Charges have been dropped against a man police said robbed a New Whiteland gas station at gunpoint because the prosecutor doesn’t believe there is enough evidence to prove he committed the crime.
Johnathan Beene, 35, Edinburgh, was charged with armed robbery and criminal confinement, but those charges were dismissed this week.
Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said he believes police arrested the wrong man because of witnesses not being able to consistently identify Beene, how witnesses were interviewed and a lack of physical evidence in the case.
The gas station clerk who was robbed picked Beene in a police lineup in April, but in preparation for a trial next week was unable to identify the man again, Cooper said. The prosecutor also has been unable to locate two people who identified Beene after giving him a ride to Franklin the night of the robbery, he said.
Police did not collect any physical evidence in the case, Cooper said. He also said he believes police led the witnesses to select Beene’s photo, and Beene doesn’t look similar to photos captured on store surveillance cameras, he said.
New Whiteland Town Marshal Ed Stephenson said his officers didn’t do anything wrong when presenting photo lineups to the witnesses, who identified Beene on their own. Stephenson is confident his department arrested the right man and will continue investigating the case, he said.
Since the charges were dismissed before going to trial, Beene can be arrested and charged for the same incident if police get new evidence connecting him to the robbery, Cooper said.
On March 22, a man came into Circle K gas station, 101 U.S. 31 North, New Whiteland around 12:45 a.m. The man pointed a gun at a customer in the store and told the clerk to give him the money from the store’s safe, according to a police report.
After the clerk handed over the money, the man left the store with the customer still at gunpoint. They got into the customer’s car, and the man had the customer drive him to a residential area in Indianapolis.
Police later received a tip from a couple that said they had picked up a man near Columbus that looked like photos of the suspect they saw in news reports. The couple had given the man a ride to a gas station at U.S. 31 and Jefferson Street in Franklin earlier that night, according to the report.
Edinburgh police also had received an anonymous tip that the man in the surveillance photos from the robbery looked like Beene, Edinburgh deputy police chief David Lutz said. Lutz passed the information on to New Whiteland police.
New Whiteland police conducted photo lineups with the clerk and the couple who had reported giving the man a ride.
The clerk identified Beene in one photo lineup, and the couple identified Beene in an individual photo police showed them after they could not identify him in a photo lineup, the report said.
The customer who was held at gunpoint has never been able to identify the man who forced him to drive to Indianapolis, both Cooper and Stephenson said.
While the clerk selected Beene out of a photo lineup with police, he wasn’t able to identify a photo of Beene again during preparations for trial about two months later, Cooper said.
The couple who gave the man a ride also were unable to select a photo of Beene out of a black and white photo lineup, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Officers then showed the couple a color photo of Beene, and they said they were 100 percent certain he was the man they gave a ride to Franklin, the report says.
By showing the couple a photo of Beene after the lineup, police may have led the couple to wrongly identify him, Cooper said.
Their testimony would not be usable in court because of the use of the second photo.
The couple’s testimony also would not have proved Beene committed the robbery because they only took the man to Franklin and did not witness the incident in New Whiteland, Cooper said.
The prosecutor’s office also thinks the man in surveillance photos doesn’t look similar enough to Beene. The man robbing the store in March appears to have a short haircut, while Beene had shoulder-length dreadlocks when he was arrested, chief deputy prosecutor Joe Villaneuva said.
Officers tell witnesses that they need to be 100 percent certain of the photo they select, Stephenson said.
If a witness selects a photo but says he or she is not certain about it, police do not use it as evidence, he said. New Whiteland police did not make any other comments that would have led the clerk to change his mind and select Beene, Stephenson said.
Police did not find any physical evidence, such as a gun, money or clothing at Beene’s home, he said.
Police collected DNA evidence from the customer’s car, but got no conclusive results because too many people had made contact with the surfaces that were swabbed for testing, Stephenson said.
The initial identifications by the clerk and the couple were enough evidence to justify arresting Beene, but the prosecutor required more to be able to argue the case in court, Stephenson said.
“It’s one of those things where the witnesses didn’t come through after they made the identification. It’s one of those things that happens. You win some, you lose some,” he said.
New Whiteland police will continue to investigate the case for new leads or further evidence that supports their original arrest, Stephenson said.