Last December, bathed in the blinding glow of television lights, Dale Helmig emerged into a new and promising chapter of his life.
But the lengthy prison stint he left behind continues to plague the mid-Missouri man and his efforts to move beyond the wrongful murder conviction that put him there.
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Despite the publicity and support from countless well-wishers, Helmig has been unable to find what he needs most: a job.
At age 55, with a 15-year gap in his resume, Helmig has had to contend with a lousy economy and the reluctance of employers to hire a former prison inmate.
“I’m still in limbo,” Helmig said recently. “I can’t move forward and get on with my life until I find a job and get my own place.”
Since his release from prison last Dec. 13, Helmig has been staying with his brother in Rocky Mount, near the Lake of the Ozarks.
Rich Helmig has staunchly supported his brother since he was accused in the early 1990s of killing their mother. That includes through Dale’s murder conviction and imprisonment and ultimately successful fight to clear his name.
Sean O’Brien, the Kansas City attorney and law school professor who led the legal fight to exonerate Helmig, said his client’s plight would be dire without that kind of support.
“If not for Rich he would be homeless,” O’Brien said.
Dale Helmig has had two factors working against him, O’Brien said.
“Coming out in this economy has been tough,” O’Brien said. “His biggest handicap is he’s very honest.”
Helmig doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s been in prison, but he also carries news clippings about his case that show that a judge found he was the victim of a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.”
Though freed in December by the judge’s order, Helmig had to await the outcome of the state’s appeal of that decision and the possibility he could be re-tried. In March, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision. And in August, the prosecutor in Osage County, where Norma Helmig was found dead in 1993, announced she would not re-try Dale Helmig.
Despite those positive developments, the job search has yet to pan out.
“Being in prison, no matter how you got there, is one mark against you,” Helmig said.
He uses a notebook to catalogue his search for a maintenance or janitorial position around the Lake of the Ozarks or in Jefferson City. He has about five pages of notes of where he has applied and made follow-up calls.
But Helmig is not the kind of person who likes to draw attention to himself, and he is reluctant to talk about his situation.
That hasn’t prevented him from accepting invitations to speak about his experiences to a number of legal groups and university classes.
And recently he was pleasantly surprised by a fund-raiser held for him by law school students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“That was very awesome,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Despite the frustrations, Helmig said he is grateful for every day of the last year.
“I’m just trying to enjoy my freedom,” he said.
And for Helmig, being free means fishing every chance he gets. Except for being released, it’s been the best part of 2011.
“Just being able to relax and go fishing with my brother,” he said.
O’Brien is impressed by the brothers’ fishing prowess. They never seem to have any problems catching their limit.
He has even suggested that they seriously consider going into business as fishing guides on the Lake of the Ozarks.
“They always seem to know where the fish are,” O’Brien said.