NATURE OF COMPLAINT: Prosecutor James Talaske reports a homicide at the Reed City Gambles store – Osceola County, Michigan.
LOCATION: 112-114 West Upton Ave., Reed City, MI
TIME: The offense occurred between [REDACTED] this date, Wednesday, January 19, 1983.
OWNER: The owner of the Gambles store is David Engels.
VICTIM: Janette Gail Roberson.
SCENE: The victim was an employee of the Gambles store in the pet shop, which is located in the basement of the original Gambles store, 114 W. Upton Av.
Osceola County Prosecutor James Talaske, the complainant in this matter, was contacted at the scene and he advised that it was his request that the Undersigned (Det. Sgt. George Pratt, Michigan State Police) handle the investigation.
AGENCIES INVOLVED: Reed City Police Department, Osceola County Sheriff’s Department and Michigan State Police.
One of my first questions was this: Who called the county prosecutor, and why?
Was that standard operating procedure in 1983? The report notes that Detective Sgt. George Pratt was notified at the Reed City MSP Post of the homicide by James Talaske at [REDACTED] and his arrival at the scene was [REDACTED].
Question number two: What possible reason would Michigan State Police have for redacting the arrival time of their assigned Detective? I put this question in writing, multiple times in separate FOIA requests, and was repeatedly turned down. The last request I made in that regard was a request for that piece of information alone, Detective Pratt’s notification time and his subsequent arrival time on scene. I even noted the page they could find the information on. The request was flatly denied and the exceptions they invoked were as follows:
It would interfere with law enforcement proceedings.
Deprive a person of the right to a fair trial.
Constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Let me break down my responses to those points:
No it wouldn't.
Oh, come on.
Really, are you kidding me?
I learned pretty quickly that not all public information is created equal. If an entity doesn’t want to hand it over, for whatever reason, there are a great many ways they can get around it. Once I learned that I would have an opportunity to speak to Detective Pratt, I jotted that one down on my ever-growing list of questions.
In the report, Detective Pratt writes: “Upon arrival, after being admitted to the secured Gambles store by the rear door, Reed City Police Officers Larry Finkbeiner, Michael Primeau and Theodore Platz were recognized, along with Sheriff David Needham, Undersheriff Thomas Dettloff, Det. Sgt. James Southworth, and Deputies Terry Oyster and Thomas Kingsbury of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department. Also present were Osceola County Emergency Service employees Gary McGhee, Thomas Stanfield and Pamela McDonald.”
According to the MSP report, a Reed City hospital employee, who was listed as having been in the vicinity of the body at some point, followed the EMTs into the store because she was a nurse and “It was felt that she possibly could be of assistance.” The report states that she was “just passing by the store at the time,” although Gary McGhee does not recall her assisting at all, and since he knew her quite well, believes he would have.
When asked about her presence, McGhee noted, “I vaguely remember her being in the store. She may have come downstairs, but I do not remember her ever being allowed in the back room where the body was. She may have peeked in but I would not have let her become involved if she was in the room. She was a nurse at the hospital. Paramedics were a relatively new phenomenon at the time, especially in Northern Michigan. Many nurses, this woman included, were opposed to paramedics performing ECG’s, starting IV’s, giving medications, and other advanced procedures we are trained to perform in the pre-hospital setting. She was not a big supporter of the EMS system in Osceola County.”
Officer Finkbeiner advised Detective Pratt that a store employee, Angie Tillie, “found the victim after she was missed for some time.”
From the initial MSP report:
“It was learned thru investigation that in addition to the police officers on the scene, ambulance employees, [the nurse who happened by], and Angie Tillie, who found the victim, the following people had entered the immediate area of where the victim was found, at least once, and some more than one time: John Engels, Store Manager; David Engels, Store Owner; Thomas Hawkins, a store patron; Dr. Earl Williams, Medical Examiner, and Chief Phillip Rathbun of the Reed City Police Department.”
Remember, the Reed City PD report does not mention Reed City Police Chief Phillip Rathbun’s presence at the scene, or when he arrived, unless that information is included in the redacted portions, in which case I would be curious as to why that would be.
“Identification of the victim was made by co-worker Angie Tillie, who found the body, and also Officer Finkbeiner, who personally knew the victim. Next of kin, Marion Fisher, who is the Reed City City Clerk (and Treasurer) and mother of the victim, was notified by the Reed City Police. Mrs. Fisher and James Nordstrom, City Manager, notified the victim’s husband, Alvin Roberson, at their residence.”
