tv Dateline MSNBC December 25, 2020 10:00pm-11:00pm PST
>> we're trying to find out why! >> i would never hurt halee. >> they came and talked to me. it was four fbi agents. >> he's there. he's got a gun. >> how could it not have been him? then a secret spills out in court. that's a bombshell. >> that definitely was. >> i felt like i had gotten my heart ripped out. >> for that mother to get on that stand. it was absolute silence. ♪ hello, and welcome to "dateline." halee was barely out of her teens. but to friends, she displayed a
maternal instinct. it made sense that she was studying to become a nurse, but what made no sense was that someone would want her dead. here's andrea canning with "on the outskirts of town." >> reporter: i'm miles from my family in new york. but i'm driving, oddly enough, through a place that feels like home. quaint downtown. the kind of place you feel safe. this is newburgh in southwest indiana. you can see the early days of the midwest in these historic buildings. open farmland everywhere. hometown, usa. a place for putting down roots. >> turn left onto county 45 west, then your destination will be on the left. >> reporter: and there it is. what i've been looking for. a gravel lot by a soccer field. a spot to play sports.
to hang with friends. not a place for a young woman to die. it's jarring to think that when a life ends, so much begins. a family's grief. a community's shock. and in this case right here where i'm standing, a murder investigation. heather collins has always been proud of her three girls, especially her oldest daughter halee, who even at a young age was eager to lend a helping hand. >> there's, you know, so many pictures of her holding the baby sister, you know, and just taking care of them. yeah. she's always leading the way. >> reporter: my kids, they wanted to feed the bottle and, "can i change a diaper?" >> she was the best diaper changer ever. >> reporter: a mother's helper and sister emilee's best friend. with halee, she says, she felt safe. >> she was always definitely what you pictured an older sister being like.
the big, protective, "don't mess with my sisters or i'll come at you" type sister. >> reporter: that protective streak continued all through school, even extended to friends. carley sollars and ansley bowles. >> she kind of just acted like everyone's mom because she was so caring. >> she was tall. and everybody, all of our friends, are so short. and so it was always, like, she stuck out. we would go places and she would tower over all of us. which made the mom thing so much more funny. and so people always like, she was the first one that they noticed. >> reporter: the world was kind of like her catwalk? >> yeah, pretty much. >> reporter: beautiful girl? >> yeah. i love when i get told that i look like her. it makes me really happy. >> reporter: aw, that's awfully sweet. but halee's beauty was more than skin deep. tattoos, like this one on her back, testified to her strong faith. >> i said prayers with the girls every night.
>> reporter: tharon rathgeber is halee's dad. >> and at the end of our prayer the most important line was, "and those that are less fortunate the we are." and i think she really grasped that. >> reporter: and drew strength from it, especially in difficult times. one night in particular was a defining moment for young halee. she was just 12 when she went to a friend's house for a sleepover. >> that night the brother of the girl that my daughter was staying with had a friend stay over. and he was 19. my daughter was 12. and he tried to molest her. >> reporter: at first, halee said nothing to her parents. but when she learned that the man had preyed on other girls, her instinct to help led her to act in a way few her age would have the courage to. >> she testified and sent him to prison. and after that i think that's when people realized they could always go to halee. that she would fix anything, and she would stand up for the weak.
