Richard Glossip likely never envisioned becoming a cause célèbre back in 1997, when he paid a young handyman to beat to death the owner of an Oklahoma City motel where they both worked.
He’s been interviewed by international media shocked by Oklahoma’s death penalty. Sister Helen Prejean, the avid anti-death penalty activist nun, has pleaded for him to be spared.
Actress Susan Sarandon, who played Prejean in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” made a similar plea while calling the governor of Oklahoma “a horrible person.”
His longtime pen pal got his favorite band, the X Ambassadors, to call and wish him well.
From his cell on death row at Big Mac, Glossip, 52, has embraced his newfound fame as his date with Oklahoma’s execution chamber nears.
He was the first-named plaintiff on a lawsuit by Oklahoma inmates challenging the drug combination that will be used to execute him. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and will bear his name for eternity: Glossip v. Gross.
The inmates lost that challenge, and Glossip will be the first Oklahoma inmate executed since the Supreme Court declared the state’s method constitutional. He would also be the second inmate to be executed at Oklahoma State Penitentiary since the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett attracted international scrutiny.
But for nearly 20 years, Glossip has been arguing that he’s innocent.
He maintains he never offered a maintenance man thousands of dollars to kill their boss, Barry Van Treese, at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City.
Glossip points out that the maintenance man got a deal in exchange for testifying against him and says exculpatory evidence went missing or was destroyed.
Attorneys for Glossip have called the case against him “deeply flawed” and one of the “weakest” death penalty cases they’ve seen.
But barring the discovery of new evidence, state officials plan to carry out Glossip’s death sentence Sept. 16.
Van Treese was murdered in cold blood at Glossip’s command, they argue, for a few thousand dollars split between his killers.
While Glossip wasn’t the one who wielded the baseball bat used to beat Van Treese to death, a jury twice decided that he orchestrated and tried to cover up the killing.
In Oklahoma, murder for hire is one of the aggravating “especially heinous” circumstances for which prosecutors can seek the death penalty.
Though he wasn’t yet in office during Glossip’s trials, David Prater, the District Attorney of Oklahoma County, said about two years ago, he was asked by defense attorneys to examine every piece of evidence in the case.
“All we ever want is the truth,” he said. “After reviewing the evidence myself, I do not have any concerns as to the guilt of Mr. Glossip.”
THE BEST BUDGET INN
Late in 1996, the books came up short at the motel Glossip managed for Barry Van Treese in Oklahoma City, the Best Budget Inn.
Van Treese didn’t always use a bank and kept cash in envelopes at the motel, investigators said.
The family was reportedly distracted by problems that year and had let some other shortages slide at the business. But Van Treese and one of his employees vowed to confront Glossip about the cash shortages, investigators said.
On Jan. 6, 1997, Van Treese stopped at the Best Budget Inn to pick up the receipts and then traveled from there to check on a Tulsa property.
One staff member recalled him arriving there “all puffed up” and angry; he’d found the receipts in Oklahoma City didn’t match up with the cash. People were staying in rooms they weren’t registered to and Van Treese arrived in Tulsa angry, expecting the same.
He told a Tulsa employee that he’d threatened Glossip that he better come up with the missing money and receipts for the Best Budget Inn.
Investigators said Glossip feared losing his job or going to jail over the missing money, so he came up with a plan. He promised an 18-year-old maintenance man he’d befriended, Justin Sneed, that he would pay him $10,000 and put him in charge of one of the motels if he would do him a favor: kill Van Treese, beat him with a baseball bat.
Sneed testified at trial that he bought a soda at the neighboring Sinclair station, grabbed his master key and a baseball bat, snuck into the room where Van Treese was sleeping and started swinging away.
Van Treese was startled but fought back. Sneed tried to stab him, but the knife wouldn’t pierce his chest. So he kept swinging.
A longtime resident of the motel heard a window break and sounds of a fight. But this was the kind of motel where people don’t ask many questions.
Sneed left the baseball bat, changed out of his bloody clothes and shoved them in a popcorn tin. He told Glossip it was done, and told him about the broken window.
Glossip told Sneed he wanted to make sure Van Treese was dead, and made Sneed come with him to retrieve the bat, according to court records.
He took a $100 bill from Van Treese’s wallet and told Sneed he could find his payment as promised under the front seat of Van Treese’s car.
Back in the room, they divided the cash and Sneed covered the body with a sheet (“out of respect”). They turned up the air-conditioning, so the body wouldn’t start to smell.
They caulked some plexiglass over the broken window and duct-taped a plastic shower curtain over it. Glossip reportedly told Sneed to go buy some hacksaws, trash bags and muriatic acid to dispose of the body. Sneed couldn’t find the acid.
Morning came, and people began looking for Van Treese. The credit union where he sometimes banked called the motel to report his car was still parked there, unlocked.
