The weather was cold and the roads icy; winter had her last tenacious grip on Reed City in the early spring of 2014 when I spoke with Flossie Earnest. After initially passing the house, then sliding all over the road in my Chevy Tahoe while making my way back, I finally parked, walked down the driveway, up to the front door of the well-tended-to home, and knocked.
My stomach lurched. You have no idea how much I hate this part—bothering people. It’s not in my nature to nudge myself into someone’s space and start asking questions. It makes me uncomfortable. But in this case, my desire to know was much stronger than any hope I had of letting it go. I could have taken the easy route and left it alone. Researching the case had certainly taken more time, money, and cheer from my life in the year I’d spent researching it than any single thing has a right to take.
By that point, I’d read too much. I’d seen the ME report, read three years of city council meeting minutes, flipped through endless volumes of leather-bound record books, spoken to family, read newspaper accounts—of which there were precious few considering the enormity of the crime. I’d assimilated too much information to go back and pretend I didn’t know there was once a beautiful young mother who walked into work one day and ended up leaving on a stretcher, slaughtered in the middle of the day, and nobody was paying for that crime.
That’s…well, that’s gross. That’s completely unacceptable. And that’s the part that didn’t sit well with me. Who do we see about these things? These injustices we stumble upon and realize need to be righted. How are we judged in the long run if we just let them go?
That’s where I was, emotionally, when Mrs. Earnest answered her door. When her husband—who later introduced himself as Norm—rolled up next to her in his wheelchair, I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. It was such a lovely gesture, this man who probably couldn’t have done much if I’d been an intruder with malice aforethought, but that didn’t stop the instinct to protect his wife.
I introduced myself and asked if I could have a few minutes of her time, explaining to them both who I was, and why I was there. Flossie stepped aside and let me in, graciously leading me into the living room. I took a seat across from her and Norm rolled up next to us, his manner having relaxed considerably once he realized the short, chubby redhead had no unseemly motives.
They were such a sweet couple, often finishing each other’s sentences. Flossie sometimes turned to Norm for confirmation when answering a question. It was as if they’d discussed Janette’s story many times, and she wanted to make sure she was relaying the information to me in the way she had shared with him over the years. It was clear that he knew the story as well as she, some three decades later, and a few times she looked at him in a very telling way, an exchange that felt like there was a bit more that I would never get to hear. Very likely their opinions on suspects, which neither seemed eager to share. I didn’t ask because you kind of know. You can feel it. Some people want you to ask, or at least want to tell you what they think. Most people, in fact. Not the Earnests. They weren’t the gossipy type. They stuck to the facts and answered each question as best as both could cobble together in recollection.
ME: I talked to Gene Johnson last night on the phone. Apparently, he was in the store that day. He said he was there at 11:30 and that when he walked in, nobody was up front but Janette. She said to him, “Can I help you?” and he said, “I know this store better than you!” because apparently he was in the store a lot.
FLOSSIE: Yeah, he was in there a lot.
ME: And so he said, “Where’s everybody at?” and she said, “They’re unloading the truck.” He then said he was going to go get something he needed and she said she needed to take care of something downstairs. And that was the last time he saw her. He did not see anyone there when he came in but Mr. and Mrs. Engels, they were unloading. He said those were the only people he saw and they were unloading through both back doors. So you had two back doors at the time, is that correct?
ME: And one of those was the old Golvidis’ back door? [The old Men’s Store which the Gambles store expanded into was previously owned by a man named Golvidis.]
ME: Were you already at work at that time, at 11:30?
FLOSSIE: Yeah, I was there.
ME: Did you guys have a break room? Maybe you guys were on lunch at the time.
FLOSSIE: We always went upstairs for break.
ME: In the office, or further upstairs?
FLOSSIE: No, further upstairs.
ME: What was further upstairs? Nobody seems to know.
FLOSSIE: There was furniture up there.
ME: To sell or just—
ME: So customers could go up there?
FLOSSIE: Uh-huh, yeah.
ME: Nothing else but furniture?
FLOSSIE: No, just furniture.
ME: And I assume to get up there you had to go up that stairwell that was above the basement, past Mr. Engels’ office, is that where he had his office at the time?
FLOSSIE: Yes, right at the top of the stairs is where he had his office.
ME: Upstairs, was there a bathroom?
ME: A sink?
FLOSSIE: Uh-uh. No.
ME: Was 11:30 around the time you used to have lunch?
FLOSSIE: I don’t remember. I really don’t.
ME: Do you remember who was in the store when she was found?
