Conviction Based On
A “Buddy” Argument - The Robert Dana Story
By Don Laws and Nicole Johnson
Edited by Karyse Phillips, JD Editor
magazine, Issue 27, Winter 2005,
the Monday after Easter, April 19, 1976, thirty-six year old Robert
Dana was working in a field on a farm in Sutter County, California.
Sutter County is an agricultural area, not the kind of place where you
would expect to capture a double murderer. Robert was on his tractor
when he was surrounded at gunpoint by plain-clothes sheriff deputies
and ordered off the equipment. Life as he knew it was now over.
Robert had grown up tending the fields and dairy cattle on his
family’s farm in North Central California. It was not an area
of gangs and violence but of solid hard-working Americans raising
their families, living the family values lifestyle, and looking out for
one another. The old adage, “an acorn never falls far from
the tree” was true of the Dana family. Robert, his parents
and his brother, Junior, all lived very close together and all worked
on farms in the area.
Sutter County was well known for its abundant streams and the large
schools of fish that swim in them. Robert and his friends passed the
time fishing the nearby waterways, downing a few beers, and telling
fish stories. The area was dotted with a number of small taverns where
fishermen could pick up supplies, fuel or launch their boats, and have
a few drinks. They did not have the fancy “watering
holes” of the big cities.
Twelve years earlier, Robert’s brother, Junior, had
introduced Robert to Herschel Koller. Herschel, who went by the name
Gene, was employed by the Sutter County Highway Department. Outside of
work, Robert and Gene enjoyed drinking and fishing together. Like a lot
of buddies, they sometimes worked too hard, drank too much, and spent
too much time fishing. That was just their way of life and they
developed a very good relationship.
Robert was known as a happy-go-lucky type of guy -- the kind who knew
everyone and the one everyone knew. He volunteered with the Department
of Fish and Game, was an active member of the NRA, and carried a
concealed weapons permit issued by the Sutter County
Sheriff’s Department. It was not unusual for residents to be
armed in this part of the country. There were bears and other wild game
along with an abundance of large rats and snakes that enjoyed drinking
from the waterways of the area. Much of the time Robert worked alone in
the fields and had dispatched a number of rats and snakes with the gun
he always carried with him.
Three or four months before Easter 1976, there seemed to be a negative
undercurrent in the relationship between Robert, his brother Junior,
and Gene. From time to time Robert would see his brother and Gene
talking to two mysterious Hispanic looking men who were not from the
area. The relationship between Junior, Gene, and the two unknown men,
appeared strained or even threatening. Robert, trying to be a good
friend, offered on several occasions to intervene and attempt to
mediate the problem if they would just disclose the situation. They
told Robert not to get involved and they said they would work out the
Robert began to notice that the unknown Hispanic men were around Gene
and Junior more often and the situation appeared to become more
threatening than it had been. When Robert tried to talk to them about
it, they told him not to worry. They said that if they needed help they
would call on some of their friends at the Sutter County Sheriff's
Office. One day Robert was approached by the two mysterious men and
asked if he was holding a briefcase for Gene. Robert told them that he
was not and even if he was, it was none of their business.
Things started getting serious on the day Gene, Robert, and his two
sons went down to the levee to fish. They had only been fishing for a
short time when six gunshots, apparently shot from tall grass nearby,
hit the ground between them. Robert quickly grabbed the .30-.30 he
carried in his truck and squeezed off a couple of rounds toward the two
figures they saw running away. They tried to give chase, but the two
unknown men had too much of a head start. After arriving back home,
Robert called the sheriff’s department and filed a report
about the incident. Nothing else happened.
On Easter 1976, after working in the fields all day, Robert met up with
Gene and Gene’s live-in girlfriend, Elaine Matte, at
Joe’s Landing Tavern around 7:30 p.m. Gene and Elaine had
been out fishing and drinking during the day so they had a head start
on Robert. As the evening wore on and the drinks kept flowing, Gene and
Robert had a “buddy” argument. Gene had made a
remark about Robert’s wife; Robert took offense and told Gene
if he ever did it again he would just shoot him. Minutes later they
were back to being old buddies.
Around 10:30 that night, Gene, Robert, Elaine, and the bartender,
Denise Williams, were the only one’s left in the tavern.
Denise told them because of the Easter holiday, she would like to close
early if they didn’t mind. Everyone helped Denise clean the
bar. Around 11 p.m., they headed for the parking lot.