the less fortunate. >> reporter: it was no surprise, then, when halee announced she wanted to continue helping others as a nurse. after high school she enrolled at nearby university of southern indiana. i hear that the girl was constantly buried in a book. >> she worked really hard. >> reporter: where does that come from, to just want to study all the time. >> i don't know 'cause i don't have it. she had so much drive and, like, ambition, and she knew what she wanted, and she was gonna have it. >> reporter: when she wasn't hitting the books she was waiting tables at the texas roadhouse. that's where she met and started dating isaiah hagan, a shy, fellow waiter. >> he seemed really nice to me. and he seemed to let halee do her own thing, which i liked. >> reporter: how did you feel when you saw them together? did they seem like a good match? >> yeah. i mean, they weren't lovey-dovey at all, which i prefer, to be honest. he joked with us. he actually took an interest in talking to us, which is more
than i can say for a lot of guys. >> reporter: the romance didn't last long, though the two remained good friends. besides, 20-year-old halee was laser focused on her schoolwork. on a sunday in late april, 2017, she was home, studying for a big exam the next day. just hours later, the sun was rising and halee's mom heather was starting her morning. >> i was reading facebook, having coffee on a monday morning. just sitting on my porch and i scroll across a news article. >> reporter: it was shocking. police had found a body in a soccer field near newburgh. >> it says it's a young female, so i immediately start looking for the younger two, because they're in high school in newburgh. >> reporter: you just want to make sure. just as a mom, "i just want to make sure everybody's safe. >> yeah.
i just want to find my kids. >> reporter: heather found her two youngest, they were okay. but halee wasn't answering her phone. and friends told heather she didn't show up to take her exam at the university. >> it's not like her to miss class. not like her to have her phone turned off. >> reporter: not like halee rathgeber to go missing. coming up, what had happened? >> are you getting a sick feeling? >> i was sick all morning. it was so much anxiety. i just started screaming her name like, my stomach had dropped. and i was like, "oh, my god." where is halee? >> when "dateline" continues. n s
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>> reporter: heather collins couldn't get the news out of her mind. that morning, april 24th, 2017, local police found the body of a young, unidentified woman at a nearby soccer field. >> you know, immediately i'm worried about whose child this is. >> reporter: it certainly wasn't hers. at least that's what heather told herself, and yet she was worried. she couldn't reach her eldest, halee, by phone. >> i called her friend ainsley and said, you know, "hey. have you heard from halee?" >> she's like, "i know you have her apartment key. can you drive over there and see what she's doing?" >> reporter: when ansley did, she saw halee's car parked outside the apartment, meaning halee must be inside. ansley put the key in the front door. >> i swung open the door. i was, like, "halee?" and i just started screaming her name. like, my stomach had dropped, and i was, like, "oh, my god." i was, like, "where is halee?" i was, like, "where could she be?" >> reporter: around the same time, halee's sister emilee was driving to work with a friend.
suddenly a sense of doom washed over her. >> i'm freaking out. something's wrong. >> reporter: just, like, out of the blue this feeling came? >> yeah, it was out of the blue. like, we were driving, and all of a sudden, i was just like, "you gotta turn around. i gotta go find my sister. something's wrong. like, i don't know what's wrong, but something's wrong." >> reporter: emilee posted a picture of halee on instagram. "if anyone hears from my sister please contact me." friends responded, telling her that police were trying to identify a woman found dead that morning. >> and that's when people started sending me that article. >> reporter: oh, gosh. >> at the time i was just, like, "no, like, i get you're trying to be helpful. like, but that's not her." like, and it wasn't even like i felt like i was in any denial. i just 100% knew that that was definitely not my sister. >> reporter: meanwhile, warrick county sheriff's detective paul kruse was just pulling up to the soccer field to begin his investigation. officers had already roped off the scene. when you pull up what do you see here? >> there's a body.
we got a body laying here with a terrible wound to the head. >> reporter: this is a very desolate area. i mean, i'm sure when people are playing soccer, it's active but -- >> sure. >> reporter: -- in the middle of the night there's nothing around here. >> this place is just pitch black in the middle of the night. nearest neighbor's probably a half a mile in a straight line away, separated by trees and fields. >> reporter: even at a glance the detective could tell the woman had been murdered. left to die in agony. the coroner would later cite the cause of death as a gunshot wound. what did it tell you that she was shot in the back of the head? >> tells us that she knew and trusted the person she was with. >> reporter: could you get a sense of her last moments? >> unfortunately, the evidence here at the scene showed that she had lived for a while after being shot. >> reporter: you could see it in the gravel? >> you could. it almost looked like a snow angel where one of her legs had rubbed back and forth, and had rubbed a bare spot in the gravel. >> reporter: and this was odd. next to the woman lay a blue towel.
