Produced by Lourdes Aguiar and Peter Shaw
[This story previously aired on Aug. 1, 2015. It was updated on July 28, 2018.]
It was a vicious triple homicide. Yet, there were almost no clues left behind. That’s because fire consumed the crime scene and destroyed vital evidence. With the investigation hampered from the start, it would take almost 12 long years to bring this case to trial and to its emotional conclusion.
The foundation is all that remains of the Friedli home in Pinyon Pines, California. On the evening of Sept. 17, 2006, Tanya Friedli’s childhood home was burned to the ground.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what happened,” Tanya told “48 Hours.” “I miss them every day.”
Inside the home, investigators had found the bodies of Tanya’s 53-year-old mother, Vicki Friedli, and her 55-year-old boyfriend, Jon Hayward. It was later determined they had both been shot.
Outside in a burning wheelbarrow were the charred remains of Tanya’s 18-year-old sister, Becky — her body too badly burned to determine the cause of death.
“And the worst part is, is that’s my baby sister,” Tanya said. “I was supposed to be the one to protect her and be there for her. That’s my job.”
Tanya, then a deputy sheriff in another town, relayed the devastating news to her sister, Drew Friedli, an Air Force medic stationed in Japan at the time.
“I think it’s just mortifying when you find out that somebody could be that horrible and sinister … like something you’d see in a horror flick as opposed to real life,” said Drew.
For Drew and Tanya, it’s hard to reconcile that horrific murder scene to their storybook upbringing on the property. Their father, Ron Friedli, had built their home himself in the mountains high above the desert heat of the Coachella Valley.
“And it was just a nice place,” Ron told “48 Hours” correspondent Troy Roberts.”And it was country… it was definitely out of the city. And I liked it. It was a great place for the kids to grow up. We used to go for walks in the forest all the time and we had a great time.”
Ron doted on his daughters and so did his wife, Vicki.
“My mom was just a very kind hearted, wonderful woman,” said Drew.
“She loved being a mom. She loved gardening. …She loved sewing and quilting … and cooking,” Tanya said. “You know, it was important for her to teach us how to cook even from a very young age.”
The youngest of the sisters was high-spirited Becky Friedli.
“Becky was always just an amazing person…even when she was small,” Tanya said. Always had a smile on her face. …She was always there for you.”
“She’s smart,” Ron told Roberts. “Becky used to actually help Tanya and Drew with their homework and you know she’s four years younger than them. …She got along with everybody. She really did. She was just a fun, happy person.”
But the happy times as a family didn’t last; Ron and Vicki divorced after 13 years of marriage.
“She was a good person…but we sort of grew apart,” Ron explained.
As the years passed, Tanya and Drew also left home. Becky remained behind with her mother, who eventually found love again with contractor Jon Hayward.
“My dad called Vicki his “cupcake” because she was just so sweet,'” said Jon’s daughter, Katie Hayward.
“And they were drawn together because they both loved the outdoors and they loved living up there together,” Hayward continued. “And I would be like, ‘Dad! Why are you guys living up here? Just come down to the city. What is up here?’ And he would always say, ‘It’s free up here, no one will ever bother us and this is the safest place you can be.'”
Then came that night in September. At first, no one could imagine who would want to hurt Jon, Becky and Vicki.
“I really had no idea,” Hayward said, tearing up. “The finger was being pointed at everyone I think … there were all kinds of rumors.”
Rumors started circulating that perhaps they had been murdered by someone with a grudge against Ron Friedli.
Ron had retired the year before from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
“Did you believe that this may have been some sort of retribution for your work in law enforcement?” Roberts asked.
“No, I really didn’t,” he replied. “I never really was involved in anything where somebody would have said, ‘You know, I wanna get back at this guy.’ I didn’t have that kind of career.”
“So you had no enemies,” said Roberts.
“Not really, no,” said Ron.