After leaving the tavern, Gene and Elaine headed out of the parking lot
in their truck with their fishing boat in tow. Robert followed them but
turned off in a different direction to do a couple of errands. The last
of those errands was to stop by Gene’s shed and pick up a
couple of short boat oars Gene had given him. He was a little surprised
that Gene and Elaine were not yet home when he got there. They should
have been home by then. He thought that maybe Gene had stopped by the
county garage to check on some equipment or something, but when he
drove by the yard he saw no signs of Gene. Robert drove home, checked
on his livestock, and climbed into his own bed for the last time on
April 19, 1976.
As Robert climbed down off the farm tractor, one of the deputies told
him he was being arrested for the murders of Herschel (Gene) Koller and
At 5:30 that morning, the bodies of Gene and Elaine had been found near
their truck and boat on a levee road. Both had been shot to death. In
less time than it would take most law enforcement agencies to process a
double murder crime scene, Sutter County’s finest had
arrested their only suspect, Robert L. Dana. It was noon.
Earlier that morning someone heard about the murders and told the
investigators about the “buddy” argument Robert and
Gene had the night before. With that scant bit of information, Robert
was arrested and jailed. Sutter County detective Frank Harrison, Jr.
headed the investigation. Harrison spent the next several hours
interrogating Robert. Robert repeatedly denied any knowledge or
involvement in the murders of his two friends. Harrison taped the first
interrogation. Two days later Harrison said the tapes were flawed and
he wanted to re-record the interrogation.
Harrison asked more questions. Robert repeated his answers and
explanations. Harrison would stop the tape and tell Robert to answer
only “yes” or “no” to the
questions. With the exception of what had occurred the previous evening
at Joe’s Landing, Robert never admitted to any crimes, nor
did he have any facts about the case.
Harrison then called in someone from the Department of Justice to
conduct a gunshot residue (GSR) test on Robert’s hands.
Before the test Robert was asked if he had recently shot a gun. Robert
answered that on Sunday he had shot and killed a snake in the farm
field. He told them where they could find the snake and spent casings.
They never looked. He was then asked if he worked around lubricants. He
told them he did daily maintenance on the farm equipment. (Lubricants
can give false GSR test results.) Later that day, the person conducting
the test returned to the interrogation room and told Harrison that they
may have a problem. The GSR test was positive, but due to the fact he
had shot a gun and had worked with lubricants, it was inconclusive.
Harrison instructed him to write up the test as positive for GSR.
Over the course of the next several months Robert was offered plea
deals by Detective Harrison and District Attorney H. Ted Hansen. Still
having faith in the justice system, Robert refused the plea bargains.
Robert had been assigned a public defender by the name of Roy D.
VanDenHeuvel. As his trial date neared - almost a year later - Robert
became concerned that his public defender wasn’t focusing on
his case, and his defense but rather seemed to have little time at all
for Robert due to his busy schedule. Reports surfaced that DA Hansen
and Van-DenHeuvel had been seen together discussing Robert’s
case over lunch. In one last attempt, Robert says Hansen visited his
cell to offer him one more plea bargain. Hansen said he had a number of
unsolved murders in the county and the public was getting restless. He
promised Robert that if he pleaded guilty to all the murders he could
assure Robert that he would not get the death penalty. Robert stopped
short of physically throwing Hansen out of his cell.
At trial, the district attorney put on a strictly circumstantial case.
There was no physical evidence linking Robert Dana to the murders.
Denise Williams testified concerning the argument she witnessed that
fateful Easter evening. Prosecutors said that was the motive. They
recovered a gun from the river, but ballistic experts testified the
tests on the gun and bullets to be “inconclusive.”
They also had the testimony that Robert’s hands had tested
positive for gunshot residue.
Robert’s public defender seemed to do very little to dispute
the evidence -- or lack thereof -- presented by the prosecution. There
was no confession, no blood evidence, no witnesses, inconclusive
ballistics, and inconclusive GSR testing. Instead, VanDerHeuvel seemed
to focus on a defense of “diminished capacity.” He
was trying to show the jury that if Robert had committed these murders
it was because he was drinking and taking prescription medication and
just could not determine right from wrong. This flawed
“defense” did not impress the jury.
On March 22, 1977, Robert Dana was found guilty and sentenced to seven
years-to-life for the murders. His appeals, which were also filed by
public defenders, have been rejected. District Attorney H. Ted Hansen,
now a superior court judge in Sutter County, has fought all of
Robert’s attempts for parole. Robert says that parole board
members told him that if he would admit to the crimes and show remorse
he would have a better chance at freedom. Robert refuses.
Recently, there has been some hope for Robert. Someone came forward in
early 2004, nearly 28 years later, who may have information that had
not been discovered at the time this case was tried. That person has
indicated an interest in helping in the search for truth.
You can contact Robert at:
Robert Dana B-81537
P O Box 2000
Vacaville, CA 95696-2000
Robert’s outside contact is C’Rene Dana at