on weekends.
Woodworth and Robertson formed a business partnership with about 600 acres that grew to thousands. A couple of poor harvests forced them to file for bankruptcy in the 1980s, but they weathered the slump. By 1990, the business had a net worth of more than $1 million.
A quiet boy who hated school, Mark Woodworth took easily to farming. When he was a child, his parents gave him a small plot of land near the house, where he gardened vegetables, corn and soy. Woodworth turned it into a testing ground for seed, telling his dad which varieties grew best and which ones to ditch.
By age 16, Woodworth wanted to drop out of high school. He argued that his future was in farming, not college. His parents compromised: He could quit school if he enrolled in a local technical program and earned his GED.
In court, years later, prosecutors called Woodworth a loner with "brooding eyes," a "high-school dropout" with few friends, and a quiet teen capable of a coldblooded killing.
On November 13, 1990, Cathy and Lyndel Robertson retired to their bedroom shortly after watching the 10 p.m. news. Their 15-year-old daughter, Rhonda, went to her basement bedroom shortly thereafter.
Around midnight, Rhonda awoke to the sound of her little sister frantically pounding on the door, shouting, "Dad's sick and he's throwing up blood. ... Mom won't wake up."
Rhonda ran upstairs to the first floor of the redbrick farmhouse. She got her 11-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister away from their parents' bedroom. When she crossed the threshold, Rhonda saw her mother lying motionless on a blood-soaked mattress. She had been shot in the head and collarbone.
Her father writhed and moaned on the floor. Two bullets had struck Lyndel Robertson's mouth, shattering his teeth. He spit up a mix of bullet fragments and blood. One bullet pierced his neck, while another lodged in his liver. Paramedics took him to a local hospital, and he was later airlifted to Research Medical Center in Kansas City.
The next morning, three of Lyndel Robertson's friends drove the 90 miles from Chillicothe to visit him as he recovered from surgery.
John Quinn, a fellow farmer, recalled the scene later in court. "Who done this to you, Lyndel?" the men asked. Over the beeps of a heart monitor, they heard Robertson mutter the name "Brandon."
"I'm almost 100 percent sure," Robertson later told police.
Brandon Thomure was the boyfriend of the eldest Robertson daughter, Rochelle. (Despite mentioning Thomure's name to friends and investigators following the shooting, Robertson has insisted in courtroom testimony and depositions that he never saw the shooter and only speculated that Thomure was responsible.)
Thomure carried a reputation around town for violent outbursts. A witness told authorities that the high school wrestler once threatened his girlfriend with a gun. Another claimed to have seen Thomure grab Rochelle by the throat and threaten to choke her to death.
Thomure's mother and sister both testified that he was in Independence, where he had recently moved, on the night of the shooting.
In Oxenhandler's review of the case decades later, the judge called Thomure's alibi "shaky, at best."
Thomure's hands tested positive for gunshot residue 12 hours after the shooting. Prosecutors downplayed the evidence, saying that too much time had passed to rely on the results.
Thomure had also stashed a duffel bag in the trunk of a woman's car while staying at her Chillicothe apartment in the days after the killing. In the trunk, investigators discovered four .22-caliber bullet casings, the same kind used in the Robertson home. The car's owner claimed that the shells may have come from her boyfriend's gun. But there's no record of authorities interviewing the boyfriend or questioning Thomure about the bag.
A week after the shooting, Rochelle Robertson filed for a protective order against Thomure. "He has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls to me since Nov. 1," she wrote. "He may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father."
However, in 1995, a jury convicted Woodworth on all counts — second-degree murder of Cathy Robertson, first-degree burglary and first-degree assault of Lyndel Robertson — and sentenced him to 31 years in prison.
A state appeals court overturned the convictions in 1997 due to the trial judge not allowing the defense to mention Thomure in court. In 1999, in a subsequent trial, Woodworth was again convicted and handed four life sentences.
At that second trial in 1999, Thomure denied any involvement in the crime. Neither jury saw police reports showing that Thomure violated Rochelle's protective order on several occasions after the slaying.
Thomure, who has a history of violent altercations since leaving Chillicothe, has been key to Woodworth's subsequent appeals. Woodworth's attorneys and supporters insist that Thomure is still the most likely suspect. They've brought forward witnesses who have contradicted his alibi, claiming that they saw Thomure in Chillicothe shortly before the shooting. Some of those witnesses say they contacted investigators 23 years ago but were never asked for follow-up statements or interviews. One of Thomure's former friends testified before Judge Oxenhandler that Thomure threatened to kill him during a 2008 argument and bragged about getting away with murder.
