Impossible Prosecution Theory of a Woman’s Disappearance -
The Donald McDonald Story
By Donald McDonald
Edited by Natalie Smith Parra, JD Editor
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 26, page 3
My name is Donald Charles McDonald, but my nickname since childhood has been Mac. I have been wrongly imprisoned in the state of Alaska for over 18 years for a murder I did not commit.
I lived on Kodiak Island in 1986. That is where I was arrested along with James (Jim) John Kerwin and Jack Anton Ibach, in the disappearance of Jack’s ex-wife Laura Lee Ibach (Henderson) on March 28, 1986. I met Jim Kerwin in 1985 and we became casual friends. Laura Ibach was a woman friend of mine who was the ex-wife of Jack Ibach, who I had seen several times around Kodiak, but didn’t know.
As you will see, the prosecution’s case hinged on the supposition that Laura and I were strangers who hadn’t met prior to about 3 p.m. on March 28, 1986. However our friendship was attested to at my trial (in Anchorage) by at least two witnesses, Laura’s friend Debbie Lesser, and my friend Jack Buckalew. They both testified that Laura and I had been introduced to each other prior to March 28th and that Laura, several of her friends, and I, had socialized at Kodiak bars on multiple occasions.
The Events of March 28, 1986
On the day of Laura’s disappearance, I went to see her at the Kodiak Women’s Resource Center (KWRCC) around 3 p.m. That is where Laura worked, and I asked her if she would be my date at a street dance I was co-hosting the next day, to raise money for Kodiak’s Hope House (a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility) where I was residing. Laura politely declined my invitation, but said she might see me there. While I was at the KWRCC, Laura asked me if I could find her some cocaine. She then told me she would be on Shelikof Street to meet some people around 9 p.m., and asked me if I could come by and let her know whether or not I could find her the drugs. I had been out of the world of illegal drugs for quite some time so I never intended to look for any cocaine for Laura. Since I had been clean and sober for months I wasn’t going to find her any drugs, but I didn’t tell her that outright because I didn’t want to tick her off. Although it was the reason for me to see Laura for what would be the last time, and it may have had something to do with her disappearance, the judge barred any mention of Laura’s drug use at both my trial, and my retrial.
On the evening of March 28, 1986, Jim and I ate dinner at Reentry Dorms, and then went to McDonald’s restaurant for dessert. The housemother where I lived, Gladys Baldwin, accompanied us. We drove around for a short time and then took Gladys back to Reentry Dorms because she was tired. Jim and I decided to continue our Friday night cruise around the town of Kodiak. We drove south on Shelikof Street to its southern terminus city dock. I must guess it was about 9 p.m., since I did not have a clock in my van. Laura came up to my van and got in. However she left after five minutes at the most, when I told her I wasn’t going to find her any cocaine. When she exited my van, Laura must have walked toward the B&B Bar, opposite of the way my van was parked. I never saw her again. After Laura left my van, Jim and I remained parked for several minutes while I started the engine and warmed it up before leaving. It was a Friday night and we cruised around town some more before I went home around 10:00 p.m. I told Jim he could sleep in my van.
Matthew (Matt) D. Jamin was Laura’s divorce lawyer. Jack Ibach and Laura Henderson, due to the bifurcated divorce, shared custody of the couple’s daughters and Jack approved of that arrangement. However Laura was seeking full custody so she and the children could move to Oregon with her parents. With shared custody she would be unable to move the children out of state. Albert (Al) Huff Ruble was a private investigator who worked with Jamin on cases such as Laura’s custody dispute.
Although Laura said nothing to me about it when I saw her that afternoon, two of Laura’s co-workers later told the police that she told them she was planning to meet “Matt” at 9 p.m. near the B&B Bar on Shelikof Street, down by the harbor. The B&B Bar and the small boat harbor are about 20 yards apart at the opposite end of the road from the King Crab Cannery. Suzanne Hinson, one of Laura’s co-workers, wrote in her March 29th Kodiak Police Department (KPD) statement that Laura told her “Matt had a tape.” There has never been an adequate explanation about the 9 p.m. meeting that Hinson said Laura was to have with Matt - after she left my van - at what happened to be her last known whereabouts. The contents of the mysterious tape - or if it ever existed - is likewise unknown.
