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He served decades in prison for Minneapolis serial killings. DNA blames someone else.

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Getty Images

The spreading tree

In the summer of 1986, a young woman was found dead in the bushes beside an abandoned warehouse at the edge of downtown Minneapolis. Before the arrival of Target Field, this low barren was littered with trash and frequented by the homeless.

The killer meant for the scene to shock. The woman was nude, her clothes posed nearby. A three-foot-long pipe, used to smash the victim’s face, lay across her throat. A tree branch protruded from between her legs.

Nineteen-year-old Kathleen Bullman was born on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota and passed from one foster family to another. By adulthood, she’d moved to Minneapolis, where she lived on the streets, suffering from alcoholism and turning tricks to make ends meet.

Nearly a year went by before another body turned up in a field behind the American Indian Center in Phillips. The woman had been mutilated in such a similar manner that her body’s arrival on the autopsy table made the medical examiner reel with deja vu.

This time the victim was 26-year-old Angeline Whitebird-Sweet, who’d moved to Minneapolis from a Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin after losing custody of her three children. Like Bullman, she was unemployed, a barfly who frequented the gin mills of Franklin Avenue.

Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune/Associated Press

Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune/Associated Press

Less than three weeks later, 21-year-old Minneapolis native Angela Green was found underneath the Park Avenue Bridge on what is now the Midtown Greenway. She too had been battered, strangled, and posed.

With Green’s murder, Minneapolis Police sounded the alarm of a serial killer targeting vulnerable Native women who might have dabbled in prostitution.

FBI profilers believed the assailant was middle aged, a nocturnal single man who enjoyed total freedom of movement and lived within walking distance of each crime scene. He likely lurked on the fringes of society, frequenting neighborhood bars without really socializing. Police should be looking for a sexually dysfunctional man who hated women and would likely kill again with increasing abandon, they wrote.

Details of the gruesome finds echoed in transient corridors. They terrorized the insular Native community, which had already endured the unsolved murders of two other young women. Indian leaders urged cooperation with police despite their strained relationship.

Meanwhile, additional slayings dotted the American northwest, with bodies of sex workers surfacing in Washington and Oregon. Young women wouldn’t walk the streets of Minneapolis alone at night.

Police Chief Tony Bouza didn’t venture far from public opinion when he told reporters in 1988, “We should find [the murderer] and execute him.”

A face in the dark

Police didn’t have much to go on at first. No witnesses came forward. The crime scenes were filthy with debris, complicating the task of sorting out relevant evidence.

Eighties forensics came down to fingerprints and blood typing. Though semen had been found on Angela Green, there was no way to identify the source in those pre-DNA analysis days.

The community offered up many suspects—violent boyfriends, abusive ex-husbands. Finally, one name stood out: Jesse Coulter, a.k.a. Jesse Sitting Crow, a.k.a. Billy Glaze.

Glaze was a 43-year-old drifter who immersed himself among Native Americans, a white man who falsely claimed to have hailed from far-flung reservations.

He’d been abandoned by his mother and raised by a father who whipped him with a hickory stick. His teens were spent in a Georgia mental institution for boys with assorted and oft-misdiagnosed problems. He was sterilized at the request of a punishing stepmother.

Glaze later traversed the country, compiling debts. In 1974 he was convicted of rape in Texas after a friend’s wife accused him of holding her down and forcing sex. He surrendered to police and was sentenced to 10 years of probation.

In the spring of 1986, Glaze arrived in Minnesota. Just before the murders began.

The step-aunt of one victim was the first to tip police to Glaze. At the Band Box Diner in Elliot Park where she worked, he’d boasted of how he’d like to sexually assault Native women with objects. He once threatened to kill a mentally handicapped woman for laughing.

A procession of bartenders and waiters around town corroborated his penchant for unsolicited, obscenity-laden proclamations about whoever crossed his path.

Within days of the third murder, Glaze abruptly left town. He was stopped in New Mexico after running a red light and arrested for violating probation. News outlets identified him—by name and mugshot—as a suspect in the Minneapolis killings.

That’s when accusers began to spill from the woodwork. Prosecutors wove a complex web of connections between Glaze and the victims, relying heavily on testimony from inconsistent jailhouse informants.

A homeless man called from prison more than a year after Kathleen Bullman’s death. He claimed to have watched Glaze kill her. But he also said he’d camped 60 feet away on that rainy night, so drunk and high on weed that he wasn’t sure if anything he saw was real.

