Friday, July 28, 2017

Chapter 12 - Viola, Venus & Jan

Trixie wasn’t the only psychic I learned had become at least peripherally associated with this case. I was told by a few locals that a woman named Viola Rehkopf—a well-known and liked member of the community—told numerous people that she believed a prominent businessman had murdered Janette. In fact, I heard that from more people than I can even number.

Terry Hall (a friend of Janette and her brother) spoke to Viola right after the murder. She told him that she didn’t usually involve herself in active police matters, but thought this case was so horrible, she made an exception. She said the person who did it was a prominent Reed City businessman, and that eventually the guilt would eat him up and he’d surrender and confess. I had also been told Viola received an anonymous call telling her she should stop working with police on the Roberson case, if she knew what was good for her.

Viola M. Rehkopf died at the age of 101 on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004. She passed away at home surrounded by her family after a brief illness. She was born January 11, 1903 in Evart to Floyd and Edna Stevens, and according to her obituary, spent most of her life in the Reed City/Evart area. Also noted in her obituary, as written by one of her daughters:

“Mother has been called the one woman lost and found. I don’t run across many people who haven’t heard of her. Even past age 100 she was getting phone calls from people who had lost things (dog, checkbook, important papers, rings, etc.) frequently. She could describe in detail where the missing item was, which usually helped in the recovery. I remember the police asking her help in finding missing persons. I was surprised to learn that more than 20 years ago, Mom helped the family of a local woman locate the wreck of her husband’s airplane and recover his body… everyone was looking in the wrong direction and they would never have had closure on his death if not for Mom.”

I spoke with Blanche Erickson, Viola’s daughter, on November 20, 2014 after having left my number in a private message with a family member. When the phone rang, some days later, I wasn’t expecting it.


“Hello, is Jeni Decker there? This is Blanche Erickson calling. Viola’s daughter.”

Viola… Viola? Oh! Viola! My inner monologue’s memory is really bad.

“Oh my goodness! This is so great,” my outer monologue blathered, as it is wont to do when the body attached to it is scurrying across the room, away from the loud television, grabbing a pen and paper before heading for quieter ground. 

“This is so great!” I think I repeated it again. “I make all these contacts over the computer, and then I’m never sure when people will call back, so it’s always a gift when someone does. How are you?” I finally found the presence of mind to ask.

“Blessed. Every day.” That was Blanche’s immediate response. I immediately liked her.

I went on to explain who I was, that I was working on the book, and that I’d heard from quite a few people that her mother, Viola, had some connection with the case. Basically Blanche told me the same thing Terry and a few others had—that Viola believed a prominent Reed City businessman had committed the murder. Blanche clarified that it wasn’t someone Viola knew personally, and they would’ve had to show her pictures of the person in order to identify them. To Blanche’s knowledge, her mother had never told anyone who this businessman was. 

I asked her about the anonymous phone call, which she confirmed, and then added a detail. She said there was an incident around the time of the call, she wasn’t sure before or after, where a black car pulled into Viola’s driveway at 3am one morning and remained parked there for about an hour. But she and her sister SaraLee couldn’t come to agreement as to whether that car incident happened around the time of the Lintemuth case, or Janette’s case. Both had been local unsolved crimes from the 1980s.

About halfway through the conversation, Blanche offhandedly said, “I was in there that day around noon and—”

“Wait… Gambles? The day of the murder?” I asked, my voice shooting up two octaves. 

Yes, I cut her off. I do that when I get excited.

“Well, yes…” She sounded like she assumed I already knew that.

That’s another thing I got, repeatedly, when I spoke with people. Everyone knew their personal involvement in the Janette Roberson investigation intimately, so once I told them I had the Michigan State Police report, they assumed I knew everything they knew. That’s where everyone would be wrong.

Because I only had part of the report, I found no record of a great many people I spoke to in the report, itself. It is possible that city or county police did a lot of the tangential interviews, since most of those folks didn’t remember speaking to Detective Pratt when I asked them. 

When, where, and if those reports ever made their way to the Michigan State Police file is still a question, even when I spoke to the Inspector in charge of the cold cases. During one of our conversations, he told me he’d have to check whether they had all of the other entities’ reports. This did not inspire confidence, given my interaction with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department.

I had filed an appeal of the Reed City Police Department’s denial of my request for their first responders report. See, all the reports don't come from one place. You have to file FOIA requests with each one to get the reports from the different officers. I wanted to see what the city police had noted, given they were the first to arrive at the scene.

