When Evil Takes Over
Ongoing Murder Prosecution Against Missouri Man Ignores Facts, Lacks Evidence
Editor’s Note: As The Reporters Inc. continues production of its upcoming documentary about wrongful convictions, The Innocent Convicts, we also occasionally publish in-depth accounts of other cases around the nation. On November 28, 2016 the retrial of a Missouri man, Michael Amick, began. Michael’s supporters, including the author of this article, contend he was wrongfully convicted the first time around, for a murder he did not commit. The Reporters Inc. reached out to both the Oregon County, Missouri Sheriffs Department (the law enforcement agency that investigated the crime) and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office (the criminal justice agency prosecuting Amick) for comment. The latter has responded with this statement: “It is the policy of this office not to comment on pending litigation.”
BY DEVANTE JAX WOLFE
Evil has free reign to destroy everything in its path. It feels no pain or sorrow. In this story, evil rears its head as anger-fueled revenge, determined to destroy anyone that gets in its way. It’s subtle at first, but gains confidence over time as its pungent stench penetrates the very air we all breathe. Even good people become accustomed to the stench, turn their heads, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Over time, the evil roots itself so deeply into everyone’s lives that attempts to remove it become a monumental task.
This is the evil that has overtaken Oregon County, Missouri and, more specifically, the tiny town of Myrtle, where a grisly murder eight years ago has destroyed families and divided the community.
This is the story about a good man who threatened this evil and the resulting consequences he has since paid. It’s about secrets that go untold and truths that won’t be believed. It’s about behavior and actions in the moments and minutes and days that surround this crime that don’t make sense, don’t add up. It’s about an investigation and prosecution that has chosen to focus on some questionable circumstantial evidence, while ignoring the equally suspicious activity of others.
In 2011, Michael Amick was wrongfully convicted for the 2008 murder of his wife’s 67-year-old grandmother in Myrtle. A jury wrongly decided he was guilty of shooting Leona Maxine Vaughn, (known as Maxine), six times and then setting fire to the home she was living in, in order to cover up the crime. He was wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment.
But the good people in Oregon County are starting to fight back, and a storm of truth is coming. They’re fighting for Michael and his wife Sara, for their three children, 11-year-old Audree, nine-year-old Lane, and eight-year-old Coy. Michael’s wife and children have supported his innocence for the past eight years. This is a good family, a strong family, and a fiercely loyal family.
MICHAEL’S MISSOURI LIFE, BEFORE IT ALL FELL APART
The population of Oregon County is 10,881, according to the 2010 census report. Oregon County is home to the largest portion of the Mark Twain National Forest. It’s also the home of the federally protected Irish Wilderness and the home of the only National Wild and Scenic River in Missouri, the Eleven Point. The county sits in the middle of the southern Missouri corridor bordering Arkansas to the south. This is the Ozarks at its most primitive, providing a blanket of isolation and silence from the rest of the world.
Oregon County and the town of Myrtle sit at the edge of the Missouri/Arkansas border.
It’s part of the conservative Bible belt; 80 percent of the population is religious, mainly of the evangelical protestant denominations. Oregon County is also a poor county with 22 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Good jobs are scarce and people work hard to survive on the many family farms still in existence. The majority of these people keep to themselves, love God, love their families, love their guns, and don’t trust outsiders.
Michael Amick grew up in Oregon County, the youngest child of Dale and Linda Amick. He was never a problem kid and actually was known as a local hero for saving the life of a teenage girl, Jennifer Williams, who he found unresponsive and not breathing after a car accident. He was able to lift her up with one arm, keeping her neck and back supported, and turn her over on the other arm in one graceful move that cleared her airway and kept her alive. Another time he saved the life of Keith Deckard. Michael was working for Garrison Metal Storage Sheds during one of his high school summers. He was at work when Keith cut his arm on some metal sheeting and the wound was severely bleeding. Michael put a tourniquet around Keith’s arm, picked him up, carried him to his truck and drove him to the hospital where he had surgery. The Garrisons, the owners of the company, told Michael’s mother that Keith would have bled to death had it not been for Michael’s quick thinking. This earned him a title: “The Gentle Giant” of Oregon County.
Michael Amick, as a pre-teen.
At the age of 27, Michael fell in love and married Sara Lane on December 8, 2003. He had a great job with the Burlington Northern Railroad and life was good. Then in 2004, Michael sustained a serious injury in an accident while working for the railroad. He was driving a company truck and the brakes went out on a steep hill and the truck rapidly gathered speed before crashing into a tree. The front of the cab was pushed in and Michael was trapped. He fought mightily to free himself and just barely cleared the vehicle when it exploded into flames.
Michael was treated for neck and back injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, specifically pyrophobia (extreme fear of fire), according to his medical records. He was medically retired from Burlington Railroad in January 2007 and received a disability settlement of approximately $400 thousand. He also received back pay settlements of more than $33 thousand in June 2008 and $19 thousand in September 2008.
Michael’s life changed drastically after that. He had nightmares, flashbacks and suffered panic attacks simply by being near a flame. In fact, his wife reports that he could never take the trash outside to burn after that. She had to take on that responsibility.
