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Welcome to wrongful conviction, false confessions. I'm Laura Nightrider. And I'm Steve Drazen. In 1984, a woman from ADA, Oklahoma, went missing. A few months later, a man named Tommy Ward told police that he'd had a bad dream about her murder. Incredibly, the police took that dream and turned it into a false confession. Tommy Ward's story has fascinated the world. In 2006, the author, John Grisham wrote a book about Tommy and his codefendant, Carl Fontanelle.


John's career as a writer was changed by Tommy and Carl's case, but he's not the only one who's been moved by it. A few years ago, their story was made into a Netflix global series called The Innocent Man. Now the whole world has been moved to. It's our honor to be part of the fight to exonerate Tommy Ward and Carl Fontenelle. Here's hoping we can deliver a wake up call in this nightmare of a case. I'm John Grisham, author of a number of legal thrillers and one work of nonfiction, about 15 years ago, I found myself in ADA, Oklahoma, doing the research for a nonfiction book that was eventually titled The Innocent Man.


It's just a truly fascinating case because there were no clues. There were no witnesses. There was no body. There was no corpse. There was no murder weapon. There was nothing. But Tommy Ward confessed to the crime. And from that moment on, he was a guilty man. The judge allowed this case to go forward without a body, even though most creative days, I'm not sure I could create stuff like this.


I started researching Tommy's case, Carl's case, I realized that there are thousands of innocent people in prison and I've never realized that before. At that point I moved away for the most part from suspense, intrigue, thrillers to something still similar, but much more issue driven capital punishment, wrongful conviction, mass incarceration, the issues I care about in the criminal justice system and the injustices that we tolerate when we could fix this stuff, if we had the will to do it.


So the Tommy Woodward Carl Fontanelle case had a profound impact on me as a writer. You know, Steve, John Christian's right in this case, the truth really is stranger than fiction. This is one of the most bizarre kinds of false confessions you can imagine.


This case is fascinating because it is about a dream that is converted by police officers into a confession. Cases like this are extremely rare. Right.


I mean, how many dream cases do you know about? I've studied hundreds of false confessions and maybe there's a dozen of them to our listeners.


If you haven't heard the story, get ready. It's an incredible one.


If you have read John Grisham book or seen the Netflix series, we have some new developments to share with you because attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the organization you and I co direct, have uncovered new information that makes it clear that Tommy Ward is innocent, but he's still in prison.


He's been there for 35 years.


He needs to come home now, right now.


Tommy's story starts in the town of ADA, a rural Oklahoma community of about 17000 people. It's a Bible Belt town where the churches are full, but the factories are empty. In ADA, poverty can sometimes make justice seem like a far away dream. In 1984, Denise Heroku was one of eight 17000 people. Denise was 24 years old, a petite blonde woman who'd recently gotten married. She was enrolled in college and helped pay tuition by working the evening shift by herself at McKinley's convenience store.


But when customers walked into McConnells at eight p.m. on April 28th, they found an open cash register and no attendant in sight. Denise had vanished. There'd be no sign of her for a year and a half. ADA police started investigating Denise's disappearance, and right away they suspected foul play, a customer who'd been at McConnells earlier that evening told police he'd seen Denise leave the store with a strange man who drove her away in a pickup truck.


Police also spoke to a female clerk at a different nearby convenience store.


She reported that a few hours before Denise disappeared, two men came into her store. They were rowdy, she said, and kept buying alcohol.


They made her nervous. She gave the cops some rough descriptions and a police artist made two composite sketches in terms of evidence, that was it. No one knew what happened to Denise. There was no body, no sightings, no nothing. Police showed the composite sketches on TV and asked for the public's help. Dozens of tips were phoned in. A few callers thought that the sketches looked a little bit like a 24 year old man named Tommy Ward. Now, the Ward family was poor.


They lived on Ada's south side in the part of town that everyone knew was on the wrong side of the tracks. Growing up, there were eight kids in the house. Tommy was number seven. Everyone, children included. It was expected to pitch in to keep the lights on and the rent paid. The older kids would work.


The younger kids would spend hot Oklahoma summers walking along the highway, searching for empty beer cans that they could turn in for a five cent deposit. The words were a law abiding family. When Tommy was a teenager, he'd been arrested a few times for petty crimes like public drunkenness, but nothing serious. The idea of him suddenly kidnapping Denise hair away was pretty crazy.


