“There are three reasons a case goes cold. Either they couldn’t solve it (no evidence or witnesses), they didn’t want to solve it, or someone screwed up.”
From The Restless Sleep – Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad (Stacy Horn, 2005)
That quote is pretty broad, but accurate, nonetheless.
All quiet on the western front is a phrase that originated during World War I and, in a nutshell, the book of the same name, written by Erich Maria Remarque, tells the story of how terrible war is and the personal implications for soldiers when they return home to live a normal life.
There are things you cannot unsee, things that leave you forever changed.
I often think about police investigators in the same way. Once you’ve seen the horrible things that one human being is capable of doing to another, there really is no way to erase it from your mind. It’s there forever; it becomes a part of who you are.
I understand this much more now that I have researched a great number of unsolved homicide cases. Solved homicide cases are one thing, and just has horrendous for family, friends, and community to process. Cases that linger for decades, unsolved, are quite another. The damage they do is incalculable.
No matter how much I move forward to research another case of someone violently taken from this earth, I still think about Janette when I close my eyes every night. I’m not sure why her case weighs so heavily on my heart, but I suspect it’s because I have too much information about her particular case rolling around in my head. When you look too closely at something as horrible as her murder was, it tends to sink ever deeper into your skin…into your head, into your DNA.
It’s in these times that I am more aware of how it must be for investigators who work on unsolved cases like this. How they have to take it home with them, despite what they may say about it just being a part of the job. I don’t really buy that. In a general sense, sure. You have to put your emotions aside to effectively work a case. But you also can’t be a good investigator without those emotions. Our humanity itself, our feelings and emotions, often bring us to important understandings of human behavior.
You can’t be human and not have it change you in some way, these gruesome deaths. It seeps into the cracks and crevices and it stays there, forever.
I only wish it was the same for the killer.
So, today I make a plea.
All is quiet on the western front with regard to Janette’s case. I haven’t heard anything new in months. When I move on to something else for a while, I always come back because I feel guilty for not trying harder. For not finding the thing, THAT thing investigators need to solve the case.
To be honest, I’m afraid too many days will go by and that sliver of window that’s open to the opportunity of solving her murder will slam closed. That thought haunts me.
What I’d like to do today is reestablish focus, but not on Janette. Today, let’s focus on the perpetrator of this crime. Because the one thing I know with 100% certainty is that someone knows.
Someone out there knows.
Janette Roberson was murdered in the middle of a work day on January 19, 1983. Her death certificate says she was pronounced dead at 4pm, though according to the EMT report, they arrived at 4:08pm and she was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The EMT seemed to think it hadn’t “just happened.”
The period of time that the police are looking at as far as when she was killed is between 1 and 4pm. I specify in the middle of a workday because I would like people to focus on a few very specific elements of this crime.
Let’s begin with why the perpetrator was there in the first place. Whoever did this wasn’t at work in the middle of the day, so that’s something to think about.
CAVEAT: Unless the perpetrator of this crime was already at work – meaning they were an employee, so they were already at the scene of the crime. Obviously, all employees would have been suspects, at least initially, because they had the means and opportunity to commit the crime. They were right there. They saw her every day. They established a relationship with her. They knew the ins and outs of the store, and on that day, they all would very likely have known who was located where in the store and what they were doing. It was a delivery day. Everyone was busy putting up stock.
Now, setting aside the employee aspect, why else would someone not be at work at that time of day?
Was it their day off?
Did they work the second or third shift?
Were they unemployed or retired at the time?
Were they between jobs?
Whoever committed this crime wasn’t at work that day (at least at that time) and had the means and opportunity to be in the Gambles pet department. They also had the physical ability to do a great deal of damage to her body, as well as the disposition to become enraged, spontaneously.
Another thing I want you to think about is how the killer got in and out of the store undetected.
This is important.
I have seen cases where a very violent crime was perpetrated by someone who didn’t get a lot of blood on them, but I think it very likely that the person who killed Janette Roberson did get some blood on them, given how much there was and what was done to her. If that was the case, either they did some cursory cleaning up before they went upstairs and exited out of either the front or back doors, or did something to camouflage whatever blood they may have had on their clothing. It was January, so we’re not talking shorts and t-shirts, so maybe they had a coat they zipped up to cover a bloody shirt. Or, maybe they grabbed something nearby to cover themselves with.
At the time, prosecutor Talaske was quoted in the newspaper with this plea: “If anyone may have seen someone trying to get rid of something, or maybe even [saw] someone who had blood on their clothing—which I’m assuming would have been somewhat obvious—please call the state police post…”
This certainly suggests they believed it was a possibility that the perp had some blood on them.
In addition to having possibly seen anyone trying to get rid of something, I’d also ask you to consider anything that you saw that stood out that day, anything that could have been someone moving from one place to another while concealing their identity.
Finally, on that note, if the perp did take some items from the scene that were never recovered, that means they had to be carrying them out of the store with them. Perhaps in a bag, or hidden under their coat. Anyone carrying something out of the store or down the street or to their car after having exited the store (which seemed suspicious) would be someone to consider.