Investigators looked into that theory and quickly ruled it out. But then rumors began swirling about Ron Friedli himself.
“I mean, it’s just natural to think that — possibly, the — the husband or family could have been involved…and I understood that going into it,” he said.
“Were you interviewed?” Roberts asked Ron.
“Yes, I was … I was crying probably most — through most of it,” he replied.
“I thought it was crazy … my dad had just lost his youngest daughter. He was really grieving at the time,” Drew said. “He was already beating himself that he wasn’t there and now he has to go defend himself.”
Investigators asked Ron to take a polygraph test.
“And that was probably the first time that I really felt I was kind of a suspect,” he told Roberts. “So I got up there, I took the polygraph and the lady came out and said this is one of the best tests I’ve ever given in my career … she says it was incredible … ya did fine.”
Phone records put Ron Friedli 11 hours away at his property in Northern California when the crime took place and police ruled him out as a suspect. But there was one person — a friend of Becky’s – who says she knew immediately who was responsible.
“This was intentional, and he did it. And I’ve known since day one he did it,” said Jeanie McDaniel.
WAS BECKY TARGETED?
In the first days after the murders, Ron Friedli was besieged with questions.
“None of us really knew why it occurred, or had a reason for it,” he told Roberts. “The last thing I thought was that it was something to do with Becky.”
But once the initial shock had subsided, Ron began looking at the crime through his investigator’s eyes and came to believe that it was Becky who had been targeted. It seemed too personal because of a fear Becky had.
“She was really, really afraid of fire,” Ron explained. “When she was younger … her mom was fixin’ tacos and she had a pan full of hot grease and Becky had pulled it down off the stove. She was small and it burned on her chest.”
“She had third degree burns on her chest … so someone that is with someone intimately would know that she had these scars and was scared of fire,” said Jeanie McDaniel.
Becky’s friend was suspicious about someone right away.
“So immediately when you heard the murders your mind went to Robert Pape?” Roberts asked McDaniel.
“Immediately … nothing else in my mind. There was nobody else that could’ve done this,” she replied.
Robert Pape was Becky Friedli’s ex-boyfriend. The teenagers dated in high school and were together for over a year.
At first, Becky and Robert seemed happy.
“I think it was her first love,” McDaniel said. “So I just think she was madly in love with him.”
But McDaniel says Robert soon grew possessive of Becky.
“When her and I went on vacation about 10 months before she died, he called about 20, 30 times in a night. Just harassing her, wanting to talk to her while we were hanging out with friends,” she said.
“Twenty to 30 times … in one night?” Roberts asked.
“Hmm hmm,” McDaniel affirmed. “I mean, minutes within each other.”
In January 2006, Becky Friedli and Robert Pape broke up and started seeing other people. But according to McDaniel, Robert’s obsessive behavior only grew worse and took an even darker turn shortly before the murders in September.
“So she came to my house three weeks before she died and said, ‘He had even threatened to kill me.’ Those were her exact words, ‘He even threatened to kill me.'”
“Why?” Roberts asked.
“She said because he wasn’t taking the breakup well and he wanted her and didn’t want anybody else to have her. That’s what she said to me,” McDaniel replied.
“So were you concerned for her?” Roberts asked.
“I was. But she gave me the impression that it wasn’t a big deal. And so I kinda just took her word for it and let it go,” said McDaniel.
But after the murders, McDaniel says she went straight to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department with her suspicions. As it turns out, Robert Pape was already on their radar.
“Everyone was whispering about Robert,” said Katie Hayward.
“They moved pretty quickly in the direction of Robert,” Tanya Friedli said. “There was a lot of little bits of information from different sources.”
One of those sources was Becky’s close friend, Javier Garcia Jr., who had given investigators an interesting bit of information. On the night of the murders, he says Becky had told him she was going hiking on her property with Robert and his friend, Christian Smith. Tanya Friedli believes her sister probably just wanted to smooth things over with Robert.
