Going the extra mile(s)

In the summer of 2017, Grimes County law enforcement officers first heard the name Matthew Michael Foster. A 4-year-old girl, Lacey Davis,1 had outcried that 26-year-old Foster had sexually assaulted her while he lived with her and her parents. Foster had penetrated the child digitally and with a foreign object. As we dug into this case and found more of Foster’s sexual perversions, a vast history of abuse came to light, and we realized he was one of most vile and dangerous predators we have ever encountered.
    Grimes County Sheriff’s Investigator Kindale Pittman was the original case agent. He collected evidence and contacted witnesses, who told him that Matthew Foster had previously been accused of sexual abuse when he lived in Montana. During an interview with Pittman, Foster admitted that he was attracted to 4-year-old Lacey, but he denied touching her or sexually abusing her in any way. Foster maintained that he could control his urges by having sex with his dog.

Uncovering Foster’s past
When Matthew Foster’s file arrived in our office, multiple investigative duties were divided between myself, John Wren, and the co-author of this article, Marc Cody Payne. We’ll start with my investigation, where I was first tasked with securing a certified criminal judgment from the State of Montana. In 2006, as a juvenile, Foster had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. Investigator Pittman with the sheriff’s office had already tried, without success, to obtain the same document. Getting the judgment from Montana took persistence, a court order, and a great amount of follow-up, but finally, we received the record. My involvement with the case ended there—or so I thought.
    Six months later, I was assisting then-First Assistant District Attorney Jo Ann Linzer in a trial for continuous sexual abuse involving a father and his child. It was a delayed outcry case with only the victim’s testimony as evidence. However, 10 years prior, this defendant had been previously convicted of sexual abuse of his girlfriend’s daughter, and we had succeeded in getting the victim of the first conviction to testify in this current trial. Her gut-wrenching testimony, as she tearfully described the abuse and the toll it had taken on her life, helped garner a 60-year prison sentence for her abuser. This experience taught me the value of having live witness testimony, which could not be duplicated by merely introducing a judgment. I was determined, whenever possible, to provide the same type of live testimony in future trials involving sexual abuse of a child.
    While Jo Ann and I waited through jury deliberation, she told me about the egregious nature of the Matthew Foster case. Foster had rejected the plea offer and the case was set for trial, and she asked for my help with preparation because of our previous success in the continuous sexual abuse case, and because of my experience handling sex offender registration while working at the Grimes County Sheriff’s Office. Jo Ann wanted every piece of evidence she could get her hands on for the Foster trial.
    With this goal in mind, I first read through the file and reviewed Matthew Foster’s criminal history. My initial focus was his 2006 conviction out of Montana, and I wanted to locate the victim and have her testify in little Lacey’s case.
    The first hurdle was obtaining her name. Through several phone calls and emails back and forth with the Flathead County (Montana) Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office, I got my hands on the offense report with her identifying information. In the report, the victim, Angel Sanders, described a similar modus operandi to what Foster did to Lacey: He had used a foreign object in the sexual assault. Also in the narrative was a vague reference to a separate incident with Matthew Foster from 2004. Our case had now gone from one victim to possibly three. My resolve to track down this crucial evidence for the prosecution increased even more.
    Using the TLO database, I located a phone number for Angel’s mother. We spoke by phone, and I told her about our case in Grimes County, Texas. She then shared with me her daughter’s phone number. I knew a cold call like this would be tough, but a phone call rather than an in-person visit was necessary because Angel lived out of state. Tact would be of paramount importance.
    I called Angel, who was now living in Springfield, Missouri. When I told her what Foster had done to 4-year-old Lacey here, she choked up and I could hear her crying. I explained what Angel’s role could be in our trial and told her she could be part of making sure Foster went to prison for a long time. I listened with patience and compassion and answered every question she asked. Ms. Sanders told me she would be eight months pregnant by the time of our August trial setting, but she was still willing to travel to Texas and testify. I was grateful for Angel trusting in me enough to share her story by phone and trusting in our office enough to be part of our trial.

