On the morning of July 30, 2002, Karen Boes, a wife and mother of two teenagers, left her house to go shopping with her friend. While in Grand Rapids waiting for a Payless shoe store to open, she received a phone call alerting her that her house was on fire. Knowing that she left her 14-year-old daughter alone at the house, she raced home, only to learn the unthinkable – her daughter had perished in the fire. The nightmare quickly spiraled when investigators classified the fire as arson and began to finger Karen as a suspect.
Karen's story is featured in the new Netflix Original, The Confession Tapes.
The Daily Beast called the series "a harrowing look at false murder confessions." Glamour said, "More than anything, The Confession Tapes highlights the fact that something like this could happen to anyone."
On the morning of July 30, 2002, Karen Boes woke up, made coffee, ironed her shirt, and did the laundry. As she was pulling out of her driveway at 8:40AM, she saw a snake and got out of the car to move it with a stick into the yard so it wouldn’t alarm her daughter. She then went to grab money from her husband at his body shop, drove to Burger King to grab cinnamon rolls and iced tea, and picked up her friend Judy Payne to go shopping. They arrived in Grand Rapids and were waiting for a Payless shoe store to open when Karen received a call at 9:30AM from her 18-year-old son, who told her that the house was on fire.
Karen raced back to Zeeland screaming “I have to get home to Robin, I have to get home to my baby.” Judy forced Karen to stop in the middle of the road so that she could safely drive them back. At her house, Karen tried to get to Robin, but was held back- the paramedics gave Karen a shot of valium. Robin was pronounced dead at 10:05am. Firefighters found a gas can, matches and candles in her bedroom among other accelerants. They also found a note from Robin stating her intention to run away from home, steal money from her parents, and change her appearance and identity.
A week after the fire, Karen was tag-team interviewed for 11 ½ hours by Zeeland police, ATF agents, and by her neighbor and friend, Chief Bill Olney. Karen didn't confess to the crime but said she could possibly have done this when not in her right mind or in an unconscious state. The ATF, Michigan State Police, and prosecution expert John Deehan examined the house, but did so months later, and never independently of each other.
At the time of the fire, Wayne and Karen Boes had been married 23 years and had two children, Bill and Robin. Karen was an alcoholic, but she had been going to AA meetings and had been sober for a few weeks. Wayne and Karen were happily married, but they had a strained relationship with their daughter Robin. Robin was a typical rebellious teenager, constantly fighting with her parents. There were reports that she was being sexually abused by her father that were dismissed, but she frequently told friends how much she hated her family and that she wanted to run away. During Karen's polygraph, the police asked her if she had anything she wanted to get out in the open. She told them that she had an affair years previous that she hadn't told anyone about. When Wayne found out about this, he filed for divorce and ultimately testified against Karen.
On March 31, 2003, the trial court sentenced Karen to life without the possibility of parole. Despite various innocence advocacy groups’ efforts to exonerate Karen, the defense community’s steadfast belief in her innocence, and the later discrediting of the prosecution’s fire expert, her various appeals attorneys have not been successful in overturning the decision. Karen has spent the last fourteen years in prison.
Karen was interrogated multiple times over a six-week period. These extensive and confrontational interrogations lasted up to twelve hours each and led to no smoking guns. Minor contradictions emerged after police began to lie to Karen about the evidence they had, and Karen began to second guess her own memory. She was accused of setting the fire 193 times — she denied it 303 times.
Never on hundreds of hours of recorded phone calls at the jail did she admit to starting the fire. She wasn't read her Miranda rights, and she did not know she was being filmed during her interrogation. The court did not allow a false confession expert to explain her statements to the jury.
Q: "So you are trained in this form of interrogation that in order to obtain the truth from somebody during interrogation, that you would tell them lies to get them to tell the truth?"
A: "Not only am I trained in that, I teach that."
- Quote from cross examination of police investigator during Karen Boes's trial
Read the full interrogation transcript below.
Fire investigator John DeHaan's conclusion was that Karen poured gasoline in the bedroom and the hallway before igniting the fire. This gasoline produced flammable vapors that mixed with the air causing a combustion explosion in the bedroom, which lifted a portion of the roof, pushed the door shut to the bedroom, and isolated the bedroom from the hallway.
Dehaan thought that because of the dynamics of the cause/origin above, it would be physically impossible for Robin to have ignited the fire in the hallway through the partially open door and then retreat back into the room.
Fire Investigator David Smith believed the fire was incendiary, as gas and a gas can were found in Robin’s bedroom. Unlike DeHaan, however, he concluded that the act of intentional ignition could not be established to a scientific certainty due to competing ignition sources present within the room, i.e., candles, matches, etc.
Smith claimed that data was present to indicate that the fire began in Robin’s bedroom and that there was no data present to show that the fire started in the hallway. DeHaan and the state opined that gas was poured in the hallway and the fire started in the hallway, but this theory was based only on thermal patterns present after the suppression of the fire- this burn pattern science has since been discredited. Also, there was no gasoline found in the hallway, only in Robin’s bedroom.
Flawed arson investigation testimony has resulted in numerous convictions of individuals under exceptionally questionable circumstances. Testimony about the source or origination of fires via burn patterns tops the list of these errors. The notion that burn pattern examination would reveal the existence of arson, or even the progression or a fire, has been largely discredited.
Just because he wrote a book doesn't make him infallible.
John Dehaan, the fire investigator who testified against Karen, may have written several books on fire investigation, but he has been wrong before. In a 2001 Louisiana case involving a mother allegedly killing her three children, he nearly sent a woman to be executed before being pressured to withdraw his blatantly false conclusions. An ABC special documentary on the case, Burned, can be found below.
On January 9 2001, a house fire in Pineville, Louisiana killed Amanda's three children. While Amanda sat in jail on capital charges for four years, authorities believed Dehaan's report which presented evidence of arson based on bunk data and unsound science.
Nineteen months after he testified at a Daubert hearing with incorrect computer modeling data, he failed to correct himself when he discovered his errors. Many years later, Dehaan withdrew his report saying the fire wasn't incendiary. Amanda could have been executed.
In 1997, an apartment fire burned Souliotes’ property to the ground and, three tenants died in the fire. The prosecution used two main pieces of forensic evidence against Souliotes — burn patterns that indicated arson rather than an accidental fire and a chemical compound found at the fire scene and on Souliotes’ shoes. Fire investigators believed that certain burn patterns could only be caused by someone setting an intentional fire.
However, the latest research in fire investigation techniques have shown that the indicators commonly used in the past are misleading. The same patterns are consistent with accidental fires. The prosecution argued that the compound is found in lighter fluid and connected Souliotes to the crime. However, that same compound is now known to exist in many household products including solvents used in glues and adhesives for shoes and floor coverings. George spent 17 years in prison before a federal judge overturned his conviction and ordered his immediate release.
After reviewing his actions related to the Gutweiler case, the Ethics Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences officially recommended that John DeHaan be expelled from the Academy on July 13, 2015.
Read the full American Academy of Forensic Sciences Letter of Expulsion below.
Karen has served over fourteen years of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. After exhausting all appeals, Karen's only hope for relief is clemency or a pardon from the governor.
Read Karen's appellate document below.