The murder charges against a Fairview, Ore., man in connection with the 1994 rape and strangulation death of a Vancouver woman were dismissed Wednesday.
Richard Eugene Knapp, 60, was charged in Clark County Superior Court with first-degree and second-degree murder, both with sexual motivation.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty filed a motion to dismiss the charges Wednesday after he said new evidence discovered during trial preparations meant he felt he could no longer prove his case against Knapp to a jury.
Knapp was scheduled for trial Monday.
He was arrested in April 2019 after he was linked to the cold case based on DNA testing.
Judge Robert Lewis granted the dismissal without prejudice, meaning the prosecution could refile charges later.
McCarty said Thursday he couldn't yet say whether he'd bring new charges for the death of 26-year-old Audrey Hoellein, also known as Audrey Frasier. He said the new evidence did not completely rule out Knapp as a suspect, but it created enough doubt that McCarty said he couldn't prove Knapp's guilt to the legal standard. McCarty did not elaborate on the new evidence.
"We either released a killer back into the public, or we released an innocent person who's been sitting in jail for three years," McCarty said. "And the problem is, I don't know which one. And we, as an office, don't know which of those things we did. It's a horrible decision to have to make.
"But that ends up being the problem, because we're looking at all the evidence from going back to when this happened in 1994, to going to things we learned just in the last couple of weeks, to evaluate all of that and come to this conclusion that we can't prove this beyond a reasonable doubt," he added.
In an emailed statement Thursday, Knapp's defense attorney Shon Bogar said the case should have been dismissed with prejudice, so charges could not be refiled later. He said Knapp is innocent.
"We are thankful that the prosecution reconsidered old evidence in conjunction with the new evidence we provided them, specifically a previously uninterviewed eyewitness who we found and talked to Oct. 29, 2022, on a rickety dock in Sandersville, Ga.," Bogar said.
The eyewitness was known to Vancouver police since the beginning of the investigation, Bogar said, adding that the defense was the first to talk with him — 28 years later. Bogar said to his knowledge police have not contacted the eyewitness.
Hoellein was found dead in her bed July 17, 1994, at the Family Tree Apartments in the 8000 block of East Fourth Plain Boulevard, according to Columbian archives. An autopsy concluded she had been raped and strangled, court documents state.
Officers who responded to Hoellein's apartment the night she was found collected DNA evidence, which was used during the initial investigation to develop several suspects. All of the suspects were later ruled out as being the source of the DNA, however, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
The Vancouver Police Department enlisted the help of a genetic testing company in 2018 to develop an improved profile of the suspected killer. In October of that year, the company also provided a genealogy report. The DNA was compared with a member of Knapp's family who had pointed police toward him, detectives said. Knapp was known to live in Clark County around the time of Hoellein's death.
After months of surveillance, investigators collected DNA from a cigarette butt Knapp threw away at work, detectives said. The evidence was sent to the Washington State Crime Lab, which found that it matched the crime scene DNA.