At the end of 1983, Peter Piper—a state inmate housed at the Lake County Jail—escaped. He was in prison for CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct) and attempted murder with a similar MO to Janette’s case.
He was incarcerated at the time of the murder, however Lake County Sheriff’s Department occasionally brought inmates to Reed City to pick up medications, visit the doctor, pick up car parts, etc., but no record was ever found that he was in Reed City on the date of the homicide, or out of custody for any period of time when Janette Roberson was murdered.
All of this was mentioned in the report.
Also at the end of 1983, the FBI in Washington DC was contacted in reference to the profile request sent to them in May by Michigan State Police. They were told it was to be completed “in the very near future.”
Much if not all that was happening on the Janette Roberson case at this point was checking with other law enforcement entities and comparing notes on other unsolved murders with similar MO, to no avail. The Stella Lintemuth case is of note because it was solved not very long ago, after many years, and it was mentioned a few times in the Janette Roberson file, as far as leads checked to make sure there was no correlation between the two crimes.
Whitney Gronski-Buffa worked for The Pioneer at the time I was researching the Janette Roberson murder. I spoke to her numerous times about the case, and during one of our conversations she mentioned the Lintemuth case after I had expressed some concerns about how Janette’s case file, three decades later, might not even be indexed and computerized. I worried that if the paperwork wasn’t even on the computer system, what if the prints and other evidence associated with the case weren’t all entered into whatever systems they need to be entered into, in case whoever killed Janette happened to do it again somewhere else.
I knew so little about how Michigan State Police kept their very old cases organized, but it seemed to me that in order to actually solve a case, all the appropriate information needed to be organized and easily accessible to law enforcement officers who might want to check something they had against prints or evidence associated with another case.
Nowadays, everything is immediately entered into computers, and that’s how files are kept, but in 1983 that wasn’t the case. In fact, when I spoke to the Michigan State Police Inspector about whether he would assign a cold case team Janette’s case, he told me that all the files at the local MSP Post would need to be indexed and organized before the team could even start from page one and re-investigate Janette’s murder, and that was if they choose it from the list of other Reed City cold cases.
I remember getting a little pain behind my left eyeball and thinking, “So, this is what high blood pressure feels like.” My pulse shot up to a dangerously high level and I could hear the thrum-thrum of blood circulating against my eardrums.
Really? I didn’t say this out loud to the Inspector over the phone, but, Really? We’re now thirty-plus years after Janette Roberson was slain the basement of Gambles and you’re telling me the file hasn’t been entered into the computer yet? Is it just her file or are all the decades-old unsolved murders in Michigan lying around local MSP Posts in dank closets gathering the dappled essence of mold?
Again, I didn’t say it out loud. Not then, anyway.
Make no mistake, I don't blame the actual cops for this. I see this as a systemic shortcoming within the structure of police departments that would be great if we could get addressed. I understand resources. I understand all about prioritizing.
It's still a shortcoming and should be addressed. It's also an issue, nationwide, not just Michigan.
It would be a couple more months before I suggested to the head of the FOIA department at Michigan State Police that perhaps they wouldn’t have to charge people for 84 (estimated) hours of work at fifty-five bucks an hour if they had some sort of universal rule that stated YOU KEEP ALL FILES, EVEN THE REALLY, REALLY OLD ONES UP TO DATE IN THE COMPUTER. I said it a little nicer than that, but the tone was implied.
So I’m sitting in the Pioneer office in Big Rapids with Whitney Gronski-Buffa, the reporter, and she’s trying to explain to me what she was told happened with the Stella Lintemuth case. As a bit of backstory, Stella Lintemuth was 89 years old at the time she was brutally murdered. Her body was found in her bedroom beaten and stabbed with hedge clippers. She was also strangled. The cord from a light fixture was ripped off and found wrapped around her neck. Scott Elwood Graham’s fingerprints were found on that cord, on the door in the master bedroom, as well as elsewhere at the crime scene.
“I covered the Graham case about two months after I started at the Pioneer. It was my first full-time reporting job, and my first step into crime reporting ever. When I started, Graham’s case had already been reported on in the Pioneer for two years by Lindsey Wahoviak and Brandon Fountain, so the oddness of the case was kind of known in the newsroom. When Graham was found in California, he was in a state hospital. He had to be extradited to Michigan and that required an agreement with the governors because of a case he was involved in out there.”
