This story was written as part of The Next To Die, a multi-newsroom collaboration tracking upcoming executions. To see scheduled executions nationwide, please visit https://www.themarshallproject.org/next-to-die
It was Jan. 8, 1997, and Oklahoma City police had discovered motel owner Barry Van Treese’s beaten, lifeless body inside room 102 at the Best Budget Inn.
They suspected his killer was the maintenance man, Justin Sneed, who suddenly disappeared from the motel. Police were trying to find Sneed and solve the homicide, so they were questioning the motel’s manager, Richard Glossip.
Police had read Glossip his Miranda warning, but he was not exercising his right to remain silent. He was talking — a lot. And investigators suspected he wasn’t telling the truth.
A detective hounded Glossip: “We know it’s a murder, okay? We know Justin’s involved in it. And I think you know more about this than what you’re telling.”
“Honestly don’t,” Glossip replied.
We’re going to find Justin, the detective replied, so you better tell us now what you know.
If he brings your name up in this thing, you’re going down for first-degree murder, warned the cop.
Glossip replied he hoped police would find Sneed: “I didn’t do none of this.”
The detective responded: “I’m going to tell you right now, the first one that comes forward is the one that’s going to be helping himself. … If you didn’t do the actual deed, buddy, then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“I told you, and this is the God’s honest truth, I had a hunch that Justin did it, and that’s as far as it went. I do not know one hundred percent.”
But that was a lie.
The other guy’s story
Justin Sneed has already taken one life, but he says he’s not the one who can save Richard Glossip from the execution chamber on Wednesday.
“I stood on my truth,” he told The Frontier in an exclusive interview. “I’m just trying to be an honest person.”
Both men were convicted for the 1997 murder of Van Treese, but only one was sentenced to death.
Two separate juries convicted Glossip of paying Sneed, his young employee and friend, to kill their boss, splitting a few thousand dollars they found in Van Treese’s car.
For decades, Glossip has fought a vigorous court battle against his conviction and argued he is innocent. His only mistake was helping cover up the crime, Glossip argues.
Since his arrest, Sneed has never denied his role in fatally beating Van Treese with a baseball bat. He received a life-without-parole sentence in exchange for testifying against Glossip.
While the public battle waged by Glossip’s supporters has played out on the Dr. Phil show and in the National Enquirer, Sneed has remained mostly silent.
Sneed, 37, agreed to an interview with The Frontier at Joseph Harp Correctional Center earlier this month, to address some of the claims that have been made about the case.
The Frontier also reviewed hundreds of pages of case files available at the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in an attempt to answer public questions about Glossip’s conviction as his execution date approaches.
Court testimony and police records document the reasons Glossip first became a suspect and was charged with first-degree murder in the killing, including the transcripts of his own 1997 interviews with police as they investigated the homicide.
“There has never, ever been any evidence against me,” Glossip told The Frontier in a July phone interview from death row at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. “Because of a couple bad decisions I made that day, I’m here today.”
‘Light most favorable’
Justin Sneed is behind bars for the rest of his life; but plenty of people have been talking about him lately, guessing what they think he really wants to say or calling him an outright liar.
Glossip’s legal team issued a press release Friday: “New counsel for Mr. Glossip have just uncovered additional evidence that Mr. Sneed lied to save his own life.”
Monday, Glossip’s attorneys held a press conference announcing what they say is new evidence they uncovered: an affidavit signed by an inmate who claims in 2006, he overheard Sneed bragging about setting up Glossip.
On Sept. 3, Glossip’s supporters held a similar press conference where the anti-death penalty activist and nun Sister Helen Prejean announced more than 270,000 people had signed a petition supporting clemency for Glossip.
The day before, she also made a trip to the prison in Lexington to visit Sneed. But in front of the cameras the following day, Prejean didn’t mention her conversation with Sneed. Nor have Glossip’s attorneys mentioned in numerous press conferences what Sneed insists he has repeatedly told them: He told the truth at trial.
It was Glossip who paid him to kill Barry Van Treese, Sneed said, for a pool of money they would split. The amount changed depending on when Glossip was talking about it — at one point, it was $10,000, Sneed told investigators.
They were each caught with slightly less than $2,000.
