Friday, March 27, 2015

[REDACTED] Giveaway

UPDATE: The winner of the book giveaway was chosen. Thanks to everyone who entered. Next week we will spotlight the final case from our Michigan State Police local unsolved homicides list: William "Billy" Essex

Today I'm giving away a paperback copy of [REDACTED] and all you have to do is click HERE to enter. You must have an Amazon account to enter.

Good luck! 

If you or anyone you know has information related to the murder of Janette Roberson, please contact:

Detective Sgt. Mike Stephens 
Mt. Pleasant Post-Special Investigations Section
​Michigan State Police
​Office: 989-773-5951

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nicholas Beebe

Eighteen year old Nicholas Beebe was shot through a window on May 12, 2006 at his residence. According to Beebe’s mother, he was sleeping on one of the couches in the home, with his girlfriend asleep on the other when she was awakened by what she described as the sound of “firecrackers.”

“It’s a slow process as with any major case,” said Osceola County Undersheriff Dave Fowler in 2006. “The key emphasis is going to be thoroughness instead of rushing to judgment.” Police had a ton of leads, Fowler said.

What Richielene Beebe remembers from that awful night almost nine years ago is that it was Mother’s Day weekend and she got a call around three in the morning from a relative of Nick’s girlfriend. “Nick’s been shot…”

She jumped out of bed, didn’t even change the jogging pants she had on, got into her car, and drove the ten miles to Nick’s house. She found an ambulance parked on the corner.

“Are you going to Nick Beebe’s? Are you looking for the boy who was shot?" she asked them.

They told her they couldn’t enter the scene until police had secured it for entry.

“I’m his mom, I’m going in…”

Of course that was her response. That's exactly what I would have said if my son was in there and I was told he'd been shot. She confided that at that time, it never occurred to her Nick was dead. She thought there had been an accident or something. She figured she’d be following an ambulance to a hospital and sitting at the Emergency Room all night. The enormity of the situation hadn’t yet hit her. She pulled up to the house and there was a police car in the driveway. She went to the back door and two deputies shined flashlights on her as she went to step inside. They told her she couldn’t come in.

“That’s my son. He needs me. I have to see him.” She still didn’t know.

The deputy told her to go stand by the police car, but it was dark and she didn’t feel safe so she sat in her car and waited. I can't even imagine what she must have been feeling. My kid has been shot and you want me to wait? I'm certain every instinct in her was screaming to get inside that house right now, but instead, she was sitting in her car alone in the dark. Waiting...

Sometime in the days to follow, she got the story from Nick’s girlfriend.  She said Shiann Ankney told her she was awakened by a “firecracker noise” and then she heard a vehicle drive away. She tried to wake Nick by shaking him but he wouldn’t wake up.

In 2009, three years after the murder, Osceola County sought assistance from Michigan State Police. I submitted a FOIA request to the Osceola Sheriff's Department for their first responder's report from the date of the incident. It was denied in full.

"The Sheriff's Department has indicated this is an open case and the records cannot be released at this time. They have indicated you may call them at (231)832-2288 after some time passes to obtain a status update."

“It’s a small town. A lot of people don’t want to speak out of fear,”  Richielene Beebe told me. “Friends of friends… that’s how small towns are. But somebody knows something.”

If you or anyone you know has information that could be of assistance in the investigation into the murder of Nicholas Beebe, please contact Detective Sgt. George Pratt at the Osceola County Sheriff's Department - (231)832-2288.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sue Clason

Sue Clason

Sue Clason was an agent with Century 21 in Cadillac, Michigan and was murdered while showing property in Osceola County on September 11th, 1984. "Mrs. B"* lived across the road from this property - a fairly secluded location where the realtor escorted the man who pretended to be a potential buyer and saw both Sue Clason and the man who killed her.

(*NOTE: I have REDACTED witness names to a first name/last initial format.)

Mrs. B's granddaughter told me that her grandparents’ house overlooked two ponds and the front of the house was mostly windows with a great outdoor view. Her grandmother told her that on the day in question she was cleaning the front living room and noticed a car pull into the property for sale. She grabbed her binoculars to get a look at what was going on and noticed a man and woman getting out of a car. After that, Mrs. B went back to her cleaning, but shortly thereafter heard a shot ring out. As the day wore on, she felt as if something wasn’t right. So much so that when her husband came home from work, she asked him to go over and check it out. As husbands often do, he told her it was probably nothing. 