FLOSSIE: Well, John Engels… and Angie Tillie. Me. And Dave and Bonnie. And that’s all I can remember.
ME: So, would you have worked the register? Were you the person who checked people out?
ME: Gene told me he didn’t usually get checked out. He would come in, get what he needed, write it down on a receipt and put it on a peg, does that sound right?
FLOSSIE: Yeah, who’d he work for? I can’t remember.
ME: The hospital. Head of maintenance.
FLOSSIE: (nodding) He came in all the time.
ME: Right, and I think that’s why he said that to her. “I know this store better than you!”
FLOSSIE: Right. So he just left the bill there, whatever it would be.
ME: I guess what I was wondering—and I should call him back and ask—he said that was the first time he had met Janette because he had never been down in the basement before. But if that was the first time he had met her, how would she know he wouldn’t have needed to be checked out? If she was covering the front of the store, would she check customers out upstairs, or were you only allowed to run the register? Or Angie?
FLOSSIE: No. I mean we all ran it.
ME: So everyone ran the register?
FLOSSIE: Um-hmm. Yeah. There was two registers. One at the front door and there was one in the middle of the store.
ME: Oh, okay. I didn’t know that. And the one in the middle was right by the entrance to the basement, correct?
ME: Would you and Angie have been unloading the truck?
ME: Okay. I didn’t think so but I thought, let me check, because I wondered why he didn’t see you. So I’m guessing you were probably on lunch break?
FLOSSIE: I don’t remember. I think I was putting stuff up (on the shelves) because—I’ll tell ya, Angie came running—she went down in the basement for something, because our storeroom was to the left of where Janette’s place was, you know… So, she went down to the basement for something, evidently, ‘cause she came running up, and she put her head on the desk that we had right at the basement door there, and we thought—I thought she was having a heart attack. I said, “What’s a matter, Angie?” So I called John—and John was upstairs, John Engels. He was upstairs having his lunch—and he come down the steps two at a time, because I said, “I think Angie’s having a heart attack!” And then she just pointed to the basement. She couldn’t talk, she just pointed to the basement. So then John ran down to the basement and he come up and he said, “Close all the doors!”
ME: Now, that—I have a question about that. He ran down there, he saw her, he came up and said, “Close all the doors!” But, had he checked to make sure nobody… the killer wasn’t in the store—I mean, it’s a pretty big store. I would have been afraid because—
Flossie shrugged here and put her hands up, questioningly.
FLOSSIE: I don’t know.
ME: So you don’t know—
FLOSSIE: No, I mean…
ME: But it was quick, you didn’t see him checking?
FLOSSIE: No, we were just all so—(exasperated sigh)
ME: I can imagine. So are those the only two people that went down there before the police came or was there anyone else, any other store person that went down there?
FLOSSIE: I don’t think so. I don’t think there was. In fact, Lana (Janette’s sister) called me yesterday from South Carolina, she said, “Were those coal chutes where we used to get coal, were they open all the way down the line?” and I said I really don’t know. But when the owner that used to own Ben Franklin, when he gets home from Florida, I’m gonna ask him ‘cause he might know.
ME: Right. At one time they were all connected.
FLOSSIE: That’s what I thought.
There was some discussion of which basements may have been accessible to one another at that time. Back in the day, beneath the sidewalks that ran up and down each side of Upton Avenue there were “tunnels” that ran below the front of the businesses with coal chutes that came off at different places, as well as sections below ground where coal was stored. One of the many rumors attached to Janette’s case was that the killer may have gotten in and out underground, though I found no evidence of this during my research. In fact, the crime scene technician I spoke to told me that there was no evidence collected “beyond” the back room, and he was not even aware of any possible exits from the basement to other underground areas.
FLOSSIE: You know, I think when you get down in the basement there, I think there was about this much room… [Flossie held her hands a couple feet apart here] It seemed like a person could crawl around…
ME: Crawl around where?
Norm, who had been listening throughout the conversation, interjected here, “You mean where they found the [REDACTED]?”
ME: What [REDACTED]?!
FLOSSIE: Well, the one that they found.
ME: They found a [REDACTED]?
FLOSSIE: Well, that’s what supposedly killed her.
ME: Where did they find the [REDACTED]?
(NOTE: There was a lengthy discussion about where the item in question was found, but I have redacted this section completely to preserve the integrity of the investigation.)
FLOSSIE: I heard that there were still crates down there with straw in it and stuff.
ME: The (fish/animal) tanks are still down there.
NORM: Now? [incredulous]
FLOSSIE: (disgusted) Yeah, after thirty years!
