Doug Emery felt his world spin out of control as federal investigators grilled him about the grisly, cold-case killing of his best Navy buddy two decades ago.

Emery said investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service claimed they had strong evidence tying him to the 1992 killing of James Horton, who was abducted, gang-raped, shot and left to die in Berkeley County. Fess up, they told him, and authorities might go easy on him, Emery said.

“I was super scared,” Emery recalled of the July 2010 interrogation. “I told them, ‘I'd love to save my skin, but I can't tell you what I don't know.'?”

The session marked the start of Emery's nearly 18-month odyssey through the criminal justice system, fighting allegations that could have sent him to prison for life.

The 41-year-old Kansas man recently won that battle when prosecutors opted to drop charges of murder, kidnapping and rape against him for lack of evidence. But in the process of proving his innocence, Emery said he lost his marriage, a prime assignment in the Army Reserve and 10 months of his life to jail.

Emery and his attorneys, Columbia lawyers Jonathan Milling and John Delgado, blame his tribulations on what they consider to be a sloppy investigation by overzealous NCIS agents, who received national Top Cop awards for their work on the case.

“The charges against (Emery) were completely fabricated,” Milling said.

Milling said investigators went after Emery solely on the word of an unreliable co-defendant, then sat on DNA test results that could have cleared his name months before charges were eventually dropped.

Those claims raise fresh questions about the NCIS' handling of the Horton case as prosecutors prepare to take Emery's three former co-defendants to trial. No firm date has been set.

Local investigators had nothing new to say about the case. And the lead federal investigator, NCIS Agent Stanley Garland, referred questions to his agency's public affairs office in Washington, D.C. NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said the agency had no comment.

A mysterious death

Mystery long shrouded the death of Horton, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the ocean minesweeper Exultant at the former Charleston Naval Base.

Horton's case began on Nov. 14, 1992, when his body was found in a drainage ditch off Sheep Island Road. He lay face down in about 4 feet of water with his hands tied behind his back. He had been shot in the chest, struck on the head with a blunt object and sexually assaulted, authorities said.

The killing stunned Emery, who had seen Horton in a club the same night he disappeared. His good friend seemed fine that night, not at all stressed, Emery recalled.

As news of the killing sunk in, Emery recalled a recent run-in Horton had with Emery's roommate, sailor Thomas Solheim. Horton had walked in on Solheim having sex with another male sailor, he said.

If that news got out, it would have sunk Solheim's Navy career, Emery said. Solheim was clearly angry, but no one thought he would resort to serious violence, he said.

Emery shared his story with investigators shortly after the killing. That gave investigators their only potential lead in the case, 9th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Greg Voigt said.

Emery went on to join the Marines, and he didn't hear much more about the investigation for the next several years.

NCIS investigators briefly questioned Emery once more, in 1996, while he was stationed in Okinawa, and again in 2009 after he returned home to California. The second time, they asked for a DNA sample, Emery said.

Emery said he willingly agreed, without a warrant, because he was anxious to clear up whatever questions they said.

New leads, arrests

Horton's case hit the fast track in July 2010 when a former sailor named Charles Welty opened up to sheriff's investigators in his hometown of Missoula, Mont.

Welty implicated himself and others in the attack on Horton, Voigt said. Welty did not identify Emery as a participant in the crime, he said.

The person who named Emery was Konnie Glidden of Goose Creek, Welty's former girlfriend, authorities said.

Glidden initially denied any involvement in the murder and provided numerous statements over the years, Voigt said. In May 2010, Glidden took a polygraph administered by the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office that showed no deception in her statements, he said.

But after Welty's arrest, Glidden gave investigators another statement in which she implicated herself, as well as Welty, Solheim and Emery, in Horton's murder, Voigt said.

Investigators didn't give Emery many specifics when they arrested him that July, 12 days after he got married. Emery had been preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan with the Army Reserve to serve as personal bodyguard to a lieutenant colonel.

All that fell by the wayside as investigators hauled Emery and his co-defendants to Berkeley County. Arrest warrants accused the three men of kidnapping Horton from North Charleston, then sodomizing him and forcing him to have sex with Glidden before he was fatally shot.

Emery soon found himself in front of a bond court judge, who denied him bail. He said he welled up with tears as Horton's sister demanded justice.

“To have my best friend's sister say that she thought I did this was the icing on the cake,” he said. “It really hurt.”

Losing in lock-up

Emery spent the next 10 months locked up in the Berkeley County jail. His marriage fell apart, his Afghanistan assignment went to someone else, and his parents all but depleted their retirement savings paying for his defense, Emery said. “I just felt so powerless,” he said.

Emery said he heard nothing about the DNA sample he had provided in 2009, and was surprised when an investigator came to the jail to collect a second sample.

As his lawyers dug into the case, they found a number of inconsistencies in Glidden's statement to investigators, which they learned had been obtained with the help of a psychic. She got basic details of Emery's description wrong and provided contradictory accounts of his actions that night, Milling said.

Milling said investigators got the results of the second DNA test in October 2010, and they excluded Emery from samples found on a rope used to bind Horton. But Garland, the NCIS investigator, didn't share those results with the defense until April of last year, according to court papers. The finding helped spring Emery from jail a month later.

In June, Garland traveled to Washington, D.C., with investigators from Berkeley County, New York and Montana to be honored with a Top Cop award for solving the case. President Barack Obama hosted the honorees at the White House, and the group was lauded for its “painstaking and unrelenting investigation.”

Six months later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Emery after his lawyers filed a motion to dismiss. Prosecutors said further investigation was unable to confirm key details of Glidden's statement regarding Emery's role in the crime.

Voigt had this to say in a written statement about the case:

“DNA evidence from the scene of Horton's murder failed to confirm the presence of Emery's DNA profile on the sample. No other witnesses place Emery at or near the place of Horton's murder. No witnesses supply a motive or reason for Emery to participate in the killing of Horton.

No physical evidence seized during the nearly twenty-year pendency of the criminal investigation links Emery to the murder. Although the allegations against Emery made by Glidden are deeply troubling, they alone do not constitute the necessary proof beyond a reasonable doubt needed to secure a conviction against Emery.”

A new start

Emery is now living in Kansas and back in the Army Reserve, where he is a sergeant. It appears his military career is back on the track. But as for the rest of his life, he's not so sure.

Emery, a maintenance mechanic by trade, said he gets jumpy whenever he sees a law enforcement officer. He feels guilty that his parents are struggling financially after spending $125,000 on his defense. And he is trying to shed the anger toward those who locked him up.

“It's getting better,” he said. “My blood pressure spikes just a little bit now.”

He hopes Horton's family will come to believe in his innocence, as some of his former shipmates have. “That would be huge,” he said.

Horton's mother, Rosaline Horton of Sherburne, N.Y., was disappointed to learn that the charges had been dropped, and said she remains convinced that Emery had something to do with her son's murder.

Horton said her family just wants closure. “I will just be glad when it's all over.”

Emery said he too hopes they find the answers they seek and that justice is done. “Horton's mom deserves peace. Horton's family deserves peace,” he said. “But it should not come at the expense of my life.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.