So Mr. & Mrs. B went into town and had dinner, but it ate at her the whole time, that shot… When they got home she again asked her husband to go check things out. He headed out to feed the geese and ducks on the pond and then decided to humor her, jumping into his truck and driving over. He was looking at a group of deer in the field when he almost ran over what would eventually be identified as the body of Sue Clason.

Mrs. B's granddaughter told me that her grandmother lived in fear for a very long time, a loaded gun never far from her side. 

Because Sue Clason was another attractive female who was murdered around the time Janette Roberson was murdered in Reed City, there has always been concern on the part of residents as to whether the crimes were committed by the same perpetrator. While researching Janette's case, I was asked about Ms. Clason many times, so I have ordered more documents related to this case from Michigan State Police and will update this blog if/when I receive them. 

Below are news articles that show at one point law enforcement was trying to decide whether her murder was linked to that of a serial killer named Gary Robbins.

When I spoke to Detective Sgt. George Pratt, I asked him about it and he said Sue Clason’s case was determined to not be attributed to Gary Robbins. Based on the “25 points of similarity” mentioned in the article above, it appears the MO of the perpetrator and/or the injuries in the Clason murder are similar to that of Robbins' victims.

So far, I have been able to get a copy of the first responder's report on the Clason murder. The following information is contained therein:

(NOTE: These, as well as most of the other unsolved homicide reports associated with the Reed City area, were set to me almost completely unredacted, unlike the Janette Roberson file.)

"At 7:30 pm this date [Sept. 11, 1984] the complainant, WALTER W, contacted Tpr. ROBERT TAYLOR who was at the Reed City Post via telephone and advised that his neighbor had found a body across the road from his property. Tprs. JOHN RICHARDS and ROBERT TAYLOR were dispatched to the scene and made contact with Mr. W at his residence on Eighth Street which is approximately two miles east of the scene. At 7:46pm. Tpr. RICHARDS met with the complainant and SCOTTY B and was led to the driveway of the B's property which is approximately 50 feet east of the driveway leading to the "J" property*."

[*The property where the body was found, which was for sale at the time.]

"It was learned from the complainant that he did not have any actual knowledge of the body but only made the phone call to the post by request of Mr. B. "SCOTTY" B advised that at approximately 7pm this date he drove onto the "J" property because of what his wife had told him she had heard and observed earlier this date. Mr. B advised he drove up the driveway of the "J" property to almost the rear of the vacant residence. He observed a body laying in the tall grass and weeds and without getting out of his vehicle exited the property by turning around and going out the same way he came in. Mr. B advised that he had no home telephone so he turned westward on Eighth Street going to the ANDY and MARSHA N residence which is further westward from the "J" property situated on the south side to use their telephone. Also, Mr. N is a part-time employee of the Lake County Sheriff's Department. After finding no one home at this residence he then drove eastward on Eighth Street, passing the scene, going to the residence of KENNETH S also on Eighth Street being approximately two miles east of the scene who is a Lake County Sheriff's Department sergeant. Again, he could not rouse anyone at this residence, then drove to the "W" residence which is across the street from the "S" home. At this time it was learned from Mr. B that to his knowledge no one had checked the body for any determination as to the status."

Detective Sgt. Pratt and Tpr. Richards then walked to the scene and found "the body of a believed white female lying in the tall grass and weeds in a prone position with her head pointed in a northerly direction and feet in a southerly direction. She was clothed however her clothing was disarranged and there was what is believed to have been blood visible in the back of the head area and on the off-white blouse being worn by her. A check was made for any signs of life however she was cold to the touch and no arterial pulse could be felt."

The wife of SCOTTY B was then interviewed by Detective Pratt as Tpr. Richards stayed with the body to protect the area.

