She killed her husband -- or did she?
On an April morning 18 years ago, Kristi Lyn Bateson dressed her two small daughters for the hourlong drive to Mount Shasta Mall. Her husband, Charlie, was sleeping after his graveyard shift at the sawmill.
“Hon, we ran down to Redding for a few more groceries and to look at a few things in the Target ad,” she wrote on a note fixed to the refrigerator with the N from 3-year-old Kayla’s alphabet magnets. She’d be home around 1 p.m., she said, signing it: “Love, your three girls.”
Charlie probably never read the note. He was found at noon, dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. The body position and blood spatter told the coroner he had been asleep on his back when the shot was fired.
Within two weeks, police had four sources connecting the killing to drug deals at the house where the Batesons had moved less than two weeks earlier. But homicide investigators were looking at Kristi. It’s usually the spouse, they told her.
They searched her car after tracking her down at the mall, finding no trace of gunshot residue or blood from a blast that had sent skull fragments and brain matter on all four walls and presumably on the killer.
They gave her a polygraph test. She passed. They searched the house, removing pipes and testing them for blood that might have been washed away. They found nothing. Not until two detectives showed up on her doorstep in December 2001, almost 10 years after the killing, did they get what they wanted: her confession.
It was an admission she quickly retracted. It came at the end of a two-hour interrogation that began as a supposedly routine inquiry and escalated into psychological threats and accusations.
Armed with the confession, Shasta County authorities charged the former cheerleader with murder and then convinced a jury of her guilt.
They had been living “paycheck to paycheck” and were a month behind on the Pontiac payment. When Kristi’s grandmother, Margaret Beamon, offered them the tiny cottage on her property rent-free, they moved in with plans to get ahead on their finances. Beamon had evicted the previous tenants after a neighbor told her they were dealing drugs.
No bigger than a garage, the cottage was crammed. Kayla’s twin bed, made up with Minnie Mouse sheets, filled most of the sole bedroom. Kristi and Charlie slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room, with 4-month-old Kelsey’s cot beside them. Getting the children out of the house in the morning so Charlie could sleep had become a routine in the few days they had lived there.
Charlie was to have gotten up at 11:30 a.m. on that Friday, April 17, 1992, to put a new lock on the door. Kristi had come home Thursday evening to find it open and the lights on. She called Charlie at work, worried that there had been a break-in.
In the morning, as she was getting ready to leave just before 8 a.m., Charlie moved from the sofa to Kayla’s bed and asked Kristi to set the alarm clock.
As Kristi window-shopped at the mall for a few hours, she ran into her grandfather and a few others she knew. When she went out to the parking lot, she found her right front tire was flat. She used a pay phone to call Charlie but got no answer. Remembering that the ringer had been turned down, she called her friend Brenda Strickland from the old neighborhood to go over and tell Charlie she needed help with the tire. Phone records show the call to Brenda came from the mall at 11:47 a.m.
Brenda knocked on the cottage door. No one answered. She found the door unlocked and stepped inside. Hearing the radio alarm blaring in the bedroom, she rapped on the door, then opened it. Charlie, with the Minnie Mouse sheets still tucked under his chin, was dead.
Sheriff’s Deputy Ron Clemens found Kristi, her girls and her grandfather at the mall. He asked them to come to the Redding station to give statements. A videotape of the interview recorded by police shows the 23-year-old widow curled in on herself, her shoulders hunched, her face etched with emotion.
Were there any problems in the marriage? Clemens asked. Did they have financial problems? Did Charlie drink or take drugs? “No jealous husbands? He wasn’t having an affair?” the deputy prodded.
“Not to my knowledge,” Kristi responded with an affronted look: “He doesn’t have the time.”
Tips began flowing in about the murder. A captain in the major crimes unit was told by a confidential informant that the killing was a mistake, intended for a previous tenant, Frank Delgado. A neighbor told police that when he returned home from taking his mother to the hospital about 3 a.m. that morning he had seen a white Ford Fiesta drive up and idle in front of the cottage. Delgado, who was known to drive the same car, sometimes lent it to his friend, Henry Garza, a suspected drug dealer.
Police records show that on the Sunday after the killing, four men were talking about it at a restaurant, Half-Time Pizza. One, Rory Keim, told police that Garza was at the bar and overheard them. “That is a bummer,” Keim said Garza told them. “My partners blew away the wrong dude.”
No murder weapon was found, and ballistics analysis disclosed little. At least 27 rifle models could have fired the shot, including a hunting rifle Charlie had once owned. A palm print lifted from the bedroom door was never identified.
The investigation seemed to be going nowhere. Police eventually stopped questioning Kristi.
It was snowing on Dec. 20, 2001, as Dets. Steve Grashoff and Cliff Blankenship made their way up the steep, forested slopes between Redding and Burney. They had been sent by a new homicide chief to work on Bateson’s killing, by then a cold case.
Kristi, married since 1994 to Troy Lunbery and the mother of a third daughter, invited the detectives inside. Grashoff set a tape recorder on the dining table, telling her to ignore it. They said she could ask them to leave any time, or get up whenever she needed to help the 40-year-old developmentally disabled man she was caring for in her home on weekdays.
They asked her for a “retell” of April 17, 1992, zeroing in on minor discrepancies from her accounts nearly 10 years before, like whether she set the alarm and when Charlie moved to the bedroom.
Kristi’s mother called. Jim, the disabled man, kept interrupting. The three girls were due home from school soon.