Despite this, police brought Tommy in for questioning just a few days after Denise's disappearance. Tommy told them he had nothing to do with Denise. In fact, he said on the night she disappeared, he was at a keg party out of town 25 miles away.


Police released Tommy and tracked down some other partygoers.


Several of them confirmed Tommy's alibi. But police also caught wind of a rumor that had been spreading around town. Tommy supposedly told others at the party that he'd done something terrible, that one word was apparently enough to make the cops think that Tommy had killed Denise. They bring Tommy back to the station months later on October 18th, 1984, for what would become nine hours of interrogation. Who killed that girl? Did you kill her, you thought she was pretty, didn't you?


The questions come fast and furious, but Tommy still denies having anything to do with Denise's disappearance.


He reminds his interrogators of his alibi, but they administer a polygraph. They falsely tell Tommy that it proved he'd been lying.


That's when the interrogation turns nightmarish.


Tommy tells the cops that maybe he failed the polygraph because he was nervous. In fact, he says knowing he was a suspect in this case had upset him so much that he had a bad dream.


Tell us about your dream. The police say, and Tommy does. In the dream, Tommy was out by ETAs local power plants sitting in a pickup truck with three people he didn't know. Two men and a woman, one of the men tried to kiss the woman and Tommy told him to back off. Then Tommy said he wanted to go home.


You're already home? The man answered. Suddenly, Tommy was standing at his kitchen sink, trying to scrub a dark liquid off his hands.


The cops pounce, your dream, they say, matches the facts of the case, there's a pickup truck in your dream and we believe Denise was kidnapped in a pickup truck.


It doesn't make sense to say this was just a dream. They say, you know what does make sense? You and these other two men killing Denise. So where did the story and Tommy's dream come from? Turns out a few days before this nine hour interrogation, police had briefly talked to Tommy.


And during that questioning, the police officers said to Tommy, use your imagination for just a moment. This girl was taken out of a grocery store at night. Two guys come in and got her and they got in a pickup and they drove away. A beautiful girl like that.


Maybe they raped her before they killed her. That is a direct quote from these detectives. The police officers had planted the core ideas of this crime in Tommy's mind, including the pickup truck, which remember is a detail that a witness had already told them about. And Tommy began to have nightmares about the story.


The police told him the interrogation continues for hours. Police tell Tommy he'll get the death penalty if he doesn't confessed to killing Denise.


Eventually, Tommy Caves, he starts changing his dream to include what the police tell him in his dream. He says he did recognize the other guys. They were to Ayda men named Carl Fontanelle and Odel Pittsworth. He dreamed that they'd robbed McConnells together, that they'd kidnapped Denise and raped her in a pickup truck. They stabbed her in the dream, too, he says, and left her body in a culvert by the power plant.


After nine hours of this, police bring in a video camera.


According to Tommy, they say time to cut the dream bullshit. This wasn't something you dreamed.


It was something you did.


Tommy, how far do you have the power plant? Where can they share what I learned about this? But why did you go to and pull over?


Tommy finds himself repeating the whole story on camera, not as a dream, but as cold, hard reality.


It was the first person to get a weapon. Yes. They told me that it was going to kill me. And we're going to tell people how serious this investigation is.


Incredibly, the police have transformed Tommy's dream into a murder confession.


Let's talk a little bit about dream statements. You know, there comes a point in every interrogation where the police officers have tried to get the suspect to confess. And the suspect just says, well, I have no memory of committing this crime or I can't help you. I wasn't there. And then either the police officers suggest to the suspect, have you had any dreams about this case or the suspect will suggest on his own accord? You know, I have had some dreams about this.


And what that does is it gives police officers something to exploit. It allows the conversation to continue and the police officers end up converting what was a dream into a confession during Tommy's videotaped statement.


The only lingering reference to any of this being a dream comes at the very end. Is there anything else you want to add?


Please ask him. I thought it was just a dream.


Tommy quietly says he always thought that the police officers would recognize this is not reality. Go out, investigate the case, and you're going to find out that this is all a bunch of horseshit. Based on his so-called confession, Tommy Ward found himself in jail, charged with capital murder and the investigation that's to come. Well, horseshit is exactly the right word. I was stationed on the aircraft carrier when my sister called in, start telling me that they had gotten me for this, it was not a good day.


