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Iowa developer borrowed friend’s car before death

Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 11:16 a.m. CST

IOWA CITY (AP) — A prominent Des Moines developer found dead in a scorched vehicle days after leaving federal prison had borrowed the car to check in with a parole officer and never returned, a friend said Tuesday.

Iowa authorities are investigating the death of 64-year-old Bobby Joe Knapp, whose body was found Sunday in the backseat of the burnt vehicle in rural western Iowa by a farmer checking his fields.

A police report released Tuesday showed that Knapp’s parole officer believed Knapp was “going to harm himself” after his March 26 disappearance touched off a search involving local, state and federal agencies. Neil Henderson of Waukee, a lifelong friend of Knapp’s, said that Knapp remained angry about the prosecution that sent him to prison and concerned about how he would make a living.

Special Agent in Charge Mike Motsinger of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said the cause and manner of Knapp’s death remain under investigation. He said Knapp did not have any gunshot wounds. The medical examiner is awaiting toxicology and other lab results before making a final determination, which could take weeks.

“We don’t feel there is any danger to the public,” Motsinger said.

Knapp left the federal prison in Duluth, Minn., on March 25 after serving more than 2½ years following his 2011 conviction for environmental violations.

Prosecutors said Knapp conspired with a construction manager to mishandle the removal of asbestos while renovating the Equitable Building, a downtown Des Moines landmark where he was building luxury condominiums and space to attract commercial tenants. Investigators said they directed workers to put asbestos-containing materials in an uncovered trash bin, exposing workers and tenants to large amounts of the dust that increases the risk of lung cancer and respiratory diseases. The Environmental Protection Agency praised Knapp’s 41-month prison sentence as a warning for other potential Clean Air Act violators.

Friends drove Knapp from the Duluth prison to Henderson’s home in suburban Des Moines, and Knapp stayed there on his first night of freedom. Knapp was to be on home confinement until late July, which meant that he was free to come and go as long as he was home by 10 p.m. and checked in with his parole officer, Henderson said.

The two discussed Knapp’s prosecution, and Knapp “didn’t think he got a fair shake,” Henderson said.

Knapp borrowed Henderson’s 1994 Honda Accord the next morning to attend a prearranged meeting with his parole officer in Des Moines.

“He left in good cheer in the morning,” Henderson said. “I was informed later in the day and evening that he was probably not coming back, by a friend that he had contacted.”

Henderson said he reported his vehicle as stolen to the Waukee Police Department the next day so police could issue an all-points-bulletin. The U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies were looking for Knapp by then.

Police in another Des Moines suburb, Johnston, looked for Knapp at his last known address. A phone company pinged Knapp’s cellphone, which traced him to around Panora, Iowa, not far from the field where he was found.

Henderson said Knapp’s death was a sad ending for a man he called a great developer, a music promoter who brought major acts to Des Moines, and a philanthropist who raised money to fight disease.

“I’m surprised the system doesn’t help people like that instead of just opening the door and shoving them out and saying, ‘goodbye’,” he said.

Chris Burke, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, said he didn’t know the details of Knapp’s home confinement restrictions, which are made on an individual basis.

“We’re anxious to find out what happened in this case,” he said.

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