The interview tone shifted.
Tell the truth, they told her repeatedly, “We know you did it.”
Had she made her tire go flat so someone else would find Charlie’s body? They brandished a manila envelope [later shown to be empty] that they said contained her FBI profile and witness accounts undermining her story.
Tell the truth for the sake of your kids, they insisted. “Did you shoot Charlie?”
“Yes,” Kristi bleated.
“Was there a reason behind it?” Grashoff asked. “You had a reason,” Blankenship encouraged.
“It was like you said, the, the controlling.?” Kristi told them.
She couldn’t say what weapon she used, whether it was already loaded, what happened to it, where the two children were when the shot was fired.
In the most coherent part of the inarticulate confession, she told detectives: “I didn’t like how he talked to me. I didn’t like how he was so controlling. I didn’t like the fact that no one could say ‘hi’ to me without it causing an argument. I grew up here. I mean, I was a very, a very friendly, outgoing person, and he just shut me off from everyone. I couldn’t even talk to people without there being some kind of suspicion that I was sleeping with them or something?. And I was never, ever unfaithful?.”
In the two years between her confession and trial, Kristi was free on minimal bail, at home with her family.
Word of the case reached UC Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions. He suggested that Kristi be subjected to psychological screening for vulnerability to stress-compliant confession.
“False confession comes about almost all the time due to police misconduct, but there are a small number of people so stress-sensitive that they can’t withstand the pressure of even a legitimate interrogation,” Ofshe said recently. “In Kristi Lunbery’s case, it appeared she was one of those people so unable to deal with stress that she would comply as a way of escaping the stress without thinking about the consequences.”
Ofshe, who has testified in more than 300 trials, described Kristi as “one of the most easily dominated people I’ve ever met.”
Public defenders Jeffrey Jens and Jeffrey Gorder never acted on Ofshe’s recommendation that Kristi take the Gudjonsson Test for vulnerability to false confession. Neither of two local psychologists they contacted had any familiarity with the test and the lawyers doubted that it would be accepted as expert testimony, Gorder said.
Two months before trial began in March 2004, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Wilson Curle ruled Kristi’s confession voluntary and dismissed Gorder’s motion to suppress it.
He and the trial judge also dismissed all evidence pointing to another killer. The jury would not hear the neighbor’s report of the Ford Fiesta, the informant’s tip about a mistaken killing or Rory Keim’s account of Garza saying his partners killed “the wrong dude.”
On the eve of the trial, Shasta County Dist. Atty. Gregory Gaul got a call from Kristi’s lifelong best friend, Darcy Hayes, then living in Oregon. Darcy had been summoned as a character witness and wanted to get something off her chest.
When Kristi and Darcy were newly married, the girlfriends had a running joke about whether they would kill their husbands if they could get away with it. The joke was fueled by a 1991 movie starring Demi Moore, “Mortal Thoughts,” in which two friends cover up for each other in the killing of an abusive husband. It was just a joke, Darcy insisted. Kristi was a gentle soul, incapable of violence.
Gaul called 10 witnesses, all from law enforcement except for Brenda Strickland and Darcy.
Gorder put on a parade of Burney residents who had known Kristi for most of her life. None believed her confession.
Gaul’s closing argument mentioned the confession 35 times. He suggested the stay-at-home mom had run into Troy Lunbery a few weeks before the murder and decided to kill Charlie for his $15,000 life insurance. The supposed break-in, the note on the refrigerator, the flat tire -- all pieces of a cold-blooded cover-up, Gaul said.
The jury was back in a day with a guilty verdict, to the lesser offense of second-degree murder. Kristi was sentenced to 15 years to life, plus four years for use of a firearm.
“It’s hard for the average juror to believe that people confess to things they didn’t do,” Gorder said.
Kristi had been at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla for nearly six years when a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals took up her case in January. Juliana Drous, Kristi’s new lawyer, argued that her due process rights had been violated when the trial judge prevented her from putting on evidence that another person may have killed Charlie. She also argued that Jens and Gorder had erred in failing to call Ofshe to testify about false confession and Kristi’s propensity to make one.
On May 25, the panel overturned Kristi’s conviction.
Judge John T. Noonan Jr., a tough-on-crime conservative, shot holes in the prosecution’s theory. Kristi had spent a third of Charlie’s life insurance on his funeral. Troy Lunbery “was not on the scene in 1992.” Kristi’s claim that Charlie was “controlling” was an idea suggested by the detectives.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote that the “only evidence linking Kristi to the murder was her own statement, which she claimed was false. She had confessed, and it is hard to imagine anything more difficult to explain to a lay jury. After all, people do not just confess to crimes they did not commit, do they? Well, it turns out they sometimes do.”
Neither the state nor Shasta County appealed the 9th Circuit ruling. That left the county with a Sept. 1 deadline to set a retrial date or free Kristi.
The mood soared at the house where Kristi’s parents and daughters live. Excitement about her release reigned at an Aug. 15 fundraiser, when about 170 Burney residents gathered for “Burgers in the Park” and collected $1,000. “She’ll need that for clothes now that she’s lost 90 pounds in prison,” said her mother, Marie Conley.
But last week, with just days to go before Kristi’s release, Deputy Dist. Atty. Kelly Kafel ordered her transferred to the county jail in Redding.
Kafel said a final decision has yet to be made, but bringing Kristi to Shasta County was a first step toward trying her again for murder.
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