published Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Search order for Matthew Palmgren's properties called unusual

Matthew Palmgren speaks at a brief news conference concerning his missing wife, Gail, at the Signal Mountain Recreation Department in Signal Mountain.
Matthew Palmgren speaks at a brief news conference concerning his missing wife, Gail, at the Signal Mountain Recreation Department in Signal Mountain.
Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MORE INFORMATION

HOW TO HELP

Gail Palmgren was last seen driving a red 2010 Rubicon Jeep with a tailgate tire cover that reads “Life is Good” and with a daisy painted on it. She also had a personalized Alabama tag — “EAZY ST.” The couple owns a home near Titus, Ala., on Lake Jordan.

She is 5 feet 8, weighs 135 pounds and has blonde hair and brown eyes.

Anyone with information may call investigators at 423-209-8940 or 423-622-0022.

CONSENT ORDER

The consent order to search the Palmgrens’ Signal Mountain home included these parameters:

  • Mike Mathis, a former Chattanooga Police Department investigator, who has been hired by Palmgren, must be present during the searches.

  • Any documents that investigators wish to copy must be copied through Palmgren and his attorneys.

  • Testing of trace evidence is allowed as long as it does not damage the property.

  • Detectives must get permission to further test items from the house from Palmgren’s attorney and the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office.

  • If investigators damage the property, the sheriff’s office must replace the property.

Source: Consent Order

SEARCH LOCATIONS

The consent order lists five locations for the search:

  • The Palmgren family residence at 40 Ridgerock Drive, Signal Mountain

  • 439 Easy St., Wetumpka, Ala.

  • 481 Jordan Lake Road, Titus Ala.

  • A public storage unit in Red Bank

  • Matt Palmgren’s mother’s residence in Chattanooga

Source: Consent Order

The signed consent order Matthew Palmgren obtained allowing authorities to search his properties for evidence leading to his missing wife is not common, according to legal experts.

No one has seen 44-year-old Gail Palmgren or her crimson-red Rubicon Jeep since April 30.

The property searches of the couple’s Signal Mountain residence and other properties including, the house on Lake Jordan in Alabama and the home of Matthew Palmgren’s mother in Chattanooga, come only after Matthew Palmgren’s defense attorneys drafted an agreement to allow Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office and Signal Mountain Police Department investigators to search the locations.

In most criminal cases, investigators use a search warrant where they have probable cause linking an individual to a crime presented in a warrant. A judge grants a warrant for them to complete a search to find additional evidence.

In this case, there is no evidence of a crime.

“I think quite frankly law enforcement is checking it off their list. They’re still treating this as missing person case, which it is,” said Bryan Hoss, a criminal defense attorney who is representing Matthew Palmgren. “This involves multiple pieces of property. This involves multiple owners. I think with all the different moving parts, putting a simple consent order together was in everybody’s best interest.”

Without evidence pointing to foul play, investigators’ hands are legally tied when it comes to searching the Palmgren properties for evidence that would lead them to Gail Palmgren.

Hamilton County Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who helped oversee the consent order, declined to comment on the order because potentially it could become a case in the future.

It has taken this long — 52 days after Gail Palmgren’s disappearance — to conduct the search of the Palmgren residence because there is no evidence that anything happened to her. Hoss said his client offered early on to allow authorities to search the property.

Consent orders allow the property owner to dictate the terms of the search, according to legal experts.

“Without any evidence a crime was committed, she could have just left. It’s highly unusual she would just walk away from her life,” said Wesley Oliver, an expert in criminal procedure and associate law professor at Widener University, located in Harrisburg, Pa.

“Most missing people are not the victim of foul play. Most people who are murdered are murdered by a person who knew them,” Oliver said. “So it kind of goes in both directions.”

Gail Palmgren disappeared after Signal Mountain police responded to two domestic incidents between the Palmgrens a couple of weeks prior to her disappearance. A week after she was gone, Matthew Palmgren filed documents in Hamilton County Chancery Court asking for a legal separation, exclusive use of their home and custody of the couple’s two children. He later withdrew the motions June 1.

Oliver worked on the homicide case of Janet Levine March nearly a decade ago when he lived in Nashville. He helped represent her husband, Perry March, who was later convicted in her homicide. Years after Levine’s disappearance, investigators were able to argue she was slain through circumstantial evidence. Through testimony and jail recordings, March was convicted on homicide and other charges.

It’s a case that, in some ways, is similar to the Palmgren case, he said.

“She could have decided to leave him, but when you have a missing person, the length of time is what gives you reason to believe something is foul,” Oliver said. “You can imagine she needs a week or a month away, but as time goes on, it looks more suspicious. That’s probably why the police are wanting to do something.”

Consent searches are not uncommon. Often they’re used during a traffic stop when police pull over a motorist and ask to search the vehicle. Most drivers consent and sometimes officers find drugs or weapons.

“Ninety-eight percent of people do it. Most people don’t know they can say no. Here, you have a sophisticated party,” Oliver said. “You would assume the guy is most interested in finding his wife.”

When investigators do search the Palmgren home, whatever evidence is found , or at other locations will be difficult to tie to a crime, Oliver said. For instance, even a small blood stain could simply mean that Gail Palmgren accidentally cut herself.

At the home, “you’re going to have all kinds of evidence because she lived there,” Oliver said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406.

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