LINCOLN: These are the facts as I know them. Belle Rodriguez was my niece. She was 21 years old. She was killed on May 25 of last year. She was a straight A student in high school. She was the valedictorian of her class. She was a sweet girl. School was her life. She came from a poor family so she made school her life. She was involved in everything. Sports. Scorekeeper. Basketball. Volleyball. Softball. She was a big girl, tall and athletic. Everybody liked her. She was brutally murdered on May 25 at about 3:30 in the morning. We believe she was gang raped, based on what we have learned. She was robbed, beaten and then she was shot. Then she was taken and dumped alongside the road. She was killed somewhere else. She was not killed in the area she was found.
When the AVA commented a few months ago that it looked like the Lincoln-Britton feud was erupting again, that's exactly what it is. Most of the people involved were part of the Britton family. Our family believes that Belle was murdered because she was a member of the Lincoln family, not because of anything she did.
The first story was that a cellphone was involved and that someone accused her of stealing a cell phone and they beat her and killed her for that. But we don't think that's true. And the people involved made statements themselves about her being from the Lincoln family. Before they killed her there were statements made that slipped out. The Britton family people knew that she was related to the Lincolns. But she never knew anything about that. We never discussed the feud with any of our youth. We had hoped that it could be put in the past. My cousins and myself who were involved in the dispute with the Brittons in the past did not want our kids raised to hate the Brittons. Members of the Britton family have made multiple statements about their hatred for the Lincoln family. We believe the Britton family members who were involved wanted to send a message to us.
I've been back in Covelo for about six years now. In that time people have told me that there was still trouble brewing with the Brittons. That it was still going on. I would tell people, No, it's over with. I told anybody who asked that it was over with. I meant that from my heart. I didn't want anyone to go through this again. But now my niece is brutally murdered by this family. And they had hatred for the Lincoln family.
I think everyone in Mendocino County should know about this case. It's very important. Law enforcement has to properly arrest and prosecute all the people involved otherwise the feud will re-erupt. If they pour fuel on the fire then the only thing we can do is vote against them in the next election.
Charges were filed against one individual named Jeremy Britton Freeman. I went to his preliminary hearing. I've been trying to find what evidence they have. Jeremy Freeman confessed to the crime but he will get off because he is lying in his confession which was proven in the preliminary hearing. I saw the letter he wrote to the AVA where he said he was innocent. Earlier he had confessed to shooting Belle. Now he has changed his plea to not guilty.
The autopsy report was discussed at that preliminary hearing and it said that that the bullet hole that went into Belle went downward from the top of her forehead. Mr. Freeman's defense attorney, Jan Cole Wilson, brought out in court that Jeremy, on video, had explained that he held the gun straight, shooting at Belle straight. But the evidence showed that the bullet traveled downward. So he was lying in his video confession. His attorney would simply present that as evidence that his confession was not true. And that he is not guilty.
Our family has asked a number of questions trying to get as much information as we can. We think that Belle was sitting in the car sedated under the influence of perhaps date rape drugs or some other kind of drugs that may have made her unconscious or semi-conscious. When the pathologist was questioned on the stand there were no questions about any drugs, that I recall. However, I have not actually seen the autopsy report myself. I still want to see that. But I know she was drugged. We believe that based on information we received later. Other people involved were Nicky Hawkins, Shauna Britton, Jeremy's brother whose name I don't recall at the moment [Sidney Lewis Freeman], and there was another girl who kind of spilled her guts the next day and told her mom what had happened. That's what got the police involved, her comments to her mother, which were followed up on. From what I heard the district attorney questioned 40 people. Many people were coming and going and involved. There were also statements by Nicky (Nicole) Hawkins and others about Belle being dead.
The preliminary hearing, however, was very quick. They only presented enough information to take the case to trial. It was mostly an investigator summarizing some of the information he had. The investigator, Mr. Cromer, told me that they were prosecuting Jeremy Freeman first and after he was convicted they would go after the others and all. I don't know if that's normal procedure. Maybe they are trying to get him to name the others involved after he's convicted as part of his sentencing.