When Glossip’s final conviction was upheld by a 2007 decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the opinion stated: “The most compelling corroborative evidence, in a light most favorable to the State, is the discovery of the money in Glossip’s possession.
There was no evidence that Sneed had independent knowledge of the money under the seat of the car. Glossip’s actions after the murder also shed light on his guilt.”
To understand what happened in 1997, Sneed said people need to know he was a 19-year-old who was abandoned by his older stepbrother at the motel Glossip managed.
No money, no job, no education. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He worked with a roofing crew on occasion and did handyman repairs at the motel for room and board. He admits he was a drug user.
He grew up without his father, and always had an attachment to older male authority figures. His brother filled the role for a while, then Glossip.
“I can see now how cocky and manipulative he was,” Sneed said.
When questioned by police in 1997, Glossip told detectives that he bought Sneed’s meals and cigarettes and considered him his best friend. They played Nintendo together.
Sneed is not a smooth talker like Glossip, and comes across much as investigators described him in reports on the case: meek, quiet.
Sneed said his initial reluctance to testify against his former friend has been misinterpreted. It’s not because he’s lying, he told The Frontier. He was reluctant because he knew the state was seeking the death penalty against Glossip and he didn’t want to be a part of that.
Glossip’s supporters want Sneed to change his story to help postpone the execution, Sneed said.
Sneed’s family members have told The Frontier that a letter that Glossip’s supporters have claimed was written by Sneed’s daughter was authored on her behalf by a group of supporters taking advantage of his then-teenage daughter’s lack of knowledge about the case.
The letter alleges that Sneed has regrets about his testimony, and wants to recant.
Sneed said he can’t say for sure that his daughter was manipulated, but she was uninformed about the crime.
O’Ryan Sneed grew up without her father, and her family spared her the gruesome details about his role in Van Treese’s death, he said.
“I do not want to mislead or misguide my daughter. Even if I have to sacrifice myself, she deserves to know the truth,” Justin Sneed said.
For nearly a year after the letter surfaced, O’Ryan Sneed has not responded to media requests for interviews or to verify that letter’s authenticity.
Justin Sneed said he’s had people ask him why he won’t just change his story and say that Glossip is innocent, to spare him his death sentence. He’s taken responsibility for his role in the murder and doesn’t want to cause the Van Treese family any more pain, he explained.
Sneed said he’s also struggled with watching the case unfold publicly, amid the uncertainty of a Supreme Court challenge that Oklahoma’s death row inmates ultimately lost this past June. Glossip was the lead plaintiff in the case.
But the Supreme Court’s vote to uphold Oklahoma’s use of lethal injection was 5-4. It could have gone the other way with a single vote; Sneed said he wonders if it’s a sign of what’s coming for the death penalty.
“I thought it would be morally wrong for the state to execute him and then two years later, they do away with the death penalty,” he said.
But he told The Frontier he stands by what he said under oath at two trials.
“Everybody’s made the choices they’ve made.”
Glossip’s own words
There are two transcripts of Glossip’s interrogations by Oklahoma City police in the days after Van Treese’s body was found, and one video, in rather poor condition.
At no time did Glossip exercise his right to remain silent, which in hindsight, may not have been the smartest choice.
Glossip told police that he and his girlfriend, D’Anna Wood, heard a tapping at the door early in the morning Jan. 7, 1997, and he opened the door to find his friend Justin with a black eye: “It looked like somebody punched him.”
Glossip told police that Sneed claimed he slipped and hit his head in the shower, on a soap dish. (Sneed later told police that was the story Glossip told him to tell about his black eye.)
This was Glossip’s initial account to police of what happened: Sneed told him that a bunch of drunks got wild and out of hand and they broke the glass in room 102. He’d run the drunks off, and Glossip told him to put up some plexiglass.
And Sneed fixed it that morning, Glossip told police.
The transcripts show police growing more suspicious as Glossip continues over-explaining everything: “See this thing is, really, it got out of hand before I even got there.”
After a while, Glossip starts to hint that Sneed may be involved. Then he starts to get defensive: “But I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this shit, I was at home in bed with my girlfriend, you can ask her.”
At this point, according to the transcript, the detectives have not yet asked Glossip if he was involved. They can barely get in questions, he is so chatty.
