Fact and fantasy collided for Michael Usry Jr. with a knock on his door in December 2014. Officers from the Louisiana State Police were outside, asking the then-35-year-old to come downtown for a conversation.
Usry was living in New Orleans with his wife. He was a low-budget filmmaker who had ground out a few short movies. Up until that knock, the most attention Usry had attracted had been for “Murderabilia,” a 2010 production about the violent killing of a young girl. Usry knew he had done nothing wrong, so he agreed to go with the detectives.
Confused about why he was there, Usry did his best to answer the questions the investigators were rolling his way. They seemed to perk up when he mentioned he had been on a trip to Idaho in 1996. Eventually, the detectives told Usry he was a suspect in a high-profile unsolved crime.
“The majority of the time that I was in the interrogation room, I just didn’t know what they were talking about,” Usry told “48 Hours” in 2017. “They finally had to look at me and go, ‘No, we think that you, Michael Usry, we think that you’re involved in this murder case.’ ”
The crime was the brutal June 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Usry’s shock was soon supersized when he learned how he landed in the investigation’s crosshairs: a genealogical analysis of the suspect’s DNA from the crime scene had led investigators to Usry’s family tree. His 1996 trip to Idaho, and his bloody film work, only further spiked the investigator’s suspicions.
“Nobody thinks they are going to be picked up by police and questioned about a murder,” Usry explained to “48 Hours.” “When it happens to you, it’s definitely a game-changer.”
But they had the wrong guy. Within six weeks, more DNA tests cleared Usry in early 2015.
He was actually the second man wrongfully connected to Dodge’s death. The other, Christopher Tapp, spent 20 years in prison for the woman’s murder until he was freed in 2017 thanks to the work of the Idaho Innocence Project.
Police now believe they finally have their man. On Wednesday, authorities announced they had arrested 53-year-old Brian Leigh Dripps Sr. for Dodge’s murder, the Idaho Statesman reported. The break came thanks to forensic genealogy, the same science that has revolutionized cold-case investigations. But it is also the same technique that wrongly landed Usry in an interrogation room in 2014.
The tangled history of the case points to the larger systemic issues inside the criminal justice system, including American courts’ continuing resistance to claims of innocence. But Usry’s own detour into the Dodge investigation also drops a note of caution onto the growing enthusiasm over genealogical investigation.
In the summer of 1996, Dodge had just graduated from high school and moved into her own apartment Idaho Falls, a heavily Mormon town in the state’s southeastern corner.
“She was just discovering who she truly was and wanting independence,” her mother, Carol, told “48 Hours.” “She said, ‘Just let me grow up. Let me make my own mistakes. You don’t need to watch me. You don’t need to be my shadow.’ ”
On June 13, 1996, when Dodge failed to show up for her shift at a beauty supply store, a co-worker stopped by the apartment. The front door was unlocked. Dodge was lying half-naked on the bedroom floor. He throat had been cut and she had been brutally stabbed. Blood splashed the scene. The attacker’s semen was also discovered.
The first six months of the investigation were a frustrating cul-de-sac for police – tips and leads going nowhere. Then, in January 1997, an acquaintance of Dodge’s named Ben Hobbs was arrested in Nevada on suspicion of raping a woman at knifepoint, the Statesman reported. Investigators began interviewing Hobbs’s friends, which led them to a 20-year-old high school dropout named Christopher Tapp.
Although a DNA test failed to match Tapp to the semen found at the scene, investigators relentlessly grilled him for 28 hours over the next three-plus weeks. After denying he had any part in the crime, Tapp wilted under the interrogation, telling detectives he and two friends had gone to Dodge’s apartment on the night of her death. After a fight, Tapp said he held the woman down while his friends killed her.
But video footage of the interrogation – obtained by “48 Hours” – show that detectives clearly fed an exhausted Tapp the details.
“You hold her down while she’s being cut,” the investigator tells Tapp in one interview. “You hold her down while she’s being?”
“Cut,” Tapp sheepishly answers.
Tapp later denied the confession.
“I continued to lie, I continued to give them story after story,” Tapp would later tell “48 Hours.” “They just should have stopped.”
When Tapp was officially charged in Dodge’s killing in 1997, he pleaded not guilty and went to trial, arguing before the jury that the admission had been coerced and that the DNA clearly showed he was not the killer. But on May 28, 1998, the jury convicted Tapp of aiding and abetting rape and murder, according to “48 Hours.” He was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 30 years.
.@IFPD1 were certain that a member of Michael Usry’s family murdered Angie Dodge.
— 48 Hours (@48hours) July 12, 2017
In the official version of events, Tapp was the accessory, but police had still not identified the actual assailant.
That investigation continued to stumble. With the years piling up, police submitted a portion of the suspect’s DNA sample to a genealogical database in 2014 to see if it could point toward the assailant’s family.
According to a search warrant, investigators received a list of 41 potential matches in July 2014. One match was very close to the DNA sample from the crime scene evidence. Investigators received a search warrant to force the database’s owner, Ancestry.com, to hand over the name. In September 2014, detective learned the match was Michael Usry’s father.
While investigating the family, police learned about Usry, his connection to friends in Idaho, and his films that had “dealt with some sort of homicide or killings,” according to the search warrant.
In December 2014, detectives were at Usry’s door in New Orleans.
The search warrant forced the filmmaker to provide a DNA swab to compare with the evidence. On Jan. 13, 2015, investigators told Usry he had been cleared in the case. Further testing of both strands of the suspect’s DNA showed that there was an 87.63 percent chance that “the unknown DNA from the Angie Dodge crime scene did not match the Usry family,” the Idaho Falls Police Department said in a 2017 news release.
Usry was still never given a complete explanation of how the testing pointed to his family.
“I was angry at everybody,” he told “48 Hours.” “The police, scientists . . . these database companies. How could they misfire so bad?”
In the subsequent years, the case against Tapp also began to fall apart. After watching the tapes of the interrogations, even Dodge’s mother, Carol, became convinced the only man serving time for her daughter’s murder had been wrongfully convicted.
While appellate courts weighed his case for exoneration, Tapp’s attorneys offered prosecutors a deal in March 2017: for his immediate release from prison, Tapp would agree to keep the aiding and abetting murder conviction on his record, but drop the aiding and abetting rape conviction.
Both sides agreed, and after 20 years in custody, Tapp walked.
“It finally just came to the point where I am able to come home,” he told the Statesman in 2017. “It sucks to have a murder conviction on me for something I did not do. But on the other side of that coin . . . do I come home with this, or do I continue something from prison and maybe I never come home?”
But again, police were left with the open question of who killed Dodge in 1996.
According to BuzzFeed News, the recent breakthrough came when investigators submitted the full DNA sample to Parabon NanoLabs, the Virginia-based company that has played a crucial role in solving dozens of cold cases in the last year.
Uploading the full sample to a large genetic database, the company was able to piece together a snapshot of the suspect’s family tree – which eventually led to Dripps. According to the Statesman, the suspect was living in Idaho Falls at the time of Dodge’s murder, but he has no history of violent crimes.
He was arrested after police took a cigarette he had throw away and compared it to the DNA from the scene.
The arrest could finally clear Tapp’s name for good.
“I hope they will do the right thing and admit that they made a mistake,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I believe and hope to God that they will.”