September 16, 2005 | 11:03 a.m. ET

Locating evidence for a decades-old murder trial (Shane Bishop, Dateline producer)

Sometimes Dateline producers are asked merely to tell stories; other times we are able to dig and uncover information that might otherwise have never seen the light of day. Tonight's story is one I will remember because we were able to find some evidence that many lawyers and investigators assumed was lost forever.

It all started in late 2001, when I called David Moran, a Wayne State law school professor and former Michigan appellate defender who had a remarkable record of getting murder convictions overturned. Moran told me a story that began in 1974, a story would turn into tonight's lead story. It involved a Saginaw, Michigan man named Gabriel Ferris who'd been convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, just hours after consummating his marriage to another woman.

Some stories you have to think about before pursuing. But this one? A guy accused of leaving his honeymoon bed to kill another woman? C'mon.

The defendant, Gabriel Ferris, was then sitting in the Saginaw County Jail. He'd not been arrested and convicted until 21 years after the murder of his former girlfriend Cheryl Miller. But attorney Moran had won Ferris a new trial on several grounds, chiefly because Saginaw  prosecutors had allowed a jailhouse snitch to testify falsely that he didn't expect a deal in exchange for his testimony against Ferris.

Ferris's attorneys were now preparing for the new trial. Moran told me that because the murder had occurred so long ago, much of the physical evidence from the crime scene had disappeared over the years. In fact, when he sent his investigator to the Saginaw Police Department, she said she was shown only one box of evidence and told that was all that remained.

What was missing? Slides from a rape kit taken after the murder, and a packet containing several dark hairs found on the victim's body. Because of these hairs, the original detectives had pursued dark-haired suspects for years.

But Gabriel Ferris was blonde. Prosecutors had explained away the discrepancy by claiming that the hairs weren't really from the killer, but had simply been left behind by others on a rug that the victim had rolled around on during her death struggle with the killer.

Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen and I decided we should try to find those hairs.

Sound impossible? It didn't seem so. Just months before, I had helped lead police in Florida to link a serial killer to a murder that had been unsolved since 1985.

I started reading stacks of old police reports. I found lab reports that seemed to indicate the last anyone had seen of the hair evidence had been at a Michigan State Police crime lab in 1995, when they were dropped off by a Saginaw police detective. That detective, it turned out, had arrested Ferris without ever ordering any DNA or other sophisticated tests on the hairs. He later told me that since the hairs apparently didn't belong to Ferris, he felt it wasn't important to find out to whom they did belong.

Neither Chris nor I have ever heard a detective say that.

We filed several Freedom of Information Act requests, hoping to somehow trace the chain of evidence to find the hairs. We made a number of calls to witnesses and simply waited.

A couple weeks later, we got the call we had been waiting for. A Michigan State Police crime lab scientist said he was holding the hairs in his hand!

Ferris's defense team was astounded. They'd searched for years without success, and Dateline found the hairs in a matter of months.

What did authorities in Saginaw say? The police chief told me that detectives knew the hairs were at the lab the whole time. Prosecutors told us nothing was ever missing. But the detective at the center of the case later admitted to me that he'd made a mistake, left the hairs at the lab, and wrongly assumed they'd been brought back and filed in a box in the evidence room. Because of that mistake, the hairs were not available to Ferris's defense team at his first trial.

Eventually, DNA tests would be conducted. The hairs would play a key role in Ferris's defense at subsequent trials. And we at Dateline felt like we'd helped make a difference in a murder-mystery that had lingered for decades.

How does the story end? Did jurors believe that Gabriel Ferris murdered his ex-girlfriend during his honeymoon? Would the hairs make a difference? Find out on Dateline. Click here to read a transcript of this story.

E-mail Dateline@MSNBC.com

September 15, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET

A honeymoon from hell

George Smith
Eleven days into his marriage, a groom goes missing aboard a Mediterranean cruise ship, making headlines around the world. Was it an accident or foul play? On 'Dateline' Friday, Dennis Murphy reports on the mystery.

On the night newlywed George Smith vanished from his honeymoon cruise, the sounds of a loud party were coming from his stateroom, followed by male voices arguing on the balcony and then a “horrific thud,” a fellow passenger says.

No one has been charged, but Connecticut’s top federal prosecutor said in July that the 26-year-old’s disappearance is being aggressively investigated and reports of blood on the ship raise concerns.