That's Melvin Ward, one of Tommy's older brothers. He was in the service when he found out that Tommy had been arrested and he flew back to L.A. right away. I did not believe it. I thought, well, you know, he's going to get off of me because I know he didn't do it. It's not Tom's character to do something like this. He was not a bad kid. He never hurt anybody. Stay out of trouble. Other than a few public drunks.


Tommy would have been the kind of person that if somebody was attacking this lady, he would have been there to protect her. That's Tommy. Tommy did nothing for them to go after him like they did other than we live in on an outside strike. We was not in the proper society at the time. They believe the Tommy was guilty and I was going to pull no start to get him to confess. And that's not proper police work at all.


Tommy wasn't the only person from the wrong side of the tracks who got ensnared in this case. Within hours, police arrest Tommy's dream accomplices, Carl Fontanelle and Odel Pittsworth and questioned them both.


Carl was 20 years old, a friend of Tommy's who was seriously intellectually disabled and pretty much alone in the world.


Carl was a nice guy. I know my mom liked him and my mom bless her heart. She was a good judge character at the time. She was working at one of convenience stores down there and in the kid would come in and he didn't have much of the family. She would give him a sandwich from the store every now and then. And I think Tommy met Carl, but he was sleeping on my sister's front porch. Tommy kind of took Carl under his wing and they become friends.


To understand how Carl's interrogation went down. You need to know that a few months earlier, Carl had witnessed his own mother's death. The two of them had been driving on the highway when their car broke down. Carl's mom got out and headed for a nearby restaurant to call for help. But as she was crossing the highway, she was hit and killed by another car. Carl felt terrible guilt. He blamed himself for not being the one who'd gone for help.


It was that sense of guilt, along with his disability, that police used to manipulate Carl. During his interrogation, the police suggested that Carl should make amends for his mom's death by saying he was involved in Denise's death to imagine the trauma he must have been experiencing.


I mean, he saw his mother die. The police officers used that prior traumatic event to help break down Carl into accepting responsibility for Denise's death. And he caved much sooner than Tommy did, just like with Tommy.


Police took a videotaped statement from Carl. In it, he agreed that he helped Odel Pittsworth and Tommy Ward rape and stabbed Denise.


Carl Levin asked this, at any point in time, did you stab her? No, I did not. Nor did Tommy. Oh, they are done all this time right there. Did you try to stop him from starving? No, Carl even said they burned her body afterwards.


Who spread the gas? Oh, dear. He pulled all the gas on her way through the metal and walked out. And the last minute on the inside.


Based on this confession, Carl Fantino was charged with Denise's death right alongside Tommy, knowing that Tommy was innocent.


That made me know that Carl's innocent, Tommy. It took him almost nine hours to break him down in a Carl. He was a little bit more susceptible to their interrogation, I think, in 45 minutes.


But the supposed third guy, Odel Tetes worth, well, he's another story. Odel was a four time convicted felon with experience in the interrogation room when police questioned him about Denise.


He doesn't budge an inch. I don't care what Ward and was say. He insists I had nothing to do with Denise's disappearance. Now O'Dell is thrown in jail anyway, but pretty soon it becomes clear that he's got a great alibi.


Two days before Denise's disappearance, O'Dell had an altercation with the police and they'd broken his arm badly.


On the night Denise disappeared, O'Dell Tidworth was laid up with a spiral fracture struggle with a grown woman. Hold her down and rape her. Stab her. It was physically impossible. O'Dell was cleared.


This is one point I've always trying to wrap around. People said if they were not being fed, information had it. Both of them boys come up with a totally innocent man's name. It can't happen, say one thing, while Odel Pittsworth got to go home, Tommy and Carl weren't so lucky. Prosecutors pressed forward with cases against Tommy and Carl, even though their confessions turned out to be wildly different. The confessions didn't agree on who raped Denise, where she was stabbed or when she died.


And when it came to the big question, where was Denise? The confessions disagreed there to remember. Tommy said they'd left her body in a culvert near the power plant. But Carl said they'd burned Denise's body in an abandoned house and then they burn the house down to the authorities. Checked out both stories, but they found no sign of Denise in either the culvert or the abandoned house.


