AUBURN – Arlo West has been glued to Court TV for the last month, hoping to be called to the witness stand in a nationally televised courtroom.

He stepped in where police equipment had failed during an important interrogation. Then, all he could do was watch, and wait. He couldn’t say a peep.

Everyone involved in the case of Sarah Johnson, an Idaho girl accused of murdering her parents, was under a gag order until the verdict came in.

After six weeks of trial and three days of deliberation, a verdict was reached Wednesday: guilty. In an interview after, West was able to say that he knew it.

Johnson’s parents were killed the morning of Sept. 2, 2003, in Bellevue, Idaho. Her mom was shot in bed, her dad in the bathroom.

She was the only one home at the time, according to Court TV coverage. Her parents had recently forbidden the 16-year-old to have contact with her 19-year-old boyfriend, an illegal immigrant. She had announced her engagement a few days before the murder.

Blaine County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Harkins interviewed the teenager hours after the murder, in her bedroom, placing a microcassette player on a table between the two of them.

Too garbled

The 90-minute recording was so garbled, police only managed 10 pages of transcript, with lots of holes. When he did research online, Harkins found West’s Creative Forensic Services.

The musician-turned-forensic audio expert turned the tape into 32 pages of court-worthy evidence in the studio at his Auburn home.

It’s the most high-profile case his 3-year-old company has worked on, West said. Court TV was providing regular coverage of the trial, alongside the molestation trial of Michael Jackson and murder trial of Robert Blake.

Last spring, when West received the original tape, his first step was to remove the tabs that allow a tape to be recorded over.

Most of the time, accidentally erased tape can’t be retrieved, he said. Think of Richard Nixon’s missing 18 minutes. The government had “all the equipment, all the experience in the world and they couldn’t figure it out,” West said.

It took him about a week of long workdays to clear the recording up enough to hear Johnson’s young voice answering the detective’s questions.

They talked about volleyball, her mother’s run-in with a housekeeper the day before and early morning noises that woke the family.

She didn’t ask

“Not once on that tape did she say, ‘We’ve got to find out who did this,'” said West. “I had no doubt in my mind (of her guilt) from the first 10 minutes listening to that audio. Of course, that’s not my job to decide that. They hire me to discover facts, be that as it may.”

Harkins said West’s work wasn’t entered into evidence in court, which isn’t unusual for a transcript. It was shown to both sides and used in the investigation. “It was helpful to review (the transcript), preparing for court,” he said.

Had it been entered into evidence, West would have been flown to Idaho to testify.

“We learned a lot on that case,” Harkins added. Their chief lesson: Ditch microcassette recorders. After that first tape came out so poorly, everyone in the sheriff’s office was given digital recorders for the field.

West’s business is the only private forensic audio company in Maine. Most of his cases are for court-related work: drug cases, date rape, child custody. The bulk of the rest are uncovering the audio evidence on cheating husbands and wives.

In the end, West said he ultimately wondered how successful the court’s gag order was since the prosecution, defense and several witnesses popped up in Court TV’s late-night commentary during the trial.


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