Sunday, July 30, 2017

Chapter 21 - 1985, continued.

The supplemental dated September 11, 1985 shows Detective Albright making contact with some of the people whose names were given at Alvin’s place of employment. Alan Foote was one of the people he interviewed, and I was able to get in touch with him. I asked if there was anything he remembered about Janette and Alvin, and if he could recall the types of questions police asked him.

I worked with Al [Alvin Roberson] when the shop was in Reed City and met Janette a couple of times. I typically picked on her about her Southern accent. After the shop moved to Marion, I worked in the same area with Al. We became closer friends. The day she was murdered, I saw it on the news at home and called Al. I remember telling him I wanted to make sure it was not his wife. He told me that it was, and I drove into town and sat with him awhile. When I left, I went downtown and told the police that they should at least send someone to tell him what was going on, as he was completely in the dark. I don’t remember if it was the next day, or the following day, but they came to question me at work.”

I remember them asking questions about Al, mostly what type of guy he was, but the thing I remember most was them asking about paint that we used at work. At that time we used a lot of red paint and I am sure it was on his shoes. He told me later that they took his work boots. I think they wanted to know about red paint to rule out what was on the top of his work boots. I also remember him having to leave work early to give them a hair sample. He was concerned about it and said there was a chance his hair may be on Janette because they slept in the same bed and used the same brush.”

What seems like months later, a different officer came to work and did the interview again. No questions about paint this time. They pretty much asked my relationship with him, and basically asked if I thought he was capable of such a thing. I remember telling them at that time, during lunch, something had come on the radio about a random, dumb killing. He [Alvin] started crying and said something to the effect of ‘Has the whole world gone fucking crazy?’”

Al and I became closer friends after that, worked on cars together, etc., until they moved to Georgia. I doubt I have really told you anything new. Sorry, not much help.”

But he was helpful. With the exception of one or two people I spoke with, everyone went out of their way to be helpful. They wanted to share their memories, maybe in the hopes that all these years later, their combined recollections would come together to make sense of the tragedy.

What I was left with after Al Foote’s recollection is an image of Alvin Roberson sitting in the apartment and looking at his children after finding out his wife is dead, and nobody’s telling him what’s happening, and he’s wondering what he’s supposed to be doing because he has no frame of reference for what’s happening to him… 

What do I do? What am I supposed to be doing right now? So he’s just sitting there, paralyzed, wondering, like Al said, ‘Has the whole world gone fucking crazy?’

Picture him there. Remember, as I write this, he’s been ruled out as a suspect - at least according to media reports. Picture this guy who we have to now presume didn’t kill his wife. Think about the scenario differently—think of it as your brother, or nephew, or son. How must he have felt? In the span of a day he was suddenly a single parent with two young children, his wife had been murdered, and everyone thought he did it.

It’s easy to speculate. “Of course the husband did it!” I heard that more times than I can count while researching this case. Alvin Roberson seemed the easiest person to point fingers at, despite how many times I told folks that his DNA and fingerprints had been taken very early on, and if he killed his wife at her place of employment in the middle of the day, and cops weren’t able to pin it on him—this man who by all accounts was a simple, quiet, hardworking man—well, there's probably a very good reason for that.

The first time I spoke with Reed City Police Chief Chuck Davis, he told me that the overriding feeling in law enforcement was that Alvin Roberson killed Janette. He said at one point they thought Alvin was close to confessing, but someone walked into the room and Alvin clammed up. I’m not sure what room or who because he didn’t elaborate. Chief Davis told me there were numerous things that led them to believe it could have been him, including him leaving town with the babysitter. Davis told me the general “profile” of a crime like the one perpetrated on Janette, (revenge was the word he used), was done by someone who’d been “intimate” with the victim. But he did say it could have also been someone she’d “turned down.”

Chief Davis worked for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department at the time of the murder, but he wasn’t on duty on January 19, 1983. To his credit, when we spoke the first time at the Reed City Police Department, he probably hadn’t looked at the file in years, and I have no indication he ever worked the case personally, prior to that, so what he told me about Alvin was most likely the impression he’d been left with over the years, having not been a part of the investigation, himself.

I spoke to Detective Sgt. Southworth and was able to confirm that he also believed Alvin was on the verge of confessing at some point. He said there were a few things that made him believe Alvin Roberson was the perpetrator, including his demeanor the day of the murder, and how he left town. Southworth also told me that he recalled Detective Pratt not being convinced Alvin had killed his wife, based in part on the types of injuries she sustained. Still, he said, Detective Pratt continued his investigation in a professional manner, doing everything a well-seasoned detective does to try and rule someone out as a suspect. Cops can have a feeling, but they still do the necessary work because, in cases like this, spouses are involved more often than not.

After a memorial walk was held for Janette in January of 2014, and a few new leads came in, Chief Davis went over the file with one of the Michigan State Police detectives assigned after Detective Pratt had retired. According to one of the Pioneer articles—post-Memorial walk—the new MSP detective stated there had been almost no tips coming in for years until that walk generated so much attention.

According to a former employee with the Osceola County Prosecutor’s office, after Detective Pratt’s retirement, not much happened with the case. It had technically transferred from hand to hand, but never moved out of whatever dusty confines it had been relegated to for storage.

There just wasn't any new information coming in and if they had what they needed to bring it to the prosecutor, someone might be sitting in jail right now.

I should also note something else Chief Davis confirmed when we spoke the first time. 

In 1983, Reed City officers were Patrolman, not in any way trained to handle what they found that day. Today it would be different. Today with the popularity of all manner of true crime shows, Unsolved Mysteries, Cold Case shows, true crime blogs, and serial investigations like Making a Murderer, the average person would likely pick up on problems that could be associated with things like the EMTs thinking they were en route to a heart attack, or two law enforcement bodies worth of deputies and patrolman tromping around in the immediate area of a body. 

