With Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels recently named in a high-profile lawsuit stemming from his time as police chief of an Oregon city, some residents are asking how Cochise County will ensure local taxpayers won’t pay any expenses the sheriff and one of his deputies incur dealing with the case.
Dannels and current Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Deputy Raymond McNeely are among several defendants in a wrongful arrest federal complaint filed in July stemming from the 2010 arrest of Nicholas James McGuffin for the murder of 15-year-old Leah Freeman in Coquille, Oregon in 2000.
McGuffin was convicted of manslaughter in 2011 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, he was released in December 2019 after the conviction was overturned when the Oregon State Police crime lab confirmed DNA evidence was found on Freeman’s shoe back in 2000.
The DNA belonged to a male, but not McGuffin, whose attorneys never learned of that report until 2015. The lawsuit alleges investigators misrepresented physical evidence, lied about some witness statements, and hid or ignored evidence which corroborated McGuffin’s alibi.
Dannels was Coquille’s police chief when McGuffin was arrested, while McNeely worked the case as a Coquille police officer. Coquille’s insurance provider is required to provide an attorney to defend Dannels and McNeely, but it is anticipated the two will incur expenses as the case in the U.S. District Court of Oregon moves forward to trial.
And that, according to Palominas resident Hank Netters, is why he wants to know what Cochise County officials can do to ensure no county funds are expended in connection to the Oregon lawsuit.
“Maybe with the virus they’ll be able to do a bunch of the legal work by phone but if either the sheriff or the deputy travel out of state there must be guarantees we in Cochise County aren’t footing that bill,” Netters said.
For Peggy Judd, it should be easy for a public official to distinguish between expenses incurred for county work versus personal purposes including travel. Judd is one of the three members of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors.
“I would expect the Sheriff, who is my equal or greater, will pay his own way to deal with this issue,” she told Arizona Daily Independent, adding that if Dannels doesn’t, it would be an issue for voters to address as “the board of Supervisors cannot do that.”
On Friday evening Dannels’ spokeswoman referred all questions related to the McGuffin lawsuit to attorney Robert E. Franz Jr. of Springfield, Oregon who represents the Coquille and Coos Bay defendants. However, Franz’s office was already closed for the day.
Dannels had been with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office for 20 years when he left in 2008 to helm Coquille’s police department. Solving Freeman’s years-old murder was a priority, Dannels told the community of 4,200.
McGuffin always denied any involvement in Freeman’s disappearance and death. The two were openly dating, despite the fact McGuffin was 18. His lawsuit under the 1983 Civil Rights Act alleges various investigators who worked the case before Dannels became chief lied about McGuffin’s polygraph results and made public statements which implied he killed his girlfriend.
The lawsuit also alleges that after Dannels created a “cold case team” there continued to be a false narrative aimed at convicting McGuffin despite a lack of clear motive or a murder weapon. Dannels approved having a reporter with ABC’s 20/20 crime drama present when McGuffin was taken into custody Aug. 23, 2010.
Court records show Freeman was visiting a girlfriend’s home the evening of June 28, 2000 when the girls argued. Freeman left the house even though McGuffin was scheduled to pick her up there so the couple could go out with friends.
But when McGuffin arrived later that night Freeman was gone. Witnesses saw her walking in town around 9:30 p.m., about the same time another witness reported hearing a scream somewhere in the area.
McGuffin told officers he drove around looking for Freeman but later admitted he eventually went to a hotel with a local woman. He and the girl’s mother filed a missing person’s report the next day, at which time McGuffin had no visible scratches or bruises.
A local mechanic found a girl’s shoe in the middle of a road which he turned in upon learning of the missing person case. It was found in the area where the scream was heard, and turned out to belong Freeman. Detectives seized McGuffin’s car but found no evidence of hair, blood, or fibers.
Freeman’s decomposing body was found Aug. 3 a few miles from town. The condition of the body made recovery of crucial physical evidence difficult, but a gray-colored paint chip was discovered on Freeman’s shirt. Detectives also found Freeman’s second gym shoe containing her blood and the DNA of a male.
McGuffin’s post-conviction appeal process took several years but in early 2019 a judge determined the trial “likely would have ended differently” if jurors had known about the DNA evidence. Coos Bay District Attorney Paul Frazier conferred with Dannels, back in Arizona as Cochise County’s elected sheriff, about the new development.
Frazier said Freeman’s mother was against holding a second trial. The prosecutor also expressed concern that McGuffin’s initial manslaughter conviction was not unanimous.
(The jury found McGuffin not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter on a vote of 10 to 2. Most states, including Arizona, require a unanimous jury verdict for conviction.)
McGuffin was released from prison in December 2019, when his daughter was 12. His lawsuit seeks financial damages for himself and his minor child from 18 individual defendants, along with the City of Coquille, the City of Coos Bay, Coos County, and the Oregon State Police, and others.
Freeman’s murder investigation remains open, but when Dannels was interviewed earlier this year for another 20/20 episode he restated his belief that McGuffin “is directly responsible for the death of Leah Freeman.” He also pointed out the judge’s findings did not clear McGuffin.
“They didn’t say Nick was innocent,” Dannels said on 20/20. “They didn’t say that he didn’t kill Leah Freeman.”
A spokeswoman for the Oregon State Police crime lab said the DNA specimen on Freeman’s shoe is still not suitable for further testing, despite improvements since 2000 in forensic testing. The only thing the specimen is useful for, according to the spokeswoman, is to exclude possible sources of the DNA
Dannels left Coquille in 2011 and returned to Cochise County. He became sheriff in 2012. Public records show McNeely started working as a peace officer in Coquille in 2005 and joined CCSO in November 2015.