“My sister was a fixer,” she explained. “She loved with all her heart and she gave herself to everything she did.”
Garcia Jr.’s lead placed Robert Pape and Christian Smith at the scene of the crime the night of the murders. With rumors pointing towards the two men, the Friedlis were sure that the case would soon be solved.
“I kind of felt a sense of relief — that they would be arrested,” said Drew Friedli.
But as surely as the momentum had started, it seemed to stop. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department never publicly shared any details of the investigation or named any suspects.
“Nothing happened for years,” Tanya said. “They did the initial investigation and it was
passed on from detective to detective to detective.”
“It was frustrating,” Ron said, “but they just kept saying they — they didn’t have it, they didn’t have enough to — to make an arrest.”
Private investigator Luis Bolaños saw his friend Ron grow increasingly despondent.
“About two, three years into this I’m getting updates from Ron and I’m finding out that nothing’s happening. That this case has stalled. It’s gone cold,” he said.
Bolaños and Ron had met years earlier at the sheriff’s office where Ron had been one of Bolaños’ first training officers. Now it was time for Bolaños to help his old teammate.
“And I begged Ron for years, for two or three years, ‘Let me do this for you,'” he said.
Bolaños had also worked in the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. Although they parted on bad terms, he was certain he could get things moving again.
“I knew that we can get this back on the front page where it needed to be — and get those phones burning again,” he said.
“I really wasn’t ready,” Ron said. “Because I really felt in my heart that I — I thought the sheriff’s department was gonna solve it, I really did.”
But as the six-year anniversary of the crime approached with no arrests in sight, Ron Friedli finally gave Bolaños the green light. The media savvy P.I. got to work and one of his first orders of business was putting up a provocative billboard.
“We wanted to do a before and after. A beautiful picture of Becky … and then a picture, a simulated picture of Becky in the wheelbarrow on fire,” Bolaños said. “It really, really pulled at heartstrings and sickened people.”
Bolaños also held a press conference at the murder site with Drew and Tanya Friedli.
“We are in this because we believe this case can be solved,” Bolaños told reporters.
“We know somebody out there knows something,” added Tanya.
Over the next year, tips started coming in. One of them was from Becky’s cousin, Daniela Zermeño, who remembered something that might help investigators.
“I had spoken to Becky the night before the murder,” Zermeño explained. “And she told me that her ex-boyfriend … Robert, had come into her work at Denny’s and — was harassing her … he had harassed her to the point of being removed from the restaurant.”
Zermeño says after the altercation they had discussed going on that hike.
“And I think, talk about you know…whatever their relationship was …how it was finishing and where it was,” she said.
And on the seventh anniversary of the crime, Bolaños held yet another press conference at the murder site with Zermeño by his side.
“The suspects then ignited the accelerant and engulfed Becky in flames…” Bolaños told reporters.
Ron Friedli believes all the media pressure paid off. A few months later, the D.A.’s office subpoenaed Robert Pape and Christian Smith to appear before a grand jury.
“It was just stirring the pot,” Ron said. “There was something on the news every day about it and I think they just said, ‘All right let’s do something about it’ and they did.”
As the grand jury drew to a close, there was news: Pape and Smith were arrested for triple homicide.
“I was very happy; it was probably the happiest day of my life. It was. Very, very happy. Relieved,” said Ron.
But as investigators were sure the killers were finally in custody, two families say they are just as certain the men are wrongfully accused.
“Innocent until proven guilty is a myth….it’s guilty ’til proven innocent,” said Christy Pape.
“And the truth is gonna come out … it will come out,” said John Conrad Smith.
“NOT YOUR TYPICAL DEFENDANTS”
For over seven years, the families of Becky Friedli, her mother, Vicki, and Jon Hayward had been waiting for this moment.
“My heart was in my stomach — seeing them in the jumpsuits … and seeing them in the flesh and seeing them handcuffed,” said Katie Hayward.