Sex offender registration
A review of Matthew Foster’s conviction information convinced me he had a duty to register as a sex offender in Texas. I spoke to ADA Linzer about it, and she asked me to check into it, but she thought his duty to register had already expired. Whether Foster had to register became my next priority.
    To determine if Foster had a duty to register, I reviewed the Texas Department of Public Safety’s out-of-state list of substantially similar sex offenses. Sexual assault in Montana was listed as an offense requiring lifetime sex offender registration in Texas. However, because Foster was a juvenile at the time of that offense, his duty to register would expire 10 years after the discharge from his sentence.
    That meant I needed to know Foster’s date of discharge to determine if his duty to register in Texas was still applicable. It wasn’t easy, but after several calls and emails, I located a helpful clerk at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City, Montana. This clerk helped me determine that Foster was released on his 18th birthday in December 2008. This was great news!  Foster was required to register through December 2018, which meant our office would now have a failure to register case on him as well.

His ex-girlfriend
Around the same time, I received anonymous information that I should find and interview Cindy Reed, who was Matthew Foster’s girlfriend at the time of his arrest. I was told Cindy lives in San Antonio and that the only way to reach her was via Facebook Messenger. I messaged Cindy and told her I wanted to meet and talk. She quickly and bluntly responded that she had no desire to speak with me. She said she had already provided information to an investigator and did not want to do so again. Fortunately, Cindy contacted another witness from our criminal case the same day, and that person in turn spoke with Investigator Pittman of the sheriff’s office. Pittman verified my identity and my involvement in preparing for trial, and Ms. Reed then agreed to talk with me.
    As I traveled to San Antonio to meet her, I did not know what she would tell me—I hoped this trip would be worth the time. We met at a Starbucks near her apartment where she felt safe. I began by getting to know Cindy and letting her get comfortable talking with me. Then I explained where the case stood and why I believed the information she had to offer was important to the trial. I learned that a defense investigator had contacted Cindy, which is why she was initially leery of meeting with me.
    When I felt a rapport had been built, I asked how she first met and became involved with Matthew Foster. Cindy met him in Montana and brought him back to Texas. She became his girlfriend, and they lived together for a while. She told me Foster trusted her and would share with her all of his “demons.” She later realized Foster was dangerous and she feared him.
    By the end of our conversation, Cindy Reed was willing to testify that while still in Montana, she had seen Foster become aroused watching little girls in bathing suits play on a trampoline and that Foster admitted to having molested around a dozen girls. She also disclosed that Foster confided in her he was having sex with his dog to control his urges toward children. Most importantly, Foster had admitted to being sexually attracted to Lacey Davis and her 5-year-old sister, Amy. Ms. Reed also voluntarily gave us the original letters Foster had written to her from the Grimes County Jail. I never could have imagined that the six-hour round trip would have provided us with such valuable evidence.