"HELEN B, wife of SCOTTY B, was interviewed. She advised that at approximately 1pm her husband left their residence to return to work and she walked to the mailbox which is situated on the north side of Eighth Street approximately 25' west of the west edge of the "J" driveway and picked up her mail. She advised that she returned to their residence, did some household chores which included the dishes, and sat down in their living room area to read the mail and newspaper. After sitting down she observed a yellow vehicle which she described as a four door and large with two people in it come from the east going westward very slow. She next saw the vehicle coming from the west and observed it enter the "J" driveway on the north side of Eighth Street. Mrs. B advised that she had an eerie feeling that could not be described and after hearing a single gunshot she obtained her binoculars and going outside began to watch in the area of the "J" property/vacant residence. She advised that the car had pulled in facing westward in the drive of the "J" property towards the rear of the vacant home and she observed what she believed to be a white male who was bald headed with hair on the sides of his head near the car then walk towards the house and return doing what appeared to her as if putting something on the dash. At this time the vehicle began to leave and she re-entered her home observing what she thought to be only one person in the vehicle exit the "J" property driveway and go eastward on Eighth Street. Mrs. B advised that she could not explain the eerie feeling she had nor what called her attention to this particular vehicle as vehicles commonly go in and out of the "J" property and she also advised that there have been shots fired over there previously. Generally when shots are fired there is more than one and the single gunfire to her was uncommon. She described this as not being very loud and did not think it was a high powered rifle or shotgun. Mrs. B was not certain who was in the vehicle and whether or not they were male or female. She could only say that she saw a white male standing next to the vehicle when it was parked towards the rear of the vacant house."

It was noted that "her clothing appears to be on the expensive side and she had several pieces of what appeared to be expensive jewelry. No purse or other identification was found at the scene." 

"At approximately 4:45am on 9-12-84, information was learned that the vehicle of SUE CLASON who was known to post personnel of the Cadillac Post was believed to be located within the City of Cadillac. The undersigned [Det. Sgt. George Pratt] travelled to Cadillac and contacted D/Sgt. CHAPPEL who was at the vehicle's location on Power's Street which is approximately one-half block north of the Giantway Complex on the east side of west 131 and approximately three blocks south of the Century 21 office located at 1037 N. Mitchell (W 131) Cadillac, Michigan. The vehicle was parked on the south side of Powers Street just to the west of Benedict Court which is approximately one-half block east of US-131. The vehicle was parked in front of a vacant building which belongs to a building complex next to the Plaza Hair Studio which carries an address of 860B N. Mitchell Street. The vehicle appeared to have been driven into the parking spot which is the first actual lined parking spot to the west of Benedict Court from the west, ie. the vehicle travelled east-ward on Powers Street leading into the parking spot. The vehicle, a yellow colored 1977 four door Lincoln Continental... is registered to a VINA S. CLASON."

Sue drove a 1977 Lincoln like this one that day.

The vehicle was towed to the garage of the Cadillac Post for processing by the crime lab. An autopsy was performed on September 12, 1984 by Dr. Stephen Cohle, MD, Forensic Pathologist. 

Regarding the autopsy, Detective Pratt made these notations:

"The body in the fully clothed condition as found was checked utilizing a black light for any pieces of evidence with a stain being located on the right frontal ankle area of the victim's pantyhose. Subsequently, with the clothing removed, the body was again checked with the black light with the only area showing any fluorescence was the same area, the right frontal ankle area."

"The blouse was torn in the lower frontal portion of the right sleeve approximately six inches. All buttons to this blouse were still intact. There were several visible reddish-brown believed to be blood stains on this garment."

"The victim wore expensive appearing jewelry which included three gold chain-like necklaces around her neck; gold circular pierced-ear earrings; on her left wrist she wore a silver colored Bulova wristwatch with diamond-like stones appearing on each side of the face; on her left ring finger she wore a large oval shaped turquoise stone silver colored ring; on her left little finger she wore a believed white-gold ring with a single diamond-like stone in the center of it; on her right wrist she wore a gold colored single strand thin chain-like bracelet; and on her right ring finger was a yellow-gold type ring containing three diamond-like stones."

I think we can make an educated assumption, based on the jewelry left with the victim, that robbery was not the motive here.

"The clothing failed to reveal any type of dirt or grass staining it is believed would have been there in the event the victim had been dragged. As previously mentioned the right sleeve area of the blouse was torn approximately six inches and there was a snag mark approximately four inches long underneath the left great toe area. In addition to these two small, approximately 1/8 inch in diameter holes approximately mid-lower leg high were observed in the pantyhose near abrasions of both legs (left and right) beneath this area. The cause of these abrasions are unknown."

