From the Cadillac News, March 1, 2012:
OSCEOLA COUNTY – It wasn’t long ago that Osceola County said goodbye to the long-standing Michigan State Police Detective Sergeant George Pratt when he retired after more than three decades on the job.
It was a short break, as during a county commissioner meeting earlier this month, Osceola County Undersheriff Justin Halladay asked commissioners to approve a new position that would allow the hiring of an as-needed special investigator and consultant. Unanimously supported by the commissioners, the position went to Pratt, a familiar face in the area – and he has already been put to work. Some passing motorists travelling near LeRoy during the recent police investigation of the bank robbery that occurred at the Citizens Bank might have noticed Pratt at the scene, for instance.
Halladay said Pratt was utilized during that investigation, and on complaints filed during the recent arraignments of the suspects arrested for those crimes, Pratt was listed as one of the witnesses. The position will be limited to 500 hours per year, and the new OCSD investigator will only be used when need. This is the first time the county has utilized such a position, although years ago there had also been an as-needed special detective in the county. Commissioners justified the approval because of the closing of the Reed City MSP post and the new MSP operations. Other than Pratt, the closest detective is located in Mount Pleasant.
Most of the time I was researching this case, even when I was in the thick of it, I really never believed I would get to meet Detective Pratt.
First, I knew he wasn’t all that happy about any of the file being released.
As Inspector Cam Henke told me when we spoke, “George is old-school.” He said it with a chuckle, as one generation does when they are explaining something that so perfectly illustrates a generation gap. Back in the day, records didn’t get released. Today, there are fairly stringent laws on the books allowing for the release of police reports—even in open cases—under specific circumstances, and a long list of exceptions the State can apply if they believe the information should not be released.
Many Michigan FOIA cases have gone all the way to Michigan’s Supreme Court and been upheld. Spend an hour (or twelve) like I did reading the court documents in such cases, and you’ll see how a well-oiled mechanism for relief works, in action.
Maybe it’s just the researcher in me, but I love reading cases and case law. Most people who are denied don’t take it that far. Past the point where you apply for a document, are denied, appeal, are again denied, and then have recourse in the form of the local court system. Larger entities looking for documents and are refused, for whatever reason, have the time, patience, inclination, and most importantly, the money to take their case to court. They have lawyers on staff who froth at the mouth for a chance to argue a case involving the rights of The People.
The average person does not. There’s only so much money an intelligent human will fork over in the interest of getting information, only to get a bunch of mostly blank pages before you realize you’re not getting what you want, so you better get your case law ready—as I did when I appeared before the Reed City city council to get the Reed City PD report released for the first time.
That was nervous-making, let me just say. I’m not a good public speaker, so I try not to do it whenever possible. In this case, it was the only way to get my hands on the reports filed by the first responders to Janette’s crime scene. Doing so was important, yet I understood the risks. Small towns don’t like wave-makers.
Add to that, the perpetrator of the heinous crime I am writing a book about has yet to be arrested. If he’s out there and dialed in, I’m guessing he knows about the writer asking all those questions about a murder he thinks he got away with and isn’t too pleased about it. I said as much to my friend Katy Knight a couple days before I appeared in front of the council. She’s lived here all her life, so she gets it.
“Well then, as I see, it you have two choices. You can tuck tail, or you can stick your neck all the way out.”
She’s a smart girl. Since tucking tail wasn’t an option, mostly due to my innate stubbornness, neck out, it was. Katy even came and sat with me to show her support. Since I wanted to puke the entire time, her presence was truly appreciated.
I learned the outcome a few days later from an article in the Cadillac News that no less than twelve people called, phoned, texted and private-messaged me about having seen. It was an elating, yet very short-lived victory. While I am happy we got at least part of that report, because it helps illustrate inconsistencies, I learned a few things that made me a tiny bit more jaded as a human being.
First—I got those documents from Osceola County turned over “in the interest of full disclosure” by the City attorney. You remember the ones I’d been asking the County for, repeatedly, and was told they didn’t exist? I’m just going to say it. That made me sad. Knowing that it appears to be okay to flat out tell a fib like that by an actual law-enforcing body, well… it’s not right. How can you ask us to play by the rules and obey the laws if you who are tasked to enforce them are not willing to do so, yourselves?
I SAID TSK-TSK.
Second—I’ve learned that fighting local government is a dicey proposition, particularly if you live there. You know the old saying, right? Don’t shit where you eat.
The Federal government gets all the press, but it isn’t remotely as important to our day to day lives as our local governments. How things work is the same at the smallest level, all the way up to the Oval Office. For any elected position, some stuff has to be done for the person wanting the position to receive it. I think it’s fair to say a bit of glad-handing, bargaining, bullying, and bullshitting is often needed to earn a position where you make decisions that affect the citizenry. We hold elections to determine some of these folks, others are appointed by the former, and sometimes that incestuous-but-not-in-a-literal-(gross)-way relationship becomes a little sticky.
Then there’s the relationship between city government and local law enforcement, which one could argue isn’t always what it should be. Often residents become alienated from both entities, but if you look at that real close, what you get 100% of the time is a problem that originates at the ballot box. If you don’t show up, don’t expect things around you to go the way you think they should. In a great many small towns, a tiny percentage of people make the decisions about how the area is run, and a good hunk of the citizens don’t even know who those people are.