Thomure has insisted that a wrestling buddy drove him from Independence to Chillicothe the morning after the killing. However, in a deposition taken this past September, Thomure's friend told lawyers that he didn't drive Thomure to Chillicothe until two days after the shooting. In an October 14 deposition, another former friend of Thomure's said he witnessed Thomure bragging "about how he had shot a couple of people in Chillicothe because they didn't want him to date their daughter."
Thomure, who did not return requests for comment from The Pitch, told the Associated Press in 2009 that he "went through hell for nine years" due to the case. Thomure took the Fifth during a 2011 hearing before Judge Oxenhandler.
"Though Thomure only briefly testified in court, his demeanor was that of a cool, tough guy," Oxenhandler wrote in his case review. If ever there was a time to guess that Thomure's "answers would have been unfavorable to him, this is it."
The partnership between Claude Woodworth and Lyndel Robertson cratered months after the homicide. Claude says he split the business after hearing rumors that Lyndel considered him a suspect. Claude soon accused Lyndel of stealing from the partnership. A lawsuit followed.
By mid-1991, the investigation into Cathy Robertson's killing had stalled. A frustrated Robertson hired private detective Terry Deister, a former Platte County sheriff's deputy, who had left law enforcement amid allegations of promoting prostitution. (Deister has denied the allegations.) Deister teamed up with Gary Calvert, Livingston County's chief sheriff's deputy, who had led the first Robertson murder investigation. The two kept Deister's involvement in the case a secret from the local sheriff.
Calvert gave Deister access to everything, including the active criminal case file and key evidence.
Deister was quick to rule out a lead that had stumped investigators. The night of the shooting, local farmer Chris Ruoff says he drove past the Robertson home twice: on a trip into town to drop off his girlfriend, then on his way back, when he spotted a car parked outside the Robertson home around midnight. Investigators also found tire tracks heading east toward town — not west toward the Woodworth home.
Deister and Calvert sought to disprove Ruoff's story in the fall of 1991. They parked Deister's car in front of the Robertson home one night. After walking up and down the road, they determined that it was too dark to see the car, and Ruoff was either mistaken or lying.
Ruoff insisted that he saw the vehicle. So Deister and Calvert asked Ruoff if he had been having an affair with Cathy Robertson.
A stunned Ruoff denied it. "It was just stupid," Ruoff said in court. "You may think I didn't see anything, but I'd bet a million dollars I did."
Deister locked onto Woodworth as a prime suspect due to his familiarity with, and proximity to, the Robertson home. Deister spun several theories for a motive: Perhaps Woodworth would kill to get his parents' attention or maybe, as the private detective said in a 1995 deposition, Woodworth harbored a "sexual fantasy toward Cathy or maybe even his own mother." Both theories were unsupported by thousands of pages of court documents and various other records filed in the case.
Prosecutors later considered other motives. Maybe Woodworth killed so his father could cash in on a $102,000 life-insurance policy on Robertson. Yet prosecutors presented no proof at either trial that Mark Woodworth knew about the policy.
Robertson and his wife had also reportedly complained that Mark Woodworth kept the profits from about 60 acres of soy that the teenager planted and harvested himself. Prosecutors wondered if Woodworth might have killed to ensure that he could keep the money.
On July 4, 1992, Deister and Calvert showed up at the Woodworths' home while the teenager was home alone, claiming that they were investigating vandalism of nearby farm equipment. Woodworth went with the investigators to the Livingston County Sheriff's Office. They took the teenager to a 10-by-10-foot soundproof interrogation room, and Calvert read Woodworth his Miranda rights.
Shortly into the four-hour questioning, it became clear that Calvert and Deister weren't interested in vandalism. "It was obvious they wanted to talk about the murder," Woodworth says.
Deister and Calvert questioned Woodworth about his father's deteriorating relationship with Lyndel Robertson. Woodworth knew of the lawsuit accusing Robertson of stealing from the family business. He told investigators that his father "kind of made me think that he's [Lyndel's] an asshole." Woodworth allowed the investigators to fingerprint him.
Investigators later ran Woodworth's prints and found a match: a single thumbprint on a .22-caliber box of bullets inside the Robertsons' shed. Investigators suspected that the bullets in the shed were used in the homicide.