Another one of Laura’s co-workers told a little different version of Laura’s planned meeting. She said Laura told her that Ruble and Matt Jamin would be “watching on” at 9 p.m. on Shelikof Street, because she never met and didn’t know the man who was supposedly going to give her a tape to use against her ex-husband in their custody dispute.
Although some of Laura’s actions and words after 3 p.m on March 28th are open for interpretation, one thing is certain: It is impossible that Laura was referring to me, because I not only knew Laura, but I had seen and talked with her for 10-15 minutes at the KWRCC that very afternoon, and there were witnesses to verify it. Yet after Laura’s disappearance, the police and prosecutors choose this as the version they wanted to accept as true, perhaps because the other version directly implicated Matt Jamin and Al Ruble in Laura’s disappearance. However the only way I could be implicated as the mysterious stranger was for the police and prosecutors to claim that I had never met her - which is exactly what they did.
Jamin’s version of the events of March 28th, is that he met with Laura at his office around 4 p.m. He says she told him she was going to meet “this fellow” later that evening to get information to use against her ex-husband. Jamin said he called Ruble to get his opinion on the situation, and that they decided Ruble would conduct surveillance of Laura that night.
Ruble testified he was alone on Shelikof Street, and even though he was supposedly there to conduct surveillance, he doesn’t have a photo log of the events around 9 p.m. He says that around 9:08 p.m. he drove north on Shelikof since Laura was late, and he noticed Laura sitting in a white van. Ruble claims he continued on about 100 yards, parked, and then walked toward the van before turning and going around a building. Ruble says that when he emerged from behind the north side of the Cannery dorm building the white van was gone, and although the car she had been driving was parked there, he didn’t see Laura.
Jamin and Ruble both testified that at around 9:20 p.m. they simultaneously reached the parking lot of Jamin’s law office building for an arranged 9:30 meeting with Laura. (To demonstrate how contrived this story is, ask yourself, when was the last time your lawyer met you at his office to discuss business at 9:30 on a Friday night - likely never.) Their story is that Ruble told Jamin what had happened. Yet it wasn’t until about 10 p.m., around an hour or more after Ruble alleged he saw Laura in my van and 40 minutes after they said they met, that Ruble and Jamin began informing her family members and friends that she was missing. They provided them with a description of me and my van. Laura’s stepfather Gib Munro said that around 11:30 p.m. he saw my white van in the parking lot of my residence. Yet even though it had been parked there for 1-1/2 hours, Ruble and Jamin, both so terribly concerned about Laura, hadn’t bothered to drive by Hope House, even though later that night they told the police they knew my van was the last place Ruble saw her! However it has been established that my van was at Hope House by at least 10:30 p.m., because that is when it was seen in the parking lot by Barbara Yara, the managing supervisor of the facility.
Ruble was at the KPD during the midnight shift change and convinced Cpl. Michael H. Andre to drive to my address. Shortly after midnight Andre arrived at my residence and documented that he saw my parked van. When he looked inside he could see the outline of a person, who he learned was Jim sleeping when he investigated.
Search of McDonald’s 1966 Dodge van turns up zip
My 1966 white Dodge window van with side cargo doors was seized the next morning, March 29th, and transported to the KPD’s secure impound garage. The next day two KPD detectives spent 12 man-hours conducting a minute criminal inspection of my van to collect any and all possible evidence that might indicate a connection between the van and Laura’s disappearance. One of those detectives was William A. Walton, who said in a 1999 interview, that his conclusion after the search was that nothing of a violent nature took place in my van. No incriminating blood, skin, hair or fingerprints were found. The fingerprints of 59 people were found in my van, but not the prints of either Laura or Jack. Neither was there any indication that a struggle or violence had occurred in my van.
