The Case

Virginia plans to execute Ivan Teleguz, an innocent man. Ivan was convicted and sentenced to death based on false evidence.

On July 22, 2001, Michael Hetrick killed young mother Stephanie Sipe in her Harrisonburg, Virginia, apartment, stabbing her and slitting her throat.  Investigators quickly focused on Ivan Teleguz, Stephanie’s former boyfriend and the father of her young son, as their primary suspect. Even though DNA evidence at the scene showed early in the investigation that Ivan could not have been the killer, the Commonwealth built a case against Ivan based on the word of three men: Hetrick, Edwin Gilkes, and Aleksey Safanov. These men told jurors that Ivan had hired Hetrick and Gilkes to kill Stephanie. But not long after the trial, Gilkes and Safanov came forward to admit they lied when they claimed that Ivan was involved in the murder. Ivan is innocent. Despite these admissions, Virginia plans to execute Ivan.

Keep reading to learn about how an innocent man ended up on Virginia’s death row, and what you can do to help make sure Virginia will not execute an innocent man.

A Prejudiced Investigation

Lead investigator Kevin Whitfield immediately seized on Ivan as the primary suspect in Stephanie’s murder. He decided that Ivan killed Stephanie to avoid child support payments. The day after the murder was discovered, Inv. Whitfield traveled to Ephrata, Pennsylvania to interrogate Ivan. Ivan maintained his innocence from the start, answered all of Whitfield’s questions, and provided detailed descriptions of his whereabouts from July 20 through July 23.

The night before the murder, Ivan was at a family picnic with his boss until it got dark out late that evening. On the day of the murder, Ivan was with his own family since early in the morning preparing for his younger sister’s baptism, and spent the rest of the day with family and friends. During the interrogation, he gave Whitfield a receipt from a purchase he made at the Ephrata Wal-Mart, proving that he had been in Ephrata, Pennsylvania before 8:14 a.m. on the morning of July 22.

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Ivan at his sister’s baptism

Inv. Whitfield hoped that blood found in Stephanie’s apartment would match Ivan’s DNA and prove him guilty. To get the blood from Ivan for DNA testing, Whitfield swore out a search warrant, falsely claiming that two eyewitnesses saw Ivan leaving Stephanie’s apartment near the time of the murder. But Whitfield’s falsified warrant didn’t get him the result he wanted, and tests showed the blood found at Stephanie’s apartment did not come from Teleguz. Later, it would be discovered that, not only had Whitfield falsified the search warrant, but the witnesses near Stephanie’s apartment had actually said Ivan was not the person they saw. It would also be discovered that Ivan was paying child support before the murder, and continued to do so without interruption after Stephanie’s death.

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Aleksey Safanov

Whitfield still wanted Teleguz, but the case went cold until 2003, when Aleksey Safanov, a former co-worker and associate of Teleguz, was arrested on federal gun charges. He approached police and told them he had information about a murder in Virginia, and would trade the information for a visa that would allow him to avoid deportation for his crimes. Safanov had a long criminal record, including a history of lying to and threatening law enforcement agents and their family members. Safanov pointed federal agents to Edwin Gilkes, and claimed that Ivan had admitted to Safanov that he hired Gilkes to commit a murder in Virginia. Years after Ivan’s trial, Safanov would be one of the men to come forward and admit he lied—Ivan was not involved in the murder.

A Prejudiced Investigation Continues

Edwin Gilkes
Edwin Gilkes

Police found Edwin Gilkes, locked up in a Pennsylvania jail. Whitfield showed Gilkes Ivan’s photo, and insisted that Teleguz was the person they wanted to get for Stephanie’s murder. Whitfield told Gilkes he would face the death penalty himself unless he implicated Ivan in Stephanie’s murder. When Gilkes initially denied knowledge of Stephanie’s murder, Whitfield told Gilkes that he had information that Gilkes’s life may be in danger from Teleguz if he stayed out on the streets. Gilkes finally gave in and told police that Ivan had not hired him, but had hired another man named Michael Hetrick to kill Stephanie. After Ivan’s trial, Gilkes, too, would admit he lied and Ivan was not involved.

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Michael Hetrick

When police finally interrogated Michael Hetrick, they told him that they already knew that Ivan was behind the murder, and that unless Hetrick gave them Ivan, he himself would face a death sentence himself. Hetrick first denied any involvement. Whitfield spent at least two hours supplying Hetrick with details of his entire theory of how the murder happened, and even letting him read the police summary of the case. He told Hetrick: “I’ve spent the last three years of my life tracking Ivan Teleguz, and I’m going to get him.” Whitfield finally put the prosecutor, Marsha Garst, on the phone, who told Hetrick that she would agree not to seek the death penalty against him if he told her that Ivan Teleguz hired him to commit Stephanie’s murder. After striking this deal, Hetrick told police what they wanted to hear—more or less. Hetrick claimed that Ivan hired Gilkes to commit the murder, but he went through with it and killed Stephanie after Gilkes got cold feet. Tests later showed that Hetrick’s DNA matched the blood found in Stephanie’s apartment.

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Excerpt from Case #01-21797: Transcript of interview with Michael Hetrick, submitted by Investigator Kevin A. Whitfield.

The testimony of Safanov, Gilkes, and Hetrick became the Commonwealth’s evidence against Ivan—the testimony jurors had to believe to find Ivan guilty.

A chance to prove Ivan’s innocence thwarted

After Ivan was placed on death row, the prosecution’s case crumbled. Two of the men on whom the prosecution had rested its case—Edwin Gilkes and Aleksay Safanov—gave sworn statements admitting that their trial testimony against Ivan was false. He is innocent. Michael Hetrick, the man who had confessed to killing Stephanie, stuck by his trial testimony with the threat of the death penalty still hanging over his head.

When called to appear in person on Ivan’s behalf for a hearing, Safanov had been deported to Kyrgyzstan, and could not be reached by the court. Gilkes and Hetrick were both threatened that they would be prosecuted for murder again if they contradicted their testimony. So, Gilkes refused to say anything else and Hetrick repeated the story from trial. Without Gilkes and Safanov testifying in person, the court would not find that Ivan had presented enough evidence to prove his innocence, and the court refused Ivan’s requests to present other evidence of his innocence.

Although Gilkes and Safanov could not testify in person, they have never gone back on their sworn statements admitting their trial testimony against Ivan was lies. The only evidence remaining that links Ivan to Stephanie’s murder is the story fed to Hetrick and purchased by threatening his life.