Friday, July 28, 2017

Chapter 10 - February


Flossie Earnest was one of the people who was questioned about this witness in the composite drawings. Her information helped inform the sketch. According to her, this was someone who frequented the pet store and had been in earlier that day.





Police Still Searching for Murderer was splashed across the front page of the Osceola County Herald on February 3rd 1983, along with the sketches of the witness (or witnesses) they were looking for, a shot of the body being removed from the Gambles store, a picture of Janette herself, and a notable shot of an impromptu press conference held inside the Gambles store. 


Janette's body being removed from the Gambles store to be taken to
Blodgett Memorial Hospital for autopsy by EMS team
Officer Finkbeiner, center. Officer Primeau, far right.

Presser inside the Gambles store with members of media.
Officer Finkbeinerk RCPD, center.
Detective Sgt. Pratt, MSP, third from right.

Janette Roberson


In addition, there was a letter written to the killer by Janette’s mother, Marion Fisher.

To the murderer of Janette Roberson:

Janette was a wonderful person—not only to her family and friends but to every person she ever came in contact with. She tried to help all creatures when they needed help—humans, birds, fish, plants, and animals alike. Her heart went out to everybody and everything. She is one of God’s children. Yes, she had a heart, a heart as big as the universe itself. I love her, everybody loved her—except one person—you.

Maybe you didn’t know her, and then again maybe you did. But nevertheless, from the moment you committed the greatest sin against God and his children you were condemned to hell—a hell that will follow you every moment of your days… a hell that will increase in velocity until it will not let you live any longer on this earth.

Our great God in heaven is the only one that will ever be able to help you now. Maybe, just maybe, he will find it in his heart to forgive you of your great sin and have mercy on your soul.
Janette’s soul is with her god. Her human body is lying in a coffin, and her husband and children are mourning for her just as I am. It will be hard for them to begin their lives again without their mother and wife. With God’s help they will do it. However, there is still a shadow hanging over them—you, Janette’s murderer.

My plea to you is to confess your sin and ask for God’s mercy.

By our great God, I appeal to any person who was in the Gambles store on that fatal day or anyone having any information, no matter how small it may seem to you, to come forward.
Your little bit of information will help put the puzzle together. Please get in touch with the state police, sheriff’s department, or the Reed City police immediately, and may God bless you.

Marion Fisher
Janette’s Mother


On February 3, 1983, The Pioneer ran an article titled Osceola Commissioners OK $2,000 for Reward Fund. They approved a donation toward the reward money “for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murder of Janette Roberson.” This brought the total reward to $7,000. Prosecutor Talaske said in this article that the donations had ranged from five dollars to the $1,300 check donated by Norm Rautiola earlier in the week. 

Mr. Rautiola owned (and still owns) Nartron, where Janette had worked before she took the job in the pet department at Gambles. 

Osceola County Prosecutor James Talaske said the donation would be a small price to pay if the reward worked. 

“This thing is really hanging over our town. It effects everyone… more people are buying guns. It’s the little things that are happening that change the feeling of the whole community.”

On February 1st tip #200 was received from the Grand Haven MSP Post about a subject who “is not working and has a violent temper.” A request was made to contact the subject to determine if he looked like the composites, as well as his whereabouts on January 19th 1983, especially from 1:00pm to 4:00pm.

That same day—regarding tip #185—information was received about another subject who apparently looked like the composite sketches and was in Reed City on the day of the murder. This subject was said to have possibly been at the unemployment office and Gambles. It was requested that the Paw Paw MSP Post contact the subject to determine more information about his whereabouts during the 1:00 to 4:00pm timeframe.

“In the event that it is learned either subject was in the Gambles store in Reed City on January 19, 1983, it is requested that it be determined who was with them, what may have been purchased, where it was paid for (location of cash register) and what the amount was, including what was used to pay for it. Also a complete clothing description of them or anyone with them, and anyone they might have seen. If possible obtain a Polaroid photograph of anyone that was in the store.”

Between February 1st and 3rd  multiple interviews were done by Detective Pratt. He interviewed Ralph Fisher (Janette’s father) and Christopher Casavettes – a patron of the store that day who (according to his son, Chris) had been there earlier that morning to make a purchase. 

David Sandlin was also re-interviewed, and a court order was obtained for clothing items that his wife mentioned the police had come and taken.

Marion Fisher, Janette’s mother, was interviewed at length at this time. Based on her recollection of who showed up at Janette’s apartment the night of the murder, “Dan” is interviewed by Detective Pratt. He lived at the same apartment complex as the Robersons, and according to multiple witnesses I spoke to, appeared to have a “crush” on Janette.

Also during this time period, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was contacted about obtaining any information they could on Alvin Roberson, who had lived in Georgia with Janette prior to them moving to Reed City. They would later contact Detective Pratt on February 16th to advise that they were “…unable to obtain any information of any problems with or between Mr. and Mrs. Roberson.”