"There was a large contusion involving the right side of the face with smaller patterned contusions consisting of parallel linear contusions separated by 1/8 inch of uninvolved skin. These parallel contusions extend onto the upper eyelid and the lower part of the orbit in the right cheekbone area. There is a large abrasion on the bridge of the nose but the nose is not fractured. Another large abrasion is on the right side of the nose and also abrasions and contusions within the oral cavity."

Sue Clason had multiple injuries including evidence of manual strangulation and a single bullet wound to the back of the head. Also, "A large bruise or contusion was found on the inner aspect of the left upper arm consistent with having one's hand clamped/grasped around that part of the arm."

The cause of death was listed as a single gunshot wound to the head; manner of death, homicide.

Evidence from the victim's clothing, as well as scientific evidence (orifice swabs) collected at autopsy, along with hair, nail clippings and "slides of unknown particles along with believed gun powder and the bullet [were] removed from the victim..." and turned over to the East Lansing Crime Lab.

In her car was found Sue Clason's purse "containing personal papers and identification, a Michigan operator's license, social security card and birth record." Just over ten dollars and change was also found in her purse, along with cigarettes, a pair of prescription glasses bearing her initials, and a checkbook with a notation in the register of the last check written to "Merrill's.*"

[* This was a gas station where Sue Clason was seen that day with the perpetrator.]

On September 13th, police searched the house Clason lived in with her son "in an effort to come up with a lead in this matter." They were looking at tax records, cancelled checks and "other writings found in the area of the home, including the victim's bedroom."

That day they also arranged with the co-owner of Century 21 on N. Mitchell St. in Cadillac to "obtain any records from the victim's desk at their office. Nothing was found to be of value, but copies of the two properties that were believed to be shown by the victim SUE CLASON to the possible suspect, the "J"  property... where the victim's body was found and the property of JOHN  M located approximately one-quarter mile east of Raymond Road to the north of 3 1/2 Mile Road... were obtained."

OLLIN C, former owner of the Century 21 office in Cadillac - employed at the time as regional manager for Century 21 in Indiana and Kentucky - was met with. 

"It was learned from Mr. C that SUE CLASON had worked for him for four years before he left the area and that he had asked Sue to marry him."

It was learned from fellow employees that "On September 11, 1984, the victim left the office with the possible suspect approximately 1:15 to 1:20pm and was to be back in two hours, as it would have been her turn to work on the floor. At the time she left GAIL K was working the floor along with LONNIE G who actually was gone at the time the possible suspect appeared."


On September 13th, GAIL K and VELMA R assisted Det/Lt. GARY POWELL of MSP Technical Services in producing a composite sketch of the subject.

"The suspect is described as a white male, 45 to 50 years old, 5'8" to 5'10', 180-200lbs. clean shaven, clean, round teddy bear face with either wire rimmed glasses or light colored frames, dark hair that was bushy in the back, suntanned skin, wearing a light brown with a darker brown band roll-up type hat, a tan colored waist length with elastic around the waist zippered spring/fall type jacket, dark brown casual slacks, and was soft spoken."

Police did a great deal of work between the 13th and October 9th - the date of the next supplemental - including administering lie detector tests and getting background information on Ms. Clason as far as her work and finances. On October 9th, 1984, "Due to the investigative leads in this case beginning to slow without a determination as to who may have committed the murder, hypnosis was discussed as a means of developing additional leads."

Case law with regard to hypnosis was researched and discussed among the investigation officers in charge of the case and it was decided to use it as a tool with GAIL K, one of the Century 21 employees who had seen the suspect. She gave a tape recorded statement prior to the hypnosis session, which was described as being "very little difference in the information obtained this date from that previously, although Mrs. K did go into more detail as to what occurred in the office during the time the suspect was there."

On October 12, 1984 GAIL K underwent hypnosis administered by D/Lt. GARY POWELL of the MSP Technical Services Bureau, a Forensic Hypnotist.

"The session, which lasted from approximately 1:45 to approximately 3:18pm including the pre-session and post-session briefings, was recorded and will be transcribed. Under the hypnosis, Mrs. K was able to take herself back to the early afternoon of September 11th and provide information as to what occurred at that time."