“A few days before the trial, I met with Frank West, then the director of Big Rapids Department of Public Safety. We met weekly, and that week we talked about this case. He was the first to really explain the fingerprint matter to me. As I remember it, Graham’s fingerprints had been collected at the scene of the Lintemuth murder back in 1980, but because they didn’t match any local records, they didn’t provide much information to police. IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) wasn’t created until about 20 years later – in 1999. They didn’t know it at the time, but Graham wasn’t from the area. He was just passing through, riding the rails on what he called a post-break-up “odyssey,” so local records wouldn’t have helped anyway.”
“At any rate, the fingerprints collected at the scene—taken from a wall lamp, the cord of which was used in the murder—were such good prints, Michigan State Police used them in training for years after that. Officers would run them through IAFIS to show trainees how to process them. According to West, during one such training, the prints hit for the first time ever. They linked back to Graham, who had just been arrested in California and placed in a state hospital (he was schizophrenic). I don’t believe it was his first arrest, so I’m not sure why those prints wouldn’t have hit sooner, but this was how West explained it to me.”
“This was really fascinating to me, mostly because I was new and had never heard such a story. But about a year later, a similar thing happened with another case.”
“Christopher Lauer committed a sexual assault in Big Rapids in late 2011. He raped a female friend in her apartment and threatened to kill her. When DNA from her rape kit was processed, it matched with an unsolved rape case in Philadelphia, where he had attended a conference for the hearing impaired in 2004. Lauer was convicted in both cases."
“In both of these cases, I don’t necessarily think there was any user error on the parts of the investigating officers. And, oddly enough, both cases involved crimes committed by people who were just visiting an area.”
“The problem with systems like IAFIS and CODIS* is that they can only “find” suspects who are repeat offenders,” Whitney explained.
*CODIS stands for Combined DNA Index System. It is a free database, funded and hosted by the FBI, that local and state law enforcement agencies can use to exchange and compare DNA information electronically. It is a resource for matching DNA in a series of crimes, even if they are years apart and has been in existence since 1990.
“If you’ve never been arrested and fingerprinted, or given a sentence that requires DNA sampling, your information isn’t in those systems. Even in situations like sexual assaults where the assailant isn’t identified, the system is only as good as the police using it. For example, if DNA samples from a rape kit are never processed, a known problem in this country, those samples stand no chance of being linked to an assailant the next time he offends.”
From Promoting Effective Homicide Investigations (2007):
“As of May 2007, CODIS contained more than 4.7 million DNA profiles. The profiles are broken up into forensic profiles, where the DNA originated from crime scene evidence, and offender profiles, which contain the DNA of individuals convicted of sex offenses and other violent crimes. About 4.5 million profiles in the database are offender profiles. The CODIS system will identify matches between forensic DNA evidence and DNA from offenders. The CODIS system may also contain DNA profiles of missing persons, unidentified human remains, and arrestees (if state law allows).”
“Stella Lintemuth’s murder was nearly 20 years cold by the time IAFIS was invented, so it would actually be pretty impressive if someone had thought immediately to run the prints from that case through this new system. Unfortunately, that’s the tragedy of cold cases—in ever-shrinking police departments, they’re no one’s priority unless a cold-case-specific team picks them up.”
“In Lauer’s case, police did the right thing by entering the DNA information into CODIS, but their suspect had no priors and didn’t reoffend (or at least wasn’t caught in another case) until seven years later. The system worked, but it’s more like lying in wait than going out to hunt.”
Lying in wait, indeed.
By the way, Whitney did a better job at explaining all that than I ever could, so thanks, lady.
But, my first question as a regular ‘ole citizen with limited knowledge of what cops do on a daily basis is this: Doesn’t it seem like there should be some kind of rule that you run latent lifts from possible perps of unsolved homicides through the system on a regular basis?
Is this a stupid question?
Because it seems like common sense to me. You have, let’s say, 10 unsolved homicides on your books.
