Let’s take a moment to discuss the part media plays in helping to solve crimes.
A four minute spot about the Janette Roberson murder aired on one of our local news affiliates a while back and it left me feeling slightly chafed.
Did I say chafed? I mean pissed. Later I found I wasn’t the only one. When I griped about it to a local print reporter, I got this reply.
“It was upsetting to me, too, because I felt like it was packaged with the rest of their “spooky” stories running up to Halloween. Even if they didn’t explicitly say so, it certainly seemed to be used that way when it was listed out along with all their other Halloween stuff. How disrespectful. There’s a family who’s still living that “murder mystery.” If they wanted to do some kind of reminder, I think the timing needed to be considered a bit more.”
I was so excited when I first learned, a few days before it aired, they’d be doing a story on Janette. One of the things you want when a case has gone cold is as much coverage as possible. Newspapers, television, regular local events highlighting the story— it all goes a long way toward helping find those folks out there who may have information, but haven’t come forward, for whatever reason.
Transcript of what aired on Oct 30, 2014—
A decades-old murder still haunts a small town in Osceola County. That’s because whoever killed Janette Roberson back in 1983 is still a mystery. 9&10’s Evan Dean sat down with Janette’s family and the Reed City Police Chief. He has part one of our special series: Mysteries of Northern Michigan.
A young mother and wife. “I was told that she was always very friendly, always very nice... that she was a great mom.” Janette Roberson was a true giver.
“Very giving with her time, with her energy. Always looking out for everyone else,” explained Elena Cavender, Janette’s niece.
Back in 1983, Janette lived in Reed City and worked in the pet department in the basement of the old Gambles store. Today, you’d recognize it as Reed City hardware.
“She loved animals. There’s a picture of her with a horse, and how much she loved horses.”
But pictures and stories are all Elena Cavender knows of her aunt. In the middle of the day on January 19, 1983 Janette’s life was tragically cut short.
“She went to work, they found her body I think at around 4:00. An employee went down there and found her. And called police.”
More than 30 years later, you can still see the animal cages from the store where Janette worked. It was here, in this back room where she was found brutally murdered.
Reed City Police Department Chief Chuck Davis said, “The victim received a number of injuries. This was a brutal murder.”
“It’s just hard for me to believe that somebody was able to do that to her,” said Elena.
Multiple injuries, multiple murder weapons, an autopsy report too horrific to stomach and, suddenly, a murderer on the loose.
“When a homicide occurs, the first 48-72 hours are the most important and crucial,” explained Chief Davis.
But in the days immediately following Janette’s murder, police made no arrests.
“After that point, it’s not hard for something to go cold.”
A couple of weeks later, a development in the case. Detectives released three separate sketches. Three different witness descriptions of a man who police wanted to talk to.
“We couldn’t call him a suspect. A person of interest maybe a suspect, but at this time, could only be a witness. They were looking for anybody that was in that store one day. They could have been someone who went down the staircase.”
But nothing came of the sketches. The mystery man was never found.
And as investigators explored every avenue, the biggest question of all still lingered, why would someone do this?
Elena said, “No idea at all.”
“My thought today, is that this was like a get even type thing,” Chief Davis said. Far too brutal for a random attack or a robbery. “Somebody was pretty angry at this person.”
So detectives looked into those closest to Janette, and discovered that she and her husband, Alvin, were getting a divorce.
“It’s pretty well known that the husband, Janette’s husband and her were not together at that point.”
It was even discovered that Alvin Roberson was seeing another woman. Still, detectives at the time were eventually able to rule out Alvin and his then-girlfriend as suspects.
Meanwhile, in Reed City, bizarre rumors started to swirl.
Was there more to Janette Roberson than people knew?
“There’s no indication she was doing anything outside the ordinary, other than just a normal, hometown girl that was having some issues at home,” Chief Davis said. “Could it have been somebody who had an infatuation with her? Yes. Is that a possibility, yes.”