Now, how did they get out of the store undetected?
Many people came to me with stories about the underground tunnels and coal chutes, and how the killer could have perhaps scampered off underground, leaving the scene without ever having to go upstairs. I don’t believe that is the case, nor did I see any indication of that in my research. I spoke to multiple people who worked the crime scene that day, including an evidence technician that was present and completely processed the scene downstairs. He told me there was no mysterious tunnel access from which evidence was collected, and he had no indication that anyone got in or out in any way other than one of the three exits.
The reason I mention this is because conspiracy theories like this often keep witnesses with possible information from coming forward because they believe, or were led to believe, what they know or saw isn’t related. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book – to distinguish the fact from fiction in this case. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories HURT cases because they distract possible witnesses from what really happened.
Sometimes these kinds of theories are the result of the imagination of the public, coupled with natural curiosity, in the absence of any information about what really happened. Sometimes, though, they’re the result of people purposely putting misleading information out there to muddy the waters.
If I haven’t made myself clear in this regard, let me do so, now. I have little patience for people who continue to perpetrate wild theories that have zero basis in fact. I believe you are harming the case, not helping, and that makes me wonder if you have a vested interest in the truth never coming out.
So, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume the perpetrator did not slink around underground until he found a manhole to pop his head up out of like a groundhog.
The front door of Gambles led right out onto the sidewalk. I suspect it’s unlikely that the killer got out that way. Think about it: you’ve just viciously murdered someone. Your adrenalin is flowing, and the only thing you know is that you MUST GET OUT NOW without anyone seeing you. You may or may not have telltale blood on your clothing, but what you don’t want to do is hurry up the set of stairs that will take you directly past two registers and onto a sidewalk that is across the street from a bunch of storefronts with large windows. Not to mention bumping into passers-by.
Aside from the front door, there were two accessible back doors, one on the Gambles side, the other on the side of the store that was the old Men’s Store. That would have been the most likely exit point, in my opinion, because it’s a straight shot out from the back set of stairs that led upstairs from the old Men’s Store basement area – which came out of the HOBBY SHOP area next to the pet department at the time of the murder.
You can even see in this image published in the 1982 RCHS yearbook, there's a sign noting the pet & hobbie [sic] shop.
That second back exit still exists, today. You can go behind the Reed City Hardware store and see it. It's mere steps from the other hardware store exit.
The second set of stairs in the hobby shop side of the basement was not readily accessible to the public. Most people I spoke to didn’t even remember it. A few did. Locals who knew the layout of the buildings did.
The killer sure knew.
Which brings me to another opinion, which I would first like to clarify is just that, an OPINION - albeit a well-researched opinion, given the fact that while I’ve scoured every document on the topic I was able to get my hands on, I don’t have everything Michigan State Police has.
Now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll just say that I do not believe this was a random perpetrator. I believe this person was familiar with the store, was probably a local, and very well may still be around, hoping they’ll draw their last breath without having to pay the price for killing another human being.
Here’s what I want you to do. If you lived in Reed City in 1983, if you remember that day, that timeframe: if you were young, think about your parents. It wouldn’t be the first time someone considered the possibility that their father (or uncle, or cousin, etc.) killed someone. In practically every episode of Dateline, there’s someone who says, “But he was so nice.” Or, “I would have never thought it was him…”
If you were married then, think about your spouse.
Think about your friends.
Think about everyone you know who was around back then and within the age range that could have committed this crime, and ask yourself these questions.
Consider everyone a suspect.
Do you know someone who was in the Gambles store the day of Janette Roberson’s murder, whether as a store employee, customer, or working the scene in any capacity, including law enforcement - do you recall that person acting strangely that day?
Do you recall that person changing into different clothing in the middle of the day for any reason? Remember, if they got blood on them, once they got to safety, they probably would have changed clothing. Anyone who changed clothes in the middle of the day without a reason you feel confident is a valid, factual reason, would be someone to think about. <-- Read that again: Anyone who changed clothing in the middle of the day on January 19, 1983 is someone to think about.
Also consider shoes. Tramping around in what was described to me as a mass of footprints in blood might cause a killer to dispose of those shoes/boots/sneakers.
Did you see or know of someone disposing of bloody clothing or other physical items that day, or in the days after? They might have given you an excuse about where the blood came from. Maybe you didn’t think twice about it. Maybe you felt weird about it, but never said anything. There may have been things that were never recovered from the scene, so the killer would have to dispose of items. In order to do that, he had to take them out of the store with him, unless he hid them inside the store in such a way that police never found them AND he was able to come back at some point and retrieve them.
Was the person you are thinking of where they were supposed to be that day? This means anyone you assumed should be one place, and later learned were somewhere else, without a good explanation of why.
Did anyone you know or hear about visit Gambles more than once on the day of the murder, or repeatedly in the days leading up to the murder? This is important because I heard from multiple sources, including law enforcement, that someone had been coming into the store and making Janette uncomfortable in the days leading up to the murder. Anyone going into Gambles a lot during that time is someone to look more closely at, particularly if they seemed to have developed an interest in her, but also if they kept finding excuses to be at the store.