Maybe you jot a little reminder on your desk calendar to run the prints you think are from the perpetrator of each unsolved murder through the database—oh, I dunno… maybe once a month; once every other month. Four times a year. Or how about this? Not all unsolved homicides are lucky enough to get their prints used for training purposes. How about we make that the RULE? Training prints all come from unsolved cases, so they get checked against the system on a regular basis and don’t get shoved into a drawer or box or closet and forgotten for a few decades.
I mean, I'm just spitballing here, but there has to be a better way.
Back to 1984…
As far as the Janette Roberson murder investigation, the year began with Detective Pratt interviewing “Dan” on January 4th in Grand Rapids.
He’s the guy who had a crush on Janette and lived in the same apartment complex. His mother is the one who, but for the grace of God, was supposed to stop at Gambles that afternoon with her son-in-law to look at a bird Janette wanted to sell her.
In January of 1984, “Dan” consented to give finger and palm prints for comparison purposes. The report notes that no additional information was gleaned in the interview Detective Pratt did that day. He’d last been questioned on February 10, 1983.
On January 9th Detective Pratt received a call from the Caro MSP Post in reference to a man who was in the process of being extradited from Florida on a charge of CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct) and assault with a knife. It was thought he might be a possible suspect based on MO, so the detective said he would submit a set of his prints to be checked once he was returned to Michigan.
On January 21st, 1984—almost one year to the day since the murder—Detective Pratt notes that he heard from Officer Finkbeiner of the Reed City Police, who’d spoken to a current employee of Gambles about another employee.
I tracked this woman down—we’ll call her “Beverly”—and told her who I was, then asked about the notation in the report. She immediately said I was “barking up the wrong tree” thinking [REDACTED] was the killer. I told her I wasn’t barking anywhere of the sort, nor was I suggesting anyone was a killer. I was merely checking into something the report said and asking her to elaborate.
“What report?” she asked.
“The Michigan State Police Report,” I said. “It says, and I quote, ‘From PO Finkbeiner, he talked to “Beverly” who works at Gambles about [REDACTED].”
She quickly shot back that she’d never spoken to anyone about anyone who worked at the store. Then she said she was not comfortable talking to me since the case was ongoing.
“They brought some investigators from out of state to work on it,” she said.
I have no facts to back that assertion up, nor have I seen anything to indicate such, but I rolled with it.
I told “Beverly” I was absolutely okay if she didn’t want to discuss it, that I was aware it was an ongoing investigation—albeit one that had been “ongoing” for more than three decades—and if she felt she had information that was important to the case and did not want to share it, I could respect that.
She stumbled and seemed genuinely uncomfortable, and said she didn’t know why anyone would think a book right now would be a good idea. I told her Janette’s daughter and the rest of her family would probably like some answers… it had been thirty years. She said she could understand Janette’s daughter wanting to know, but sometimes these things take time and she didn’t feel comfortable talking to someone she didn’t know because her life could be in danger.
I may have rolled my eyes. Okay, I did. I rolled my eyes.
Mainly because when people start saying their life might be in danger around a thirty-year-old-murder, I assume they’ve watched too many episodes of Dateline. But, being in no position to speak ill of Dateline viewing, given my own over-consumption, I let her continue.
Despite saying she did not feel comfortable talking, she kept right on talking.
She said to tell Janette’s daughter to be patient because these things take time.
I made a mental note to tell the daughter of the woman who was brutally slaughtered that maybe she should just be more patient…like for another three decades.
“Beverly” talked about working at Gambles in the pet department. She told me she spoke to Janette every day, especially when she would water the birds in their cages and she’d promise Janette they’d catch whoever did it, someday. She said it was scary down there, but she would lock herself in the back room when she was feeding the animals, and lock herself in and out when she was working in the back room. She told me after the murder, Gambles had a policy that when a customer came downstairs, another employee would stand at the top of the stairs and watch. Didn’t exactly sound like a cozy work environment. I’m not sure I’d want to work somewhere I felt it necessary to lock myself in and out of the back room every time I had to go back there for something.
“Beverly” said she worked at Gambles for a couple years, but finally left because of the “controversy.”
Something about the boss wanting her to work in one department, and his wife wanting her to continue working in the pet department.
“It just became too much, so I quit.”
Most of what she said was vague.
“I learned a lot of things while working down there.”
