This narrative describes information brought forth by the supporters of the “Michael Chapel is Innocent” Project. No one from the prosecution or investigative process initially reached out to offer their story, but I encouraged them to contact me and share their version of events. Later I was contacted by former District Attorney Danny Porter. We had multiple interviews, and the link to those articles can be found below. I also interviewed Mike Chapel, and those interview links are below as well.
One fact, in this case, is irrefutable. 53-year-old grandmother, Emogene Thompson of Sugar Hill, was found dead in her car on April 16, 1993. She had been shot twice in the head.
In the days following the discovery of Emogene Thompson’s body at the Gwinnco Muffler Shop in Sugar Hill, GA., the Gwinnett County Police set up roadblocks in front of the business on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, in the hopes of finding witnesses from the evening of April 15.
The sun had set on April 15th, the day of Thompson’s murder, at 8:08 PM. With only a crescent moon (approximately 1/3 of a full moon’s brightness), visibility was far from clear. At the time, the area was receiving a steady, heavy rain, with the Atlanta metro area bracing for potential tornadoes. Hail and high winds were also in the region that night. With the coroner estimatingThompson’s time of death at around 10 PM, the conditions in the area at that time would have been far from ideal for witness identification.
Witnesses often play a significant role in criminal cases, and this was no exception. The case’s lead investigator for the Gwinnett County Police Department, Jack Burnette, was an officer with years of experience. In his handwritten notes, dated April 23, 1993, the day of Chapel’s arrest, he wrote a very peculiar line, “May want to manufactor (sp) wit, which in all likelihood means “may want to manufacture witnesses.” Chapel supporters believe that the manufacturing of witnesses is precisely what happened, and they offer several examples of what they say is definitive proof. Burnette’s note is shown below.
Several of the witnesses discovered from the roadblock were never called to testify, as their version of what they saw did not fit the narrative of the DA’s case. With the stormy weather conditions and a dark night sky making accurate descriptions challenging, there were variances in their recollections. For example, some witnesses said they saw flashing blue lights. Others did not.
One witness uncovered in the roadblock was a then 18-year-old female. She told police she had seen a police car at the location with a dome light on and a white man wearing a rain suit. She later shared that she had felt “stalked” by the DA’s team, having them show up at her home and office, trying to mold her testimony to fit their narrative. She recalled being told about Chapel, “He’s such a bad guy. It would be OK to identify him.”
The news of the murder spread quickly, and the police had been overrun with calls, many they could not take. Days later, they approached Bell South to obtain information on calls they may have missed. This process led to two witnesses. One who later testified for the prosecution was Karl Kautter. He was considered the state’s most important witness, as he was the only one to identify Chapel being near the scene.
Kautter was presented a photo lineup, from which he identified Chapel. Like the lineup showed to all witnesses, Chapel was the only officer shown included from his precinct. The lineup array also was designed to feature Chapel more prominently. It was different than the lineup offered to NBC for inclusion in one of their Dateline episodes focusing on the case.
Two “ear witnesses” that heard shots lived approximately one mile from the murder scene. However, none of the eyewitnesses heard gunshots, even though they were substantially closer, nor did anyone else near the muffler shop.
Kautter had been in a vehicle with another witness as they passed the crime scene. The driver, Paul Omodt, described the man he saw at the scene as no more than 6’2” tall and of average build. In his trial testimony, he stated a height of not more than 6 feet. Omodt, when asked how he could tell the man was 6 feet tall, replied because that was how tall he was. Kautter offered a similar description initially but then picked Chapel (6’7”) out from the questionable photo lineup. Below is a comparison of a man fitting the witness description versus someone Chapel’s size.
In 2011, Kautter, through his attorney, Jeff Silz, reached out to Chapel’s legal team and the Chapel family to share what he said was the truth about what he saw and his testimony. He stated that he had not wanted to testify in the 1995 trial but felt pressured by the DA’s office. He claims that he was “schooled” by officials from the DA’s office on what to say. He recalled that he was not sworn in when taking the witness stand for his afternoon testimony. The transcript confirms this. He has attempted to go public with the correct version of events but says he has been threatened with perjury if he does so. In his words, he says that Mike Chapel “got a raw deal” in this case.
Several witnesses also saw a Gwinnett County police car around the estimated time Thompson was determined to have been murdered. In 1993, Gwinnett County was transitioning from the square-shaped, boxy late 80’s Ford LTD to the rounded current version. As you can see in the images below, the two styles are distinctly different. The witnesses that saw a police car on the scene described it as the older, boxy version with a dominant yellow stripe. Chapel, however, was driving the current version, also shown below. Note the difference in the appearance of the cars overall and of the stripes.
Another discrepancy is in the description of the rain cover on the hat of the described officer. The standard-issue by GCPD was a Smoky-style cap that officers covered during rain periods. Witnesses said the individual they saw at the scene was wearing a yellow rain cover over the hat, but Chapel’s was transparent over a dark hat.
Another witness described a second car at the crime scene as smoking heavily, obscuring a clear visual of three or four persons at the scene. While the police car Chapel drove did not smoke, a Buick owned by the victim’s son was widely known for emitting heavy smoke.
There are a couple of facts that readers should know about this case. First, an alternate juror, who did not vote in the verdict, Phillip Sullivan, felt very strongly that the case against Chapel was “flimsy and circumstantial.” He felt so passionately about his position that he dedicated the rest of his life to professing Chapel’s innocence and working to overturn the conviction.
Danny Porter was the Gwinnett County District Attorney who prosecuted Chapel. First elected to office in 1992, his bid for re-election to an eighth term in 2020 was unsuccessful, losing to Patsy Austin-Gatson. One of Austin-Gatson’s first actions in her new position was establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit to examine convictions under Porter’s administration.
I had attempted to contact Johnny Moore, the attorney that represented Chapel in his trial, through a mutual friend. Sadly, Moore, who had retired to Florida, had passed away just days before.
In the next chapter, we’ll review the physical evidence in the case and why the “Mike Chapel is Innocent” members believe it to be inaccurate.
Link to series introduction
Chapter two; the prosecution’s evidence
Chapter three; Timeline and alibi
Chapter four; Questionable Acts by Investigators and Prosecutors
Chapter five; Questions that need to be answered
Chapter six; The Mike Chapel interview, chapter one
Chapter six, continued; The Mike Chapel interview, part two
Interview with D.A. Danny Porter, Chapter one
Interview with D.A. Danny Porter, Chapter two