Detective Southworth appears to have been sent on a number of tasks, including canvassing local businesses and interviewing Janette’s husband.
At the time of the murder, Ronald Goold owned The Buckboard Bar, having purchased it from Ivan Youngs and his family. He eventually sold it back to Ivan, months after the murder. The bar itself is directly next door to the Gambles store on the side that had recently been expanded into. I spoke to him briefly and he was kind enough to get me in touch with his daughter, Carrie Bevard, who was working at The Buckboard on the day of the murder. She recalls Detective Southworth hurrying into the bar that day with a couple other officers.
“There really aren’t any front windows on the building. I remember they came in suddenly and were emptying trash cans, going through the bathrooms... They didn’t say what they were doing at first, but I did have to unlock the basement door for them. We knew there was something going on, but did not know what.”
On the day of the murder business was slow, only a few regulars in the bar. Carrie said it was sometime after lunchtime.
“They told me there had been a murder next store and they needed to check my basement. I unlocked the basement door—it was padlocked—but I didn’t go down with them.”
Carrie said she rarely went down to the basement to begin with and then only to get extra mops or buckets.
“It was creepy.”
She was aware of a door on the front of the basement wall below where the front door at street level would be, beneath the sidewalk, and from what the detective told her, that doorway opened into a passage that accessed the entire block below the sidewalk. These access points were once used for coal deliveries. Carrie said she believed some businesses already had their doors blocked by that time, so she did not know how far the killer could have gotten around below ground, but according to police, there was a question, on that first day, if the killer could have been moving around down there, underground.
She said police didn’t make her close the bar while they searched, but would not let any new customers inside. She was told by one of the officers that Janette had left for lunch and was murdered shortly after returning. Because Carrie went into the pet store occasionally, she knew who Janette was, but didn’t know her personally.
Carrie and the regulars in the bar were questioned in a group, asked things like: “Anyone acting strange come in or out? Anyone go in the bathroom for a long time? Did anyone see anything? Had anyone been in the pet store that day? Did they see anything unusual? Did anyone know Janette? Had they seen her that day?”
Carrie added, “The thinking was that the person had maybe come in there and used the bathroom to clean up. I thought the whole theory of someone coming in there in the middle of the afternoon was ridiculous, since during the day it was usually regulars, and anyone different would surely have been noticed, especially if they had suddenly popped out of the basement.”
Not to mention the basement access was padlocked. She, herself, had to unlock it for the police.
Carrie said police were there for twenty or thirty minutes, but didn’t appear to find anything and didn’t take anything out as evidence. She said she was really scared knowing there was a killer on the loose, and in the days to follow she would get regular escorts by one of the Reed City Officers—Finkbeiner or Lucha, usually—to and from her car when she opened and closed the bar.
Of his interaction with Alvin Roberson on this date, the Michigan State Police report notes:
“To determine that the husband of the victim, Alvin Roberson, had been notified of her demise, D/Sgt. Southworth went to the Roberson residence. Alvin Lee Roberson was interviewed at his home. He was advised of his Constitutional rights, which he advised that he understood and waived. It was learned that he is employed by Kysor Unitest in Marion, Michigan, working the first shift, 7am to 3:30pm but that he is laid off for this week, 1-17 thru 1-21. He advised that he and his wife had been married for eleven years, being the first marriage for both. They have two children, Kelvin (8) and Jennifer (9). They moved to Michigan from [REDACTED] on 8-12-80. Prior to coming to Michigan, they both had been employed at Costal Auto Parts.”
What follows that paragraph are blank pages.
Whatever information Alvin Roberson supplied to investigators on the day his wife was murdered remains unavailable to the public, as does almost every word of every witness statement included in the Janette Roberson murder investigation file the Michigan State Police has conducted, to date.
Back at Gambles, before they were allowed to leave, short interviews were held with the employees and patrons who were still at the store, among whom were David Engels, John Engels, Flossie Earnest, Angie Tillie, Thomas Hawkins, Elke Johnson, and David Sandlin.
As of this writing, Thomas Hawkins is incarcerated in the Saginaw Correctional Facility on multiple counts of Criminal Sexual Conduct, with an earliest release date of 2030. One has to assume that since he had to provide fingerprints at some point in that process, they’ve been compared to those at the Roberson murder scene and he’s been ruled out.
