This report aired Dateline Friday, July 23, 9 p.m./8 C.
A bullet fired from a gun travels 1000 feet a second or more. One such bullet, a .22 weighing just 35 grains, took down an 18-year-old boy in an instant ... and flung once-close friends into an endless cycle of guilt, pain and recrimination.
JARED GILKENSON: I've been beating myself up for—for 11 years over this thing.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Sometimes I set it aside because you have to. You have to go on and live. But it's in my mind a lot.
DAVID STEBBINS: Never in 1,000 years, you know, you would think that this would happen to you.
A snap-your-fingers moment of horror at a teenage party that would reverberate for years to come…
JANE THOMPSON: It's a nightmare... just can't wake up from it.
The town of Plainfield in eastern Connecticut is where this story plays out – an old Yankee mill town, where everybody knows everybody, the kind of safe and friendly place where Scott and Jane Thompson wanted to raise their son, Ryan.
SCOTT THOMPSON: It was the hometown American neighborhood.
DENNIS MURPHY: They're in and out of one another's houses, riding bikes, doing stuff.
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SCOTT THOMPSON: Right.
DENNIS MURPHY: Tell me about Ryan.
JANE THOMPSON: Easy kid. Happy-go-lucky and lots of friends in the neighborhood.
Brandy Stebbins and her brother Dave lived across the street.
DENNIS MURPHY: It was a pretty close-knit group of kids, wasn't it?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Yeah. Pretty much. They called it "curbside" because they would sit on the curb and look at the people driving by and say hello to all the people they know.
Jared Gilkenson, another friend, lived one street up.
JARED GILKENSON: Growing up in that small neighborhood your whole life, you go through your ups and downs with each other, but you become the best of friends.
Ups and downs... The four friends all had some.
Brandy became a single mom at age 19.
Dave and Jared struggled in school at times – Ryan, too.
SCOTT THOMPSON: He was getting disgruntled with high school. He was thinking about going into the Marines, actually. And I was thankful that—for that, because to me, if you stay in a small town and you don't go away to school or you don't have a trade, you can get in trouble.
April 18, 1998, a Saturday… Ryan's parents were out of town. Ryan went over to Dave and Brandy's house around noon.
BRANDY GILKENSON: He was funny. He was always joking and being goofy and laughing.
DENNIS MURPHY: Now, were you guys thinking about being boyfriend/girlfriend at the time or something or—
BRANDY GILKENSON: We—we had just started dating, yes, if you could call it that.
Jared was there. His parents too, were out of town.
JARED GILKENSON: There's an 18-pack of beer and—we were just hanging out at the house. Got the grill going, music going.
DAVE STEBBINS: Ended up gettin' a phone call from another young lady that we knew from school, who told us about a party that was goin' on and that we should—we should all come.
DENNIS MURPHY: So that sounds cool, huh?
DAVID STEBBINS: Yeah, sounds great.
Brandy hadn't been drinking, so they all piled into her car and arrived at the party around 9 PM. It was in full swing.
BRANDY GILKENSON: There was music coming, you could hear it...
DENNIS MURPHY: Keg of beer or BYO or—
BRANDY GILKENSON: It was bring your own booze.
DENNIS MURPHY: Was there dope smoking?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Off in another room I think that people were smoking pot and whatever.
DENNIS MURPHY: A little beer, a little drugs?
DAVID STEBBINS: Yep.
Dave says everything was cool until his new girlfriend Erin spotted him – and so did her ex-boyfriend.
DAVID STEBBINS: She came over and started hanging on me, and that kind of upset him.
Eventually Dave says he and the ex-boyfriend exchanged words and went outside....
DAVID STEBBINS: Everybody was, like, ‘Ah, a fight, a fight, a fight.’
DENNIS MURPHY: And the guy throwing the party says, ‘Here's trouble.’
DAVID STEBBINS: Right.
DENNIS MURPHY: So, you're out.
DAVID STEBBINS: Absolutely.
JARED GILKENSON: Dave told me, ‘Go get my sister, and Ryan, and let's get out of here.’
DENNIS MURPHY: What kind of shape was Ryan in, Jared?
JARED GILKENSON: He was—he was buzzing, but he wasn't out of control.
It would be hotly disputed later, but the four friends say they simply got into Brandy's car and left...
JARED GILKENSON: We were driving away and I remember a 40-ounce bottle going right by the car and smashing on the road, like they were throwing beer bottles at our car when we left.
BRANDY GILKENSON: We stopped the car a little bit down the road because Erin was out there and she was very upset, crying.
DENNIS MURPHY: This was the girlfriend who was the cause of the fight.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Right. She was crying. So we said, ‘We'll come back for you.’
DENNIS MURPHY: So you decided even then that you and Ryan were going to go back to the party?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Yes. Uh-huh.
DENNIS MURPHY: Even though there was this kind of bad vibe thing going on?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Well, Ryan and I didn't have any issue with anybody.