other than that, there was little to this crime scene. did you find a weapon? did you find a bullet, a casing, anything that might help you? >> no. we had detectives actually assigned to get on their hands and knees with scissors and cut the grass away, looking for a shell casing -- >> reporter: wow. >> -- or a bullet or anything. we didn't know who she was. there was no identification, no phone, nothing laying with her at that time to help identify her. >> reporter: but that mystery would be solved soon enough. heather, by now in a panic, called an old friend for help. >> i contacted a detective i knew from vanderburgh county and -- >> reporter: i mean, i'm getting chills right now. are you getting a sick feeling? >> oh, i was sick all morning. it was so much anxiety and i didn't know what to do, and i just kept thinking i'm wrong. >> reporter: she gave the detective halee's full name and description, and he forwarded the information to the warrick county sheriff's office. investigators there immediately
checked facebook, where they found halee's profile and picture. >> and there was a tattoo visible on facebook, that matched. so we were pretty certain at that point who our victim was. >> reporter: warrick investigators called heather collins and asked to speak with her in person. she walked into the meeting, dreading what they might say. >> they said, you know, "there's a body found, and -- you know, we've identified her as halee." >> reporter: in an instant, your whole world is shattered. >> nothing was the same after that. nothing. >> every time i talk about it, just the pain comes, like, rushing back, like, how awful. i've never felt so awful. like, i just remember just -- i didn't want to exist anymore. >> reporter: the family was horrified to learn that halee, just 20 years old, had been murdered with a shot to the back of the head. >> that was the most shocking part. never in a million years would i have thought that someone would
shoot my child. like, why? >> as you're processing the most horrific news you've ever had in your life, that your daughter is gone, do you immediately ask these detectives who did this? >> they asked me. >> reporter: they asked you? >> who do you think? >> reporter: one name sprang to mind immediately. heather blurted it out. >> their eyesm they couldn't believe what they were hearing. >> detectives knew that name from another case. halee, knew it too. >> coming up -- >> she had said, "what if they want to talk to me? i'm like, "you talk." >> reporter: had someone wanted to keep her quiet? halee could be poking a hornet's nest. if she starts making accusations. >> she absolutely could have. >> when "dateline" continues. els
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>> reporter: tharon rathgeber never thought he'd outlive his own daughter. >> when they, you know, said she'd been murdered, you know, i went, you know, to the dark side. we all have. i wanted to kill myself. 'cause i wasn't there to protect her, you see? >> reporter: it was hard for him to know how to move forward. but even in death halee was a comfort to her family.
>> and the things that have impacted us the most is her tattoo that had psalms 46:5. and it was, "god is within her. she will not fall. he will help her at break of day." >> it's just so difficult to imagine why any human would do something that horrific to another human being. >> reporter: detective paul kruse looked for answers with grim determination. halee's murder was not the only tough case weighing on him that april morning. a few weeks before, he and his partner were assigned to look into the suspicious death of a 10-month-old baby named jaxson. when detectives spoke to heather after her daughter's death she revealed something that stunned them. >> halee was the godmother of jaxon. >> reporter: so their jaws dropped? >> yeah. yeah. >> reporter: heather told police baby jackson was the son of halee's old schoolmate, jordan. >> she got a baby to play with without having to have a baby,
so. >> reporter: but then a terrible accident. jaxson had fallen down some stairs halee rushed to the hospital where jordan explained what had happened. her boyfriend, a man named thaddious rice, had dropped the baby down the stairs after tripping over a diaper bag. >> jordan was crying and we, like, gave her a hug. and i looked at halee. and halee like looked at me and i was, like, "what are we gonna do?" >> reporter: they did what they could to help. they got jordan some food and went to her apartment to get her some clean clothes. >> we walked in and halee's like, "do you know what's weird?" and i was like, "what?" she goes, "the diaper bag is sitting right there." like, as soon as you walked into the door, the diaper bag was sitting right by the couch. it didn't look like the diaper bag had fallen down the stairs, like what thad had said. >> reporter: so you're thinking, "we might've just caught thaddious in a big lie"? >> yeah. >> reporter: after two days on life support, jaxson died. grief-stricken, halee agonized over whether she should tell police about her suspicions. >> she had said, you know, "what
