Friday, July 28, 2017

Chapter 7 - The Crime

“The partially clad body of a 27 year old woman was found slain in the basement of the Gambles store in Reed City.” 

According to Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. George Pratt, “We have no motive and no prime suspect. It was a violent type cause of death.”

The article in The Pioneer newspaper the day after the murder, January 20th, went on to say that Janette had been a store employee for a little over six months and was working downstairs in the pet department when she was murdered. Robbery was not a motive according to “officials who were interrogating subjects who had been in and out of the store.”

“One subject, who had been in the store and was known to be leaving town was stopped and taken off a bus in Big Rapids for questioning. However, the subject is not in custody and is not believed to be connected with the murder, authorities said.”

One of the first things I do when researching a homicide case is get the death certificate. Here in Michigan, they're public documents, so a quick trip to the county clerk and a couple bucks for a processing fee will get you quite a bit of information on the decedent; full name, address, date of birth, date of death, occupation, spouse's name, place of death, burial information, and, most importantly, mode, manner, and time of death.

In fact, I obtained the death certificates of a number of people closely associated with this case.

Janette's death certificate says she was pronounced dead at 4pm. 

The hour of her death is listed as 3:00pm. 

These are obviously approximates, but tend to be more accurate when a medical examiner comes to the scene, as happened in this case. They are also generally more accurate than the times listed in print media reports.

As noted in the Michigan State Police report:

“On January 20, 1983 officers working on the homicide from all agencies met in the Reed City Police Department with an agreement reached for this location to be utilized as the investigation center. News releases were made for information to be called to the State Police Post in Reed City. As the tips began to filter in, they were assigned to officers of the investigating agencies for follow-up. The Gambles store, which had been secured by the undersigned [Det. Pratt], was re-checked again for anything overlooked the previous day.”

The next few lines jumped right off the page and smacked me in the face:

Interview with: [REDACTED] on Jan. 20th 1983, [REDACTED] dob [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] tx [REDACTED] contacted officers stating he was in the Gamble store on 1-19-83 at approximately 2:50 to 3:00pm.

Now, I'm no investigator, but based on when Janette was found, at 3:50, and the fact that the EMT said the homicide hadn't "just" occurred - coupled with the fact that the death certificate lists the time of death at approximately 3:00 - that feels to me like someone  placed himself at the scene of the crime right around the time she was killed. 

Feels like this person, whoever it was, should have either seen something...or might have done something. But, again, I'm no investigator, so maybe I'm missing something.

On Friday the 21st, two days after the murder, police began interviewing witnesses. They had done brief interviews with the employees and store patrons who were still in the Gambles store on the day of the murder, but it was not until Friday that these same witnesses were questioned at length. They all appear to have been thoroughly interviewed, based on the amount of redacted pages after each name.

According to the Michigan State Police report, Angie Tillie, Bonnie Engels, and John Engels were all questioned on Friday by Detective Pratt, along with Hiram Thompson – a salesman who’d stopped into the store that day. Detective Southworth (along with Det. Sgt. John Waber from the Rockford MSP Post) interviewed David Sandlin and a woman by the name of Patricia Knapp, who lived in the same apartment complex as Janette.

That same day, The Pioneer ran an article and Janette’s obituary. The article was titled $2,000 Offered for Conviction

“In the aftermath of Wednesday’s brutal slaying, no suspects have been taken into custody as of late Thursday afternoon.” 

The same article says that according to the autopsy report, as noted by Osceola County prosecutor James Talaske, “Mrs. Roberson died from a blow to the head with an instrument or instruments unknown.”

At that time, Prosecutor Talaske would not comment on whether Janette Roberson had been sexually assaulted, but went on to say, “Anyone who may have seen or heard something that was unusual in or around the Gambles store between 1 and 4pm is urged to contact the Michigan State Police Post in Reed City.”

From Detective George Pratt: “We are looking for an individual who made a purchase of fish food, strainer, siphon and a thermometer who may have seen something that would be helpful in the investigation. I urge this individual to call us at any time at the state police post.”

Pratt went on to say that the store had a receipt detailing the purchases and he stressed that the person who made them was not a suspect, but they may have information.

The article mentioned that the Reed City Chamber of Commerce, area merchants, and several citizens had raised $2,000 reward money for the “person or persons who supply a clue or clues which lead to the arrest and conviction of the murderer.”

Prosecutor Talaske made a final plea: “Again, if anyone may have seen someone trying to get rid of something, or maybe even [saw] someone who had blood on their clothing—which I’m assuming would have been somewhat obvious—please call the state police post at 832-2221.” 

He added, “It just kind of shocks your sense of security when this sort of thing happens in a nice, small town such as Reed City.”


