Freed after 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit

Ridgefield man works at starting over

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Alan Northrop had been waiting for that letter for eight years.

So many times, he had torn open an envelope, eager for good news. It never came. Instead, so many times he read words that seemed to seal his fate in a prison cell.

None of the Innocence Project chapters throughout the United States felt like they could help him.

Then, one afternoon in 2001, as he was working his usual shift in a kitchen at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, he checked his mail and there it was.

His heart pounding, Northrop slowly opened the envelope as he walked back to the kitchen. He quickly scanned it and the news sank in.

Showing his prison buddies the letter, Northrop hollered and jumped up and down.

“I said, ‘Yes! Check this out. Bam!,’” Northrop recalled. “Yeah, that was a big moment.”

It was that letter from Jacqueline McMurtrie, director of Innocence Project Northwest in Seattle, that changed his life, ultimately reversing his fate from convicted rapist to free man.

But it took nine more years before Northrop and co-defendant Larry Davis were cleared last year.

A Clark County judge vacated their convictions and prosecutors subsequently dismissed charges on the grounds of newly discovered DNA evidence pointing to different assailants.

Today, a year after his release from prison, the 46-year-old Northrop is trying to live his life like he’s not a statistic or the victim of a failed legal system. But the path has proved challenging.

Before he entered prison, he had a stable job as logger, living on a modest income in Woodland. He had a steady girlfriend and three young children.

He’d had occasional run-ins with the law, but never any felonies.

After losing 17 years of his life, Northrop has had to adjust to a world that has moved on without him. His daughter has a daughter of her own. His two sons from different mothers, toddlers when he was incarcerated, are both 20 now.

Today, he has to deal with the painful reality that he never got a chance to be a father and the even harsher reality that some people will always view him as a rapist.

He’s had to reshape his identity. At the same time, he’s had to prove to his family and friends that he’s still the same man.

He’s had to adjust to a world that moves faster: smartphones, Facebook and automated checkout machines at grocery stores — which Northrop says frazzle him.

He’s had to keep fighting for a future that looks unclear at best.

“I remember what I had and I get angry about that,” said Northrop, sitting in a busy Ridgefield restaurant several blocks from his apartment on a recent afternoon. “Things were so simple back then. Now, everything’s gone.”

But, still, Northrop presses on.

Composite sketch

Clark County sheriff’s detectives zeroed in on Northrop as a rape suspect because he resembled a composite sketch.

In the days after a housekeeper was attacked while cleaning a La Center home on Jan. 11, 1993, she provided investigators details for the sketch, which detectives circulated in businesses around northern Clark County.

Several people told Northrop that he resembled the man in the sketch. Some reported this to police.

“I went into the Merwin Tap Bar and the bartender said, ‘Everyone says it looks like you,’” he recalled. “But she said, ‘I know you wouldn’t do something like that.”

A month later, Northrop was shooting pool at a Woodland bar when an officer came to interrogate him about where he was on the day of the attack.

“I told them straight up that I didn’t do this,” he said.

They asked him for an alibi. He rattled off a few possibilities: he was either at home or his girlfriend’s house. Northrop said he was trying to be honest, but investigators took it as evasiveness.

“You want me to remember where I was on one particular night a month ago?” he said.

Investigators would later gather the evidence that would ultimately sink Northrop in court: The victim did not identify him in a photo montage, only later identifying him in a live lineup, where he was the only familiar face.

Curtis Shelton, Northrop’s defense attorney, was hired a month before the case went to trial. His strategy, he said, was to show all the holes in the case: There were no other witnesses, no physical evidence linking Northrop to the crime and no circumstantial evidence.

“When I looked at this case, there was no evidence to support a conviction. It was shaky at best,” Shelton recalled in a telephone interview.

Jurors, however, were not dissuaded. It took only three hours for them to convict Northrop of first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to 23 years and six months in prison.

Davis, in a separate trial, received more than 20 years in prison for being an accomplice. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

‘Rapo’

Northrop became one of the least popular inmates as soon as he arrived at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

A cellmate tacked up a Columbian article about the trial on Northrop’s cell wall with “Rapo” written across the top. This became his nickname, he said.

When he was ferried to McNeil Island prison and finally to Stafford Creek, where he would serve most of his term, he tried to distance himself from other inmates.

Most of his energy went toward trying to clear his name. He appealed his conviction four times.

He sent letters to Innocence Project chapters. When they all declined to take his case, his hope waned.

He said he stayed sane by playing drums in a prison band and reading letters from his children and friends.

Daughter Kayla Northrop wrote to him once a year at the prompting of her mother. Now 23 years old, she said she has few memories of him prior to his incarceration.

“I was too busy being a child,” she said by text message.

Most of the letters came from his longtime childhood friend, Ed Bong, of Woodland.

While Bong always wrote Northrop to keep his spirits up, he didn’t think he should be fighting so hard to get out.

