Murder Conviction Based On A “Buddy” Argument - The Robert Dana Story

By Don Laws and Nicole Johnson

Edited by Karyse Phillips, JD Editor

Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 27, Winter 2005, page 14

On 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 issues themselves.

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 Elaine Matte.

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
CMF  J-186-L
P O Box 2000
Vacaville, CA 95696-2000

Robert’s outside contact is C’Rene Dana at