Robert Pape and Christian Smith, both 25, found themselves in a Riverside County courthouse charged with triple homicide; both pleaded not guilty.
“I think they thought they were gonna get away with it,” said Ron Friedli.
But these two men hardly fit the image of typical defendants. Neither have criminal records. Christian Smith is married and a decorated war hero. Robert Pape is also married and an active member of his church.
“I had a really hard time– just keepin’ it together, you know?” said Christy Pape.
Robert’s sister struggled seeing him accused of the brutal murder and burning of three people.
“Somebody like him — someone like him bein’ put in that position, it’s really hard to watch,” said Christy.
Christy and Robert’s mother, Kathleen Pape, say he is innocent, and not the man he has been portrayed as in the media.
“They tried to make him out to be a monster — a jealous monster. And he just isn’t that,” said Christy.
“What kinda man is he?” Roberts asked Kathleen.
“Robert is an amazing person. He’s got a good heart. He’s got a gentle heart,” she replied.
“Hard working, patient, honest ….He’s always there when you need him,” said Christy.
“He sorta takes care of all of us, takes really good care of his wife,” added Kathleen.
Robert started dating his wife, Sarah, after his breakup with Becky.
“He and his wife both have this tremendous heart for animals,” Kathleen told Roberts. “He cares about people, he cares about animals … He’s just got the utmost integrity.”
Christy and Kathleen aren’t Robert’s only supporters.
“We’ve had no less than 10 or 11 people at every single hearing … and there’s been up to 30, 33 or 34 people, at one of the hearings, just coming to support,” Christy said. “…the courtroom can’t fit that many of us.”
“People called us immediately after he was arrested. And they were like, no this isn’t right, this is not the Robert I know,” said Kathleen.
Also looking on in disbelief has been Christian Smith’s father, John Conrad Smith.
“I know my son didn’t do that. I know he’s not capable of that,” said Smith.
Smith says his son is an honorable man, and was living his dream serving his country in the military as part of the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. It was in Afghanistan that Smith says his son became a hero.
“He saved another man’s life … who was actually … shot through the lung. And I have a picture of him pulling him out and two of his battle buddies. And Christian has one hand on a rifle and pulling his — his comrade out and firing back at Afghanis,” Smith explained.
Christian has won commendations for valor and has been awarded two Purple Hearts.
“This one is when he wounded and he was shot through the arm, he got this one. This one was when he was — when he took the grenade shrapnel,” Smith said as he showed Roberts the medals.
“He deserves better than this. He — he’s put his life on the line for five years now,” an emotional Smith said. “He’s — he’s a good guy.”
Christian Smith may be a war hero now, but investigators believe back when he was 17 he committed murder with his 18-year-old best friend, Robert Pape.
“Christian Smith and Robert Pape had been really, really good friends in high school. …And they both kinda beat to the same drum. …when they were separate they were good guys … But together they were combustible,” private investigator Luis Bolaños explained. “Robert Pape and Christian Smith both had an extreme fascination with fire.”
Becky had complained about Robert and Christian to close friend Brandon Kugler-Harrison.
“There’s one time that they were playing with fire. I mean him and Christian, and that they were … they set something on fire,” Kulger-Harrison said. “I think it was a mattress. Not a 100 percent sure though. I remember her just getting mad at him over that and not talking to him for a couple days.”
“Did your son have a fascination with fire?” Roberts asked Smith.
“No. No. There was no fascination,” said Smith.
“They were not troublemakers. They were good kids,” said Kathleen Pape.
But prosecutors plan to use Robert Pape’s own words against him. Just a few months before the fire at Pinyon Pines, Robert had an instant message conversation with his then- girlfriend, Sara. In the exchange, Robert seemed to offer a solution to Sara’s problem with an ex-boyfriend.