The Amick family: Michael, Sara, Audree, Lane and Coy–before Michael’s arrest.
Michael helped his brother and did some farming after the accident. But what he most enjoyed was being a husband and father. He was a loving, nurturing, gentle, hands-on dad according to family and friends. He was the dad who even changed diapers and gave the kids baths. He and Sara had a good marriage, full of all the normal ups and downs that every relationship experiences.
ACRIMONY WITH THE EXTENDED AMICK FAMILY
Sara’s parents divorced when Sara was a child. Her mother, Jackie Risner, worked at the Myrtle Bar as a barmaid. After divorcing Sara’s father Kevin Lane, Jackie married Kent Risner and they had three daughters, the oldest of whom was 12 and the youngest just seven at the time Michael and Sara first got together in 2003. Kent, a trucker, and Jackie divorced the same year. Because Jackie worked evenings at the Modern Day Veterans Bar, Michael and Sara would check on the girls, make sure they were fed, help with homework if needed, buy school supplies and attend teacher meetings. This is what families do for one another in small communities. Michael and Sara consistently helped with the girls until her grandmother, Maxine Vaughan, moved in with Jackie three weeks prior to her death in 2008.
Maxine Vaughn was 67 at the time of her murder.
Michael and Jackie occasionally argued about what he considered to be her neglect of her daughters. He accused her of too much partying, drug use and allowing strangers to spend the night in her home with the girls there. Michael says their last argument occurred shortly before Maxine moved in with Jackie to look after the girls. This argument ended, he says, when he told Jackie that he would call authorities if she continued to, in his opinion, neglect the girls in favor of what he considered to be her inappropriate and illegal behavior. Sara very much supported Michael’s criticism of Jackie and this led to difficulties between mother and daughter.
Prior to moving in with Jackie, her mother Maxine had lived in a trailer on Michael and Sara’s property for about 18 months. She moved there after the death of her husband. Maxine and Sara were very close and Sara took her grandmother to her doctor appointments and helped with grocery shopping. Sara and Michael were even helping Maxine buy their van to replace her worn-out car. Michael and Sara were sad to see Maxine leave and move in with Jackie but they also felt relief, knowing that someone would now be able to look after Jackie’s girls full time. By this time, in 2008, Sadee was now 17-years-old, Calee was 16, and Emilee 12.
GRANDMA MAXINE IS CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
According to testimony presented at Michael’s trial in 2011, Jackie promised to help her mother get a trailer of her own and put it by her house. But in the meantime, Maxine would join Jackie, her three daughters, her son Josh Lane (Sara’s brother), and various visitors who were already living in Jackie’s four-bedroom house.
Jackie was upset when she found out about a bank loan Maxine had taken out to buy Michael and Sara’s van. At trial, Jackie said she inadvertently discovered this when the bank called Jackie’s house about late payments. This limited the amount of money that Maxine had to spend on a trailer and until it could be purchased Jackie’s living room became Maxine’s bedroom and a recliner became her bed. She shared the living room with her grandson, Josh, who slept on the couch.
Within three short weeks in her new home, Maxine would be dead.
THE FIRE…AND THE BURNING QUESTIONS THAT FOLLOWED
December 1, 2008 started as a cold, blustery day and never warmed up. There was light snow and rain with a high temperature around 35 degrees and northwesterly currents causing wind chills into the teens. It was a Monday and the kind of day that forced everyone into acknowledging that winter was on the way.
Jackie and her son Josh went to work at the Myrtle Bar that evening, leaving Maxine alone in the home to tend to the girls. What happened between then and 11:30 am the following morning remains a true mystery, regardless of what Michael’s conviction might presume.
Maxine’s time of death was reported to be around 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning December 2, 2008, based on a time line created by Special Prosecutor Kevin Zoellner who eventually tried Michael for the death of Maxine. (Zoellner was brought in by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office to handle the case.)
But only the real killer or killers know the actual time when the death occurred.
That 11 a.m. time frame was first established based on the testimony of Jake Mayberry, a close friend of Maxine’s grandson, Josh. According to deposition and trial testimonies, Jake claimed he saw Michael’s truck outside Jackie’s house around that time, when he was on his way to the Myrtle Store to buy chain saw oil, gasoline, cigarettes and tobacco. In his deposition, Jake identified this truck as a two-door silver Chevy pickup 4×4 with shiny rims. By the time of trial, however, his description had morphed into a two-door extended cab, silver-ish or gold-ish in color, with shiny rims and a black brush guard.
Jake’s original description actually matches that of David Youngblood’s truck. Youngblood is a convicted murderer who supposedly confessed to killing Maxine in 2015. Another inmate, James Higdon (serving life for rape) claims that Youngbood told him that he and a teenage accomplice killed Maxine by shooting her in the back of the head six times and setting the house on fire. Youngblood is currently serving life in the Missouri Department of Corrections for the gunshot murders of two elderly couples, execution style to the head, and burning their homes down in 2010. His confession about murdering Maxine was revealed to the court just last month (October 2016). More on this is a moment.