Finding more victims
When I returned from San Antonio, I went back to the vaguely referenced 2004 incident in the Montana offense report. It took quite a bit of digging to locate additional details. We discovered that in 2004, Foster lured two 4-year-old twin girls away from their yard. The girls’ mother realized her daughters were missing and quickly began searching for them. She found Foster with the girls inside an abandoned trailer. He had led them there from the other side of the neighborhood. The twins outcried to their mother that Foster had taken them to a back bedroom and tried to pull their pants open to look in them. In 2006, while he was interviewed during the Angel Sanders sexual assault investigation, Foster acknowledged this 2004 incident with the twins happened, even correcting the interviewing detective on details.
    Continuing to work through the file documentation, I reviewed a newspaper article that said Foster was charged with another sexual assault in Montana from 2006. ADA Linzer had originally found the article through a Google search and had added it to the file. Foster had not been prosecuted for the crime.
    To identify the victim of this crime, I needed to find the police report. By this point, I had built a good working relationship with the law enforcement officials in Flathead County and had shared with them the facts of our case and our goals for trial. They wanted to help keep Foster off the streets, too, which made obtaining the offense report a much simpler process. The report said Foster had sexually assaulted 12-year-old Mary Leal in a shower at knifepoint. Both Foster and Leal were in a foster care-type facility at the time of the offense. The report mentioned Foster’s recurring modus operandi: Mary also reported Foster using a foreign object in the sexual assault.  
    Using the TLO database again, I found a phone number for Mary Leal in Montana. I dialed it, and a woman answered. I identified myself and verified I was speaking to Ms. Leal. After a brief explanation of the reason for my call, I could hear the horror and shock in her voice. The mere mention of Foster’s name reopened a wound within her, and it was evident in her speech.
    As I was just a voice on the phone, I wanted to be careful and not ask too many invasive questions. I asked Mary if she would allow me to ask just one thing, and she agreed. “Did the sexual assault you reported against Matthew Foster in 2006 happen?” I asked. For as long as I live, I will remember her resolve when she responded, “Absolutely.”
    I told Mary that she could verify my identity by calling our office, so she would feel more comfortable speaking with me, and I explained how much her testimony could help our case. Mary expressed a desire to help, but she also told me she was not sure about traveling to Texas and having to relive the assault. She was a struggling single mother and did not need the stress. I told her to process our conversation and that we would talk the following week. We ended the call, and I knew it was not going to be easy to persuade Mary to come to Texas and testify.
    The next week came, and I could not get in touch with Mary; she neither answered my calls nor responded to my texts. She was avoiding me. At this point, District Attorney Andria Bender had taken the lead on prosecuting the case, and we discussed at length whether it was worth expending the money and resources for me to travel to Montana to convince Mary to testify. Although we are not a wealthy county and have little budget for travel, we knew we needed Mary Leal’s help. She was an important part of this case, and we would find a way to fund the trip.
    On July 5, I flew into Kalispell, Montana. That evening, I knocked on the door of Mary Leal’s residence. (A Flathead County sheriff’s detective had graciously verified the residence for me in advance of my arrival.) Mary opened the door and I stood before her in dress clothes, boots, a gun belt, and a straw cowboy hat. The shock in her face was apparent, but she knew exactly who I was. “You’re John Wren,” she said. “I never thought you’d actually come.” When she invited me into her home, I knew my DA and I had made the right decision. We visited for over an hour. I placed a photo of Lacey Davis, the 4-year-old Grimes County girl Matthew Foster had assaulted, on the coffee table in front of her. Mary has a daughter the same age, so my hope was that she would make a personal connection with Lacey.
    We talked through the details of her sexual assault at Foster’s hands. She still knew the exact date it happened. We talked through the effect it had on her life. Mary told me she had been in trouble with the law, and she had tried burying the pain with alcohol and drugs. She had also contemplated suicide. It was a heartbreaking and common story coming from a victim of sexual abuse. I explained to Mary her potential role in our trial, so she could understand how her testimony would help. I told her we hoped it might also give her some measure of justice, as Foster was never punished for assaulting her.
    Ms. Leal apologized for ignoring my attempts to communicate with her. She told me she was willing to testify remotely if that were possible. (Mary still was not sure about traveling to Texas.) I told her we knew what we were asking of her was no small matter. We ended the conversation with her saying she would think about it and call later that evening. That phone call never came, though, and I went to bed utterly discouraged.
    The following day happened to be Mary’s birthday. It had come up during our conversation at her home. I picked up a small flower arrangement and a card for her—I wanted her to know that no matter what, we cared. Throughout the day, I attempted to reach her without success. I went back by the house when it was late enough for her to be home from work, but she was not there.
    I tried again to reach Ms. Leal by phone. She responded after a bit and said she was celebrating her birthday with family across town. By text, Mary then committed to travel to Texas and testify in person, as long as her daughter could come too. I placed the flowers and card under her carport so she’d get them when she arrived home. I texted her a photo of the gift, along with a note wishing her a happy birthday. From that point forward, our communication was greatly improved.
    Much can be said about the value of making a human connection with a victim or witness. There is no textbook technique to establish and maintain these connections, but one thing I have found is that they often require our being better listeners than speakers. I certainly do not claim to be an expert, but in my opinion it basically comes down to this: The people you meet are trying to determine your interest and intentions as much as you’re trying to determine theirs. They want to know: “Do you see me? Are you listening to me? Do I matter to you?” When your actions and interactions validate them as human beings and allow them to see that you recognize their value and care about their experiences, you’re on the right path to making a connection.
    Before leaving Kalispell, I obtained a copy of the interview video from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, the one where Foster admitted to the 2004 incident with the twin girls. My mission in Montana was accomplished, so I headed back to Texas, knowing all of this effort, extra time, and work was absolutely worth it.

