Chris Tapp, right, is pictured just minutes before he is release from an Idaho prison last week, his first freedom in 20 years. He is pictured with Greg Hampikian, left, Idaho Innocence Project director, and Jennifer Cummins, an Idaho Innocence Project lawyer. Photo: Courtesy of Greg Hampikian

Chris Tapp was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge, brutally slain in her Idaho Falls apartment in 1996. Tapp confessed after 40 hours of questioning and polygraphs—and a promise of immunity.

The Idaho Innocence Project took up the case about 10 years ago, questioning the DNA evidence at the crime scene. Over the last year, it’s been revealed that a distinct trail of DNA in Dodge’s apartment, including semen stains and a pubic hair on her body, pointed to one man.

That man wasn’t Chris Tapp. That man has been at large for two decades.

Tapp was released from prison last week, after serving 20 years for the crime. The deal struck between prosecutors and Tapp’s public defender meant he was cleared on the rape charge—but only resentenced to less time for the murder conviction, despite the DNA clues excluding him from the violent acts against Dodge.

Danny Clark, the Bonneville County prosecutor, told an East Idaho News reporter that authorities were looking for the best resolution to a case that was presumably resolved decades ago—but which now appears to have left the rapist-murderer free the entire time. 

“The gist of the agreement is he agrees to a murder conviction for the rest of his life—a first-degree murder case,” said Clark. “We have to remember Mr. Tapp was always accused of and found guilty of playing a small role in a much larger very heinous offense. His role was always a very small portion of that and so trying to balance that conduct against what the appropriate consequence is—that’s what led us to this conclusion.”

But Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University and the founder of the Idaho Innocence Project who worked on the case for 10 years, said that compounding injustice with more injustice was not in anyone’s best interest, in an op-ed to The Post-Register, a local newspaper.

“Mr. Tapp is not on any of the evidence in this case, but one man is—in every single profile,” writes Hampikian. “None of the state’s suspects (including Chris Tapp) were on any of the evidence, but in a remarkably clear set of results, the semen donor was consistently on all of them. We now know who moved Angie’s teddy bear, left DNA on her shirt and restrained her—leaving his DNA on each hand.”

Hampikian told Forensic Magazine in an interview today that the final Y-STR analysis from the semen matched every other DNA sample from the scene, including those on the stuffed animal, the clothing, and the fingers. That Y-STR profile did not match Tapp, or either of the other two persons of interest in the case in 1996.

"It matched all the other evidence - it was an absolutely beautiful DNA case," said Hampikian. "All of their evidence is completely debunked. They obviously weren't interested in solving this."

One of the key breakthroughs was increased DNA collection in the case, say several experts. Swabs had been used, but the wet-vacuum technology by the M-Vac collection system had made the samples clearer to interpret than ever before, said police.

“Using the M-Vac was definitely a smart move by the department as it gave us much more information than we had before,” said Det. Pat McKenna, the lead Idaho Falls investigator on the case. “We now have stronger DNA evidence, from multiple items from the crime scene, that all points to one suspect.”

The Idaho Falls police reached out to the West Jordan Police Department in Utah, which has used an M-Vac machine on several cases before with startling success.

“We’ve successfully used the M-Vac so many times that it’s become an area where we can certainly advise others in where to use it,” said Francine Bardole, a senior CSI in West Jordan. “This case definitely fit into the ‘must try it’ category. It’s a great tool and there are a lot of cases out there where it would help significantly.”

The M-Vac success has been profiled in previous stories in Forensic Magazine.

The increased amount of genetic material produced by the tool was analyzed with the probabilistic genotyping software known as TrueAllele, made by the Pittsburgh-based company Cybergenetics. The tool has also been the focus of several features by Forensic Magazine. Essentially, it uses complex algorithms to determine what persons are part of a complex mixture of DNA.

The results that distanced Tapp from the crime scene were set to be presented at a court hearing next week - but Tapp took the deal to get his release, according to Hampikian.

Tapp has since been released from prison. Still a convicted killer, he cannot as yet seek remuneration for his apparent innocent in the ultimate acts of violence against Dodge.

Clark, the prosecutor, said the hunt for the other killer or killers of Dodge will be resumed, more than 20 years after the conviction of Tapp. McKenna, the lead detective, said the search is on.

“Rest assured we will not stop searching until we find that suspect,” said McKenna.