Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Anacortes “Dog Whisperer” Suspected Dead (Updated December 8)

In a strange case that will likely be unfolding for quite some time, a well-known dog trainer has disappeared and police believe he has been murdered. 

Mark Stover has been missing for about two weeks now, and the various pieces of information that have trickled out thus far suggest that Stover is likely to have been murdered.  Sometime on October 28, a neighbor of Stover’s noticed one of Stover’s cars and a car owned by the boyfriend of Stover’s ex-wife.  The neighbor filed a trespassing report saying he’d seen only Oakes standing next to the cars, and he also witnessed Oakes holding a tarp or large sheet of plastic between the vehicles.  They were parked back-to-back which certainly suggests that he was transferring something between the two vehicles.  The man, named Michiel Oakes, was stopped by police later that night and the officer noticed that Oakes had stacks of blankets in his car, as well as a lot of dog hair on his shirtsleeve.  The officer warned Oakes against trespassing, and sent him on his way.

The next morning Stover’s fiancée reported him missing.  Police entered Stover’s home and found his dog bleeding profusely from a gunshot to the face.  There were few signs of Stover – just a few blood smears on the front porch, a hallway and bedroom.  Police reported that there was a very heavy smell of bleach in a bathroom, and it does seem ominous that a bathroom was thoroughly cleaned with bleach, and that the boyfriend of the victim’s ex-wife was seen with a large amount of plastic on the night before the man was reported missing.

Oakes has been arrested for murder, despite the fact that the body has not yet been found.  No word yet on whether Stover’s ex-wife was aware of or a participant in the murder or disposal of remains.  I’m not including her name because she has not been charged in connection with the case.

There are mixed reports about the circumstances of Stover’s divorce.  Some reports indicate that it was a bitter split, while others give the impression that it was in the past.  Stover’s ex-wife was granted a protection order in 2008, and there may have been some friction recently over sale of a private island on which Stover and his then-wife had operated a dog training business.  Clients included many high profile people from the Northwest.  Stover bought his wife out of the business at the time of the divorce.  Her family owned the island and he was apparently seeking some share of the sale price based on work he had done there.

Police traveled to the ex-wife’s home, and interviewed her along with Oakes.  At one point Oakes excused himself to retrieve some medicine from his car.  He withdrew a bag and tossed it down a slope, where police later found it.  The bag contained a .22 pistol and smelled strongly of bleach.  Oakes was carrying a 9mm handgun on his person as well.  Presumably, the combination of Oakes effort to hide the gun, the bleach smell suggesting a possible connection to the bleached bathroom at the victim’s home, the witness who saw Oakes with a large amount of plastic, his own car and Stover’s car added up to probable cause and he was arrested.  No doubt there is additional evidence which has not been made public, and  the size of the bond – Oakes is being held on a $5 million bond – is a reflection of flight risk and the judge’s assessment of danger to the community.

Update 1:  Police found Stover’s car, abandoned at a tribal casino.  It had blood smears on inspection, as well as a typed letter to police and the car keys were on the driver’s seat.  Police have not released any information about the letter’s contents.

Update 2:  Some new information came out this week when charges were filed.  The court documents indicate that in addition to the above fiasco whereby Oakes kept the weapon and bleach throughout a two hour drive over a mountain pass.  He only discarded it down a ravine next to Stover’s ex-wife’s house when police were there.  Worse, he made a couple of statements to his ex-wife that are pretty damning.  Oakes is quoted as telling his ex that if the police ‘find what’s in my car I’ll be in jail for the rest of my life’.  He is also said to have told her that he had a big and dangerous mission that went bad.  Apparently he met her in Everett after the killing but before driving to see his girlfriend (Oakes’ ex-wife).

Now from the court documents, we learn that not only did he have the .22 and bleach-smelling bag, but police also found a receipt for three ankle weights, anchor line, a backpack, shin guards and camouflage clothes.  In the car, the police found a backpack matching the receipt (which indicated the items were purchased on the day Stover disappeared), a set of instructions for a silencer and a bulletproof vest.  Just everything a guy needs for a big, dangerous mission involving a guard dog and his master.  Had Oakes not purchased the items that very day when Stover went missing, he might have had an argument to make that those things weren't unusual to find in his car at all.  Oakes had initially met Stover’s ex-wife when he was hired as her bodyguard (presumably to protect her from Stover, whom she had taken out a protection order against, claiming she had hidden on her property and pointed a gun at her), and it might be an argument that he had the vest, and the rest (all but the bleach), all because they were tools of his body guarding gig.  Of course, the bleach, the receipt showing it was all bought the very day Stover went missing, and his little ploy to sneak out and throw the incriminating evidence into a ravine next to the girlfriend’s house, are very much indicative of consciousness of guilt.  He kept the items as he drove through forests, but decided to throw them out while a deputy watched.  That is almost too dumb to believe – maybe too dumb to live. 

