WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The City of Wilmington is being sued by a man who spent 28 years behind bars for a murder he has always maintained he did not commit.
Johnny Small's conviction was overturned last year after a key witness from the 1988 murder of Pamela Dreher recanted his testimony and other elements of the case against Small fell apart.
As Small's attorneys prepare to take the city to court, we are learning more about why Small and others blame the Wilmington Police Department for sending the wrong person to prison.
David Bollinger, the state's main witness in the trial, is speaking to reporters for the first time.
Bollinger claims retired WPD Detective JJ Lightener threatened to arrest him for murder and seek the death penalty if he didn't falsely testify against Small, who was his best friend.
Bollinger, who was 19 at the time this happened, says he lived in fear for years. But after finding the courage to come forward with the truth, he's trying to make things right in part by publicly voicing his concerns about corruption at the WPD.
"If this was common practice back then, how many people are in jail for something they didn't do? How many people were forced to tell something that's not true?" Bollinger wonders.
Bollinger and other witnesses who testified for the state in the 1980s now say the WPD suppressed evidence that was favorable to Small. Small's attorneys say had that evidence been presented in 1989, it would likely have led to a different outcome at his trial.
Small was only 15 at the time of his arrest for the crime but was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. At the age of 44, he was released on house arrest after a judge heard the recanted testimony and new evidence about questionable practices of the 1988 Wilmington Police Department.
Due to insufficient evidence to try the case again, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Small in September 2016.
On July 13, 1988, Pamela Dreher was running her newly-opened tropical fish store in Delgado Square on Wrightsville Avenue.
The 32-year-old wife and mother was working alone when she was shot and killed execution-style just before closing time. A neighboring shopkeeper found her face down in a pool of blood, and investigators found $173 missing from her cash register.
For months after Dreher's murder, police made no arrests. Then, on September 27, there was a major break in the case.
Nina Raiford, a local high school student, called the Crime Stoppers' tip line. She said she'd been walking home from her job at McDonald's on July 13 when she passed Delgado Square and witnessed Johnny Small fleeing the murder scene. The tip line worker who took her call noted Raiford also expressed an interest in the reward money.
Even after Raiford came forward, police waited, not feeling they had enough evidence to arrest Small. Detective Lightener, and his partner, Detective Donna Brown, interviewed Small's friends, working to build a case. But it wasn't until they got a tip that Small had plans to move to Florida that they felt they couldn't wait any longer.
Small and Bollinger were working at the county fair on October 29, 1988, when police arrived. They first arrested Bollinger on an outstanding failure to appear warrant.
It wasn't until after the arrest that Bollinger says he realized detectives thought he played a role in Dreher's murder when they accused him of driving the getaway car.
"He showed me pictures of the murder," Bollinger recalled of the hours-long interrogation with Detective Lightener following his arrest. "At that point I almost got sick. It was very graphic. I kept telling him over and over I didn't do it. He said, 'I know, we know Johnny did it. We just need you to tell us he did it.'"
"He told me, 'If you don't tell me what I want to hear, you will go to jail for this. I will make sure you get the death penalty.' I asked for my parents, I wasn't allowed to make a call, I was told I didn't need a lawyer, everything I asked to do I was denied…. After a while I caved. I gave him the story he wanted to hear."
After Bollinger's confession, detectives returned to the fair to arrest Small for murder.
Remarkably, Bollinger had a solid alibi at the time of the murder. He was in a car with his boss, Woody Ward, on his way to an automobile auction in Conway, South Carolina. But Bollinger says Lightener convinced him Ward refused to vouch for his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Police also interviewed a number of Small's other friends. Although they testified for the state during the 1989 trial, they have now come forward as adults telling similar stories about being scared teenagers pressured or manipulated by police into testifying against Small.
There was no physical evidence connecting Small to the crime. Raiford's tip that she witnessed Small fleeing the crime scene was refuted by defense attorneys at the original trial when they noticed her time card showed she was still at work at McDonald's around the time of the murder and could not have witnessed anything.
But the jury still heard the testimony of Small's friends like Bollinger, putting him at the crime scene. Although the murder weapon was never recovered, shell casings showed that Dreher was killed with a .25 caliber handgun.
Another friend of Small's, Ray Brigman, had a .25 caliber handgun stolen from him two months before the murder, and Small was the last person known to have access to the gun before it disappeared.
Hearing that testimony at trial, and weighing other circumstantial evidence, a jury convicted Small of murder and armed robbery.
Bollinger moved to Durham to live with his grandfather immediately after bonding out of jail for his alleged role in the murder. He says Lightener told him the accomplice charges would be dropped if he testified against Small but ordered him never to return to Wilmington again or he'd be arrested.