"The suspect was described under hypnosis by Mrs. K as a white male in his fifties (like her father), not real tall 5'11" at most, heavyset - stocky not fat - like he may work outside or exercise, a little round heavy set face, he wore a dark brown hat like a dress hat with a narrow brim that curled up on the edges and was indented above the brim forming a rounded point in front, he had on gold colored wire rimmed glasses with rectangular lenses with rounded corners, dark eyes but not blue, a tan colored zippered close to the throat waist-length jacket, dark brown believed to be corduroy pants, brown colored lace-up oxfords that were nice looking but dusty, he carried the paper with SUE'S ad in his left hand, his hands were clean and large, his hair was dark brown with gray in it and it curled around on the back of his neck/hat - it was mid collar in length - he looked like he needed a hair cut - it was unruly, he spoke in a low soft gravelly voice."

"In addition to being quite explicit as to what occurred while the suspect was in the office, Mrs. K heard SUE ask him what his name was and she said '--?ON whitm? - something that starts with a WHITmmmm, JOHN WHITMAN?' Under hypnosis GAIL thought she saw SUE writing something down on her yellow pad described as from Michigan Bell Telephone with Century 21 on it. SUE asked him where he was from and he said JACKSON. When GAIL was asked the name she heard the suspect say, she said JOHN WITNER (sp?)"

"As Mrs. K was involved in the original composite she was asked if she would change any details of it. While still under hypnosis she looked at the composite she previously made and said the face should be rounder, cheeks puffier but not fat, thinner lips with a droop at the ends like a frown, wider nose at the bridge, a change in the hat with the brim rolled up on the edge, and the different style with it being pulled down touching the ears causing them to stick out."

After the hypnosis, the second composite sketch was made based on the changes, and along with a "revised suspect description" was released on October 12, 1984 to the news media throughout the state.

Also, a photo ID book was established and photos regularly added. Witnesses were requested, and did, look at the book more than once during this time, with no photos identified as the perpetrator.

On December 28, 1984 there is mention of a report received from the Serology Unity of MSP in East Lansing, "however indication was not listed that certain testing as requested had been done so Assistant Lab Commander FRANK SCHERR was contacted and it again was requested that this testing be done." This was with regard to that unidentified spot near the right ankle that was picked up by the black light.


"As of this writing [January 22, 1984] 106 requests for comparison of individuals prints either submitted or on file have been made with 64 of these being completed and no identification being made with the latent prints obtained in this case."

Under REMARKS on this date: "Investigators are reviewing this case including responses from out of state agencies with similar cases to see if during the initial phase of this investigation something may have been overlooked that would assist in solving this crime."

On January 23rd, 1985 Det/Sgt. Pratt contacted FRANK SCHERR again regarding the stain on the victim's pantyhose. "FRANK advised he told CURT FLUKER to do it as it was requested (ID the stain) but he didn't know what had occurred. He referred me [Pratt] to CURT who advised he would get on it."

On January 28th the lab in East Lansing called regarding all of the blood stains found on the victim's clothing. "...he advised that all blood stains were of the same type as that of the victim."

"The unknown stain on the right ankle area of the victim's pantyhose has been determined not to be semen or saliva however it has not been identified as to what it is. It was requested than an identification of this stain be made."

In March of 1985 the MSP report notes that "The tips have become sparse with only 13 being received with several of those assigned by Task Force officers to out-of-state similar case investigations that are being looked into." 

On April 9th, 1985 Detective Pratt again contacted the lab in reference to the unidentified stain. "He [Lt/Spl. ROGER BOLTHOUSE] advised that it could not be identified as to what caused the stain but that it could be human." He noted that he was going to get with his Lab Commander about sending the work out to another lab because "they had gone as far as possible in attempting to ID it."

In June Detective Pratt tried again. He was advised that the stain "will be sent to a private lab in Chicago for further testing. If it can be identified, this is the lab that can do it."

On October 23, 1985, Detective Pratt received a call from BOLTHOUSE who "advised that the independent lab was unable to determine anything more than the Crime Laboratory. He advised that nothing more can be done with the stain."

