Jack Ryan

Framed by the DA

Jack Ryan, a twenty-five-year-old half Hupa Indian, half Irish ranch hand with no criminal record, was sentenced to life in prison in 1928 after confessing and pleading guilty to a murder and two unrelated statutory rapes.

In 1925, Ryan was arrested for the murders of Henry Sweet and his girlfriend, Carmen Wagner in Humboldt County, California. Later that year, Ryan was tried and acquitted of the Wagner murder. In 1928, an unscrupulous district attorney, Stephen Metzler, fabricated rape charges against Ryan. Metzler's men then extracted confessions from Ryan to the rapes and both murders. On successive days, Ryan pleaded guilty to the rapes and the Sweet murder and was sentenced to life in prison. (The Fifth Amendment barred another prosecution for the Wagner murder.)

Ryan won parole in 1953 after Metzler admitted that he had set Ryan up, and that another suspect likely committed the murders. In 1996, based on a reinvestigation of the case by Richard H. Walton, a Humboldt County detective, Governor Pete Wilson granted Ryan an unprecedented posthumous pardon, stating that he had been framed by Metzler.


Case Chronology

October 7, 1925 — Twenty-one-year-old Henry Sweet and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Carmen Wagner, leave their homes in Eureka, California to go hunting on Coyote Flat, forty-five miles to the southeast.

October 11, 1925 — Sweet's body is discovered in an abandoned cabin. He has been shot once in the back.

October 23, 1925 — Wagner's body is found in a shallow grave near Baker Creek, a few miles from Coyote Flat. She has been shot twice and has skin and dried blood beneath her fingernails. Later that day, Walter David, Jack Ryan's half-brother, is arrested in connection with the murders.

October 24, 1925 — Jack Ryan is arrested in connection with the murders. The two brothers have no known connection to the victims and were considered suspects only because they lived in the area and, in the vernacular of the press at the time, are considered "half breeds." David has a verifiable alibi and is soon released. Ryan is charged with Wagner's murder, which appears to be the stronger case.

March 12, 1926 — A jury of twelve white men returns a verdict of not guilty at the end of Ryan's five-week trial.

January 1927 — Stephen Earl Metzler, a lawyer and bootlegger, is elected district attorney of Humboldt County after campaigning on the promise that he would solve the murders within two years. Upon assuming office Metzler sets about fulfilling his campaign promise. Rather than pursuing Bill Shields, an obvious suspect with a clear motive who has been placed at the scene of the crime by an eyewitness, Metzler makes him a strategist and consultant in the renewed investigation.

October 31, 1927 — David, Ryan's half-brother, is found tortured and strangled to death with barbed wire.

November 1927 — Metzler attempts to intimidate Ryan, sending anonymous letters warning that a similar fate awaits him unless he confesses to the murders. This and other tactics to elicit a confession fail.

July 12, 1928 — Metzler pays a woman $100 to falsely accuse Ryan of having sex with her thirteen-year-old daughter. Ryan is arrested and charged with three counts of statutory rape. Out of fear of remaining in Humboldt County, Ryan pleads guilty to two counts of rape; the third count is dismissed. Ryan is immediately sentenced. That night, Metzler intensively interrogates Ryan.

July 13, 1928 — Following the all-night interrogation Ryan confesses to both murders. A second prosecution for the Wagner murder is barred on double jeopardy grounds, but without legal representation, Ryan pleads guilty to the Sweet murder. He is sentenced to life in prison and is taken to San Quentin State Prison the same day.

1930 — Metzler is indicted and convicted of conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act.

1939 — Franklin D. Roosevelt pardons Metzler.

1947 — The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs launches a reinvestigation of the Ryan cases. Metzler acknowledges to agents that he had set Ryan up, and that Shields had likely killed the couple. The Bureau's report, issued the following year, is instrumental in Ryan's parole.

May 11, 1953 — Ryan wins parole.

March 20, 1969 — Governor Ronald Reagan commutes Ryan's life sentence to time served, in effect releasing him from parole.

August 23, 1978 — Ryan dies of natural causes.

April 15, 1996 — Governor Pete Wilson grants Ryan an unprecedented posthumous pardon after an extensive reinvestigation of the case by Richard H. Walton, a local DA's investigator.


Case Data

Crime date: Date Range — October 7-11, 1925
Jurisdiction: Humboldt County, California
Crime: Murder
Related crime(s): Second murder (found not guilty), Statutory Rape
Age: 25
Gender: Male
Race or ethnicity: Mixed — White/Native American
Arrest date: October 24, 1925 (Wagner murder — found not guilty March 12, 1926); July 12, 1928 (statutory rape charge — confesses to Sweet murder the following day)
Victim: Henry Sweet
Victim's occupation: Unknown
Victim's gender: Male
Victim's race: White
Victim's age: 21
How defendant became a suspect: Lived in close proximity to crime scene, was a minority.
Principal evidence of defendant's guilt: Confession
Principal defense: None
Type of trial: None
Conviction date: September 13, 1928
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: Life
Appellate record: None
Basis for exoneration: Confession by alleged statutory rape victim that charges had been false. Reinvestigation of case by Richard H. Walton, a DA's investigator, follows extensive interviews culminate in report persuading California Supreme Court to recommend posthumous pardon.
Legal form of exoneration: Pardon (April 15, 1996)
Release date: May 11, 1953
Days of incarceration: 9,208 (139 for first arrest; 9,069 for second arrest)
Prior record: None
Compensation: None


— Steve Art