Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sheriff rebuts claim of evidence tampering

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling adamantly denies a claim made by a former apprentice mortician regarding evidence tampering in the Sarah Johnson murder case.

"I didn't even take his allegations seriously because he's made so many over the years that are borderline ridiculous," Femling said Monday, referring to Steven D. Pankey, who was present at the 2003 Johnson crime scene assisting the Blaine County coroner.

"There was absolutely no evidence of tampering in that case," Femling said.

Pankey, 58, is a former Blaine County resident who now lives in Shoshone. He alleged in an affidavit filed in late July in court proceedings for Johnson's bid for a new trial that he overheard Femling at the crime seen saying, "Well, I guess I've got to move evidence to make a case."

Femling said he doesn't recall making the alleged statement to Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, and said that if he did say something like that, its meaning was misconstrued.

Johnson's attorney, Christopher Simms, is using Pankey's affidavit as a further allegation in Blaine County 5th District Court that Johnson had ineffective legal counsel during her 2005 trial.

Pankey wrote in the affidavit that he contacted Johnson's trial attorneys about having "important information about the case" but that his information was ignored.

Johnson, now 22, is currently serving two life prison sentences for killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003.

Johnson's appeal was denied last year by the Idaho Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to consider the case.

Pankey stated in his affidavit that he was "deputy coroner and apprentice mortician" at the time of the murders.

The coroner's office confirmed Monday that Pankey was in training as a mortician for Wood River Chapel in Hailey at the time, but denied that he was a deputy coroner. Instead, Coroner Russell Mikel, who is also Wood River Chapel director, said Pankey was at the crime scene as a laborer to help with moving and lifting.

A review of Idaho court records shows that 26 civil cases have been filed against or by Pankey in five southern Idaho counties since 1994. There are 17 cases in Blaine County, six in Lincoln County and one each in Jerome, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.


More recently, Pankey filed a tort claim in May listing 23 defendants that he intends to sue in federal court for what he alleges are various abuses of process, violations of law and breaches of contract.

Named in the claim are various government officials, government entities, businesses and individuals. Pankey alleges in the claim that Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter "acted to keep plaintiff from becoming a candidate for Idaho governor in 2010 and failed to prevent injustice in the Sarah Johnson murder trial."

Also in the tort claim, Pankey accuses Femling of "manufacturing" a Blaine County collection case against him, Hailey attorney Ned Williamson of a "history of illegal acts" against him, 5th District Court Trial Administrator Linda Wright of "deliberately wasting taxpayer money," and Wood River Motors in Hailey of "illegal purposes" in its purchase of Sutton and Sons Auto Center.

Prosecutor Thomas wrote Monday in an e-mail correspondence to the Idaho Mountain Express that Pankey is "well known to me as someone who has made and continues to make outrageous claims and fabrications.

"The latest claim by Pankey that Sheriff Walt Femling and I conspired to tamper with evidence in the Sarah Johnson case is preposterous and completely false.

"I am disappointed in Sarah Johnson's post-conviction attorney (Simms) for foisting upon the court such a patently false and ludicrous allegation. If counsel would have taken the time to perform even a cursory review of Mr. Pankey's background he would have realized the absurdity of this allegation and would not waste the taxpayer's time and money in pursuing this claim."

Simms wrote in a motion to the court that had Pankey testified during Johnson's trial, his allegation of evidence tampering could have created "reasonable doubt" to the jury and the "outcome of the trial would have been different."

Femling said Simms is "grasping at straws" in his attempts at a new trial for Johnson.

"I didn't even have the evidence collection," Femling said. "I turned it over to the (Idaho) State Police and we let them do their thing."

"It's something you have to deal with in the case of Sarah Johnson," Femling said. "They will bring up anything they can. The allegations don't have to be true. He's (Simms) getting paid to bring up issues in the case.

"We stand by the fact that we did a professional job and the jury brought a conviction. When you look at the overwhelming evidence in this case, it's overwhelmingly pointing to Sarah Johnson."

Terry Smith:

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