if they want to talk to me?" i'm like, "you talk," you know? >> reporter: but the more halee's mom thought about it, the more she worried what might happen to halee if she spoke out. thaddious had a bad reputation around town. halee could be poking a hornet's nest. >> she absolutely could have. >> reporter: if she starts making accusations. now halee was dead. and heather wondered if her fears had come true. had thaddious killed halee to shut her up? >> i just felt like, you know, he was looking at some pretty serious charges. if i had to think of people who had reasons to hurt her, that would have been number one. >> reporter: the day after halee was murdered someone sent heather this snapchat video. it was thaddious brandishing a gun. you got that video, so that must have really heightened -- >> oh, the video was -- >> reporter: -- your suspicion. >> -- huge. i was positive at that point. he did it. >> reporter: and heather wasn't
the only one pointing the finger at thaddious. halee's friends knew that she'd gone to see the baby's mom jordan the night she died. >> there's these messages the night she was murdered, where she was messaging back and forth with jordan, "hey, i'm gonna go pick up my wallet from your house," late at night the night she was killed. so then that was the theory. she went, she told jordan, thaddious killed her over it. >> reporter: investigators decided it was time to find out what thaddious and jordan knew. thaddious refused to talk to them. but jordan did. >> we did interview thaddious' girlfriend. she said they were home together all night at thaddious' brother's house. we checked out the surveillance video from that neighborhood. we were able to see halee come into the neighborhood when she was there to get her wallet, and we saw halee leave the neighborhood. but we never saw jordan and thad leave. >> reporter: it seemed like thaddious had a good alibi. heather worried that investigators seemed no closer to making an arrest. >> i think that the fear was overwhelming. i kept saying, "i hope that they
make an arrest before her funeral. i don't know how i can stand there and wonder who's hugging me and -- and who's coming through this line. you know, did they hurt her?" >> reporter: but as heather prepared for her daughter's funeral, investigators were already talking to someone who'd surely be standing in that line of mourners. someone very close to halee. >> take a seat over there. coming up, video from the night of the murder. police have a few questions for halee's friends. so you were thnking, they think i might be involved? >> yeah. >> when "dateline" continues. el. people cough in the country, at sea, and downtown. but don't worry, julie... robitussin shuts coughs down. i guess i look pretty... ridiculous. [ chuckles ] no one looks ridiculous, bob.
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investigators say human remains could be in the debris field. a curfew is in effect until 4:30 p.m. sunday. live updates all night. but now, back to "dateline." welcome back to "dateline." i'm natalie morales. detectives wondered if a woman's murder was linked to another death. suspected the boyfriend may have harmed a baby on purpose. did he kill her to silence her? the trail leads in a surprising direction. here's andrea canning with "on the outskirts of town."
>> reporter: the young people who had worked with halee at the texas roadhouse were reeling. the shock of her murder. the fear. waiter jake allen was one of them. >> they were gonna have a candlelight vigil at the soccer field where she was found. and i was just about to leave my apartment and go there. my roommate told me, "hey, there's -- there's somebody at the door. looks like a cop." >> reporter: investigators wanted to talk to jake about his best friend since eighth grade, isaiah hagan. halee's ex. they asked jake what he and isaiah had been up to the night of halee's death. police had recovered security camera video from the night halee died showing isaiah picking her up at her apartment a little after 10:30. an hour or so later he met up with jake. they played video games and then went to walmart where this camera captured them at about 2:00 a.m. there was no sign of halee. so were you thinking, "they think i might be involved in halee's murder"? >> yeah. >> reporter: jake told police he hadn't seen halee that night,
but isaiah had told him where he'd taken her. to a local park, a few miles from the soccer field. >> he told me he dropped her off and he went on a separate way because she wanted to go there to meet somebody. >> reporter: that didn't sound right to jake. >> i feel like he wasn't that type of person to let her be there alone at that time of night. he was way too overprotective. >> something wasn't adding up for you. >> not at all. >> reporter: and there was something else that bothered him. jake told police that the isaiah he knew had always been a stand-up guy. but recently he'd heard stories about isaiah stealing from people. >> his roommate was telling me, he owes us rent, he stole my tv. and i said, "he did what?" >> reporter: oh, my gosh. so he was on a downward spiral. >> something was going on. >> reporter: isaiah had been borrowing money, too. halee was one friend who'd helped him out. >> she mentioned that she had loaned him $600 to pay his rent. >> reporter: that's a lot of money.