During Michael’s trial in 2011, Special Prosecutor Zoellner accused Michael’s attorney of showing pictures of a different truck to Jake Mayberry, to confuse him (claims the defense vehemently denied) and alleged that attempts had been made to hide Michael’s truck from the Oregon County Sheriff’s Department. Yet according to Michael’s family, Michael’s truck sat at Michael’s house on Highway 142 in Oregon County for six months after Michael’s arrest; it then sat for the next year at Michael’s mother’s house on H Highway in Oregon County before being moved to his brother Chris Amick’s farm in Arkansas.
Michael Amick’s 2000 Chevy four-door crew cab truck
According to the family, there was never a request from the Sheriff’s Department–and Chief Deputy King acknowledges that he never filed for a search warrant for the truck until October 2016–to search the truck. That request last month is the only legal document that can be found from the sheriff’s department asking to see the truck and take pictures. Chris Amick drove the truck to the Oregon County Courthouse so the photographs could be taken.
But back to the day in question. Based on trial transcripts, Jake Mayberry said he saw smoke coming out from under the metal roof of Jackie Risner’s house on his way back from the Myrtle Store around 11:30 a.m. on December 2, 2008. He said he pulled into the driveway to watch this for a bit but didn’t report going to the door to see if anyone was inside, or to call 911. Instead, he decided to drive home and tell his dad, Manny Mayberry, a close friend of Sheriff-Elect George Underwood, about the fire.
According to Jake’s trial testimony, he told his dad that Jackie and Josh were at the Myrtle Bar and that he was going to go get them. He told his dad to take his truck and go up to the house. Still, no one remembered to call 911. Manny went to the Risner house and later reported in his deposition that the front doorknob was too hot to touch and he was worried about a backdraft so he didn’t try to open the other doors. Jake proceeded to the bar where he said he found Josh and Jackie and told them what was happening.
Josh and Jake then took off to the Risner home and Jackie followed them a short time later in her own vehicle. Still, no one had yet called 911, according to Jackie and Jake’s trial testimonies. Jackie, Josh, Manny and Jake were the first people at the fire scene. Jackie reported running around the house and picking up a fire log and throwing it through a window. She admitted that she knew this would accelerate the fire. Jake reported at trial that Josh kicked in all the doors and yelled for Maxine but by then the fire was too hot to get inside. They then ran around the house and knocked out all the windows. Someone, but it is not clear who, tried to get a hose to reach the house. It was windy that day and the broken windows and busted-in doors quickly fueled the fire.
Jackie said during the trial that she left the fire scene and went to a neighbor’s house where she called the Myrtle Store and asked the clerk to call 911. It’s unclear why she didn’t just make the call herself from the neighbor’s phone. Jackie also reported calling Mike and Sara’s house to see if Maxine was there. These calls were supposedly made a little before noon. But according to phone records shown at trial, Jackie never called Mike and Sara’s house. Nor did anyone call the school to make certain Jackie’s daughters were accounted for.
Jackie said she then came back to the burning house but left in her car to drive to Mike and Sara’s to see if Maxine was there. She reported at trial that no one was at home at the time. She arrived back at the fire scene just as Oregon County Sheriff Tim Ward showed up. Shortly after 12:30 p.m., the first responders started arriving from the Volunteer Fire Department. By now, the fire had been burning for at least an hour or more.
A BUMBLING INVESTIGATION BEGINS
By the time the fire had been extinguished, Missouri State Fire Marshal Mike Johnson estimated 95 percent of the house had been destroyed. John Ogle, a retired military Marine veteran and volunteer fire fighter, claimed he was the first one to discover the charred body of Maxine and marked off the area for further investigation by the fire marshal. Although Sheriff Ward was the first investigator on the scene, he didn’t interview any of the four people (Jackie, Josh, Manny, or Jake) at the scene, according to his deposition. He left the scene shortly after Chief Deputy Eric King arrived. King, at Michael’s trial, said he too did not interview Josh, Manny and Jake—only Jackie.
One of the first responders, interviewed for this report, said that Josh sat off to the side of the burning house, never moving, never talking, but intensely watching the fire burn down to its last dying ember.
Between 1:40 and 1:45 p.m., Fire Marshal Johnson arrived at the scene with junior investigator, Kass Brazeal. Brazeal took photos of the fire scene and the burned body of Maxine. Some of these photos were admitted into trial as evidence. Fire Marshal Johnson reported at trial that he investigated the wood stove in the house and determined that it was not the point of origin of the fire. He also investigated the electrical box, the outside electric meter and the appliances. These did not appear to be responsible for the fire, either, but the appliances were all badly damaged.
The remaining portion of the floor was part of a hallway, bedroom and utility room that housed the wood stove. The floor in these areas were tested for accelerants but none were found. The area where Maxine’s body was found was burnt down to the sub-flooring and could not be checked for accelerants. Johnson’s final report read that the origin of the fire could not be determined. Despite this, Michael Amick, who has pyrophobia and is deathly afraid of fire as documented in his medical records, would eventually be charged with arson.