Angeline Whitebird-Sweet’s roommate waited nine months—until she was sitting in jail for forgery—to remember running into a man who resembled Glaze in their bustling home. Yet she described him by a distinctive tattoo Glaze didn’t have and a truck he didn’t own.

A convicted burglar called from prison some seven months after Angela Green’s death to report he’d been walking to the grocery store when he saw Glaze standing on the bridge above her body, looking wild-eyed and crazy. But the jury was never told that he’d been a close friend of Faye Ann Erickson, a victim in an unconnected murder, whose family was convinced Glaze was her killer too. Later, prosecutor Peter Connors helped knock six months off the burglar’s sentence as thanks for his testimony.

A man incarcerated in the Ramsey County Jail recalled Glaze blathering on about “squaws” during a screening of an old Star Trek episode, which he described at length. It didn’t take investigators long to discover Star Trek was never part of the jail programming.

Another prisoner claimed Glaze lent him a novel about a serial killer, with the most graphic passages underlined. Analysis of the book revealed only that inmate’s fingerprints.

More incriminating were Glaze’s own statements. While he asserted his innocence to the press, he’d apparently written a note to a fellow inmate stating, “Don’t let anyone here [sic] you, but not to let anyone know, I killed them, I was mad at them.”

To a jailer, he’d requested a private cell “because I’m the serial killer.”

The defense would argue that as far as confessions went, these were of poor caliber. They lacked the sort of detail that only the killer would know. Another man had similarly confessed to killing all three women, but that information was excluded at trial.

There was practically nothing by way of physical proof. Prosecutors had a shoe print—but no shoe—that seemed to be Glaze’s size. They had a ring from Glaze’s disgruntled ex-girlfriend—whom he’d scammed out of $3,000 after promising to marry her—that resembled a ring one of the victims once owned.

Prosecutor Connors admitted as much in his closing statement. “Make no bones about it, with the exception of the shoe print, there is no physical evidence pointing to this man. But just the other side of the coin is this: There is no physical evidence pointing to anyone else.”

The sheer volume of cumulative accusations convinced the jury to find Glaze guilty.

He was sent to Delaware, out of reach of Minnesota’s Native prison gangs, to serve three consecutive life terms. He was doomed to die in prison.

The doubts the future brought

Fast forward to the new millennium, when DNA revolutionized criminal justice. Using genetic databases stockpiled with offenders’ profiles, police placed criminals behind bars with more certainty than ever before. Groups like the Innocence Project were using the same new science to reverse wrongful convictions across the nation.

Traditional forensics like fingerprints, shoe prints, and bite marks seemed primitive by comparison. Detectives also began to discover the fallibility of eyewitnesses, who’d mistakenly ID’d the wrong suspect in more than three-fourths of the first 250 DNA exonerations.

Confessions proved similarly unreliable. One quarter of those wrongfully convicted had also falsely confessed.

In 2003, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office submitted a smattering of evidence from old cases for DNA testing. Among the items was a bloody jacket found near Angeline Whitebird-Sweet’s body.

The jacket would yield no new information. Yet the Innocence Project of Minnesota pointed to the testing as reason to believe prosecutors had always harbored doubts about Glaze’s guilt.

County Attorney Jean Burdorf vehemently denies this. She claims the office never expected to find anything of value on the jacket, but tested it anyway because “it’s important for prosecution offices to be at least open to the idea that they might get it wrong.”

The following year, Glaze wrote the Innocence Project for help. He asked for a thorough DNA review of his case. Since his conviction had come without physical proof, the Innocence Project agreed to take it on.

Yet two decades had passed since the crimes were committed. Evidence had been misplaced or destroyed, including bloody clothing and two of the sticks found in the victims. Still, untested cigarette butts and liquor bottles potentially stored important unknowns.

County Attorney Steve Redding, one of Glaze’s original prosecutors, argued that because all three women were promiscuous, and because their bodies turned up in areas frequented by the homeless, no amount of DNA would necessarily identify the murderer.

Judge Francis Connolly proposed a challenge. He would allow the tests, which could just as easily cement Glaze’s guilt. But he would need to see the DNA of another person connected to multiple pieces of evidence—collected from different women on different days—before he would entertain the notion of exoneration.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) declined to re-evaluate the evidence it analyzed before Glaze’s trial. Private labs would assume the challenge, testing 39 pieces of evidence over the next seven years.

Orchid Cellmark specialized in pulling DNA profiles from degraded and aging evidence, succeeding where others failed. By 2009, it had rendered a verdict from Angela Green’s vaginal swab. It didn’t match Glaze.