Quincy Cromer told my niece, Deborah Lincoln, who is Belle's mother, over the phone that Belle's attackers did things to Belle which we [the investigators] do not want the family to know about because it would just make them more angry. He said he wanted to tell her face-to-face. He also said that in his 20 years as a law enforcement officer he had never seen anything like this. So we were thinking the worst. We were thinking it was a nightmare for Belle, that they tortured her, beat her, gagged her, gang raped her, used foreign objects on her. We were thinking the absolute worst.
AVA: When I hear horrible things like that I think meth had to be involved.
LINCOLN: Oh yes. Everybody involved is on methamphetamine here. They are all addicts.
AVA: Could this be more of a meth crime than a family feud?
LINCOLN: We think the feud was in the background and perhaps the methamphetamine was the spark. And they were all grouped together and maybe a mob mentality set in.
AVA: Do know where she was killed as opposed to where she was found?
LINCOLN: The police might, but they are not giving out that kind of information. I have not even had an opportunity to ask. The district attorney is a little biased toward me because of my case back in the 90s. So I have not been too aggressive in asking about this case.
AVA: Have you been interviewed by any of the law enforcement investigators?
LINCOLN: I'm glad you asked because that reminds me that the morning that Belle was killed there was a guy working for me, kind of my ranch foreman, where I live up in the hills. One day the sheriff's department showed up at my house, a SWAT team in plainclothes and in unmarked trucks. I guess they just come to the Valley and immediately go to my place. They spread out in front of my house with automatic weapons. My foreman was inside taking a bath and he happened to look out the window and saw a bunch of cops all spread out out there. And they all had automatic weapons. He stuck his head out the door and asked what was going on. They told my foreman that they were looking for Bear Lincoln. They said they had been downtown and they decided to come out to my place. Because they found a dead body down there and they wanted to know what Bear Lincoln knows about it.
AVA: So they did not talk to you, they just showed up?
I wasn't home. It was quite a surprise. They know that Belle was my grandniece. They have to know that. I actually thought they came to kill me. What other reason would they have to come to my house? I don't understand it. It's been 20 years now. Occasionally I'd hear from people who have been to jail and get out and then they tell me that people in law enforcement there say to them, ‘Tell Bear we have not forgotten.’ Things like that. I care for my life. I am not suicidal. I want to live. I think I have a few years left. I'm healthy. I am not trying to commit suicide by cop or anything like that. But I am putting my life on the line just by speaking up for my niece here. But at this point I don't care if I lose my life for speaking up for her. Or if they want to destroy me. I can't let that be a concern. It's the right thing to do. I want everybody to know in Mendocino County about Belle and what happened to her and the kind of people who did this to her.
So after those calls from Mr. Cromer, we believed that a nightmare was unfolding. We thought the worst. Then we got the autopsy report and it looked like a cover-up. There were no special violent circumstances. It just said Belle was killed by a gunshot wound. Samantha Burkey, my former investigator from years ago, looked at it and she told us it looked like it was just cut and dried. Her description of the autopsy report did not match what my niece heard from the investigator. And I believe my niece more than I believe the cops and their autopsy report.
Then we got a bombshell of evidence. Come to find out, the family received a cellphone recording of Belle's murder. Approximately 300 minutes. Belle's mother listened to it. Her uncle listened to it. A few of the cousins. Someone at the scene of the murder had a cell phone on during the period that Belle was murdered. Personally, my hunch is that Belle turned it on. Because she was not able to do anything else.
AVA: Why wasn't this part of the evidence to begin with?
I have not got my hands on it at this point. I told my family to make copies and give a copy to me and I would give it to the district attorney investigator so they can prosecute all the people who are on that recording. They do not have this recording yet. Somehow the recording was in the hands of a friend for safekeeping. My nephew and niece obtained the memory card from that cell phone which has the recording on it. It was removed from a phone belonging to one of the men who was at the scene. He obviously should be charged. It's not evidence yet. I am still trying to get hold of it. I told them to bring it over after making a copy. For two weeks I was over there every day trying to get them to bring it over. And they said things like she's out of town, she will be over later or this or that. Excuses. The next thing we heard was that the defense investigator was over there talking to her, my niece, and other people who were involved with Jeremy Freeman. So then I heard that my niece had given it to that investigator. Or that's what they told the family. So I assume the prosecutor got a copy also. At that time I did not have very good phone service and I was not maintaining good contact with my family members. I have better phone service now.