The police don’t know where Sneed is at this point, and are hoping Glossip can help them find him.
“Well he started hanging out with some pretty bad people that I started running out of the motel. My brother’s one of them.”
Glossip’s brother, Bobby Glossip, had an extensive criminal record and his name has since been mentioned by Richard Glossip’s attorneys as someone who might have played a role— but he died several years ago.
Detectives respond: “Well tell us a little about Justin now.”
Glossip starts to offer: “Justin and his brother…”
The cops interrupt, wanting specific details about Justin.
Detectives: “How old of a person is he?”
Glossip: “He’s nineteen or twenty, and that’s another thing I kind of hesitated on. Because I, I just don’t see him doing it, I mean, I do and I don’t.”
In fact, Glossip knows at this point that Sneed was the one who did it. But he doesn’t admit that to police until a separate interrogation the following day.
Instead, he says Van Treese “told me when I got out of bed this morning to call the carpet guy.” They were supposed to start working on remodeling that day, Glossip told police.
Investigators later alleged that Glossip only called the “carpet guy” to replace the flooring on which his boss bled to death.
Glossip also told police about how much in deposits Van Treese took from the motel that night: “I would say thirty six hundred to four thousand, something like that.”
What the witnesses said
There is very little, if any, physical evidence linking Glossip to the crime.
But then again, isn’t that the point of murder for hire? You pay someone else to get his hands dirty.
Included in the four boxes sitting in the basement of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals are photos that were presented as exhibits at the two trials. One is of Sneed’s hands, nicked from the beating of Van Treese, fingernails dirty.
Supporters of Glossip have said it was Sneed who first pointed the finger at his former boss and friend.
But police reports and transcripts of interviews show police very quickly became suspicious of Glossip’s possible involvement. Their suspicion was based on his behavior at the crime scene and in the days that followed, in conjunction with what others at the scene observed about his behavior.
Police caught Glossip in several lies, and he didn’t tell anyone that he knew exactly where Van Treese’s body was while people were searching.
After Sneed told him Van Treese was dead, Glossip went back to sleep. Then he got up and bought his girlfriend, D’Anna Wood, a $100 engagement ring and himself some pricey eyeglasses. After his first interrogation by police, he began selling his possessions.
Police asked him where Sneed was hiding: “Where the hell do you think he went, man?”
Glossip responded: “He’s here. He couldn’t have went nowhere. He ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Glossip has said lying to the police immediately after Van Treese was found slain was his biggest mistake. He hasn’t explained why he lied to his co-workers.
Glossip not only lied to police when he said two drunks had stayed in room 102 and broken the window, he told the same lie to the motel’s desk clerk, Billye Hooper, and Cliff Everhart, a friend of Van Treese’s who worked security for him.
Despite some current claims that Sneed was the state’s only witness, it was the testimony of Hooper and Everhart at trial that probably nailed Glossip. Hooper died in 2009, and Everhart died in 2005, records show.
At Glossip’s second trial in 2004, Hooper testified she became suspicious of Glossip because his behavior on the day of Van Treese’s killing was so different than usual.
The night before their boss was found slain, Glossip had asked Hooper to stop by the cable company on her way to work because the cable bill hadn’t been paid.
“He wanted to get it turned on before Barry came back and found out that it had been disconnected,” Hooper testified.
She paid with her personal money and Glossip reimbursed her with cash when she came to work the next morning. But she didn’t see Van Treese’s car when she arrived. So she asked Glossip where their boss was.
Glossip told her that Van Treese gotten up early to go get some breakfast and get some materials to work on the motel. Hooper said she thought that was odd: She’d never known Barry to be an early riser.
Something else raised her suspicion: Glossip told her not to have housekeeping clean room 102, because Barry “had rented the room to a couple of drunks and they had busted out a window.”
She testified that she laughed at that claim and replied: “Well if he rented 102 to a couple of drunks, he must have rented it for a couple of hundred dollars as well because he would not have rented 102.”
Room 102 was different: It was the nicest room at the motel, it had a waterbed and stereo. Van Treese usually stayed there.
Glossip seemed nervous, she testified.
Hours later, Hooper was the one who paged Everhart to tell him Van Treese’s car had been found, abandoned in the parking lot of a nearby credit union.