One feather was found on the floor of the passenger side and there was a cracked window on one of the side cargo doors. The Kodiak Police Department called for FBI expertise. The examination of the feather was inconclusive. While it was not excluded as originating from feather filled items I had in my van, including a blanket, a sleeping bag and a jacket, neither was it excluded as being consistent with the filling in the coat Laura allegedly wore the night of her disappearance. However even if it did come from her coat, it doesn’t mean anything, because she was in my van for about five minutes that night.
Although the prosecution speculated that my van’s window was cracked during a struggle about 12 hours before the van was impounded, there was no tissue or blood residue, or any other evidence that a human body part had cracked the window. The truth is the window was cracked months before by a sliding tool box.
There was an issue of hair samples recovered from my van; however, KPD declined to submit any hair samples for comparison. Their explanation was that there was no way they could know which hairs recovered from Laura’s apartment would be hers for certain, so trying to compare hairs found at the apartment to the ones they sucked up in their police vacuuming of my van would be a futile effort. However that is contradicted by the record of a Kodiak police investigator entering Laura’s apartment after March 30, for the purpose of recovering hair samples from Laura’s comb, and a bandana that she wore when she played racquetball. A question that has not been answered is did the KPD attempt, but fail to match hairs found in my van with hair from Laura’s comb and bandana?
Although testing of cigarette butts found in my van’s ashtray were deemed inconclusive as to whether they could be linked to Laura, there is no record that any of her brand of cigarettes was found in the van.
The police also compared soil samples from the place they said I drove that night with Laura, with soil samples from all over the van, including under the frame, in the tire grooves, under the bumpers, and inside the van. Although none of soil matched, that fact was not brought up at the trial.
On Monday, March 31, 1986, my van had been thoroughly gone through by KPD with a fine toothed comb. There was nothing found in it to indicate I had anything to do with Laura’s disappearance. On March 31, two days after my arrest, records show that my van was released and towed to a Kodiak wrecking yard owned by Bruce St. Pierre. The yard had a covered Quonset-style warehouse and Kodiak contracted with Bruce to retain vehicles. However unlike the KPD’s secure impound yard, where my van was stored at Bruce’s wrecking yard is not secure, and Bruce St. Pierre testified to that fact at my trial. That lack of security became an important issue in my case.
Oops! Someone put a Band-Aid in the wrong pink shoe!
Laura’s mother mentioned to KPD investigator William E. Rhodes that she was wearing designer jeans, a belt with a heart shaped buckle, a mauve down-filled coat, pinkish tennis shoes, and white porcelain earrings with a purple flower painted on them. Clothing items consistent with her description were later found over a period of months along a two mile stretch of Monashka Bay below the cliff from which the prosecution alleged Jim and I tossed Laura into the water. However Kitty Munro also mentioned Laura was wearing a type and color of shirt that was never recovered, and she didn’t mention a purse that was recovered. Considering the discrepancies between Kitty Munro’s description of Laura’s attire and what was and wasn’t found, it is possible that none of the recovered items were Laura’s, particularly since none of the items were positively identified as hers. However the purse did have something in it that is rather curious - Laura’s old identification, and it is also curious that nothing in the purse indicated she had it the night of her disappearance. The questions raised by the clothing found on the beach were compounded by the bizarre circumstance of how a “pinkish tennis shoe” was discovered, and what was found inside of it.
One of the most interesting details that Kitty described was the shoes. In the latter pages of the April 3, 1986 KPD Rhodes interview, Kitty describes them as women’s size 9, pinkish suede with gray swatch reinforcements. She says they were Velcro tie tennis shoes. Without being asked Kitty volunteers that Laura had planter wart surgery and wore Band-Aids until her wounds healed. No one asked or determined from which foot the warts had been removed.