but apparently not enough. >> me and halee had been hanging out. and she goes, "it looks like someone had taken money out of my bank account." and she says, "hang on. i can pull up a picture." and she pulled up a picture of the check and it said, "to isaiah hagan for groceries." and it was $300. >> reporter: halee being halee, she told friends she'd forgiven isaiah after he promised to pay her back. >> if you want to take a seat over there. >> sure. >> reporter: three days after halee's death, police decided it was time to talk to isaiah themselves. >> he sat there in this chair and i sat here. >> reporter: what was his demeanor like? this is a big case. this is a young guy. >> almost surprisingly calm. just very, very quiet. and didn't show much emotion at all. >> reporter: isaiah told investigators the same story he'd told jake. he'd picked halee up at her apartment and then dropped her off at that local park. and she's like, "you can go if
you want to," and i was like, "are you sure? like, is everything okay?" she's said, yeah, everything's fine. >> reporter: what isaiah didn't know was that more than a dozen investigators were watching his interview remotely from the next room. and they had proof he was lying. they'd checked the park's security cameras and there was no trace of isaiah and halee. cell phone data showed where they had really gone -- to the soccer field where halee's body had been found. >> we saw him leave her apartment complex on surveillance video. the cell phones are traveling, hers and his cell phones are traveling together. >> reporter: okay, so they're -- they're definitely together at this point if you go by their cell phones? >> right. and they're traveling straight to this location, right here to the soccer fields. >> reporter: what happens to the cell phones at -- at that point once they're here? >> her cell phone goes dark while they're here and remains dark. his cell phone stays on, and we see his cell phone leave here and go back to evansville. >> reporter: isaiah didn't miss a beat when the detective confronted him with that information. >> i just want to apologize and say that the reason i was
leaving that out is because, you know, i was scared. >> reporter: he insisted he'd left halee alive and well at the soccer field with her wallet and her phone. but investigators questioned that too. their analysis showed halee's phone had been in the same location as isaiah's phone hours later when he was long gone from the soccer field. detective kruse pressed isaiah to explain, moving his chair closer. >> and that's why i need an explanation. >> reporter: isaiah's explanations kept changing. >> literally the only thing i can think of is it somehow got left in my car. i saw it. i saw it in the road. i saw her phone. >> he said that it just happened to catch his eye when his headlights hit it. >> reporter: he's just driving along and there it is? >> yeah. >> reporter: and does he pick it up? >> yeah, so that's what he says in that version. >> reporter: are you buying any of this? >> absolutely not.
>> reporter: and where was the phone now? isaiah said he'd thrown it out of his car window. but that didn't make sense either. >> he texted her that morning after the body's been found saying, are you okay or something to that effect. he knows she's never gonna get the message because he threw her phone out the window. >> reporter: so you believe he was establishing some type of an alibi? >> he was trying to lay down an alibi at that point. >> reporter: detective kruse raised the heat again. >> it does not make a damn bit of sense. >> reporter: he tag teamed with other investigators to get isaiah to confess. >> we're trying to find out why you did this. why? >> i didn't. i didn't. i would never hurt halee or do anything to her. >> reporter: isaiah stuck to his story. it was 3:30 in the morning when investigators finally let him go home. jake says an fbi agent told him to keep clear of isaiah. he didn't know what to think. >> he never has been an aggressor. i've never known him to be that type of way.