On February 10th 1983 the Osceola County Herald ran an article titled Murdered Clerk Had Received Calls. According to the story, Osceola County officials had discovered a “new development” the previous week—that Janette had “allegedly received obscene telephone calls, and had received two calls in which an individual hung up the phone without speaking the day before she was murdered.”

Osceola County Prosecutor James Talaske said, “It’s my understanding that the phone rang twice and the person on the other end hung up without saying anything. The calls could have been made in result of someone dialing the wrong number,” he clarified, but stated that a friend of Janette’s had told him she’d previously received obscene phone calls. The article went on to say the reward money was now up to $7,100 and that law enforcement officials had received thirty separate tips concerning the sketch of the possible witness or suspect.

This article also mentioned the editor of the Herald, David Casterline, and Reed City Chamber of Commerce secretary Colin Hayward had seen a man fitting the sketch description in the newspaper office just days earlier. The man apparently purchased a newspaper and was “acting nervous,” according to the men, before abruptly leaving. The State Police were called and the incident reported. Hayward and Casterline said the man was driving an older-model green pickup, but they weren’t able to get the license plate.

In The Pioneer on February 12th 1983, a small four paragraph blurb was run in the left column of the front page titled Police Seeking Customer. Investigators working on the Janette Roberson murder were looking for the person that had contact with Janette in front of a pet store in Big Rapids on January 11th, and again on the 12th at Gambles where she was seen giving a man two brown and one black gerbil in front of the store. The man in the green truck was mentioned in this article as well. Officials had apparently questioned him, but he was not taken into custody and, according to the article, was not considered a suspect. 

The man who’d purchased a newspaper may not have been acting nervous, so much as the news editor and Chamber of Commerce secretary may have been letting current events get the better of their imaginations. It’s easy to do in a small town when the big story is murder, yet there appears to be no viable suspect. Everyone starts playing investigator.

Police Still Seeking Murder Suspect was the title of the February 17th 1983 article in The Osceola County Herald. “Nearly a month after the heinous crime, police still have no suspects and they’re hunting feverishly for the murderer.”

Excellent use of adverbs to heighten the tension!

The article goes on to give more details on the man in the green truck. 

“In a related incident, police officials found a man who had been sought for questioning for over a week. The man fitting the composite sketch drawing, which was released several weeks ago, was spotted in the Osceola County Herald office Feb. 2nd. The man entered the office, purchased a newspaper, and then sped off in a green older-model pickup truck. Police searched for a week for the truck and its driver before someone anonymously tipped them off last Thursday morning on who the driver of the truck was. 

Investigators questioned the man, however, he was released shortly after and was not taken into police custody. Police say they do not consider the man a suspect in the murder.”

Thanks for clearing that up, again, Osceola County Herald. Old news—even slightly more detailed old news—is better than no news at all, I guess.

In the article, Detective Pratt said the tip numbers were up. 

“We’ve had over 300 tips thus far and they’re still coming in. Over 100 tips have come in concerning the sketch of the possible witness to the crime. We’re following up all tips, but thus far we don’t have anything to go on. We’re working hard in trying to solve this crime.”

The article finished by saying that investigators were using a special computer terminal to help them store leads. Detective Pratt called it “a very helpful device in aiding officials in their continuing investigation.”

Technology for the win! 

I feel I should jump in here and say that the current status of the Janette Roberson case file does not suggest all of the items (or any) have been entered into the computer system used now for crime reports (as of this writing). 

Remember that almost 6 thousand dollar fee Michigan State Police wanted to charge me? I told you we'd chat about that later. So...

Good morning Jeni!

We haven’t talked in a while so I wanted to touch base. Renee has been working with the Detectives at the post to be able to get a good faith estimate for you. It looks like she has compiled an estimate for you and that will be mailed today. I wanted to give you a breakdown before you received it. There is an estimated 5000 pages. As I stated before we estimate 1 minute per page to review/redact exempt material, so Renee has estimated the 84 hours for that plus the time to copy that which is (probably more) estimated at 2 hours. We are looking at an estimate total of $5,999.25. Minus the credit of the other 2 payments which was $170.52.

Jessina Beckner, Supervisor
Freedom of Information Unit
Michigan State Police

“A PROUD tradition of SERVICE through EXCELLENCE, INTEGRITY, and COURTESY”


What this was for, essentially, is everything after the beginning of 1986 that was done on the Janette Roberson investigation, which is what we’d already received, albiet redacted within an inch of its life, and mostly blank pages.

(NOTE: Snarky recreation alert.)

Once I’d gone through what they sent me, I was like, “Dude, where’s the rest?” 