“‘Well, if you know where he lives, we can professionally burn his house down,'” Bolaños said reading the message. “Considering how Becky, Vicki, and Jon were killed, that’s a very concerning statement. This is eight months prior to the homicide.”
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and D.A.’s office wouldn’t comment on the investigation, but “48 Hours” obtained a copy of the grand jury transcripts. During the proceedings, both men pleaded the Fifth, but when questioned by police years earlier, they denied they ever went near Becky’s house and said they never had any intention of hiking with her.
“Robert and Christian told police during the interview that they were headin’ to church that night,” Bolaños told Roberts. “Apparently they made a phone call on the way there and the church was in fact closed.”
When those plans fell through, the boys said they headed back to Christian’s dad’s home to hang out and play video games.
“Where was your son the night of the murders?” Roberts asked Smith.
“You know what, I wasn’t in town,” he replied.
“Well, what did he tell you when you eventually saw him?” Roberts asked.
“He said, ‘We were here,'” he replied.
The boys said they eventually wound up at a middle school where they shot paintball guns.
“Nobody saw Christian or Robert at the school playing paintball. Nobody. Their only alibi is each other,” said Bolaños.
But it was the boys’ cell phone activity that night that raised the most red flags to investigators.
“They put themselves on the other side of town. And their cell phones say differently,” Bolaños told Roberts.
At 7:13 p.m., Robert Pape’s cell phone pinged near the start of Highway 74 — the road leading up to the Friedli home. Minutes later, both Christian and Robert’s cell phones went silent from about 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. — the time frame investigators believe the murders took place.
“They came out of their way to find Becky. Hard to say if Jon and Vicki were collateral damage,” Bolaños told Roberts as they stood at the crime scene.
Tracks and footprints at the scene placed Becky’s attack near the desert behind the house. Becky was then placed in a wheelbarrow and rolled back towards the house and set on fire.
“What kind of evidence was recovered from the scene that links this crime to these two young men?” Roberts asked.
“Well, we know that at the point where the wheelbarrow rolled from, where they put Becky in the wheelbarrow … that they found a business card,” Bolaños explained. “And on that business card … they eventually found DNA that was consistent with DNA belonging to Christian Smith.”
Inside the home, it was determined Vicki had been shot with a .40 caliber handgun and Jon Hayward with a shotgun before the house was set on fire. When investigators searched the boys’ homes a year later, they found shotguns similar to the one used in the crime. No handguns were ever recovered, but in Robert Pape’s house there were accessories to the type of gun that may have killed Vicki.
“In that search warrant they recovered ammunition, to a .40 cal. And they recovered a holster to a Glock 40,” Bolaños said. “That’s a powerful piece of evidence.”
“You believe that police have the right men,” Roberts asked.
“Oh, I’m confident they have the right two guys. Absolutely,” Bolaños replied.
But defense lawyers charge investigators ignored other possible suspects and that the evidence will never hold up at trial.
“You have the wrong person here,” said Smith’s attorney, John Patrick Dolan.
THE EVIDENCE CHALLENGED
For Tanya Friedli, hearing the specific details of the murders has been difficult.
“To think about how they must’ve been pleading for their lives … how scared all of them were is horrifying,” said Tanya.
And believing that one of their alleged killers was someone Becky once loved has been especially painful for Ron Friedli.
“She loved him a lot. I think she actually considered spending her life with him. And that’s probably one of the saddest parts of the whole story is, you know, she loved him to death,” Ron Friedli told Roberts, as they looked through photos. “And he threw it all away… threw it all away for nothing.”
But nothing is what defense lawyers say the State’s case is based on.
“I kept looking for the proverbial other shoe. I went over it,” attorney Richard Blumenfeld said. “I just didn’t see it.”
Blumenfeld represents Robert Pape and says the case against his client is built entirely on questionable and hearsay evidence. He points to Becky’s cousin, Daniela Zermeño, who said Becky had told her about a fight at Denny’s the day before the murders.