Or, you don’t have to assume anything of the kind, rather, feel free to entertain the possibility that perhaps he did kill Janette, then cleaned up somehow and stood around the store waiting for her body to be found, then waited a little more for cops to arrive, and a little bit more after that to be interviewed, before he decided to go home.
I’m gonna go ahead and assume he’s not our guy.
On the day Janette Roberson was murdered, Hawkins may have visited Gambles twice—once to bring Karl Johnson to the store, and once to drive his wife, Elke, later in the day, at least according to Karl Johnson, former husband of Elke Johnson:
“Our muffler was broken on our car, so I think Tom Hawkins drove me down to the store so I could sell our baby gerbils to Janette. It must have been between 10:00 and 11:00. I waited in the basement [pet department] for about fifteen minutes and then I went back upstairs and asked the manager when Janette would be back. He informed me that her husband had been there a couple of times and she might have gone home with him. I did not ask further questions. Tom drove me home and Elke took the gerbils again later, but she called me from the store and said Janette had been murdered and that she would be questioned by the police. The police never asked me anything until we were in Germany. I had told “Dan”* about Janette’s murder and they were interested in his response when I told him, but I did not remember anything unusual.”
*(“Dan” is a pseudonym.)
Elke does not recall Hawkins driving her to the store that day, but admits her memory of details is bad, some three decades later. To his recollection, her ex-husband Karl believes Thomas Hawkins drove Elke because their car was not in service on that day.
Karl said, “I believe it was the store manager I spoke to. I talked to him a few weeks later and he told me he was convinced her husband did it. He said it was unusual for the husband to come into the store as often as he did on that day. He was convinced Janette’s husband killed her.”
Hawkins, as well as “Dan” lived in the same apartment complex as Janette Roberson. They would both be questioned by Michigan State Police in the months and years following the murder.
“I think “Dan” was fascinated with Janette,” Karl said. “He spent as much time as he could with her, and she was very patient with him. In my opinion, he was in love with her.”
When asked about the gerbils, why he would be bringing them back to the store to Janette, Karl clarified.
“We bought the gerbils from Janette and she told me to bring the babies in to sell them back to her. She said they sell good so she would buy them back.”
When asked about Janette’s relationship with Hawkins, Karl said, “Elke was friends with Janette. I do not think Tom Hawkins knew her, and if he did, it was casual. Elke spent time with Janette and we were in her home a few times. We had aquariums and gerbils so we went to Gambles when we needed food or accessories.”
When my assistant spoke to her the first time, Elke Johnson maintained she was the one who found Janette and alerted an employee, presumably Angie Tillie. When I spoke to her on the phone, weeks later, she said she’d been thinking about it and it’s possible she first saw Janette after she went up to get an employee that last time, and may have seen the body over Angie’s shoulder. This many years later, she couldn’t be sure, and she started doubting her own memory, but her first instinct was that she found the body and alerted Angie Tillie. According to her, she was up and down those stairs looking for someone to help her a few times and nobody seemed to know where Janette was.
Elke said she went back to Gambles with the gerbils that day sometime around 2pm. She went downstairs. No Janette. She waited in the pet department for what she says was about twenty minutes. Nothing. She went back upstairs to ask where Janette was and a female employee said she was at lunch. According to Elke, this process was repeated three or four times. She’d go back downstairs to the pet department, wait fifteen or twenty more minutes, then go upstairs and ask if Janette had returned. The employee kept saying she was at lunch.
Elke thought, ‘That’s a long lunch.’
She felt like she’d waited a really long time.
“After the last inquiry upstairs, I thought perhaps Janette just got too busy with birds and did not check to see if a customer was outside. So I pressed against the door to peek in and called her name. I saw Janette on the floor. Her hair was red with blood, her face beaten in, and there was a pool of blood around her head on the floor.”
Elke hurried upstairs to inform the woman she’d already spoke to several times.
“I don’t remember what I said to her. I assume I told her I found Janette on the floor. It’s all really a blur after that.”
She did remember them locking the doors and keeping everyone there, at some point. When pressed on times, Elke said it felt like she was at Gambles for around an hour waiting for Janette, between going up and downstairs each time.
“All I remember is being very angry that someone could do such a thing to someone as nice as she was.”