Or did they? Shortly after they dropped Dave and Jared off, the phone at Dave's house started ringing.
DAVID STEBBINS: It's some girl crying and screaming at me saying, ‘You guys shot him in the head. You shot him in the head.’ I thought it was somebody crank-calling me.
DENNIS MURPHY: So you didn't know what was going down?
DAVID STEBBINS: Had no clue.
Brandy says she and Ryan didn't either, until a carload of teenagers flagged them down on their way back to the party.
BRANDY GILKENSON: They said there was a shooting. They said Dave Stebbins had done the shooting.
DENNIS MURPHY: Dave Stebbins, your brother?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Correct. We said, ‘That's impossible. We just dropped him off at home.’
Brandy and Ryan continued on to the party and pulled up to flashing police lights and an ambulance. The host of the party saw Ryan and pointed him out to a police officer.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Ryan, he tried asking the police, you know, ‘What—what's going on, why are they saying this?’
DENNIS MURPHY: And apparently he kept talking and making a little bit more of a ruckus than he should have.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Right. He was impatient, he was drinking, you know, had been drinking.
DENNIS MURPHY: So here's—here's the town officer with this drunk kid in his face.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Pretty much.
DENNIS MURPHY: And he ends up, what, in the back of the car?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Right.
DENNIS MURPHY: He's busted.
BRANDY GILKENSON: He got arrested for breach of peace because he wouldn't stop asking, you know, asking them questions.
Her friend Ryan under arrest, her brother Dave accused of shooting someone… Brandy says none of it made any sense.
BRANDY GILKENSON: I just thought it was a terrible misunderstanding and that it would be cleared up with – you know, within no time.
She could not have been more wrong.
Even as four teenage friends were being sucked into the confused aftermath of a shooting at a party, another family was being pulled into something much worse.
DENNIS MURPHY: When you look through your old family albums, what do you see Rob doing? What's—what's the happiest picture you like?
NANCY MCCAFFREY: They're all happy. He has a smile in every picture.
18-year-old Rob McCaffery loved life and had lots of friends.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: He was full of gusto and he found good in everything and everyone.
His mother thought nothing of it when he went to a party the night of April 18, 1998, but it turned out to be the party that changed everything.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: The phone rang at 10:30, and it was Meredith, his friend Meredith, screaming into the phone, ‘Rob's been shot.’ And I said, ‘Where?’ And she just kept screaming.
It was the same party the four friends went to where Dave had an argument over a girl, where a shot was fired.
Rob McCaffery was the one who got hit. He was sitting on a rooftop with a friend when a single bullet, seemingly out of nowhere, pierced his skull. Rob's mom raced to the hospital.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: He was in intensive care, and—excuse me. We went in there and he had tubes coming out everywhere on him. I held his hand and laid my head next to him and begged for him to fight.
Who shot Rob McCaffery? Suspicion settled almost immediately on the four friends who'd left the party after one of them got in a hassle and had gottenkicked out. Ryan Thompson was already under arrest for disturbing the peace. Now major crime squad detectives came for his buddies Jared and Dave.
DAVE STEBBINS: We all thought it was kind of a joke at first.
JARED GILKENSON: They get us in the car, and they're cracking jokes. They're letting us smoke in the car. And I'm naïve to this whole situation.
Jared says he started to wise up at the police station.
JARED GILKENSON: They swab my hands for GSR. And at this point, I'm—
DENNIS MURPHY: Gun shot residue?
JARED GILKENSON: Yes. At this point—starting to wonder. This doesn't seem to be standard..
Dave Stebbins was also tested for gunshot residue...
DENNIS MURPHY: They accused you of being the gunman.
DAVID STEBBINS: Yes.
DENNIS MURPHY: What'd you think?
DAVID STEBBINS: I thought, ‘You're outta your mind. You know, I didn't do this. I got nothing to hide.’
Ryan was in a cell just down the hall.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you know that he was also in that same police station?
DAVID STEBBINS: Well, I knew once I heard him—you know, screamin' out of his cell down—you know.
DENNIS MURPHY: He was wailing away back there in the cell.
DAVID STEBBINS: Yes.
If all this sounds ominous, Jared and Dave say it didn't seem that way to them.
DAVID STEBBINS: They weren't drilling us. They just wanted to know what we did when we got in the car and left.
JARED GILKENSON: They take a statement from me, and ask everybody I can remember who was at the party. ‘Did you see anything?’ ‘No.’ You know, and the interview was over.
The police dropped the friends off at Dave's house around 4:30 in the morning.
DENNIS MURPHY: And what were you thinkin' had just happened here?
DAVID STEBBINS: I didn't know. But I wasn't worried about it, 'cause I had done nothing.
Or so he claimed. So they all claimed. But police were getting a very different picture. First, there was the behavior of Ryan Thompson. He'd been arrested for disturbing the peace, but seemed to think he was in much more serious trouble.
