Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chapter 17 - Evidence Collection

I spoke with Nelson Gelinas on January 28, 2015 for about an hour, after getting his name from Laren Thorson as being the person who created Northern Counties Evidence Service. Gelinas was formerly a crime scene technician with Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. He came up with the innovative idea of a mobile crime lab service after having many sheriffs in his district complain about not having a fire or fingerprint expert in the area. Gelinas had given lectures at many of the area colleges regarding fingerprinting and fire cases, and had extensive knowledge and training in the field. With the encouragement of the sheriff’s departments, Gelinas put together a pitch for a mobile crime lab that would service multiple counties in the area, and presented it to the area County Boards of Commissioners. 

Once they were on board and the project was funded, he ended up starting with twelve counties.

This was in 1979. Each sheriff’s department would need one deputy to be trained as a first responder whose main purpose was to keep the crime scene from being compromised by taping off the area and making sure no one entered until the law enforcement entity assigned to the scene arrived. 

Gelinas interviewed deputies from all twelve counties, finally settling on fourteen individuals who were all required to take a three week course. For continuing training, which was kept up regularly, each deputy would have to go down to Kalkaska for a week, stay in a hotel, and respond to all scenes Gelinas was dispatched to, so they would encounter various types of crime scenes. According to his recollection, Detective Southworth with Osceola County had taken the training, as well as then Deputy Chuck Davis (who is currently the Reed City Police Chief). He said he did not recall Reed City Officer Theodore Platz ever taking the NCES training, even when I mentioned that he’d helped process the Roberson crime scene at Gambles.

I asked Gelinas what was covered in the three week training each deputy took. He said they learned how to protect the scene, the first and most important aspect being taping off the area. Nobody was to be let into the area until NCES got there. Interviews could be done, he said, while the first responder awaited the arrival of the mobile unit. 

Deputies were taught about how to properly enter a scene, taking into account things like mud, snow, and prints—all training around maintaining a secure scene with no unnecessary traffic. The deputies learned about preserving, packaging, and marking evidence collected, and also how to effectively testify at trial. 

He said it was a comprehensive course that covered everything from the time the deputy received the call, to them testifying at trial, if necessary. All of the evidence collected by NCES would then be delivered to the Bridgeport Crime Lab until the Grayling Lab was established out of necessity. 

NCES dealt with everything from robberies, homicides, plane crashes, fires… many different types of crime scenes. They were the first ever in the area to video crime scenes, Gelinas said, and he ran the mobile lab for three years, until Laren Thorson took over.

Laren Thorson handled the collection of evidence at the scene of Janette Roberson’s murder, and was eventually assisted by officers Doornbos and Bailey, who were sent by Cadillac at the request of Sheriff Needham (Osceola County) late that night. 

Thorson was a ten year veteran with the State Police crime lab in Lansing. 

According to an article in the Ludington Daily News published on September 11, 1982, the service was a mobile evidence unit or “crime lab on wheels” that contracted with counties at a cost of $4,500 per year for a twenty-four hour service. 

“Should a county decide to contract their services, several [local] officers would be trained as a response team until Thorson and the mobile unit arrived at the scene.” In addition, it covered transportation of evidence, and boasted “modern” equipment such as “audio-visual camera and recorder, evidence collection kit, casting equipment, anti-putrefication kit, ultraviolet light, halogen lights, latent fingerprint kits, evidence vacuum kit, metal detector, 35mm cameras, fingerprint camera, tools, post-mortem kit, and measuring kit. Crimes frequently investigated by the NCES are,” the article goes on to say, “arsons, homicides, sex offenses, robberies, breaking and entering, assaults, kidnappings, larcenies and identification of decomposed bodies.”

I spoke with Laren Thorson on Saturday December 6th, 2014. He told me he retired from Michigan State Police in October of 1976. After that, he and his wife bought a hardware store, selling it in 81. In 1982 he took over Northern Counties Evidence Service.

He said he was not sure exactly what time he arrived at Gambles the day of the murder, but it would have taken him an hour or so to get there from Kalkaska where he was notified, so it would have been at least that long after the discovery of the body. He believed Sheriff Needham had contacted him.

“When I arrived, the scene was very disorganized and nobody knew who was in charge.”