“Robert had gone to Becky’s restaurant and there’d been a scene, an argument, and they’d been asked to take it outside and so forth. That never happened,” said Blumenfeld.
“Never happened,” said Roberts.
“Never happened,” Blumenfeld affirmed. “Nobody could substantiate that anything like that ever happened.”
Blumenfeld says a grand jury should have never heard Zermeño’s testimony or the evidence about the IM exchange between Robert and Sara, in which he seemingly suggested burning down her ex-boyfriend’s house. Blumenfeld argues it was said in a joking fashion.
“There were probably over a hundred pages of these conversations and they took one excerpt out of context,” he said. “It was clearly not seriously said.”
Blumenfeld also denies that Robert threatened Becky’s life and says there would be no reason for him to be jealous or want to harm Becky because he had already moved on.
“He wasn’t seeing Becky anymore seriously. She was trying to revive their relationship, but he’d moved on. He was with Sara,” said Blumenfeld.
Whether Robert Pape had a motive or not, Christian Smith’s alleged role never made any sense to his attorney, John Patrick Dolan.
“The motive, if you can believe this, is he’s Robert’s friend and he went along with him. That’s it. There’s no connection with Christian and Becky. There is nothing that suggests he has any animosity towards her,” Dolan said. “That’s a pretty weak argument.”
Dolan thinks all the evidence is weak — starting with the boys’ lack of cell phone activity around the timeframe of the murders. He says it doesn’t prove anything.
“It is unusual for a teenager not to use their phone for two-and-a-half hours,” Roberts noted.
“Well, you could say that. You could also say … that he was having a shower, having dinner. And he had a paintball gun and he went out and tested it out near a middle school. And he didn’t make any calls for two-and-a-half hours. It’s really not that uncommon at all,” Dolan replied.
But before the boys’ phones went silent, there was that cell tower ping that put Robert and, presumably, Christian, at the start of Highway 74 up to Pinyon Pines.
“Didn’t the pings show that Christian and Robert were somewhere near Becky’s home?” Roberts asked Dolan.
“Well, that’s one of those really interesting anomalies, ’cause a ping doesn’t show at all that Christian was anywhere near that home,” Smith’s attorney replied.
Dolan says that three minutes before Robert’s phone pinged near Highway 74, Christian’s phone pinged off a cell tower miles away.
“And I can tell ya that the prosecution’s gonna have a hard time getting over Mr. Smith’s phone bein’ on the other side of the Coachella Valley when they say Mr. Pape’s phone was pinged sometime near the time there would have had to been an ascent up the mountain,” said Dolan.
But the State’s FBI experts say cell phones at higher elevations sometimes bounce off other towers. Pinging phones or not, investigators say there is hard evidence putting Christian at the scene — that DNA on the business card.
“And that puts him there, and we know that he has denied ever being there,” said Bolaños.
Dolan questions whether the DNA is Christian’s — as the prosecution says it unequivocally is — and argues that even if it is a match, Becky could have previously picked up the card from his client.
“She carries it up to her house … she drops it on the ground. That doesn’t prove he was there. It simply proves he touched a card — and they have to have something more than ‘he touched a card’ to prove he was there committing homicide,” said Dolan.
And if Dolan dismisses the DNA evidence, he says the gun evidence is almost laughable.
“What the argument was by the District Attorney was: ‘He had access to the kinds of guns that were used,'” Dolan explained. “Does that make anybody guilty, because they have access to the kind of gun that was used? With no ballistics, with no measurement, no slugs, with no nothing?”
And Christian’s father says that the entire argument is moot anyway as far as his son is concerned because the guns were with him in another state the weekend of the murders.
“They were with me. They got put in the trunk of my car,” said John Conrad Smith.
The defense believes that other people should have been looked at more closely, like Javier Garcia Jr., that friend of Becky’s who had first turned investigators towards Robert and Christian saying they were all going hiking.