I knew who I was. I was a gal who’d only lived in Reed City for about 8 years when I took on this research project. What that meant at a very basic level was that I had zero position of strength from which to pull a court appeal out of my ass. Arguing in front of an actual judge rather than the city attorney, police chief, and council members is a bit more daunting. You need a real lawyer who knows they’re doing. I prevailed in front of the city council, but I wasn’t as confident about navigating the court system.
At some point, I got as much of the Roberson file out of Michigan State Police as I was likely to get, until enough time passes and an entirely different crew is manning the printers. I felt confident I knew as much as I was going to know about the case, as well as what was going on in Reed City in January of 1983, so I thought What the hell?
Rather than call him—which I always feel puts people on the spot—I fashioned a written plea to Detective Pratt and mailed it.
I never expected to hear back from him, but it occurred to me that it would be disrespectful if I didn’t at least give him a chance to turn me down. I’d given that opportunity to pretty much everyone else, and he was arguably the most informed person regarding the Janette Roberson investigation.
Scratch that. Not arguably. He is, still, to this day, the most informed person regarding the Janette Roberson investigation. No amount of new law enforcement assistance can rival what lives in his head, in his memory, alone; what a potential suspect looked like when he was questioning him; or if he got a vibe off someone that generally isn't easily articulated, but taps the gut like a tuning fork when you know what you know but don't have the evidence to prove it in a court of law.
Suffice to say, I wish he and I were stranded on an island with nothing but Janette's complete case file and a refrigerator full of food and beverages.
Old-school detectives keep their info tight to the vest. They aren’t crazy about the immediacy of social media, and I can’t fault them for it because things like the ME report getting out—which happened here and was truly unfortunate—can compromise the integrity of their case. No good detective wants to put years of effort into something, only to have interested parties, however well-meaning, torpedo their work in one fell-swoop. I’d been told Detective Pratt was none too pleased about someone having gotten their hands on the autopsy report and summarily passing it around like candy, so I couldn’t help but think he’d be less than delighted by someone writing a full-length book about the murder, after having obtained a bunch of reports he thought shouldn’t have been released in the first place.
His motives are simple. He’d like to maintain the integrity of the case in the event of a later prosecution. The problem with this case, and why police are so touchy about it, is that a lot of stuff got out, early on. They may not have been quoting it in the paper, but they were talking about it in the streets. Someone who'd seen that scene was blabbing in a visual way, because that's how I found out about many details, some I've never noted in this book.
The handling of the scene that day was a widely-known occurance to locals. Someone familiar with the case said the running joke in law enforcement was that the perp may have been allowed to walk right out the front door. (I don't happen to think that occurred, but you never know.)
The word "trampled" came up a lot with regard to that basement, and the folks that were there as eyewitnesses didn't exactly refute that notion.
So... imagine my surprise when Detective Pratt mailed me back in a very timely fashion, and agreed to sit down with me, with one stipulation. He was not willing to divulge any information that would compromise the case.
As soon as I read the letter, I developed a case of heartburn that did not go away for weeks. I was excited, nervous, nauseous… my stomach and bowel ran the gamut of emotions.
In the meantime, I compiled a list of questions, keeping in mind that we would not be talking about evidence, or anything that remotely circled the wagons around specifics of the case. It was a delicate balance—trying to keep my questions limited to things I believed he could answer, while still hoping to get some insight that would be important to telling Janette’s story.
I’m not an investigator. I’m not a journalist. I’m just a gal that’s good with her words, who happened to develop more than a passing interest in an old murder case. Unfortunately, once Janette’s story sunk its teeth in, there was no getting away from it, and I wanted certain questions answered out of fairness to other parties—to her family, and to the community who had been so giving of their time. I hoped to at least provide as much information as I could about the young woman who was slain in the pet department and left a husband, two children, a mother, siblings, and an entire city mourning her loss.
After I completed my ten page list of questions that I assumed would cause him to cringe when I pulled them out, I did a bit of research on the man himself. His signature was at the bottom of a great many of the police reports I’d compiled while researching this case. I found this on the Michigan State Police news release page:
State Police Sergeants Receive Meritorious Service Awards
January 27, 2003
Lansing - The Michigan State Police Board of Awards is pleased to announce that Detective Sergeant George D. Pratt and retired Detective Sergeant Gary E. Shaffer have been awarded the Michigan State Police Meritorious Service Award. They are credited for diligence and perseverance under uncommon circumstances for going beyond what is typically expected of law enforcement officers.
On July 20, 1979, Diane Fay Chorba was reported missing by her relatives after not hearing from her for approximately two months. Her family was aware that she had moved to the Luther, Mich. area and was romantically involved with a married man.
Pratt and Shaffer were asked to interview the married man and his wife to try to determine the whereabouts of Chorba. During their interview, the married man and his wife told Pratt and Shaffer that Chorba had been the victim of the ill-fated flight 191 that crashed in Chicago, Ill. on May 25, 1979, destroying her body making it impossible to identify her. Before polygraph tests were conducted to verify their story, the family moved to Oregon.
In the following year, Pratt contacted the Oregon State Police and requested they re-interview the couple, which they did. However, further investigation proved unsuccessful, and once again they refused to take a polygraph test to support their story. Several years later, Pratt and Shaffer learned that husband and wife had separated, and he again requested that Oregon State Police interview the two suspects. Once again, no new results surfaced.
In 1999, Pratt and Shaffer flew to Oregon to re-interview the suspects themselves. They decided to make an unannounced visit to the wife, which resulted in a complete confession implicating her ex-husband in the shooting death of Chorba. With assistance from the wife, her ex-husband was extradited back to Michigan where he was found guilty of Chorba’s murder.