On April 13, 1986, a beachcomber, Dennis Pederson, was wandering the shores of Monashka Bay near Pillar Point. He noticed a tennis shoe in the tidal wash and felt that it might be significant. It was sodden pink and had a Band-Aid in it. He threw the shoe into an area above the high tide line. Kitty Munro learned of the shoe and on Sunday, April 21, 1986 she and her friend went to the location where Dennis had thrown it. The Band-Aid was still in it. Kitty and her friend picked up the shoe and drove to KPD to report their find. KPD Timothy Lowry took the report. All agreed that the shoe is consistent with footwear that Laura left home wearing on March 28. However, there are a couple of questions that were neither asked nor answered. It was proven at the trial that the shoe was to be worn on the left foot. All agreed that it was a left shoe and that it was remarkably similar to shoes that Laura was wearing. There is a glitch however. After my trial records were received from Laura’s podiatrist stating that Laura’s wart surgery was on her right foot, not her left. In either case, it leaves the question of how the sock disappeared, leaving a Band-Aid in the wrong shoe. It is beyond ridiculous to seriously consider waves and currents did it - since it was something only possible by human intervention. The obvious planting of the shoe as evidence to support the prosecution’s theory that Laura died by being tossed off a cliff into the ocean was so badly bungled that it would be laughable if the bogus evidence hadn’t been used to help convince the jury to convict me.
Another obvious but unanswered question is how did the various items of clothing that Laura supposedly wore that night happened to be removed from her body after she was allegedly tossed into the water?
Truly magical psychic evidence discovered in McDonald’s van
In August 1986, five months after my arrest and two months before my first trial began in October 1986, KPD Cpl. Andre said he saw in a police associated magazine an advertisement for a Chicago area psychic, William Ward. Andre called him on an “urge.” The psychic told him to “look for something in the van.”
To see if the previous fine tooth comb searches of the van had missed some piece of evidence, KPD Cpl. Paris went alone to inspect my unsecured van at Bruce’s wrecking yard. He did this on October 19, 1986, just nine days before the start of my trial. He testified at my trial that he looked through the driver’s side window and saw something glistening in plain sight near the gas pedal. Officer Paris then called his subordinates, detectives Rhodes and Walton on their day off. He instructed the two detectives to take another look in my van. While visually inspecting the van KPD Rhodes and KPD Walton spotted the object. Laying in plain sight on the van’s floor near the gas pedal was a white porcelain earring front with a purple flower painted on it. This earring was magically discovered in plain sight after all the months of the van being searched, torn apart, illuminated throughout for blood, and available for public inspection. Detective Rhodes took a triangulation of photos to accurately determine the earring’s position.
With the fortuitous finding days before my trial of an earring consistent with the one described by Laura’s mom, the prosecution could at least argue there was something tangible indicating Laura was in my van, and she may have encountered violence sufficient to cause an earring to “fall off” her ear.
The spotting of the earring in plain sight was not the only thing suspicious about the October 19th search of my van: It was conducted under the very unusual circumstance of being the first time during Bruce St. Pierre’s ownership of the wrecking yard that he or an employee was not allowed to be present - which was a stipulation of his contract with Kodiak - while the search of a vehicle took place.
The KPD’s reliance on a psychic vision as justification for their third search of my van is as ridiculous as their official explanation of why the earring front wasn’t found in previous searches: The KPD had my van towed to a gas station to see how much gas was needed to fill it to determine how far the van had been driven. That is a farcical explanation, because the KPD didn’t know if my van was full of gas around 9 p.m. on March 28, or if I might have had a gas can to add gas, or if my van’s gas tank had been siphoned. The earring front, according to the prosecution speculation, had been knocked off an ear violently and gone down the front window defroster slot. They then speculated the jarring motion of towing the van enabled the earring to fall through the heater/defroster system to the floor. It was never investigated, much less proven, that such a journey could occur through my heater/defroster system.
The earring found on the floor of my van during its third search was the prosecution’s only alleged evidence tying Laura Ibach to a possible struggle in the van. Thus I am including for your consideration an abbreviated version of a report by an investigator who has worked on my case.