"At the time, I was just scared. I was being told I was going to get the death penalty, going to jail for something I didn't do," Bollinger said of taking warnings from Lightener seriously. "Honestly, after everything they told me, I started believing maybe Johnny did do it. They drilled it into my head."
But Bollinger says deep down, he knew his friend wouldn't kill anyone, and the truth haunted him.
After moving out of state to Georgia in the 1990s, Bollinger says he contacted an attorney there, trying to go public with the real story. But the attorney wouldn't take the case, saying nobody would believe him and advised Bollinger to drop it.
He did – until a chance meeting in 2012 with Dwayne Dail at a party in Hillsborough, NC. Dail infamously served 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2007 after DNA evidence proved his innocence.
Dail told Bollinger his story at the party and about the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence (NCCAI), whose attorneys worked on Dail's case for six years before winning his freedom. Bollinger said Dail's story gave him hope that someone could finally help him make things right in Small's case.
A short time later, Bollinger called the NCCAI Director, Chris Mumma.
"We actually didn't accept the case right away," Mumma recalled of getting Bollinger's call. "We have run into situations where a co-defendant will say what he said was a false statement, they are actually in collusion with the defendant, to try to get relief and get money that then they'll split, and we actually have run into that before. So we have to do our investigation first to make sure that there is some type of credible claim."
Mumma says she confirmed there had been no communication between Bollinger and Small, and Bollinger passed a lie detector test. At that point, they reached out to Small in prison to offer him their assistance.
In addition to Bollinger's recanted testimony, the NCCAI discovered another piece of startling evidence when they began investigating Small's case.
They found a note in the Wilmington Police file for Dreher's murder that showed the weapon stolen from Ray Brigman that Small allegedly used to kill Dreher was recovered in Charlotte before Small ever went to trial in 1989. It had been stolen from Brigman by someone else, used in another crime, and in fact did not match the weapon used to kill Pam Dreher.
Detective Lightener's handwriting is on that note, so he presumably knew it existed, but despite its significance and potential to change the course of the investigation, the note was never handed over to the prosecutor or Small's defense attorney.
Ray Brigman and his mother Sue say they were also kept in the dark about the gun being recovered, and are furious that detectives allowed them to continue to believe and even testify at trial that Small had likely stolen their gun, when he had not.
"I was shocked," Sue Brigman said about being recently informed by Chris Mumma that the alleged murder weapon had actually been recovered before the trial. "I couldn't believe there was the report from Charlotte [about the gun being located]…and it had been there all along."
Brigman says in addition to the guilt her family feels for their role testifying against Small, she feels angry they were used and manipulated by police to close their case.
She says Detective Lightener told her bullet casings from their gun were an exact match to casings found at the crime scene. She later learned the opposite was true, that the casings from her son's gun did not match.
"A man spent 28 years in prison for nothing. Based on lies," an emotional Brigman said. "All of that takes a toll. All of it takes a toll, and you just sit there and you're like, 'Oh my God, how could this? Why did he lie?'…. You damn well listen to what the cops say and you believe what they tell you."
Although his friend is now out of prison, Bollinger is far from letting this go.
"How can they get away with this?" Bollinger asked. "If I was to do something even close to what they did to me, I would be in jail, right now. But they're not. They're allowed to do this and get away with it, and it's happening over and over again."
Mumma said they have heard from other witnesses in other cases who say they were also pressured by Detective JJ Lightener to give false testimony. She said they have six cases they are reviewing now where Lightener was involved.
"We are identifying any cases we can where the investigating officer was Lightener. And we're going to go back and look at those and see if there are any questionable cases and investigate them if there are," Mumma said.
Lightener did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. The Wilmington Police Department declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit filed against them by Small.
That lawsuit contends the failures that led to Small's wrongful conviction were not isolated but were "widespread practices…allowed to flourish because the WPD and/or the City of Wilmington declined to implement sufficient training… or punishment of officers …who withheld material evidence, fabricated false evidence and witness statements, and pursued wrongful convictions."
Bollinger feels that Lightener was a bad apple and most cops are good people trying to do the right thing. But he says his experience forever changed his perception of the justice system.
"I have absolutely zero trust for government or law enforcement at this point. The only thing I can say to anyone in this situation is say, 'I want a lawyer.' Don't say anything else," Bollinger advised. "If I'd have done that, maybe Johnny would have never been in trouble, I'd of never been in trouble, I don't know."
Judge W. Douglas Parsons, who presided over the hearing in August 2016 and vacated the guilty verdict against Small, said "something is not right" with this case.
He noted that witnesses had similar stories about being questioned as teenagers without their parents present, and seemed concerned that Lightener could not recall so many of the details that were in the police file but never turned over to the court.