NBC's Dennis Murphy goes inside the case and talks to NBC News analyst and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt . In his writings on "Profiler's Perspective" on MSNBC.com, Van Zandt writes about the difficulties in investigating cases of those missing at the sea:

Part of the challenge in investigating such onboard mysterious disappearances and/or suspected homicides is that the ship itself is a moving crime scene, one that if not immediately declared a crime scene will be cleaned up (with potential forensic evidence lost forever) by the ship’s maintenance staff.  And a further complication is that the potential witnesses, all 1,000 to 3,000 of them, may get off at the next port, necessitating a fugitive hunt-like investigation to track them down, sometimes all over the world for purposes of interview.  There is also the possibility that some cruise lines may not want to tarnish their image and appeal as “a love and party boat on gentle blue waters.”  The image of passengers being assaulted and tossed overboard—either by other passengers or crew members— is not something these cruise ships want to show in the slick ads that they run on TV and the Internet...

The saga of persons missing from cruise ships is not limited to George Smith though. In fact the International Council of Cruise Lines told me that in the last year alone at least a dozen people have disappeared from cruise ships, most of whom remain unaccounted for.  This is a small fraction of the 8.8 million people from North America who will book passage on cruise ships this year, but to their families, these losses are just as important as that of 18-year old Natalee Holloway, currently missing from a high school graduation trip in Aruba. Click here to read more from Van Zandt's "Profiler's Perspective."

Tune in to Dateline Friday, 8 p.m./7 C. Click here to read a transcript of this report .

E-mail Dateline@MSNBC.com.

September 12, 2005 | 4:30 p.m. ET

Just this past Friday, Dateline featured heart-wrenching stories about family members looking for their loved ones. One family featured was frantic for information about their matriarch. A nurse who went beyond the call of duty saw her patient on a Dateline broadcast, and then logged on to MSNBC.com. It made all the difference.

Making a difference (Olive Talley, Dateline producer)
HOUSTON, TEXAS— Like most journalists, I got into this business to expose problems, to right wrongs, to educate, and to inform. In short, to make a difference. In Houston this past week, while covering stories about evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, our Dateline team did just that.

And what a gratifying experience it was for all of us.

We were working on a story about the tens of thousands of people who were still missing loved ones nearly two weeks after the hurricane struck. Countless evacuees at the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center shared their stories with us.

But one in particular captivated us. A distraught woman appeared at the computer help desk at the convention center, begging for help to find a 72-year-old relative, Earlene Thompson. Mrs. Thompson, a retired New Orleans teacher's aide and mother of eight adult children, had not been heard from in more than a week since she was evacuated from Methodist Hospital.

"She was in the hospital. And they're supposed to know where she is,'' the woman pleaded with the volunteer behind the computer.

"I'm sorry,'' the volunteer said, after an unsuccessful search of dozens of Web sites listing locations of evacuees.

Earlene Thompson's name was not on any list. The disappointment was too much for her relative, who broke down in tears and walked away, leaning on the strong shoulder of the man who accompanied her. Our video photographer, Carl Filoretto, and soundman, Steve Dalton, both from Denver, dutifully recorded the conversation and, as they are trained to do, held the shot until the couple walked out of sight.

They knew they had an emotional exchange for our story and excitedly told me about it when they brought the tape back to me at the hotel, where I was working with correspondent Rob Stafford to structure a piece for Friday night's show.  After seeing the footage, Rob and I knew we had to find her and find out more about this family's search. And while the crew had done a terrific job of getting the footage, they had not gotten the name of the woman who was looking for Earlene.

How could we possibly find this woman in the nation's fourth largest city? We did not have her name or know her relationship to Earlene Thompson. All we knew was Earlene's name and address in New Orleans.

As it turned out, Earlene Thompson’s name was enough to generate information that eventually led us to her family. Rob Stafford called a convention center help desk volunteer he'd met the night before. He reached the help desk and a different volunteer had searched her databases and come up with the name and phone number of a relative of Earlene's in Atlanta. The Atlanta woman was one of Earlene's daughters and she referred us to her sister, Wanda, who lived Houston. Rob called that sister and finally made contact with the woman on our videotape: Kimberly Thompson.

Kimberly is Earlene's daughter-in-law. She's married to David, the youngest of the eight adult children. She and David had visited the convention center, along with hospitals throughout Texas and Louisiana in search of his mother. But so far, without luck.