At trial, the defense argued that Woodworth target-shot with other farmhands around the property. One witness testified to shooting around the farm with Woodworth in the months before the shooting.
Deister and Calvert obtained a warrant for the Ruger six-shooter that Claude Woodworth kept in a nightstand next to his bed. Although investigators recovered bullets from the crime scene, the rounds were badly mangled.
So, in August 1992, Lyndel Robertson consented to a risky surgery to remove a slug that had been buried in his liver for nearly two years. Investigators said it was their best chance for a gun-bullet match. But results from the Missouri Highway Patrol crime lab and an independent ballistics analyst in Kansas City were inconclusive.
Deister phoned Steve Nicklin, a friend in England who's a forensic analyst, and asked him to compare the newly recovered bullet with the Woodworth gun.
"I really don't think we will ever have a good case if this firearm can't be identified as the shooter's weapon," Deister wrote in a letter stressing the importance of the results.
The U.K. lab's preliminary report repeated the other expert assessments: A gun-bullet match was "inconclusive."
Deister flew to England to visit Nicklin, and the lab there strengthened its findings in its final report. The gun barrel left scratches on the slug that "strongly suggested" the Woodworth gun fired the bullet, Nicklin later testified.
But when pressed, Nicklin admitted that there was still "not enough detail to form a conclusive association."
In October 1993, Woodworth was indicted for murder. After a polygraph test, the examiner accused Woodworth of lying. The examiner, according to records, told Woodworth that there were only two scenarios: He was either a coldblooded killer or he was pressured into shooting his neighbors.
Woodworth claims that the examiner pulled his chair close, stared into his eyes, and began poking him hard in the leg with his index finger. "You could get the death penalty for this," Woodworth recalls the examiner telling him. "They'll execute you."
Woodworth's reply hung over both of his trials: "Well, we all have to die someday."
In his case review years later, Judge Oxenhandler left little doubt as to his thoughts about Deister and the integrity of his investigation. Oxenhandler bristled that Deister was "clandestinely" given access to an active criminal case file and tried to lobby a forensic expert. According to Oxenhandler, Deister "disclosed and deep-sixed witness testimony as deemed necessary to keep tune with the theme of his investigation: Woodworth did it."
Deister's conduct is central to the state's case as prosecutors, for a third time, work to convict Woodworth. The case was assigned to Platte County Circuit Court Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. when the Missouri Attorney General's Office filed to retry Woodworth in early 2013.
In April, Hull ruled to exclude the ballistics evidence from Woodworth's third trial, squarely blaming Deister's "odious" handling of the evidence. Hull characterized Deister and Calvert's work as a "wildcat investigation." He added: "There has been an egregious, flagrant, and cavalier disregard of evidentiary procedures and process."
In November, a Missouri Court of Appeals three-judge panel affirmed Hull's order to exclude the ballistics from any future trial.
In court, prosecutors from the AG's office argued that a jury, and not a judge, should determine the credibility of the evidence. The state is expected to continue fighting the ruling.
Without a gun-bullet match, there's virtually no case against Woodworth.
By the fall of 1993, Lyndel Robertson was fighting against time. He wanted Mark Woodworth charged, not just for murder but also for felony assault — the statute of limitations was set to lapse within months.
Robertson urged longtime county prosecutor Doug Roberts to file charges. The prosecutor refused, citing a lack of evidence.
So Robertson contacted Kenneth Lewis, Livingston County's presiding circuit court judge, hoping to sidestep the prosecutor. In a September 1993 letter, Robertson begged the judge to convene a grand jury, calling the prosecutor inexperienced and unable to handle high-profile cases.
Five days later, Robertson got his grand jury.
The county prosecutor later sent Lewis a letter saying that the victim's family mistook his "desire to make a thorough review of all the reports with this case with lack of enthusiasm." The prosecutor continued: "I can understand his [Lyndel Robertson's] frustration, but recall that soon after this crime, Mr. Robertson was adamant that we charge another young man," referencing Thomure. "Had his decision been rubber-stamped by this office, an innocent person might have been prosecuted." The prosecutor recused himself.
With the local prosecutor out of the way, Lewis turned to the Attorney General's Office, which sent its star prosecutor: Kenny Hulshof.
Hulshof, who would go on to serve six terms in Congress, had traveled the state, assisting on high-profile cases. But in recent years, due to Hulshof's conduct in court, appellate judges have freed two men, whom he helped convict of murder, and have commuted several death sentences to life without parole.