"I have been very concerned with the Wilmington Police Department of 1988, '89," Judge Parsons said of his overall impression of how police handled this murder investigation. He added he was not concerned with operations of the present day police department.
Small moved to Florida after the charges against him were dismissed.
While the court overturned Small's conviction, they stopped short of declaring him innocent. That means he does not get paid for the decades he spent behind bars.
Under North Carolina law, defendants who are declared innocent after a wrongful conviction are entitled to $50,000 for every year they spent behind bars, up to a maximum of $750,000.
Mumma says it is unfortunate Small has been denied this avenue of recourse.
"When there is a complete discrediting of the evidence that convicts you. That means in my mind that you are innocent. Everything that they used to convict you no longer exists, that puts you back to where you were before trial, which is innocent," she said.
Small has applied to the governor for a pardon. Governor Pat McCrory did not act on his pardon request before leaving office. Small has now refiled and is awaiting a decision by Governor Roy Cooper.
"I have concerns about this current governor because he was the Attorney General who was fighting Johnny's case," Mumma said of the pending request. "So for him to have his office fighting Johnny's case and saying he should stay in prison, and then have him be the one who has to make the decision on the pardon…. I think it's very slim chances for Johnny."
Small's lawsuit in federal court against the City of Wilmington could still result in a big payout. Attorneys are still in the discovery process, and it could be 2 years or even longer before this goes to trial.
Coming forward with the truth took a huge weight off Bollinger's shoulders. Despite having falsely testified against his friend, Bollinger says Small ultimately understood that he simply caved under pressure from police.
"He gave me a hug. He forgave me," Bollinger said.
But others, mainly strangers who have read about the case online, have been less forgiving.
"People have contacted [Bollinger]… saying he should be put in prison. And he should have to serve the same number of years as Johnny, and they just don't understand how heroic it was for him to come forward, and how brave it was for him to come forward," Mumma said of Bollinger's efforts to ultimately free his friend.
"When he was deposed by the Attorney General's office, the first thing they said to him, the very first thing was, 'Do you know you can go to prison for 10 years for perjury?' So they tried to scare him again right off the bat. So people…unless you've been in those shoes, you shouldn't be commenting because you have no idea," Mumma said.
In the years since her death, Pam Dreher's parents have died. Her husband remains so disturbed by her death he is unable to speak about it. But Dreher's younger brother, Mark Smith, continues to carry the torch for justice in her murder.
Despite the new developments and evidence in the case, Smith remains convinced Small is the killer. He believes Bollinger was afraid of what Small would do to him when he got out on parole and changed his story to protect himself.
"It was horrible," Smith said of watching Small's conviction be overturned last year. "I felt that one judge was allowed to do this. It had already been through appeals, and had been through multiple judges, and had passed through the appeals. It was like if you're convicted, keep trying and you'll get out."
While the Wilmington Police Department would not comment on the status of the murder investigation to us, they told Smith the case was officially closed.
"According to the DA's office and even the police station. He's served as much time as he's going to serve. You could retry him and even if he's found guilty he's not going to serve any more time," Smith says of the reason he was told they DA dismissed the murder charge against Small.
"All of us would like to see a finality to this particularly for that family," Assistant District Attorney Lillian Salcines Bright explained of their decision to dismiss the charges against Small in this case. "We had a decision to make about whether to try the matter again or not. We had an individual who at that point had been in custody for the better part of three decades. And knowing the reality of trying him again and what if any consequences would come of that. As prosecutors, we made a tough decision. We said, this is it for us. This is where it ends involving Johnny Small."
The New Hanover County District Attorney's office said they would consider any new evidence brought to them by the Wilmington Police Department, but barring that, they have no future plans for this case.
Mark Smith said it would add insult to injury if Small ends up winning his lawsuit against the city or getting payment from the state for the years he spent in prison.
"I'd be just thoroughly disgusted. What I'm afraid is Wilmington will just settle. He can go on and live his life, but I don't want him having a dime from my sister's murder," Smith explained.
Mumma said she feels terrible for the Dreher family's loss, but blames police and prosecutors for misleading them into believing Small was the killer.
Mumma says investigators at the 1988 crime scene talked to several young witnesses who saw a brown truck screeching out of the parking lot at the time of the murder, but detectives did not pursue those leads. She says they were too focused on Small, who they saw as a punk with a juvenile record.
Even now that charges against him have been dropped, Mumma says there is little effort to find the real killer. She added that shell casings recovered at the crime scene have yet to be entered into a database to see if they matched a weapon used in a later crime.
"The person who shot Pamela Dreher is still out there somewhere and has not been identified and punished. And that is the real injustice at this point is the family has been lead to believe that Johnny was the perpetrator. He was not the perpetrator. We are absolutely convinced and the evidence shows that he was not the perpetrator," Mumma said.