My first request to Chief Davis was denied, citing the ongoing Michigan State Police investigation. This is standard, actually. I'd have been shocked if he just handed it over. But I knew the next step in the chain of command was the City Council, and that was where any appeals would have to be directed.

Yadda, yadda, yadda...I won that appeal by appearing (while internally shaking like a leaf and ready to puke) in front of the city council. I pled my case while enduring the curmudgeonly city manager’s tone, which suggested he didn’t like the fact that I was there asking for the documents in the first place. Mind you, these documents had never before been released, and there were plenty of people interested in what the city and county officers did in those early minutes before Detective Pratt arrived on scene. 

So interested, I’m not sure why the local press never thought to request copies of the reports themselves. 

I should note that I'd prepared files for each council member, Chief Davis, and conveniently had an extra for the media, and included news clippings and related excerpts from the Michigan State Police report, showing why I believed the public's right to know outweighed their ability to withhold the complete Reed City PD report. I always understood I would likely get a redacted copy. I told them as much. I didn't want anything that could harm the investigation. 

I did, however, believe the public had a right to know which officers were present, and how they handled the scene. I'd also been told a story about the prosecutor being called to the scene for reasons even he did not understand, which didn't leave the impression of a scene being handled in a way that was altogether professional, at least until State Police arrived.

Former Police Chief Rathbun, having led the media to believe he had been "out of town" the day of the murder, when come to find out, his name was mentioned in multiple reports as having been there, was the basis upon which I made my case.

A few days after my appearance at city council, I received an email from the Reed City city attorney, who had been at the city council meeting in question.

“…in the interest of full disclosure, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department delivered additional documents concerning this case to us after you filed your FOIA appeal. Most of its contents duplicate those of our rather small file—or are exempt under the FOIA. But if you wish to renew your request, the City is prepared to undergo the same review process regarding the newly-received documents.”

Yer damn skippy I want 'em, Skippy! 

I had requested the documents from Osceola County not once but twice before this, and was told they did not have them, or they did not exist. When I asked the city attorney when the Osceola County Sheriff’s report had been turned over, and by whom, I was met with stony silence. 

I never did find out. 

When an entity fibs to you—not once, but twice—you tend to get a little twitchy, and maybe not so trusting. Which is why, to this day, I’ll need a little more than anyone’s word about documents when we’re talking municipal government. I’d love to be the trusting doe I once was, but sneaky humans have forever ruined me in that regard.

Anyway… back to Blanche.

“You were at Gambles the day of the murder?” I said, with a great deal of incredulity.

“Well yes…”

Way to bury the lede, Blanche!

“Okay.” I clenched my pen more tightly in anticipation. “Tell me about that.”

My heart was beating a mile a minute. It happened every time I talked to someone who was down there that day. I so wanted to be able to close my eyes and see it all.

Blanche said she had goldfish back then, and that day she’d gone to the Gambles pet department around noon looking for a product called “Ick.” It was something she said was supposed to keep the tank from getting yucky. She went down there but found no salesperson in the pet department. She looked around for a couple short minutes, but nobody came. When I asked her how long, Blanche estimated she was down there maybe five minutes, then went upstairs and told one of the female clerks, “It’d be nice if there was someone downstairs to ring people up.”

From this time (noon-ish) forward, every customer I located who’d been in the pet department said the same thing. They went down, but no Janette.

Blanche never got her “Ick.” Her sister SaraLee Rehkopf told me that right after the murder, Blanche said she’d gotten a very cold, uneasy feeling when she was down there, and that’s why she left so fast. Blanche said there were no other customers when she went downstairs. She remembered a blue tarp hanging in that doorway area between the two basements, and thought expansion was going on at the time. She said she was tempted to look behind the tarp, but her mother always told her if it’s not your business, keep your nose out. Blanche said that to this day, she’s glad she kept her nose to herself, in case the killer was back there at the time, waiting.

NOTE: A quick Google search tells me that Ich is a protozoan disease (parasite) that is often called ‘white spot disease.’ The scientific name for the disease is ichthyophthiriasis and it is widespread in all freshwater fish, but more common in aquarium fish, possibly due to the closer contact and stress involved with aquarium species. There’s your Bill Nye the Science Guy moment for the day. You’re welcome.

After I spoke with her, Blanche passed along my contact info to her former sister-in-law Jan Palumbo. 

