A central Missouri man who spent nearly 15 years in prison for the murder of his mother before a judge ruled he had been wrongfully convicted has filed a federal lawsuit against Osage County and three of the men who helped put him behind bars.
Dale Helmig, 55, said in his suit filed Friday in Jefferson City that the county, Sheriff Carl Fowler, former deputy Paul Backues and former Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper Robert Westfall conspired to convict him of killing his mother, even though there was plenty of evidence pointing to someone else.
Helmig's mother, Norma Helmig, was last seen at a restaurant in Jefferson City just after midnight July 29, 1993, after she had spent the evening with her sister playing bingo.
Norma Helmig's body was found a few days later along the flood-swollen Osage River, tied to a concrete block, near her home in the central Missouri town of Linn during the 1993 Midwest floods. Former state special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof and Sheriff Fowler had suggested that Dale Helmig was motivated in part by greed, citing his mother's missing purse to bolster their case.
Helmig was arrested in March 1994 and found guilty of first-degree murder in 1996, after which he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He won a new trial in a federal case alleging jury misconduct in 2005, but that decision was overturned on appeal.
In November 2010, DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled that Helmig was "actually innocent of the crime."
McElwain ruled that Hulshof and Fowler misled the trial court and jurors by suggesting Helmig had thrown hot coffee in his mother's face during an argument at a Jefferson City diner three days before her disappearance. She had instead fought with her husband, Ted, who was under a court order to stay away from his wife. Jurors were never told about the order against the husband.
Ted Helmig has denied having anything to do with his estranged wife's death.
The judge also said Hulshof and the former Osage County relied on false testimony by Trooper Westfall, who mischaracterized a statement from Helmig as a confession.
Helmig was released on $5,000 bond in December 2010 and has been free ever since.
The state appealed the judge's reversal of the murder verdict, but in June, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the ruling. In August, current Osage County prosecutor Amanda Grellner announced she was dismissing charges against Helmig.
Helmig's lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages, alleges the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights.
Officials with the county office and sheriff's office did not immediately return phone calls for comment Saturday. Phone messages left at home numbers for Backues and Westfall also were not returned.
The lawsuit also claims the defendants' actions "directly caused Plaintiff grievous and permanent injury, including 14-plus years of incarceration and the attendant loss of freedom, companionship, and income; and the attendant infliction of mental and physical pain, suffering, anguish, fear, including the fear of being incarcerated for the remainder of his life for a murder he did not commit, and damage to family relationships because the murder victim was his mother."
New testimony presented earlier this year showed that Norma Helmig's purse, which washed up along the Missouri River six months after her body was found, included several personal checks canceled by her bank 10 days after her disappearance. That discovery refutes the prosecution's account that Dale Helmig threw his mother's purse out of his car window while driving back to a Fulton motel the night the woman went missing.