The profile had to be uploaded to CODIS, the nationwide criminal database. Only government labs have access, but the BCA refused to upload another lab’s work. It would take another three years before the FBI agreed to assist. The sample matched a convicted rapist.

Court records identify the new suspect only as “J.A.S.,” since he hadn’t been charged with the crimes. At the time of the three murders, he was in his early 20s, frequenting many of the same bars as Glaze. Though he’d been jailed for petty crimes during the eight-month span between the first murder and the last, he was out of custody when each one took place.

A month after Glaze’s conviction, J.A.S. was convicted for the brutal stranger rape of a Native woman, who said he’d beaten, kidnapped, and likely would have killed her had she not escaped when he’d passed out drunk. He was sentenced to nearly three years.

Detectives caught up with J.A.S. in prison in 2009, where he was serving time for failure to register as a sex offender. Transcripts show police gave him multiple opportunities to provide an innocent explanation for why his DNA was found on Green.

He flatly denied ever having contact with her or the other victims. Police never questioned him again.

In 2014, Cellmark developed a DNA profile from a cigarette butt retrieved from the Angeline Whitebird-Sweet crime scene. It too matched J.A.S.

The Innocence Project hired its own investigators. They found J.A.S. at the Pursuit Hometel, a halfway house in Phillips, where he’d been ordered to live following his release from prison. He was then 50, unemployed, and making pocket money panhandling.

Again he stated there could be no reason for his DNA to be found at any of the crime scenes. He insisted he was incapable of beating women. His father had beaten his mother, he said. It defied his values.

But he did confide to investigator Jennifer Vitry that he feared the hallucinations he’d suffered his whole life were getting worse.

“He also believes a woman visits him and talks to him at night, but he knows she’s not alive,” Vitry wrote. “He also sees faces looking at him where there aren’t any faces really there, like in trees and other places out in the world. He knows they are hallucinations, and it scares him.”

A new trial for a dying man

Word spread of the Innocence Project’s crusade. In a 2014 interview with KARE 11, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza recalled that although he’d always found the case “shaky,” he’d advocated for prosecuting Glaze anyway. He’d been their best shot at a conviction.

But after years of DNA testing failed to produce a single link to Glaze, the Innocence Project’s Julie Jonas was certain: If prosecutors in 1988 knew what we know now, Glaze would have never been charged.

Jonas believes his conviction was a simple matter of piling on. He was an outsider in a fearful community. Once his photo appeared in the paper, “Then all of a sudden everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’ I do think they remembered things out of context. They created memories.”

Undoubtedly Glaze said racist things about Native women, adds attorney Ed Magarian of Dorsey and Whitney, who partnered with the Innocence Project after DNA connected J.A.S. to Angela Green’s vaginal slide.

“But here’s the thing: If J.A.S. was arrested, and his picture was in the paper, I’m willing to bet you my entire bank account and our home on the fact that [prosecutors] would have witnesses who would come in and say the exact same thing about J.A.S.”

In 2014, the Innocence Project tracked down two of J.A.S.’s ex-girlfriends, who spoke of his vicious, drunken rages. One recalled suspecting J.A.S. of the murders—and fearing she’d end up a victim too.

Another woman described how he’d beat her until she thought she’d die, how he’d kneel on her chest “with all his body weight, like he was trying to push all the air out of my lungs, as he had his hands wrapped around my throat.”

She mentioned that J.A.S. customarily wore a bandana to hold his hair back. Angeline Whitebird-Sweet was found nude but for a red bandana around her neck. It was lost following Glaze’s trial, and could not be tested.

The Innocence Project also spoke to Green’s stepfather, Eugene Robertson, who’d once worked security at the American Indian Center. He immediately recognized a photo of J.A.S. as a man with a reputation for violence and volatility. Once, he recalled vividly, a woman who worked in the center’s soup kitchen wet her pants in fear because J.A.S. was waiting for her outside.

“People around the American Indian Center used to say that [J.A.S.] beat every woman he was with,” Robertson said in an affidavit. “I do not believe Angela would ever voluntarily date this man or spend time with him. She would run away from him.”

At the same time, trial witness Michael Savage recanted his 1988 testimony. His conscience had gotten to him. He admitted lying about having seen Glaze with victim Kathleen Bullman at a bar shortly before her murder.

