The first supplemental of the New Year is dated January 16, 1986, just three days shy of the three year anniversary of Janette Roberson’s death. There are a couple more interviews done with regard to “Dan,” including someone he lived with in 1985, but the next month, the February supplemental dated the 26th, the MSP report notes: “The Undersigned [Albright] officer and Detective Morris Vincent were contacted by Detective Lieutenant Robert Smith, 6th District Headquarters in reference to this investigation. He requested the officers re-contact all store employees, and re-interview them in reference to this particular homicide.”
So that’s what they did. Donna Evans, Angie Tillie, Flossie Earnest, David Engels (store owner), Bonnie Engels (David’s wife), David Sandlin, John Engels (store manager), and then they went back the next day to speak with Bonnie Engels one more time. All of these statements have been redacted in their entirety, as have their initial interviews.
The only two lines left un-redacted in the Michigan State Police report is under the interview of John Engels on February 26th and it reads:
“In going back over the day of the incident, John Engels could add nothing further that happened that day that could help officers in reference to this investigation.”
All blank pages, and then that. I will never figure out the method to MSP’s FOIA Madness.
John Engels was the only Engels I was able to speak to regarding this case, and the conversation wasn’t a comfortable one, which was confusing because he had given his number freely to be contacted.
Jen, the gal who would become my research assistant—but was just a curious observer at the time we spoke to him—contacted a woman who police spoke to regarding the case, and happened to notice that John Engels was one of the people on her friends list on Facebook.
Jen asked for an introduction, the woman obliged, and John Engels passed on his phone number.
I hate contacting people I don’t know. It makes me queasy. I fobbed off a lot of the required telephone work for this project on Jen, but in this case, both of us were excited at the possibility of speaking with anyone who’d been at Gambles that day. At that point, I’d only had the opportunity to speak to Flossie, who’d attended the memorial walk, and Gene Johnson, who’d had a brief exchange with Janette the day of the murder.
Flossie was, in fact, the one who suggested we speak to John Engels. Her most vivid recollection was of him “taking the stairs two at a time” from upstairs, where she thought he was having his lunch. When Angie Tillie came back up from the basement, distraught and unable to speak after finding Janette, Flossie had yelled, “John, I think Angie is having a heart attack!”
Needless to say, we were both confused when Jen’s call was met with hostility.
JEN THE ASSISTANT: Engels won’t say anything. Someone told him I’m writing a book. He doesn’t wanna get sued.
ME: He doesn’t wanna get sued? What does that mean? Is he planning on implicating someone? Ugh, fine…give me his number.
I’m not made for this sort of thing. I don’t like putting people out. I’m uncomfortable bothering strangers. I don’t even like talking on the phone, yet I’ve had to bother a great deal of strangers over the phone while researching this book. I happen to be the type who gets stress eczema just thinking about making an uncomfortable phone call.
As I type this now, I have a huge patch of the stuff on my left hand because days ago I found out that Detective Pratt has agreed to meet with me, and I very much want him to like me. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I have that stupid people-pleaser gene, despite all evidence to the contrary. I’m aware that most folks who’ve met me might think this flies in the face of everything they’ve ever observed, but they’d be wrong. You know that whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” deal? I’m a goddamn ray of sunshine who is brash and sassy on the outside, and a quivering melted mush of marshmallow goop on the inside. You’ll have to take my word for that.
I dreaded the call, but what spurred me on was curiosity regarding his tone with Jen. I was pondering someone’s possible motivation to be cranky with a total stranger as I jabbed the buttons on my phone and moved into the kitchen, away from the television that my son was listening to at an ear-splitting decibel level.
A female answered and I asked for John Engels. She asked who was calling and I said Jeni Decker. I heard her repeat this and then say, “I don’t know.”
When he got on the phone, I told him I was the writer in question. I think it is important to stop here and note that at the time I spoke to John Engels, I had absolutely ZERO intention of writing this book. I had told Janette’s sister that I was thinking about basing a fictional character involved in a three-decades-old crime on Janette’s murder, but most of it wouldn’t even resemble this case because I’d already started writing the crime novel I was considering using it for as a subplot, so I’d have to weave the narratives together.
Mostly, I liked the idea of a creepy basement pet department in a store that was located in a small town, and those underground tunnels I’d heard so much about.