But then “Beverly” would say she wasn’t comfortable talking about them because of the ongoing investigation. She said one day the husband and daughter of a realtor who was killed came in to show her a picture of a man to see if she recognized him, but she didn’t.
We’ll talk more about that realtor later. Reed City has a few decades-old homicide investigations that remain open, and the case of the realtor, Sue Clason, is one of them.
Near the end of our conversation, Beverly confided, “I think it was a hit.”
Cue my second eye-roll.
But “Beverly” was serious. She said the person who killed Janette was well known and had a lot of money, but “Even rich people can’t cover up everything.”
To that last point, I heartily agreed.
I had heard the “hit” conspiracy theory a few times and it always made me cringe. Just to be clear for the record, I found ZERO evidence of anything close to a “hit” where Janette Roberson was concerned. There is no indication that anything even remotely resembling a “hit” occurred, except within the confines of some overactive imaginations.
“Tell her kids to be patient,” “Beverly” repeated. “I want it solved, too, but I can’t say something that could get me killed because I have other people to think about.”
Don’t we all?
"Beverly" also warned me that she thought it wasn’t a good idea to be talking too much about it when they were so “actively” working on the investigation. She repeated that a few times in the conversation, like it might not be safe for me to be asking questions.
Thank you, “Beverly.” Duly noted.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I couldn’t get a read on if she was just one of those melodramatic gossips who wanted to appear more involved than they are, or if she really had sensitive information that she didn’t think it wise to share. One thing she did seem to want me to know was that she was in-the-know about the status of the investigation.
“Now is not the time, when things are so active, to be talking so much about this.”
To that point, and even according the latest news report by the Reporter-Who-Dare-Not-Speak-His-Name, there were no plans to put a cold case team on the Roberson case at that time. In fact, his report ended with that tidbit as he stared, piercingly, into the camera.
At that point, the last time I’d spoken with the MSP Inspector who would be responsible for assigning the next cold case wasn’t even sure which case they were going to put a team. He was still weighing his options, deciding which from the pile of unsolved cases before him might be the most “solvable,” which is concern one when deciding whether to toss precious resources at a cold case. But, you never know. Maybe there was a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes stuff going on and “Beverly” was somehow an integral part of it. I hoped it was the latter.
Back to the MSP report…
On January 23, 1984—one year, almost to the day, after the murder of Janette Roberson—information came in from a source who wished to remain anonymous.
“The source feared [he] may have been involved in the homicide of the victim in this case.”
The source said that this subject had returned to the area two weeks before Christmas in 1982, staying with a relative. The relative’s information was given, and the report notes the residence in question is in the same apartment complex as Janette and her family lived.
“The victim’s rear entrance of her apartment faced the same courtyard which the front entrance of the family member’s apartment faced.”
According to the anonymous source, the subject remained living with this relative until a day or two after Christmas, at which time he moved into an apartment that was less than a mile from the victim’s apartment complex.
Multiple people were questioned in January regarding this person.
At the end of the January supplemental, it is noted that the FBI profile had been received regarding the case, and is described as being “…quite lengthy and similar to the profile completed by the Behavioral Sciences Unit/Investigative Resources Unit which had previously been done.”
In February of 1984, Detective Southworth of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department is busy interviewing people regarding the subject who was called in by the anonymous source. A detailed background check is performed on the subject, and then his mother is interviewed at length in the beginning of March.
|Detective Southworth from a B & E case in Dec. 1982|
Also in March, a brief note from Detective Pratt that said a former inmate had been “talking about the Roberson murder,” but was found to have been incarcerated in the Osceola County jail at the time of the murder. On March 10th more lab analysis reports were received from the Latent Print Unit.
Meanwhile, Detective Southworth continued to question numerous people who knew the subject called in by the anonymous source. After multiple interviews throughout February and March of 1984, a POSSIBLE SUSPECT is named in the Janette Roberson murder investigation in the MSP report.
His name is Lee Peterson and a relative of his lived in the same apartment complex as Janette. By all accounts, the family was well known and liked. Lee had graduated from Reed City High School, had been in the army—Vietnam—and was honorably discharged.
It is also clear that he was mentally ill. One of the people Detective Southworth spoke to was a woman who worked at a local Adult Foster Care Facility. I was able to interview another woman who worked at the facility during that time, and the story she relayed was disturbing.