In awarding the Meritorious Service Award, Pratt and Shaffer are credited for their perseverance in solving a 22-year-old murder. The Michigan State Police Board of Awards recognizes that if it were not for the dedication and professionalism of Pratt and Shaffer, this crime may have never been solved.
Pratt enlisted with the department in 1965, and was a graduate of the 59thTrooper Recruit School. He has served at the Ypsilanti and West Branch posts, as well as working narcotics and organized crime for what is now the Criminal Investigation Division. In 1974, he was promoted to detective sergeant and in 1977 he was assigned to the Reed City Post. A native of Scottville, Pratt currently lives in Reed City.
Shaffer enlisted with the department in 1968, and was a graduate of the 70thTrooper Recruit School. He retired from service in March 2001. A native of Haslett, Shaffer currently lives in Stevensville.
In a 2001 Herald Palladium article about the investigation, Shaffer said:
“You just have to keep after it, keep in contact with the people who know something about the case. You keep going over and over it, and finally, you get something. In this particular case people stopped being defensive about it. That’s usually what happens on a cold case: Eventually you convince somebody to come around and be truthful, or somebody remembers something and it leads you to another person, another detail, a whole series of things… Usually, what it boils down to is a group of people working together who put their heads together and come up with the right answer,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked with a lot of people who have done that.”
From a Ludington Daily News article dated Feb 19, 2001 about the apprehension in the Chorba case:
Pratt, who has been involved in the investigation since the start, said it felt good to see that some closure may come in the case. “I am certain that Diane’s family feels the same way. You always want to solve every case, yet you can’t become emotionally involved because you have to do your job. All the cases you can’t solve bother you.”
Regarding the February 2008 slaying of a Luther, MI man, when interviewed after an arrest had been made, Lake County Prosecutor Mike Riley said this: “Det. Sgt. George Pratt was in charge of the investigation. He’s the kind of cop you want to investigate a crime.”
From a Herald Review article on January 17th, 2012:
Detective Pratt began work with the MSP at the Ypsilanti Post after recruit school. Previous to this, he worked part-time with the Scottville Police Department. In 1967, he was moved to the West Branch Post until January 1974 when he joined the Criminal Investigation Section and served in Detroit in the narcotics and organized crime unit. In 1977, he was transferred to the Reed City Post, and has been in this area ever since.
“One of the most satisfying features of my work has been closing cases and getting bad people out of the community and behind bars where they can’t do any more damage.”
And on the other hand …
There have been cases that have not yet been resolved.
“Unfortunately, there are cases we’ve worked on for years that we’ve not been able to close,” Pratt pointed out. “There are several in this area.”
That doesn’t mean investigators haven’t done everything they could to bring vicious criminals to justice in those cases. It simply means they couldn’t get all of the required elements to move those cases into the court system.
“We may have ideas, but we don’t have the required proofs,” he said. “I’ve worked on one case since 1977 – in Lake County – but we haven’t been able to bring it to trial.”
“The Gamble Store case still is on many people’s minds in this area. We’ve investigated that incident for years. We have reopened it many times to use new methods or technologies that weren’t available back then.
“It’s frustrating, but I can say we did the best we could. We never ignored any avenue of investigation or tip from the public. We followed, and will continue to follow every lead. We simply don’t have what we needed to close some cases.”
From embezzlement to murder, bank robbery to most recently helping track down stolen exotic animals, Detective Sergeant Pratt has worked a long and varied list of crimes over his career. In fact, as of this writing, he is the longest serving enlisted person ever in the Michigan State Police, as of this writing.
I was pretty jazzed that he agreed to sit down with me. From the moment I sent my plea, until I walked in the front door of the Sheriff’s department—after having the car alarm signal my arrival to all of Reed City proper by way of seven loud bleats before I could find the key fob—my stomach was in a state of turmoil.
On the day in question, I situated myself in a chair across from him. We were in one of those box-like rooms where they interrogate the bad guys. You know the ones. It’s exactly like you’ve seen in every grainy minute of security camera footage of people being questioned, except in my case, I wasn’t afraid I was about to be arrested so I didn’t have to fake a good cry or hold my stomach and rock in the chair while moaning, “I didn’t do anything, I swear!”
“How many years did you work for the Michigan State Police?”
“46 years, 3 months.”
Succinct; to the point. Detective Sergeant George Pratt answered my first question in exactly the manner I would have expected from someone who’d been described to me as “proud,” “private,” and “a good man.” I felt like I’d gotten a slight read on him, based on what I found to be a good set of case file notes—at least the ones I was privy to between the hunks of redaction.
I looked at my notes and jotted his response down, trying to stifle a smile.
It wasn’t happening. I smiled a lot when I talked to Detective Pratt, I think because I found him charming, and that was a surprise. He was present in a way you appreciate from someone you’re speaking to about a topic of interest. He listened and answered a lot of questions, and only once said, “I’m not going to respond to that.” It wasn’t delivered in a harsh or intimidating manner, quite the contrary, merely a statement of fact. He wouldn’t be commenting on something he felt was too specific to the case and could interfere with the ongoing investigation.
“What do you like about being a detective? What about the job is suited to you?”
“It’s intriguing, fulfilling in most instances, and it’s not a regular 9 to 5 job. There are different types of cases, so it’s not always the same thing.”