"Hurry. Please. We are waiting to tell you our story,'' Kimberly told me over the phone as I drove from the convention center to Wanda's home in North Houston during rush-hour traffic Thursday afternoon.

The Thompson family immediately impressed us. They were bright, articulate and determined. One of Earlene's daughters, Angela, had flown in from the Boston area, where she manages a hotel. Kimberly and David had lost their home and everything in New Orleans and come to Wanda's home for refuge. So had another sibling, Darryl, who was also there. But none of them even mentioned their own plights until much later. Wanda came home from her job as a kindergarten teacher as we set up our cameras to interview Kimberly. 

NBC
Earlene Thompson's family gave us this photo of her, which 'Dateline' broadcast last Friday.

Their single focus was finding the family matriarch, Earlene Thompson. Between the adult siblings, their spouses and other relatives, the family had either called or searched every hospital they could find in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia. They calculated they had made hundreds of calls and tried "everything they could" to find Mrs. Thompson. The living room sounded like a Tower of Babel, as each called a different location, while Wanda worked on the computer.

As they made their calls, I tracked down the spokeswoman for Methodist Hospital in New Orleans, who confirmed that the hospital had lost track of many of its 180 registered patients after they were airlifted out of the flooded hospital by helicopters. The spokeswoman said the hospital was working around-the-clock to locate their patients, but Earlene Thompson was still among the missing. The only good news, the spokeswoman said, was that Earlene was not among the dead they had recovered at the hospital.

"An airline can find your luggage and bring it back in 24 hours," Wanda said, "but my Mom, they don't even know after 10 days..."

Her words trailed off as she collapsed into tears. 

The family thanked us profusely for listening to their story. They would be grateful, they said, for any help we could offer.

We promised to do all we could to get Earlene's name out on national television. Fast forward 24 hours. Our story on Dateline aired Friday night, shortly after 8:30 p.m. Houston time. Rob Stafford reported on the many family members searching for loved ones, including Kimberly's search for Earlene Thompson. ( Click here for that video. )

Dani Trees, a physical therapist at a nursing home in Webster, Texas, south of Houston, was lying in bed with her husband watching the show after a long day's work. Six months pregnant, she needed her rest. Suddenly, she bolted upright when she heard Earlene Thompson's name and saw her picture in Rob Stafford's report. 

"Oh my God! That's my patient!" Dani said she screamed to her husband. 

Dani said the picture didn't really match the look of her patient, but the name sure did. She had to find out for sure. And she knew she had to do something to help. She said she logged on to Dateline's Web site and confirmed the name in the story, and then searched the MSNBC.com reconnect Web site on the Dateline page. On the page of people looking for loved ones, she came across Angela's name and number as a contact for Earlene.

She called Angela and told her she thought she knew her mother. She explained she had a patient named Earlene Thompson and that she was safe and sound in a nursing home south of Houston. Still, she wanted to go back to the nursing home and put the two on the phone together just to be sure. So Dani got dressed and drove back to the Manor Care Health Services nursing home. She put Angela and Earlene on the phone. It was the good news the family had been praying for. 

Kimberly called me at the hotel, where I'd just crawled into bed, hoping to finally get a full night's sleep after mostly 20-hour days for the last week and a half. 

Kimberly was crying and screaming so much that I couldn't understand who was calling, much less what she was saying. Finally, she said "We found her! We found her! She's safe and she's HERE in Houston!"

I, too, sprang from bed and started pulling on clothes. I knew this family wouldn't sit still long and Kimberly confirmed their plan to drive to the nursing home as soon as possible. I didn't want to miss one second of that reunion.

While they sorted out the details with the nursing home, I scrambled to find a crew to shoot their reunion. My last Dateline crew — Carl and Steve — had worked all day in Mississippi for NBC's Today Show and they were not in their hotel rooms. Finally, I tracked them down around 9 p.m. just as they were settling in for a nightcap at a Houston restaurant. 

They, too, were excited to hear the good news about Earlene. After all, they were the ones who got this whole thing started. So, they hopped back in their car, raced to the hotel to get their gear and follow me speeding south on I-45 in hopes of reaching the nursing home in time to videotape the reunion. The crew didn't tell me until after it was all over that they'd had some equipment problems earlier in the day, so Steve was re-wiring an audio mixer and plugging in microphones and making other technical fixes as we drove toward the nursing home.

