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Zeeland murderer maintains her innocence in Netflix documentary

By Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Oct 17, 2017 at 11:00 AM

Fourteen years ago, Zeeland resident Karen Boes was sentenced to life without parole for murdering her 14-year-old daughter. Since then, Boes has been serving her sentence at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

She was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder of her daughter, Robin, following an arson fire at their family home in July 2002.

To this day, Boes maintains she is innocent of the crime. Now, a Netflix documentary is bringing Boes’ case to the forefront again. The documentary, called “The Confession Tapes,” claims Boes was a victim of a false confession and was wrongfully convicted. As Boes’ case gets more attention from the documentary, which was released Sept. 8, her supporters are gaining hope that Boes could be released from prison.

The facts

On Tuesday, July 30, 2002, a neighbor called 911 at 9:01 a.m. to report a visible fire at the Boes’ house, 523 Williams St. in Zeeland. Boes lived at the house with her husband, Wayne, and their two children, Bill and Robin. Upon investigation, firefighters found Robin’s body in her room. She died of smoke inhalation. The fire forensics report states Robin’s body was found face-down on the floor of her bedroom between the foot of her bed and a large circular chair.

Robin had soot and burns on her face, neck, arms, legs and back, but the front of her body was not burned. She had extensive soot deposits in her windpipe and air passages to her lungs. Robin was found wearing underwear and a halter top, but no shoes or pants. She was pronounced dead at the scene. The fire was extinguished by firefighters by 9:21 a.m., burning for 20 minutes.

Zeeland Police Chief Bill Olney, who was also the Boes’ neighbor, said a gas accelerant was used to start the fire, according to Sentinel archives. A plastic gas can — missing from the Boes home for several weeks prior to the fire — was found in the center of Robin’s room. Gas was found on the bedroom carpet.

Both Bill and Wayne Boes were at work at Jay’s Body Shop, which Wayne Boes owned, when the fire started, according to police. Karen Boes told police she was on her way to Grand Rapids with her friend, Judy Payne, to go shopping when she heard about the fire. She told police she left the house at 8:55 a.m. to meet her friend.

The documentary

Boes is featured in episode four of the seven-episode documentary on Netflix. The episode, called “Trial by Fire,” features interviews with attorneys from the trial, Boes and her friends. The series was created and directed by Kelly Loudenberg. Each episode in the documentary focuses on a different criminal case. Loudenberg wanted to create a series about cases involving potentially false confessions.

“I’ve always been interested in getting the disenfranchised a voice,” Loudenberg said. “The thing I was most surprised to learn is that there are a lot of cases like this.”

When Loudenberg starting gathering cases to feature in the documentary, she reached out to Attorney Steve Drizin at the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Boes’ case is one that has haunted Drizin for years.

“When (Loudenberg) called me, Karen Boes was the first one on my list of cases that keep me up at night,” Drizin said.

Just after Boes was convicted in 2003, her sister contacted Drizin in the hopes he could help. At the time, Drizin wasn’t able to assist, but tried to find the family a lawyer who could take the case.

“In that process, I reviewed the interrogation tapes,” he said. “I never forgot them. To me, they are some of the most psychologically coercive techniques I’ve ever seen.

“I’m 100 percent convinced of her innocence. The story makes no sense at all.”

The twists and turns in Boes’ case appealed to Loudenberg as a filmmaker, she said. At the heart of the matter were two things: Boes’ police interrogation and the arson science used against her in court.

“There were all these things about this case that told me that fault did not lie with Karen,” Loudenberg said. “She denied it so many times, and I just couldn’t figure out what in the world went wrong here. This is not your typical murderer. Karen’s a nice older lady, she’s like my mom. I hope there’s a way to find justice for her.”

The interrogation

Calling The Sentinel from prison, Boes holds steadfast to her innocence.

“I will maintain I’m innocent until whenever,” she said. “It just is what it is. If I said anything different, I didn’t live that.”

Where she went wrong, she said, was many hours of interrogation over several days with Zeeland police. At no point did Boes have an attorney with her, which she said would have made all the difference.

A few days after they buried Robin, Wayne and Karen Boes went to the Zeeland Police Department so Karen could write a statement for police. That turned in to at least eight hours of questioning by Olney and a few other officers.