I have analyzed the issue concerning the earring found on the floor of Mr. McDonald’s (Mac’s) 1966 Dodge van on October 19, 1986, and the possibility it travelled completely through the van’s Heater/Defroster/Fresh Air (flow) system. The prosecution did not present any evidence or otherwise speculate at Mac’s trial as to whether the earring went down the defroster vent on the driver or the passenger side of the van. If the earring went down either defroster vent the next thing to account for would be its return to the driver’s side heating delivery system. A flap closes, opens, or mixes the warmed air that is delivered to either the heater or defroster. Even granting that the earring could have passed by the defroster/heater flap, the blower motor powers a fan that conducts the air in the flow system. It is undetermined how many blades that fan has, or the position the blades were stopped at in the blower motor housing when the van was impounded. In addition it is unknown if Mac’s van was started after it was impounded, if the defroster/heater motor was turned on or off, or if any of the defroster or heater control settings were changed after it was impounded.
However it is clear from KPD photographs of the van and the heater on/off pull knob, that the heater, and not the defroster, was on when Mac was last in his van. If the earring rolled right or left and down past the heater/defroster diverter flap, it would descend into the electrically motorized fan system. It does appear that an earring, by passing all the other blocks and variables, could end up on the floor of the heater housing delivery system. There it would likely rest, since there are ¼ inch high lips that the earring would have to somehow jump over to end up on the floor of the van.
While there is a fresh air system integrated in Mac’s van model, an earring would have to make a very long and highly improbable, if not impossible trip, to end up on the floor of the van where it was found. It appears to me that there would have to be much more than violent travel over brick roads and railroad tracks to cause such an occurrence. It appears to me that the van would have had to be critically angled to one side or the other for an earring to fall into the heating system after having entered the defroster system. There is no evidence that such an event occurred, and the prosecution did not contend that it did. The most likely scenario is that the earring was placed at the location it was found during the search of the van by a person or person’s unknown.
The prosecution’s theory of Laura Ibach’s disappearance
The prosecution’s theory of Laura’s disappearance was Jim Kerwin and I allegedly killed her in my van, drove to the other end of Kodiak Island and threw her dead body off a cliff into Monashka Bay, and that she was washed away, never to be seen again. When I knew Laura she weighed about 150 pounds. It is impossible that Jim Kerwin and I could toss a 150 pound body, dead or alive, over 50 feet straight out to clear the rock outcroppings below so it would reach the high tide line. That not only did not happen - it can not be done. In an attempt to prove the impossibility of the prosecution’s theory, prior to my trial my attorney arranged for two men to toss a sack filled with 150 pounds of material off the cliff where Laura was allegedly tossed. They were unable to even remotely come close to reaching the high tide line. However my trial judge ruled testimony related to the demonstration was inadmissible – so my jury heard nothing about it. Yet the crucial relevance of that testimony was confirmed years later when the national television program Inside Edition did a segment on my case. They recreated the prosecution’s scenario at the cliff where Laura was allegedly tossed into the ocean, with the same result – it is impossible for two men the size of Jim Kerwin and me to toss a bag with a 150 pound body far enough away from the face of the cliff to reach the high tide line at Monashka Bay.
Yet the prosecution’s case substantiating that preposterous “theory” wasn’t what I would call circumstantial - it was more like pure fabrication. No dead body was ever produced. No means nor motive for me to have killed my friend Laura was proven. No weapon was proven to have been used, nor was any method of Laura’s alleged death proven, precisely because it was unknown if she was in fact dead. No fingerprints, no hair, no blood, no skin, no physical evidence of any kind was found to prove that any crime was committed by me (or anyone else) related to Laura’s disappearance.
Prosecutors said that Jack Ibach hired Jim Kerwin and me to do away with Laura. There was no testimony by anyone showing, much less proving, that I was involved in any such scheme. For almost two decades, I have steadfastly maintained that I had nothing to do with, nor was I aware of any plans for Laura’s disappearance.
The prosecution’s speculation that a man I only knew only on sight talked Jim Kerwin and me into killing his ex-wife for no financial gain is ludicrous. Jim Kerwin didn’t know Laura, while I considered her to be a friend. Yet the prosecution contended that Laura did not know me, and had never seen me before. Only one prosecution witness, Al Ruble, testified we did not know each other. As I explained previously, he is one of two people (along with Matt Jamin) who are likely to know what actually happened to Laura. My frame-up consisted of the prosecution’s creation of so-called “facts and evidence” to fit a fairytale scenario neatly closing the book on Laura’s mysterious disappearance.