ME: Yeah, they’re still—
FLOSSIE: I mean, that place is such—it never was like that. It was a clean store.
ME: I don’t think he’s [the current owner] done much with it. [CHUCKLING]
ME: Who was the manager of the Gambles store?
FLOSSIE: Dave was. He was the owner and he was the manager. I don’t know if we even had a manager. I managed it for a while.
NORM: Dave would be the owner and manager of the whole works.
FLOSSIE: Yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t think we had any manager.
ME: So it was pretty much Dave and everyone else was an employee.
ME: When the body was found, was David Engels there?
ME: The problem here is we have a letter from Janette’s father. And he spoke with, he said, the store manager. And the store manager told him he was not there when the body was found, someone called him to the store. So I’m trying to find out, either somebody’s lying, or that’s not true, and these are things—I mean, it’s been thirty years and—
FLOSSIE: Well, Dave was there. ‘Cause I can still see him sitting on a crate, sayin’, “Oh my gosh,” he said, “I just came from…”
NORM: [interjects when Flossie pauses] Saginaw.
FLOSSIE: “…Saginaw, to get rid of all this stuff like murders, and here I am in my own little store and I got a murder on my hands.”
ME: Yeah, and not just any murder.
FLOSSIE: So he was there. I remember that. But when he c— [exasperated sound] I don’t know when in the heck he came in, but how people knew so quickly, ‘cause the front of that store, we went and locked the door, John did, there was people out there that you wouldn’t believe. How did they know?
ME: You mean they were on the sidewalk looking around?
FLOSSIE: It was just something else.
ME: I wondered how quick it got—you mean it was daylight and there were already people there?
FLOSSIE: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it just seemed like they just all of a sudden flocked in front of that store.
ME: Okay then, let’s discuss what customers might have been in the store. Do you remember which customers were in the store when the body was found?
FLOSSIE: I don’t.
ME: In the newspaper Herald articles, they said Janette was getting obscene phone calls in the days before. Did you know anything about that?
ME: Did Janette talk about Alvin (her husband) a lot?
ME: Was he there that day?
FLOSSIE: [shaking her head no.] Uh-uh.
ME: You don’t remember seeing him at all that day?
FLOSSIE: Huh-uh, no. The only thing I know is that the school must have called her and told her to come pick up one of the kids, because she left, you know, before noon. And she went to school to pick up her kids and she must have took ‘em someplace and then she come back.
NORM: How do you know it was the school that called her? Why couldn’t somebody else—
FLOSSIE: Because she said, she come up and said, “I gotta go pick up my kids.”
FLOSSIE: Or, one of the kids—I think it was the little girl—from school.
ME: Maybe she was sick or something?
ME: So she went and picked her up, brought her to the babysitter and came back. Sound about right?
ME: So you never saw Alvin in the store at all that day?
ME: Where did Janette usually eat her lunch?
FLOSSIE: She went home or…
ME: She left the store, then?
ME: Did she leave that day? In addition to the time she went to get her child, or did she maybe grab food while she was out?
FLOSSIE: Well, I think—I don’t think she left again. I mean, she went and picked up the kids.
ME: So maybe she grabbed something to eat when she was at home?
ME: Was there a coat rack for employees? Where did you hang your coats, do you remember?
Flossie’s eyes widened as she tried to grab hold of the three-decade-old memory.
ME: I know, I’m asking silly questions, but all of them have a reason.
NORM: (trying to jog her memory) Same place, probably, where you put your purse.
ME: Hats, gloves?
FLOSSIE: I don’t…Hmm.
I reminded her that they probably wouldn’t have had all the coats and personal items at the register. She thought about it for a few seconds.
FLOSSIE: Well, you got me. I don’t remember that at all.
ME: Let me refresh your memory and see if this sounds right. Gene Johnson said that he thought when you come in the back door there was a bathroom, and a row of pegs…
FLOSSIE: Yep. That was the only bathroom.
ME: That was the only bathroom?
FLOSSIE: That must be where we hung our coats but I don’t think our purses. I think those we took up and put under that counter that faced the door going down to the basement. I think that’s where we put our purses.
ME: So that would have been at that second register.
ME: That makes sense.
FLOSSIE: I don’t think we left our purses in the bathroom.
ME: Do you happen to know what Janette’s winter coat looked like? Do you have a visual of what she looked like when she came in dressed?
FLOSSIE: [shaking head] No.
ME: Do you know of any coats or hats or anything that were missing that day? Employee’s stuff.
