The trial was conducted over a five-week period in Anchorage. Several key witnesses plead the fifth and refused to testify. Dillingham Police also lost evidence from the investigation.
Dillingham resident Ella Olsen, 55, was murdered in 2015. Brian Vane Clark was arrested in 2016 for allegedly killing and robbing her. Clark, now 40, was acquitted on all charges by an Anchorage jury in March.
Four years after he was arrested for the alleged murder of Ella Olsen, Brian Vane Clark’s court date was set for February in Dillingham. But bad weather days before the trial prevented the legal teams from travelling to the community. The trial was moved to Anchorage.
Before the jury was selected, Clark’s criminal history, along with the murder trial, disappeared from the state’s public website for court cases, CourtView.
Defense attorney Greg Parvin motioned to have Clark’s previous history removed. Shorey opposed the motion, citing previous court cases and the publics’ “first amendment right to know and monitor why a judge makes critical criminal litigation decisions.” But Judge Herman Walker approved the temporary removal of Clark’s prior records.
Parvin says this has become a common request in the digital age.
“The concern is that someone goes on to CourtView, types in a defendant's name or witness’s name and pulls up a bunch of information that is not deemed prejudicial," Parvin said. "Somebody has prior convictions, somebody has prior drug history whatever it is. The concern is that it will unfairly bias a juror.”
The Dillingham Police Department conducted their investigation between 2015 and 2016. But several pieces of crucial evidence were lost in the investigation.
The evidence included photographs of a digital voicemail from Clark to one witness, pictures of other witnesses’ hands and shoes, audio recordings from a 9-1-1 call and a telephone interview with someone else. Text messages that were sent by the victim, Ella Olsen, around the date of the incident were also lost.
Former Dillingham Sergeant Rodney Etheridge was the case officer.
Etheridge was questioned by both the state and defense about the missing evidence before the trial. Court notes from that day show that he did not know where the missing evidence was. KDLG reached out to Etheridge, but he was unavailable for comment.
Here’s Dillingham Chief of Police Dan Pasquariello.
“Despite how hard you try and work, nothing is ever perfect,” Pasquariello said. “By the time this case went to trial, various things happened. Photographs got misplaced which nobody knows what happened to them. But, since the photographs were taken by the same person, it could be a misplaced SD card. Nobody knows. A couple of telephone recording interviews and the 9-1-1 call, we were unable to produce, because that particular 9-1-1 system happened to break.”
When evidence is lost in a police investigation, the jury must assume that any information gathered from that missing evidence would have been beneficial to the defendant. That’s called a Thorne Instruction, and it was applied in Clark’s trial. It was drafted by the defense and approved by Judge Walker.
Chief Pasquariello, prosecutor Dan Shorey and defense attorney Greg Parvin each confirmed that several key witnesses plead the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify.
Shorey says among the reasons people can invoke the Fifth Amendment is if their testimony could result in their own criminal exposure. The Amendment protects people from self-incrimination. Among those who took the fifth were lead investigator Rodney Etheridge and the victim’s daughter.
“A proceeding was held with the judge and she requested immunity and it was declined,” Shorey said. “There were several other witnesses who had committed criminal offenses and those requests were also denied.”
Etheridge no longer works for the police department. Chief Pasquariello says he was let go for reasons unrelated to the investigation. Pasquariello declined to comment further.
Another person who police arrested on a felony warrant claimed that Clark confessed to the murder in 2016. Clark was brought into custody shortly after.
This person was not called to trial by the defense or the state. Court notes and Chief Pasquariello confirmed that this person was never an informant for the police department. It was also found that his story contradicted other evidence collected in the investigation.
During closing arguments, Judge Herman Walker was notified that a relative had tested positive for COVID-19. Walker left the courtroom and the jury agreed to proceed with deliberation. The court was able to find a judge to wrap up proceedings.
Clark was found not guilty of the three felony murder charges and one felony charge of robbery. Parvin spoke on behalf of the defendant.
“Brian Clark has always maintained his not guilty plea, always maintained his innocence,” Parvin said. “It’s unfortunate that his life has been impacted to such a degree that it has.”
The five-week trial wrapped up on March 27. Unless newly discovered evidence emerges indicating someone else committed the crime, Ella Olsen’s case will remain closed.
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