MICHAEL BECOMES, INEXPLICABLY, A SUSPECT
After Fire Marshall Johnson finished his investigation, Maxine’s body was taken by Oregon County Coroner Tom Clary to Cox South Medical Center Morgue in Springfield, Missouri where the autopsy was performed on December 3, 2008 by Dr. Keith Norton, a forensic pathologist with Southwest Missouri Forensics.
But not waiting on autopsy results, the team of King, Brazeal, and Johnson, among others, went to Michael and Sara’s house on the evening of December 2 to question Michael. Michael gave them a timeline of his whereabouts for the day. Sara had gone with Michael’s sister, Deanna, to Deanna’s oncology appointment in Cape Girardeau, Missouri that day. They took Coy, the baby, with them. Fire Inspector Brazeal took photos of Michael’s truck, photos that should have immediately eliminated Michael from the suspect pool because his truck, unlike the one Jake Mayberry described seeing (a two-door silver Chevy pickup with shiny rims), Michael’s truck was a four-door crew cab, without shiny rims.
Yet this same team of investigators never went to question Jake, his father Manny, Josh or Jackie on December 2, by their own admission in court. They never considered any of the people at the fire as suspects. Nor did anyone take responsibility for asking Michael questions on December 2. At trial, Fire Investigator Johnson said that it wasn’t his job to question Michael since he had not made a determination that the fire was arson. Chief Deputy King said he wasn’t in charge because Maxine’s death hadn’t yet been ruled a homicide. And they both admitted in court that they took no notes or recorded any audiotapes. No one even seemed to know why they were at Michael’s house, based on a reading of the court transcripts that describe that evening. They did, however, all agree in court testimony that Michael was cooperative, calm, didn’t appear nervous, and acted like he didn’t have anything to hide. They didn’t check for gun shot residue, accelerant residue, DNA or blood splatter on Michael’s hands, clothes or truck, based on their court testimonies.
Maxine’s autopsy began at 9:45 a.m. on December 3, 2008 and was finished by 2:30 p.m. that same day. Forensic Pathologist Keith Norton concluded that the left side of the body was more severely burned than the right side of the body, which preserved part of Maxine’s right face. Her lower legs were burnt away. There was also extensive burning into the abdominal and lung cavities.
Examination of the skull showed severe blunt force trauma to the left side of the skull of such enormity that the bottom of the skull, on which the brain sits, was cracked from ear to ear. The result of this blow caused a severe arterial hemorrhage that would have resulted in immediate loss of consciousness, followed shortly by death. There was also loss of bone on the left side of the skull as a result of the blow to the head and this area was marked by what the pathologist described as a “shower” of small metal flakes. He could not be certain that these metal flakes were from bullets. None of these flakes were sent for analysis. There were six bullets located in the front of the brain. They were fired after death, as evidenced by the autopsy report, because three of the bullets had no blood trail through the brain.
These bullets were handed off to Randy Sweet of the Missouri Fire Marshall’s Office. He gave the bullets to Chief Deputy King who sent them to the Forensic Unit of the Highway Patrol for further analysis.
MICHAEL BECOMES, INEXPLICABLY, THE ONLY SUSPECT
After completion of the autopsy, word quickly spread that this was now a murder investigation and Michael appeared to be the only suspect. He was called back into the sheriff’s office for questioning on the morning of December 4. While Sheriff Ward and Chief Deputy King were awaiting Michael’s arrival, King (in his testimony) said that Ward told him he had received a call from an unnamed source stating that Michael was packing his truck and it looked like he was leaving town. (Ward subsequently denied this at trial.)
Based on that information, Ward and Fire Investigator Johnson drove out to Michael’s home and property. He was not at home because he and Sara, by then, were on their way to the Oregon County Courthouse to meet with King and Fire Inspector Brazeal for their meeting.
Johnson says he stayed in the car but the Sheriff went up to the front door and, since no one answered, he went through the carport to knock on the patio door. During his walk around, Ward reported during trial that he saw oxygen and acetylene gas tanks in the back of Michael Amick’s truck but they were partially covered by a tarp. He also claimed to have seen an orange chain saw. Yet neither Ward nor Johnson mentioned seeing or talking about the tanks during their original depositions. And Ward did not take any photos of the tanks, to prove their existence.
Yet the tanks came into play on December 5, 2008 when authorities returned to search Michael’s property and found some cut-up pistol pieces in one of the ponds on his property. Based on that, the Sheriff’s Department then claimed that Michael must have used an acetylene torch to cut up a 22-caliber pistol, and it must have been used to murder Maxine. Yet they did not find, on December 5, either oxygen or acetylene gas tanks, or a welding mask, when they searched Michael’s house and property. Nor would one expect to find such evidence as—again–Michael suffered from pyrophobia and would not have used, or been able to use, equipment that creates sparks or fire.
Meanwhile, Michael and his wife Sara were at the Oregon County Courthouse and Michael had now been told he was a suspect in a murder investigation. He once again reviewed his whereabouts on December 2 with Chief Deputy King and Fire Investigator Brazeal. Again, Deputy King described him at trial as being cooperative, polite, forthcoming, not nervous, and wrote out a timeline that accounted for his entire day on December 2.