Glossip began to pretend to search for Van Treese with the other staff, and he told Sneed to pack his things and leave immediately, according to investigators.
Sneed took off on his skateboard, and Glossip began to weave a thread of lies that quickly unraveled.
A couple of drunks broke the window in a fight, he claimed. He’d last seen Barry heading out for supplies that morning … no wait, it was the night before.
Police noticed the inconsistencies and decided to search room 102. There, they found Barry Van Treese’s beaten, lifeless body.
Suddenly, Glossip had a different story: Justin Sneed had done it, and confessed everything to him. Glossip claimed he didn’t want to say anything to police until he knew for sure.
Coincidentally, after his first police interview, Glossip immediately began selling everything he owned: furniture, a big-screen TV, an aquarium.
He missed a scheduled interview with police on Jan. 9, 1997, so police went to find him. They arrested Justin Sneed a few days later, while he was working on a roofing crew, with a black eye.
Van Treese bled to death slowly on the floor, an autopsy determined. Someone calling an ambulance might have saved his life, a medical examiner testified.
Sneed took a deal in exchange for testifying against Glossip: He would get life without parole for confessing to beating Van Treese for the $10,000 he was promised by Glossip.
But under Oklahoma law, such a conviction requires corroboration of evidence: Glossip actively concealed that he knew Van Treese lay dying in a motel room. He had motive and $4,000 he took from the victim’s car, and began selling his things as he tried to leave the state, investigators said.
In phone interviews from death row, Glossip hasn’t offered a thorough explanation for why he lied to police. He instead points out that court files containing receipts used to implicate him were reportedly destroyed.
“There never, ever been any evidence against me,” he said. Glossip maintains that Sneed acted alone, and that he simply erred by helping cover it up.
But a daytime desk clerk, Billye Hooper, testified at Glossip’s trial that he told several different stories about Van Treese’s whereabouts and how the window in room 102 was broken (Hooper has since died).
“There was never anything to back up her testimony,” Glossip said. His attorneys didn’t attack the evidence vigorously, he said.
Glossip also questions why Sneed’s videotaped confession to police wasn’t used as evidence at his trial.
Police said it’s unlikely that Sneed planned the crime. He was an eighth-grade dropout who barely knew Van Treese. Sneed was described as childlike, with below-average intelligence, and those who knew Glossip described him as manipulative, and Sneed as his puppet.
And investigators wanted to know: How would Sneed, who worked for free rent and no salary, have any idea where Van Treese kept the large amount of cash hidden in his car?
Glossip had no other explanation for the $1,200 cash police found in his possession. He has argued in the years since that he was gathering funds to pay for an attorney, because he knew police were looking at him with suspicion.
A judge who oversaw Glossip’s trial said at the time that he had always thought he might hesitate to sign a death warrant in a case where he had reservations about the guilt of the accused. As for Glossip, the judge said: “I want you to know I have no questions in my mind about sentencing (you) to death, sir.”
In July, Don Knight, an attorney for Glossip, stood at a press conference at the state Capitol and argued that his client was innocent and his sentence unjust.
“As I began to look at the evidence in this case, I have to admit that chills ran down my spine,” he said.
Sister Helen Prejean had asked him to take on the case after the Pardon and Parole board unanimously voted last fall against clemency for Glossip.
Knight argued that in 1997, the Best Budget Inn catered to a “lower-class clientele.”
“Unsavory characters were all around,” he said. He implied that there were several suspects police should have looked at, but didn’t.
Glossip’s supporters have long argued that Sneed acted alone, or someone else planned the murder and police never investigated thoroughly.
For 17 years, Kim Van Atta has fervently believed in Glossip’s innocence, corresponding with him on death row and providing financial and moral support.
He considers Glossip family now, not just a friend. He runs a website devoted to supporting Glossip and raising awareness about his case. Van Atta is a health care consultant in New York City who considers the death penalty barbaric.
“Richard was just an innocent guy who the DAs decided they were going to pin it on him,” Van Atta told The Frontier in a recent phone interview. “There’s no evidence that the books were coming up short … there’s no evidence that money was missing.”
Furthermore, Van Atta said, Glossip’s alleged motive for the killing is absurd.
“That he paid somebody to kill his boss so he wouldn’t lose his job?” he said. “It’s a rather baroque concept.”
Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin responded to some of these claims last week via Twitter, sparking a mini-social media war with Prejean and Sarandon.