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: He's behaving completely irrationally. He's swearing at them. He's being belligerent. He sits there and says, ‘What was he shot with, a .22?’
DENNIS MURPHY: What is that moment?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: That was the jaw-dropping moment for the detectives. They didn't even know at that point what type of weapon had been used in this incident.
DENNIS MURPHY: In fact, the teenager had been shot with a .22.
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: And all of a sudden, Thompson quiets down and sees that they have—have concerns with that. And then he says, ‘Or—or—or maybe it was a shotgun.’
Then, the next morning, there was the statement of a witness at the party. A man named Bobby LaTour – he told police that when the four friends left the party, they didn't leave quietly.
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: LaTour said that Stebbins had left the car, pointed the rifle at him, threatened LaTour with the rifle. He then said that Stebbins got back into the car.
In other words, according to LaTour, the four friends had a gun. But that wasn't all… LaTour said the car moved a short distance, stopped, and he saw Ryan get out.
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: He sees him carrying what—what he thought was a rifle. He sees him running between two houses. A short time later, he hears the pop.
That statement jibed with one from the host of the party, Ron Harding. He said he saw a man in a white jacket, like the one Ryan was wearing, run from between the two houses to the car, right after hearing a ‘pop.’
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: Harding saw the same individual getting back into the car and then the car leaving the scene.
Those two witnesses made Ryan Thompson the chief suspect in the shooting, his friends suspected accomplices. At about the same time, Rob McCaffery's parents watched, helpless, as their son slipped away.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: He just never woke up. They had to try to let him breathe on his own. And then we had to make the decision to have the ventilator turned off.
DENNIS MURPHY: And your Rob was gone.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: He was.
Now it was a murder case. The four friends, right in the middle of it…
A gentle kid shot to death at a teenage party… Four friends under suspicion… Police finally released the last of them, Ryan Thompson about 4:00AM. He went to his friend Brandy's house.
BRANDY STEBBINS: He was telling my mother, ‘They're trying to pin this on me, Mrs. Stebbins.’ And she was saying, ‘Don't worry, Ryan. You know, you didn't do anything wrong. It'll—you know, it's gonna work out.’
But Brandy became concerned when detectives questioned her in a squad car a few hours later.
BRANDY GILKENSON: They wouldn't really write down the things I was saying. They were saying, ‘Well, you're leaving stuff out,’ and I was saying, ‘I’m really not.’ And I eventually got frustrated and said, ‘This is over,’ and got out of the car and went in the house.
Ryan's parents, out of town for the weekend, knew nothing about what had happened until they got a cryptic call from their son Sunday morning.
SCOTT THOMPSON: … saying that there'd been a problem at the party the night before, and he'd gotten arrested for breach of peace. And he said, ‘You know, no rush to get home. Don't ruin your weekend.’
DENNIS MURPHY: That's a big headline for Dad.
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly – so of course, we packed up, hopped in the car, went home.
They were unpacking the car when a neighbor walked over.
SCOTT THOMPSON: And she said, ‘Oh, did you know the boy died?’ And, you know, we were flabbergasted. We didn’t know what they were talking about.
DENNIS MURPHY: First you're hearing about this.
SCOTT THOMPSON: Right.
They got the story from Ryan in bits and pieces: The hassle at the party, the shooting, the accusations, Ryan's arrest.
DENNIS MURPHY: Jane, how are you taking in all this story?
JANE THOMPSON: I was pretty devastated.
DENNIS MURPHY: Some poor kid had been shot, and they're implicating that—
JANE THOMPSON: That my son did it.
Ryan swore he wasn't involved, so the parents say they weren't alarmed – even when they saw a police car staking out their house.
SCOTT THOMPSON: I really didn't understand the – the implications yet.
They didn't know that Bobby LaTour and Ron Harding, two witnesses at the party, had placed Ryan – or a man wearing a white jacket – near the scene when the shot was fired. But then...
SCOTT THOMPSON: The police served a search warrant for the house. And that's when it really kind of clicked that, ‘Wow, they really do think it's Ryan.’
The warrant was for a gun. Police didn't find one, but as they were leaving, they noticed a white jacket hanging on a peg by the door.
SCOTT THOMPSON: They asked Ryan if that was the jacket he was wearing the night before, and he said yes. So they asked us if they could take it and he said, ‘Sure.’
That same day, police visited the house of another of the four friends, Jared Gilkenson. His parents, too, had just returned from a weekend away and didn't know about the shooting.
JUDY GILKENSON: And we are stunned. Of course, we welcomed them into our home.
DENNIS MURPHY: You regard them as on your side, right?
GEORGE GILKENSON: Exactly. They were the guys with the white hats.
JUDY GILKENSON: And within the first few minutes, we—we realized that Ryan Thompson, a kid that we've known for a number of years, is their prime suspect, and that Jared was with him the evening before so they think that Jared has some information.