Michael’s timeline has never varied from the one he gave on December 2, 2008, and again on December 5, 2008. He reported leaving his mother’s house around 10:35 a.m. He drove to the post office and picked up his mail, visiting briefly with the postmistress. He then took the dirt road by the Myrtle Water Tower across to Highway 142 to his house. He had a flat tire on his truck, which he changed. (It should be noted here that no one from the Sheriff’s Department ever checked Michael’s tires to confirm that he changed a flat tire.) Michael said he also quickly checked his computer for email while at the house. It is during this time period that Special Prosecutor Zoellner accuses Michael of killing Maxine and setting the house on fire.
Michael, however, has always maintained that after leaving his home he returned to his mother’s house to pick up a chainsaw for his brother and that they met at County Road 277 and Junction B. Nathan Roberts was working with Michael’s brother that day and the three chatted for about ten minutes. Chris and Nathan both verified Michael’s timeline at trial. Michael then went to Janie’s Cafe in Myrtle around 11:30 a.m. Michael was seen at lunch by his brother, Nathan Roberts, the waitress at Janie’s Cafe, the owner of Janie’s Café, and volunteer fire fighter John Ogle and his wife. No one who was questioned or who testified in court about seeing Michael at the cafe recalled Michael smelling of smoke or a fire accelerant.
Chief Deputy King admitted in trial testimony that he never checked Michael’s timeline, to verify if it was accurate. But Fire Inspector Brazeal explained, in a pretrial hearing, that he did follow up on the timeline that Michael provided. Brazeal was asked by Michael’s attorney at the hearing, “Around the time of (Maxine’s) death were you able to determine that Michael was at other locations according to the time line we are looking at here? Was he with other people?” Brazeal replied, “Yes, sir.”
Yet Fire Investigator Brazeal was never called to testify at Michael Amick’s trial. Brazeal is the one person who took photos and investigated Michael’s timeline. He was at the Oregon County Courthouse, waiting to testify as a witness for the defense at Michael’s trial, but Michael’s attorney, Dee Wampler, never asked him to take the stand.
IN SEARCH OF EVIDENCE IN A CASE WHERE THERE IS NONE
In response to questioning during Michael’s trial, Chief Deputy King stated that he had no probable cause to search Michael’s premises after Michael’s December 4 interview.
Yet on December 5 he and Sheriff Ward asked the court for both an arrest warrant to apprehend Michael and a search warrant to explore his residence. Both requests were presented to Judge Jo Beth Prewitt. Judge Prewitt signed off on both warrants within four minutes of one another, signing the arrest warrant first. These documents are part of the permanent trial record.
The arrest warrant included allegedly supportive information such as: Maxine Vaughn died in a house fire on December 2, 2008; Jake Mayberry identified Michael Amick’s truck at the scene just prior to the fire (though it was not Michael’s truck he described); hearsay evidence about Michael packing his truck to supposedly leave town; a preliminary report showing that Maxine died from multiple small caliber gunshots to the head; Sheriff Ward allegedly spotting an acetylene gas tank in the back of Michael’s truck on December 4, 2008; and notice that Maxine had taken out a loan to buy Michael’s van in the amount of $20,637.80, that she was one month delinquent in her loan re-payments to the bank, and and that Maxine had a credit life insurance policy (a policy designed to pay off a borrower’s debt if the borrower dies).
Perhaps most curious about the arrest warrant dated December 5, 2008 was that that it also listed, as probable cause, a cut-up 22 caliber pistol that was found in a pond on Michael’s property during a search on December 5, 2008. How did authorities know that there were gun pieces on Michael’s property prior to obtaining the search warrant, which was also approved by Judge Prewitt on December 5, 2008—just four minutes after she signed off on the arrest warrant?
Was the search legal? And was evidence planted?
Chief Deputy King also indicated in the warrant that he believed that Michael would not show up for court and posed a danger to both a crime victim and the community.
Judge Prewitt was an old family friend of Jackie’s ex-husband Kent Risner and his family. They lived near one another and their children played with each other and they spent weekends together at the lake. They were close enough that Judge Prewitt recused herself from presiding over Kent and Jackie’s divorce case in 2003. Judge Prewitt also married Michael and Sara Amick in 2003. So why did Judge Prewitt not recuse herself from signing the search and arrest warrants as well? She then presided over Michael’s bond hearing and agreed to a $1 million dollar bond, an amount that was far outside the financial reach for Michael and his family. She then recused herself from the case after that ruling.
On December 5, two search teams arrived at Michael and Sara’s home and proceeded to search the property and the house. Sheriff Ward and Deputy Darrin Sorrell went straight to a single pond, one of five on the property. Sheriff Ward said during Michael’s trial that he followed tire tracks that led to a one- to two- foot diameter “burned” spot by a pond (one of five ponds on Michael’s property). He testified that he found slag there (slag refers to metal shavings that result from cutting up metal) and that’s why he believed that Michael might have cut up a gun.
Chief Deputy King met the search party at this point and took photos of the scene. Yet none of the pictures came out. At trial, King said he had an unknown download failure in getting the images from the camera to the computer. Also at trial, King testified that he did not see tire tracks or a burned spot around the pond.