According to the ME report, Janette was found at approximately 3:50pm by a fellow employee and she was last seen alive at approximately 1:25pm. EMT Gary McGhee remembers her being “cool, not cold” and according to him, it likely had not just happened. This would tend to corroborate Elke’s memory of events, given it is noted in the MSP report that she was at the store when the body was found, and felt she’d been there at least an hour. Even if she got there closer to three o’clock and was up and down those stairs for about an hour, the killer had probably come and gone by the time she arrived because she saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary while she was down in the pet department.
Still, Elke remains haunted by the possibility that the killer was in the back room of the pet department, having just murdered her friend when she arrived, and that he somehow snuck out of the basement, possibly via the back stairway in the expanded-into area, during one of the times she went upstairs to ask after Janette. According to Elke’s recollection, she walked around the pet store and looked at the aquariums during the period of time she spent in the basement. Since they were installed within the walls between the pet department and back room, if there was someone moving around back there while she was looking at the fish, there’s a chance she’d have seen them. But she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
If the killer had already come and gone by the time Elke arrived at Gambles—and presuming she arrived sometime nearer to three o’clock and spent the next fifty minutes, or so, going up and down from the pet department to the main store upstairs before the body was discovered—it would indicate the attack occurred sometime between 1:25, the last time Janette was seen according to the ME report, and around 3pm, when Elke arrived. I should note that I have never found anyone who saw Janette around the time of 1:25. None of the customers I spoke to who were there that afternoon around that time ever saw her.
Just Gene Johnson around 11:30.
It didn’t occur to Elke until much later how eerily quiet the birds were while she was down in the pet department, given they normally made a lot of noise. To her, it felt like they were too quiet.
The other employee noted on the MSP report as one of the “employees and patrons who were still at the store” and participated in a “short interview” that day was David Sandlin. According to his wife, David Sandlin (now deceased) was hired to work at Gambles mainly on truck days. Sometime shortly after the murder, to her recollection, the police came and took his clothes to be tested. Mr. Sandlin told his wife absolutely nothing about the day, other than Janette had been murdered. He had been in the military, his wife said, and had protected her from all of that. It stood to reason he was doing the same regarding Janette’s death. It was something upsetting and he didn’t like to upset her. He was protective, she said.
When contacted in prison regarding his memory of events, Thomas Hawkins—another of the store patrons who participated in a “short interview” that day, and was also noted to have been in the vicinity of the body—wasn’t inclined to talk. The one thing he made perfectly clear was that he’s not exactly chummy with police.
Given where he is, it’s no wonder.
January 19, 1983 was a long night for the police.
According to the Cadillac PD report, Sheriff Needham of the Osceola County Sheriff’s office contacted them at 10:48pm to request assistance in processing the scene. At 10:50pm, Sgt. Lund of Cadillac called Officer Doornbos at home and by 11:00pm he was at the station in Cadillac. Along with Sgt. Bailey of Cadillac, Doornbos left at 11:18pm en route to Reed City.
Cadillac is roughly thirty minutes from Reed City, so they’d have arrived sometime just prior to midnight and they were quick to note who was present when they got to the Gambles store.
When they arrived at 114 Upton, Reed City, they found Patrolman Finkbeiner (RCPD) at the back door. At that time, these are the people they noted as having been in the basement: Deputies Kingsbury and Oyster – Osceola County Sheriff’s Dept.; Patrolman John Lucha – Reed City officer; Chief Rathbun – Reed City Police Chief; Detective George Pratt – Michigan State Police, Reed City; Laren Thorson – Evidence Tech.
From the Cadillac PD report: “When we arrived at Reed City we went to the back door of [REDACTED] which was the back of the Gambles store. We were met there by a city officer of Reed City. He let us in and advised that [REDACTED] was in the basement and showed us how to get there. Once in the basement we met with Laren. He advised that he had worked his way down the steps and to the cabinet with the cash register on it. He asked if we would start in the middle of the room and work the aquariums there and work our way back.”
The area referred to is the pet store itself, which had to be thoroughly scoured for evidence, in addition to the back room where Janette was found. Just the latent print lifting alone must have been an overwhelming job. Anywhere the public moves in and out of with regularity could have hundreds, if not thousands of prints.
Based on a supplemental Cadillac Police Department report I was able to obtain, the technicians who were called to assist Laren Thorson lifted a number of prints from the pet department, as well as found and turned over an object of possible evidentiary value before finally leaving the secured building at 4:01am.
...to be continued...