During the interrogation, Boes repeatedly said she was not at home when the fire started, nor did she know anything about the fire. At first, police thought the fire was either an accident or that Robin had started the fire herself. It took more than a month for police to rule Robin’s death a homicide.

The interrogation was friendly when it began. Olney and Boes were neighbors, and she felt comfortable talking to him.

“I was very naive,” Boes said. “They told me that they just wanted to find out what happened to my daughter, like I did.”

At some point during the interrogation, police administered a polygraph test to Boes. The polygraph test raised red flags for police after Boes failed the test. Polygraph tests are not admissible in criminal trials in Michigan, but can be used as a tool for police to determine someone’s truthfulness.

Once the polygraph test was done, police considered Boes to be a suspect. Boes continued to assert her innocence, but police kept pressing. Olney began to lie to Boes about evidence from the case, telling her that her fingerprints were found on the gas can. This is a legal tactic for police to use.

In a 2014 article for the American Psychological Association, authors Cynthia Najdowski and Catherine Bonventre explain why police may use this technique to extract information from suspects.

“Although police have long been prohibited from using physical force, they are able to use a variety of powerful psychological ploys to extract confessions from criminal suspects, including the use of deception during interrogation,” the authors wrote. “For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed police to falsely claim that a suspect’s confederate confessed when in fact he had not and to have found a suspect’s fingerprints at a crime scene when there were none.”

As the interrogation continued, police asked Boes to imagine how she would have set the fire if she had done it in a dream or if she had lost her mind and set the fire without knowing she had done it.

When Boes began to doubt her memory of the incident, police used this tactic to try and get Boes to remember what may have happened.

“Getting the suspect to delve into the deep recesses of their memories to come up with a story of how they might have been involved in the crime is a very dangerous technique,” Drizin said. “It allows police to manipulate memories. Karen never actually confessed, but to a jury, those kinds of statements feel like a confession and they’re very difficult to undo without an expert to explain what is going on.

“These statements should never have been allowed in front of a jury.”

Looking back at the case, this is where Boes said she went wrong. Had she had an attorney during these conversations, she thinks she wouldn’t be in jail.

“I do very specifically remember asking during the interrogations if I needed an attorney,” Boes said. “They told me I didn’t. We were friends, I took care of (Olney’s) kids. I was just too trusting. It was just a matter of misguided trust.”

Olney, who declined to participate in the documentary, said that’s not how he remembers it.

“It happened in 2002-03, so without going back to my notes, it’s very difficult to respond to specific questions,” he said. “If she had asked for a lawyer, we would have stopped talking until she had a chance to talk to one.”

Some of Boes’ friends and supporters were also frustrated that Boes was interviewed by her neighbor and friend. Olney said that was all above-board, too.

“The circumstances of the interview that day were such that all of a sudden, she was willing to talk,” Olney said. “She was willing to talk with me, but nobody else. If she was going to talk, then that’s who was going to talk to her.”

Olney said he has not watched the documentary and does not plan to.

“It doesn’t interest me,” he said.

The arson science

Along with what Loudenberg calls a false and coerced confession, the documentary about Boes also focuses on the arson science used in the trial. Prosecuting attorney and current circuit court Judge Jon Hulsing got a nationally known fire expert to testify at the trial.

John DeHaan, who was then president of Fire-Ex Forensics Inc., testified that the fatal fire started in the hallway outside Robin’s bedroom. His theory was that Boes had spread gasoline in her daughter’s bedroom, closed the door to the bedroom almost all the way, lit the fire and then left the house. DeHaan used burn patterns on the floor, door, walls and Robin’s body to explain this theory to the jury.

Boes’ clothes, shoes and car were tested to see if gas was present on them, and none was found. However, police used a dog that could allegedly detect the smell of fire accelerants and found a small amount of gas on a chair in the master bedroom of the house. At the trial, the dog was put on the witness stand. This practice is no longer allowed in court.

In 2015, it was recommended that DeHaan be expelled from the Ethics Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences after failing to correct his testimony in a Louisiana case where three children died in a house fire. Years later, he withdrew his report that the Louisiana fire was intentional.

“There’s a moment in the tapes that is really powerful where the prosecutor said he wanted the best expert, so he got the guy that wrote the book on arson,” Drizin said. “Well, what if that book is a work of fiction? It was a case of unreliable statements plus unreliable science.”