Months, years, decades passed, and still to this day, no arrests. No charges. Not even a suspect.
“There is no true suspect at this point.”
Elena said, “There’s no justice brought to the family. Plus, it’s kinda scary for me. You don’t know who’s out there.”
But the family isn’t giving up hope.
Memorial walks, picnics, even a Facebook page and a website, all created in just the last couple of years to get “Justice for Janette.”
“We try to talk to as many locals as we can at the time, see what they remember, see if they saw anything strange or weird.”
“I think we have more hope than we did 10 years ago. With people calling and the activity,” said Chief Davis.
Hope, for a break in the investigation. Maybe even a deathbed confession. Something to solve Janette’s horrific murder, once and for all.
“I still think there’s a 50-50 chance. I’m not gonna lean one way or another. Because I hope that we can put closure to this.”
“I want justice. Whoever did this needs to pay for what they did to her. And to her family,” Elena said.
Okay, here’s my beef with this. The story aired more than three decades after the murder and Alvin Roberson had been ruled out as a suspect, according to the report itself. So why are we discussing the state of their marriage? While that information may have been relevant thirty years ago—before the husband had been ruled out—it certainly has no relevance today.
(Just like the composite sketches, but you’ll have to wait a little bit to learn about those. We’ll get there, I promise.)
Looking at the husband is always important when the wife turns up dead. But once you rule him out, maybe don’t waste precious seconds of a four minute TV spot on the salacious globs of irrelevant bullshit. Perhaps utilize the scant time you have to highlight areas where the public can help, rather than muck around in the TMZ-like gossip just to garner high viewership.
That is, in a word, disgusting.
Maybe I’m just being judgy, but I like my media to not resemble the National Enquirer. After viewing the report, I went to the Facebook page for the news organization that had aired the story and posted this comment:
“Perhaps what should be focused on - rather than the state of their marriage - which is [apparently] widely known, is that a first responder was seen “shooing people out of the Gambles store” when EMTs pulled up. State police may not have tracked them all down, and there is a good chance that officer let a killer walk right out of the store - or at the very least, a witness who may have seen or heard something important. The focus of that story being on the state of Janette’s marriage, given the fact that Alvin Roberson has been RULED OUT as a suspect, shows a glaring callousness toward the victim. His wife was slaughtered in her place of business, yet he continues to be maligned - despite law enforcement noting he is not a suspect. What will it take for the press to look at how this crime scene was handled by police? The inconsistencies are right there in the reports if they care to gather them and question a few people. It is disheartening to see coverage around salacious parts of the story, while important aspects continue to be ignored. I encourage anyone who was in the store that day who may have left before being questioned to contact Michigan State Police.”
Later that day I received a private message via Facebook from the reporter who’d done the story:
REPORTER: Jeni -- Thanks for the comment regarding the story on Janette’s murder. I’d like to respond to some of your concerns.
First -- it’s been well-established that police are still trying to track down people who could’ve been in the store that day. That’s why they released those sketches. I didn’t cover that up, it was mentioned in the story.
Second -- In any murder case like this, the spouse of the victim is always looked into. It’s protocol. It HAD to be mentioned. However I made certain to say that Alvin WAS ruled out. It was not the entire focus of the story, just briefly mentioned. Maybe 30 seconds out of a 4+ minute report.
Third -- We did obtain both the police report and the autopsy report. And I prepared my story, in part, according to what was there. You have to understand the danger in choosing sources for a story like this. There are endless rumors, and everyone has an different opinion... it would not be hard to find 5 people to interview, all with wide-ranging opinions on what happened... but that wouldn’t be responsible on our part. We spoke with police and Janette’s family, and I felt confident in that -- and in obtaining the facts. Hearsay is a dangerous game.
Fourth -- In any long-standing unsolved crime, people always question how the scene was handled by officers. It happens every time. Obviously the police chief defended the work that was done. The family is certainly frustrated, but they’ve been working with police and, for the most part, are appreciative of the work done by officers.