Everhart showed up to search the property for Van Treese, and Glossip told him two or three different stories about when he’d last seen the boss, Everhart testified at trial.
Everhart told the court Glossip had already tried to offer an explanation at the scene: “Maybe the people in the upstairs room were involved in something about why Barry is gone.”
People in one of the rooms on the second floor had suddenly taken off and left their stuff behind, Glossip told him.
It was Everhart who found Van Treese’s body in room 102, with the broken window. He spotted his friend’s wristwatch, broken, laying near his dead body.
Everhart told a police officer who’d arrived at the scene to go find Glossip, because he was too angry.
“Because at that point in time, I felt like if Richard Glossip had not done the crime, he had knowledge and was involved, and my temper was rather hot,” Everhart testified.
Everhart and Hooper both also testified that Sneed was Glossip’s puppet, and did whatever his friend asked.
The money man
“Why do I need Barry’s money? I got my own damn money?” Glossip told the police who were interrogating him. He was found with $1,700 in his possession when cops arrested him.
A detective accuses him of “double talking” everything, and reminds him that when they find Sneed, it will be worse for Glossip if they find out from Sneed that his boss/friend was involved.
“If he puts you back in this, you got some serious problems,” the detective warns.
“Then we’ll go to court,” Glossip responds.
Van Treese had hired Glossip in 1995 to manage the motel, along with his girlfriend, D’Anna Wood.
Wood was only 22 or 23 at the time, and used to tell the desk clerk Billye Hooper that “Rich” had promised her by the time she was 25, she would have an engagement ring, a Camaro, a boob job and a baby.
In fact, in the hours between when Sneed told Glossip he killed Van Treese and police found the body, Glossip bought Wood an engagement ring for about $100, according to trial records.
Everhart worked security for Van Treese in exchange for a small cut of the motel chain’s profits. He had previously helped build an embezzlement case against another employee at the Weatherford motel Van Treese also owned.
Hooper had brought some suspicious behavior of Glossip’s to the attention of Everhart and Van Treese, he testified.
“I felt that Mr. Glossip was probably pocketing a couple hundred a week extra,” Everhart testified.
Everhart was supposed to meet Van Treese at the Best Budget Inn on Jan. 6, 1997, “to confront Rich and discuss the problems with him.”
The confrontation never happened, Everhart testified.
In recent interviews, Glossip has tried to claim Hooper testified against him because she may have been the one taking money. It’s not the first time he or his former girlfriend have tried to claim that.
Hooper was asked about these claims, and she testified under oath at trial that she never stole any money from the Best Budget Inn.
Had she needed money, she simply would have asked Van Treese, a generous man who “would have helped anyone.”
Wayne Fournerat, Glossip’s first trial attorney, has been trying to tell anyone who will listen: Glossip was not the mastermind of Van Treese’s murder and does not belong on death row.
Fournerat said he is free from the bonds of attorney-client privilege, as he no longer has a law license and served prison time in Tennessee.
In comment sections and newspaper and TV stories and on websites devoted to freeing Glossip, he writes:
“Barry Van Treese actually had $23,000 hidden elsewhere in his car, but Glossip and Sneed found the smaller stash under the seat.”
He alleges that Van Treese was killed because someone stole nearly $25,000 from a prominent heroin dealer, and somehow, it ended up in Van Treese’s possession.
He told The Frontier he does not have documents or records to support this, but he says he has inside knowledge, as he was not only Glossip’s first trial attorney, but he also represented the drug dealer who said the nearly $25,000 was stolen from him: Bobby Glossip, Richard’s now-deceased brother.
Glossip’s legal team released an affidavit Friday from a drug dealer who said he knew Bobby Glossip, aka “Critter,” and recalled that he frequently sold drugs out of room 102 at the Best Budget Inn, to Sneed and other clients. Sneed broke into cars and stole to support his drug habit, the affidavit states.
Glossip’s attorneys have yet to file any new motions. Former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn are the latest to call on Gov. Mary Fallin to stay Glossip’s execution at least 60 days.
In Glossip’s first interrogation, a detective tells Glossip he’s still trying to piece everything together, but strongly advises him to share anything he knows.