Flush with new DNA evidence and the identity of an alternate perpetrator, the Innocence Project asked the district court to grant a new trial for Glaze, who was in the autumn of his life, suffering from memory loss and poor health.

Yet the county attorney’s office insisted that “overwhelming evidence” pointed to Glaze, not the least of which was a previously unknown confession he’d made in 2004 while imprisoned in Delaware.

According to transcripts, Glaze told a corrections officer he wanted to take credit for about a dozen murders in California so he could be transferred there. The officer did most of the talking, asking Glaze about various unsolved hitchhiker slayings that took place in the 1970s. Glaze interspersed his short affirmations with repeated questions about when he might move to the Golden State.

When the corrections officer brought up the Minneapolis murders, Glaze assured him he was guilty. Yet he was so unconvincing the officer was later reprimanded by his commander for giving Glaze the time of day. None of the confessions led to criminal charges.

Mayo Clinic psychologist Dr. Steven Altchuler examined Glaze’s mental state. He concluded the 70-year-old man had the IQ of a 13-year-old boy, and was prone to lying for such short-term benefits as the respect of his fellow inmates, a private cell, or transfer to what he believed to be a more humane prison.

Still, Hennepin County contested the relevance of J.A.S.’s DNA. Prosecutors argued there was no way of knowing when he might have had sex with one victim, or when he smoked a cigarette near where another body was found.

Although police reports described the cigarette butt as “fresh appearing,” County Attorney Jean Burdorf says police could have mistakenly bagged a degraded cigarette. She notes that before the original trial, the medical examiner who inspected Green noticed that the sperm had heads but no tails, meaning they had already begun to break down. That means she could have had sex hours, even days, before she was last seen alive, the prosecutor reasons.

But in 2015, Cellmark uncovered another crucial piece of the puzzle, photographing fresh sperm with tails in swabs taken from Green’s vagina and mouth. The discovery crushed all doubt: J.A.S. had sex with Green immediately before her murder.

A fight ensued over whether to acknowledge the new evidence. Both sides hired semen experts to review Cellmark’s work.

The Innocence Project’s doctor confirmed fresh sperm with tails. But the prosecutors’ doctor claimed they were nothing but dye smears, born of an archaic method of preparing microscopic slides during the ’80s.

As testing wound up, the lawyers filed a flurry of motions in an attempt to resolve their disputes.

“We have always thought he’s guilty,” says Burdorf. The mutilations stopped with Glaze’s imprisonment, after all.

“We still think he’s guilty. None of the DNA testing that has been done has changed this office’s mind about whether he was the serial killer in these crimes. He was.”

Guilty by death

For most of his 27 years in captivity, Billy Glaze had little interaction with others. He filled his days with word search puzzles and Hogan’s Heroes.

The closest thing Glaze had to a friend was Debra Kovats, an Innocence Project attorney. For years, they talked by phone every week or so, their conversations swirling around the meaninglessness of prison life.

In 2015, Glaze was suddenly diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, a death sentence. His final act was to appoint Kovats his personal representative. His dying wish was to clear his name.

When Glaze died, lawyers Julie Jonas and Ed Magarian asked the district court for permission to amend the heading on their legal filings. Where it had read “Billy Richard Glaze vs. the State of Minnesota,” Kovats would become the petitioner, since the dead can’t sue.

The district court ignored the plea, simply ruling that a dead Glaze could no longer benefit from having his name cleared.

The Minnesota Supreme Court also ruled against Kovats. “They really denied this on the most technical of grounds without really looking at the merits of the case,” Jonas says.

For prosecutors, the decrees were cause for celebration.

“Justice was done in the murders of Kathleen Bullman, Angeline Whitebird-Sweet, and Angela Green,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced in a news release.

“We cooperated with the Minnesota Innocence Project to review the case, but in the end, the evidence was overwhelming that Glaze was the killer and he rightfully spent the rest of his life in prison.”

J.A.S. will never stand trial. He walks freely today.

There remains just one unlikely path forward for Glaze’s estate: a unanimous decision by Minnesota’s governor, Supreme Court chief justice, and attorney general to grant an innocence-based pardon. It would require an extraordinary alignment of political stars.

Attorney Magarian says he can understand why prosecutors believe they are in the right. The person originally in charge of responding to Glaze’s petition of innocence, Peter Connors, was among those who put him behind bars in the first place, Magarian says.

“Imagine from his perspective: If it turns out that we’re right, he was responsible for putting somebody in jail for nearly three decades.”

“I don’t hold it against him,” he says. “But I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree that justice was served.”