In a letter to Hulshof, Lewis wrote: "To say that Doug Roberts had been uncooperative would be a monumental understatement."
Lewis scoffed that Roberts had "boycotted" the grand jury proceedings, even though the prosecutor had already recused himself. Lewis also referred to the statute of limitations that would soon run out: "I felt we could wait no longer for Mr. Roberts to act."
In his review of the case, Judge Oxenhandler wrote a stinging rebuke of Lewis, noting that the judge had "lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness. In effect, he became a prosecutor."
Dale Whiteside has no doubt about Woodworth's innocence.
"That boy didn't do nothing," says Whiteside, 83, a Republican who represented Livingston County in the Missouri Legislature for a decade.
Since Woodworth's first conviction in 1995, Whiteside has been an advocate, insisting that Woodworth was "railroaded."
In the winter of 1996, Whiteside visited Woodworth often at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, also known as "the Walls." (The state closed the crumbling prison in 2004.)
In his cell, Woodworth would wake up to find a layer of ice formed inside the toilet and cockroaches scurrying across the cold floor.
"That was not a happy place to be," Whiteside says. "You could see it on Mark's face. He never talked about it, but I think he was real scared in there."
John Quinn, who visited Lyndel Robertson in the hospital the morning after the crime and eventually succeeded Whiteside in the Statehouse, joined Whiteside on visits to the Walls.
"Many of us just couldn't believe it when they arrested him," Quinn says. "We just felt like justice would be done in court."
Whiteside contacted St. Louis lawyer Robert Ramsey. "Look, I can't find anybody else to help this guy, but I've got all these people in town who insist he's innocent," Ramsey recalls Whiteside telling him.
Soon, Ramsey began visiting Woodworth in prison. "Dale was convinced this kid was innocent," Ramsey says. "And when a guy like Dale says something like that, you listen."
Ramsey filed a series of unsuccessful post-conviction appeals in the following years, and by 2008 the case had stalled.
Around 2008, Associated Press reporter Alan Zagier began digging into the prosecutorial record of Hulshof, who was running for governor. Zagier reviewed several cases prosecuted by Hulshof, including Woodworth's.
In an August 2, 2009, story on Woodworth's case, Zagier unearthed letters written among Lyndel Robertson, Judge Lewis and a local prosecutor, who were discussing whether to indict Woodworth. Woodworth's attorneys claimed that they'd never seen the letters.
Ramsey insisted that the letters were Brady material. (Under the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over any evidence that could be considered exculpatory or favorable to defendants. Failure to do so is a breach of the constitutional right to due process.)
In his appeal, Ramsey argued the letters bolstered claims that Thomure was the most likely suspect in Robertson's killing, and that, if used properly by the defense, the letters could have changed not just Woodworth's first trial but also the entire trajectory of the case against him.
The Missouri Supreme Court appointed Judge Oxenhandler to review the case in 2011. While he did not conclude that Hulshof intentionally concealed evidence, Oxenhandler wrote that the letters constituted Brady material the defense never saw.
In his review, Oxenhandler outlined a host of other problems. Woodworth's first defense attorney was also representing a small-time crook who brokered a lighter prison sentence by providing information in Woodworth's case. Even though the information was never used by prosecutors, the situation presented a stunning conflict of interest, Oxenhandler wrote. Reports that Thomure violated the Robertsons' protective order were never entered into the criminal case file and, therefore, never made it to the defense, even though Thomure was both a key suspect in the homicide and central to Woodworth's defense. Oxenhandler questioned why investigators ignored some witnesses, and why information challenging Thomure's alibi was never explored.
"[T]his Court is hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth's judicial process," Oxenhandler wrote. "It is convincingly clear that our judicial process wronged Woodworth."
The Missouri Supreme Court agreed and overturned Woodworth's conviction in January 2013. Woodworth was released on bond in February 2013.
The state quickly filed to retry the case.
The Woodworth and Robertson children all passed through Laurinda Davison's 4-H ceramics class by the time they reached middle school. Davison watched them grow.
Davison, now a 63-year-old elementary school librarian, still considers Woodworth a "sweet, gentle boy." She served as a character witness in his first trial. She wept when the jury foreman read the guilty verdict.
The tears weren't just for Woodworth. Davison believed that the justice system was built to protect the innocent, but Woodworth's conviction shattered her faith in the law. "Imagine you've attended church your whole life, prayed and sung hymns," she says. "Then imagine someone proves to you there's no God. That's how I feel."
