The Michael Lynch Case: What Really Happened?
Behind the scenes of a tragic theft case still riddled with troubling questions
- Published In: Criminal Justice
- Last Updated: Aug 04, 2022
Geralynn Lynch holds a small heart-shaped wooden urn within which sit her son’s ashes. (Wyoming Truth photo by Alec Klein)
By Alec Klein
Special to the Wyoming Truth
FOUNTAIN, Colo.—Signs of life are everywhere.
Michael Lynch’s white pickup truck squats by the curb, as if waiting to take him to work. His orange snow skis rest against the living room wall, ready for the next hurtle down the mountains. And his old German Shepherd, Vito, sits on his haunches, prepared for their next avalanche rescue.
Down the hall, in Michael’s bedroom, stuff is scattered on the floor: worn cowboy boots, work gloves and a gray bag left open, spewing camping gear that will never be used again.
“I can still smell him,” Michael’s mother, Geralynn Lynch, said almost in a whisper, peeking inside his darkened room.
It is an overcast day, and all that’s missing is Michael himself. That’s because Michael Lynch passed away last year at the age of 37, the tragic result of a drug overdose after being freed on pretrial release. He was awaiting trial on burglary, theft and other charges in Teton County, Wyoming.
Michael’s death certificate ruled it an “accident,” but his mother, struggling to contain her emotions, blames his death squarely on the authorities who were bearing down on him.
“They killed him,” she said firmly from her living room.
“That’s when he started using drugs,” chimes in his cousin, Brandon Windle.
What they believe is, Michael, who owned a successful landscaping business in the Jackson Hole area, succumbed to a devastating combination of undeserved but unrelenting calamity, pressure and injustice.
In 2019, Michael was charged with several counts of burglary and theft; authorities suspected he stole tens of thousands of dollars of items from the home of his landlord who also was his roommate. Detectives expanded their investigation, believing Michael was responsible for other burglaries in the area, including stealing from his landscaping clients.
Michael, who maintained his innocence, pleaded not guilty, and his family insists he was falsely charged with theft, burglary and other charges. They say police threatened Michael, telling him not to talk to potential witnesses. They say prosecutors heaped on criminal charges that wouldn’t stick and changed the charges when Michael refused to accept any plea deal. They say the local press about Michael’s case ruined his once-thriving landscaping business. They say his ex-girlfriend threatened to never let him see their five-year-old son again.
“They kept adding charges,” said Geralynn, his mother. “It was all a bunch of lies.”
Erin E. Weisman, the elected Teton County and prosecuting attorney, and Sheriff Matt Carr of the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Defense investigator notes and text exchanges obtained for this article reference rising tension between the two roommates, with Michael acknowledging that he moved items around the house “just to mess around” with his roommate, who did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition, defense investigator records indicate that the two roommates often went into each other’s living space and shared living space—and that they both collected various things, coins among them, making it unclear as to where items were placed and to whom they belonged. Indeed, it appears some of the items that the roommate thought had been stolen were actually on Michael’s side of the house before Michael moved in, records indicate.
Michael, his family said, acknowledged that he may have purchased or bartered to acquire some used items, not knowing where they had come from or whether they may have been stolen—but he himself had not stolen anything. Bartering is not uncommon in some parts of Jackson Hole. What’s more, Michael’s family said, all manner of friends and others would traipse through his place, and who knows who might have nabbed something that didn’t belong to them? But this, his family said, is a far cry from the idea that Michael was some kind of master thief.
When police arrested Michael, they also arrested his then-girlfriend. But charges against her were dropped, and in a reversal, she was named a victim in a domestic battery charge against Michael, though that alleged incident had occurred several months earlier and hadn’t been reported to authorities then, records show. “At the time she was treated for her injuries, she told medical staff she sustained the injuries while wrestling with a friend,” according to the defense investigator’s notes.
How Michael’s girlfriend pivoted from suspect to victim, accusing him of wrongdoing, is unclear; she couldn’t be reached for comment. What is clear is that the turn of events only made matters worse for Michael. He “believes she turned against him once the police became involved,” the defense investigator wrote in his notes.
The multiple charges against Michael expanded to include not only burglary and theft, but also forgery and unauthorized use of personal identifying information, court records show. He was also charged with two counts of domestic battery and aggravated assault and battery, according to records.
“The domestic battery and aggravated assault charges came about when it was discovered that there had been some incidents that occurred around the same time frame of the thefts and aggravated burglary,” Det. Bret Bommer of the Teton County Sheriff’s Office was quoted as saying then. “It’s been a snowball effect.”