There are facts... and then there are opinions and rumors. And keep in mind -- even witness accounts aren’t always accurate.
I appreciate your comment. Trust me, I did some digging. I was told that someone is trying to write a book on Janette’s murder. I was also told that his/her work hasn’t been well-received by police or Janette’s family. I do not know if there’s any truth to that, but I did not want to go that route -- the route of making enemies. I didn’t want to disrespect Janette’s family -- that’s the last thing her loved ones deserve, after suffering through this. That was not my intention. More than 30 years later, that’s not likely to help the investigation. My hope is that answers can be found without pinning people against each other.
Anyway, thank you for the interest. I hope you have a great day.
ME: First, to be clear, I am writing the book. That is how I have this information. I have spent a year, so far, collecting reports. It is how I know about Officer Finkbeiner allowing witnesses to leave the store, though you will find no record of that in the reports. I spoke with the EMT who responded to the scene, himself, who witnessed it. He was later questioned by MSP as to if he recognized any of the witnesses let go. He was also led, by the same officer, directly through a puddle/spot of blood in the crime scene… The first time I spoke with Chief Davis he told me the first responders handled the scene badly. This is well known by locals. I spoke to the man who dispatched the call as well. I also keep in touch with the MSP Inspector who is considering this case for his cold case team. He is aware I am working on the book, and we have been in recent contact. I understand that Janette’s sister is unhappy about the book, though she was not when I was helping her get information. Only when I stopped sharing it because of the mishandling of delicate info did she begin publicly stating her negative feelings. I have zero issue with that. I'm not in this to make friends. But - to be clear - from day one, our first email, I was up front about the possibility of writing something. So, that’s where we are. I thought you might want to have more details, rather than tiny bits of the information.
REPORTER: Jeni— Here lies the issue, from my perspective. You say one thing. The family says the other. Police tell me one thing. You say the other. Finkbeiner says one thing. The EMT says the other. (According to what you just wrote). So... who’s right then? Who do you trust? My point is, the story can be entirely different depending on who you ask and who you interview. From my perspective, the police chief and Janette’s family were the BEST people to interview. I built relationships with those people and felt confident airing what they told me. It corresponded with the report and autopsy that I obtained. With the facts. The story is about finding justice for Janette... I didn’t want it to be different sources slinging mud at each other about whether or not someone made a mistake 30 years ago. Again, I do appreciate your interest in the story. I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors.
Let’s autopsy that comment, shall we?
1. The sketches. He asserted that :“First -- it’s been well-established that police are still trying to track down people who could’ve been in the store that day. That’s why they released those sketches. I didn’t cover that up, it was mentioned in the story.”
The sketches have zero to do with the aforementioned three or four people the first responding officer shooed out of the store. Perhaps some of those folks are out there right now and have never been questioned. My thought is, if you want to do a responsible story on something like this, you specifically say, “If you were in the store that day – if you left before police had a chance to speak to you about anything you might have seen, please contact, blah, blah, blah…”
It’s pretty common sense stuff. Unfortunately it’s not sexy, sexy ratings stuff.
Also, the sketches probably aren’t even relevant today, and he might have known that if he’d talked to Detective Pratt. But I guess he didn’t.
2 “In any murder case like this, the spouse of the victim is always looked into. It’s protocol. It HAD to be mentioned. However I made certain to say that Alvin WAS ruled out. It was not the entire focus of the story, just briefly mentioned. Maybe 30 seconds out of a 4+ minute report.”
Yes, dear man. They are looked into, and wisely so. UNTIL THEY ARE RULED OUT AS SUSPECTS. You also slapped Alvin Roberson’s picture up there and said the world girlfriend a couple times for good measure. Gentle reader, I’ll let you be the judge and jury as to whether any of that was necessary.