Two trials in Anchorage
The trial’s venue was changed to Anchorage from Kodiak. The three of us were tried on kidnapping and murder charges in the same courtroom before the same judge and jury. Our trial began on October 27, 1986 in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Edmund Burke. Although we were seated next to each other, we were legally considered to be “tried separately, but together, before the same courtroom in the interest of judicial economy.” The legal reasoning was that a judge and jury could keep all the testimony regarding each defendant separate, and that the jury would not infer damaging testimony regarding one individual against the other two. Common sense says that is impossible.
Jack retained an attorney to represent him, and Jim and I had court-appointed attorneys. Acting on advice from our attorneys, all three of us elected not to testify at trial. The result of the trial was Jim Kerwin’s complete acquittal, Jack Ibach received a hung jury on both charges, and I received a hung jury on the murder charge but was found guilty of kidnapping Laura. Jack Ibach and I remained in jail, and the Kodiak prosecutor decided to re-try us.
The second trial, again in Anchorage, began after mid-April, 1987 in Judge Mark Rowland’s courtroom. Jack and I were tried together but separately, just as before. My trial attorney, Louise Ma, was no longer able to represent me through the public defender’s system; so, Pam Cravaz acted as my counsel for the second trial. Scott Dattan was appointed as Jack’s attorney.
My experience at the second trial was worse than at the first. Pam Cravaz was inexperienced and outmatched. Just as in the first trial, there was no cooperation between Jack’s attorney and mine and the legal march toward my wrongful conviction continued. I was convicted of Laura’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.
At both trials there was much uncorroborated and unchallenged testimony. The “Exceptions to Barring Hearsay” rules, one of which is “Excited Utterance” allowed five prosecution witnesses to make all sorts of statements to the jury that went beyond Laura’s apparently very “excited utterance” to a co-worker Suzanne Hinson around 3:20 p.m. on the day she disappeared. If the prosecution’s case is to be believed, Laura was emitting “excited utterances” over a period of 1-1/2 hours and at two different locations about a mile apart. In spite of the hearsay exceptions rule and limits on the exception about ignoring what was said, and in spite of the judge’s explanation that the jury should only use any “excited utterance” statements to perceive Laura’s intention, the attorneys asked numerous questions of each of the five witnesses. The questioning went to the particulars of what Laura said.
After 18 years my state and federal appeals were exhausted in the spring of 2004 when the U.S. Supreme Court denied my writ of certiorari.
However there is some hope, because the person or persons responsible for Laura’s disappearance are still “out there,” and one or more people may have critical information about the circumstances of her disappearance, and who may have seen her after 9 p.m. on March 28, 1986.
One important lead that is still hanging, is that given the statements by Laura’s friends, and that I know she walked away from my van that night, to the best of my knowledge two people who likely saw Laura Ibach before her disappearance are Albert Ruble and Matthew Jamin. Although they are the most likely people to have vital information regarding the fate of Laura, they were never considered as suspects in her disappearance, or investigated for their contacts with her on March 28, 1986.
Another possible lead is that after my arrest I learned Laura was a sometimes drug dealer in Kodiak who was a police informant. If one or more of Kodiak’s key drug dealers learned that Laura was feeding the police information, that certainly would be a motive for them to make her disappear.
The only certain thing about Laura’s disappearance, is that no one has come forth to say they have seen her since she left my van at approximately 9 p.m. on March 28, 1986. If she is alive she must have had a very good reason to keep herself successfully hidden for 18 years. More than anyone else in the world I want to know what happened to Laura - because that is the very information that will set me free.
I am thankful for my sister, Katha McDonald, who has remained steadfast through my ordeal and for the small group of people she has been able to alert and keep focused on my predicament. I also thank you for reading about my plight.
I can be contacted at:
Don McDonald #112338
Spring Creek Correctional Center
PO Box 5001
Seward, AK 99664
My outside contact is my sister:
6730 Bayview Dr. N.W.
Marysville, WA 98271