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‘Negative. Negative. Negative.’ Then, a DNA match. Here’s how science cracked Angie’s case

Idaho Falls police chief details DNA evidence, arrest in Angie Dodge case

Caldwell police arrested Brian Leigh Dripps Sr. on a warrant for first-degree murder in perpetration of a rape, in connection to the 1996 killing of Idaho Falls resident Angie Dodge.
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Caldwell police arrested Brian Leigh Dripps Sr. on a warrant for first-degree murder in perpetration of a rape, in connection to the 1996 killing of Idaho Falls resident Angie Dodge.

The first missed connection happened five days after Angie Dodge was murdered in Idaho Falls in 1996.

Twenty-three years and a series of missed connections later, the man accused of killing her is finally behind bars.

Investigators have always known the killer’s identity — they had his DNA — they just didn’t know his name.

But two decades of DNA and genetic genealogy technological advancements, as well as a police department that would not give up, finally led to that one crucial connection that had eluded them — the name of the person to whom the DNA belonged: Brian Leigh Dripps.

On May 15, Dripps confessed to raping and murdering Dodge.

Right across the street

Dodge was 18 years old when she was raped and her throat slashed in her Idaho Falls apartment at 444 I St. sometime between 12:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. June 13, 1996.

Angie

Rookie cop Bill Squires, who had joined the Idaho Falls police department that year, was the third officer to arrive on scene. He was assigned to stand guard on Dodge’s porch and keep a log of every officer entering and leaving the crime scene until it had been cleared and Dodge’s body removed. Two decades later, that officer would lead the team that finally cracked the Dodge case.

Police immediately began an investigation into Dodge’s murder. A long-standing practice with crime scene investigations is to conduct field interviews or neighborhood canvasses. Officers go door-to-door and talk to people on the street to generate leads and document who saw or knew something about the victim or the crime.

On day five of the investigation, June 18, 1996, an officer interviewed a 31-year-old man who lived at 459 I St., right across the street from Dodge. The man’s name: Brian Leigh Dripps. Investigators later learned he had been at that address since April 3, 1996, about two months before Dodge’s murder.

During the brief interview, Dripps told the officer he went out drinking on June 12 and came home about 11:30 p.m. He then went back out and returned home about 3 a.m. June 13. Dripps told police he was extremely drunk and couldn’t remember seeing any vehicles or people in the area.

“No further investigation was conducted concerning Brian L. Dripps at the time,” a May 15 court affidavit states.

Meanwhile, investigators got a lucky break in the case. They were able to collect several semen samples at the crime scene. State forensic lab results came back about two months later showing the samples belonged to the same person, an unknown person who became the prime suspect in Dodge’s murder.

Investigators collected more than 20 DNA samples from local men who lived near or may have known Dodge. Dripps residing across the street from Dodge and his brief field interview apparently did not raise any flags because he was not one of the men from which police collected DNA samples, although by this time he may have already left town.

On Aug. 2, 1996, seven weeks after Dodge’s murder and just one week before the state lab got results showing semen samples collected at the scene belonged to the same person, Dripps disconnected his utilities at 459 I St. and left a California forwarding address.

This is where Dripps fades away. He does not appear anywhere in Dodge’s investigatory record until earlier this month.

Chris Tapp makes it onto IFPD radar

While Dripps never made it onto investigators’ radar, 19-year-old Christopher Tapp did, even though his DNA was not a match.

Police interrogated Tapp for more than 20 hours. He was subjected to multiple lie detector tests. Finally, he confessed.

In May 1998, an Idaho Falls jury convicted Tapp of aiding and abetting in Dodge’s rape and killing. He was sentenced to life with a minimum of 20 years for the charge of aiding the murder and a minimum of 10 years for aiding the rape. He would be eligible for parole in 2027.

During the trial and while incarcerated, Tapp maintained he was innocent and that his confession was coerced.

In October 2007, Tapp, who had been in prison for 10 years, sent a letter to the Idaho Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization housed at Boise State University and led by DNA scientist Greg Hampikian. The project researches possible wrongful conviction cases.

“I’m asking for whatever help you can give me,” Tapp wrote. “Please look into my case because I truly need someone to help get me free. I didn’t kill or hurt anyone and I never raped anyone.”