he's never been temperamental or, you know, violent. >> reporter: you must have had a lot of conflicting feelings. because something's bothering you, and yet you don't think he's capable of murder. >> right. coming up -- was isaiah really behind this? >> it seems like a leap to go from forging checks to cold-blooded murder. >> absolutely. >> when "dateline" continues. ol. >> when "dateline" continues we're carvana, the company who invented car vending machines and buying a car 100% online.
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as his father, i poured everything i could into that young man. and to even be considered to have committed such a heinous act to another person was just inconceivable. >> reporter: isaiah's father wandel hagan was dumbfounded when police told him his son was a suspect in halee rathgeber's murder. he and his wife donna, a corrections officer who worked for the sheriff, said isaiah had always been a good son. >> he was pretty shy as a kid. good-natured, happy, easy to get along with. eager to please. everyone loved him. >> reporter: the hagans said they raised isaiah to put his faith first. the family went to church several times a week. their other love was sports. isaiah was a gifted soccer player, even scored a partial scholarship to college. >> he talked about wanting to be
a teacher and teach athletics. >> reporter: they didn't know much about isaiah's relationship with halee. didn't realize how much she meant to their son until he told them she died. >> he was very, very distraught. >> i mean, his elbows, his hips, his knees, his ankles, everything gave. he was collapsing to the floor, and we caught him. >> reporter: but police believed isaiah was a cold-blooded killer who had shot halee from behind, then robbed her. they hauled him down to the station again. >> i can't help you unless you're willing to help yourself. why did it happen? >> reporter: isaiah asked to speak to his mother. donna, the corrections officer, who had brought suspects to these interrogation rooms for years, was allowed to see her son alone. >> all i could do was hold him. i just felt extremely helpless. >> reporter: whatever they talked about, donna wouldn't tell detectives. isaiah stopped talking too.
but police were convinced they had the right suspect. they charged isaiah with two counts of murder, and one count each of robbery and obstructing justice. but when the trial began in the summer of 2018, prosecutor michael perry knew that proving the charges would be difficult. his case against isaiah was largely circumstantial. >> this was not a slam dunk. >> reporter: the prosecution team methodically laid out every piece of the puzzle before the jury. >> we wanted to -- to show them that isaiah was the last person to see her alive, that he lied about her cell phone, that he had money problems, that he did a lot of things to cover his tracks. >> reporter: and the prosecution presented perhaps the most explosive piece of evidence they had -- what investigators found when they searched the home of wandel and donna hagan. >> we were able to locate a towel from that home that was actually the -- the same make,
the same model of the towel that was located at the soccer field. >> reporter: and there was something else investigators discovered. wandel owned several guns, but one of them was missing. did you think that maybe isaiah took it? >> it wouldn't be something that we would suspect because he -- >> he didn't like guns -- >> he didn't like guns -- was not comfortable around them. >> reporter: the prosecution told the jury that isaiah owed his father some cash and on the night halee died wandel sent a text to his son, "got the money yet?" >> we do know that he left $210 for his dad the next morning on the counter. >> reporter: one of the things that seems somewhat weak is the motive. i mean, we're talking about, what, a couple hundred dollars? to just kill somebody for? >> right. i've actually prosecuted cases where somebody was killed for far less than that. >> reporter: it seems like a leap to go from forging checks to cold-blooded murder. >> oh, absolutely. it's, you know, zero to murder
in 3.5 seconds. it's not the usual situation. >> reporter: it wasn't the usual situation because it didn't happen. that's what isaiah's defense attorney mark phillips said. he argued the prosecution had been fixated on isaiah from the start and had built a case out of guesses, nothing more. >> we had no physical evidence. they had no gun. they had no bullet. they had no casing. >> reporter: and that blue towel investigators found at the crime scene? >> the dna testing they did on that towel showed that none of isaiah hagan's dna was present. >> reporter: though there was one thing that was plain to see -- isaiah's lies. right there in the interrogation video. the prosecution played the entire 9 1/2 hours of it to the jury. >> i think anytime somebody says something that the state contends isn't true, you have to try to understand the dynamic of where it was said. >> reporter: phillips noted that
detectives questioned isaiah aggressively for hours, they used profanity, invaded his space, intimidated him. >> i'm supposed to believe a stack of [ bleep ]. >> reporter: maybe, he theorized, isaiah simply lied to make them go away. were you worried, though, the jury is going to hear lies, and that's just gonna trump everything else? "this guy's lying. why should i believe him that he didn't kill her?" >> that's a hard one to overcome. but we had no confession, first and foremost. isaiah never said anything like, "i killed halee rathgeber." >> reporter: so if isaiah didn't kill halee, who did? the defense pointed to thaddious rice, the man she suspected of killing his 10-month-old.