3. We did obtain both the police report and the autopsy report. And I prepared my story, in part, according to what was there. You have to understand the danger in choosing sources for a story like this. There are endless rumors, and everyone has a different opinion... it would not be hard to find 5 people to interview, all with wide-ranging opinions on what happened... but that wouldn’t be responsible on our part. We spoke with police and Janette’s family, and I felt confident in that -- and in obtaining the facts. Hearsay is a dangerous game.
Notice the words “police report.” Singular.
There are numerous reports associated with this investigation, and it doesn’t appear they used the Michigan State Police report in their story.
You know—the law enforcement entity assigned to investigate this case. Then there’s the Osceola Report, Cadillac PD, Wexford County… a tsunami of various reports and supplementals are associated with this case. Using one report—particularly the sketchy first responders report in this case—and the autopsy report to fashion a story does not a clear picture create.
Not speaking to Michigan State Police seems like a glaring omission. Certainly not good journalism.
As far as family, the reporter spoke to nobody who had any day-to-day relationship with Janette at the time of the murder.
Yes, her family loves her, but none of them were living in the area when Janette was murdered. I know firsthand that the information they have been able to cobble together over the years has been almost all hearsay, aside from an autopsy report they should never have gotten their hands on in the first place.
Listen, I bear them no ill will. I’d probably be doing exactly what they are doing if my relative was brutally murdered. But that doesn’t mean they’re the best sources for factual information for a television report that should be based entirely on facts. Essentially, this reporter spoke with family and law enforcement officials who had the least amount of hands-on knowledge of this case, and in doing so, participated in that dangerous game of hearsay he seemed to insinuate I was playing a role in.
4 Trust me, I did some digging. I was told that someone is trying to write a book on Janette’s murder. I was also told that his/her work hasn’t been well-received by police or Janette’s family.
His digging couldn’t have gone that deep if the reporter didn’t know he was speaking to the writer in question.
Dig a little deeper there, Skippy.
As for law enforcement, I have no problem with them being less than cheerful about someone writing a book. For every unsolved homicide story being written, there’s a cop who wishes the tenacious writer or journalist would go the hell away. Comes with the territory.
I am in constant contact with law enforcement associated with this case. I have always been up front with them, and I hope they have done the same with me. I did my due diligence.
I sat down with Chuck Davis, the Reed City Police Chief, spoke numerous times with MSP Inspector Cam Henke. I had to appear before the city council to get a copy of the Reed City first responder’s report released, and most importantly, I sat down with the person who has the most knowledge regarding this case, Detective Sgt. George Pratt. I also sat with the Police Chief in Cadillac regarding elements of this case, and have had ongoing interactions with MSP Detectives Mike Stephens and John Forner, who are on the cold case team. I spoke with Detective Southworth, who attended the scene, on a few occasions, as well as Laren Thorson, the evidence technician on the case - who is also a former MSP trooper. I spoke with the County Prosecutor at the time of the murder, and followed up with two other former prosecutors to see what they knew. I also spoke with EVERY person named in the Michigan State Police report, within the sections that were not redacted, who had not already died. Then there were all the folks I spoke to who weren't in the report, who never spoke to police, but just lived in the area at the time and had smaller bits of info that were no less helpful.
Don't use a word if you don't know what it really means.
It is the job of law enforcement to solve a case; it is the job of the writer (and responsible journalists) to lift up rocks and shine a light in dark places to see what’s wriggling around under there.
Ours is not a surface sort of job, and if you think it is, maybe rethink your career trajectory.
Our job is to dig. Our job is to find the truth, not the sound byte.
Thirty plus years is a long time for a crime to go unsolved. The public has the right to take a look at exactly why that is. You want to do a shitty, gratuitous job of reporting on an old unsolved murder to fill your Halloween timeslot, that’s on you, buddy. But don’t try to malign others for trying to get at the truth in a straightforward, honest way.
Not without assuming you’ll get called on it, at some point.
...to be continued...