Murderer on trial for killing again

February 22, 2009 

PALMER -- There's no question Frank Adams is a murderer. In 1978, he killed a man and admitted it.

Now he stands accused of killing again. But this time he says it wasn't him.

Adams, 47, is the man who led police on a high-speed chase down the Glenn Highway in July 2007 with his dead girlfriend in the backseat. Investigators say she was beaten to death.

Two months before she died, Stacey Johnston, 42, filed a restraining order against Adams. When charged with her murder, he claimed drug dealers did it.

A Mat-Su jury will begin hearing testimony in the case this week in Superior Court Judge Beverly Cutler's courtroom. The attorneys, the judge, the jury -- all those involved, but most of all the murdered woman's parents -- have a long haul ahead of them. The trial is expected to last three to five weeks.

That suggests jurors will hear a lot of evidence. What they won't be told is that the stocky man fidgeting in the defendant's chair, the guy with glasses, square jaw and thin, mousy hair has a sordid past and a record so long you could wallpaper the courtroom with all the documents he's generated.

It includes 19 prior convictions in Alaska, as well as a few in Arizona and Colorado, dating back to the early 1980s, including DWIs, stalking and resisting arrest. But that's just the small stuff.

KILLING THE COLONEL

In 1978, when Adams was a teenager, he had a starring role in one of the most infamous murder cases in Anchorage history, one with all the elements of a John Grisham novel -- greed, betrayal, deceit, homophobia, a Mafioso wannabe and a killing vicious enough to leave blood on the ceiling of the murdered man's bedroom.

In August of that year, Daniel Cassell, 20, hired Adams, 16, and Paul Scott, 14, to murder his adoptive father, Air Force Col. Robert Cassell, 43, a commander with a Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal among his decorations. The colonel had adopted Daniel after meeting the teenage street kid at a coffee shop in Syracuse, N.Y. a couple of years earlier.

During Cassell's murder trial, the prosecution described the colonel as a man who gave love, understanding and a home to a troubled boy who had nothing. The defense told a different story. It put on a psychologist who told a standing-room only courtroom crowd that theirs was more than a father-son relationship, that the colonel was "a homosexual," that Cassell didn't like it and had grown tired of the man's sexual advances and controlling ways.

That, supposedly, is why he wanted him dead.

But there was also the money. While planning the murder, Cassell talked up the inheritance he'd be landing. According to testimony, he offered Adams and Scott a couple of thousand dollars plus a fancy chess set, a stereo and the colonel's car to get the job done.

Cassell told his hit-boys that if they chickened out, he could have them killed. Among other lies, he said he was a member of the Mafia and had been a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. The boys said they believed him.

The murder and its aftermath made front-page news in Anchorage. According to court documents and trial accounts, including Adams' confession from the witness stand, the killing played out like this:

While Cassell was off in a public place putting polish on his alibi, Adams and Scott showed up at his Eagle River apartment. The colonel recognized them as friends of his son, said he'd be home soon, welcomed them in, switched the television on for them and went off to bed.

After a brief argument over which one of them would do the killing, Adams entered the colonel's bedroom and hit him with a tire iron. The dying man asked, "Why are you doing this to me?" Adams hit him again. And again. So hard the tire iron broke.

But the colonel wouldn't die. So Adams said he asked Scott to fetch him a knife. He stabbed the colonel twice in the chest, then slashed his throat ear to ear.

Daniel Cassell was convicted of first-degree murder for orchestrating the hit and sentenced to life in prison. According to a Department of Corrections public data base, he's now out on parole.

His hired killer skated because of his youth.

Although both boys' juvenile status was fiercely litigated, the judge refused to waive Adams to adult court. That would never happen today. Laws have changed so that now 16- and 17-year-olds accused of murder are automatically sent to adult court and, if convicted, face up to 99 years in prison.

Adams spent three years at McLaughlin Youth Center. He was released in 1981, at one minute after midnight the morning of his 20th birthday -- the longest state law allowed him to be held as a juvenile. The next day, he told reporters the intensive counseling he'd received at McLaughlin did him a lot of good.

"I don't think there'll ever be a day in my life when I don't think about the horrible thing I did," he said at the time "It almost ruined my life."

Adams also said he intended to leave the state, get a job and go to college. Asked if he worried that sticking around might be hazardous to his health, he had this to say:

"Kinda yes and kinda no. I think a lot of people have forgotten now."

SQUANDERED SECOND CHANCE

Adams didn't stay out of trouble for long. Although most of the charges he's racked up since the early '80s were misdemeanors, there's plenty of evidence in court files to show a consistent disregard for living a lawful life.

He managed to stay out of the news until 1995, when he surfaced as a witness in another infamous murder trial -- a mail bomb case involving his second cousin, Raymond Cheely.

Cheely, along with Doug Gustafson, was convicted in a 1990 car-to-car shooting death on the Glenn Highway at the Muldoon Exit. The victim was a stranger, a passenger in the car they shot at.

Although Cheely and Gustafson were both locked up, they managed to plot the murder of George Kerr, a former friend who had testified against them. Accomplices made and mailed a bomb to Kerr's house, but he wasn't home. His father, David, opened the package and was killed instantly. His stepmother, Michelle, was severely injured.

At issue during the trial was how two prisoners, prohibited from having any communication, managed to plan the bombing. That's where Adams played a cameo role. Then 33, he testified he saw a co-conspirator take separate phone calls from the two jailed defendants, then hold the phones together so they could talk to each other.

By then, Adams' reputation was such that his own family urged the jury not to believe him.

"I would not believe anything my son said unless I saw it in black and white," his mother, Retha Adams, told the court at the time.

"He's a chronic liar and a professional con man," is what Tammy Manees had to say about her brother.

BACK IN COURT

Thirty years after he was handed a second chance, Adams is back in court, charged once again with murder. But this killing was the work of drug dealers, Adams told police when he was arrested.

He is charged in Palmer with murder and tampering with evidence, and faces separate charges in Anchorage including fleeing from police and driving under the influence.

In the next few weeks the Valley jury, presumably knowing little of Adams' past, will have to decide if they believe the case laid out by prosecutor Rachel Gernat, or the one offered by defense attorney Scott Sterling.

This time, did he do it, or didn't he?


Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.

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