ALBANY — New York’s highest court Thursday denied an appeal seeking a new trial for Gary Thibodeau, the man convicted in 1995 of the kidnapping of Heidi Allen.
In a split 4-3 ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals said new evidence, claimed by Thibodeau and his attorneys to potentially exonerate Thibodeau, was insufficient to warrant the reversal of the decisions of several lower courts.
Allen, then 18, disappeared from the D&W Convenience store where she was working on Easter Sunday 1994. She has not been seen or heard from since.
It is the last step in the New York justice system for Thibodeau, who since 2014 has been challenging his conviction with the aid of federal public defender Lisa Peebles. He previously lost an appeal in 2000. A jury acquitted his brother, Richard Thibodeau, in a separate 1995 trial.
Thibodeau and Peebles’ appeals have hinged on the claim that new evidence came to light since Thibodeau’s conviction, specifically that new witnesses made “extrajudicial admissions to their involvement in Allen’s disappearance” necessitating a new trial.
The Court of Appeals narrowly rejected those claims, saying in the majority decision that statements by “certain witnesses… were simply not credible” and more pointedly that “defendant’s newly discovered evidence was comprised of uncorroborated hearsay,” saying the evidence was “untrustworthy in nature.”
Thursday’s ruling is the latest in a series of judgments against Thibodeau in his quest to have his case heard by a new jury.
In 2014, a motion from Peebles cited claims from three individuals, Tonya Priest, Megan Shaw and Joseph Mannino, pointing to three men involved in Allen’s disappearance.
Allen was a confidential informant to police regarding the illegal drug trade and because of that she may have had enemies who wanted her dead, the defense claimed.
The three men, James Steen, Roger Breckenridge and Michael Bohrer, represented new, shocking evidence about Allen’s disappearance, according to the defense.
In a 2013 affidavit, Priest claimed Steen vividly described to her in 2006 how the trio abducted and murdered Allen.
Another witness testified that Bohrer said in a bar that “the Thibodeaus … they’re not the ones who did it.”
Four other people testified to having heard Steen make similar incriminating comments.
Witness Christopher Combes described how, when he worked with Breckenridge in the early 2000s, Breckenridge told him “[w]e chopped her up, put her in a wood stove and put her in a vehicle and sent her to Canada.”
Oswego County law enforcement officials dismissed the claims that Thibodeau’s conviction should be overturned and unfailingly supported the conclusion of Thibodeau as the perpetrator. Police and cadaver dogs conducted a search of a dilapidated Mexico cabin and the surrounding area in 2014, and though a dog did alert the possible presence of human remains, nothing of evidentiary value to the Allen case was found.
In 2015, Thibodeau finally got his moment back in court in a three-month hearing on Peebles’ motion to overturn Thibodeau’s conviction held in Oswego County Court.
Steen, Breckenridge and Bohrer all denied involvement in Allen’s disappearance, contradicting the testimony of other witnesses.
Acting Oswego County Judge Daniel King eventually rejected Thibodeau’s bid for a new trial, saying the connection between Steen, Breckenridge and Bohrer and Allen’s disappearance wasn’t credible enough to warrant overturning Thibodeau’s conviction.
In February 2017, Peebles and Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes argued their cases before the four-judge Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Rochester.
In a three-to-one decision, the Supreme Court upheld Thibodeau’s conviction and ruled Peebles “failed to establish” information regarding Allen’s status as a confidential informant was suppressed during the original trial.
Peebles and Thibodeau pressed on undeterred, taking their case all the way to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state.
In April of this year, Peebles told the seven-judge court that the newly discovered evidence was sufficient for a new trial. Oakes again disagreed.
The majority opinion from the Court of Appeals was particularly harsh in its estimation of witness Tonya Priest, noting her “self-serving motivations and inconsistencies” and that her allegations were “not corroborated by any independent evidence.”
The dissenting opinion, authored by Judge Jenny Rivera, centers heavily on inconsistencies in testimony during the original trial and the new evidence that, if deemed admissible, may render a more favorable verdict from a jury in a subsequent trial.
The three judges included in the dissent concluded “the defendant is entitled to present this newly discovered evidence to a jury.”
The opinion notes that “no physical or forensic evidence connected (Gary Thibodeau) to the abduction,” and no witness identified him as the kidnapper or placed him at the scene where Allen was taken. The 1995 jury instead convicted Thibodeau on a mix of circumstantial evidence and jailhouse informant testimony.
Police searched Richard Thibodeau’s van, which prosecutors claimed was used to kidnap Allen on Easter Morning but hairs, fibers and fingerprints found did not match Allen’s.
A forensic scientist testified at the trial that if there had been a struggle — as suggested by the prosecution’s evidence — microscopic material likely would have transferred to the van but no such material or blood matching Allen’s was ever found.
Regarding the admissibility of Bohrer, Steen and Breckenridge’s inculpatory statements, Judge Rivera said the dissenting judges “disagree entirely with the majority’s analysis regarding the admissibility of Bohrer, Steen and Breckenridge’s inculpatory statements.”