“In the letters (from Northrop), it was always the same thing, ‘I didn’t do this,’” Bong said. “It was hard times for me being his friend. I would say just do your time and quit.”

But Northrop was convinced that physical evidence would prove his innocence.

McMurtrie, the director of the nonprofit Innocence Project Northwest — which seeks reversals on wrongful convictions — received Northrop’s letter in 2001. She remembers being struck by the glaring holes in the case. As a seasoned criminal defense attorney, McMurtrie knew how eyewitness identifications could be faulty.

“It was interesting to us because it had the possibility of post-conviction DNA testing,” she recalled.

She decided to give him a shot.

The DNA testing wouldn’t come fast, though. A judge didn’t approve the testing until 2006. But when the results came back four years later, they were conclusive: None of the 16 pieces of crime scene evidence yielded a match with the DNA of either Northrop or Davis.

Northrop would get his second life-changing letter in spring 2010.

Sitting in a chair in his cluttered Ridgefield apartment on a recent evening, Northrop pauses as he talks about learning that the DNA evidence pointed toward other suspects. His eyes water and he drops his head, as he remembers.

“I knew we had them” is all he can manage to say.

Free

On April 21, 2010, Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard vacated Northrop’s conviction and released him from incarceration. In July, prosecutors dismissed the charges.

That decision thrust him into a life that, at times, has overwhelmed him.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” a Clark County Jail custody officer asked Northrop as he walked him to the door of the jail that April day. TV, radio and newspaper reporters were waiting for him in the lobby.

Northrop wasn’t ready for all the attention. He ducked out a back door with his brother, his son, Geoff, and Geoff’s mom.

The joy would sink in later when Northrop did what he had wanted to do for years: play catch with his son, Geoff, on that mild, sunny afternoon on the parade grounds of the Fort Vancouver National Site.

The best part of the day? “Just knowing I can do whatever I want. Just enjoying the moment, whatever is was,” Northrop said. “Knowing it was over.”

But he still faced a struggle.

A new life

Today, Northrop is still fighting for the life he sought while in prison.

He learned upon his release that he owed the state $111,000 in unpaid child support, even though he didn’t have a dime to his name.

After briefly living with his brother and then his friend, Bong, he moved into a low-income two-bedroom apartment about five blocks from downtown Ridgefield with his new girlfriend, Tina Bedker, his daughter, Kayla, and 2-year-old granddaughter, Jayda.

He secured a $12-an-hour job through a friend at a Vancouver metal fabrication firm. He can’t afford a car, so he relies on the bus to get him around.

This winter, because business was slow, he was furloughed from work until the end of March. He returned last week with a 10 percent pay cut.

He was hopeful that his luck would change when state Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, introduced a bill this legislative session to compensate wrongfully convicted inmates up to $20,000 for every year they were incarcerated. Northrop went to Olympia and testified in favor of the bill.

The bill died soon after being reviewed by a Senate committee.

Since the bill was introduced at the beginning of the Legislature’s two-year cycle, it remains alive for next session.

Still, Northrop said that’s a year too late.

“(State) deficit or not, that’s not our problem,” he said. “Do what’s right. It’s that simple.”

New challenges

There have been other challenges. Only 28 years old when he was imprisoned, Northrop has struggled with his sudden fatherhood and grandfatherhood.

With his youthful mannerisms and his unfulfilled dream to be a rock star, many of his close friends say Northrop still seems like the twentysomething man he was before prison.

“I think he is the same age he was when he went in,” Bedker said. “We all have memorable situations that make us who we are. He doesn’t have that.”

That’s common for prison inmates who miss key developmental stages in life, said Angela Amel, a social worker at the Innocence Project in New York City.

“They are trying to establish themselves when they’re at an age where you’re supposed to be established,” she said. “People moved on and had children and they missed out on that.”

Amel said many exonerated inmates struggle with the sudden freedom, finding themselves depressed at the sharp adjustment or winding up homeless.

A key to Northrop’s long-term success, she said, will be for him to surround himself with supportive people and secure a stable job.

“He’s doing what he should be doing. He’s connected with people,” she said. “He has a job. Some people do well with counseling and therapy.”

McMurtrie, Innocence Project Northwest director, said she’s optimistic Northrop’s fighting spirit will keep him going.

“He really made an effort to be positive,” as his legal process slowly unfolded, she said. “I know that he struggles. I know there is pressure on him, but he still has this sort of twinkle in his eye.”

One special moment for Northrop came a couple weeks ago. On a quiet afternoon when it wasn’t raining, he stepped outside his apartment and walked two blocks to View Ridge Middle School.

Sitting on a bench, he watched a youth baseball game, remembering his days playing baseball in middle school and high school. That was a time when things were so simple.

He sat quietly and watched the cheering and laughing, taking in the scene and scents of early spring. It was a great afternoon.

He hopes to have many more of them.

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.