My girlfriend Modesto

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He was, the law had decided, a dangerous man, the kingpin of a murder conspiracy, and so they would take no chances with the shambling, heavyset year-old criminal defense attorney, who sneered at them defiantly as they clapped handcuffs behind his back. Carson knew what came next. They saddled you with the mug shot that would haunt you forever, looking grim and guilty and defeated. And so as the camera clicked, Carson put on a carefree, open-mouthed smile, his eyebrows aloft in happy surprise above his thick glasses.

Far from a first-degree murder defendant facing life in prison, he looked like a bumpkin who had won a new tractor. His eight codefendants wore predictably stricken looks when their mug shots made the news that day in August Two brothers who ran a local liquor store.

Their former handyman. Three members of the California Highway Patrol.

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By the official narrative, it featured a tenacious team of detectives bravely pursuing a cadre of corrupt cops who had danced on the puppet strings of a sinister figure named Uncle Frank. But how did a defense attorney famous for his scorn of local cops actually enlist three of them in a murder plot? What kind of Svengali powers — what kind of Mephistophelean charisma — might this aging Modesto defense attorney possess?

How did this case hang together, anyway? So much of the case — the vast, costly, multiagency edifice that was State vs.

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Carson et al — perched precariously on the shifting word of one highly unreliable man. Woody was in his late 30s, a high school dropout with watchful blue eyes and a rough, mumbly patter. He was short and thickly built, a steroid-shooting gym rat.

He had stolen cars and punched a cop and smoked meth, off and on, since his teens. Carson had represented him pro bono on some stolen-property charges, and in exchange had asked him to keep an eye out for potential thieves around his much-pillaged Turlock property.

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Woody had been a fixture at the Pop N Cork liquor store down the block, working as an all-around handyman, mopping up, stocking the shelves. They had given him a job. They paid to get his mouthful of bad teeth yanked and replaced. Then they had fired him, claiming he stole some soda. They reflected a story that shifted and changed and evolved, morphing under intense police pressure to fit a theory that implicated Carson. He felt both contempt and pity for Woody, a man trapped by his own absurd story and overmatched by detectives who gave him no way out.

Woody had a braggart streak made gleefully macabre by his crystal-meth pipe. Amid the fumes one day in Februaryin the back bedroom of the home he shared with his parents, he claimed — in a conversation secretly recorded by his girlfriend — to know what had happened to Korey Kauffman.

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Who had killed the young thief and dumped him out there? Woody, a lifelong Turlock man, was well-placed to absorb the chatter. His girlfriend, Miranda Dykes, who had grown afraid of Woody and was secretly recording the conversation for police, pressed him for details.

Police moved quickly to find Woody, who had gotten word of the arrest warrant and disappeared. Dykes told police she did not believe the confession she had elicited. There was no evidence that pigs had ever approached it; there were teeth in the skull; there were no saw or cleaver marks indicating it had been chopped. Jon Evers told Woody after he turned himself in. District attorney investigator Kirk Bunch told him that his supposed co-conspirators — Carson, Bobby Athwal, his brother Dee — would pin the murder on him. I care. Bunch knew that Woody had been bragging about the murder to his family, too.

They would be witnesses against him. Yes, Carson had asked him and one of the Pop N Cork brothers to keep an eye on his property. But that had been two months after Kauffman disappeared. Woody looked increasingly trapped. I told them what they wanted to hear. When they returned to the interrogation room, Woody demonstrated a marked new interest in helping. But he seemed not to know how, exactly. He said he had seen something on the night Kauffman disappeared. Maybe Woody had seen one of the brothers attacking Kauffman there, and had tried to intervene?

Woody mumbled agreement with the scenario, insisting he had not lifted a finger to hurt Kauffman. Woody pleaded with Jacobson to tell him what he needed to say to go home. Woody was still trying to take back his confession 16 months later, when he sat in an interrogation room with detectives and his court-appointed attorney. Now Woody was pale, his hair shaggy, his muscular frame gone pudgy. His eyes shifted between the cops and his lawyer, as if looking for clues to what was required of him. But after intense questioning, Woody recanted his retraction and said, yes, he had been on the lot that night.

Woody did not offer a narrative so much as respond to detectives as they built a narrative, feature by feature. They suggested details; he assented to them. No, he said, he drove up with just one of the brothers. No, he said, they actually buried the body in the lot beside the liquor store that night.

Domby shared his theory. Why a month? Woody assented to this .

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What route did they take into the mountains? Had he really helped to bury a corpse in the dirt next to the heavily traveled Pop N Cork, in an illuminated lot overlooked by a two-story apartment building? In Augusta four-car caravan of law officers accompanied Woody to the mountains of Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.

Could Woody lead them to the body-dump site? If so, it would be shatteringly persuasive evidence of his credibility. Prosecutor Marlisa Ferreira, who was there, would say that Woody directed her and the team of cops to a spot above the ravine where the bones had been found. It wasand smartphones were already ubiquitous, but none of the many law officers recorded this important walk. Cory Brown held that camera, but he did not begin recording until he stood in the ravine, already just feet from the body-dump site.

There were good reasons to doubt this. They had been planted at the scene two years earlier, to indicate where the scattered bones had been found. Ferreira insisted the flags had not been visible from the road, where Woody was standing.

Woody was not done. In a letter to the D. In another county, prosecutors might have balked at putting him on the stand as the spine of their case against a prominent local defense attorney. Carson felt a mixture of contempt and pity for Woody.

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How had three CHP officers been dragged into this case? The officers loved to hang out there — the back room was a safer place to drink than the local dive bars — and so they fell under suspicion. The D. Instead, the D. Carson, examining the prosecution theory, regarded it as ludicrously weak. But the government had great leverage.

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Allegations of a wild murder conspiracy involving CHP officers, lawyer, wife, daughter