A bitter new trial in the murder of Susi Larsen: chronicle of Steve Duin
On the first Saturday in September, Mindy and Craig Bush held a wedding ceremony in the expansive backyard of their Aloha home. Mindy’s son, Tim Traut, and his wife had run away three years ago, and after two COVID-19 winters, it was finally time to celebrate the union with their vaccinated friends.
The family has set up a long table in the courtyard. On a tablecloth hand crocheted by the bride’s grandmother, Mindy placed photographs of loved ones who were not there.
A range of grandparents. Tim’s father, Mike, struck and killed by a New York subway train.
And, pictured in a field of tulips, Susi Larsen, Mindy’s younger sister, who was brutally raped and murdered 25 years ago, and buried on what would have been her wedding day in 1996.
Even as she was preparing for the Labor Day weekend celebration, Mindy was preparing to testify at the late August retrial of Billy Lee Oatney Jr., who was convicted of the murder of Susi in 1998 and passed away. 17 years on death row in Oregon.
In 2015, the Oregon Court of Appeal ordered a new trial in what may be the most sloppy and confrontational capital case in the history of the state. Mindy was subpoenaed to testify about Susi and the floating gold heart pendant she gave her sister in 1979.
Police found a floating heart of gold and Susi’s blood in Tigard’s apartment in Oatney a month after the murder.
But a July 29 ruling by Washington County Judge Beth Roberts significantly limited the testimony she would allow to Willford Nathaniel Johnston, the co-accused in the aggravated murder case.
Johnston said in the 1998 trial that he and Oatney tied up and raped Larsen before Oatney wrapped a plastic bag around his head. Johnston is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Roberts has ruled that if Oatney tries to attribute the murder to Johnston at the retrial, the state can call Johnston as a witness. But if Oatney’s defense attorney Rich Wolf only suggests in his introduction that Johnston committed the crime, that won’t open the door for prosecutors to put Johnston on the stand.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appealed Roberts’ decision to the Oregon Supreme Court. High Court deliberations could delay Oatney’s retrial by months.
“We all know there is a very good possibility that he will get away with it, because a lot of the evidence is suppressed,” said Mindy Bush. “My very first instinct is fear. Because I got up during the sentencing phase and told him to his face that he could rot in hell.
Two weeks after Larsen went missing in August 1996, his naked, decomposed body was found trapped under a log in Champoeg State Park.
Oatney quickly became a suspect because Larsen told friends she was going to see him about the earrings he had offered to make for her wedding. When Johnston was arrested on a parole violation charge, Tualatin Police were informed by roommates’ phone conversations from prison that Oatney may have been involved in Larsen’s disappearance.
But neither of the two roommates said all that until October 23, 1996, when Scott Upham, the Washington County District Attorney, interviewed Oatney and casually offered him immunity. “Anything you say in this interview… (and) any information we get from what you tell us,” Upham promised, “can never be used against you.”
This offer was never put in writing. Upham did not note, as usual, that the offer of immunity would be invalidated if Oatney did not tell the whole truth.
Oatney insisted that Johnston single-handedly killed Larsen after Oatney left his apartment to drink and shoot pool at the Wichita pub in Tualatin.
When detectives played the recording of this conversation to Johnston, according to court records, “Johnston’s face turned beet red, and he clenched and clenched his fists.” Over the next two days, he set the record straight, telling the story that secured him a true life sentence and put Oatney on death row.
The new trial? I am only surprised that it took 17 years for the Court of Appeal to find fault in Oatney’s conviction. Judge Timothy Sercombe argued, convincingly, that because Johnston’s angry rebuttal was a direct result of Oatney’s immune statements, Johnston’s testimony should not have been allowed in the 1998 trial.
Rosenblum’s office and Bracken McKey, the Washington County Assistant District Attorney, have no arguments with this. As McKey told Roberts in a July 27 hearing, he knows he can’t use Johnston’s tainted testimony in Oatney’s new trial.
But McKey added that he could call Johnston as a witness in 2021 if “the defense opens the door to that by trying to push this (murder) on Willford Johnston … If that makes him say,” I want to tell you what really happened ”, he should have the ability to do so. It does not violate the decision of the Court of Appeal and it does not violate the 1996 immunity agreement. “
“Of course it does,” Roberts replied.
Until the Supreme Court rules, Mindy Bush will have to deal with fear, exhaustion and emotions that she finds it hard to define. “Anger is definitely a part of it,” she says, “but that’s not what drives me. I don’t know what the word is. Frustration? Sadness?
“Sadness is the greatest. Not having my sister in my life. This photo? Susi in the tulip fields? It was so much her.