Grand Jury indicts Homer man for murder, robbery in 3-year-old Homer case
Key DNA evidence, a Homer witness who came forward and dogged detective work helped Homer Police close its only unsolved murder case, the 2013 killing of Mark Matthews near the Poopdeck Trail.
Homer Police on Sunday arrested Lee John Henry and charged him with first-degree murder in the death of Matthews. On Wednesday, the Kenai Grand Jury added more counts, and indicted Matthews on one count of first-degree murder, three counts and different versions of second-degree murder, manslaughter and first-degree robbery.
Henry, 55, appeared in Homer court on Monday morning for his arraignment. Because first-degree murder is an unclassified felony, Judge Margaret Murphy did not set bail, and because it was Henry’s initial appearance, he did not enter a plea. At his arraignment, Henry answered Judge Murphy’s questions quietly. His hands shook as he read the criminal complaint against him.
In response to questions to determine if he qualified for a public defender, Henry said he made less than $5,000 working at odd jobs, had no steady job and did not receive his Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend because the state had garnished it for previous court cases. Henry has numerous prior convictions for trespassing, assault and felony driving under the influence. Murphy ruled that he was eligible for a public defender.
In a press release on Monday, Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns said Homer Police arrested Henry at about 2 p.m. Oct. 16 at a Pioneer Avenue address. Police took him into custody without incident after luring him into the Bay Realty parking lot. Kuhns, a career cop and a former Alaska State Trooper of the Year, was the lead investigator in the Matthews murder.
“This was a case we worked from about every standpoint you can: beating the streets, trying to get information locally, sending evidence to independent labs that are state of the art,” Kuhns said in a phone interview on Monday.
“Ultimately it was an area person who came forward that assisted us in conjunction with the DNA evidence.”
Two people walking near the Poopdeck Trail about 10:15 p.m. July 28, 2013, found Matthews’ body on a side trail locally known as the Boystown Trail that goes into the woods of the Town Square property between Main Street and Poopdeck Street — the area once proposed for a Fred Meyer store.
In a criminal complaint, Sgt. Kuhns alleged that Henry had met Matthews earlier that day. About a half hour before Matthews died, he and Henry had been seen arguing near the Poopdeck and Boystown trails. Kuhns said Matthews was walking home to his apartment upstairs in the former Homer Cleaning Center on Main Street, now known as the Red Door Cleaning Center.
The criminal complaint is an allegation by police and Henry is presumed innocent until proven guilty at a trial or admits guilt.
Kuhns said Matthews had been beaten on the left side of his head and his pockets turned inside out. Matthews had gotten a $250 Western Union money gram earlier that day.
Police found what they believe is a murder weapon, Kuhns said, but declined to identify it. An autopsy by the State Medical Examiner showed Matthews died from blunt-force trauma to the head. Citing a grand jury investigation, on Monday Kuhns also declined to comment on if robbery was a motive in the murder. The grand jury added a count of robbery after meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 19.
Before the city cleared woods there, the Town Square property near the corner of Hazel Avenue and Poopdeck Street had been popular as a campsite for homeless people. Town Square includes city and Cook Inlet Region Corporation land. More recently it has been associated with an increase in public drinking this summer. In 2003, the area became known as Boystown because of a group of young men who illegally camped in the area. The murder scene was on CIRI land, Kuhns said.
Kuhns admitted to some police disinformation, letting the public get the impression that Matthews was killed closer to the Poopdeck Trail. If a witness said he died on the Boystown Trail, that would indicate the person had direct knowledge of the incident, Kuhns said.
Police got a break last month when a person came forward and said he or she had information regarding Matthews’ murder, according to the criminal complaint. The person agreed to talk to Henry and police got a search warrant to record the conversation.
Kuhns wrote in the criminal complaint that in the recorded conversation Henry admitted to killing Matthews.
“All you need to know is I done it,” police said Henry said. “I had to tell someone to get it off my conscience. … You have to tell, at least say something to someone and I pray to the Lord to forgive me for doing that.”
In the conversation with the informant, police alleged that Henry said he’d only known Matthews a short time. When the informant asked Henry how he could go from meeting someone to killing him in a short time, Henry said, “What’s done is done. It doesn’t matter anymore. What’s done is done. You can’t reverse it.”
Kuhns also wrote that Henry told the informant, “There’s no evidence out there, no, nothing, and the only one that knows is you.”
Henry also provided details about Matthews’ injuries that were corroborated in the medical examiner’s report, Kuhns wrote in the complaint.
As it turned out, police said there was evidence to link Henry to the crime scene. Kuhns said DNA taken from the inside of Matthews’ pants pocket showed a connection to Henry. Because of heavy trail use in the area, police had a confusing amount of forensic evidence to sort through. Finding DNA connected to Henry in an area not likely to have been touched by others made the evidence more conclusive.
Kuhns said police interviewed Henry two days after the murder and had identified him as a suspect early in the investigation. However, they also had about six suspects, and the challenge was eliminating suspects. Some of the witnesses were chronic alcoholics.
“With a lot of folks who drink hard, memories are bad,” Kuhns said. “That was what compounded this case.”
Police felt Henry was a strong suspect, Kuhns said,
“But you’ve got this little thing called proof,” he said.
In July, Homer Police sent Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders the case — all seven volumes of paperwork. Kuhns had been in close contact with Leaders over the summer.
Kuhns also worked with a mentor, a retired Alaska Bureau of Investigation cold crimes case detective, Jim Stogsdill. Stogsdill also was Kuhn’s first supervisor with the troopers. Stogsdill worked as a paid consultant on the Matthews investigation and went over the case to help develop leads.
“He said, ‘You know, you’ve got something here. I think you can solve this,’” Kuhns said.
Matthews worked as a carpenter and at other jobs from time to time. He had lived in a tent in the Town Center before he moved into the apartment with a friend. Kuhns has been in close contact with Matthews’ sister, Laurie, and spoke with her about every two weeks.
Kuhns said he couldn’t give her information about the case, but tried to reassure her it was a priority. Both Kuhns and Homer Police Chief Mark Robl kept photos of Matthews by their desks.
“She was extremely supportive of the process,” Kuhns said of Laurie. “That was one thing: we didn’t feel any pressure and we could do it methodically in the right way.”
A message was left with Matthews’ sister requesting comment, but at press time she did not return a phone call.
The city of Homer put up $9,000 to add to a $1,000 CrimeStoppers reaward for information leading to the arrest of Matthews’ murderer. Kuhns said the informant wasn’t interested in the reward, but he’s going to recommend that the informant get the reward anyway.
“To me it’s a really good sign when people want to get involved. They feel this is their community. They want to see justice. They feel compelled to come forward,” Kuhns said.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Henry faces between 30 and 99 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine. The three counts of second-degree murder present different versions of the offense, alleging that Henry intended to cause serious physical injury to Matthews and caused his death, that he knowingly engaged in conduct that resulted in Matthews’ death, or that acting alone or with other persons committed or attempted to commit robbery and that resulted in Matthews’ death. The manslaughter charge alleges that Henry recklessly caused the death of Matthews. The lesser charges of murder or manslaughter offer jurors options for convicting a defendant should a jury not find sufficient evidence for a first-degree murder conviction.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.