The problem here is that those first responders (at least the medical ones) were anticipating a person having a heart attack, not a dead body, so they weren’t looking for clues, or paying attention to the same details they would if they knew ahead of time they were responding to a homicide.

But the cops were all dispached, as far as Raymond Haight, the county dispatcher recalled, as a homicide to the Gambles store. If that's the case, it's hard to understand why an officer who thought he was responding to a homicide would walk an EMT through a spot of blood on the floor—or allow a bunch of witnesses to leave the premises without being questioned. 

Even by 1983 standards, a Rhesus monkey could probably tell you that you don’t allow that many people near a crime scene. Way too many people had access to Janette Roberson’s body. Too many employees; too many cops; too many customers. Too many people traipsing around where evidence would eventually be recovered to make it anything close to a pristine crime scene.

Nelson Gelinas had explained to me exactly how his technician/investigators were trained to lock down a scene, so I'm hoping that's what Southworth did before he went outside after Finkbeiner turned the scene over to him, and radioed for the cavalry, including Northern Counties Evidence Service. He also noted that Prosecutor Talaske was notified at that time - the person, who appears to be the first one to arrive at the scene and say anything akin to, "What the hell are you people doing? And thank goodness for that. Because the state police investigator arrived shortly thereafer.

Mistakes were made, that much is clear. I will say, however, that I don’t see anything that occurred being intentional - at least with regard to the actual officers dispached to the scene -  so much as ineptitude and a series of unfortunate events occurring in a short span of time—including multiple law enforcement officers arriving in close proximity to one another at a scene more gruesome than most of them had likely ever encountered. You want as few people as possible roaming in and out of a crime scene. While it is unclear how long that scene was unsecured, I think it's safe to say that a few people who had no business being around that body after it was discovered made their way down there. 

According to Detective Pratt’s notations, “…some more than once.”

The fact that there were people around that body who shouldn’t have been when EMTs arrived is supported by the Osceola County report prepared by Det. Sgt. Southworth. There is a chunk of that report REDACTED between the time he arrived and was led by Officer Finkbeiner to Janette’s body, followed by the notation, “At that time Officer Finkbeiner stated to the undersigned, ‘You are an evidence technician, I want you to take over the scene.’ At that time, the undersigned removed everybody away from the body, except EMS personnel checking the body.” It also notes after that “Both doors to the store were then locked so no one else could enter.”

Who is this “everybody” and why was “everybody” standing around ogling the body, anyway? 

Detective Pratt’s notes say the people he learned “through investigation” had been around the body were Chief Rathbun, Thomas Hawkins, David Engels, John Engels, Angie Tillie, the Medical Examiner, and the nurse at the hospital who, according to Pratt’s notes “was just passing by” as first responders arrived. Gary McGhee says she wasn’t down there near the body while he was there, so when was this nurse around the body? When was Chief Rathbun down there around the body before Pratt arrived? Hawkins? He was a customer and apparently not even the store manager or owner had the presence of mind to keep customers away from the area. 

It is unclear which of those people were down there at what points, because not one of the reports is specific in that regard. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in suggesting they damn well should be. Unfortunately, the only solid note taker, Detective Pratt, wasn’t present when all that occurred, so he only had to go by what others told him, and some of those “others” might not have provided the best information.

Obviously the doors hadn’t been locked immediately after John Engels found the body, based on this report and Southworth telling them to “secure the scene.” You don’t have to say “secure the scene” if the scene is already secure. 

What is noted in the city and county reports generally only reflects small pieces of what may have been happening. Like, how did the suspended officer become aware of the scene, so that he was already there when Detective Pratt arrived? He's not mentioned in any of the reports other than the Michigan State Police report.

Supposedly it went like this:

Body was found a few minutes before 4p.m. according to ME report.
EMT gets dispatch at 4:06 and arrives at 4:08 - thinking they're headed to a heart attack.
Southworth arrives to see Reed City Police (Officers Finkbeiner and Primeau) and EMT's all going in.
EMTs do their job; Janette is pronounced dead minutes after they arrive.
Somewhere during this time, the following arrive: (suspended) Officer Platz, Chief Rathbun, two more county deputies, the county sheriff, and finally, Prosecutor Talaske. 
Detective Pratt arrives at approximately 4:30

I can't imagine what I'd do if I was the State Detective assigned to a case and I walked in to find a gaggle of folks who had already traipsed through my crime scene, some more than once, including store customers, and a guy who’d been arrested for drunkenly screaming F*CK THE STATE POLICE prior to assaulting them, now helping to “process” my crime scene. The place was full of cops! Who thought they needed the one who wasn't even supposed to be working? 

There's something I want the reader to consider about the above, because there's a possibility that it plays into why there has never been a conviction in this case. 

We've all, by now, watched trials where the defense attorney puts the police on the stand and rips them to shreds regarding what they percieve to be errors in their performance. Most times, this is just a blatant way to distract the jury from the fact that their guy did it. But it's an element used by the lawyer for the accused any chance they can, no matter how little the errors by law enformecent.

In this case, any defense attorney worth their salt would have plenty of ammunition, including the handling of the crime scene, and the presence of an officer who was suspended at the time, according to the Prosecutor, who had a current history with assault at the time of the murder and had been a patron of the Gambles store, according to Detective Pratt, twice that day.

I think it stands to reason that the attorney for the accused, no matter who they were defending for the murder of Janette Roberson, would point directly at that officer and say, I'm telling you, my guy didn't do it, but maybe he did. 

Fair or not, that's exactly what would happen, unless he had an airtight alibi for the time of the murder. be continued...

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