“This ain’t no simple burglary, this ain’t no simple robbery, this is a murder, and when you kill somebody, that’s as serious as it gets because the people involved in this are going to get the needle.”
“I hope they do man, because I’m sorry, I’m not involved in this thing.”
Arbitrary and capricious
Through 2011, Oklahoma had the top rate of executions per capita among U.S. states. But between 1967 and 1990, the state didn’t execute anyone.
A series of legal challenges to the death penalty in the late 1960s began a voluntary federal moratorium on carrying out executions. And in 1972, Furman v. Georgia resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn death penalty statutes in all states that had them, including Oklahoma.
The Court reached its decision because of the way states were using the death penalty: Juries were given unfettered discretion on whether to impose a life sentence or death.
Such discretion was unconstitutional because the way death sentences were handed out was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Eighth Amendment, the court ruled.
As a result of the Furman verdict, more than 600 inmates — 15 in Oklahoma — had their sentences converted from death to life in prison.
When the death penalty was reinstated, each state developed a set of “aggravating circumstances,” in an attempt to bring some uniformity and methodology to how death sentences were handed out.
Murder for hire is an aggravating circumstance for which prosecutors in Oklahoma can seek the death penalty. They do, and convicts have been executed for it.
The same year that Glossip and Sneed were charged with killing Van Treese, a Tulsa County jury convicted Timothy Shaun Stemple of brutally beating to death his wife of 11 years and running over her with a pickup, aided by a teenage accomplice.
Investigators said he planned his wife’s killing to collect a nearly $1 million insurance policy. His accomplice was his mistress’s younger cousin.
Though Stemple always denied his role in his wife’s murder, Fallin declined to spare his life in 2012.
Stemple was executed while his teenage daughter, Lauren, sobbed on the front row of witnesses.
The second interrogation
When Oklahoma City police brought Glossip in for a second day of questioning in 1997, his story had suddenly changed.
He seemed instantly more contrite: “I know, I never should have lied.”
Suddenly, his story changed: Early that morning on Jan. 7, when Sneed knocked on his door and woke him up, there was one thing Glossip had omitted in the previous version he told detectives: “He told me that he killed Barry.”
Not only did he tell Sneed to buy plexiglass to cover the broken window, Glossip admitted he helped Sneed put up the plexiglass. It’s a far different story than he told the day before.
And even though Glossip maintains he had nothing to do with the murder, he never called the police after Sneed told him about the killing. Glossip instead went back to sleep, got up hours later, bought new eyeglasses and an engagement ring for his girl and then they went to Walmart.
That’s where Glossip and Wood were when they got the call that Van Treese’s car had been found abandoned at the credit union nearby and things didn’t look good.
Glossip continued lying to the police and everyone at the hotel. He pretended to search for Van Treese, looking in dumpsters with Everhart before the body was found.
Later, he admitted to police: “Yeah I was involved in it. I should have done something right then.”
Glossip maintains he immediately started selling all his possessions because he knew he needed lawyer money, not because he was planning a getaway.
Just as his legal team is now doing, Glossip mentioned to the homicide investigators in 1997 the names of suspicious characters he thought they should look at, including his brother. He also tried to cast suspicion on Everhart, a former investigator for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense system.
In the police interrogation, he tried to discount the theory that Van Treese was about to fire him because of the books coming up short and the motel’s rooms being in shoddy shape.
But Glossip later tells police: “Barry was upset because the motel wasn’t doing as well as it could.”
An employee at Van Treese’s Tulsa motel testified that the boss had asked him to move to the Oklahoma City property, implying that Glossip was on the way out.
“Well I had no clue that he was doing it, so Barry must have been planning on firing me the next day,” Glossip responded.
He seemed incredulous that police suspected he was involved in Van Treese’s killing, or at least covering it up.
“Well how do I go about getting myself out the rest of it?” Glossip asks.
Detective: “I don’t know, uh…”
Glossip: “Cause I, I, I never intended for Barry to ever get hurt.”
Detective: “This isn’t a question of Barry getting hurt.”
“Well, no, I know.”
“It’s a question of Barry being murdered in the worst way.”
The Frontier Editor in Chief Ziva Branstetter and Staff Writer Dylan Goforth contributed to this report.