Bill Pierce testified Tuesday he saw James “Thumper” Steen strike a woman and carry her near the side door of a white van in the D&W Convenience Store parking lot the day Heidi Allen disappeared in April of 1994.
In the second week of testimony to determine whether Gary Thibodeau — convicted of kidnapping Allen in 1995 — deserves a new trial, Pierce testified he was convinced it was Steen, not Thibodeau, he saw outside the store the day Allen was kidnapped.
Defense attorneys have argued that Steen, along with Michael Bohrer and Roger Breckenridge, is responsible for Allen’s kidnapping. All three men have denied involvement.
Pierce, who previously told investigators that he believed the man he saw was in fact Thibodeau, said he changed his mind after seeing Steen’s picture in a local newspaper.
“Right then and there I knew Thibodeau was not the man that did it,” said Pierce.
Shortly after Thibodeau’s arrest, Pierce says he drew a beard on a picture of Thibodeau and felt it was “close enough.” Last July, after reading media reports that Sheriff Reuel Todd expressed disappointment that Heidi Allen had never been found, Pierce for the first time called authorities to let them know they had the right man.
“[Todd] served all these years, he deserves to know whether he had the right or wrong man,” said Pierce, who signed a statement indicating it was Thibodeau he saw. “At the time I did believe it was Thibodeau.” But days later, Pierce saw pictures of Steen, convincing him otherwise.
During cross-examination, District Attorney Greg Oakes repeatedly questioned Pierce’s certainty, pointing out that Steen would not have looked the same back in 1994.
At one point, Oakes showed Pierce a picture of several men, one of whom was Steen. Pierce said he had never seen any of them, and none of them were the driver of the van. When Oakes lifted a current picture of Steen, Pierce was resolute, saying, “That’s the guy.”
He said the recent picture of Steen shows the man he saw hit the woman in the parking lot; the older picture of Steen taken closer to the time of the incident was someone he’d never seen in his life.
“To me they look like two different people,” he said.
In October, Pierce was shown two photo arrays featuring pictures of both Steen and Thibodeau from 1994, and according to prosecutors he failed to identify either as the man he saw in the D&W parking lot. Pierce testified investigators dismissed him when he attempted to identify Steen.
“We can play games with pictures and faces,” said Pierce. “The man that I saw was James Steen.”
“Are you as certain of that as you were of your identification of Thibodeau in July?” asked Oakes.
Peebles objected to the question, and acting Oswego County Court Judge Daniel King sustained the objection.
Pierce, 79, says he was in traffic at a stoplight with half a dozen other cars at the intersection near the convenience store where Allen worked.
Though he couldn’t recall the specific time because it was 20 years ago, he said it was between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
Pierce says he saw a woman standing near the driver’s door, arguing with the driver. He says the driver got out, struck the woman on the back of the head, caught her as she toppled, and started carrying her toward the side door of the van, which he believed he saw starting to open.
Oakes asked Pierce to describe how far away he was from the parking lot where he saw the man and woman, and Pierce compared it to the length of the courtroom.
Oakes then had Pierce mark the location of his car and the van on a diagram of the store and the intersection. Oakes pointed out the distance seemed greater than the length of the courtroom, which he estimated at 60 feet.
Pierce testified he did not stop, nor did he call authorities about what he witnessed, something he was ashamed of to this day.
“I was still trying to convince myself that I didn’t see the abduction,” said Pierce, thinking it was just a domestic dispute.
He said a woman in the car behind him was pointing in the direction of the incident, adding there are several “people out there” who saw what happened.
Onondaga County Judge Joseph Fahey, who was Thibodeau’s trial lawyer, completed his cross-examination on Tuesday, saying he would have “raised holy hell” if he had seen documents during the middle of Thibodeau’s trial showing Allen’s confidential informant information card was dropped in the D&W parking lot in 1992.
While chief assistant district attorney Mark Moody emphasized the card was dropped in 1992 — two years before Allen’s disappearance — Fahey said there would have been sanctions had such a document been presented to him six months into the trial.
Fahey testified, however, that he did see a report at least mentioning Allen’s status as an informant; last year, in an affidavit for the defense, he said he never saw such a document.
Fahey said even though he may have seen such a document, he was told by authorities that Allen wasn’t “used as an informant.” Moody also pointed out that during Fahey’s closing arguments in Thibodeau’s trial, he distanced Allen from drug use or drug sales as much as possible, because Thibodeau had been in prison on a drug charge and because two jailhouse informants testified drugs had been connected to the case.
Moody asked Fahey if Allen being an informant would have hurt his case, because it may have provided a motive for Thibodeau.
“No,” replied Fahey, arguing the jailhouse informants testifying against Thibodeau discussed a drug deal gone wrong, and adding that if Allen was an informant, she wouldn’t be selling drugs.
Moody tried to establish that Richard Thibodeau’s lawyer, now retired Onondaga County Judge William Walsh, shared documents and defenses with Fahey; Richard Thibodeau was acquitted of the same kidnapping charge after Gary Thibodeau’s conviction.
Fahey maintained they shared information and used the same investigators, and even that Walsh sat at the same desk with him during Gary Thibodeau’s trial, but he downplayed the notion that he had seen every note or piece of evidence that Walsh may have seen.
Moody also returned to the subject of Fahey’s organization, or, according to prosecutors, the lack thereof. With the defense team arguing Thibodeau did not have every bit of evidence made available to him, prosecutors have responded that Fahey was not the best at record keeping.
Fahey testified he had an “unorthodox” way of organizing paperwork, but says a reporter’s description of his office as “messy” is something that’s “in the eyes of the beholder.” During redirect examination by Peebles, Fahey testified he would have used Allen’s confidential informant status to show a motive for others to possibly do her harm.