The night before, at the police station, Jared had told police he'd seen nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing about the shooting. But now, police confronted Jared’s parents with some shocking new information.
GEORGE GILKENSON: The officer put his—put his hand around my shoulder, and he said, ‘George, I'll tell you…We have three people that saw Ryan with the –’ and motioned with the gun. ‘Had the rifle up to his shoulder, taken the shot.’ Right there, it was just like somebody just hit me in the back of the head with something. It was just a complete shock, you know. I kind of broke down a little bit. And he—he was very consoling. He really was. He said, ‘George, I understand that you're—why you're feeling this way. And—but we just want Jared to come clean with us so we can tie this up. ‘
Then, the Gilkensons say, one of the detectives got a call on his cell phone.
JARED GILKENSON: He hangs up the phone, leans over to his other detective buddy and says, ‘Ryan just confessed. We're headed down to the Thompson's house.’ I'm like hit with a ton of bricks. How did I miss this? How did this happen without me seeing this?
After that, the Gilkensons say they took over from the police.
GEORGE GILKENSON: We became then the interrogators. And the intensity increased. I told Jared, ‘You're gonna tell me what went on.’ And I was raising my voice. And—and Jared was crying, breaking down.
Jared's mother feared her boy would be charged as an accomplice unless he came clean right away. She, too, went to work on him.
JUDY GILKENSON: I started saying, ‘Oh my god, Jared, you've got—you've got to tell them what went on.’ ‘Mom, I've been telling them. I've been telling them.’ ‘Well, Jared, Ryan's confessed. How could you not know anything was going on if Ryan's confessed, if they have three witnesses?’
And under questioning from police and his parents, Jared's story changed completely.
Same for another of the four friends, Dave Stebbins. The night before, he'd been a suspect, but denied everything. Now when police questioned him again, in the light of day, he, too, flipped. Ryan's friends, once his staunch defenders were now his chief accusers.
DENNIS MURPHY: What is the second story that comes out?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: ‘We didn't have anything to do with it. It was all Ryan Thompson.’ David Stebbins says that Thompson had brought the gun to the party with him. He gets out of the car. He gets back into the car and says, ‘I think I shot somebody.’ Jared Gilkenson's statement is Ryan runs into the car and says, 'I think I shot somebody. Let's get out of here.'"
DENNIS MURPHY: Both teenagers put a rifle in the car?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: Absolutely.
Two of Ryan’s own friends, his curbside buddies from the neighborhood, who the night before had told police they weren't involved, now separately gave statements implicating Ryan in the shooting of rob McCaffery.
SCOTT THOMPSON: As I was standing at the door, I noticed three or four cars coming. And I said, ‘Well, Ryan, this is it. I think they're here for you,’ and they came in and arrested him.
DENNIS MURPHY: Cuffed him?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yeah.
DENNIS MURPHY: Charged him, read him his rights?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Read him his rights, got him outside, away from us quickly, and then took him away.
DENNIS MURPHY: And he never really came back, did he, Jane? He sort of left your life in some way at that point.
JANE THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah, that was it.
But Ryan’s arrest wasn't the end of the story. Far from it. The shot that killed Rob McCaffery would echo for years to come.
A single .22 bullet had ended Rob McCaffery's life. Now his classmate Ryan Thompson was sitting in jail, charged with murder, his bail set at half a million dollars. The strongest evidence against him: Statements given independently by two close friends who were with him the night of the shooting.
JANE THOMPSON: I kept saying, ‘No, just—you know, it can't be. It can't be. I don't believe it.’ It wasn't his personality.
That was Ryan’s mom... But his dad thought what police told him was too strong to ignore.
SCOTT THOMPSON: They explained to me that they had three witnesses that saw Ryan actually hold the rifle to his shoulder and shoot.
DENNIS MURPHY: Made that motion.
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yeah, made that motion. They showed me that.
DENNIS MURPHY: So you're thinking, ‘Maybe my kid is responsible here.’
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yes.
Ryan's two good friends, Dave and Jared, who were with him the night of the shooting had also given statements to police implicating Ryan. The evidence seemed overwhelming.
Until – suddenly – it didn't. A day after incriminating Ryan, his two friends began to backtrack.
JUDY GILKENSON: Jared is a mess. I mean, he's just a mess. And he said, ‘He—he didn't do this. He couldn't have done this. I was there, Mom.’
So why had he fingered his friend? Jared and his parents now made a startling claim.
DENNIS MURPHY: Do you think you got manipulated, George?
GEORGE GILKENSON: I—I know I got manipulated. We got used by the State Police.
The parents say that by telling them that three witnesses had seen Ryan fire a shot, then saying Ryan had confessed, police convinced them to put pressure on Jared to come clean and protect himself.
JUDY GILKENSON: I coerced my own son. It's the biggest regret of my life.
Jared says, under pressure from his mom and dad, he signed a statement that was suggested by police.