When I asked Detective Pratt if there were any misconceptions about this case that he’d heard over the years, he said there were so many misconceptions about this case, there’s no way he’d ever be able to list them all.
We talked a bit about witnesses, because I told him one of the many things I learned during this whole thing was that witness accounts, while often tantalizing, don’t seem very reliable. You hear it all the time. But I now had the benefit of experience. Right off the top of my head, I think about Jan & Venus, and about Elke. Based on the times they remembered having been in the Gambles pet department the day of Janette Roberson’s murder, they should have run into one another, and all claimed fairly lengthy visits. I don’t doubt their statements. There seem to be a great deal of commonalities.
Nobody could find Janette. Nobody heard or saw anything strange. Elke said she had to go up and find an employee, just like the other women did. I just think the times they recall could be a bit off. Jan and Venus may have left a little earlier, and maybe Elke came into the store just as they left or were leaving. But you have to ask yourself, if that one thing is remembered a bit off, what else could be?
“Witnesses—not by design, but by nature—are only 22% accurate,” Detective Pratt told me. “When you’re talking about eye witnesses, based on position, noise in the area, there are many things to consider about how reliable they may or may not be. It is the same when information is passed from one person to another. Some things may get passed along accurately, but not always the complete picture.”
A witness to a crime must observe, interpret, remember, recall, and then communicate information to a police investigator who, in turn, must understand and record it. Each stage has the potential for error. People are influenced by experiences and expectations, and different people view the world through different lenses. What witnesses think they see is a function of what they expected to see, what they wanted to see, and what they actually saw; the more ambiguous the last, the greater the influence of the first two factors. Similarly, what people remember depends upon what they believe. The human brain does not objectively record data, and memories are subjective interpretations that are seldom reinterpreted, even when information changes. People tend to remember those facts consistent with their theories, and forget those that are not.
From policechiefmagazine.org: (Failures in Criminal Investigation by D. Kim Rossmo, University Endowed Chair in Criminology, and Director, Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation, Department of Criminal Justice, Texas State University, and Detective Inspector (retired), Vancouver Police Department, BC, Canada)
There is a great deal that goes into the validity of each aspect of a witness’s statement. Not only does the law enforcement officer have to take in the information, but then he or she has to judge the information and ask questions accordingly. There’s a bit of the psychologist in being a good investigator, of that I’m certain.
This isn’t a job that everyone can do, questioning witnesses. I’m horrible at it. I always think of things I should have asked a day or a month later. Detectives don’t have that luxury. They understand the stakes.
Clear and rational thinking is not easy. …human brains are not wired to deal effectively with uncertainty. People therefore employ heuristics—intuitive rules of thumb—to make judgments under such conditions. A heuristic does not have to be correct most of the time, as long as it promotes survival. While a street police officer’s intuition may sometimes be wrong, it is still an unwise thing to ignore. While these mental shortcuts work well most of the time, under certain conditions they can lead to cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are mental errors caused by this simplified information-processing technique. They can result in distorted judgments and faulty analyses. There have been many murder cases in which detectives were led astray because the crime appeared to be something other than what it was. Tunnel vision—one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions—results from a narrow focus on a limited range of possibilities. Focusing on the first likely suspect, then closing the investigation off to alternative theories is a recipe for disaster.
“If someone were to ask you why this case remains unsolved after all these years, what would your response be, Detective Pratt?” I asked.
He chose his words precisely.
“The answer would be that we have not achieved the necessary information to be able to prosecute it.”
NOTE: That sounds an awful like they could use someone coming forward with information they don't yet have.)
“Is there a DNA profile from Janette’s crime scene that you believe to be the offender in CODIS?”
Again, very precise wording.
“We have mitochondrial DNA.”
“Fingerprints run through IAFIS?” I chirped, still riding the high from the DNA question. My internal monologue was screeching OH MY GOD THEY HAVE DNA!
“We have some unidentified prints.” More precision.
Detective Pratt tried to explain DNA evidence to me for the purposes of a criminal trial, and how that timeline had evolved in Michigan.
He said that in 1990, Michigan first began defining laws as to collection of profiles, and he recalled that it wasn’t until 1996 or 1997 that DNA was approved to be used in this state, if the labs where they were tested had been accredited. He also said that at some point, procedural questions arose, and it was not until 2001 that the Frye Test was achieved with regard to DNA use. Basically, in order for the government to introduce conclusions and opinions based upon a novel scientific procedure or technique (like DNA or other technologies when they become available) it must meet the Frye standard by establishing that the technique and the principles behind it are generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.
I think the general belief from the perspective of the average citizen was that when DNA testing was “discovered,” suddenly lawyers were tossing the fruits of its labor around court like the televised giveaways on Oprah’s Favorite Things.
“You get a perp’s DNA tested, and YOU get a perp’s DNA tested, and YOU get…”
It wasn’t even universal from state to state. Guidelines had to be established, laws had to be written, and a great deal of behind the scenes work had to be done so DNA could be legally used for the purposes of a criminal trial. You know that saying about the wheels of justice turning slowly? It’s the same when experts want to bring new technologies into a courthouse and use them to try and convict or acquit someone.
To be fair, it is kind of important they get it right.
Because Janette Roberson was murdered before DNA was being used as evidence in court, her case, as with many in that time period, was not one where a bunch of evidence was collected with the idea of testing it for DNA. In fact, collection procedures in that regard did not even exist. So the fact that they have, over three decades later, mitochondrial DNA at all is a plus.