Digging through digital evidence
I’m Cody Payne (the co-author of this article), and my duty was going through the digital evidence collected during the initial investigation of Matthew Foster. I was overwhelmed at finding more than 100,000 photos and videos that were downloaded from his computer’s hard drive. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the content had ever been reviewed prior to its arrival at our office.
    Over two weeks, with more than 50 hours invested, I sifted through the images and videos one by one. The graphic nature of the pornography was disgusting—bestiality involving dogs was prevalent. Some things you just can’t un-see! (Unfortunately, Texas’s new statute banning sex with animals had not yet gone into effect, and it was unclear in the photos whether Foster was the human actor with the dogs, so we were unable to charge him with bestiality.) The task took a lot of patience, and I had to get up and walk away at times to maintain my sanity. After more than a week of cataloging the data in all of those photos and videos, I found four images believed to be child pornography. I just needed verification.
    I also discovered two phones that had been collected from Foster but not analyzed. I enlisted the assistance of Grimes County Sheriff’s Deputy Amber Lossow, who wrote search warrants for them. Our county doesn’t have the ability to analyze phone contents, so they were taken to the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office to be downloaded. Reviewing the data from the devices, I located a dozen more images of child pornography.
    I learned from Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Agent Matthew Picken that I could apply for access to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children Law Enforcement Services photograph database. After obtaining a login for the NCMEC portal, you can enter an image hash value to confirm if the file or image has been worked by another law enforcement agency. If the image has been previously worked, then NCMEC will provide you with contact information for the associated case agent. This is an incredible tool for helping determine if a questionable image is child pornography. In our case, 12 of the 14 images uploaded were found in the database as previously submitted by law enforcement. Sadly, the victims depicted in the photos remain unknown.
    Of course, the images of children and animals being sexually abused made me sick to my stomach, but the hundreds of photos of children who were clothed, smiling, and playing sickened me almost as much. This is who Matthew Foster is: a pedophile and a predator to every child he would ever lay eyes on. I was shocked at how unsettling this seemingly benign evidence was and would surely be to a jury.

Foster takes a plea
By this point, our office was two weeks away from trial. All the subpoenas were served, the motions were filed, and the notices had been given. We were ready. The evidence against Foster was overwhelming. We just needed our young victim, Lacey, to take the stand and tell the jury what happened.
    District Attorney Andria Bender met with the victim, now age 6, several times preparing for trial. After the meetings, Bender and Lacey’s mother discussed the trial and the girl’s testimony, and neither believed it would best serve the child to be forced to testify. We made a difficult judgment call to not put Lacey on the stand, and Foster’s defense attorney was contacted.
    Matthew Michael Foster accepted a plea agreement and pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child. He was sentenced to 30 years’ confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and his conviction requires lifetime registration as a sex offender. Our office put a pedophile behind bars without our victim going through the trauma of trial. Our victim’s family attended the plea and were extremely happy with the results.
    Perhaps someone reading about this outcome might believe our investigative efforts were wasted. They were not! The prior victims agreeing to testify and finding the images of child pornography were the leverage we needed for Matthew Foster to plead guilty after more than a year in jail (and after having turned down our first plea offer). This statement is not an assumption—it is based on Matthew Foster’s own words, recorded on a jail call to his mother, after agreeing to accept 30 years in prison.
    We are a small county with minimal resources and a small budget. However, using our combined years of experience; creating relationships with victims, witnesses, and law enforcement officials across state lines; and digging just a little deeper, we were able to help our prosecuting attorney put together the strongest possible case. In the end, the fruits of our collective effort became the catalyst to resolving it and putting a dangerous child molester in prison. It has been an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience for us to see that justice was done for all of our victims. i

Endnote

1  All victims’ names and the name of Matthew Foster’s ex-girlfriend have been changed to protect their identities.