Certainly the general public had no idea about this because I didn’t even know what I was going to do with the fictional account. As a matter of fact, that episode in my Dex Morneau series sits on my hard drive right now, half written. It got booted out of the lineup by what you’re reading.**
But I'd already started a storyline that took place in Reed City, which began in book three of that series, titled Gravoria Manent, and I had to work whatever I used into the already occuring narrative.
What I had done was written my very first FOIA request to Michigan State Police, less than two weeks prior to speaking to Mr. Engels. I didn’t even realize police reports on open cases were available to the public until I read an article about a true crime writer named Blaine Pardoe, who’d covered a couple of Michigan’s unsolved murders.
In the article, he mentioned sending requests for crime scene photos and police reports to MSP, so I emailed Mr. Pardoe and asked how he went about it. He emailed me back a copy of the letter he sent to Michigan State Police to get materials for his latest book, Murder in Battle Creek: The Mysterious Death of Daisy Zick. I, in turn, used Mr. Pardoe’s letter—word for word—removing his information and inserting mine. So, at the time I spoke with John Engels, this would have been the only thing that existed anywhere suggesting any intent on my part to write a non-fiction account of the murder. It was not my intention to do anything at that time other than get more information on Janette’s murder, simply because I found it fascinating.
It was only after speaking with John Engels that I thought Maybe I will write a non-fiction book.
In fact, today, as I write this, I pinpoint that very conversation as the turning point. His tone during the call is what sealed the deal. I readily admit to having grown into one of those adults who doesn’t like being told what to do. And it’s a really bad idea to tell me not to do something. Telling me to let something go is probably the best way to light a fire under my ass.
I’ve found that behind the leave it alone or let it go is usually a very good reason to do the exact opposite.
Also, have I mentioned I’m stubborn?
Anyway, here I am on the phone, and I’ve introduced myself. I tell John Engels that I’m the writer in question, but I wasn’t writing true crime. Mostly I was curious. I contacted him after talking to Flossie Earnest—his former co-worker—who specifically said to me, “Did you talk to John?”
In his conversation with Jen, John Engels said he’d heard she was a writer and he didn’t want to speak with a writer because if he told her anything and she published it, he could be sued for slander. That’s not actually how it works in real life, but okay… I figured I’d just disabuse him of that misinformed notion and we’d move on. I assured him that I wasn’t interested in speculation regarding who he thought committed the heinous act. I simply wanted to know if he and his brother, David Engels, were at Gambles when Janette’s body was discovered.
“I don’t have to tell you anything, get the report," he said.
I felt my right eyebrow make for higher ground.
“Oh, I am," I said. "The request has already been sent.”
My inner monologue suggested I reply with Thanks for the suggestion, Mr. Crankypants, but I stifled the urge because my inner monologue is a troublemaker.
John Engels was contentious from the start, but never appeared to want to hang up. There were more than a few uncomfortable silences as I waited for him to hang up on me, but he never did. What was most interesting was his tone, since John Engels is a former law enforcement officer. He worked for the Saginaw Police Department before moving to the area to work at Gambles with his brother.
It has been my experience when speaking with police that 100% of the time they do more listening than talking. They want to know what you know and the good ones know how to get that information out of you without you even realizing they’re doing it. Their tone is usually encouraging in that regard because it takes some amount of finesse in order to pull that off, but every good cop I’ve ever met has that particular skill set. They’ll give and take just enough to “shake you down for the deets” as the kids say. That, however, was not John Engels’ way.
To make him more comfortable, I assured him that I understood he was a former member of law enforcement and wouldn’t expect him to share specific details about a case with me. I only wanted to establish whether he and his brother David were both present at Gambles when Janette’s body was found, because I’d gotten conflicting information on that. He remained tight-lipped.
Next he questioned my motives. I told him that I’d helped work on the memorial walk for Janette and I was curious. Her case interested me in the same way an episode of Dateline might.
I was only asking because Flossie told me she remembered both he and David being there when the body was found, but according to a letter written by Ralph Fisher sometime after the murder, Ralph spoke to the manager of Gambles, who told him he was notified of Janette’s death, and then came to the store. Whether Ralph Fisher spoke to David Engels or John Engels is unclear. He said “manager” in the letter—and according to the MSP report, that was John Engels’ position—but Ralph could have used the word ‘manager’ to describe the owner, too. I explained all of this to John, but he wasn’t budging.