But. There’s always a but, isn’t there? Detective Pratt was likely purposeful in his answer to that question because the answer said a lot more than just those mere words. As it turned out, my excitement-high regarding the DNA information lasted about as long as it took me to get home and Google “mitochondrial DNA.”
Perhaps the simplest explanation I read was this:
Nuclear DNA is BluRay; Mitochondrial DNA is VHS.
Mitochondrial DNA is only a small portion of the DNA in a eukaryotic cell. Most DNA is found in the cell nucleus. According to When DNA Won’t Work (Visser/Hampikian, 2012, Idaho Law Review)
“Mitochondrial DNA has far less statistical power and it cannot be used to search convicted offender or forensic databases in CODIS for matches.”
Let me repeat that: It cannot be used to search convicted offender or forensic databases in CODIS for matches.
What that means is that there will be no exciting CODIS hit that positively identifies one specific individual as Janette Roberson’s killer based on DNA they took from the scene—unless somehow new testing of old evidence proves fruitful. That’s not how it works with mitochondrial DNA. CODIS uses nuclear DNA samples.
However, mitochondrial DNA can assist investigators if they have developed a list of potential donors to be compared to the analyzed evidence. Like fingerprints and other evidence, mitochondrial DNA is an important part of the puzzle. It is maternally inherited, so all of a woman’s offspring, her siblings, her mother and other maternal relatives would have the same mitochondrial DNA. For instance, investigators have been known to approach a family member for a sample of their DNA to test against that of their relative—who is a suspect in a case—to find out if they have the same maternal DNA. If that was found to be the case, it could be extremely probative evidence.
Essentially, mitochondrial DNA almost always supplements other information, and is rarely the only evidence used in a case. A homicide could likely not be prosecuted with only mitochondrial DNA because it cannot identify a single person. Because nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA are different, they cannot be compared against each other, either. Mitochondria live inside a cell wall, not in the nucleus, so it has an entirely different DNA sequence. Sperm cells don’t contain mitochondrial DNA, for example, but you can get it from hair.
Mitochondrial DNA passes from mother to child, unchanged, and remains unchanged as cells divide to form a human. A mitochondrial DNA match between two people doesn’t mean they have the same mother or maternal grandmother, only that the chain of ancestry has entirely female ancestors. Also, you would not be able to distinguish between two male suspects who were related with the same maternal line based on mitochondrial DNA because it would be identical. However, there are types of microscopic analysis that can be done on the hair itself which could distinguish differences between sibling hairs.
So there you have it. DNA for Dummies. You’re welcome.
Next, in an effort to understand the dynamic between the different law enforcement entities involved with Janette’s case, I asked Detective Pratt why the press goes so often to Chief Davis if MSP has the case. He told me that when he retired, he handed the case back over to the Reed City PD because Michigan State Police had been called to assist the city police on the Janette Roberson investigation, since they were the first responders. Because Reed City PD does not have detectives, MSP continues to maintain an assigned detective to assist on the case.
I asked about the 9 & 10 News report that got me all hot under the collar. I said that as far as I could tell, it was the first instance where anyone went on record to say that a suspect in Janette’s case had been ruled out. I asked Detective Pratt if that was something law enforcement discussed releasing beforehand. He said he was not part of that process, so he did not know who made that decision or why.
Remember, he’d graciously agreed to sit down and talk with me, but other than occasionally answering questions for the press, and working with the new investigators when needed, this is no longer his case.
“I don’t rule anyone out until the perpetrator is apprehended,” he said.
I looked down at my page and saw the next question.
Has anyone else had been ruled out, like Lee or “Dan?”
I looked back up at him. “So I guess I don’t need to ask my next question.”
I think he caught sight of it on my paper. He smiled.
“Was there ever a thought to releasing information from the FBI profile?” I asked. “In your report it was noted to be ‘…quite lengthy and similar to the profile completed by the Behavioral Sciences Unit/Investigative Resources Unit which had previously been done.’ So if you had two reports that said similar things, why not release some part of that information to garner leads?”
“The analyses those reports provide are investigative tools. If you release all of your tools, you no longer have them.”
This may sound strange coming from someone who fought tooth and nail to get every page of every report I could get (and bitched when I couldn’t), but I liked him even more for being that staunch old-school detective. In Detective Pratt’s world, you don’t go passing out pages of reports on investigations that are still open. I can respect that because I absolutely understand he is coming from a place of wanting to protect the integrity of a case that he and others have worked very hard on. The case already has its challenges, it doesn’t need any more.
Next I asked if he gets feelings about suspects in those first hours at a scene, like gut instincts regarding who he feels a suspect might be.
“You get those feelings, but you have to keep your mind open and not focus on a specific individual.”
I took a deep breath.
“Okay, so I’m not sure why the FOIA team is withholding it, so I’m just going to ask. Do you remember when you were notified of a homicide at the Gambles store?”
Detective Pratt nodded.
“I was notified by the prosecutor at the time and I responded immediately. I believe it was sometime after 4:30, so almost an hour after she was found.”
The first wave of revelation that hit me caused me to gulp, thinking about that scene left without any regulation for an hour.
Secondly, I thought about all that wrangling with the MSP FOIA department. I must have asked them for that information a dozen different ways and Detective Pratt answered it as easily as he’d answered every other question. I wasn’t sure whether to feel chagrined or amused, so I smiled and thanked him.