She maintained that Lee Peterson had terrorized multiple women who worked at the foster home for months. He would come and bang on the wall or the garage door. After a while, he started showing up around where the women lived. He’d be seen walking around the immediate area of each of their homes. According to the woman I spoke to, he was stalking them—at least three other women in addition to her—and they all worked at the same foster care facility. One of the women got so scared she bought a gun and got a concealed weapon permit. The foster care employee I spoke to said cops told the woman if Lee came at her to empty the gun.
“Don’t talk, just shoot.”
The foster care employee told me Peterson would show up at the facility or their homes and bang on the walls. According to her, the State Police set up in the house next door to hers for three nights, hoping to catch Peterson in the act, but he never showed up while police were there.
The women—who took turns staying with the foster adults overnight for supervision—continued to get anonymous threatening calls while at work. In one of them, the woman I spoke to, said she was named specifically and he threatened to kill her.
She alleges that a relative close to one of the investigators in this case said to her once, “You know this is the guy who killed Janette Roberson, right?”
This family member happened to own the house next door to hers where police set up to try and catch him.
According to her, as soon as the cops left the stakeout, five minutes later Peterson would show up outside, banging on windows, walls, and doors. He kept showing up after police left. This woman lived out in the country, and she said that eventually cops found a hole dug out of the ground behind someone’s back yard with newspapers for cushion. It was within view of her home. She believes that’s why he knew every time cops were not around, and why they could never catch him.
She described Peterson as handsome, aggressive, and would be walking down the street near her house, talking to himself like he was having a violent conversation. She recalled an incident when she ran into him while walking her dogs. She said she had to duck into a store because he was following her.
When asked if Peterson had any link to the people who lived in the foster home or the employees, she said no, police believed he’d targeted the place because there were vulnerable women working there. When I asked how it all ended, the foster care worker said that one night Lee was apprehended in Paris, Michigan.
According to her, “The place was lit up like crazy.”
She wasn’t sure what became of Lee Peterson after that. Her understanding was that he was put in a mental hospital as the result of the Paris apprehension. When I told her Lee Peterson was dead, the woman seemed surprised. She said she wanted to know for sure because he’d threatened to kill her.
The next day I made sure to send along a picture of his gravestone. He’s buried in the same cemetery as Janette Roberson.
It's amazing the things that get around in small towns, but it's even more amazing the things that, somehow, don't.
She told me police were aware of Lee Peterson when she made her first call about him. This was when he was walking up and down her street during the “stalking” phase. She called Reed City Police and they told her they’d be right there, and to make sure all doors were locked and get to an inside room away from all windows, and under no circumstances go outside or have any contact with him.
According to her, the first complaint about Peterson was to the Reed City Police, but thereafter Michigan State Police took over for the stakeouts. Three times that she could recall they sat with her at the foster home when she worked.
When I spoke with her by phone, after she’d relayed this information, she asked me if I knew Lee Peterson’s mother had owned the Gambles store years previous to David Engels purchasing it. I nodded, as if she could hear me through the phone. It had been ricocheting against my skull like a ping-pong ball gone berserk since the moment she mentioned his mother’s name.
He was familiar with that basement…
My research assistant was able to track down the ex-wife of Lee Peterson, who verified that he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the Kalamazoo hospital while they were married. She remembered police coming to ask her questions about Lee in the 1980s but had no idea what it was in reference to. She assumed it was due to him being in and out of mental institutions as early as 1977. She said police were only there for a short time, and never gave her any information other than asking about his personality.
“He beat my daughter black and blue from her neck down, was charged with child abuse, and never saw her again.” She maintained that Lee hated women after she left him and she didn’t want to, in any way, be associated with his name, because that time in her life was very painful. She said Lee Peterson was abusive, would never stay on his medications, and was absolutely capable of violence.
“He was very sick.”
The whole conversation made me sad for everyone involved, and it quickly became clear why cops went at him so hard. Lee Peterson definitely looks good on paper—for the murder, I mean. History of violence, familiar with the physical location where the murder occurred, was in Reed City during the appropriate timeframe…
But could they link him to the crime scene on the day of the murder?