Argumentative is the one word summation of my approximately twenty minute chat with John Engels. I told him we’d received some tips at the memorial walk, and I had gotten one while handing out fliers from someone who’d never spoken to police. This one, in particular, was a strange occurrence two different people relayed to me about something they saw on the corner of Chestnut and Upton right around the time the murder would have occurred.
I told Mr. Engels I had passed that information along to law enforcement officers, but when he asked me what that information was and I wouldn’t tell him, he said, “Then why should I open up to you?”
“I am not asking you to open up to me. I have one question. Were both you and David present at the store when the body was found,” I tried again.
“Get a copy of the police report,” he repeated.
When I mentioned that people—including some in law enforcement—had suggested the initial investigation was not handled properly, he said, “People always say that. They did their best.”
I told him multiple people had mentioned a cop who shared specific information about Janette’s injuries with them and I found that troubling.
He replied, “Finkbeiner was a friend of mine. He was a good cop. We were friends. He died too young.”
“How do you know I was talking about Finkbeiner?”
I hadn’t mentioned anyone by name.
He responded, “It’s common knowledge he was first on the scene.”
I didn’t have the report at the time, so it wasn’t common knowledge to me, but I didn’t say that out loud because he was still talking.
“People remember things wrong, it’s been 30 years—who did that letter of Ralph’s go to?”
I was momentarily thrown off by him circling back to Ralph Fisher’s letter. I told him I had no idea who the letter went to.
Then he began questioning my motives again.
"So why are you doing this if you’re not going to write a book?”
Why? Because I want to know. I want to know if she smiled at her killer, I want to know if she knew him, or if he took her by surprise. I want to know the last emotion she felt before she realized what was happening. I want to understand her end; I want to know how Janette Roberson’s world ended. How can you not want to know?
But that’s not what I said. This is what I said:
“Whether or not I decide to write a fictional account is irrelevant. I want to know who killed this girl in the middle of the day, just as an average citizen.”
I stopped short of suggesting this wasn’t Nazi Germany. Here in the good ‘ole US of A, we’re allowed to write whatever kind of books we want to write, or not write them, and pick whatever fancy adjectives and adverbs we wish to use in any book we may or may not write.
“Why should I talk if everyone is pointing fingers? I know I didn’t do it. You sound like you think I did it.”
I never once said anything even remotely close to that, but since he’d mentioned the word slander earlier in the conversation, I was quick to reply. “I absolutely do not think you did it. You are misunderstanding me. Flossie specifically said I should talk to you, so that’s what I’m doing. I thought it would be rude not to get your side, wouldn’t it? You were the store manager. Your brother was the store owner. If I hadn’t called and tried to talk to you, wouldn’t that be weird, not giving you an opportunity to answer questions, just like everyone else?”
“Tell me what this suspicious activity was that you say people saw,” he tried again.
I was tempted to ask again if he and David were present when Janette’s body was found. See how many times we could complete the vicious cycle before one of us tossed the phone across the room.
“I can’t say, but rest assured it has been turned over to police. These are all people who never spoke with law enforcement before, so I can’t share it with you. I’m sure you understand that, being a former cop.”
The conversation was over at that point. I have no idea why he was so contentious from the start, but I didn’t expect to get that kind of reaction from a former cop. Anyone who didn’t wish to speak to me just declined and that was that. I’m not a reporter. I don’t go chasing people or harassing them. I respect the word no. I did my due diligence and gave every person I could track down whose name was in the MSP report (and wasn’t already dead) a chance to tell me what they remembered, and most people were genuinely happy to oblige.
Near the end of the conversation I told him that—how helpful everyone had been about what they remembered, and how the residents of Reed City wanted the case solved. I was just blathering by that point, trying to end on a good note, mostly because I felt bad for having upset him. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
John Engels reply: “Good for them.”
Months later, I mailed a letter to the residence of David and Bonnie Engels, asking if they would consider speaking to me. I told them I had decided to write a true crime book about the murder, and since the only interaction I had with anyone in their family did not go smoothly, I felt it would be unfair to leave my conversation with John as the only impression of their family regarding this case for the readers.
They never replied.
...to be continued...