“I think Jan was one of the last people down there before they found her.”

My incredulity meter hit a high note for the second time in our conversation. 

“Oh yeah?”

“What’s her last name now?” I heard Blanche ask her husband, who she told me was shaking his head at her.

I laughed. 

“Ha! My husband shakes his head at me all the time.”

We chuckled then she started mumbling, “P, I think. It starts with a P. I’ll tell you what. Let me make some calls and I’ll find out. I’ll have her call you.”

I thanked Blanche profusely and hung up thinking, Wow, you know what? People are good. 

Kindness of strangers, and all that jazz.

It was maybe an hour later when Jan called. “Is Jeni there?”

“That’s me!” I said. “I’m Jeni.”

“This is Jan.”

Another gift of a return call, followed by a repeated explanation of what I was working on, and then Jan Palumbo told me her story. She and her sister-in-law, Venus Aris, were in Gambles that day for quite a long time. See, Jan had just bought a fifty gallon tank and they needed supplies. 

My inner monologue screeched...THAT'S THEM! They're the women the news articles said might be witnesses! They're the ones who bought the fish supplies that day ! Yippie, I've found them!!

To her recollection, she and Venus left her house around 1:30 that day.  

“Somewhere between 1:30 and 2:00 we got there.”

They had two kids with them, and when they descended the stairs into the basement pet department, there was no clerk. The two women spent a great deal of time watching the fish swimming around in the tanks, walking around the department, and setting aside items they would need. At some point, it occurred to Jan that they’d been there an awfully long time, but no salesclerk had ever appeared. She also remembered the blue tarp and admitted to peeking behind it.

“We were there a really long time. I got bored,” Jan said, almost embarrassed.

“Hey, I would’ve peeked too. Don’t feel bad,” I told her. “Do you remember what it looked like on the other side of the tarp?”

“Just a big empty space. I think there were some boxes, but a big room about the size of the pet department. Not much in there that I can think of. I think the floor may have even been dirt. Maybe not. Maybe it was cement. Just looked like a basement with no windows to me.”

“How long do you think you guys were there at the store?” I asked.

“It seemed like a long time. Almost two hours, I think. Seems like we left Gambles a little before four o’clock. It was weird. We’d been there forever when I went upstairs and left Venus down in the pet shop. I found a woman and asked if anyone was working downstairs. The woman told me Janette should be down there and she looked at me sort of quizzically, like confused.”

Jan said she told the woman there was nobody down there, so the woman came downstairs with her to look. Jan didn’t remember any customers coming down and browsing in the pet department while she and Venus and the kids were down there waiting, but she had a faint recollection of a male coming down at some point and he said, “There’s nobody down here?” Jan said no, and he went back upstairs.

Jan said when she finally went up to find someone and the woman employee walked back downstairs with her, it seemed like suddenly there were a bunch of customers who’d followed them down into the pet department. I asked Jan if she thought they might have been employees and she said she didn’t think so. She believed they were customers and it felt like they had all come down at the same time. She said she remembered thinking maybe work had just let out or something because it was late in the afternoon.

“So, did you end up buying the fish stuff?” I asked.

“You know, I can’t remember. I didn’t get rung up at the register upstairs, so if I did, it would have been downstairs, but I can’t remember now. It was so weird. I just remember leaving, and a group of customers being down there when we left. But I can’t imagine I’d have left without the stuff after being there so long.”

“Were there customers upstairs, too, when you were leaving?” I asked.

“I remember seeing people—nobody I knew personally, just customers.”

“Is there anyone you remember seeing at all?”

“Just one man standing at the register. I remember thinking it was weird. He was holding a lunchbox.”

“Are you sure he was a customer?”

“I think so,” she said. “He was standing at that register just outside the entrance to the pet department.”

“What kind of lunchbox?” I asked.

“Just the kind that men carried. You could put the thermos inside.”

“Metal?” I asked. “Like a Coleman?”

“Yes, like that.”

I asked Jan to describe the man with the lunchbox. She said dark hair, moustache, hair was a little long, to his ears. She remembered thinking he needed a haircut. She couldn’t specifically recall descriptions of anyone else. She said he was the only one who stood out, but she doesn’t know why. He just did.

Since the autopsy report states the body was found at 3:50, that would mean Jan and her sister-in-law Venus left fairly close to the discovery of Janette’s body, if her timing wasn’t off. Two hours seems like a long time to wait around with two kids for a clerk to come help you. She said they just took their time, the kids were looking at the fish, and they remained well behaved so they were just browsing all of the tanks and supplies, trying to decide what fish she might get, and it ended up being a pretty long time.