During the appeal process, a second well-known fire expert from Arizona looked at the Boes case. He had a different take on the fire.

David Smith, the appellate fire expert, said Robin set the fire herself in her bedroom, and that the presence of the gasoline in the hallway came from the fire spreading under the door and into the hallway.

“Responsibility for this fire and the resulting death of Robin Boes rests with Robin Boes,” Smith wrote in his report. “The state’s experts have selectively ‘interpreted’ data to indicate that Karen Boes intentionally started this fire. ... In fact, no data in the form of physical evidence is present to justify that premise.”

The trial

At the trial, Hulsing made the case against Boes. He said Boes and her daughter fought all the time, and that Boes was an alcoholic who had an affair. Boes and her daughter did fight, she was an alcoholic going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and had an affair that ended in the late 1990s.

“Robin just gave Karen and Wayne nothing but fits,” said Roberta Geminder, Boes’ aunt.

The trial lasted three weeks, and many people took the witness stand. Hulsing was adamant Boes had started the fire out of anger toward her daughter.

“Karen didn’t like Robin,” Hulsing said in the documentary. “She hated her. Those were her words.”

During the trial, 16 hours of police interrogation recordings were played for the jury.

“Oh, Robin. I’m so sorry if I lost it and burned you. I’m so sorry, dear,” Boes said in the tapes played at trial, according to The Sentinel’s archives. “I don’t know if I lost it or what. Apparently I did. That’s what you’re telling me. You know, you guys are looking for answers that I don’t have the answers to.”

Later on, the prosecutor played a portion of the interrogation where Boes was talking to her husband about what police were asking her.

“The facts are right there, Wayne. I did it,” she told him. “I killed our daughter. I could have easily went insane temporarily for five minutes. I must have just went crazy and lost control.

“The evidence shows I did it. As far as the story goes, I think I got talked into it and that’s OK. I’ll take the rap. I’m not going to keep fighting this.”

Boes’ supporters, however, are convinced Robin started the fire herself, either on purpose or on accident.

After more than 12 hours of deliberation, the jury announced Boes was guilty of killing her daughter.

At the sentencing, Boes read the following statement in court:

“I am going to be going (sic) to prison for the rest of my life for something I never even thought of doing. There is another day of judgment that we all have to face before almighty God. I shall not stand accountable for the crime I’ve been convicted of.”

The appeal

In December 2004, an appeal Karen Boes had filed with the state of Michigan about her case was denied. In the appeal, Boes claims police interrogated her and failed to advise her of her Miranda rights, which include telling the suspect that they have the right to an attorney. Boes also claimed her statements to police were not voluntary and for those two reasons, her statements to police should not have been been allowed in court during the trial.

In the written opinion from the appellate panel, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision on both these matters. Because Boes was not in custody during the interrogation and came to the police station willingly, police were not required to read her a list of rights.

“Police need give Miranda warnings only when an accused ‘is interrogated while in custody, not simply when he is the focus of the investigation,’” the decision reads.

At this point, Boes has exhausted her appeals options. However, that doesn’t mean she’s out of luck. Drizen said he is trying to get Boes’ case back in the courtroom.

“I am actively shopping her case to other lawyers within the innocence movement to do a leave-no-stone-unturned review,” Drizen said. “I think that there are avenues left.”

A hope for freedom?

Drizin said the best chance for Boes to have another trial would be to show that there are new developments in the case since the original trial, similar to when new DNA evidence is found in an old conviction. In this case, Drizin thinks that would be new evidence about fire science changing or new information that would discredit the fire science presented at the original trial.

“If there is newly developed evidence since her appeal that further undermines the science or credibility of the arson testimony or the state’s expert, that might be a way back into court,” he said.

But getting back into the courtroom isn’t the only chance for Boes to be let free. Boes hopes for executive clemency, where the governor of Michigan would have to pardon her. Both of these routes is a long shot, something Boes knows.

“I hope people give me another chance,” Boes said. “Bottom line, I wasn’t even there, so I really would hope that they look at the new science.”

As for Hulsing, he has no doubt about his prosecution of the case and that Boes is where she belongs now.

“Twelve members of the community looked her in the eye and said, ‘We find you guilty of murdering your 14-year-old daughter,’” Hulsing said in the documentary. “That says it all.”

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