Whether or not he was capable of violence, I had uncovered no evidence that put Lee Peterson at the scene of Janette’s murder that day. The fact that their encounters with the man as it related to the Roberson investigation didn’t begin for a full year after the murder, and he wasn’t listed as someone who’d been fingerprinted with everyone else listed in the early days of the investigation as having been in the store that day, speaks volumes. No one I spoke to related to the Roberson investigation, as far as witnesses, even knew who he was.
I obtained a copy of Peterson’s death certificate because that is, as I said earlier, often the best jumping-off point for information.
Needless to say, when his death was listed as suicide, but the immediate cause of death was due to “multiple stab wounds to the chest” I had a moment.
A quick Google search suggests that stabbing oneself to death isn’t a popular mode of suicide. In fact, while stabbings are a relatively common cause of homicide, they’re the mechanism of only about 2% of suicides, according to The Manual of Forensic Emergency Medicine: a Guide for Clinicians. (2010, Ralph J. Riviello)
I mean, think about it. If you’re going to kill yourself, you’ve got to have some serious testicular fortitude to stab yourself multiple times when you could just as easily wrap your mouth around a tailpipe, or take a handful of pills. Not to make light of suicide—because there’s nothing light about a topic so horribly brutal—but if you’re going to do it, don’t do it that way. In fact, I’d suggest not doing it at all. Give it another day. Shit usually looks better in the morning.
In this case, that’s glib, and let me tell you why.
When you’re mentally ill and suicidal, your entire thought process is such that common sense and reason do not apply. There is no figuring out why someone who is in the throes of a dissociative or psychotic episode, severe depression, or any number of mental health emergencies does what he or she does.
There’s pain, and then there’s an abyss from which some people never return. Most of us cannot fathom that kind of confusion and despair, and in cases like this, it is best to do what good humans do and try to empathize rather than judge. I should note that I have people with mental illness in my family. I also have a cousin who was schizophrenic and killed himself. It is from this perspective that I can look at someone and understand that the person and the illness are often two different things, while physically they will always be bound together.
Lieutenant Todd Golnick of the Cadillac Police Department was extremely forthcoming as far as documentation I requested while researching this particular aspect of the Janette Roberson case. To be fair to the other entities involved, that’s because the subject of my inquiry was deceased and the Cadillac PD case was closed, so Lieutenant Golnick was able to furnish me with a great deal of insight and paperwork. While he did provide some documents that Cadillac PD prepared involving the Janette Roberson murder, the bulk of what I got from Lieutenant Golnick (researched, copied, and supplied by Hope Thomson, Cadillac’s fantastic Public Safety Clerk) had to do with the suicide of Mr. Peterson because the incident occurred within their jurisdiction.
August 25, 1996—thirteen years after the death of Janette Roberson—a man named Bernard Rouse walked into the Cadillac Police Department and said he had found a man lying dead with a knife beside him. An officer was sent to the scene and found the body of Lee Peterson in his apartment. The door was unlocked. The report included a list of evidence taken from the scene, descriptions of what was to be photographed, brief descriptions of how the officers handled the physical scene, and two other incident reports involving Lee Peterson—one in March, and one in May of the same year (1996)—prior to his death.
The report in March was a citation for a noisy muffler/excessive fumes.
The incident on May 16, 1996 was a suspicious situation/well-being check. Officers were dispatched to check on a subject that may have fallen and injured himself.
“Initial contact with Lee Peterson required the Fire Department and EMS to assist as he had an apparent injury, dried blood near his ear and his mattress was smoldering. Lee was in need of Mental Health, yet he refused treatment. He was disoriented, over-active, talking in confused sentences, wanting to preach the Christian way. Neighbors stated he had mental problems in the past, but this was far more serious behavior.”
An employee from the Mental Health Unit arrived and Lee Peterson was transported to the Mercy Hospital Emergency Room for evaluation. The following narrative was the bulk of the report regarding the August 25, 1996 scene officers encountered when they arrived.
I contacted Lieutenant Golnick by email and asked, among other things, why a rape kit was performed on Lee Peterson because it had been noted as one of the items sent to the lab, along with finger and palm prints, and serology (blood).
“Why would you need to do a rape kit on someone who committed suicide?” I asked.