“Why was Prosecutor Talaske called?” I asked. “According to his report, Southworth called him. Was it common back then for the prosecutor to be called to crime scenes?”
This one he answered more broadly and I suspect that is because he wasn’t there when the prosecutor was called, so he had no firsthand knowledge and could only speculate as to why he was called, or what had happened prior to his arrival. Detective Pratt didn’t appear to be the speculating kind, and certainly not when it came to why someone else had done what they’d done.
“Well, there are a couple schools of thought about calling the prosecutor to the scene. Some feel that by doing so they become a “witness,” so it makes it difficult for them to then prosecute a case.”
“So you don’t know why they did in this case?” I tried again.
“I have no independent knowledge of why they called, no.”
I was able to follow up on that last question with the man himself—former Osceola County Prosecutor James Talaske—shortly after I spoke with Detective Pratt. Mr. Talaske said he couldn’t remember who called that day—he seemed to remember it being someone from Osceola County— but his secretary took the call and told him he needed to get down to the Gambles store because there was a murder. At that time, his office was just down the street near the city building, and his residence was not far from there. He often walked to work, but he couldn’t remember if he walked that particular day. He said he arrived at Gambles, went downstairs and into the back room. He saw Janette’s horribly brutalized body, then turned around toward where the boiler area was and saw, in his words, “…the entire Reed City Police department, half of whom weren’t in uniform, and about half the Osceola County deputies.” He didn’t recall seeing Chief Rathbun but he did specifically recognize city officer Theodore Platz, who was wearing a cast on his arm, and Deputy Kingsbury of Osceola County.
“Why are you all standing around down here?” is the first thing he wondered aloud. Then he immediately asked, “Has anyone contacted Detective Pratt?”
Talaske recalls hearing one of them say, “Why?”
His response was clear. “Have any of you ever investigated a murder?”
Talaske said he wasn’t at the scene more than five minutes. He left, walked a couple doors down to the law office where David Porteus worked at the time, and called Detective Pratt. This, he confirmed, was where the meeting happened that Laren Thorson mentioned.
Talaske told me the floor in the back room of the pet department was dusty and dirty, there were shoe prints everywhere, and that those first responders had probably walked all over any possible footprint evidence.
“Why did they call you in the first place?” I asked, dumbfounded. “What was the purpose?”
“I don’t know. There was no real purpose. I think to rile me. Maybe they thought I’d get sick at the sight of a dead body. But I’d seen dead bodies before. I really don’t know the reason they called me.”
I told him that I was under the impression Theodore Platz was suspended from RCPD at the time and Talaske said he believed he was. In fact, he said there was an arrest warrant with his name on it sitting on his desk at that time for the Buckboard incident.
“Detective Pratt has taken a lot over the years about this case. I think people blame him for it not being solved. That isn’t the case. He’s a good detective. There may have been more to work with if that scene was handled properly.”
Another thing Mr. Talaske was able to verify was the animosity that existed at the time between the various law enforcement bodies. He said around that time it was so bad, city officers were doing traffic stops on deputies.
“There was a lot of tension.”
“Can you tell me what Ted Platz’ role was at the scene?” I asked Detective Pratt.
“He had been a patron of the store on two occasions that day. He was a Reed City officer…”
“Do you know who called him to the scene?” I asked.
“I do not. It could have been Chief Rathbun but I have no independent knowledge. Officer Platz may have been trained to work with Northern Counties Evidence Service regarding processing.”
At the time of this interview I hadn’t talked to him, but when I later spoke to Nelson Gelinas, the creator of NCES, he told me that Mr. Platz hadn’t taken the training, to his recollection. He recalled Detective Sgt. Southworth and then Deputy Chuck Davis, both of Osceola County, having taken the NCES training.
“I guess I’m curious how you become the head of a probation department after assaulting two officers and a bar patron.”
What I wanted to say was that if my Puerto Rican husband did exactly the same as off-duty Officer Platz did that night at the Buckboard, it would likely not have ended with him becoming an Osceola County Probation officer. But I did not say that because something told me snark wasn’t the way to go with Detective Pratt.
His answer was reasonable and measured, and centered around the fact that Officer Platz had only been convicted of a misdemeanor, so there was nothing to disqualify him from getting that position.
That is factually accurate, I concur. However, I think it is fair to note that no taxpayer would be out of line suggesting that someone with issues around aggression may not be their first choice as the person to lead offenders successfully toward the path of the straight and narrow.
“Do you know why this call was dispatched as a heart attack?” I asked Detective Pratt, once we got past the discussion of misdemeanors.
“I have no idea why it was dispatched as a heart attack,” he said, simply.
I went on to tell him that dispatcher Raymond Haight had, in my second call to him, suggested that maybe it was done to avoid issues with radio traffic, hoping that would nudge Detective Pratt into offering more, but he just shook his head, indicating he did not know.
“Do you believe the scene was compromised in a way that could make prosecuting any future case more difficult?” I asked.
“No, inasmuch as there are no pristine crime scenes. All scenes have something you wish had not occurred, so it’s something you come to expect.”
“Are you confident that everyone who was allowed to leave Gambles after the body was discovered, but before you arrived, has been tracked down and questioned?”
“I hope so,” he said. “We tracked down between 125 and 150 people who’d been in the store, and that was described to us as being a slow day.”
“So, was that the reason for the press release mentioned in your report? The one with the line included that stated: ‘Officers are asking that anyone, whether you have been already contacted or not, (underlined) please contact the Michigan State Police, Reed City…’?”
