innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, February 02, 2007

Lawyer helps solve bank robbery

This article appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette on January 26, 2007:

Lawyer helps solve bank robbery
Barton credited with helping clear falsely accused client, pointing police to robber.

By Salle E. Richards

Half of the bank robberies that occur in the FBI's Rochester region are solved, and usually quickly. The longer a robbery remains unsolved, the less likely it will ever be, says Mark Thompson, FBI agent assigned to Elmira.

The question of who robbed the Bath National Bank branch, at 351 N. Main St. in Elmira, three years ago was finally answered this week in Chemung County Court.

A state prison inmate serving time for burglary admitted he was the robber and had falsely accused two other men when he testified before the grand jury in 2004. The confession came after Christopher A. Barton, defense attorney for one of the accused men, not only cleared his client but found other evidence that led to solving the robbery.

Wayne K. Skinkle, now 26 and in custody at Upstate Correction Facility in Malone, Franklin County, on a second-degree burglary conviction, pleaded guilty Monday before Chemung County Judge Peter C. Buckley to first-degree perjury. Skinkle said the story he told a grand jury on Feb. 5, 2004, was false.

Two other men, Walter Klumpe of Waverly and Joseph Tocco of Elmira, were indicted for the robbery. Those indictments were later dismissed.

Justice sought

The dismissal of those indictments in 2004 didn't satisfy Klumpe's lawyer, Christopher A. Barton, an Elmira criminal defense attorney.

During his own investigation of the case, Barton not only became convinced Klumpe wasn't guilty, he also became committed to bringing out the truth about a justice system that relies on testimony from accomplices and other "jailhouse informants" to make a case.

What really upset him about the false accusations against Klumpe was that besides Skinkle, another jailhouse informant implicated Klumpe to further his own efforts to plea down a sentence. That inmate is now a fugitive from justice.

Barton said Klumpe had told him that the people who had testified against him in grand jury had lied. When Barton recognized one of the names in the grand jury information as the same jail informant who had testified in another murder case, he knew Klumpe was probably railroaded.

Barton also looked more closely at information about Klumpe's main accuser, Skinkle.

Skinkle was one of the first people questioned by police after the robbery. A suspected burglar and known to police, Skinkle had been seen in the vicinity of the bank the morning of the robbery, Barton said.

Because of his work in different criminal cases, Barton heard "street talk" that Skinkle was really the robber.

A key piece of evidence Barton noticed while studying the case was that a customer in the bank had estimated the robber was a skinny guy no taller that 5 feet 7 inches tall. Klumpe is 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 200 pounds at the time of the robbery.

That was a fact that his mother hadn't missed. His mother, Ann Sherwood of Elmira, said after Klumpe's arrest she knew it wasn't her son in the photo of the robbery suspect taken by the bank camera.

"I'm 6 feet," Sherwood said. "We're all big people. I knew it wasn't him."

Skinkle gave his height as 5 feet 9 inches in court documents, Barton said.

Barton pressed Trice to have FBI reconstruction experts look into the case.

Videotape points to shorter suspect

FBI Agent Mark Thompson remembers the Bath National Bank case well.

"Vividly. We don't have that many bank robberies (in the Rochester region)," Thompson said. He said in the last reported period from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006, there were 28 bank robberies in the region, with 14 solved.

The case also sticks in his memory because the district attorney called in FBI experts.

"Our lab did a reverse projection," Thompson said of a procedure that used the tape of the bank's video of the robbery to determine the height of the robber. The video showed a view from above the robber so although a frontal view, the robber's face was completely hidden by the brim of a ball cap pulled down and a scarf wrapped around his face.

The lab determined the robber was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall.

"Our job isn't just to win convictions," Trice said of the dismissal of the indictment against Klumpe. "It's to do justice."

Barton continued to assemble clues on who really robbed the bank. He found Skinkle's alibi about filling out a job application at Dollar General the morning of the robbery fit the known facts about the robbery better than his later description implicating Klumpe and Tocco.

Skinkle said he was at Dollar General when a repairman came from Coca-Cola at 9:05 a.m. to right a toppled soda machine. He said he helped right the machine and saw the repairman give the manager of Dollar General a receipt at 9:25 a.m., a sequence of events verified by city police investigators.

The next time the police questioned Skinkle, pressing him harder, he changed his story and said he'd name the robber and testify if he wasn't prosecuted for the robbery. He told police he acted as a lookout.

In his second version, he told police he planned the robbery, with Tocco and Klumpe at Tocco's house a few blocks away from the bank the morning of the robbery. Barton said there was not enough time for both scenarios to be true.

The clues continued to accumulate in Barton's file on the robbery. He learned of a cracked mirror that belonged to Skinkle's girlfriend at a rummage sale and obtained it. On it was Skinkle's signature and a handwritten statement: "Robbing banks for a living."

He learns that Skinkle's instant message sign-on was "BNBRobber."

Trice said the original deal with Skinkle not to prosecute him for the bank robbery was still in effect for local charges, but banks also fall under federal jurisdiction.

Thompson kept the case open and questioned Skinkle again about the Elmira bank robbery.

Negotiations became serious during summer 2006 and Skinkle's lawyer, David B. Rynders, finally agreed to a plea that guaranteed Skinkle wouldn't face federal charges if he cleared the record and told the truth.

After several adjourned appearances, the plea finally came Monday.

Elmira Deputy Police Chief Michael Robertson said Thursday the case is finally closed.

"I think that makes our record 100 percent for solving bank robberies," Robertson said.

Chemung County District Attorney John Trice said Barton deserves a lot of credit for his dogged determination to track down the truth.

"He did his own detective work," Trice said.

Skinkle returns to court March 5 for sentencing on the perjury charge. He faces one to three served concurrently with his burglary sentence and must pay back $2,700 in restitution.

That sentence will be complete March 25, 2008, with Skinkle eligible for conditional release in August.

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