thaddious pleaded not guilty, had he been worried halee had evidence against him? >> she knew information about the suspicious circumstances of jaxson wheeler's death. he and jordan were the last two people to see halee, other than isaiah, we believe, based on the information that we were provided in discovery. and it just seemed curious to us that for some reason they weren't pursued. >> reporter: and according to the defense, there was other evidence that showed isaiah could not have killed halee. after halee's cell phone stopped sending a signal just before 11:30 on the night she died, it had mysteriously turned on about four hours later and pinged off a cell tower near the soccer field. when that happened, cell phone data showed isaiah was miles away. >> at the time that her phone came back on and started traveling it was nowhere near isaiah hagan. in fact, he was in a different county. so he could not have been pinging off the same tower that she was. >> reporter: which according to the defense meant someone else had to have halee's cell phone.
but the prosecution insisted isaiah had the phone all along. >> it looks like it powers back up at the soccer field, but we've since come to the theory that when you power your phone up, it hits on the last tower that it was on when it powered down and so that explains the reason why it looked like it was traveling. >> reporter: is that exact science, or is that the theory? >> that's a theory. but we have found absolutely zero evidence that there was anybody else involved other than isaiah hagan. >> reporter: the prosecution and the police, they believe that she was shot before isaiah left the soccer field, that his alibi doesn't hold up, because she was already dead. >> well, that's hard for me to understand. because there was testimony by the coroner that he could not determine a time of death. >> reporter: halee's friend carley, who attended every day of the trial, watched with growing uneasiness as the defense poked holes in the prosecution's case again and again. >> every day, my dad texted me, would ask how the trial went.
every single day i was like, "yeah, we're not gonna -- we're not gonna get this conviction." >> reporter: it was that bad? >> it was that bad. >> reporter: and then a bombshell. >> that's putting it mildly. coming up -- >> a stunning moment in court. isaiah's mom on the stand. what would she reveal? >> that almost doesn't even happen in tv dramas, because it's too hard to believe. >> truth is stranger than fiction. >> when "dateline" continues. fiction. >> when "dateline" continues hey! yeah!?
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welcome back. isaiah hagen was on trial for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. prosecutors argued his money problems and lies he spun proved he was the killer. the defense countered that detectives intimidated isaiah into telling those tales. but soon, someone very close to isaiah would take the stand and reveal an explosive secret. here's andrea canning with the conclusion of "on the outskirts of town." >> reporter: as each day of trial passed, heather collins became less hopeful. there was no direct evidence tying isaiah hagan to her daughter's murder. no gun. no dna. no eyewitnesses. nothing to prove isaiah was a killer. >> i was at the point where i was prepared for him to be walking the streets.
