John Jeffers

To get attention, a troubled juvenile confessed to a crime he did not commit; he was convicted and died in prison long before his exoneration

In 1977, John Jeffers, a troubled 17-year-old junior high school drop out, falsely confessed to the abduction, rape, and murder two years earlier of 23-year-old Sherry Lee Gibson in Knox County, Indiana.

Although his confession was inconsistent with facts of the crime, Jeffers pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 34 years in prison, where he died five years later — two decades before he would be exonerated.

The crime

Gibson and her boyfriend, Lindy G. Alton, were parked in his car on a secluded road near the town of Vincennes the night of March 1, 1975. Alton told police that another car occupied by a man and woman pulled along side them. Alton was forced at gunpoint into the truck of his car, where he was found a short time later, and Gibson was abducted. Her body was found in an abandoned farmhouse near Monroe City. She had been raped and stabbed to death.

Two years later, Jeffers told guards at a juvenile detention facility, where he had been sent for stealing a car, that he had committed the unsolved murder with another teenager. The other youth, who by this time was serving in the military in Germany, denied knowledge of the crime.

Inconsistencies

Although the victim's boyfriend had reported that the second person involved in the abduction had been a woman, the young soldier was charged, returned to Indiana, and jailed. Nine months later, Jeffers recanted his claim of the second youth's involvement and the charges against him were dismissed.

Jeffers did not recant the entire confession, however. In fact, the details improved, growing consistent with the facts of the crime — apparently as a result of information he gathered during interrogation sessions. On the basis of the evolved confession, his guilty plea was accepted and he was sent to prison.

A credible confession

In the fall of 2001, 47-year-old Ella Mae Dicks walked into a police station in Atlanta, Georgia, and told a detective that she was the woman involved in the crime. She said the man involved was her former husband, Wayne G. Gulley. At the time of the crime, Dicks and Gulley were divorced but living together in Petersburg, Indiana.

Based on details of the crime provided by Dicks — details that authorities said only someone involved would have known — she and Gulley, by now living in Peoria, Illinois, were indicted on August 24, 2002.

A need to feel important

Unlike most documented false confessions, the one that led to the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of John Jeffers apparently was not the result of abusive interrogation techniques. Rather, Jeffers probably confessed just to get attention. "He had a need to feel important," his brother Mark told the Chicago Tribune. "They had an unsolved murder case, and he knew if he said something, they were going to sit up and pay attention."


— The foregoing account is based primarily on an article entitled "Confession leads to 2 arrests in '75 killing" by Jon Yates and Kevin Lynch published by the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, August 29, 2000.