Sheriff Ward found a revolver hammer in the slag and after dragging a magnet over the pond, he found a piece of a gun barrel, a piece of a gun frame, and a gun cylinder from a revolver. These pieces were collected as evidence along with some slag. The evidence was preserved in antifreeze even though the Highway Patrol Forensic Manual specifically requests that evidence remain in the same water from which it is recovered.
The samples were turned over to the Highway Patrol Crime Lab Investigator Todd Garrison. He was also the technician who examined the bullets found at the scene of the fire. During his deposition on June 2, 2010, he stated that there was nothing that could specifically or definitively link the gun parts found in the pond to Maxine’s death. He testified that only two of the six bullets found in Maxine’s body and removed at autopsy were intact enough to determine general rifling characteristics–characteristics that are based on the groove and spiraling pattern of the gun barrel, and unique to each gun. In his deposition, he stated that the general rifling characteristics of the two bullets he was able to examine did not match one another. He indicated that he general rifling characteristics should have matched had they come from the same gun. Garrison also reported that the general rifling characteristics of the three guns removed from Michael’s home did not match the general rifling characteristics of either of the two bullets. Nor could he confirm that the bullets were from the cut-up gun found in the pond.
However, one of the bullets had consistent general rifling and class characteristics with a 22-caliber High Standard R-109 gun removed from convicted murderer David Youngblood’s residence during the investigation of his crimes in 2010. Garrison made this connection when he checked David Youngblood’s 22 caliber revolver against the two bullets he examined from Maxine’s murder.
Did Michael really try to destroy evidence by cutting up a gun? There are far easier methods of disposal when one lives next to a large, primitive, uninhabited forest with a natural scenic waterway river running through it — and when one has pyrophobia. To reiterate, Michael was too afraid of fire to ever use an acetylene torch to cut up a gun, or anything else for that matter.
And again, no acetylene torch, oxygen or acetylene tanks, or connector hoses were ever found during the December 5, 2008 search. There was no large tarp found over Michael’s truck. There were no packed belongings in any vehicles suggesting that he was about to leave town. And his truck remained parked at the house for the next six months.
Investigators didn’t check Michael’s shoes for mud or soil that might match the soil at the crime scene. They didn’t search his truck or check the clothes he was wearing on December 2 for DNA, blood spatter, presence of accelerants, or gunshot residue. They never described finding any boots or clothes with burn marks from using an acetylene torch. They never found any accelerants in the truck or the kind of mask used when cutting with a torch.
They did seize a baggy that contained 16 22-caliber bullets, three of which were long rounds for a rifle and 13 of which were shorts for a revolver. Michael’s guns all underwent ballistics testing and none of them matched the general rifling characteristics of the two bullets tested in connection with Maxine’s murder.
MICHAEL IS ARRESTED, CHARGED, JAILED, AND HEADS TO TRIAL
Nonetheless, Michael was arrested and charged with murder and arson (despite the state fire marshall’s inability to conclude that arson definitively occurred). These were crimes he did not commit.
Michael Amick, at the time of his arrest in 2008.
Almost three years passed between Michael’s arrest and trial. During this time, Michael and his family say he endured very harsh conditions, including physical isolation, starvation, sleep deprivation, rare and unpredictable family visits, isolation from his children, and repeated interrogations in an attempt to get him to plead guilty.
Special Prosecutor Zoellner finally brought the case to court in June 2011. During the jury selection process, Zoellner directly asked prospective jurors, “My question is, and I can’t go into the facts with you, but is there anybody here that just – because if the State just brought you circumstantial evidence, and I think there is going to be more than that – but if we brought you just circumstantial evidence, because of that and because this is a murder case, that you would say, ‘Hey, Mr. Zoellner, I need more than circumstantial evidence because of the type of crime or the nature of the crime we are talking about?’ You wouldn’t require anything special like a video or finger prints?”
Zoellner was able to start by tainting a jury pool’s perception of their duties, by pushing them away from the concepts of reasonable doubt, about the need for a preponderance of evidence in a criminal trial, especially a murder trial where a man’s life was at stake. He tainted Michael’s right to Due Process as guaranteed to all citizens in the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution. It’s based on “a fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.”
Defense Attorney Wampler tried to undo the damage but the jurors who required evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” were already identified by the prosecution and tagged for dismissal.
During three full days of testimony, the jury heard from more than a dozen witnesses on both sides of the case, mostly in favor of Michael, confirming they had seen him at several different locations in the Myrtle area at the time of the Risner home fire. And defense attorney Wampler did his best to poke holes in star prosecution witness Jake Mayberry’s claim that Michael’s truck was at the Risner home. Wampler said Jake was “too high on pot” to definitively identify Michael’s vehicle, or anyone’s for that matter.
BUT WHAT WAS MICHAEL’S MOTIVE?
As for Michael’s alleged motive to kill Maxine, prosecutors brought in a bank loan agent who testified that Michael called him right after Maxine’s death and asked if she had a credit life insurance policy (a policy designed to pay off a borrower’s debt if the borrower dies) on the $21,000 loan she had taken out to buy Michael and Sara’s car. Since she did, no more payments were due after her death and the approximately $18,600 left to re-pay the loan would be paid off.