Lieutenant Golnick suggested I come to his office and sit down with him and he would gladly answer any questions. He thought a conversation would be easier than doing it by email, at which point I told him that I was working on a book, and my questions about Peterson had to do with my interest in the Janette Roberson investigation. He told me to come on in and he’d answer any questions he could.
So I did.
Lieutenant Todd Golnick is a tall, strapping gent with an amiable personality and a quick smile. I was ushered into his office as soon as he was free, and sat with him for about an hour, during which time he told me that Hope, the Public Safety Clerk, was able to locate more information for me in the evidence room, including photos of the scene if I was interested, as well as a longer version of the report. Because many of the departments I dealt with didn’t go to their current computerized crime reporting systems until after the incidences I was researching, it had been difficult to get original paperwork. As it turned out, because this particular scene necessitated an abundance of caution, given the nature of the suicide, there was a hardcopy stored with the pictures, and a video of the scene, though the evidence had long since been destroyed.
The first responders had wisely called in an evidence team from Grand Rapids to handle the scene, in the interest of thoroughness, which was the reason the rape kit was done. They took every possible precaution to make sure it was a suicide...given on paper eighty-something stab wounds doesn’t sound like suicide.
When you look at the images, you quickly get a picture of what occurred; errant pills scattered around the apartment, fine blood spatter on the hallway walls, bathroom floor, and the kitchen counter and floor; the victim laying on the floor in the living room area, fully dressed, with what appears to be tears in his shirt over his left chest area. The officers took great care in documenting the entire scene, and it seems clear that whatever occurred during Lee Peterson’s last day, it took a little while. He was wandering around that apartment, likely not in his right mind, based on the scrawled suicide note found in a kitchen drawer, which contains not even one complete, meaningful sentence.
But the autopsy photos of the “stab” wounds tell most of the story. Almost all of the wounds are superficial. I’d call them scratches or nicks.
Cops would probably call them hesitation wounds.
What it looks like to the untrained eye is a very mentally ill man who wandered around his apartment, ingesting more of his prescribed medication than was indicated, and repeatedly stabbed himself in the chest, almost always just the tip of the paring knife found next to him piercing the skin. Secondary causes of death according to the death certificate, are listed as pulmonary emphysema and haloperidol intoxication. The toxicology report listed the only other things other than the haloperidol found in his system were nicotine (he was a heavy smoker), ethanol (alcohol), and caffeine. The fine mist spatter found on the walls and bottom of the refrigerator where he finally laid were likely him aspirating blood.
Lee Peterson was a very sick man who had served our country, and my first instinct is to say that he was failed by our mental health system.
I’d like to think that if he were alive today, he’d get better care, but I don’t know if that’s the case. You can’t force someone who is living on their own to take their prescribed medication. It’s very common for people diagnosed with schizophrenia to stop taking their medications for various reasons, including not liking how it makes them feel.
The longer report revealed that Lee was being supervised, and had a home visit by a mental health worker on August 23, 1996 in the afternoon, days before his death. The man had helped him get his pills together in a pill box, yet it appears—based on what was in the container after he died—he hadn’t been taking the appropriate dosage. In addition, the mental health worker noted that he had seen 20 or 30 tablets in the haloperidol bottle when he’d visited Lee, two days prior, but only the empty haloperidol bottle was found when officers arrived.
In the end, I was not able to locate even one person that could put Lee Peterson at the Gambles store the day Janette Roberson was murdered. Maybe that information is in a witness report somewhere, and not turned over with the file I received. Clearly a lot was held back. But I think it’s more likely that Michigan State Police looked at Lee Peterson hard, and they did, because he had a history of erratic behavior and violence, he was in town when the murder occurred, and at that point, it was the best lead they had.
It's also very likely, based on conversations I had, that his prints were down in that basement, somewhere, since his family had owned the place at one point.
Police only started looking at Mr. Peterson after an anonymous caller suggested they should, a full year after the murder. To me that suggests that prior to that, he had not been linked to the crime scene on the day of the murder.
At the time I was looking into this, my concern was whether his prints were compared to any latent lifts they took from the crime scene that they believed were from the perpetrator.
This document from the Lee Peterson Cadillac PD file left me further concerned.
