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Published July 01 2012

Prosecutors taking another look at Fargo homicide case

FARGO – Cass County prosecutors are revisiting a homicide case from last year in which the alleged killer wasn’t charged, the weapon wasn’t recovered and the woman who witnessed the fatal fight between her two ex-boyfriends gave what police called “several inconsistent statements.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Leah Viste said she is reviewing the inactive case to try to address questions and concerns raised by the family of 28-year-old Tremaine Lynn Settles, who was stabbed to death Sept. 11, 2011, at 2608 Pacific Drive S. in Fargo.

In January, Viste and prosecutor Ryan Younggren declined to file charges against Settles’ alleged killer, Billy Edward Oliver, saying they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he wasn’t acting in self-defense.

Settles’ mother, Margaret Brown, said she believes that is for a judge and jury to decide, and that a trial would at least give her some peace.

“They’re saying, ‘We don’t have enough evidence, we don’t have enough proof,’ but I think that they do,” she said.

The Forum recently reviewed the investigative file, including more than 100 pages of police reports, search warrants and medical reports; dozens of text messages sent to and from Settles’ phone; video and audio recordings of police interviews; crime scene photos; and pictures from cellphones recovered during the investigation.

Some of Brown’s questions pertain to previously unpublicized aspects of the case, including the lack of DNA testing on a bloody brick Settles allegedly used to attack Oliver, evidence indicating blood may have been wiped off the knife, and apparently incriminating text messages sent by Settles that his mother believes were misinterpreted.

In an interview last week, Viste addressed some of the questions, but she said she doesn’t know if it’s possible that Settles’ family will ever be fully satisfied with the answers.

“It’s devastating to (Brown), so I understand their concerns. I understand them wanting all the answers,” she said.

Relationships clash

First, a little background:

Settles had dated Rebecca Genia for about five years and had two children with her under the age of 3. They lived together all of that time until they broke up a couple of months prior to his death.

When they split, Genia reunited with Oliver, a man she had dated for four years before Settles and with whom she had a son – a boy Settles had raised as his own while Oliver was out of the picture.

Genia said she hadn’t seen Oliver for five years when she ran into him last summer while he was staying at Centre Inc., a Fargo halfway house where Oliver was serving half of a one-year sentence he received after pleading guilty to aggravated domestic assault stemming from a June 2009 incident in Richland County.

Oliver told police he was released from the halfway house on July 7 and moved in with Genia in mid-July when she rented the efficiency apartment on Pacific Drive, about four blocks west of The Bowler.

At first, he was staying with a friend and going back and forth to Genia’s place, but eventually the friend moved to Wahpeton and Oliver moved his belongings to Genia’s.

Genia, who was busted for prostitution and drug possession three days before Settles’ death, told police he was upset that the 34-year-old Oliver had re-entered the picture and was watching his children.

“Tremaine didn’t want him around his kids at all,” she said in a recorded police interview the night of the homicide.

Oliver and Genia both said Settles would come over frequently after playing poker and pound on the door or yell at them from outside. But they said it never turned violent – until the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 11.

‘Don’t ignore me’

Despite their breakup, Settles and Genia expressed their love for each other in text messages sent the day before he died. She also told police they had made plans to spend time together at her mother’s house in Sisseton, S.D.

But in a series of text messages sent from Settles’ phone starting at 8:52 p.m. Saturday, he appears to grow upset that Genia wasn’t responding.

Brown believes police and prosecutors jumped to conclusions about her son’s intentions in his final text message to Genia.

“How could they know what Tremaine’s breaking point was? They didn’t know Tremaine,” she said.

Genia didn’t reply to Settles’ final text message. Police believe Settles, who had been playing poker at a friend’s place a few blocks away, left at about 12:30 a.m., according to one of Detective Matt Ysteboe’s reports.

Oliver told police he had just returned at about 1:15 a.m. from picking up Swisher Sweets at a Stop-N-Go store – walking past where Settles was playing poker – and was rolling a marijuana blunt when he heard Settles yelling outside the door of the second-floor apartment unit.