(NOTE: I DO have a physical description of this person, as pointed out by Janette to someone she knew. While I won’t share that publicly because I consider it evidence, if you believe you know someone who had visited the store repeatedly in the days leading up to the murder, let me know and I’ll be able to ascertain if it’s possibly THE person, based on that description.)
If the person in question did not work that day, why is that? Janette’s own husband was laid off during that timeframe. Although, according to a news interview, he’s been ruled out, being laid off or unemployed at the time of the homicide would give someone more time to be up at the store, so think about that. People who have too much time on their hands sometimes get themselves into trouble.
Did you notice any mood changes in anyone on the day of the murder, right before, or right after? Criminal profilers often look at pre-offense stressors and post offense behavior to help ascertain information on their perp. Pre-offense stressors can include things like a pregnancy, loss of job, relationship issues, and major life changes. Post offense behaviors can be any changes in behavior that occur after the offense like an increase in alcohol/drug consumption, mood changes, moving away, or, on the other end of the spectrum, inserting themselves into the case to appear helpful.
Did you notice any unexplained injuries on anyone on that day, or in the days afterward? During any violent crime, the perpetrator can sustain injuries from the victim in their effort to protect themselves. A perpetrator can also be injured when a weapon gets bloody and slips from their grasp, or breaks. Cuts on the fingers, palms, hands, as well as scratches anywhere on their body are common in situations like this, which is why law enforcement generally looks for any injuries or re-injuries to old wounds that occurred to witnesses or suspects around the time of a murder.
Do you know anyone that showed a great interest in the murder on that day, and in the days/weeks/months after? Some perpetrators move away from the scene, immediately wanting to distance themselves. Others “hide in plain sight” and insert themselves into the case, ask questions, stick close to keep an eye on what’s happening.
Did you ever hear anyone mention Janette, specifically, in a way that suggested they might be interested in her, or attracted to her?
Is there someone you know who was at the Gambles store that day, but never spoke to law enforcement, or had information that could be important that you do not believe they ever shared? I cannot tell you how many people I spoke to who gave me relevant information, and when I asked if they spoke with law enforcement they said no. When I asked why, they answer was almost always, “They didn’t ask.”
Guys. Listen, cops don’t have crystal balls. (Okay, that didn't sound right, but you know what I mean.)
Police can’t always know what you don’t tell them.
Police can’t always know what you don’t tell them.
The other answer I got was that some folks just don’t like dealing with police.
Ok, fine. Now’s your opportunity to deal with someone else. Me.
If YOU were in the Gambles store that day, think back to who you saw in the store while you were there. Looking back now, is there anyone that appeared to be acting strangely, who was lingering inside or outside the store in a way that seemed odd?
If you were in the store that day and saw anyone speaking with Janette, whether upstairs or down in the pet department while you were down there, let me know. Every interaction she had that day or in the days that led up to her murder would be important.
I also want you to consider a few other things. This was a very violent crime. Most of what happened to her has never been made public. This person may have had a prior history of violence, dating back to their youth. Fights? Domestic violence? Anger management issues? Impulsivity issues? Anyone known to have put their hands on another person in an aggressive manner is someone to look more closely at. Anyone with a prior history of violence against another person is capable of doing it again.
Law enforcement folks will tell you that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
A quick note on that: It's been over thirty years. This person might not be physically aggressive now, but were they back then? Even animals tend to calm with age.
I don’t believe this person entered Gambles that day thinking they would kill her, but I do think this person could have had an unhealthy obsession with her, and may have been the person coming into the store repeatedly in the days leading up to the murder. I think the attack was an explosive, impulsive act, perhaps at a perceived slight, and it escalated in a way that caused the perpetrator to continue the assault after the initial impulsive attack occurred. Meaning, he lashed out, then kept going in a fit of rage.
Yes, I said he, because I feel pretty strongly that this was a male.
Also, early newspaper reports are quoted as saying Janette was found “partially clad” and that suggests some sexual component. If the perpetrator was the person who’d been coming in and making her uncomfortable in the days leading up to the murder, maybe he was attracted to her, she rebuffed him, and he snapped.
Obsession can be a dangerous thing.
I want to thank everyone who has helped me in the past. I’m always encouraged by the interest people have in this case, but I’m starting to feel wary. I’m starting to worry about the case ever getting solved.
People are getting old. Witnesses are dying. At some point, if he’s still out there, he’ll die, too. I have a hard time reasoning out a world in which the person who did this horrible thing goes to their grave, having never paid any price for it.
How does someone live with that?
I think that we deserve answers, no matter if the person is alive or dead. Those of us who are invested deserve to know who brutalized this young woman who, by all accounts, was a very special person.
If, after reading this, you have any thoughts you’d like to share, feel free to comment, even anonymously. Or, you can contact me privately at:
I look forward to hearing from you.