There were a couple questions I had about it, so I got on the horn with Lieutenant Golnick again and he was helpful in the explanations. First—does murder /Non-negligent manslaughter equal suicide? Was that the technical term, for the purposes of law enforcement? The answer is no. Here’s his explanation:
“All police incident reports get a file class assigned to them. The file class system is known as the Michigan Incident Crime Reporting Index or MICR. Keep in mind it is an 8-hour course of instruction in how to manage them, so I will only give you the short explanation here. Most times whenever we investigate a death of unknown cause, it will be assigned a 0900-1 file class which is the file class for murder/manslaughter. It can always be downgraded as the investigation reaches other conclusions and, in this case, it does change to a suicide. By starting out as a 0900-1 file class, the incident gets faster service and better attention from the crime lab as well. So in answer to your first question, the investigation starts out as a murder/manslaughter and then concludes as a suicide. This is typical when an investigator walks into a confusing scene such as this one.”
Second—under PROCESSING RESULTS: The previously listed evidence was not processed per phone conversation with Det. Creed. Why wasn’t it processed?
“Your second question is about why some items were not lab tested. Whenever we process crime scenes, we gather everything we feel may potentially have evidentiary value. Then we discuss the evidence with the crime lab and an agreement is typically made on what will be processed and what will not. The lab cannot and will not test everything we collect. There are some rare occasions where that may occur, but only as the initial evidence submitted to them is found to be inconclusive or unrelated to the investigation. In other words, the lab and the investigator were satisfied that only the items submitted would be necessary.”
Finally—under AUTOMATED FINGERPRINT IDENTIFCATION SYSTEM: The latent fingerprints on this case are not suitable for entry into AFIS. Why?
“Your third question is in relationship to AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). I am not the person to speak about this topic, however I will tell you what I know from an investigators point of view. AFIS requires unknown prints that are lifted and submitted to its system for ID have a minimal amount of information in them. If the lifted latent prints don’t meet that criteria, then no submission can be made. I will tell you that AFIS was a young system in 1996 and it has improved significantly since then.”
Shout-out to Chief Golnick. He and Hope were, perhaps my easiest FOIA experience, to date. He took the time to sit with me and answer every question I had, and Hope had even emailed me back days after she'd sent my items, saying she'd found more, then asked if I wanted it. They both went above and beyond, and I learned a lot from the experience.
I think the most unjust thing I have learned while researching Janette Roberson’s murder is that police are under no obligation to disabuse the public of any notions about who they might (unrightfully) believe to be a killer.
Lee Peterson, “Dan,” and Alvin Roberson were just three people associated with this case who various long-time locals were sure had killed Janette. One would think it easy enough for cops to publicly say, We ruled him out, but it isn’t something they tend to do. It took over thirty years for them to do so in the case of Alvin Roberson—who arguably suffered more than anyone, other than his children. Insult to injury is the phrase that echoes in my head.
Insult to injury…
Again, please don't take away from this the impression that I blame law enforcement for this. There are reasons they don't like to rule anyone out until they have an arrest, and that's often because it's not as black-and-white as folks may think.
That's where I come in, I think. The only real role I can play in a situation like this. I can help inform the public a bit about how the process works.
I can try to mitigate any damage done to their memories by showing how police had the opportunity and means (via samples taken from all three people) to rule them out if that was a possibility.
Maybe it wasn’t.
I can tell you that no law enforcement entity would be considering putting a cold case team on a case where the perpetrator is dead. Not when they have a stack of other cold cases they could turn their attention to. I am certain about that. They also wouldn’t be keeping reports and files so tight to the vest if they were fairly sure the dead guy did it. There would be no common sense reason for that. I was also assured by multiple people in law enforcement that this case was one of the cases they were considering for reinvestigation, and I have no reason to believe otherwise.
Additionally, from a legal standpoint, records cannot be withheld indefinitely on the basis that release would hinder an investigation, if there is no investigation to be had, and that was the basis for their denials of many FOIAs related to this case.
The thing to remember is that not everyone police looked at committed this crime. In fact, that shining honor goes to only one person.
So what are the others, the un-vindicated, the innocent left with but a smudge they can’t ever rub away, because no matter how hard they try, there will always be someone out there who can’t see past it. Someone who thinks He did it.
Something about that seems rather unjust to me. My internal monologue goes a tad further.
It’s pretty damn shitty.
...to be continued...