As new information has come out, it throws Oakes in a bit different light,  Was Stover really stalking his ex-wife?  Was she afraid that he’d shoot her next time?  Is that why she hired Oakes to protect her?  I think the answer to all of those questions is yes, and the motive likely comes clearer in knowing this.  As he ‘guarded’ Stover’s ex-wife’s body, the two became romantically involved and were planning a trip to Portland.  Perhaps the motive was that he wanted an end to Stover’s nuisance, and he intended to threaten Stover to  teach him a lesson.  Maybe he went to Stover’s house thinking he was a movie tough-guy body guard who would scare the stalker off.  Perhaps, when Oakes confronted Stover, Stover ordered his guard dog to attack Oakes,  This is consistent with the fact that Oakes had a lot of dog hair on his shirt sleeves when the officer stopped him and warned him not to trespass (the lot where the two vehicles were spotted with plastic between them is private property).  That could mean that the dog – Dingo – had attacked.  Guard dogs are trained to clamp down and hold onto the arm of the person they’re charging.  Also, since the dog received a glancing blow, and from the initial comments it appears that the wound was from above (shooting at a downward angle), Oakes might even have shot the dog when Dingo was already chomping on his arm.  Then, with things out of hand, perhaps Stover says he is calling the police, or maybe makes a dash for his own gun.  Did Oakes then, with the situation out of hand, and likely having visions of a long prison sentence for numerous felonies, pull the trigger?  Perhaps he stopped Stover by threat, warning shot, whatever, and made Stover get in the bathtub, where he shot and killed him to keep him from being the witness that could put Oakes away for a very long time.  Though there was reportedly trace blood found in the bathroom, the room had been doused with bleach, which is sometimes used by people who intend to destroy DNA evidence – and sometimes it does. Is this scenario plausible with what we know of the evidence?  Did Oakes just go to Stover’s house thinking he’d intimidate Stover and thereby keep him from stalking the woman Oakes was hired to protect, and then when things suddenly got out of hand (Did Stover send the dog at him when Oakes entered his house?  When Oakes pulled his 9mm?), Oakes felt he had to kill Stover to try and keep out of jail.  Is that the moment when the big, dangerous mission turned into a job gone bad? 

I think his original plan was to kill Stover for several reasons: first,  the typed ‘suicide’ letter found in Stover’s car is likely to have been typed beforehand.  Second, Oakes bought anchor rope and ankle weights that day, which would make any reasonable person think he planned to sink the body to hide it.  Third, he bought children’s shin guards, something I failed to notice in my first review of the purchases.  Shin guards for an older child would make pretty good forearm protection if one was concerned about a guard dog attacking, it seems to me.  

If this scenario is the really the way it happened then Oakes was damned unlucky that the witness called police about his trespassing.  And then there is the trespassing itself.  The witness reports that the vehicles of both men, just Oakes visible, parked back-to-back with plastic stretched between them and blocking observation of what, if anything, was being transferred between vehicles, the piles of blankets and tarps (which were apparently not in the vehicle when it was searched after arriving at the girlfriend's home in Winthrop); these were all important in putting Oakes in the area at the time.  They go a long way toward showing that Oakes had the opportunity to murder Stover. 

It is likely that police would have looked at Oakes anyway, eventually, just based on his relationship with Stover’s ex-wife.  They might have canvassed all the area stores to see if Oakes had bought anything that tended to incriminate him, but without the receipt they found in his car this would be a manpower intensive effort for a smallish police force.  

When police working the case received a call from the Snohomish County Sherriff putting them in contact with Oakes’ ex-wife,they began looking at Oakes in earnest, since they now had him with opportunity and incriminating statements.   Once the deputy who had spoken with Oakes’ ex-wife alerted the case detectives they immediately left for Winthrop, and found Oakes, the bag and other items including the receipt.  I have this impression of Oakes coming seeing the ex, amped up after the event and saying man, ‘my big dangerous mission went bad!  If the police find what’s in my car I am going to prison for the rest of my life’.  Perhaps his girlfriend had known that he was going to go put the fear of Oakes into Stover, but didn’t expect this.  Or maybe she didn’t know about it at all, and was surprised when Oakes was arrested.  Whatever the scenario with Stover’s ex, we know that Oakes’ ex did the moral thing when she heard Stover was missing.  She called the Sherriff.  She told the investigators what he’d said to her. 

Sadly for Stover’s ex, she isn't such a good judge of men.  At least twice burned, with a possible stalker and a murderer in her last two relationships.  One wonders if she will be gun-shy, as the saying goes, to get involved with a man again?