Idaho Innocence Project agreed to take on the case.

Soon after, Dodge’s mom, Carol, contacted Idaho Innocence Project, telling them she, too, wanted to get to the truth about Tapp and to find her daughter’s killer.

Idaho Innocence Project, Tapp’s attorney John Thomas, Dodge’s mother and others persevered and, 10 years later, Tapp was released early from prison.

During his confession to murdering Dodge, Dripps told investigators he acted alone.

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Chris Tapp says he can’t look back at the 20 years of his life spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. His eyes are on the future. “In the scheme of life, what’s 20 years?” he said. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Renewed hunt for answers begins

With momentum building in Tapp’s wrongful conviction case, police continued to try to find to whom the crime scene DNA belonged.

In 2014, Idaho Falls police got a subpoena to compare the DNA to a public genealogy database owned by Ancestry.com. The results showed the DNA had similarities with a man who lived in Louisiana.

Police traveled that year to Louisiana and met the man, Michael P. Usry Jr.

Usry quickly became of interest to the police. He had visited Idaho once, at the same time as Angie’s killing, and he is a filmmaker who has made a dark film about a woman’s brutal murder, “Murderabilia.”

Police got a warrant to collect Usry’s DNA. It did not match.

Idaho Falls police issued a news release stating it “received a DNA report that clears Michael Usry Jr. and his family of involvement in the Angie Dodge homicide case. ... The report stated that they were 87.63 percent confident that the unknown DNA from the Angie Dodge crime scene did not match the Usry family.”

Investigators thought they had hit another dead end.

In 2017, a series of events set the investigation down a new path.

On March 22, Tapp was released early from prison after reaching a deal with prosecutors, putting more pressure on investigators to solve the case.

In the fall, Idaho Falls police got a new chief, Bryce Johnson, and new leadership in the department’s investigation bureau, including Capt. Bill Squires, the young rookie cop who had stood watch on Dodge’s porch while investigators pored over the crime scene.

Around the same time, new DNA technology was coming online and a new forensic science of genetic genealogy was gaining traction. Genetic genealogy, famously used to solve the Golden Gate killer case, utilizes DNA testing in combination with genealogical and historical records research.

Idaho Falls police decided to take another serious look at the Dodge case. Last fall, the department partnered with genetic genealogist Cece Moore and Parabon NanoLabs.

On Jan. 7, investigators received a report Parabon generated by comparing the Dodge crime scene DNA with DNA submitted by individuals participating in multiple DNA databases.

“Parabon developed the hypothesis that the unknown DNA donor was a male descendant of Clarence Wayne Ussery (1896-1949) and his wife Cleo Ardis Landrum (1899-1979),” a court affidavit states.

By tracing that family line, Moore determined the unknown DNA subject was likely one of six male descendants of Clarence Ussery — a surname variation of the same family lineage investigators had earlier zeroed in on, and later cleared, with Michael P. Usry in 2014.

Usry is a relative of Dripps, “but very distantly,” Idaho Falls police confirmed on Thursday.

Idaho Falls police set out to collect a DNA sample from these six people, who were spread out around the country. They decided to start with the closest lead, a man who lives in Twin Falls.

Working with Twin Falls Police Department and Twin Falls Sheriff’s Office, investigators wore plain clothes and drove unmarked vehicles as they watched the individual, waiting for him to discard anything that could possibly contain DNA – a water bottle or other beverage container, Kleenex, cigarette butt, chewing tobacco.

On Feb. 8, while detectives were watching, the subject stepped out of a building and spit out a wad of chewing tobacco before getting in his car and driving away. Investigators quickly collected the tobacco and sent it to a lab for testing. The result: another DNA sample that did not match the DNA left at the 1996 crime scene.

In the course of the decades-long investigation, police “submitted more than 100 samples to the state lab for DNA testing,” Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson said last week. “Negative. Negative. Negative. Frustration.”

But investigators hoped further analysis of that DNA collected in Twin Falls could identify one of the remaining five men as the suspect, so the DNA sample was sent to Parabon for analysis.

New suspect: The seventh man

In early May, investigators met with Moore via video conference to discuss that DNA analysis and got some disheartening news: Not only did the Twin Falls person not match, but the suspect to whom the crime scene DNA belonged was more distantly related to the person whose DNA was collected in Twin Falls than had been expected, which meant it was unlikely the remaining five men of interest on that familial tree would be a match to the crime scene DNA.