Detective Pratt nodded. “Yes.”
I looked down and checked my notes. “The dispatcher mentioned someone who was grabbed on a bus, a call that came in not long after the first call when Janette was found. Do you recall who gave the information that led to that person being checked out? Haight said the individual was described as having run out the back door in an army coat toward where the bus picked up down by the Osceola Inn.”
“There was an individual from a bus who was brought in and questioned that day, and later released, though I am not sure who provided that information.”
“What about the sketch. Was that of a perpetrator or witness?” I asked.
“Well that depends. Those were actually drawn by different sketch artists of individuals seen in the store that day, as described by different people. If you notice, two of them look very similar, and we have learned the identity of the person in two of those sketches. But it wouldn’t necessarily be relevant today. The way people look changes. It was something that was important to the case thirty two years ago, but not necessarily relevant now.”
I realized my questions were all over the place when I saw the word embezzlement in bold on the page.
“I did research other things happening in Reed City around the time of the murder, and one of those was the embezzlement in the city Sewer and Water fund. Dorothy Critchfield. I was wondering why your investigation of the stealing only went back to 1980. The audit, I mean. I think that’s when the office went to computerized billing. But she worked for the city for over twenty years. Can you tell me why it would only have been a couple years that were audited? And was she the only person involved?”
“Well, you have to remember there is a statute of limitations, I believe seven years, if I’m not mistaken,” he said. “To my knowledge, she was the only person involved.”
“Do you know if Chief Rathbun did his own investigation of that embezzlement before turning it over to Michigan State Police?”
“I don’t know if he did or not. I suppose you could get that information…”
“I tried. Apparently Reed City doesn’t keep records that old, based on Chief Davis’ FOIA response.”
Specifically the RCPD response said: This incident is beyond the retention period that we have files on record for. It appears this incident was actually handled by the Michigan State Police. I certify no such records are found with our department.
“So, Chief Rathbun publicly stating he was “out of town” until his death. Why do you think he distanced himself from this case?”
“I don’t know that he distanced himself from the case. I have no knowledge of where the out of town came from, or where he was when he was contacted. But he was doing things as Police Chief that day. I know he went with the city manager to notify the decedent’s mother.”
“But in the MSP report, when Albright and Vincent went back to speak with Marion Fisher, Janette’s mother, she said Officer Finkbeiner notified her at the city building. Was that office next to where the city police department is now?”
“I have no knowledge of whether Officer Finkbeiner notified her at any point, but I know Chief Rathbun went with the city manager to the city building where she was. It was located where the courthouse annex is now.”
That would have been a few blocks straight down Upton Avenue from the Gambles store.
I told him I was confused about the order of the different officers arriving, since Osceola County is literally right down the street, running distance, yet the city police apparently arrived first, despite EMTs being first called. Detective Pratt said to his recollection, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department sometimes dispatched city police back then, and sometimes the State Police Post did. He was under the impression Osceola County had dispatched this call, as Officer Finkbeiner’s report suggests. But he had no personal knowledge of the order of people dispatched to the scene. He was not notified until almost an hour later.
Then I asked him about the other discrepancy between his report and the Reed City report. The question of Mr. Kooiker and where he was when Officer Finkbeiner arrived. Detective Pratt said he noted Mr. Kooiker at the front door when he arrived, but had no knowledge of who was or was not at the door when Officer Finkbeiner arrived on scene.
I told Detective Pratt I wanted to do a chapter in the book on the other unsolved homicides attributed to Reed City and then asked a few cursory questions about two I had done a little reading about prior to our meeting.
“The realtor, Sue Clason. I noticed you were interviewed in a few articles because at the time, there was a thought it might be linked to that of serial murderer, Gary Robbins, who had done similar things in other states. Is that still a possibility?”
“No, her case was not attributed to him.”
“Burton Scott; 1979. Just reading the report, it looks like the person that was staying with him who disappeared right after would be a likely suspect. Police never located him?”
“No. To our best belief he was involved, but he disappeared right afterward, we had no name for him, and he was never located.”
During my research, I had read that any fingerprint hit notification would go to the submitting law enforcement agency, meaning whoever submitted any prints to be tested against latent prints from the scene. So I asked Detective Pratt who would receive any hit notifications for Janette’s case.
“Either the Reed City MSP Post detachment or Reed City Police Department,” he said.
Then I asked him about the Lintemuth case, and my curiosity around how those prints hit. I repeated what I had written in my letter to him about how a reporter had gotten some information from Frank West out of Big Rapids.
“Director of Public Safety,” he said, apparently familiar with the name. “Well, I can tell you that trainees wouldn’t be using a piece of evidence from an open case for training. I am familiar with this case because I worked it. I know the prints were submitted and triggered a standard AFIS hit. But there still has to be an independent verification. I received notification of the hit. With the name and information provided, I was able to place the subject in Baldwin the day prior to the [Lintemuth] homicide. I acquired prints from the Lake County Sheriff’s Department of the subject, along with other known prints from Minnesota and Illinois, and submitted those for verification.”
I scribbled furiously, taking his information down word for word because he was pacing his answer with my writing in a way that made it clear he wanted each of them on record. Because it felt like I was missing something, I called Frank West later to get clarification.
