Mike Wampold is no detective. He would freely admit it himself. A shrewd third-generation trial attorney? Yes. Sherlock Holmes? No way. But here was the Seattle attorney in his office, running his eyes over old police reports, trying to pull clues from evidence that was more than 20 years old.
This was not idle armchair sleuthing. In 1996, Ted Bradford was convicted of a vicious rape in Yakima, Wash., a small town about three hours southeast of Seattle. Bradford’s conviction was later tossed after DNA testing pointed to a different, unidentified culprit. The relief, however, didn’t come until he had already served nearly 10 years in prison.
Despite the scientific evidence, local prosecutors retried Bradford. He was acquitted.
And yet Bradford was legally still drifting in limbo — shadowed by past allegations, unable to completely push ahead. So Wampold, Bradford’s civil attorney, attempted an unorthodox Hail Mary.
“They couldn’t be convinced,” Wampold told The Washington Post last week, referring to staff in the state attorney general’s office. “To put the pedal on the gas, we needed to figure out who actually did this. That would be the game changer.”
But the private investigators Wampold hired were stymied. Leads evaporated. Wampold got so frustrated with the lack of momentum, he decided to personally spearhead the hunt.
So there was Wampold, sitting at his desk again and again, slogging through old evidence. One day, something caught his attention in a transcript of the victim’s first interview with police. “I came running out of my office like my hair was on fire,” Wampold told The Post. “I was yelling to everyone, ‘This is who it is!’”
Last week, Wampold’s firm said its investigation had turned up a suspect in the 1995 case and that DNA testing had linked the individual to the attack. Neither the firm nor police have publicly identified the alleged attacker.
Brionna Aho, the interim communications director with the Washington state attorney general, told The Post, “Our office will review all the evidence submitted and consider how to proceed.”
If Wampold’s findings prove correct, the case could serve to illustrate the lengths some people who are exonerated may have to go to prove their innocence.
“To me, it felt like they would never catch the guy,” Bradford told The Post. “It seemed like there would always be a cloud hanging over me.”
The rape occurred on Sept. 29, 1995.
That morning, a young housewife had just waved goodbye to her husband and taken her oldest child to kindergarten when she saw an intruder in her Yakima home. The victim — who has never been publicly identified — later told police the man was “really tall,” over six feet, and “husky” and “broad-shouldered.” His face was covered in a nylon, disfiguring his features, and his hands were covered with white gloves. The man toppled the woman as she held her newborn baby. When she begged the attacker to let her put the child in the crib, he relented. Then he took her into the basement, bound her hands and covered her face in a mask so she couldn’t see.
He then raped her.
Six months later, Bradford was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct involving a woman from the same neighborhood. Yakima police detectives grilled him for eight hours on April 1, 1996, though the 22-year-old married father of two didn’t match the description of the September attacker and the victim failed to select Bradford out of a picture lineup.
Bradford repeatedly told the investigators he had nothing to do with rape, according to a federal lawsuit. But investigators said they had physical evidence.
Eventually, he confessed to the crime, in part, he would later claim, because he felt that any physical evidence would not point to him. Bradford’s attorneys said their client made at least 30 factual errors in his videotaped confession. For instance, he said there was no baby in the house at the time of the attack, they said.
Regardless, Bradford was convicted of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary on June 13, 1996. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Bradford always maintained he had been wrongfully convicted. In 2002, his file eventually landed with the Innocence Project Northwest, a nonprofit organization geared toward exoneration work.
“The case was tried in 1996, and the DNA technology by then had changed considerably,” Jackie McMurtrie, the group’s founder, told The Post. “We hoped the new technology could get results that just weren’t available at the time he went to trial.”
And there were tiny fragments of DNA from the 1995 crime scene, specifically on the mask the attacker had used to cover the victim’s face. The assailant had used black electrical tape to cover the eyeholes, leaving skin cells on the adhesive.
It wasn’t until 2005, the same year Bradford was released from prison and forced to register as a sex offender, that the skin cells were finally tested. The result excluded Bradford as a match to the DNA found on the evidence. The next year, Bradford’s attorney filed a petition with the Yakima Superior Court for a hearing on his case. The court ruled “Mr. Bradford has produced new evidence, not previously available, that when considered with the other evidence admitted at Mr. Bradford’s trial, would probably change the result of that trial.”
The Yakima prosecutor, however, appealed the court’s decision, fighting Bradford’s claims all the way to the state Supreme Court. On Aug. 1, 2008, the state’s high court finally entered an order vacating the conviction and sentence. By the next month, the Yakima prosecutor had re-indicted Bradford on the same rape and burglary charges. In 2010, a jury acquitted him.
“There’s a tremendous amount of resistance on the part of some prosecutors to admit that they got it wrong,” McMurtrie said. “What seems clear to anyone who is objective doesn’t seem to register with certain prosecutors who are unwilling to acknowledge a mistake.”
But Bradford’s legal skirmishing wasn’t over. In 2013, he filed a federal lawsuit in a Washington district court against the former Yakima police detective who led the rape investigation. In 2016, he also filed a claim with the state under a 2013 statute that provides $50,000 for each year a wrongfully convicted individual is incarcerated. Washington’s attorney general filed against the claim, arguing, according to the Seattle Times, that Bradford “didn’t file a timely claim and didn’t file documentation to verify his claim as a wrongly convicted person.”
“What’s so ironic to us is that Ted’s story is one of the reasons the legislators passed this compensation bill,” Anna Tolin, the executive director of Innocence Project Northwest, told The Post.
The challenge for compensation has teed up a bench trial next October — and also triggered Bradford’s attorney’s search for the real culprit. “Under the statute, we basically have to prove innocence,” Wampold said.
Wampold’s answer was to find the real suspect, and the attorney’s eureka moment that sent him running out of his office happened while reading the victim’s original interview with police.
According to the transcript, the woman made a number of references to an acquaintance, telling police that her assailant’s build reminded her of him.
Wampold and Bradford’s other attorneys felt the victim’s initial reaction was a good lead to follow. But they needed the acquaintance’s DNA. Nearly a year after Wampold first had his hunch about the victim’s acquaintance, a private investigator pulled something useful from the man’s trash — a bottle containing chewing tobacco spit. Last May, the bottle was submitted to a DNA testing lab in Virginia. A July 7 report concluded DNA taken from the bottle matched the sample from the rapist’s mask.
Bradford’s attorneys have given authorities the name of the victim’s acquaintance.
“The Yakima Police Department will open up the investigation into any new evidence presented in this case,” Joseph A. Brusic, the Yakima County prosecutor, told The Post in an email. “This new evidence may or may not impact this case. It is our duty to always evaluate new evidence in a case and we will do so. I do not want to speculate how this information will turn out and will let the investigation reveal anything new to consider.”
Bradford hopes closure in the 1995 criminal case will solidify his case for compensation under the wrongful conviction statute. He still lives in Yakima with his second wife, but Bradford has not found steady employment.
“There is a 10-year gap in my work history,” he said. “It’s been a difficult road, trying to rebuild.”
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