That had to feel like crap. Imagine, you're the lead detective, you've been hounding the lab for months about the one possible piece of evidence that could bring some fresh information about the case and then you're told, That's it. We're done.

By November 1985 the Investigative Resources Unit had forwarded several possible suspects for consideration, but none were found to "fall within the physical category as that of the suspect in this case."

There were multiple suspects followed up on who had murdered real estate persons in other states, as with Gary Robbins above, all to no avail.

The last line in the November 1, 1985 supplemental (a little over a year after the murder of Sue Clason) is as follows:

"Although several tips are yet to be followed up, there are no good leads in this case at this time."

NOTE: Because, as I earlier mentioned, this is the one case I got asked about repeatedly while working on Janette's case for the book, I have sent a FOIA request to Lansing for the remainder of what they maintain on this case, and will update the blog if new information is received.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Reed City's Unsolved Homicides

According to Michigan State Police, from 1970 to present there are 7 unsolved homicides attributed to the Reed City MSP Post, (now Mt. Pleasant – the Reed City building is currently a detachment). I started researching what goes into the solvability of a case in an effort to determine if I thought Janette’s had a chance, based on what I knew, which, admittedly, isn’t as much as I’d like.

In 2007—using information collected from a conference which included more than 100 law enforcement and related personnel including chiefs, commanders, detectives, crime scene personnel, crime analysts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys—The Police Executive Research Forum, in conjunction with the US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services put together a report titled Promoting Effective Homicide Investigations. This was a collective effort to determine strategies for raising the national clearance rate by pinpointing areas of concern.

What is a clearance rate, you ask? Well, a clearance rate is the percentage of cases that are closed and it is determined by dividing the total number of homicides reported in a year by the number of arrests and “exceptional means” homicides. An exceptional clearance is made when an investigation has established an offender, there’s enough information to support an arrest charge, and the location of the offender is known, but there is a reason outside police control that prevents arresting, charging, and prosecuting the offender. This happens, for example, if the offender has died.

While the number of homicides in the US has fluctuated since the 1960s, the number of homicides being solved has decreased in that time by around 30%. What this means is that, while the crime rate varies, the cases getting closed are markedly decreasing—something that doesn’t bode well for communities. From Promoting Effective Homicide Investigations:

In 1965, the average national clearance rate for homicide was 91%; in 1976 it was 79%; and in 2002 it was 64%. The decline in clearance rates may be the result of organizational changes in law enforcement agencies, including changes in the structure and placement of homicide units, decentralization, lack of resources, substantial turnover of experienced personnel, poor working relationships with prosecutors and crime labs, inability to keep pace with advances in forensic technology, and poor procedures for processing and analyzing evidence. Additionally, backlogs and heavy caseloads within crime labs and coroners’ offices may reduce investigative effectiveness. The length of time it takes to get results of DNA analysis leaves offenders on the street to perhaps kill again or become victims themselves.

Unsolved homicides have significant negative impact on family and friends of victims, but also the community. In order for residents to feel comfortable cooperating with officers during an investigation, there must be a level of trust with local law enforcement on the part of the community. A lack of trust can foster the opposite, and a lack of willingness to cooperate on the part of possible witnesses can hinder an investigation.

“Unsolved homicides effect communities by lowering the public’s confidence in police, increase fear in the community, and affect officer performance. Of course, the most important consequence of an unsolved homicide is that a killer remains free, able to commit additional murders. …as a result, police may encounter reluctance and resistance from possible witnesses who fear retaliation from an offender still on the loose.”

Another negative effect too many unsolved homicides risk is invalidating any possible deterrence effect. When the clearance rate decreases, it tells criminals our justice system is unable to hold them accountable—that they can literally get away with murder. When the public sees this happening on a regular basis, any hope of deterrence being a factor in someone not committing a crime can be expected to deteriorate. To complete the vicious cycle, all of this contributes negatively to officer performance due to lack of resources, morale, and pressure from their superiors and the community.

Cold case units play a large part in breaking the cycle illustrated above. But how do they decide which case(s) from the pile to tackle first? The answer is solvability. Remember, there’s usually not just one old, unsolved case investigators are dealing with. In some places, the cold case pile is literally that, a pile. At some point, as sad as it is, this pile of unsolved cases—each with a victim and grieving family behind them—must first be organized into a list, at the top of which sit the cases that give the investigators the best chance of positive results.