I am going to tweet out some thoughts about the Richard Glossip death penalty case since we are getting asked about it a lot — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
1. The gov does not have the ability to grant clemency to Glossip. The limit of her legal ability to intervene is to grant a 60 day stay — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
2. The gov can only grant clemency 2 inmates who have been recommended clemency by the Pardon and Parole board — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
3. Glossip’s request was unanimously denied by the 5 person P and P board — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
4. But doesn’t the gov control the P and P board? No, the board is an independent entity on which the gov has 3 appointees — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
5. To say Glossip has had his day in court is an understatement. He has been pursuing the same arguments publicly and in court for 20 years — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
He was convicted of murder in court twice and sentenced to death twice by two juries (24 total jurors unanimous in their verdict) — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
7. He then lost appeals in the Western District Court, 10th Circuit Court, and the US Supreme Court. And then turned down by P and P board — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
8. For the gov to grant Glossip clemency would be to unilaterally overturn the judgments of dozens of jurors and multiple courts — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
9. if Glossip’s attys did have any legitimately exculpatory evidence they could present that 2state or federal court and stop the execution — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
10. bottom line: Glossip’s execution is going forward because he is a) guilty and b) has exhausted his legal options — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
final thought: there are multiple victims here, none of them Glossip. A man beaten to death, wife without a husband, five kids with no dad — Alex Weintz (@AlexWeintz) August 6, 2015
Fallin’s office issued a press release Monday: “He has had over 6,000 days to present new evidence. Postponing his execution an additional sixty days does nothing but delay justice for the family of Mr. Van Treese.”
Glossip has not been shy about speaking out, either.
During the past year, he has frequently called reporters from death row and written letters seeking coverage for his case. He has spoken to reporters from The Frontier several times since the Supreme Court decision, and in letters before his original execution date was stayed.
“There has never been any evidence to connect me to this before the fact except for Justin Sneed’s testimony. That’s because I had nothing to do with Mr. Van Treese’s death.
“I admit I made some very bad decisions after the fact and that’s all. They were very very bad decisions. I will say that if being stupid is a crime then I’m guilty. I was truly stupid for letting a couple of people give me some very bad advice that I listened to. I was truly an idiot for trusting people.”
Around the same time he sent that letter, he started to send reporters a copy of another one, purportedly written by someone unexpected: Justin Sneed’s daughter.
A MYSTERIOUS LETTER
The typewritten letter reportedly arrived too late to persuade the Parole Board.
The author claims she is Sneed’s daughter and pleads: “I am sure that Mr. Glossip did not do what my father originally said, that he did not hire my father to kill Mr. Van Treese, and he doesn’t deserve to die over my father’s actions.”
In the months since Glossip lost his final clemency hearing, his supporters have repeatedly pointed to that letter as evidence that Sneed regrets testifying against him and wants to recant.
As for Glossip’s claims that Sneed, the state’s key witness, wanted to clear Glossip’s name but feared a losing his life-without-parole deal, Prater said that is simply not true: “I have information to the contrary, that the witness is not recanting.”
For carrying out Van Treese’s beating death on Glossip’s orders, Sneed will spend the rest of his life in prison. He has already been convicted and sentenced and cannot be retried for the same crime.
The Oklahoma Constitution prohibits double jeopardy, barring citizens from being “twice put in jeopardy of life or liberty for the same offense.”
Yet some of Glossip’s supporters argue Sneed’s fear of receiving the death penalty in Glossip’s place is why Sneed is not speaking out. The letter they claim is from Sneed’s daughter makes the same argument.
“For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty,” the letter states.
“The way I feel about Mr. Glossip’s case is just too strong to stay idle.”
But despite writing that impassioned plea dated Oct. 23, 2014, O’Ryan Justine Sneed not only stayed idle, she vanished.
Despite months of attempts by this reporter to call, email, write letters or find someone by that name who acknowledges writing the letter, its author has not come forward for a single media interview or even to decline an interview request.
Multiple media outlets have treated the letter as authentic despite the lack of confirmation from Justine Sneed herself.
Supporters for Glossip maintain it was mailed from her to Glossip’s attorneys, after she contacted Van Atta through his website.
The phone number originally listed for her on the letter is no longer in service, and internet searches for that phone number trace back to an ad for an escort service.
While Sneed has so far declined several requests for an in-person or phone interview, he responded to Glossip’s claims in a letter last winter.
Sneed maintains that his daughter didn’t know the full details of the crime. His letter rambles at times, but he appears resolute that he told the truth about Glossip’s role in the crime.
“If the Truth crucifies, then I do not know what else to do,” Sneed wrote.
“He pushed me over the edge, edges I feel now. Powers of choice to undo what is done, but acceptance to what is done, is done, forgiveness.”
Sneed wrote the crime “wasn’t all about the money he was offering.
“After all he took half, after he told me to go get it from Van Treese’s car. I made the choice to obey an order out of loyalty to him … And my story in entire truth may crucify him further and the acceptance of choice that I deserve nothing less.
“I am eternally sorry, I wish not to cause the Van Treese family any more pain.”
Frontier Editor in Chief Ziva Branstetter contributed to this story.