JARED GILKENSON: They told me the story. And I just kind of filled in the blanks. I had succumbed. I had given up. They could've told me that the sky was pink, and I would've been like, ‘Yeah, the sky was pink that night.’
What about Dave Stebbins, the other friend who'd implicated Ryan? He also wanted to retract his statement, claiming police had applied pressure by saying Ryan had fingered him.
DAVID STEBBINS: They're, like, almost screaming at me. They're saying, ‘Your buddy just F-d you. He just F-d you. You're going down for 25 years.’
DENNIS MURPHY: What'd you tell them?
DAVID STEBBINS: I told them that Ryan did it. And I told them – I basically went along with their whole story.
Here are some major points. In fact, Ryan never accused Dave. He never confessed, either. And those three witnesses who supposedly saw Ryan fire the fatal shot? They didn't exist. Although witnesses did place Ryan at the scene,possibly with a gun, No one could say for sure who had pulled the trigger. If detectives really did say all that, they weren't telling the truth.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did they step over the line?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: No, absolutely not. Not at all. I mean, legally, they could have done a lot—a lot more.
The detectives declined to talk to Dateline, but it is legal for authorities to lie to witnesses during interrogations. The question now was: Did police tactics cause Dave and Jared toaccuse their friend Ryan, even though he was innocent?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Dave and Jared were sitting at the kitchen table and they were crying. And they said, ‘The police made us say Ryan did the shooting. It's our fault that he's in jail.’ And I got angry. I swore at them. I said, ‘Tell me the truth. The police told me Ryan did it, and I believed them. Now you guys are telling me that he didn't do it. How—how could that be possible?’
DENNIS MURPHY: So now you don't know where the story lies.
SCOTT THOMPSON: Exactly.
But for Ryan's dad, at least, there was a tie breaker – the fourth friend in the car that night, Brandy Stebbins. She too claimed that police had tried to manipulate her, but unlike Dave and Jared, she never changed her original story that Ryan wasn't involved.
BRANDY GILKENSON: One of them said that Ryan just confessed. And I said, "Well, I still didn't see or hear it."
Brandy, a single mom with a three-year-old, says police pressured her in other ways, too.
BRANDY GILKENSON: DCF would be involved and try to, you know—
DENNIS MURPHY: Child services?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Child services.
DENNIS MURPHY: Might take your boy away from you?
BRANDY GILKENSON: That's what they implied, yes.
But Brandy stuck to her story.
Now all four friends – Ryan included—were saying what they said the first night: There was no gun. We didn't see or hear anything.
SCOTT THOMPSON: When I found out that their initial statements all matched, I felt that that was the truth.
DENNIS MURPHY: And you never wavered after that.
SCOTT THOMPSON: No, never wavered after that.
Ryan's parents went all out – set up a website and a hotline, borrowed money for a lawyer, and offered a $10,000 reward for tips leading to the killer – even as their income was taking a big hit.
DENNIS MURPHY: Video store became a casualty here, didn't it?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yes, it did. Our business after the arrest dropped off about 30 to 40 percent. There were great customers that just stopped coming.
Scott and Jane even ran down leads themselves.
SCOTT THOMPSON: We drove over half the state, looking for rifles that could have been thrown on the side of the road—
DENNIS MURPHY: What, just driving down roads?
SCOTT THOMPSON: We'd actually gotten calls from psychics, saying they knew where the gun was, so we—we'd go trounce up through streams and rivers and fields. I'm thinking if we find the weapon, there'll be fingerprints or something to prove who did it. And that'll—that'll save Ryan.
But the gun never turned up. Ryan sat in jail. And the murder case against him went full speed ahead.
When the class of 1998 graduated from Plainfield High, empty chairs suggested a small town's pain.
NANCY MCCAFFREY: Instead of buying a graduation gift, you're buying a casket. That, you know, you just should never have to do that. Never.
Nancy McCaffery's son Rob had been cut down by a single bullet at a teenage party.
NANCY MCCAFFREY: They left his chair empty and they put a basket on it. And every student that walked by put a rose in there.
Others were absent as well, like Rob's classmate Ryan Thompson, still in jail, charged with Rob's murder. And Jared Gilkenson, another of the four friends allegedly tied to the shooting.
JARED GILKENSON: Plainfield High School said, ‘Why don't you just stay out? Don't come to graduation. We'll send you a diploma.’
DENNIS MURPHY: Why didn't they want you in the school?
JARED GILKENSON: For my—they told me for my protection.
In December 1999, Ryan Thompson went on trial for the murder of Rob McCaffery. Two families in agony…
SCOTT THOMPSON: I never thought I'd see a day like that. We cried, quite a bit during those times.
DENNIS MURPHY: Any part of the trial you couldn't take, you had to step outside?
NANCY MCCAFFREY: Yes. When they brought out the evidence, when they pulled out Robbie's shirt covered in blood, and his jeans—I—I had to get up and leave. I tried to stay, but I couldn't.