ME: So, Janette worked for David Engels. He hired her, right?
ME: Who serviced the animals? Did they purchase the animals? Who brought them in?
FLOSSIE: They were brought in from Freeland, that’s where Bonnie had her shop, in Freeland—little town there by Saginaw. And, uh, Bonnie brought all those animals in, and she worked down there for a while and then they hired Janette.
ME: So she didn’t work there regularly after they hired Janette?
FLOSSIE: No. But she, I mean, I think she was more or less Janette’s boss. Bonnie’s the one who set up the pet store and got everything all set up.
ME: In a news article, it said she was seen in front of the Animal House in Big Rapids, Janette was, eight days before the murder, and again in Gambles on the 12th giving a gentleman gerbils. Two brown gerbils and one black one. Do you remember anything about that?
ME: Would she have been sent to Big Rapids to fetch stuff for the pet store that you were aware of?
FLOSSIE: Not that I know of.
There was some discussion about gerbils and the possibility of Janette selling them, but Flossie was unaware of anything like this.
ME: Who was the first officer on the scene?
NORM: Probably city, wouldn’t you think?
FLOSSIE: I have no idea.
ME: Do you remember any of the police that were eventually there? That you remember seeing? I’m sure at that moment it was like a big crisis moment. I mean, you’re not thinking about anything other than what’s downstairs.
ME: Do you remember who called police?
FLOSSIE: I think John did.
ME: Right away, when he came upstairs?
FLOSSIE: Um-hmm. I don’t know whether he called the city police or the state police. I don’t even know who the city police were then.
NORM: It was Phil down there, wasn’t it?
ME: I think Rathbun was out of town, that’s what I was told.
FLOSSIE: I remember them coming in, but I don’t know who they were.
ME: Did they have any instructions for you before they went downstairs?
FLOSSIE: No. They just went right downstairs.
ME: Do you know if anyone went down with them or if they went down by themselves?
FLOSSIE: I don’t know. I don’t remember that. My memory isn’t that good.
ME: Actually, you’re doing great. Do you know if there were any customers in the store that left after the body was discovered, but before the police got there?
FLOSSIE: [shakes head no like she’s unsure]
ME: Do you know of anyone that was there at all that day, whatever time?
FLOSSIE: Well, I know—I can’t think of his name but he’s dead now. Big, heavy-set guy.
ME: Was he a business man?
FLOSSIE: Well, kind of. He’s got a son that’s on the council.
FLOSSIE: Roger, his name is.
After a time, she came up with the name.
FLOSSIE: Tom Meinert. He was in Gambles that day. But he went out. He’s the only one I can remember being in there.
ME: And it was before she was discovered?
ME: Do you remember anything that Angie said about what she saw… the body, where it was found… where in the basement?
FLOSSIE: No. She could probably tell you. She’s in a home up in [REDACTED]. Her name is Angie Tillie. I talked to her in January on her birthday. She’s ninety-some years old, but she remembered a lot more than I did because she saw her, you know?
ME: Do you remember anything that she said she saw? I’m trying to find out if…did she say it looked like there was a struggle or—
FLOSSIE: Uh-uh, nope.
ME: I’m glad you didn’t go down there that day.
FLOSSIE: (closes eyes) Me too.
ME: How many truck deliveries did you have that day, do you remember?
FLOSSIE: Probably just one.
ME: Was that normal? Just one truck delivery?
FLOSSIE: Um-hum. One big truck, yeah.
ME: Were they always on Wednesdays?
FLOSSIE: Um, probably. I imagine they were ‘cause they always, they had a routine, so…
ME: And so you think it was a once-a-week type thing?
ME: Do you know who the delivery drivers were?
FLOSSIE: No. They weren’t from around. I don’t know where they come from, but they weren’t from around here.
ME: Was the truck there when the body was discovered, or was it already gone?
FLOSSIE: I think it was already gone.
ME: Okay, do you know what time Detective Pratt arrived?
ME: Did they separate you all and question you that night?
FLOSSIE: Mmmm, the next day, I think. Yeah, I think the next day we all went up the state police post. Yeah because we had appointments to go up there.
ME: But they didn’t question you that night?
FLOSSIE: No, huh-uh. I don’t think they did.
ME: What time did you all leave? Did they let you go right then, or did you have to hang around a while?
FLOSSIE: Uh, I think we hung around a little bit. I mean, we closed the store up and then we all just kind of [throws hands up] …were baffled, you know?
ME: What time did the store usually close?
FLOSSIE: Six o’clock.
ME: So Detective Pratt got there before you closed, you remember seeing him that night?