“The prints were on file with MSP and over the years they would resubmit through AFIS to check, but early on they would hit a dead loop. They’d just keep searching the Michigan files with no connection to the national database because it wasn’t available yet. And they wouldn’t be using actual evidence with prints on it to train, understand that. It would be a digital copy of the prints. By the way, that offender was arrested days before the Lintemuth murder.”
From an article in The Pioneer on September 1, 2010:
Lake County Sheriff Robert Hilts testified that Graham was in fact in the area in 1980 days before Lintemuth’s murder. Graham spent a few nights in Lake County jail after he tried to sleep in the bathroom at the sheriff’s office. Graham was released on April 22, 1980, the day before Lintemuth’s body was found. Hilts, who was working as a correction officer in 1980, arrested Graham and completed his booking on April 20, 1980.
West continued. “But even if they took his prints, if they were unaware he’d committed a murder, while they may have kept the prints on file, they wouldn’t necessarily have been put through the system later. There would be no way of knowing the cases were related. Think of it like this. If someone was arrested for shoplifting back then, their prints may have been taken, but once that case was completed, there may never have been a reason to enter the prints into the system.”
“I believe MSP still uses them for training because they were such good prints. The case itself was textbook. Everyone involved did a wonderful job processing the scene. But the crime occurred before the technology was available. It was one of those cases where, you know, you’re sitting there having coffee one day and decide to run the prints. That day was a lucky break. I think they even got multiple hits because Graham had reoffended by that time in multiple states.”
“Detective Pratt,” I asked, nearing the end of my list of questions. “What do you think it would take for Janette’s case to be solved?”
“Information. Physical evidence linking the perpetrator to the crime.”
Hear that, folks?
PHYSICAL EVIDENCE LINKING PERP TO CRIME.
That is your mission, should you choose to accept it.
“You’ve been doing this a long time. Has any case ever gotten to you? I wonder how you do it. I mean all of it, all these cases.” It seemed overwhelming to me.
“You deal with different types of crimes. You have to place them in perspective to keep your ability to pursue the case you’re working on until it leads to a conclusion.”
I knew how invested I’d become in Janette’s story, in finding out who did such horrible things to her. I’d be a broken person if I had to deal with that all day. Hers was just one case. Detective Pratt did this for 46 years and 3 months with the State Police, and after a brief retirement, he’s now doing it again for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department.
The stuff you have to look at, the people you have to deal with when you work in law enforcement—the liars and shady folks and druggies, and people who can take a knife to the soft flesh of another human, or shoot someone point-blank in the head… how, without it breaking your soul, how do you do it?
How do they do it?
I couldn’t resist trying once more to get him to rule out Lee Peterson. I knew he’d said he didn’t rule anyone out, but if there was any way I could say This guy didn’t do it, I wanted to do that. Something about Lee Peterson made me sad. Maybe because I have mentally ill loved ones. I have a cousin who was schizophrenic and killed himself. His journey had been tough. I couldn’t imagine a murder accusation on top of it.
“See, I want to ask you something specific, which I know you can’t answer. It’s about… well, it’s about Peterson. I know they had his blood and prints, based on the Cadillac report, but Lieutenant Golnick said that if he’d never committed a crime, they wouldn’t be in the system.”
I had no idea if they were even able to get any of his prints for comparison in Janette’s case because the Cadillac report I had said the set they took at autopsy was “not suitable for entry into AFIS.”
“Well, I can tell you he had committed a crime,” Detective Pratt said as he met my gaze. I felt my eyes widening. I knew that was farther than he had to go. He was trying to meet me half way and I found it sudden and unexpected. So they had his prints to check against latent lifts at the crime scene.
“Here’s what you need to understand,” he said. “Fingerprints cannot be dated. If you find a set of prints at a scene, you can’t tell if they were put there yesterday or five years ago. There have been prints that survived for one-hundred years. So even if you have a suspect and find their prints at a scene, that doesn’t mean they are the perpetrator. The prints may not have even been put there that day. But you may not be able to rule them out that way, either.”
“Just like you may not find the prints of a person at a scene, and it can turn out they were the perpetrator,” I said.
Detective Pratt nodded and smiled. He could tell that I understood. It was that explanation coupled with the knowledge of the mitochondrial DNA that swiftly brought into focus why, in this case, it would be difficult to rule anyone out until a perpetrator was apprehended. There were quite a few people associated with this case that I could hypothetically see police looking at very hard, who might find occasion to have been in that basement beneath the Gambles store. Employees, customers, a helluva lot of people in Reed City went into that store on a regular basis. Some of them might be suspects. If they were, and their prints or DNA were found at the scene, there exists a problem as to when those prints were put there. There was also the matter of those “unidentified prints” Detective Pratt had mentioned.
Could be a random customer, could be the killer…
As he walked me out of the sheriff’s office and I awkwardly shook his hand, my head was swimming. I found Detective Pratt to be as open as he could have been, and even though I steered clear of asking specifics that common sense would suggest he couldn’t release, he offered more than I expected he would.
But there were some hard facts to contend with. The DNA they had would never produce a smoking gun. I hope they have a boatload of circumstantial evidence that along with the prints, hairs, and mitochondrial DNA, is almost enough to tip them over the edge. My fondest wish is that police are just waiting for that one thing…
Maybe, just maybe, all they’re waiting for is one person with a small piece of evidence or information that seems inconsequential, but is the exact right piece to pull it all together.
If that’s the case, what Janette Roberson needs now is a hero; one person who may not even know what they know.
Or someone who knows exactly what they know and finally tells the right person.
(Yet, still ...to be continued.)