Jessina Beckner, the head of the department was all like, “Dude, that last chick didn’t check everywhere. There’s more stuff at the local police post. Do you want it?” 

I was all, “Dude, yes!” 

Then she was all, “No prob! You and your assistant cancel your outstanding requests, we’ll meld them together, and I’ll apply your money to that. I really, really, really want to help you!”

Weeks later we got the above letter . 

“Dude, my bad. There’s LOTS more stuff, but if you want it, we need, like, a whole lot more money because it’s in boxes and not on the computer.”

Now you’re up to speed on the FOIA bullshit, gentle reader. 

Welcome aboard! 

(Please take small children and the elderly by the hand.)

According to then MSP Inspector Cam Henke, when I spoke to him in August of 2014, at that time the Janette Roberson murder investigation file was not indexed for cross-reference, or digitized. That’s the startling reality. Cases go cold, files get stuffed in boxes, boxes get shoved into dusty spaces, and thirty years later you’re emailed an invoice saying it’ll take around eighty-four hours to pull out the information you’re looking for—

Oh! and it’ll set you back about 6 grand. 

Or, you know, you can give up and stop asking for the information.

To me, it would be more honest to say, “Sorry, we don’t want you to have this” or “Are you sure you want us to take the time and charge you the money to go through those boxes? In all likelihood, we’ll do the work and not send you much of anything anyway.” 

That’s really nasty, in my book. One has to wonder if that’s what the Michigan State Police are counting on… people giving up.

Should it be that hard to access public information? Should it be that costly? Should taxpayers foot the bill for abysmal record keeping? Should this vein in my forehead be throbbing? All questions for another day, and we’ll get there, don’t you worry.

Back to February, 1983…

Near the end of February, known inked impressions, (or information concerning inked impressions) were forwarded to the Grayling Crime Laboratory with a request they be compared against the latent lifts obtained in the Gambles store on the date of the murder. 

The names listed on the fingerprint request included all of the Gambles employees who'd previously been interviewed, (David, Bonnie, and John Engels) as well as Ralph Fisher (Janette’s father), Theodore Platz (Reed City PD), Christopher Casavettes (customer), and George Wilson (AKA Injun George – a local indigent man), and three other names (males) that turned up nowhere else in the report.

Lab information was slowly filtering back in to the Michigan State Police this month, and on February 16th Detective Pratt met with the Investigative Resources Team and a psychologist out of Lansing about the case. The team had previously travelled to Reed City and reviewed the crime scene. This group would meet again, along with Dr. Steven Cohle MD, Forensic Pathologist, and another member of the Pathology Department at Blodgett Memorial Medical Center. A total of three meetings took place in which the case was reviewed “…in an attempt to determine avenues of pursuit and an insight into a possible potential killer.”

On February 22nd 1983, George Wilson, aka “Injun George,” was interviewed by Detective Pratt. His name came up a great deal when I spoke with Reed City residents regarding this case. I found that for the most part, people generally pointed a finger in his direction because he was a local eccentric who collected bottles and cans, and was generally odd enough to make people uncomfortable. A common knee-jerk reaction in many cases is to assume the local weirdo is the bad guy. In this case, it doesn’t appear so.

According to the MSP report, on February 23rd 1983, David Engels, the owner of the Gambles store, contacted Detective Pratt with a concern that someone may have had keys to the Gambles store.

“The concern arises due to two incidents where the alarm to the store was triggered, and on both occasions, nothing was found amiss. These alarm calls were answered by the Reed City Police Department.”

Because the section is redacted, we have no way of knowing if the false alarm calls occurred before or after the murder.

On February 28th a supplemental report regarding tip #185 was forwarded to Detective Pratt from the Paw Paw Post. Subject Jonathan Thorne was interviewed by MSP State Troopers Bruder and Paul about having been in Reed City on the day of the murder. They learned that Mr. Thorne had recently moved to that area from Stanwood. Under REMARKS, the report notes that he was co-operative with officers, did not volunteer or anticipate questions, said he had nothing to hide, and that he didn’t do it. It appears the information gleaned was adequate to rule the subject out, because when Detective Pratt was contacted, he advised no further assistance was needed, and by April 1983 the status of the supplemental report was changed to CLOSED.

On February 28, 1983 a list of items was obtained from Reed City Police Chief Phillip Rathbun, who’d gotten them directly from Marion Fisher, Janette’s mother. These items were to be forwarded to a woman by the name of Trixie Shepherd. This is the last item on the supplemental dated March 1, 1983, which covered February’s work done by Michigan State Police.

The final notations on the page are as follows:

TIPS RECEIVED: As of this writing three hundred twenty (320) tips related to the murder investigation have been received and are being followed up on. None of the information received as of this writing has provided a good investigative lead as to the murderer.


COMPLAINT STATUS: Open.


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