FLOSSIE: I don’t remember seeing him. He probably was there, but we were all so… [indicates confused, upset]
ME: I can imagine. So you know that all of the employees were questioned that were there that day?
FLOSSIE: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. We were all questioned separate. We all went up to the state police post.
ME: And what kind of questions did they ask you? Did you feel like it was a thorough questioning?
FLOSSIE: Yeah, it was a thorough… Well, he started out with like your family, and I was like “What’s goin’ on here, you know?”
ME: He was asking about your family?
ME: Who questioned you?
FLOSSIE: Detective Pratt.
ME: Do you know him at all? Did you know him at the time?
FLOSSIE: No. I mean I knew who he was, but that was all. I mean, he’d ask me personal questions like, “Are you and your husband getting along alright?” you know, and all that crap.
ME: Right away he was asking you those questions?
FLOSSIE: Uh-huh. I remember that.
ME: I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have been at the top of my suspect list. [laughing]
We discussed Pratt’s questioning and I told Flossie I wasn’t sure why he started questioning that way, but I did read that police have ways they do things as far as interrogations and gauging honesty, so it might have been a technique to get a feel for her before he started asking pertinent questions.
Flossie thought about that and agreed.
NORM: [interjecting into conversation] I tell you, you wanna commit a crime, come to Reed City. They’ll never solve the thing!
Flossie chuckled, as did I.
NORM: You know, back then I don’t know if they had DNR* or not… (*he meant DNA)
ME: They didn’t. They could do hair and fibers, I think, but they didn’t do a lot of the same testing, so I think there’s a chance they could—but see, even if they have DNA, they have to match it to someone in the database. If it’s someone they haven’t caught killing again or doing anything, they have to look at their suspects, you know?
I consulted my list to get back on track.
ME: Alright, let’s see, so out of the employees that day, you were working register, you and Angie?
ME: And stocking?
ME: How long did Janette work there before this happened?
FLOSSIE: Not very long.
ME: Months, weeks?
FLOSSIE: Months, probably. Yeah, she didn’t work there very long.
ME: Did any of the employees work earlier in the day and then leave?
FLOSSIE: No. We all came in at the same time.
ME: Always? Every day everyone came in together and left together?
ME: So nobody worked like half shifts?
ME: Well, you’d think with that few people, not too hard to keep track of. Do you have an idea… She was last seen, according to information we have, around 1:30. I assume that was based on a register receipt? Her last sale, perhaps? Do you know?
FLOSSIE: No, I don’t.
NORM: Here’s Vicki, dear…
At this time, a relative was arriving, so I quickly finished up my questions.
ME: There was a period... around 1:30 to when she was found around ten to four—is that normal for her to have been down there that long by herself without anyone having seen her? Is that typical?
FLOSSIE: Yeah. Uh-huh.
ME: Was she working down there alone that day?
FLOSSIE: Yes. She always—there wasn’t ever anyone else.
ME: Never anyone with her?
FLOSSIE: Huh-uh, no.
I asked about the storage area but she didn’t know anything about the set up back there.
ME: How often was she upstairs? Did she often cover breaks?
FLOSSIE: No. I can’t imagine her being up there because I don’t remember her being up there. Usually it was downstairs.
ME: The boy from the sketch. I believe that sketch was based on someone that you had described?
FLOSSIE: Well, yeah. The curly, blonde hair. He was in there, too.
ME: He was in there that day?
FLOSSIE: Uh-huh. He was in there that day, yeah.
ME: Close to the time of the murder, or way earlier?
FLOSSIE: Earlier, I think.
ME: You don’t know his name?
ME: Did he ever buy supplies while he was there?
FLOSSIE: Yes, I think so.
ME: So he must have had a pet and that’s why he was there regularly.
FLOSSIE: Yeah, I think, yeah.
ME: Do you know of any other townspeople that shopped down there regularly?
FLOSSIE: I can’t remember any of them.
ME: Did she ever say anything about anyone bothering her?
FLOSSIE: No, huh-uh.
At this point we discussed the possibility of me talking to Angie Tillie. The guest that had arrived while we were speaking came and introduced herself and since she was friends with Angie’s daughter, we exchanged emails and she said she would contact them for me. Later on, I prepared questions for Angie Tillie and passed them along, but it was decided by the daughter with conservatorship that being questioned about it would upset her too much. I was told that after she and Flossie spoke in January around the time of the memorial walk for Janette, Angie cried for days.
Clearly the murder had made an impact that haunts her to this day.
...to be continued.