DENNIS MURPHY: What's the state's theory on what happened?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: My feeling was these kids were mad. Ryan Thompson was mad. They—he was drunk. He wasn't thinking particularly rationally. He got out of the car. I think he would have seen the two people on the roof. And he shot at them. Whether—
DENNIS MURPHY: In the spirit of what? ‘Where do you guys get off throwing us out of your party?’
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: I think it was just a stupid thing that he did.
The state didn't have to prove motive. It did need to present forensic evidence linking Ryan to the crime. But gunshot residue tests on Ryan’s white jacket were inconclusive, and no residue was found on any of the four friends or in Brandy's car.
The murder weapon hadn't been found either.
DENNIS MURPHY: We'd like to be able to show you something forensically, but we don't have it.
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: We don't.
So the state relied on its key eyewitnesses, Bobby LaTour and Ron Harding. Both testified they saw Ryan – possibly with a gun—at the time and near the place the shot was fired.
LaTour also testified that, just before that, Dave Stebbins had threatened him with a rifle.
When the defense's turn came, they attacked the eyewitnesses.
DENNIS MURPHY: Should a reasonable person believe Robert LaTour?
MOIRA BUCKLEY: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Moira Buckley, who later joined Ryan’s defense team, says LaTour's story changed with each telling.
MOIRA BUCKLEY: Robert LaTour couldn't keep his story straight. LaTour was walking around af—right after the shooting saying, ‘I think I just saw Dave Stebbins shoot someone.’
It wasn't until the next morning that LaTour and Harding told police they saw Ryan at the scene. And at trial, they sometimes contradicted each other on the stand.
Ryan himself testified – no way he was involved, didn't happen.
So did his friend Brandy.
DENNIS MURPHY: Any possibility that he did it?
BRANDY GILKENSON: No. I was near him at all times so I knew in my heart that it wasn't possible.
It all came down to Ryan’s buddies Dave and Jared – the other friends in the car. They'd flip-flopped twice, first saying Ryan wasn't involved, then implicating him, then claiming detectives had manipulated them with lies and threats...
The detectives denied on the stand, under oath, that they'd told anyone Ryan had confessed or that there were three eyewitnesses.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you look at Ryan when you were on the stand?
DAVID STEBBINS: Yeah, I did.
DENNIS MURPHY: What'd you see?
DAVID STEBBINS: I saw my friend—basically like he was going through hell and didn't know what was going on, didn't know what happened to him. You know, and I felt bad. I cried a lot over it.
Dave and Jared both testified under oath that their first statements were the truth – that they didn't see or hear anything. That Ryan was not guilty.
DENNIS MURPHY: How did it feel in the courtroom?
JARED GILKENSON: It felt like I was doing the right thing.
The prosecutor felt otherwise, and, in his closing argument, condemned Jared and Dave for lying.
DENNIS MURPHY: Called them reprehensible?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: I think I said some bad things about 'em. Yes.
DENNIS MURPHY: That they had reserved a place in hell for themselves?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: Yes.
DENNIS MURPHY: That they may not be in trouble with the law right now, but there may be charges still to come?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: I did.
The jury deliberated for five days. Then, on January 27th, 2000...
DENNIS MURPHY: Everybody rises and here comes the jury back.
DAVID STEBBINS: Yep. Heart was going, you know. The heart was pumping pretty—pretty hard. You know, I was scared for him.
On the counts of murder and intentional manslaughter...
JANE THOMPSON: Not guilty and not guilty again.
DENNIS MURPHY: That's good news, eh?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Yeah.
Then, the final count – reckless manslaughter with a firearm. The verdict: Guilty.
SCOTT THOMPSON: It was—it's like a hammer coming down on us.
DENNIS MURPHY: How do you take care of your child in that situation?
SCOTT THOMPSON: You're helpless.
Across the aisle, Rob McCaffery's parents thought that for their child, justice had been done.
NANCY MCCAFFREY: I was holding my husband's hand and my priest's hand and we were elated.
Ryan, age 19, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Ryan's lawyers appealed, arguing the prosecutor had tainted the jury by calling Dave and Jared “reprehensible,” accusing them of “lying to protect a killer from justice” and saying they "have not yet been arrested."
MOIRA BUCKLEY: When you imply that the mighty State of Connecticut, that we're going to take a look at them later, the jury is automatically going to go, "Oh, boy. They must be bad."
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you step over the line?
PROSECUTOR VINCE DOOLEY: I did step over the line on that.
The appeals court unanimously found the prosecutor "exceeded all bounds of acceptable conduct" and granted Ryan a new trial.
But only a short reprieve – the Supreme Court reinstated Ryan’s conviction.
DENNIS MURPHY: Your only obligation as an attorney is to give him his best shot in court. You don't have to believe in him, but do you?
MOIRA BUCKLEY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. If you're asking me if this is one of those cases where you're walking away from it going, ‘I think he's innocent,’ of course it is.