Fight breaks out

Oliver said he tried to wake Genia so she could talk Settles down as she often did, but she wouldn’t wake up.

Oliver said he wasn’t going to answer the door, but then he heard Settles threaten to kill him and his children – a statement that Settles’ mother, Brown, finds unfathomable, as Settles had been raising one of Oliver’s kids as his own.

Oliver said Settles was right in front of the apartment door when he made the comment. He said that by the time he got to the door, Settles had backed down a few steps.

Oliver told police he only had one foot out the door when Settles charged him and hit him in the face with what he later realized was a brick, spinning him back into the apartment.

“And then he just pounced on me,” he said in a recorded police interview.

The scuffle carried both men partway into the tiny bathroom. With Settles on top of him, Oliver said he looked down and saw a pool of blood on the floor – and in that blood, what he said was the only knife in the apartment, a paring knife with a black handle with two silver dots.

According to Oliver and Genia, she tried to pull Settles off of Oliver, who by now was up on all fours – another statement Brown finds hard to believe, given the combined weight of Genia and her 233-pound son on top of him.

As Settles held him in a choke hold with his right arm and punched him with his left, Oliver said he swung the knife in his right hand back across his chest toward Settles.

“And I didn’t even know that I poked him with it. I swear I didn’t,” he told police. An autopsy found the single stab wound was 3 to 5 inches deep and penetrated completely through the lower portion of Settles’ heart.

Oliver said the fight then moved onto the landing, where Settles tried to flip him over the railing but Oliver braced his leg in the slats. Oliver said he slid down two or three steps and Settles went back into the apartment.

Settles collapsed in the doorway. Based on statements, evidence, 911 tapes and autopsy results, police believe Settles was stabbed sometime around 1:25 to 1:30 a.m.

The first phone call to 911 was at 1:38 a.m.

“It is also believed that Tremaine was the one that made that first phone call and his voice was the one you can initially hear saying that he needed a doctor,” Ysteboe wrote in his report.

Settles was pronounced dead at the scene at 2 a.m.

Knife missing – or is it?

In a videotaped interview that morning, Oliver told detectives he was still on the steps when he threw the knife. He said he also threw the brick, which he had picked up when he reached the bottom of the stairs and realized that’s what he’d been hit with.

“I threw everything, everything. That knife is over in that apartment complex, somewhere over in there,” he said.

When detectives asked him why he would get rid of the knife when he was yelling at the much bigger Settles to come downstairs and fight, Oliver said, “My mind wasn’t thinking like that then. My mind was thinking, ‘He hit me with a brick.’

“I can fight,” he added.

Police combed the area for the knife, conducting a grid search of the lawn with a metal detector and rakes. They searched the street, the manhole covers, the apartment’s roof and parking lots across the street. The Fire Department was called out to assist in the search, which came up empty.

Inside Genia’s apartment unit, in a large stack of clothing and towels, detectives found a white towel that had “a possible contact pattern from the bloody knife,” as well as blue boxer-style shorts with three blood spots, “two of which were clearly in the shape of a knife blade,” a police report said.

“This would be consistent with someone wiping that blade off,” Detective Mark Voigtschild wrote in his report.

Brown points to that observation as a key indicator that things didn’t happen the way Oliver explained. She also questions why police didn’t search Genia’s garage and vehicle parked inside it.

“There’s a life taken and a weapon that is not there. That bothers me,” she said.

But Viste noted that even if the knife had been wiped off, the evidence wouldn’t necessarily indicate who did it.

Settles’ family members believe Genia took the knife from the scene, which she denied in a Forum interview last October, saying, “I never had no knife. That don’t even make no sense.”

Settles’ brother told police that while they were in Bemidji, Minn., for Settles’ funeral, he saw Genia washing off a knife. He said he was later able to get it from her and take it back to Florida with him. Eventually, it was shipped to Fargo police, but the crime lab found no blood evidence on it.

