Corrections Corruption: The Murder Of Michael Francke On Murder In Oregon

Hallway in a cellar looking like a prison

Lauren Bright Pacheco, producer of the Happy Face podcast, and journalist Phil Stanford host Murder in Oregon, a true-crime podcast about the 1989 murder of Oregon Department of Corrections director, Michael Francke. Though authorities said Michael’s death was the tragic result of a car burglary gone wrong, that story has never smelled right to Phil or to Michael’s brothers, Kevin and Pat: They all believe that Michael was assassinated as a cover-up for the corruption he was about to reveal to the state legislature. In the first episode, Lauren and Phil tell us the story of Michael’s life, his commitment to prison reform, his murder, and the suspicions that grabbed ahold of them from the very beginning.

Michael’s dedication to reforming correctional facilities ran deep; when he worked as a lawyer in New Mexico, he was the first civilian inside the New Mexico State Penitentiary after the most violent prison riot in American history that started in part due to the rampant corruption of the guards. “He had a pair of boots at his house that bore the scars of that first walk into the prison, and up to six or seven inches above the ankle, it was just stained with blood,” Kevin Francke says. “That was his permanent reminder of the atrocities that can happen if you don't have the programs, if you don't have the facility under control.” He “used the riot as motivation to fix the problems that caused it,” Lauren tells us, “moving on to the attorney general's office where he worked tirelessly to improve New Mexico's correctional system, helping to get more prisons built to ease overcrowding and funding to reemphasize prisoner education programs.” 

Around the same time, Oregon’s Corrections Department was having some corruption issues of its own, and though state police launched an official investigation, they only fired or demoted six low-level prison guards for simple theft. In actuality, “wholesale theft of cattle” was going on; prisoners were actually being let out for rotating weeks because of the overcrowding; “inmate labor being given to a local contractor for free, drugs going in and out of the prison...rampant corruption,” Phil sums up. So when the new governor, Neil Goldschmidt, was elected, he knew something had to be done about the Corrections department, and he tapped the promising New Mexico guy, Michael Francke.

Michael opened his own investigation, and that’s when things started to get difficult for him. Though Neil had promised his full support, things “got contentious fairly early on,” Pat Francke says; Michael “wasn’t having fun.” In fact, he was becoming increasingly afraid for his life, carrying a gun everywhere he went and insisting on teaching his wife how to shoot. But the day before Michael was due to give a report to the state legislative committee of evidence he’d discovered, he was found brutally stabbed outside his office building. It took security four hours to find his body, even though he was only thirty feet away from his car on the front porch of the building. “That point is still a mystery to everybody,” TV anchor Eric Mason says. “Why did it take them so long to find Mike's body when it was right there?”

Accident or crime scene cordon tape

Authorities were quick to say it was a car robbery gone bad, but no one was buying it; first, Michael was 6’4 and more than capable of handling a robber; his wallet and watch were still on him; and most importantly, prison overcrowding was so bad that anyone caught robbing a car would get “basically a parking ticket,” Eric tells Lauren. “The worst thing you could do is try and kill somebody over it.” Phil also points out that the people who investigated Michael’s death were the same team who covered up the corruption he was investigating: “Of course they couldn't admit there was the possibility of corruption behind the murder of Michael Francke, because they'd gone out of their way to cover up the corruption that was there when he got there!” Phil exclaims. 

Listen to the episode for more details about the Corrections corruption, the cover-up that cost Michael Francke his life, and how Neil Goldschmidt reacted to his murder (“I think what was going on there was the governor thinking, ‘My own secrets might come rolling out of the closet,’” Eric says), on Murder In Oregon.

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Photos: Getty Images

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