“So, Javier says Becky says something. …How do we find out whether or not that’s just him making up something because it points things elsewhere?” Dolan asked.
Some friends say Garcia Jr. wanted to be more than friends with Becky. And Dolan and Blumenfeld point out that while their clients’ phones didn’t ping up in the mountains where Becky lived, Garcia Jr.’s did.
“And if you follow the route that he alleged that he took it puts him right by Becky’s residence,” said Blumenfeld.
“Why was he driving in the area near the time this took place?” Dolan said. “I was told that Javier Garcia would not testify at the grand jury unless he was granted immunity. Why does he need immunity if he doesn’t have anything to do with this?”
Dolan also points out that Garcia Jr.’s father is an investigator in the D.A.’s office — raising questions about a possible conflict of interest.
“Interesting question about that,” Dolan told Roberts. “There was an investigation, by the way, to be fair, we have to say the Attorney General came down and looked at it … and said ‘doesn’t look like there’s any conflict of interest here.’ And I accept that for now, but I don’t accept that forever. “
Former federal prosecutor Eduardo Roy represents Javier Garcia Jr. He says Javier’s only role is that of key witness and not as a suspect.
“He was extremely forthcoming with the police, and was instrumental in their investigation,” said Roy.
“He was asked to testify before a grand jury,” Roberts asked.
“Yes he was,” Roy replied.
“He did not,” Roy replied. “We were there. And then it was decided that they didn’t need him.”
“Did you ever ask for immunity for Javier?” Roberts pressed.
“I asked to — for them to be clear before I made him available that he was not a target or a suspect of the investigation,” Roy replied.
“Why?” Roberts asked.
“Because I’m a very good lawyer, that’s why,” said Roy.
Roy says the reason why Garcia Jr. was driving in the area before the murders was because he wanted to join the group going hiking, but Becky told him not to come.
“So he turned around and went home. And what the police did was track where he was,” Roy explained.
Police determined Javier Garcia Jr. was back on the desert floor at the time of the murders and ruled him out as a suspect. And Daniela Zermeño independently backs up Javier’s story that Becky planned to go hiking with Robert and a friend the night of the murders.
“They had a definite — plan to go hiking. The three of them,” said Zermeño.
The Friedlis believe the evidence — circumstantial or not — paints a damning picture.
“When you put it all together, it’s them,” said Ron.
“I can only hope that a jury of their peers will hear the evidence and come back with a guilty verdict,” said Tanya.
AN UNEXPECTED TWIST
Almost every Saturday for the last six months, John Conrad Smith makes the hour-long drive to visit his son at the Riverside County Jail.
“I call it the — the drive of tears,” Smith told Troy Roberts. “I just think about Christian, and I cry all the way up, and all the way back.”
Smith says Christian has missed a deployment with his unit and is all but certain to miss out on a huge life event: his wife Jackie is about to give birth to their first child.
“He’s not gonna be there for that birth. He’s not gonna be able to see that birth,” Smith said. “And it’s horrible. He’s taking it hard.”
“And to see him in that orange jumpsuit,” Smith continued, “It breaks my heart … it breaks his heart.”
Robert Pape’s mother, Kathleen, has also been having a hard time seeing her son behind bars.
“And, you know, the thought goes through your head, like, ‘Will I ever be able to touch him?'” she said, becoming emotional.
But there is another parent out there who wakes up each morning thinking these men are exactly where they belong.
“One of the first things I do in the mornin’ is I get a cup of coffee and I go outside and … I think about Becky, and I think about those two boys in jail,” said Ron Friedli.
After years of waiting, the Friedlis and Haywards feel they are one step closer to justice as they wait for a trial date to be set.
“It’s a nice feelin’ knowin’ that they’re gonna have to answer for what they did,” Ron said.
But the case was about take an unexpected turn. Eight years after the murders, the prosecutor assigned to the case walked into the courthouse and asked that all charges against Robert Pape and Christian Smith be dropped.