Police noted that the knife was the size of the weapon described by Oliver and the medical examiner, but it had a green handle, whereas Oliver had described a black handle with two silver dots on it.

Viste said there’s little evidentiary value to the knife at this point. If Genia had taken it from the scene, it could warrant a tampering charge, but there’s no way now to determine if she did or didn’t, Viste said.

“It’s been contaminated,” she said.

Finding the knife that killed Settles wasn’t paramount to the charging decision, Viste said.

“There’s a variety of reasons it may have not been found, but it doesn’t change necessarily the facts or the physical evidence that were at the scene,” she said.

Brick not tested

Brown said she also doesn’t understand why police didn’t have the brick tested for DNA, when the evidence inventory indicates there was a red substance on it. She believes it could prove whether Settles was indeed the initial aggressor in the fight.

“That’s the simplest thing that could have been done,” she said.

Viste said police decide what’s relevant to test, and while people often believe every item must be tested to determine what occurred, that’s not the case.

Authorities also must make good decisions in regard to how the state spends its money on criminal investigations, she said, adding, “That’s not to say that that brick won’t be tested at some point.”

“I don’t necessarily believe that it’s going to provide any additional evidence that’s going to illuminate what happened there any further, but that’s still under consideration,” she said.

Statements contradict

Police reports point out several conflicting accounts from Genia and Oliver.

Sgt. Bill Ahlfeldt wrote in his report that after he placed Oliver in the back seat of a squad car and read him his Miranda rights, he asked Oliver where the knife was and Oliver said, “Everything was left in the house. I threw a brick off the porch that he hit me with.”

But later at Essentia Health, Oliver said he found the knife and brick under a sheet on the steps when he picked it up to wipe his nose, Ahlfeldt wrote in his report.

“Oliver said he threw the knife and brick out into the yard,” he wrote. “This contradicts Oliver’s earlier statement that he had left the knife in the apartment.”

Detective Paula Ternes wrote in her report that throughout the investigation, it appeared that Genia “had given several inconsistent statements and was extremely difficult to deal with.” In a follow-up interview with Oliver five days after Settles’ death, detectives Jason Loos and Ysteboe told Oliver that Genia “was playing both you guys” and is “very manipulative in how she can use people.”

“She played a pivotal role in what happened,” Loos said in the videotaped interview.

People in stressful situations don’t always remember things accurately, Viste said, adding, “Sometimes they are downright dishonest about things that have happened.”

“I think that anytime you have a statement, you have to look at the underlying physical evidence and whether it supports that statement,” she said.

Overall, prosecutors felt the evidence supported Oliver’s story, Viste said.

In their statement declining charges, she and Younggren said Oliver’s story was “substantially consistent” during multiple interviews with detectives, and Genia described the event – except the stabbing, which she said she didn’t see – in a manner “substantially similar” to Oliver’s story. Genia also was distraught over losing the father of two of her children, they noted.

Mom hopes for closure

Some factors, such as the toxicology results showing Settles’ blood-alcohol concentration was .048 percent, weren’t as significant as others, such as the text messages from Settles’ phone before he arrived at the apartment, Viste said.

“It just corroborates what (Genia and Oliver) said happened and the anger and the animosity between the parties,” she said.

Genia’s prostitution arrest – which, according to Settles’ friends interviewed by police, either made him very mad or more embarrassed than upset – also wasn’t a significant factor, Viste said.

Viste said she is giving attention to the case, but she also has pending cases that take precedence.

Brown believes the investigation was mishandled from the start, and she’s not optimistic that prosecutors will change their mind about filing charges. She said she is leaving her home and family in Birmingham, Ala., to relocate temporarily to the Fargo area and explore the possibility of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

“We don’t have closure, and we need some closure in our family,” she said.

Contact information

Tremaine Settles’ mother, Margaret Brown, has created an email account, justice4tremaine@hotmail.com, for people wanting to offer support or express their feelings and concerns about the case.

“Because I’m not going to stop fighting for Tremaine,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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