Update 3:  Additional tidbits emerging from review of court documents:  Added to her allegation that Stover had been on her property and pointed a gun at her, the protection order Stover’s ex sought also indicated that Stover was seen by a neighbor going through her trash.  The ex-wife’s name is now being made public (I’m reluctantly going to use her name also since it is already ‘out there’ now).  Ms. Opdycke has become a licensed private investigator since the couple’s divorce.  By the way, the dog Dingo, a Belgian Malinois, is recovering and expected to make a complete recovery. 

Bail halved for man charged in dog trainer death

One trivial coincidence was that when the story appeared in the Seattle Times, the two advertisements which were linked to the story were for the Wal-Mart store where Oakes made his purchases and the casino where Stover’s car was found.  Not such a big co-incidence given Google’s ad to content software is so good, but kind of eerie anyway.  The final tidbit for this update is that when police searched Oakes’ laptop they found a receipt for a tactical training school where he had paid to attend a course.  I am working on getting the name of the school to see what tactics they teach in the course.

Update 4 (November 27, 2009):

Attorneys for Michiel Oakes petitioned the court for a reduction in bail from the $5 million initially set when Oakes was arrested.  His counsel pointed to Oakes strong ties to Washington, having raised four children and no criminal history as factors to be considered in setting reasonable bail.  The Superior Court Judge in Skagit County  agreed that Oakes bail should be lowered, and he placed it at $2.5 million.

Divers searched an area of the Swinomish Channel near a highway bridge after cadaver dos alerted in the area.  The search was called off without results, and a police spokesman indicated that although divers may return to the area, the current is so quick at that site that the remains, if they had been placed in the channel, they quite likely would have floated or drifted a great distance.

A weird development in the case is a report from the police investigating the murder that in August a tip was called in saying Stover was carrying drugs.  He was stopped and officers found a small quantity of marijuana in his car.  “There was some odd circumstances about this anonymous tip,” according to Chief Criminal Deputy Will Reichardt.   “There were some (indications) that maybe there was a setup.”  Friends of Stover have told reporters and commented in online forums that Stover was never known to use drugs.  Reichardt would not elaborate as to why he suspected the marijuana found in Stover’s car is likely to have been a setup.

Detectives have said that they were able to locate Stover’s car on surveillance video being parked in the casino parking lot.  No word on whether they were able to identify the driver who parked the car that evening.

Update 5 (December 4, 2009)

Michiel Oakes, the man accused of murdering Mark Stover, will likely be released on bail sometime today.  His original bail was $5,000,000, but the judge reduced it to $2,500,000.  His family may have raised the $250,000 it takes to post the $2.5 million bond.  The judge, in response to prosecution requests, has imposed some extra conditions:  Oakes will be required to wear an ankle locating and tracking bracelet, remain in his home in Renton, and is barred from speaking with about half the witnesses in the case.  The judge granted protection orders for the woman who reported Oakes vehicle next to Stover's at the Grange, and for the accused's ex-wife.  That means that should he contact them he would face an additional felony charge (I wonder how much deterrent that is when facing murder 1?).  Local comments online are virtually unanimously opposed and/or outraged that Oakes may make bail.

Update 6 (December 8, 2009)

Oakes was sent home to a residence south of Seattle today. He posted the $250,000 required to secure the $2.5 million bond. He had actually posted the bond by Sunday, but it took an extra couple of days to get the monitoring ankle bracelet into the Skagit County jail.

Oh, a couple other items: I have been able to track down information from the court filings when the dog trainer, Mark Stover, was indeed arrested for stalking his ex-wife. The allegations were that he repeatedly drove the several hours to her home uninvited, would hide on the property and watch through the windows, exposed himself, made lewd comments on voicemail and made 82 calls after being instructed not to contact his ex-wife anymore. It sounds to me that he was indeed kind of coming unwound a bit.

A lot of people are speculating that the ex-wife put Oakes up to this, but I sort of lean toward a theory of the case that he (Oakes) had been hired as a bodyguard for the ex, and had then become the boyfriend. I think he just wanted the guy out of the way so he could pursue his relationship and his girlfriend could stop being afraid. I don't even know that he would have let her know what he planned to do.

Of course, these are just theories of the case; attempting to anticipate what the prosecution will attempt to prove.  It is mere speculation and we really won’t know much more about what the prosecution thinks happened until the case is brought before a jury.
One rather chilling part of the record from the court documents when his ex had him prosecuted: Stover, a collector of sorts, had owned fifteen or more firearms. As a result of the case, he was ordered not to own any firearms until 2010. Friends said this visibly shook him up. And at least two people would have known that if they came through his door unannounced, he would no longer be able to shoot back. The ex, and her boyfriend, and bodyguard, Michiel Oakes.



Anonymous said...

Great story. It will be interesting to follow the case as it unfolds.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your coverage of the case. On CBS 48 Hours, they played the recorder message of someone reporting Stover for drugs and it sounded exactly like Oakes.

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