He said multiple law enforcement officers milling around among customers, and employees still being held for questioning. Because of that, it appeared to him that the store wasn’t even closed, that’s how many people were wandering around Gambles when he arrived. 

He says he was approached immediately when he entered by Theodore Platz, who proceeded to take him down to the basement and do a walk-thru with him, pointing out multiple items for Thorson to take note of. 

Thorson says he wasn’t sure of Platz’ role at the scene. He just continued to point things out, “See this? Look at that…” as Thorson took pictures. 

He told me they weren’t the only people in the basement pet department while he was doing so. 

After they completed walk thru, Thorson recalls saying, “Either you guys get this scene under control or I’m leaving.”

It was around this time, approximately 30 minutes after he’d arrived, when they agreed to take a break and set up a command center in one of the business next door. According to Thorson, at this time Osceola Prosecutor James Talaske assigned Detective Sgt. George Pratt as lead on the investigation and questioning witnesses, with Thorson as lead on the crime scene.

“But by then it was compromised,” Thorson said. “If I’m working a scene, I want it organized and I want it done in a professional, methodical manner.”

I asked Thorson if he believed they got a viable set of perpetrator prints.

“We got a lot of prints, but I’d have no way of knowing which ones were from the perpetrator. My job is to take all the evidence I can find.”

That doesn’t sound like a situation where there was a bloody hand print on the wall with the killer’s signature scrawled below it, if you catch my drift.

Thorson did recall they got what eventually turned out to be a set of prints that matched Alvin Roberson’s from a countertop “…at the opposite end of the room from where she was found.” That would have been the register area. 

Multiple people had said Alvin was in the store that day. These folks were also quick to note that wasn’t normal. Flossie seemed to back that up when she said Alvin didn’t come in the store much. In fact, she didn’t remember seeing him at all that day. 

Multiple people told me the “manager” told them Alvin had been there that day. Whether they were speaking about David or John Engels is unclear, since even Flossie didn’t consider John a “manager” and she was a longtime employee.

But let me pose a theory here, and you are perfectly within your rights to completely disregard it. I like to play Devil's advocate any chance I can, because it gives you an opportunity to look at things from opposing perspectives.

 If Janette had, in fact, been getting obscene phone calls, as reported to Prosecutor Talaske, the day before the murder, in fact, perhaps Alvin was checking in on his wife? It may have been odd for him to stop into the store, but it was noted early in the MSP report that Alvin Roberson was laid off from his job for that week, so he wasn’t working. Maybe he had nothing better to do. 

We’ll discuss the testimony of witnesses in a little bit, but I believe it’s worth noting, particularly from an investigative standpoint, that when more than one explanation for an event is possible, the best choice is usually the simplest one with the fewest assumptions. Absent facts that show otherwise, it’s best not to make things more complicated than necessary.

It appears those prints of Alvin’s, coupled with some “red spots” Detective Southworth saw on Alvin’s boots when he went to notify him, made Alvin Roberson the most obvious suspect, right off the bat. Spouses usually are, and that’s because 80 to 90% of the time in cases like this it is someone very close to the victim, often the spouse significant other, or relative. 

Years later, we've been told that Alvin was ruled out, according to the interview given to the press by the current Reed City Police Chief. 

That would be the interview your friendly writer took umbrage with. 

Lots and lots of umbrage.

When I spoke to him, Thorson mentioned that he’d heard Alvin left town right after the murder—another one of those tidbits I’d frequently heard being ticked-off as reasons locals thought Alvin must have killed his wife. In reality, he did not leave right after the murder. 

In fact, he left Michigan in September of 1983, eight months after the murder of his wife, according to the Michigan State Police report.

Maybe I’m naive, but if you’re an innocent man—and you know that, even if everyone else doesn’t because, um… you didn't actually do it—eight months probably does feel like a sufficient amount of time to subject yourself to repeated police questioning, town gossip, and the breathtakingly painful proximity to where your wife was brutally slain.

So I’ll do it, if nobody else will. I will apologize for everyone who thought it, everyone who said it—I will apologize for the entire town of Reed City, because somebody should, if the  man has, in fact, been ruled out.

Mr. Roberson, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss, and the subsequent treatment you received. While I understand from an investigative standpoint that what was done had to be done, I am sorry for everything you were forced to endure. I’m sorry you lost your wife and your children lost their mother.

I’m so sorry.

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