Prosecutors said that about $15,000 of that loan was money that Maxine gave to Michael for the car.
Making matters even murkier, prosecutors said that Michael, not Maxine, had been repaying the 60-month loan at about $412 per month but had failed in both November and December 2008 to make the payments. In addition, they said the loan had been issued by the bank under false pretenses because Michael never actually transferred the van’s title to Maxine. This allegation, however, was false. If the title had been admitted into evidence in court, the jury would have noted that Michael had signed off as legal seller of this van.
In the end, Michael and Sara got to keep the $15,000 loan payment and ownership of the van. And that, prosecutors alleged, was reason enough for Michael to want Maxine dead. Yet due to a court ruling, the defense wasn’t allowed to tell the jury that Michael didn’t need the money, that he had received a $400 thousand settlement from the railroad in 2007 for his medical injuries and received nearly $53 thousand in back pay during the summer of 2008.
Furthering their argument, the prosecutors brought in a jailhouse snitch, Wayne Seelye, who claimed that Michael told him (1) Maxine owed him money, which should have been paid a long time ago, (2) Maxine was a “bitch” who had it coming for a long time, and (3) Michael threw a gun in a pond. Seelye claims that Michael told him this information on the first day Michael was placed in the Oregon County Jail. But according to jail records, Michael was in solitary confinement for the first 30 days of this incarceration so the two never met.
Most importantly, it was never pointed out during trial that Michael suffered from pyrophobia and simply could not have physically started a fire, or been near one.
And again, Fire Investigator Brazeal, who could have testified that he had corroborated Michael’s claims as to his whereabouts during the morning hours of December 2, and who had taken photographs (of the fire, Maxine’s body, of Michael’s truck) was never called to testify.
A QUESTIONABLE JUROR SWITCH
The case went to the jury on a Friday before a long July 4th weekend was scheduled. After four hours of deliberation the jury remained hung and an elderly diabetic male juror became ill and asked to be replaced. Judge Max Price allowed the request, with encouragement from Special Prosecutor Zoellner. The defense called for a mistrial but Judge Price refused. A mistrial should have been declared but instead an alternate juror–who had already been sent home at the time–was called back to the courthouse to join the other jurors in mid-deliberation.
After deliberating for less than two additional hours on July 1, 2011, the jury returned with a guilty verdict of second-degree murder and arson against Michael, who was then 34-years-old. Michael, his family, his friends and his attorneys were beyond shocked.
GROUNDS FOR APPEAL
Michael made an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court based on the denial of the court to allow the same 12 jurors to decide his fate. The appeal also argued that Special Attorney Zoellner had wrongly accused the defense counsel and Michael’s family of “creating fraud in this court,” being “corrupt and deceitful,” “tampering with evidence,” “committing a crime,” “hindering prosecution,” “misleading the jury,” and not telling the jury the “full truth.” The appeal argued that these incriminatory statements were made totally without merit and evidence.
Furthermore, the appeal argued that Michael was entitled to a new trial because the trial court abandoned its duty of neutrality and that Special Prosecutor Zoellner injected himself into the proceedings when he commented in the jury’s presence that the state’s witness (Jake Mayberry) had “answered consistently each time” he had been asked to describe the truck he saw at the victim’s home. This was the sole means of placing Michael at the scene and it was allowed, in Zoellner’s words, that Jake had “established he can describe the vehicle.”
However, to be clear, according to Mayberry’s deposition, he originally said he saw a two-door silver 4×4 Chevy truck with shiny rims at the scene. By trial, his description has morphed into an extended cab, the 4×4 was dropped, and he claimed he did not know the difference between a crew cab and an extended cab. Jake also said he had seen Michael drive this same truck since he was nine or 10 years old (Jake was 19 at the time of the murder); that meant Michael would have had to have owned this truck for 10 years in 2003—yet his truck was a 2000 model.
THE MISSOURI SUPREME COURT HEARS THE CASE
The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the Oregon County jury verdict in 2015, pointing out that state law prohibits an alternate juror from being placed into jury deliberations once those deliberations have already begun. The Court determined the law, and Michael’s rights, had been violated and it sent the case back to Oregon County. Michael, who was now 39-years-old, was returned to the Oregon County Jail for re-trial.
Michael has been held in the Oregon County Jail for more than a year now; his bail was set at $1 million, far above the means of his family. The prosecutor calls him a flight risk and a danger to society. Michael’s newest attorney, Adam Woody, recently argued in court filings, “The evidence against Mr. Amick is circumstantial and inferential. There is no physical or scientific evidence tying Mr. Amick definitively to the home where the crime took place.”
Fortunately, there has been a change of venue to Butler County, Missouri for the re-trial, a change of judge, and hopefully a less intellectually challenged jury pool.
AND NOW THIS BOMBSHELL
Last month, in October 2016, a defense motion asking that hearsay evidence be allowed into Michael’s upcoming trial–evidence describing the murder confession of David Youngblood (as told to another inmate, James Higdon)–was heard in front of Judge Michael Pritchett in Butler County.
