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Trail To Nowhere 

For decades, the Spencer family sought justice for Judy. But what if they got the wrong man?

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click to enlarge Various pieces of physical evidence preserved by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. - COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • Various pieces of physical evidence preserved by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

On the night Judy's car was found on Route FF and towed from the scene, a highway patrol corporal noticed a man standing at a house about 100 yards away. The corporal walked over to speak to him.

It was Alfred "John" Heyer III, who lived in the house with his wife and son. Heyer acknowledged seeing the car that night, but didn't say much else.

Two and a half weeks later, Heyer, 25, went missing. His wife reported his absence on April 6. Investigators interviewed their neighbor, who noted how Heyer had stopped by several times to ask if she'd heard any chatter on her police scanner about the Judy Spencer case.

Heyer, it turned out, had moved to the Chicago area with another woman, without notifying family members or his employer. And for more than two decades, he stayed off the radar.

Twenty-five years later, a Dent County Sheriff's deputy named Steve Lawhead was working at the jail and looking for a challenge. He'd just spent 23 years in the military, fourteen of those as an undercover narcotics agent.

A bald man with glasses and tattooed forearms, Lawhead heard about the Judy Spencer murder and asked Sheriff Wofford for permission to work on it. He got the green light in August 2007 and requested all the highway patrol's files.

He soon learned that Sgt. Jamie Folsom at the highway patrol was already on the case. By coincidence, both men had served in the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command in Darmstadt, Germany.

"I thought, 'Oh, we'll work together great,'" says Lawhead. They had several meetings and planned for a joint investigation. But it quickly devolved into two parallel projects — and a virtual race. Each came to suspect his counterpart of withholding info.

By March 2008, as Folsom's unit was zeroing in on Doc Nash, Lawhead and his partner, deputy Mike Nivens, were focusing on Heyer.

They had good reason. Heyer's prints were now available because he'd been arrested for theft in Illinois. The deputies had asked a state lab to compare them to the prints lifted off Judy's car. On March 10, an analyst reported a match on the passenger side window. Heyer, too, had touched Judy's car.

The deputies called Heyer at his residence in Wheaton, Illinois, on March 28. Lawhead remembers his "gruff Chicago accent." According to the report, Heyer acknowledged that "if there was an abandoned car somewhere, he may have gone and looked inside of it." But he refused to meet with the deputies or give a DNA sample unless they had a court order or a warrant.

The deputies told Heyer they wished to eliminate him as a suspect. He responded, "If you want to eliminate me, hire a hitman to come up here and kill me, then you will eliminate me." Then he hung up.

Lawhead typed up a probable cause statement to arrest him. He took the print-out to Dent County Prosecutor Jessica Sparks, who was visiting his office, to solicit feedback.

Too late, she told him: She'd just charged Nash with Judy's murder.

"I was shocked," Lawhead tells RFT.

Yet when the deputies were ordered to cease their probe, Lawhead did not protest. He credits his training. "In the military, when you're told what to do, you just do it."

Lawhead resigned later that year and took a job with the Fort Leonard Wood police. He ran for Texas County Sheriff, but lost in the August primary. He put the Spencer murder behind him.

But prosecutor Sparks kept calling Lawhead to discuss the case, and her calls took on a bizarre tone. The evidence against Nash had been "tampered with," she said, and she feared Sgt. Folsom of the highway patrol had injected her with mind-altering drugs.

The Missouri Attorney General's office fielded complaints about Sparks, so they sent an investigator to Salem in April 2009. He learned that Sparks had become "obsessed" with the Spencer murder. She had failed to file 253 felonies and misdemeanors, he found, and her colleagues said she had turned "paranoid," "forgetful," "unfocused" and "dangerous" to those around her.

As the Nash case headed for trial, Sparks held meetings with Nash's defense attorney, Frank Carlson, who urged her to dismiss the murder charge — something she had the unilateral authority to do.

"I am at a loss what to do about this situation," Sparks' co-counsel, assistant attorney general Ted Bruce, wrote in a May 15 email. "You continue to meet with Mr. Carlson without my knowledge. ... The State's ability to get a fair trial has been significantly compromised ... I do not believe anyone can ethically assist in prosecuting this case with you, given your decisions and your beliefs about the evidence."

Sparks withdrew from the Nash prosecution on May 19. In a rare move, the state filed a quo warranto petition to remove her from office. She finally resigned that June — and took the Nash case file with her.

"This is very disturbing," Bruce e-mailed Carlson a week later. He felt sympathy for the prosecutor's emotional health, he wrote, but "she needs to return the file immediately."

Some of Nash's supporters believe, to this day, that a mentally ill Sparks was manipulated into filing the murder charge. Yet even if true, this would be irrelevant. Once Sparks withdrew, Ted Bruce became the sole prosecutor. He could have dismissed the charge had he considered it baseless. Instead, he pursued it. (Jessica Sparks could not be reached for comment.)

As for Lawhead, he got roped into the matter a third time in 2012 when Nash's attorneys at Bryan Cave asked for his insights into the case. He signed an affidavit for them, describing his findings on John Heyer.

"The biggest travesty of this whole investigation was that Mike and I were not allowed to continue," says Lawhead. "Everyone should've said, 'Let's put this warrant on hold and see how this other lead pans out.' Innocent people go to prison because investigations aren't thorough. Is that this kind of case? I don't know, but this case wasn't completed."

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