And Ryan... What does he say about that deadly night?
DENNIS MURPHY: Ryan, did you shoot Rob?
We'll hear Ryan’s story... In his words... Next.
DENNIS MURPHY: Ryan, did you shoot Rob?
RYAN THOMPSON: I did not shoot Robert McCaffery.
Ryan thompson maintains now, as he did the night of the shooting, that he had nothing to do with it.
RYAN THOMPSON: I'm not a murderer. I'm a very humble person, happy... I'm definitely not the violent type.
Ryan initially got arrested for disturbing the peace, he says, because he was defending his group from false accusations by the host of the party.
RYAN THOMPSON: He kept saying, ‘You guys did this.’ ‘You guys shot Rob.’
DENNIS MURPHY: So you're drunk, and you're getting in the officer's face. Is this one of the stupidest things you have ever done..?
RYAN THOMPSON: Yes.
DENNIS MURPHY: ... challenge a cop?
RYAN THOMPSON: Yes. I'll regret that for the rest of my life.
But Ryan says he cooperated with detectives at the police station.
RYAN THOMPSON: They asked if I'd submit to a gunshot residue test and a polygraph test, which I agreed to both.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you say ‘Do I need a lawyer here?’ Or—
RYAN THOMPSON: No, I hadn't done anything wrong, so why would I need a lawyer?
DENNIS MURPHY: The prosecutor would say you acted in a guilty manner that night by coming back to the scene, by being confrontational in the station house.
RYAN THOMPSON: I hadn't been confrontational until one of them had made a remark that it was my fault that that had happened. That's when I got upset with the officers and s—started swearing at them.
And Ryan says the only time he mentioned a .22 was when detectives asked him what kind of guns he had fired in the past.
RYAN THOMPSON: I have shot a .22 rifle one time in my life.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you put a .22 rifle in the car?
RYAN THOMPSON: There were no guns in the car that evening.
If Ryan got himself arrested, it was the second statements of his friends, Dave and Jared, that got him convicted.
DENNIS MURPHY: They said that you got out of the car, you came back in and said, ‘I shot somebody.’
RYAN THOMPSON: Correct.
DENNIS MURPHY: Both of them put a murder weapon in your hand.
RYAN THOMPSON: That's correct.
DENNIS MURPHY: Your friends. What'd you think of that?
RYAN THOMPSON: I was wondering how it could be possible that they would write them or sign their name on that statement. And—
DENNIS MURPHY: Maybe because it's true.
RYAN THOMPSON: No. I knew that it wasn't true, and that's why it was so devastating to see that.
In fact, both friends testified under oath that those second statements were not true, that police had coerced them. But that didn't save Ryan.
DENNIS MURPHY: How do you feel about those two guys?
RYAN THOMPSON: I try not to hold anger towards them, you know. I—I forgive them for what they did and understand making the false statements. But things will never be the same.
DENNIS MURPHY: Your statement put one of your best friends into the slammer.
JARED GILKENSON: Yes, and for years, and years and years, I let that eat me up. I—I still think about it every day.
DENNIS MURPHY: People still can't understand, Jared, that you would confess to something really bad if—if it isn't true?
JARED GILKENSON: Unless you're in the situation, you would never, never know. You feel like your life's on the line.
DAVID STEBBINS: I felt backed in a corner, and like a cat, I just wanted to get away,
DENNIS MURPHY: And none of that stuff was true.
DAVID STEBBINS: None of it. For a long time, I drank a lot. You know, turned into an alcoholic and—it's like I aged 20 years after that night, you know, nothing was fun anymore. I was depressed all the time.
A month after Ryan was convicted, Dave and Jared were charged with perjury and hindering prosecution for recanting their incriminating statements on the witness stand. They made plea agreements – without admitting wrongdoing – and served a few months in prison.
SCOTT THOMPSON: It's hard for us, even to this day. It's hard for me to see them—
DENNIS MURPHY: Sorry doesn't quite cut it, does it?
SCOTT THOMPSON: Well, there were apologies, and, you know, I'm not angry at them. It's just hard to see—they're walking around and Ryan's not.
Brandy – the fourth friend who said from the start that Ryan was innocent and never changed her story – was also charged with perjury, lying to cover for Ryan.
BRANDY GILKENSON: I thought I was going to prison, and my son was going to be without his mother, and that was horrifying.
She was placed in a special program – accelerated rehabilitation. The charges against her were erased after two years.
DENNIS MURPHY: Did you guys stay together as friends?
DAVID STEBBINS: Yes, we did. We had to stick together, you know, 'cause we're in the grocery store, people yellin' ‘Murderers’ across the stores.
DENNIS MURPHY: You three against the world, huh?
DAVID STEBBINS: Yeah, pretty much.
During those trying times, Brandy and Jared started dating.
BRANDY GILKENSON: Jared and I became very close because we went through all this together.