In early 2000, Davison gathered with about a dozen other supporters in the Woodworths' living room. Large bay windows looked out onto the former Robertson home.
Gene Thomeczek attended as a favor. Six months earlier, he had retired after nearly two decades as an FBI special agent in the bureau's Kansas City field office. A former colleague told him about a decade-old slaying in Chillicothe and the nagging questions about the farm kid convicted.
At the Woodworth home, neighbors threw a dizzying hodgepodge of documents and rumors at Thomeczek, who agreed to investigate on one condition: No matter what he found — good or bad for Woodworth — he would report his findings to state prosecutors and local law enforcement.
Thomeczek gathered investigative reports from the Livingston County Sheriff's Office and interviewed witnesses in Chillicothe, following up on leads that authorities had hardly touched. He combed through local gun-registration records and found at least 200 people in Livingston County who owned the same model of pistol that prosecutors tied to the crime.
Thomeczek won't declare Woodworth innocent but says he's stunned that the local justice system thought there was enough to arrest, try and twice convict him.
Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox agrees.
Cox was a rookie Chillicothe police officer the night of the homicide. In 2000, Cox was elected sheriff. Soon after, he reopened the investigation. "I'm not here trying to walk in the door and immediately piss off judges and prosecutors, but this has weighed on my mind for years," he says.
Cox's subsequent examination has convinced him not only of the shoddiness of the initial homicide investigation but also of Woodworth's innocence.
Cox also says he has enough probable cause to arrest another suspect if the state would drop its case against Woodworth. He won't name the suspect.
In mid-November, Rhonda Robertson Oesch visited her mother's grave at St. Columban Cemetery, not far from the farmhouse where her family lived and her mother died. Oesch's mind wandered to Mark Woodworth.
The latest Missouri Court of Appeals ruling, affirming a trial judge's order to throw out ballistic evidence in the case, was handed down on November 12, 2013, the day before the 23rd anniversary of her mother's death. That weekend, her washing machine had broken, and Oesch went to a Chillicothe laundromat. She washed her family's clothes across from a woman wearing a "Mark Woodworth Innocence Project" T-shirt.
The sight brought Oesch back to the night when she raced up the basement stairs to find her mother's body. For Oesch, Chillicothe has morphed into a town that celebrates her mother's killer. "It's like he's a freaking hero now," she says.
Oesch sees a justice system eroding, letting a convicted murderer loose on a technicality if he fights long and hard enough. Oesch and her family remain convinced that prosecutors got it right.
Oesch references inconsistent statements that Woodworth gave to authorities early on about how often he visited the Robertson home and shed. "Innocent people don't lie," she says. She says the bullet taken from her father's liver will again send Woodworth to prison "if my mother can get a fair trial."
The outpouring of support and sympathy that the Robertsons received in the months after the slaying has disappeared. She wants to tell Woodworth's supporters to shut up and just let the case play out in court. "All these people weren't at my house that night," she says.
"I almost wish it was a cold case sometimes," she says.
Then, she says, the family wouldn't have to relive this. They could try to move on.
A prison guard walked up to Woodworth's jail cell and handed him some shabby clothes — oversized jeans, a Carhartt T-shirt that hung loosely on his shoulders and some ill-fitting sneakers — on the morning of February 15, 2013.
Hours later, guards drove Woodworth 50 miles from the Daviess/DeKalb Regional Jail in Pattonsburg to the Livingston County Sheriff's Office, where family members brought him clothes that fit. Woodworth put on a blue button-up shirt and pressed slacks.
After posting a $50,000 bond — raised mostly by his supporters — Woodworth was greeted by a crowd of more than 200 outside the Sheriff's Office. The Robertsons stayed indoors most of the day, hoping to avoid the festivities.
The Woodworth family Christmas tree was still in the living room when he returned home later that day. His parents gave him more than a decade's worth of presents that they had kept stashed in his old bedroom. Nieces and nephews helped tear through the packages and sang him Christmas carols.
Standing in his basement bedroom in late October, Woodworth eyed a framed photograph on the nightstand next to his bed. The picture shows Woodworth and his fiancée at the Kansas City Chiefs' spring-training camp in April. The two have yet to set a wedding date.
Woodworth is trying to forget the murder indictment that has haunted him since 1993. He hopes that the system will soon be done with him.
"I'm actually kind of at peace with everything," he says. "I really would like to think it's over with. For me, at least."