>> reporter: prosecutor michael perry urged patience. >> we knew that we did not have enough evidence to convict at that point. but that's why you go to the end. >> reporter: there was one person in particular he wanted the jury to hear from -- donna hagan, isaiah's mom. the prosecutor had no idea what she'd say on the stand. but he had reason to believe isaiah had confided in her that day at the police station about the night halee died. so the mom takes the stand, in your words, as a reluctant witness. >> yes. >> reporter: would a mother actually reveal something he told her in confidence? tell us what happened. >> i don't specifically remember what question was asked. but the answer that she gave was that isaiah had told her that he had shot halee and had done it accidentally. >> reporter: and with those words, donna hagan turned the trial upside-down. instead of defending her son,
she pointed the finger right at him. that almost doesn't even really happen in tv dramas, because it's too hard to believe. >> right. >> reporter: nobody would do that. >> truth is stranger than fiction. >> reporter: isaiah's attorney mark phillips could not believe what he was hearing. >> i started sweating. i felt like i had been sucker punched. >> reporter: had she just torpedoed your defense? >> yes. she said something that we couldn't expect, we didn't expect. and as i sat there i, in that moment, had no idea how to -- how to address it. >> no one saw it coming. it was probably the first time that everyone in the room cried. it was an amazing gift. >> reporter: the judge called for a recess and cleared the courtroom. all sides left to absorb the enormity of what had just happened. heather drove to the soccer field to reflect. she honors halee by wearing the same tattoo her daughter once had. the prosecutor went home, humbled by a woman's confession.
>> i don't know that i've ever had more faith in the words coming out of somebody's mouth than -- than a mother that would actually say that against her son. >> reporter: you almost look like you're getting emotional. >> i am getting emotional. i'm sorry. >> reporter: the defense attorney, on the other hand, got straight to work. he needed a new plan to save his client. when court reconvened, he called donna hagan back to the stand. his goal, to show the jury that she couldn't be believed. >> on cross-examination, she admitted that she believed that if the jury heard that isaiah said it was an accident, then they couldn't convict him of murder. >> reporter: so you think that perhaps his mother had said these things so that her son could get perhaps a lesser sentence? >> well, yes. >> reporter: the problem is the genie's out of the bottle. >> yes. >> reporter: the jury cannot unhear what she said about her
own son. how do you now overcome that? >> well, i think it goes back to, we have no confession. we have no direct evidence. we have no dna. and we have no other significant piece of evidence that's compelling. >> reporter: and in his closing, he made those same arguments to the jury. but the damage was done. it only took the jury four hours to find isaiah hagan guilty on all four counts against him, including murder. >> that's the most relief i've felt since it all happened. 'cause all i wanted forever was just to get justice for her. >> reporter: but the hagans were angry. they didn't believe isaiah should have been convicted of the most serious charges against him -- murder. >> you were in the courtroom for the verdict? >> yes. >> what was that moment like? >> i was in disbelief and just
devastated. >> just, how did we get here? how did we get here? i know this isn't right. i know this isn't right. >> reporter: their pain was compounded when isaiah was sentenced to 60 years in prison. on appeal, the court ruled that his robbery conviction was reduced to theft, a misdemeanor. one murder count was thrown out. but his other murder conviction stood, as well as his sentence. >> we love him no matter what. >> we will always love him. regardless of what you, anyone else has to say. he's my son. as long as i'm living. >> reporter: this is a very special place.
>> yes. yeah. we came here a lot when she was little. >> reporter: her mom doesn't want to think anymore about isaiah hagen. >> i don't think any of us have come to terms with what happened, and that he's gone. you think she's going to come back in the door and pick up her laundry. >> reporter: emilee picks up the phone to call her big sister. only to have the sad reality crash down. >> i wonder, how could he do something like that? what made him do that? why was he so desperate to hurt someone so kind? and there's no one who would say
she's not the most giving person. why not just ask? because i'm sure she would have given you the world. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "dateline." >> something wasn't right at her house. i saw a lot of police cars. >> she was a fighter. she would never leave her daughters. she would never do it. >> michele ran the home. >> she was very proud about how she was able to make ends meet. >> lloyd helped with the kids. >> they're wonderful girls. they're amazing. >> the end came much too soon. >> she's