DENNIS MURPHY: And you became a couple, you have children--
BRANDY GILKENSON: We ended up having children, getting married.
But they have since separated – another bump in the road that stretches all the way back to that fateful party when they were just kids.
The four friends still say they were falsely accused by Bobby LaTour and Ron Harding. They think it may be connected to drugs being used and sold at the party...
DENNIS MURPHY: Hand-to-hand sales at the house?
BRANDY GILKENSON: Right. Maybe something went bad there.
Something, the friends speculate, that caused a shot to be fired and LaTour and Harding to sic police on Dave and Ryan and divert attention from themselves...
BRANDY STEBBINS: I know definitely Bobby and Ron have something to do with it because why would they lie? Why? There has to be some reason there.
DENNIS MURPHY: Bobby Latour's statement to the cops...Why do you think he would have done that?
DAVID STEBBINS: To keep himself from being in trouble.
DENNIS MURPHY: Covering for somebody, or even doing it himself?
DAVID STEBBINS: That's a good start. I've heard a lot of different stories. People that were at the party came forward and they all tell us, ‘We know you guys didn't do it.’ But nobody will say anything.
Ron Harding, who's currently in prison for burglary with a firearm and third degree larceny, declined to comment. And Bobby LaTour can't provide any answers: Three years to the day after Rob McCaffery was shot, LaTour died of a drug overdose.
Nearly eleven years after the shooting, Ryan Thompson got one more chance at a new trial – an extraordinary proceeding called a habeas hearing.
Ryan's new attorney, John Watson, presented arguments that the original defense counsel had been "ineffective." Failing, for example to undermine the state's key witness, Bobby LaTour. Watson found an eyewitness who said LaTour was in a parking lot right after the shot was fired, so he could not have seen Ryan Thompson get out of the car before the shot, as he claimed. Ryan's original attorney knew about the witness but didn't call him.
JOHN WATSON: That's a really, really crucial piece of information that the jury should have heard.
Watson also argued that Ryan’s trial attorney should have shored up Dave and Jared’s testimony, bringing in experts to explain how Ryan’s friends – pressured by police – could have implicated him, even though they knew he was innocent.
MARTIN ZELDIS: The police were holding over their heads the possibility that they too may be arrested if they didn't tow the line.
JOHN WATSON: Jurors are simply not inclined to believe that police officers are not truthful, or that a person would falsely implicate themselves or somebody else unless they were, if you will, physically tortured.
Judge Nazarro heard all the arguments. Then, on January 20, 2010, he denied Ryan’s petition for a new trial, saying he was "hard-pressed to find fault with the approach" of Ryan’s trial attorney.
Ryan called his parents from prison after the decision.
SCOTT THOMPSON: How you doing? You hanging in there?
RYAN THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. Went to work today, try to stay busy…I mean, it's not over. Just got to keep fighting, you know
SCOTT THOMPSON: We'll keep fighting it..
RYAN THOMPSON: It's been 12 years of being shot down so…
SCOTT THOMPSON: Right.
RYAN THOMPSON: ... can't let this get me down too, you know.
SCOTT THOMPSON: You've got a great attitude. You know, I'm just so proud of you.
But behind the encouraging words, there was disappointment.
SCOTT THOMPSON: I actually let myself think of different scenarios if Ryan was home, you know – things we could do together. Help him get a job and—and buy a motorcycle, or whatever. Just to have a regular life with him. [CRYING] We'll just have to wait a little longer on that.
Ryan, now 30, has served 12 years of a 25-year sentence. Before the original criminal trial began, prosecutors offered him a deal – plead guilty in return for a sentence of 17 years. If he'd had taken it, he might be up for parole soon.
DENNIS MURPHY: Do you regret, Ryan, not taking a deal?
RYAN THOMPSON: No. I'll never say I killed Rob when I had no involvement with it.
DENNIS MURPHY: So if there was a figure going down that alley holding something that may or may not have been a rifle, it wasn't you.
RYAN THOMPSON: It was not I.
DENNIS MURPHY: You said that then. You say that still.
RYAN THOMPSON: I'll say that till the day I die.
One senseless shot in the dark of night echoes through so many years, so many lives…
SCOTT THOMPSON: The McCafferys are living a parent's worst nightmare, and we're living a parent's second worst nightmare.
Ryan and his parents say the cops and courts failed to find the truth.
SCOTT THOMPSON: I will never tell anybody the system works.
But they are not giving up.
SCOTT THOMPSON: We're hoping that, you know, somebody will say, ‘My God, that poor kid is still in jail for something he didn't do. I have to come forward and tell the truth.’
For Rob's parents, who believe Ryan is guilty, there's just one truth: Their son is never coming home again.
DENNIS MURPHY: Trials and sentencing don't really solve the ache, do they?
NANCY MCCAFFERY: No. I miss him every day. I talk to him every day.
DENNIS MURPHY: So you never really get over it.
NANCY MCCAFFERY: No, we haven't.
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