Fresh off the night shift at the Houston well-drilling company where he worked as a roustabout, Steve Fossum, 22, pulled into the driveway of his rented home in the early hours of Oct. 26, 1984 to find a posse of sheriff’s deputies lying in wait. Pulling their guns and training them on the plump, slow-moving Fossum, the lawmen handcuffed their bewildered prey. “I didn’t know what they were arresting me for,” Fossum remembers. “When I asked one of them, he said it was for sexual assault or somethin’. I said, ‘Whoa, you got the wrong guy.’ But they didn’t listen.”
Nobody did. After the Texas judicial system had had its way with him, the laconic high school dropout, who had drifted south from his native Mabel, Minn, in 1981 looking for work, became Inmate No. 376364 in the state pen. Convicted of rape, Fossum was handed a 12-year sentence. His protestations of innocence went unheard. Until two television reporters from his native Minnesota began probing State of Texas vs. Steven Lynn Fossum, it looked as though he would be behind bars for a long while.
But Steve Fossum, now 24, went free in July, and when he walked out of the state prison in Huntsville, reporters Al Austin and Andy Greenspan of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis were there to meet him. Working relentlessly for months, the journalists had put together an hour-long documentary that aired last spring in Minneapolis and Houston demonstrating the shakiness of the case against Fossum. Exposing sloppiness and sloth on the part of police and Fossum’s own attorney, Austin and Greenspan had found crucial physical evidence that had been overlooked during the roustabout’s trial. And while some Texans were irked, the exposé couldn’t be ignored: In late July, Texas Gov. Mark White pardoned Fossum. “I didn’t think too much of reporters at first,” Fossum says now, “but these here did a real good job.”
Austin, 52, a graying newsroom veteran who has worked at Minneapolis’ CBS affiliate for 17 years, and Greenspan, a 30-year-old New York native with a master’s degree in journalism, are part of an investigative group with an impressive record: WCCO’s I-Team, as it is called, has won honors that include the Peabody Award and two community service Emmys. Their probe into the Fossum case was prompted by calls from his friends and relatives in Mabel (a hamlet of 888 people 130 miles from Minneapolis), who said that easygoing Steve simply wasn’t the kind to commit rape. Despite Fossum’s hometown champions, Greenspan approached the investigation with “natural skepticism.” Prison inmates, he notes, are “always saying they’re innocent. It was a roller coaster type of story—we didn’t know what we’d uncover. All along, we realized we might still find evidence that Steve was guilty.”
The reporters first flew to Texas last October, met Fossum in prison and soon had him take two independently administered lie detector tests about the rapes he said he didn’t commit. He passed both tests. Their skepticism partly allayed, Greenspan and Austin turned to the arduous task of interviewing witnesses and sorting through records of the crimes. “We spent two or three days a week in Houston for several months,” says Austin. “We became immersed in the story, since we didn’t have any distractions.”
The first rape the journalists investigated was an Aug. 3, 1982 attack on a young teacher known to the court as “Janet.” A tall, heavyset man had knocked on the door of her suburban home, forced his way inside and subjected her to an hour-long sexual assault. Afterward, he tied her up face down on the floor and balanced a jar of pennies on her back, saying he would hear the telltale jingle if she moved, and fled. When the police met with the traumatized victim to draw a composite sketch of her assailant, “Janet’s” fiancé was glancing over the artist’s shoulder. Seven weeks later, the fiancé spotted a man at a gas station who he thought strongly resembled the composite drawing of the rapist. The man was Steve Fossum, and police arrested him three days later.
Fossum was free on $10,000 bail when he was arrested for a second attack. A 21-year-old woman named Linda Wade told police that when she stopped at a convenience store on the night of Aug. 14, 1983, a tall, heavyset man with brown hair had parked his old, light blue Monte Carlo behind her Datsun 280Z, blocking her exit. Brandishing a closed pocketknife, he commanded her to get into her car and follow him. She obliged, following the man off into the night. After trying to dodge down a side street in her car, Wade told police, she was overtaken, forced off the road and raped. Shown a photo of Fossum by police, she identified him as the rapist.
When Greenspan and Austin began investigating the crimes, inconsistencies emerged almost immediately. In the October 1983 trial for “Janet’s” rape, crucial defense points had been ignored: The attacker had choked her with both hands; Fossum had a freshly broken thumb at the time of the attack, and it would have been nearly impossible for him to use his injured hand. “Janet” had told an I-Team producer that the rapist was circumcised, and Fossum was not.
Further digging revealed that fingerprints taken from the crime scene were not compared with Fossum’s. An I-Team test finally showed no match. Furthermore, in the months following the attack on “Janet,” a man who always left a jar of pennies on the backs of his bound victims had raped five other Houston women. All these victims had been shown a photo of Fossum, and only one of them (who subsequently refused to press the case) identified him.
The contradictions in the Wade case were even more dramatic. Greenspan and Austin found the victim in the Harris County jail, where she was serving time for fraud and forgery. Strangely enough, she was eager to talk, but the reporters say she offered lies and half-truths that often seemed gratuitous. For example, Wade said she had been a security guard in Colorado and had rescued her employer from a kidnapper, but Greenspan found she had been on the job only a week before she was fired for lying. Reviewing Wade’s account of the rape, the two found that Fossum’s car did indeed have a broken taillight, like the assailant’s car she had described to police. But Fossum’s car was a different make and color from that of her alleged attacker. The reporters also were surprised to learn that police had never visited the crime scene or attempted to see if a car like Steve’s cumbersome Chevy could overtake a powerful 280Z, as Linda had claimed.
The most significant evidence, however—the evidence that eventually led to Fossum’s pardon—was a scientific analysis of the semen collected from Wade at the hospital on the night of the rape. (Police had deemed the original test “inconclusive.”) Greenspan and Austin recruited San Francisco biologist Brian Wraxall—a Scotland Yard alumnus who is an expert in semen identification—and, with his help, established two key facts: first, that there were two separate types of semen collected from Wade, and second, that neither was Fossum’s.
In the end, even Fossum’s prison guards were convinced: “They told me [after seeing the documentary] that they had taken a vote and all of them had voted I was innocent,” says Steve.
While the I-Team report was enough for Steve’s jailers, there are those who insist that Fossum is a guilty man. “He’s still a rapist as far as I’m concerned,” says Harris County detective Art Woolery, a respected sex crimes expert who investigated the Wade case. “And the sad part is that if they’re wrong, he’ll have another victim someday.”
Greenspan and Austin, however, are understandably jubilant. “It was very satisfying to see him strolling out of prison,” Austin says. Adds Greenspan, “It’s a good feeling to do a story that really makes a difference in someone’s life. [But] it’s a sad commentary on our society—it makes me wonder how many other Steve Fossums are in prisons across the country.”