By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In 2000, 37-year-old Jay Van Story received a startling letter from his 20-year-old cousin, Angie. There had been no contact between them in more than a decade, but Angie had recently married and become a Christian. Now she was suddenly asking Van Story for forgiveness.
"I hope that you understand and know that I was only a kid," Angie wrote. "I know I cannot make up for the time you have lost of your life, but I can try to make it up by getting you free."
Van Story has spent the last 15 years serving a life sentence for the aggravated sexual harassment of Angie. That 1989 Lubbock conviction was based primarily on her testimony that he had lain naked on top of her two years earlier, when she was seven years old.
Her later confession did not stop with a personal letter to the inmate. In 2000, University of Houston law professor David Dow began the Texas Innocence Network for students to delve into cases where defendants may have been wrongfully convicted. Not long after that, Angie contacted the group, seeking help in exonerating Van Story.
In late 2001, one of Dow's students took the 200-mile trip to Angie's home in East Texas, where she made a sworn affidavit. Angie swore that her real abuser, a brother, initially had forced her to tell her mother that Van Story had molested her.
As the lie spun out of control, investigators with Children's Protective Services in Lubbock did not believe her when she told them who really had molested her, she said. Angie had been moved into a foster home, and was threatened by authorities with never living with her mother again if she did not cooperate in the prosecution of Van Story, her affidavit says.
After his conviction, Van Story, described as a model inmate, says he was repeatedly assaulted by inmates. Texas motorists have never heard of him, but they know his work as a prison graphics worker -- he designed the state license plates festooned with the yucca, mounted cowboy, space shuttle and other emblems of the Lone Star State.
As for Angie, she eventually was returned to her home, where her real abuser continued his assaults on her, her affidavit states. (Her name has been changed in this story to protect her identity.)
"I am coming forward with the truth at this time," Angie concluded in her affidavit, "because my heart has been burdened by the fact that an innocent man is imprisoned because of my false testimony."
Known as an especially bright kid in Lubbock, Van Story quickly moved beyond the standard youthful stints of sacking groceries and busing restaurant tables. By age 16, he was a studio camera operator for newscasts at KLBK-TV in Lubbock. He was a cabbie for a year and then was a news photographer for another station there.
His legal troubles also began at a young age in 1985, while he was working at a school for emotionally challenged children. A nine-year-old boy under his care told school officials that Van Story had videotaped him taking a bath during a weekend visit at his home.
Van Story admits to that but says there was nothing sexual involved, that it was just a foolish stunt he did at an immature age.
Still, he was hit with a charge of sexual performance by a child, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Investigators noted that he'd previously been employed at the Lubbock State School, although interviews with every child under his care turned up no claims of inappropriate behavior.
Lubbock authorities did file two charges of indecency after finding a videotape in his family's home. It contained images of a mentally challenged boy walking around naked, and another boy mooning the camera. But relatives explained that it was a harmless family video of his two cousins, filmed with several amused adults present.
Van Story claims that CPS investigator Roger Bowers was angered when those two charges were dismissed in 1985, becoming convinced that Van Story posed a threat to children. Van Story maintains that the dismissals provided the motive for investigators and the D.A.'s office to build the later case against him.
Angie's affidavit says she was molested by her brother. Afraid of him, she told her mother it was Van Story, and the mother relayed that to CPS. Bowers and another investigator refused to listen to her real account of abuse by her brother -- or her words that Van Story was innocent, her affidavit states. Angie says she continued to lie during the trial because "Mr. Bowers told me it was the only way to get back with my Mom."
According to family members, Angie's mother confessed to her daughter on her deathbed three years ago that she too had lied -- saying Angie had told her about being molested by Van Story -- because she feared losing her children.
Bowers refused requests for an interview, and none of the agencies involved with this story will comment on Angie's affidavit. However, the earlier charges and conviction against Van Story appear to be one of their prime arguments against her now.