In fact, Carl's abandoned house actually burned down 10 months before Denise disappeared.


Their confessions just didn't match reality in a last ditch effort to get Carl to clean up his story. Police try something pretty outrageous.


So Carl is sitting in jail. He's just confessed to this crime. And the police officers go to a local university and gather a bunch of bones from the science lab, human bones, and they bring this bag of bones into the jail and they say, we found Denise Holloway's skull where you said it was, but we can't find the rest of her body. I can't answer the question. He says, I wish I could help, but I don't know where her body is.


Carlie's terrified. He can't tell him a thing. I mean, what the fuck is this?


I've never seen this before or this is just beyond the pale.


Karl and Tommy were tried together on September 24th, 1985, at trial, prosecutors called a McConnells customer named James Moyer. Moyer testified that he'd seen someone who looked like Tommy Ward in the store an hour before Denise disappeared. That's pretty thin evidence, but the prosecutors had more as the centerpiece of the trial. They played Tommy and Carl's confession tapes for the jury. Prosecutors conceded that, sure, Tommy and Carl got a lot of things wrong. Sure, their confessions were false when it came to Odell's involvement.


And sure, the facts that they seemed to get right, like the pickup truck had been fed to them by their interrogators.


But set all that aside, prosecutors said we've got proof. They said that Tommy and Carl's confessions are reliable. A real ace in the hole.


So what was that proof prosecutors argued that Tommy and Carl's confessions could be trusted because they both accurately described what Denise was wearing the night she disappeared. During Tommy's confession, he said Denise was wearing a button up blouse with little blue roses on it and lace on the collar and sleeves. Similarly, Carl had said she was wearing a button up blouse with ruffles on the collar and elastic on the sleeves. Now, prosecutors said at the time of the confessions, the police had no idea what Denise had been wearing, so the interrogators couldn't have fed details about the blows to Tommy and Carl.


The only explanation for Tommy and Carl's matching stories was that they had both actually been with Denise that night to really clinch the case. Denise's sister took the stand and revealed that Denise did own a blouse with blue flowers and a lacy, ruffled collar.


Also, after Denise disappeared, the sister reported that that blouse was missing from Denise's closet.


Denise's sister said she hadn't told police about the missing blouse until after Tommy and Carl confessed.


Going into trial, the police and prosecutors have two confessions that are at odds with the objectively knowable facts of the crime. There's no corroboration of this confession, and it's filled with errors. But the police have one fact that is the anchor of their case. The defense counsel had no explanation for why both Tommy and Carl independently had described Denise's missing blouse the same way that anchor ended up taking both Tommy and Carl down.


On day 13 of the trial, the jury returned a verdict. Both men were guilty of murdering Denise heroin. Shortly afterwards, the judge sentenced Tommy Ward and Carl Fontanelle to death.


The district attorney got a conviction on his boys because the description of the shirt that supposedly no one knew at the time of their confessions, I knew that Tommy Inka was innocent. But having Tommy and Carl both to say something about that shirt, that was pretty hard thing to get past.


These men were sentenced to death on the basis of a single fact, a description of a blouse. Tommy and Carl were able to lead police to evidence that they didn't already have. I mean, these are the kinds of facts that you and I look at when we assess the reliability of a confession law. And if police don't know information and the suspect leads them to it, that's a red flag for a reliable confession.


How could Tommy and Carl have been wrong about so many facts yet writes about this fact despite it all, could they possibly be guilty? It sure looked that way, at least at first. Decades would pass before we found out the truth. There's so much more to this case, more than we can tell you today. So join us next week. As we close our second season, we'll bring you part two of the story of Tommy Ward and Carl Fontanelle.


Wrongful conviction, False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcast's in association with Signal Company No. One special thanks to our executive producers Jason Pflaum and Kevin Autists. Our production team is headed by senior producer and pope, along with producers Josh Hammer and just Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeanie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by Jay Ralfe. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at Laura Nightrider and you can follow me on Twitter at S Drizzt.


For more information on the show, visit wrongful conviction podcast NORCOM. Be sure to follow the show on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Facebook, at Wrongful Conviction Podcast and on Twitter at Wrong Conviction. For NPR ex.