'They know I didn't do it': Ailing Gary Thibodeau maintains innocence in Heidi Allen case

Gary Thibodeau is seen recently at Coxsackie Correctional Facility (Matt Mulcahy Photo)

The muggy still air in the prison day room at Coxsackie Correctional was enough to take the breath from a healthy man.

For a convict tethered to an oxygen generator, the undue heat deprived him of fulfilling deep breaths and the ability to maintain conversation beyond short phrases in stops and starts. The air conditioning quit inside this Regional Medical Unit of one of New York's Maximum Security prisons. It would take navigating Albany bureaucracy to order the repair in the midst of one of the hottest summers in memory.

But Inmate 95B1489 has concerns far greater than the temperature.

Gary Thibodeau knows he's living his last days, weeks or months. He's living it as a man convicted of a kidnapping he insists he did not commit.

Thibodeau has served 23 years of a minimum 25-year sentence in maximum security prisons, including Attica, Shawangunk and Clinton correctional, for the infamous 1994 disappearance case of Heidi Allen — a central New York case that has received national attention, including Dateline episodes, over the last quarter century.

His disciplinary record over two decades has dark marks and blemishes. In the earlier years, he had hearings for fighting, disobeying orders and being intoxicated.

The last couple of years, deteriorating health has forced Thibodeau into prison hospitals known as Regional Medical Units. His record at Walsh RMU in 2017 includes loss of privileges for damaged property and vandalism/stealing. He now stays in a hospital bed in Coxsackie.

Partying and playing pool

The medical staff wheeled Thibodeau into the room. He spends most of his time in his hospital bed. His nails are long, his face unshaven. His skin is breaking down in spots. He turns 65 in October.

RELATED | Gary Thibodeau placed in hospice care as health worsens, brother says

His mind still works. He recalls his former self going back 24 years ago. That's before an 18-year-old named Heidi Allen disappeared. Thibodeau liked to go out.

"I liked partying, playin' pool. Darts," he said. "Going out and having a couple a beers."

Gary Thibodeau pre-1994 was strong and unafraid. He worked construction. He tinkered with cars. He enjoyed his favorite bars with his girlfriend, Sharon. She told investigators she was with him on Easter Sunday 1994 when Heidi Allen vanished from the D&W convenience store in New Haven, in Oswego County. Sharon stood by him after his arrest, after his conviction and after he went off to state prison. They married along the way. She died of a heart ailment in 1997.

While remembering those years, Thibodeau lovingly recalls that Sharon "was a pain in the ass. But, so was I."

Video of the day he posted bail after being arrested shows them sharing a kiss and walking arm in arm. Today, he misses her, more than 20 years after her passing.

He met Heidi Allen

The 64-year-old acknowledges he met Heidi Allen in Oswego County. He says it was just once. However, he vehemently denies being present at the convenience store where the teen was last seen. His brother, Richard "Dick" Thibodeau, was there. He drove his van to the store in New Haven and bought a pack of cigarettes. One of Allen's last customers.

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That was how Gary was considered a suspect. Sitting in his prison-issued hospital robe, he explained how Dick's van had a manual transmission. You needed two hands to drive it. The driver could not have been focused on anything or anyone else in the van. Witnesses at the scene said they saw two men with a woman.

"They tried to indict Dick in this," Gary said. "Without somebody else, they couldn't get an indictment."

He has heard the description given by witnesses, but denies they're describing him.

It wasn't me. I wasn't there. They didn't see me there.

Investigators impounded Dick's van and searched it for any evidence of the kidnapping. They found nothing. Police search teams scoured a ten-acre area of property where Gary Thibodeau lived. They used highly trained dogs. Cameras. Helicopters. They found nothing connecting Thibodeau to the kidnapping. No evidence of Heidi's presence.

Jury questioned evidence

Both Thibodeau brothers were accused of kidnapping. They were walked in front of the television cameras in May 1994. A grand jury indictment against Gary included citations of the statements taken from his jail cellmates in Massachusetts who claimed Thibodeau admitted to the crime. Gary's trial came first, one year later.

The jury found Gary guilty. His stunned reaction has played repeatedly on the news over the years. Twenty-three years later, Thibodeau explains why he appeared shocked.

"The jury came back a second time, said no evidence against me, twice," he said.

The judge encouraged them to continue deliberations. After they read the verdict, Thibodeau recalls looking at the jurors.

A juror up front was crying. She mouthed to me the words 'he made me do it.'

Brother Richard would go on trial four months later. The same evidence was presented to a different jury with two exceptions. Richard was the brother who told police he was at the D&W convenience store that morning buying cigarettes. And, prosecutors did not have the advantage of the jailhouse testimony that helped convict Gary. Richard walked out of court all smiles. The jury found him not guilty.

Another chance at freedom lost

Just last month, the New York State Court of Appeals narrowly ruled against granting Gary a new trial. It is the third court to rule against him in his fresh wave of appeals that began in 2014. That's when new information became apparent that developed a different narrative for what happened at that convenience store.

SEE ALSO | State's highest court denies Gary Thibodeau's appeal in 4-3 decision

Several witnesses testified at a hearing about three other men who made admissions over the years about kidnapping and killing Heidi Allen. Gary Thibodeau listened in court to the testimony that pointed to James Steen, Michael Bohrer and Roger Breckenridge as Heidi's kidnappers.

Prosecutors and investigators in Oswego County were not buying the new revelations as enough to change their opinion on Gary Thibodeau's role in the teens disappearance. However, the support is growing for Thibodeau's point of view in the dissenting opinions at both the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals. Nevertheless, the majority ruled in June: Request denied for a new trial.

When asked whether the narrow court ruling disappointed him Thibodeau said:

Nothing surprises me.

RELATED | What's next for Gary Thibodeau after state's highest court denies appeal?

Cold beer and fishing

A visit from his Federal Public Defender Lisa Peebles brightens Thibodeau's expression on this July morning. Her team has explored every legal option in an effort to win a new trial. She admits she's never seen a case quite like this one where she so strongly believes a man has been wrongfully charged and convicted.

Gary Thibodeau says he would like to enjoy a cold beer and some fishing if he ever gets out. He appreciates everyone's efforts on his behalf including the witnesses that came forward in recent years to report what they had heard. Yet, he is also resigned to the likelihood that he will die in prison.

'Hope. That's a funny word'

At times while talking, Gary Thibodeau will stop to pull his oxygen tube from inside his nose. He moistens it, returns it and breathes as deeply as he can. He sips from a bottle of Pepsi as if it's the last drink of his life. It's a struggle to get through each day.

Hope. that's a funny word. I've got so many medical problems. Don't matter this ain't no life existence.

"We're all going to die. Some sooner than others," explains Thibodeau. "I hope mine is sooner than the others." Referring to his own fading strength and ability to get through each day, "this is ridiculous."

Thibodeau sits and waits to see whether the Court of Appeals will grant his request to re-argue his case. That truly could be his last chance for a new trial. The other option would be to make a Federal appeal. He likely does not have the time to wait for that to progress.

He is not up to court appearances any longer, but given the chance to send one more message to prosecutors or the court Gary Thibodeau says:

"They know I didn't do it. I had nothing to do with it."
I believe in the Creator. Call 'em God if you want I believe in the creator." And what is he saying? "Everything is done for a reason. Damned if I know the reason.

For more on Matt Mulcahy's exclusive interview with Gary Thibodeau, click here

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