Higdon, who’s been in prison since 1991, came forward with startling new information about the death of Maxine. (Higdon is a convicted rapist.)
According to court records, Higdon said that Youngblood, a fellow prisoner at South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri confessed to him that he killed Maxine, with the help of a teenager. Coincidentally, 52-year-old Youngblood is serving life without parole for the death of four elderly adults who were killed in two separate incidents in 2010. These victims, like Maxine, were shot execution style in the head and their homes were burned down. The murders occurred about 30 minutes away from Jackie’s home, the site of Maxine’s death.
Inmate James Higdon claims inmate David Youngblood confessed to killing Maxine Vaughn.
Defense attorney Woody presented a 42-minute recorded statement from Higdon. And Higdon then testified at the motion hearing in front of Judge Pritchett.
Youngblood, however, refused to testify, citing his 5th Amendment rights.
According to court records about Higdon’s recorded statement, Higdon said he and Youngblood were housed near each other in prison and became friends. Higdon said Youngblood confided in him about what happened to Maxine in December 2008.
Attorney Woody wrote in the court documents, “Mr. Youngblood exhibited detailed knowledge of the disturbing facts that were not in any of the reports available to the public.”
Woody went on to detail this scenario, as described by Higdon from his conversations with Youngblood:
Youngblood and a teen who owed him a favor went to a home in search of a tenant because of a dispute over methamphetamine. Instead, they encountered Maxine at the residence and she threatened to call police if they didn’t leave.
The teenager apparently panicked and shot Maxine twice in the head; Youngblood shot her four more times. Believing the person they were looking for was still in the home, they set fire to it “in an attempt to flush her out, as well as cover up evidence.”
Flush her out?
The only “her” living at the residence, other than Jackie’s young daughters, was Jackie Risner.
Chantelle Youngblood, David Youngblood’s daughter, was present at the hearing and testified that Youngblood drove a two-door Chevy pickup and that she and her father were living near Myrtle at the time.
Special Prosecutor Zoellner declined to comment on these revelations.
On October 29, Judge Pritchett decided that the hearsay motion would be denied because he felt Higdon was trying to somehow benefit financially from his claims about Youngblood’s confession, among other baffling reasons. Interesting that a jailhouse snitch was allowed to testify against Michael in his original trial, yet a jailhouse snitch with information that doesn’t support the prosecution’s case has been banned from the courtroom this time around. Or perhaps “hypocritical” and “unjust” are better words to describe this turn of events.
Still, the evidence that shows Michael is not guilty remains very compelling even without Youngblood’s actual confession. Crime Lab Investigator Garrison of the Highway Patrol Forensics Unit has gone on record confirming that the two intact bullets he examined from he crime scene did not match one another, with regard to general rifling characteristics. And one of the bullets actually matches general rifling and class characteristics from a 22 caliber revolver taken from Youngblood at the time of his arrest.
Yet will this information, based on scientific evidence, be allowed at trial?
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Michael’s new trial began November 28, immediately following Thanksgiving–another holiday reminder that nearly eight years have passed since Michael was separated from his family.
Michael’s mother Linda has sold virtually everything she owns to keep fighting this case for her son. Since his incarceration, Michael’s father has died from kidney disease, his sister has died from cancer and his grandmother has passed away as well. His wife Sara remains loyal to Michael. But single motherhood has taken a toll on her and on the children. They all miss Michael and he misses them more than can be described in words. Audree is now 11-years-old and is growing into a beautiful young lady with a big heart; Lane is now nine-years-old and he’s a straight shooter–a clone of his dad; Coy is now eight-years-old and needs both parents to handle his exuberance.
Michael Amick and his kids, during a recent prison visit.
Maxine’s horrific death aside, the other tragedy here, once again, is that an innocent man remains incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. His original trial was fraught with prosecutorial misconduct and the case was overturned. The actual killers have now been identified but the court won’t allow the evidence to be heard before a jury. Michael’s only hope is that his new jurors will remain fair and impartial, that they will see for themselves that there is no physical evidence that links him to this crime.
At least Maxine’s family can have some closure in knowing that David Youngblood is behind bars for the rest of his life. But for Michael and his loved ones, the evil that overtook Oregon, County Missouri in 2008 has resulted in an unforgivable wrongful conviction.
Hopefully, there is more than enough reasonable doubt to clear Michael’s good name this time around. If not, the good people of Oregon County will have plenty of reasons to believe the evil amongst them has prevailed.
* * * * *
UPDATE/December 1, 2016: After a four day retrial, Amick’s new jury deliberated for three hours and returned with a not guilty verdict on both the arson and first degree murder charges. Nearly eight years after his arrest, he is a free man.
Michael Amick with his mother Linda and wife Sara, after his not guilty verdict.
Devante Jax Wolfe is the pseudonym of a freelance writer living in southern Missouri. The author has chosen to research and report on the Michael Amick case under a pen name out of fear of reprisals from law enforcement and criminal justice officials, as well as others in the community of Oregon County who, Wolfe believes, do not actually wish for the truth in this case to prevail. Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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