“We never saw or heard anything weird while we were there,” Jan said. She mentioned looking through the fish tanks into the back room, wondering if anyone was back there, but never saw any movement. It wasn’t until days later that she learned about the murder. She saw a plea from police on the television news for two women who had been in Gambles in the afternoon with two kids to please contact them. Jan said she immediately called and gave the police her name, but she kept seeing the plea on the news airings, even after calling, so eventually she called again.

At some point, police came to her home and questioned her, though she wasn’t sure which law enforcement entity they were with. She said their questions were around who they had seen in the store while they were there. Police wanted descriptions of as many people as she could remember.

Jan suggested I speak to Venus and she said she’d pass along my number. It occurred to me that if it kept up like this, they’d pass me right along, from person to person until I reached the killer, himself.

Two days later, Venus Aris returned my call, and she was as likeable and kind as Jan and Blanche had been. She had much of the same information to offer as her sister-in-law did, with a few more details thrown in. It was her two kids that had been with the women that day. They were 3 ½ and 2 ½ years old at the time; two little redheads wearing matching coats made for them by a family member. The reason Venus remembered this is because she had a photo the police took when she went in, days after the murder, to give a statement. 

She had also seen the news plea for the two women who’d been in Gambles with two children on the day of the murder to please call police. It was the first Venus had heard of the murder, just as it had been with Jan. She said they didn’t subscribe to the local papers back then.

When I asked Venus what time she thought they were in the store, she remembered that she had to be home to do chores by 4 or 4:30. On further questioning I learned that “chores” meant milking and taking care of cows, which they did at the same time every day, so she believes they left Gambles sometime just prior to four o’clock.

To her recollection, they went in the store sometime around two, and it was “dead.” Venus didn’t see any customers roaming around. She repeated that they were down in the pet shop a pretty long time and after they’d been there for quite a while, she said Jan went up to find a clerk to ring her up. She said Jan left her down there for about five or ten minutes, and the boys had followed her up so she was alone. She said she remembers it felt a little eerie. 

No music over a sound system. 
No customers but herself. 
Just quiet.

She recalls seeing about two inches of “light” coming from above what would have been the right wall if you were facing the back of the pet department, and what looked to her like they might be cages on the other side, but she wasn’t sure. She’s not the inquisitive type like Jan, so she did not look behind the door or the tarp, and she can’t believe if there was a door back there that Jan didn’t open it and peek because Jan is the inquisitive type. I told her the walls and door may have been paneled in such a way that the door wasn’t noticeable, to blend in with the wall rather than stand out.

She said she remembers a woman, “…small, at least 40, and I want to say she had glasses, but I’m not positive…” came down a little bit after Jan, and she believes that woman rung up her sister-in-law’s items. She could picture the woman at the register by the bottom of the stairs, and she doesn’t think they left without the purchases, but she doesn’t recall standing there while Jan was being checked out, either. 

Venus thinks while Jan was paying, she headed upstairs, maybe even took the boys to the bathroom, and then they left. She doesn’t remember any customers coming down at any time, even at the end when Jan remembers seeing them.

Venus clarified, “I never stand and wait for someone to be checked out. Since we’d been there a really long time, I think while Jan paid, I went upstairs, maybe to take the boys to the bathroom first, but then out to the car.” To her recollection, they parked out front. She said as they left, the store still seemed pretty empty of customers, really quiet both upstairs and downstairs the whole time, from her perspective.

Venus said that thinking back, one thing was strange. When the woman clerk came down, she didn’t recall her looking for Janette or calling out for her. She believes the woman just took care of Jan’s purchases and they left, Venus exiting the pet department just before Jan.

She couldn’t remember when it was, but sometime in the week following the murder she saw the news report on television, so she went to the Reed City MSP Post and they interviewed her and took a picture of the two boys. Not her, though. Just the boys.

“Just the boys, not you?” I asked, confused.

“Yep, just them.”

I wondered aloud if they only took the boys’ picture because their striking red hair and matching coats had stood out in the mind of another witness and they just needed it to confirm.

“Maybe. Now that you mention it, it is strange. I figured it was for security. Like maybe the killer could have seen the boys or something. I don’t know. It is weird, now that I think about it.” be continued...

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