Steamboat Springs The judge presiding over the murder trial of Thomas Lee Johnson has removed himself from the case, citing the arrest of his live-in girlfriend by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who could be a key witness in Johnson's trial.
District Judge Joel S. Thompson recused himself from the trial Tuesday, 11 days after 36-year-old Billie Vreeman was arrested in a federal drug sting at the Moffat County home Vreeman and Thompson share.
Thompson is already the second judge on the case Judge Richard P. Doucette removed himself last January. His decision comes just a couple of months before the trial's scheduled start and has put Routt County's only murder case in limbo.
"I don't know where we will go next," said Norm Townsend, Johnson's attorney. "I don't know where things will go from here."
Johnson, 31, is charged with first-degree murder, criminal mischief and trespassing and his jury trial is to begin Oct. 29. He is accused of stabbing 31-year-old Lori Bases to death in her Steamboat Springs apartment in May 2000.
In his recusal order, Thompson cites "personal reasons and to avoid an appearance of impropriety." Thompson did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Vreeman who, according to court documents, is engaged to Thompson was arrested Aug. 10. No charges have been filed yet, but Vreeman was the target of a federal drug investigation that had been ongoing for more than a year, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The problem for Thompson wasn't necessarily Vreeman's arrest, but that DEA Special Agent Donald Sperry obtained the warrant for her arrest. Just two days before the arrest, Thompson had ordered Sperry to respond to a subpoena in Johnson's murder case and even threatened to hold the agent in contempt if he did not, according to motions filed this week.
On Wednesday, Townsend questioned Sperry's motive for obtaining the warrant to arrest Vreeman.
"I believe Donald Sperry did this intentionally to get Judge Thompson off his back," Townsend said. "I'm disappointed. He is a good judge."
When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Sperry would not comment about the allegations. His supervisor Special Agent Steven Sperry, who is not related to Donald Sperry said Townsend's claims are "way off base."
"This has been an ongoing investigation for some time," Steven Sperry said of the events leading up to Vreeman's arrest.
Townsend alleges Donald Sperry falsified a search warrant in order to obtain phone records used as evidence against Johnson. The defense attorney had subpoenaed Donald Sperry to testify about the warrant.
Donald Sperry supplied authorities with pay phone records that reportedly show Johnson made telephone calls to his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur, from the phone. Prosecutors say Johnson admitted to Linnebur that he killed Bases during one of those phone calls. A police officer at Linnebur's home at the time claims he overheard the admission.
To get the records from the telephone company, Donald Sperry falsified a subpoena claiming he needed the records for a drug investigation.
Townsend argues that means the records were obtained illegally and has moved to suppress the evidence. District Attorney Paul McLimans argued the telephone records should not be thrown out because of "poor police work."
Donald Sperry did not respond to Townsend's subpoena and was not at the Aug. 8 hearing in Thompson's court. During the hearing, Thompson had a conference call with Donald Sperry and an assistant U.S. attorney and threatened to hold the agent in contempt. Thompson then ordered Townsend to fill out the proper paperwork necessary to get Sperry in court to testify and scheduled a new hearing for Aug. 29.
Two days after the Aug. 8 hearing, agents from the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team used a warrant obtained by Donald Sperry to arrest Vreeman at the home she and Thompson purchased together, court records show.
Vreeman was taken to Grand Junction where she was booked into the Mesa County Jail. Jail records show she was released on her own recognizance Aug. 13.
Records also show that on Aug. 15, Thompson held a conference call with Townsend, McLimans and Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James. During the meeting, Thompson notified the attorneys Vreeman had been arrested and discussed the motion to force Donald Sperry to testify in the Johnson murder case. Thompson told the attorneys he could not rule on the motion involving the agent.
On Tuesday, Thompson went a step further and removed himself from the case entirely.
A day before Thompson's order, Townsend filed a motion seeking to disqualify McLimans' office from prosecuting his client. Townsend argued the district attorney's office has oversight of Donald Sperry since the agent works closely with GRAMNET.
"The district attorney's office has supervision responsibility over this person," Townsend said. "They have a responsibility to control their agents."
Because of Donald Sperry's action, the motion states McLimans' office "has knowingly and intentionally created a situation in which both an actual conflict and appearance of impropriety compel disqualification."
Townsend is asking the new judge to appoint a special prosecutor and suspend all proceedings in the murder case until the issues are resolved.
On Wednesday evening, St. James filed a response to Townsend's motion.
According to the response, Donald Sperry is not an employee of the district attorney's office and is employed by the federal government.
McLimans' office also asserts the office is not involved in the "investigative functioning of the task force," but "associated with the obligation to review and sign paperwork reports for the continuation of grant funding."
Townsend's stance that Vreeman's arrest was orchestrated to gain an advantage over Thompson "is not merely a stretch, it is preposterous," the response states.
The response states McLimans and St. James were notified Aug. 9 that Vreeman would be arrested. GRAMNET Agent Dwight Murphy approached the prosecutors during a break in hearings on the Johnson case and said an arrest warrant had been issued for a person he identified as the "judge's girlfriend," the
McLimans and St. James did not disclose the information because giving advance warning concerning the arrest was not a viable option, the response states.
The response also contends Townsend had knowledge Vreeman would be arrested.
The response concludes that all other pending matters in the murder case should be suspended until the motion to disqualify the prosecutors has been resolved.
A new judge
For the issue to be resolved, a judge needs to be assigned to
Doucette, chief judge in the district, has the task of reassigning the case for the second time in eight months.
The case is being referred to the Colorado Supreme Court, where the state court administrator will eventually assign the case to a judge in the state, Doucette said Wednesday.
"It will be a judge outside of the district," Doucette said. "I know someone will be assigned to take the case, but I don't know when. Everyone hopes to get it done soon."
Doucette is not allowed to take up the case because he was originally assigned to it.
In January, Doucette reassigned the case to Thompson, citing his congested docket and heavy caseload.
Doucette said it is his intention to have a judge in place to start the jury trial in October.
St. James is also hopeful the trial will start as scheduled.
"We are anxious to get a new judge and keep the case on schedule," St. James said.
Townsend is not as optimistic.
"There is no way this case will go to trial Oct. 29," Townsend said. "If it doesn't go to trial, it is the district attorneys' fault."