Case closed! That’s what everybody wants, another bad guy taken off the street.

The criteria used by the Las Vegas Metro PD when choosing cold cases to re-investigate includes a five point solvability scale. Their Level 1—top priority cases—have a named suspect, forensic evidence (DNA, latent fingerprint, firearms ballistics), witness identification of the suspect, and physical evidence that connects the suspect to the victim (photos, writing, fibers). This gives investigators a great deal to work with.

Level 2 cases would have all of the above except a named suspect, but would still require physical evidence connecting the suspect to the victim. This means, they have all that stuff to work with, but no suspects or persons of interest have been identified.

At Level 3, the suspect is unknown and while there might be physical and forensic evidence, there are no witnesses.

Levels 4 and 5 both have an unidentified victim and little or no evidence. Suffice to say you don’t want the case you’re rooting for in the Level 4-5 range.

It has to be a gruesome task for investigators, picking and choosing who you will put all of your effort and resources into getting justice for, when it is something every victim and their family deserves. When we say resources, though, we mean money and manpower, and the only way to effectively make those decisions is to pick the cases you believe have the best chance of being closed.

Does viable physical evidence exist? Are there any witnesses? Is the suspect living, dead, or incarcerated? Is there an opportunity for multiple clearances (meaning, is this a possible serial killer)? Has the case been presented to the prosecutor before and been denied for any reason? Once investigators answer all of these questions, they prioritize their list of unsolved cases based on the answers.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg PD has a process that’s been touted by the Department of Justice as having a good track record for cold case clearances. They have also received international awards. A civilian review team (retired members of law enforcement with differing areas of related expertise) review each case based on a set forth criteria, and then present each at a monthly meeting to the entire cold case team according to a strict format:

-summary of crime
-Medical Examiners report
-evidence and/or property collected
-lab reports
-witness locations
-parallel investigations
-potential suspects
-recommended follow-up

The case is then discussed with the entire team and a solvability rating from 1 to 5 is assigned. When available, former detectives on each case are present because they’re an invaluable resource, particularly on very old cases. Some things don’t make it into the official reports. There will always be subtle nuances and small details that only the former investigators on a case will be able to convey. As they say, sometimes the devil truly is in the details.

So the civilian review team has done the initial legwork for active investigators. At this point, a DNA lab staff member is assigned to the team to get evidence processed as quickly as possible. The next step is meeting with witnesses again. Particularly with older cases, this is important because often with the passage of time, folks who were once reluctant to talk are now willing to cooperate. Time passes; people age. Where once a witness was afraid to come forward, now they’re older and enough time has passed for them to process it. They may decide there’s no longer a reason to remain quiet.

Engaging the community is important. Tapping into knowledge that others may have through personal relationships or secondhand gossip might shed light where there was once only murkiness. Police use media resources to their advantage as well. Human interest stories featuring details of the case and interviews with family generate interest from the public and get folks talking about the case again, sharing what they remember.

When I spoke to MSPs District 6 Inspector, Cam Henke, and he told me the next cold case he assigned a team to would be from the Reed City list, we discussed solvability as being one of the key determining factors. I wanted him to choose Janette’s case and I was trying to assess, based on solvability (and what little I knew) whether it had a shot. I wanted her to have that shot. The shot. The next one, like right now. Let’s get this done.

Pick her. Pick Janette Roberson.

It feels bad to write that, now. I wanted him to pick Janette’s name from the list of others I’d gotten from the Michigan State Police, but behind every one of those unsolved cases is someone who would wish the same for their loved one. Each case, at its heart, is about a person, and those people have names.

Pick Sue; Pick Nick; Pick Esther; Pick Tom; Pick Billy... I can almost hear their family members’ pleas. I keep a list of the open homicide cases attributed to Reed City on my desk—Burton Scott, Janette Roberson, Sue Clason, Thomas Hancock, William Essex, Esther Gaffney, and Nicholas Beebe—and decided to learn more about each case because they, too, deserve justice.

You've read about some of them already, and I plan to update each if and when I get more information. I will spotlight three more in the coming weeks: Sue Clason, Nick Beebe and William (Billy) Essex.