Meanwhile, I called the nursing home's administrator, Tracey Sherman, who graciously agreed to let us videotape inside her facility. She and other employees at Manor Care guided us to their facility by phone after we took a wrong turn of the freeway. Luckily, we pulled into the parking lot less than five minutes before the Thompson caravan of cars arrived with about seven family members. 

We had just enough time to jump out of our cars and get in place before the family ran up to Dani at the front door, hugging and thanking her for finding their Mom. But they couldn't wait to see Earlene, who was lying in her bed as the family swooped in with open arms, screaming "Momma, Momma, we finally found you!"

Earlene Thompson, reunited with her family.

The cries of joy, laughter and all the commotion drew other residents and possibly the entire staff out to the hallway near Earlene's room. There were hugs and tears and smiles as big as Texas. Just two hours earlier, the family had no idea where Earlene was. Now, thanks to an alert and caring physical therapist, they were reunited.

Earlene, who has some cognitive losses due to a stroke, recognized all the faces of her loved ones even if she didn't get all the names right. At one point, as Earlene looked quizzically at our camera, Angela and Kimberly explained that they'd reached out to NBC for help. And that she was going to be on TV.

"Really?" she asked. "Be sure and tell me when."

Earlene didn't really understand what all the fuss was about, but it was clear she felt safe and happy among her extended family. Wearing the only clothes she owned — a hospital gown — she slowly climbed into the front seat a bright red Jeep sports utility vehicle for the ride back to Wanda's house and a good night's sleep amidst her "little chickens."

Finally, the whole family could rest. Ironically, one of her daughters had attempted to remove her from the hospital the Sunday before Katrina hit, but doctors said that moving Earlene could kill her. She was being treated for blood clots and they said it was simply too dangerous to move her at that time. And, the family said the hospital assured them Earlene would be safe there. 

On Monday, after the storm passed through New Orleans, David Thompson said he's spoken with his mother in the hospital. Earlene told him she was "fine" and in good spirits. He said she was more concerned about her kids' and grandkids' welfare than her own and she urged them to all stick together. But, then after the levees broke and the floodwaters forced an evacuation of the hospital, the family was haunted by their decision to leave Earlene behind. 

But on Friday night, 11 days since they'd lost cost contact with Earlene, their fears were gone. Earlene was safe and they were all together again. 

"You're an angel," Wanda's husband, Larry, told Dani Trees before the family drove off. " Don't let anybody ever tell you otherwise."

Dani felt it was a matter of fate and faith. When she turned on Dateline and saw pictures of the wall of messages with the names and a few photos of missing loved ones, she said she scanned them all in hopes of seeing Earlene Thompson's name among them. She suspected her sweet, gray-haired patient was a hurricane evacuee, but Earlene had been transferred to the nursing home from a nearby hospital with no history. Dani  says she hoped and prayed that eventually, they'd find the real story of Earlene Thompson that the woman herself could not articulate. 

"They're a great family and it just feels really good to know that they're all back together again,'' Dani told me after the family drove off.

Through her concern and action, Dani showed once again how one person can have impact. Together, we made a difference.

And that feels really good, too.

September 12, 2005 | 4:11 p.m. ET

The littlest victims: Macy and dad reunited

BATON ROUGE, LA.— We found little Macy living in a shelter for kids in Baton Rouge . Macy, like the rest of them, was living through what might be a young life's most harrowing nightmare— being lost.

Some of the adults in the shelter didn't know quite what to make of Macy's story — that she lived with her father, that he was a pastor. She was sure she would find him.

She seemed to have a child's certainty. And if the rest of us were not so sure she'd ever find her family... well, that was our problem. She said she wanted to sing for us, a song her father taught her — “Amazing Grace.”

Last Monday, we put Macy and her song on TV.

At the very same time, a whole state away, at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, a gentleman of a certain age poured out his troubles to his nurse.

"His eyes were puffy and red,” said nurse Sherry Dodge. “He hadn't slept in days. All he could focus on was the fact that his baby girl wasn't there."

His name was Walter L. Jenkins — Pastor Jenkins of 2nd True Light Baptist Church, New Orleans. And he had lost his daughter, the light of his life.  How could he live if they didn't find her? They only had each other.

They'd fled to the convention center after the hurricane, he said. It took three days to escape the convention center. He was sick, needed dialysis to survive.  Authorities put him on a plane. He thought they'd send her with him. They didn't.

"I was bitter. I used obscene language, I'm not going to lie," says Jenkins. "I used obscene language because that was just my flesh crawling up. I was bitter."