“Really emotional, yeah. I mean I’m happy… I’m numb, yeah,” John Conrad Smith said outside the courthouse. “I’m happy he’s coming home, as a matter of fact I’m going to get him right now.”
The D.A.’s office offered little explanation for their decision. In a prepared statement, they said legal issues had arisen during the grand jury proceedings against Robert Pape making it “appropriate” to ultimately dismiss the charges against both men.
“The system worked … I have faith in my son, that’s all I can tell you,” Smith said.
The dismissal was so unexpected that neither man was in the courtroom that day. Christian’s dad broke the news to him from outside the jail.
“‘You’ve been released! You’ve been released, your mom and I and everybody’s here…..the baby’s on the way, we’re just waiting for you to get the paperwork done and for you to walk out that door,'” Smith told Christian over the phone, holding back tears. “We’re all waiting outside for you son.”
Just a few hours later, Christian Smith, with Robert Pape closely behind, walked out together. Christian held his 2-week-old daughter, Zoey, for the first time.
“I just want to be with my baby girl, and my amazing wife, and loyal family, and my brothers over in the military that have been loyal to me through this whole thing. I just hope I can move on with my life and put this behind me,” Christian after his release.
Robert Pape’s family was waiting for him at a location nearby.
Asked what was it like hugging your son when he walked out?” Troy Roberts asked Kathleen Pape.
“Oh, my gosh,” she replied. “That first time holdin’ him, you know, I just — I didn’t wanna let him go. But I had to scoot over and let– let her (signals to her daughter) hug him, let her — his wife hug him.”
But it may not be completely over for Pape and Smith — the D.A. can technically re-file charges against the men if new evidence emerges.
Tanya Friedli has always been convinced that they had the right men.
“And I have thought about if they get away with murder. To know in my heart … that Christian and Robert took my family from me and could get away with it,” said Tanya. “I hope that they have to think about this every day for the rest of their life.”
In June 2016, Robert Pape and Christian Smith were re-arrested for the murders. The State says the charges were based on a new informant who claimed Smith had made an incriminating statement; better cell phone tracking and more evidence that links Christian Smith to that business card found at the crime scene.
“And they say in 2018 in January, ‘Oh we have a fingerprint match that we couldn’t make since 2006,'” Christian Smith’s lawyer, John Patrick Dolan , said outside court. “Sounds a little fishy.”
Dolan says investigators had tunnel vision.
“I think they began with the conclusion that my client and Mr. Pape are guilty and tried to collect evidence to support that, rather than evaluating the evidence and see where it takes them,” he said Dolan.
The trial began in April 2018, almost 12 years after the crime. Dolan and Jeff Moore, Pape’s new attorney, launched a vigorous defense raising questions about the credibility of the state’s new informant — who has had his own legal troubles — and the accuracy of the cell phone tracking and forensic evidence.
“This is about as paper thin a case as I’ve ever seen,” said Dolan.
After over a month of trial, the case went to the jury. They would deliberate 10 agonizing days before giving word that they had finally reached a verdict.
Robert Pape and Christian Smith were found guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of Vicki Friedli and Jon Hayward. Pape was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Becky Friedli.
“I waited 11 years and nine months for this day and I’m very happy,” Ron Friedli said. “There is no closure … Becky’s gone, Vicki, John — they’ll never come back.”
But what the victims’ families see as the right verdict is viewed as a terrible injustice by two other families. Robert Pape’s mother was devastated.
A jury has finally decided who was responsible for the murder of three people in Pinyon Pines, but the destruction left by that terrible night remains.
“My sister was a beautiful person inside and out. And I want that remembered,” Tanya said. “I want to remember her that way, not for how she died.”
At their sentencing in August,Robert Pape, 30, and Christian Smith, 29, face life without parole. Their attorneys have vowed to appeal.
Robert and Sara Pape were divorced at the end of 2015.