As deputies pursued the investigation, the snowball became an avalanche as “some clients and previous employers of Michael Lynch read about his arrest in the Jackson Hole newspaper,” according to the defense investigator’s note. “They contacted deputies regarding missing property they suspected Michael Lynch had stolen from them.”
Meanwhile, Michael languished in jail for months.
“They destroyed his life … Such a little town can shrink you into nothing … They just slammed him and put him away,” Geralynn said of her son and the work of authorities. “…They need to know what they did.”
After Michael’s parents bailed him out of jail, he left Jackson Hole to live with them in a warm place filled with Native American art just outside of Colorado Springs, Colo.
But the constant coverage in the local press back in Jackson Hole about Michael’s case left the equivalent of a Scarlet Letter online from which he couldn’t escape, even as he fought to prove his innocence, even though he had been convicted of none of the charges.
“It’s horrendously horrible,” Geralynn said about the negative press coverage of her son’s case.
The local paper called it a “massive theft case” and wrote that Michael’s case, involving about $50,000 worth of missing items, such as rugs and jewelry, was “being described as the most audacious theft case in decades.” Police also accused Michael of stealing such things as cameras, a cowboy hat, coats and a wool blanket.
“The variety, I have never seen anything like it,” Bommer, the county detective, was quoted as saying in the local paper.
The detective also told the local press that after Michael’s arrest, he used a different name to keep booking clients.
“The entire contact between the defendant and the court system has been a lie,” then Teton County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Clark C. Allan was quoted as saying in the local paper. “It’s been lie upon lie upon lie upon lie.” Allan, now a circuit court judge in Converse County, did not respond to requests for comment.
The local paper covered much of the twists and turns in the case in numerous articles, including after Michael missed a court date, when a warrant was issued for his arrest and how deputies allegedly found him hiding under his then-girlfriend’s bed, which he denied in court.
Also covered in the local media was how Michael, through his attorney, declared in court that he had been sober for several years. Meanwhile, while awaiting trial, Michael would rage to his mother about how those articles left the false impression that he had stolen jewelry, tools, saddles and other items from his roommate, though the charges were never proven. The American ideal, upside down: Guilty until proven innocent.
“What do you want me to do?” Michael would implore his mother in his final days.
“He was humiliated,” Geralynn said, thinking back on those emotional exchanges.
His court-appointed lawyer, Elisabeth M.W. Trefonas, a senior assistant public defender who serves as the head public defender for Teton and Sublette counties, said in a statement, “Michael was diligent in working on his case and communicating with his defense team and the Office of the State Public Defender from the moment we were appointed. He appeared to have a very busy work schedule, working long hours without days off. He was worried often about his parents, and his child, and how this case was impacting his business and the ability to care for his family. He was detained for a long period of time, had a revocation of his release during the pendency of his case, but was re-released with conditions because of the notable delay in being able to proceed with trial during the COVID pandemic.
“From my perspective the state of Wyoming conducted an ongoing investigation that never seemed particularly clear against Mr. Lynch from 2019 to 2021,” Trefonas continued. “In December 2020 and coming into the new year, the state filed a fourth amended criminal information notifying Michael of the charges against him. We received discovery from the state as late as December 2020. While I understand that investigations are ongoing, it seemed the state’s theories on the case were evolving as it amended the charges against him and as we sent our own investigation and evidence to the state in an effort to negotiate a resolution or to advocate for the dismissal of various charges. My office emailed Michael an updated court order setting his trial in June, and that his next hearing would be held end of April, on February 5, 2021. I was notified by my investigator that Michael passed away the day after his death on February 12, 2021. His death came a week after he was notified that his case was proceeding to trial.”
Trefonas serves on the board of advisors of the Wyoming Truth.
Michael was able to retrieve receipts showing he hadn’t stolen some of the goods, including tools and equipment, his family said. In at least one instance, deputies recovered a 9mm semiautomatic that belonged to a friend of Michael’s who didn’t know the weapon had gone missing until authorities notified the individual, according to the defense investigator’s notes. “This may indicate he possibly sold it [the gun] to Lynch and lied to officers about it being stolen.”
In another instance, the investigator raised questions about whether Michael had done anything improper, writing, “During the theft time frame a multitude of subcontractors and moving companies had access to the residence and property.”
The investigator also called into question the allegation against Michael of forgery and unauthorized use of information by noting Michael’s girlfriend had given him “permission to use her credit cards.”