“It went from excitement and ‘I think we are going to do this’ back to ‘We don’t have any idea and we don’t know what to do,’ ” Johnson said during the press conference.

“We were confident in the science, though,” he continued. “So the question became: ‘Is there an unknown person? Is there a person who isn’t listed on the family tree anywhere who is part of this genealogy?’ ”

So Moore and her team went back to work, looking for a clue that someone was missing from the Ussery family tree.

Across the country, in a small library’s digital records, they found an obituary for a woman whose daughter had been briefly married into the Ussery family.

The marriage had ended before any children had been born, initially causing Parabon and Idaho Falls police to believe that this branch of the tree had died off and therefore could not produce further suspects, according to Idaho Falls police.

The obituary listed that this woman had a child, a son, who was born after the divorce and before her second marriage. The child had the Ussery family DNA indicated by Parabon’s genetic genealogy analysis, but had been raised under his stepfather’s surname – Dripps.

“We originally had it narrowed down to about six men,” Moore said during the press conference. “But it turned out there was a seventh, and that was Brian Dripps.”

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Brian Leigh Dripps was arraigned in Canyon County Courthouse on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Hyper-drive and a peanut butter sandwich

Investigators quickly did a search and discovered Brian Dripps had lived across the street from Angie Dodge at the time she was murdered.

“It became pretty clear that this might be the person we are looking at,” Johnson said. “At that point, the investigation really kicked into hyper-drive.”

Investigators tracked Dripps, now 53, to a house in Caldwell.

Working with Caldwell Police Department, they put him under surveillance and watched and waited for an opportunity to surreptitiously collect his DNA.

In the first hour of surveillance, Dripps flipped a cigarette butt out of a car window. Investigators attempted to recover it. However, because of busy traffic, investigators lost sight of the item, which was mixed in with several other cigarette butts that had been discarded on the roadway. Investigators pressed on.

After more than 20 hours of constant surveillance, on the afternoon of May 10, investigators saw Dripps toss another cigarette butt out the car window. As soon as Dripps had moved on, an undercover Idaho Falls police detective rushed into traffic to recover the cigarette butt he saw Dripps discard. Other plainclothes officers blocked cars from running over the sample or injuring the detective. The sample was rushed to the Idaho State Police forensics lab in Meridian. Lab technicians worked late Friday evening and on Saturday to run the tests.

On Saturday, May 11, the lab called investigators: It was a match. After 23 years, the unknown subject was no longer unknown.

Officers from various agencies kept Dripps under surveillance while investigators put together a plan to make contact with Dripps.

On May 15, that plan was set in motion. From surveillance, investigators knew Dripps went to a convenience store every day between noon and 12:15 p.m. The plan was to make contact with Dripps on his way out of the convenience store. Investigators were in place ready to execute the plan, but Dripps took a different turn and did not go to the convenience store.

Investigators followed Dripps until he stopped and went into a bank. Detectives approached Dripps as he left the bank and headed toward his vehicle.

Initially Dripps was not willing to go with detectives to the Caldwell police station for an interview, but after they accompanied him home so he could drop off a dog he had in the car, Dripps voluntarily got into a police car and went to the station.

At the start of the interview Dripps denied any involvement in Dodge’s rape and murder. After about three hours, Dripps said he was hungry and asked for a peanut butter sandwich. A detective tracked down sandwich fixings and Capt. Squires made the sandwich.

A short time later, after being confronted with the DNA test results, Dripps admitted to raping and murdering Dodge.

“What an overwhelming day. I cannot even express how hard this journey has been,” Carol Dodge said during a May 16 press conference in Idaho Falls.



“(My son) Brent and I were talking last night about the rabbit holes,” she said. “I said, ‘You’d no sooner go down one rabbit hole, then you’d come up and go, ‘Boy that was the wrong one.’ ”



Carol Dodge said she remembers talking to a detective, and he told her, ‘We are going to look back on this one day and say, ‘How did we miss that one?’

“... It was really in God’s hands, he orchestrated the whole thing. It just took us 23 years to get here.”

Related stories from Bellingham Herald

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.
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