The nursing staff fretted about his chances, watched him decline... and then one of them saw that little girl Macy sing on TV.

“I jumped for joy. I was shaking," says nurse McBride. "I couldn't evan talk."

But was it the pastor's Macy? It must be, she thought. She called and asked us to check our video tape... and it was indeed the same child.

"He was just praising God," says nurse Sherry Dodge.

And, by the way,  when we checked the video tape from that day in the shelter, there was Macy, announcing she would see her father... tomorrow. A child's fantasy? She was, it turn out, off by just two days.

And on a fine warm evening in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, little Macy boarded an Angel Flight and took off for Texas... to her old dad— her safe life, her only home.

E-mail Dateline@MSNBC.com.

September 12, 2005 | 10:57 a.m. ET

Behind the scenes of our behind-the-scenes with the Rolling Stones (Deb Trueman, Dateline producer)

We head up I-95 to Hartford, Connecticut. It’s the kind of assignment you know will bring surprises,  no matter how carefully you try and plan. Matt Lauer has been given an invitation to follow the Rolling Stones as they launch “A Bigger Bang,” their worldwide concert tour .

We arrive around two in the afternoon at Rentschler Stadium. Dateline has its own group ready to rock and roll. Myself, the producer, associate producer Elizabeth Ruksznis and three great camera crews. Matt Lauer will drive up after he finishes the “Today” show and join us in a few hours.

The Stones are on an extremely tight schedule since they will be performing that night and when we meet up with their team I can sense the enormity of what they have to pull off.

We are allowed to enter from behind the gigantic steel structure that is their stage. It looks more like a construction site than the setting for a rock and roll show. There is the constant hum of people working but it is quite the contrast from what is to come when 40,000 fans pack this stadium.

We have asked for a lot of time with the group because our goal is to bring our viewers backstage, put them right there with the group known as the world’s greatest rock and roll band. The tricky thing is to keep to our schedule while the Stones stick to theirs.

I circle the football field with my lead camera man Rich White, along with the representatives for the Stones, as we try to block out our afternoon.

Courtesy Jake Cohl
First up, will be an interview with Mick Jagger. But there is confusion on where to do it. They had hoped to place us directly on the stage, but the sun is strong and it is close to 90  degrees. And with Jagger performing in just a few hours, they don’t want to wear him out in any way.

The Stones reps scramble to come up with an alternative. Things are getting tricky now. I begin the first of what will be dozens of times nervously looking at my watch. It’s already 3:00. Matt will be arriving soon and we still don’t have a place to do the interview.

The reps come up with a solution. We’re told to set up in “The Party Room,” a darkly-lit room that’s reserved for Keith Richards’ friends and family when they arrive for the show.

There are black sofas with red satin pillows. And roses. Lots of red roses brought in by a woman whose job it seems is to fill the backstage rooms with flowers.

It’s 3:30 p.m.  We have 30 minutes to set up our lights and cameras before Mick Jagger arrives.

The crews scramble with their gear and lighting equipment and, as they always do, pull it off beautifully.

Matt has now arrived and we have a few minutes to talk over what is ahead.

And then Mick Jagger enters the room. He is very polite and professional, offering a handshake and introduction.

We finish a brief interview and then take the long walk from inside the bowels of the stadium to the stage. Jagger seems to be in a very good mood. The opening night concert at Boston’s Fenway Park, just a week earlier, got rave reviews and he’s more than happy to let us follow along as he gives Matt a real bird’s eye view of the stage.

I was lucky enough to see the Fenway show and I really marveled at the passion and the energy the Rolling Stones brought to the stage. And now, pinch myself time, here I am with Mick Jagger, talking about it all. But there’s not a lot of time to daydream.

We spend the next four hours, right up to showtime, with Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood. Moving from the stage, to the dressing rooms, and then back to where our day  began. At the top of the ramp leading up to the stage. 

It’s 9:30 p.m. All the interviews have been great. But there’s one more shot to get.  Our crews scramble to get into position.

A van pulls up. Jagger and company get out of the cars and take the long walk down to the stage.

Inside the stadium, tens of thousands of  fans are waiting. You can feel the anticipation. Soon, an explosion of fireworks and then the familiar sounds of one of their classic songs. “Start me Up.”

The crowd is cheering.  And so is the Dateline team.

E-mail Dateline@MSNBC.com

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