The investigator also noted, “Deputies returned tools to [one of the alleged victims] based on model numbers and type of tool purchased during [Michael’s] employment and not by matching serial numbers. It is entirely possible deputies gave [the alleged victim] tools belonging to and purchased by Lynch just based on description…These charges involving [the alleged victim] is an example of deputy’s eagerness to find additional victims of burglaries without any evidence to support the charge.”
Of the charges, Geralynn said, “I knew it was a lie. I know my son… He went to jail for so long for something he didn’t do.”
What’s more, Michael stepfather, Lew, who passed away recently, had tried to explain to authorities that he himself had given Michael most of the things that they were accusing Michael of stealing. It got to a heated point in a telephone exchange with police, Lew said in an interview for this story: “I was going, ‘That’s mine’ … That’s what I had given him. But they can’t believe it was given to him.”
Lew added: “I was pissed.”
One strike worked against Michael: He had had prior run-ins with the law involving minor matters, including a noise complaint, records show. But the burglary and theft charges—heaped on top of other charges—was too much for Michael to bear, and his mother began to sense something alter inside him in the days leading up to the end.
On the morning of Feb. 11, Lew almost knocked on Michael’s bedroom door when his son didn’t emerge for their regular cup of coffee together.
“He didn’t get up that morning,” Lew said wistfully.
Later that day, Geralynn took notice of her son’s white truck parked outside the house. She thought, maybe he had left the truck behind and gone to work with someone else. And yet, she said, “I could smell it.”
When she finally entered Michael’s room that day, she found him face down on the floor by his bed. She banged on his chest repeatedly—not to awake him, because she knew it wasn’t a slumber; she banged on his chest because it was a kind of rage. Her son had left her.
She struggled to breathe. She wept inconsolably.
“I knew he was gone,” she said.
It wasn’t, Geralynn said, an accident. “My son took his life,” she said. “I don’t think. I know.”
This wasn’t the Michael that she remembers. Geralynn, in her late 60s, holds open a photo album falling apart at the binding.
Snapshot: Michael, the baby, with a bottle in his mouth.
Snapshot: Michael, at about 5 years old, smiling broadly, his shirt collar buttoned to the top.
Snapshot: Michael, a kid on a baseball team, grinning.
Michael took to the outdoors and skiing right from the beginning, way back when he was a toddler growing up in Michigan, in Ortonville, Franklin and Troy.
Brandon, his cousin, distinctly remembers those early days; they grew up together. “He was a really good dude,” Brandon said in an interview for this story. The two boys would build little ski jumps and “road gaps,” over which they’d leap.
In one of their last conversations, Brandon remembers Michael talking about the idea of buying some property up in the Colorado mountains. He’d build a cabin, culling timber from the surrounding trees.
“There was a silent, deep person in him,” said his sister who goes by the name Jenna Justice and is three years Michael’s senior. “…He was a magical person. He should never have gone through this.”
Geralynn, his mother, thinks back to a recent memory, of summer, on a sweltering day. She happened to be passing by the picture window at the front of the house in Colorado when she caught a glimpse of Michael outside, working on the brakes of his truck. She paused, watching her son, a grown man now, a father to a little boy, M.J. Michael wasn’t just a landscaper. He plowed snow. He did electrical work, plumbing, carpentry. Even more, he worked as a member of a search and rescue team to save people’s lives. He’d go up into the passes with Vito, his German Shepherd, because that was who he was and this was his natural habitat—the quiet and solitude and purity of the snow and the mountains; he loved the Tetons.
“The best way to die,” he’d tell his mother, “is in an avalanche.”
“That’s what he always said,” she said. “He was a back mountain man.”
But what she observed through that window that day was something else, while Michael—a fit figure—worked on his truck brakes.
“When I would look at him,” she said, “and this is being honest, I was so proud: My God, I had the most beautiful son.”
Covid delayed the trial for months. Authorities refused to dismiss the charges until they received a certified copy of his autopsy from his lawyer. “I was told in order to dismiss it, they needed the death certificate,” recalls Trefonas, Michael’s attorney, who went ahead and filed the paperwork to obtain the death certificate. “I’ve never had to do that before.”
With Michael’s passing, the case never went to trial.
Geralynn holds a small heart-shaped wooden urn within which sit Michael’s ashes. Etched on the front is a wolf, howling, signifying something about the call of the wild, into the wilderness, where Michael was most at home.
Geralynn intends to spread his ashes out there, among the tallest peaks, when the mountain passes open.
“I miss my son so much,” Geralynn said. “He didn’t deserve it at all. My son should not have died. He couldn’t take it anymore.”