A few weeks later, one of my sisters came by with the phone and I suggested that she call Quincy Cromer and ask. And she was told that they [the prosecution] didn't have anything and never heard of it. So now we know that the investigator probably lied to us. I don't see how they could have given this recording to them. The defense is required to provide all evidence to the prosecution.
AVA: But the timing is not clear.
LINCOLN: This discovery of the cell phone recording was last summer. We were told it had been provided to the defense investigator. But I don't think that she really gave it to her. I don't think Leslie Azbill gave the memory card to the defense investigator as she said she did. My nephew has a copy of the memory card. That's the one I'm trying to get so that I can provide it to the prosecution. I told them to make copies. I did not want them to give the only copy we had directly to the cops. They might just toss it or discount it in some way. Then we would have nothing. My nephew is in the county jail right now and I want to get it from him and make another copy and give a copy to the prosecution. That's the most important thing at this point is to get that recording into the hands of the prosecution so that it can be treated as evidence and analyzed.
Based on that recording, the people who have listened to it say that the nightmare we thought was unfolding was all true. Unfortunately, our worst fears were confirmed. I asked my family members what they heard because I was very uncomfortable about the idea of listening to it. I did not want to hear my niece begging for her life at the last moment or worse. My family members who heard the recording said that Belle was begging for her life. At another point they stood around talking about whether to kill her. And, allegedly, [one woman] said things like, ‘This bitch has to die.’ And then they hear gunfire. The people speaking on the recording are clearly identifiable. There is some racial music in the background and other noise that could be eliminated by professional recording specialists. At another point we heard that the people there were slamming her up with drugs, sticking a needle in her arm and putting drugs in her because they were talking about how much to give her and talking about a measurement of units in a needle. So they were trying to keep her immobile. So there's kidnapping involved also. They beat her. They raped her. They strangled her. The family said that when her body was discovered there was a belt around her neck. And they also said it sounded like they put her in some kind of wagon or rack or something to use to dump her body. I have not listened to it so far. I know it will tear me up.
I have to watch myself closely these days because of my anger issues. Thank God I am clean and sober. If I was still drinking or using methamphetamine I know what I would do. But now I am ready to listen to it. And I'm ready to make sure it gets in the hands of the district attorney and have them analyze it and get some justice for Belle.
AVA: So, basically, there is this very important piece of evidence that needs to be entered and analyze and action taken.
LINCOLN: There may be more evidence that could be developed if the case is properly handled, but I want to be sure it will be properly handled first. If the sheriff's department and the district attorney pour fuel on this fire there will be more violence. I don't want that. My family might end up being killed and some of my enemies might be killed. But it's not worth it. So I don't want any of it. There’s too much violence as there is. I'm very leery about what they might do with it. That's why I want to have a copy because I don't know what they will do with it. They could just toss it. They are still very biased against me, not all of them, but some of them. Especially the older ones. The younger guys don't seem to care much. They were not around when my case was in the news.
AVA: What is Samantha Burkey's role in the case at this point?
LINCOLN: I asked her to come and read the autopsy report with us so we understood it better. I thought we might not know some of the technical jargon in it. That's all she's done so far. That was it. She said it was cut and dried. She seems to speak up for Allman a lot about what a nice guy he is and this and that.
People who do this kind of thing like Belle's violent murder should not be allowed to be free in the community. I have heard that some people are surprised that the Lincoln family has not retaliated against the Brittons. The whole community out there wants something done about this case and they want all the perpetrators brought to justice. People have said some very threatening things about the Britton family to me, people who I know to otherwise be nonviolent. They've said some very violent things about whoever did this to Belle.
At the moment Jeremy Freeman's trial is scheduled for some time in May but I think if we get the new evidence into the hands of the prosecution, things will be postponed again. They will need more time. Especially that recording. We need more help to keep an eye on the prosecution and law enforcement to make sure that the case is not covered up. This needs to move forward.