REED CITY — Mrs. Janette Roberson, 27, of Meadowview Apartments, Reed City died Wednesday January 19th. She was born October 25, 1955 in Detroit. She was married in Georgia to Alvin Roberson, who survives. Also surviving are one daughter, Jennifer (9) and one son, Kelvin (8); her parents, Marion Fisher of LeRoy and Ralph Fisher of Traverse City; her grandmother Ethel Clark of LeRoy; two sisters, Mrs. Anthony (Marlene) Boone of South Carolina and Mrs. Donald (Lana) Mason of Hamburg, Michigan, and one brother, Kelvin Fisher of LeRoy.

She came to Reed City 2 ½ years ago from Georgia and had worked as a clerk at the Gambles store. She was a member of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s witnesses. Services will be 3pm Sunday at McDowell Funeral Home. Burial will be in Woodland Cemetery.

On Saturday the 22nd The Pioneer didn’t have much to add to what they’d already reported in previous days. 

“Police said Roberson died from a blow to the head from a heavy blunt object,” was a slight variation on their earlier description of “object or objects unknown.” It was noted that “Police are looking for two women who purchased fish equipment and may have witnessed the crime.” They went on to add the women were not suspects “…but [police] feel they may have important information concerning the bizarre death.”

Clearly those specific customers were being sought because there was a possibility they may have crossed paths with the killer—at least in the minds of law enforcement.

Prosecutor Talaske went on to describe the basement as “…comprised of half pet supplies and half storage area.” He said Janette had been described by fellow employees as a woman who was easy to get along with and “…there had been no reported problems in the store during the past few weeks.” He concluded by noting that police were checking into the possibility of someone hiding in the basement before the attack but said, “There is no evidence to suggest it.”

The only person listed in the Michigan State Police report as having been interviewed that Saturday the 22nd was Theodore Platz. Platz was an officer with the Reed City Police Department who had assaulted two Michigan State Police troopers and a resident at The Buckboard Bar (next door to Gambles) a month before the murder. 

In the MSP report regarding Janette Roberson’s murder it says, “Theodore Platz was interviewed on January 22, 1983 regarding his attendance at the Gambles store on January 19, 1983.”

Earlier in the report, Detective Pratt noted: “Northern Counties Evidence Service had been requested to do the scene prior to the Undersigned’s arrival with Director Laren Thorson coming to the scene being assisted by Evidence Technicians Sgt. Marvin Doornbos of the Cadillac Police Department, Sgt. David Bailey of the Wexford County Sheriff’s Department, PO Theodore Platz of the Reed City Police Department and D/Sgt. James Southworth of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department along with the Undersigned in processing the crime scene.”

It is unclear when Officer Platz arrived, or who called him, although former Osceola County Prosecutor James Talaske told me that Platz was present when he arrived at the scene. 

According to Northern County Evidence Service technician Laren Thorson, “I wasn’t sure of his role at the scene.” 

No other law enforcement officers or medical personnel are listed as having been fingerprinted or formally interviewed. When I spoke to EMT Gary McGhee, he told me that he and the other technicians were not printed. In fact, at that time, he believed they didn’t even wear gloves to crime scenes. He had a specific recollection of cleaning his hands with alcohol pads from his kit that day because they were instructed not to use the sink in the store.

According to the incident report regarding the assault at The Buckboard Bar involving Officer Platz, just weeks prior to the murder, Michigan State Troopers Lisle and Norman were at the Reed City Post when the barmaid phoned. Trooper Lisle took the call and she asked who was on duty for Reed City PD.

“Sgt. Horchner attempted to raise a Reed City PD car but obtained no reply. Suddenly the complainant was heard to yell over the phone, “Hey, Hey!” Trooper Lisle then indicated that he was still on the phone and the complainant asked that a patrol unit be sent as Ted Platz was in the bar drunk and beating on one of the patrons and she wanted him to leave. Troopers Lisle and Norman responded and Sgt. Horchner stated that he would get a hold of the Reed City Police Chief and ascertain if anyone from Reed City PD was working and advise them of the incident.”

“While en route, radio traffic from the Post advised that no one was working for Reed City PD and that the Reed City Chief was not going to respond and advised that he wanted our department to handle the incident.”

While the troopers tried to contact Police Chief Rathbun multiple times, they were eventually told by him that he was not coming to the scene and they were instructed to “Do what they must do.”

Chief Rathbun held a party that night which Officer Platz had attended, according to an interview he did with The Osceola Herald newspaper in March following his firing. 

There were multiple witnesses to the incident at The Buckboard. According to the barmaid, Platz came into the bar around 12:30am, she served him one drink, and it was obvious he was already inebriated. He sat down next to a couple that he knew—a husband and wife—and began a conversation.

At some point he referred to the female as a “broad,” to which the husband took exception. He told Platz not to make comments about his wife and a brief argument ensued, which then settled back into a conversation, shortly thereafter.

“Moments later,” according to the witness report of the barmaid, she heard the husband say, “One of these times you are going to be without your uniform.”

Platz unzipped his jacket and said, “I don’t have it on now!”

The barmaid’s statement continued to describe what occurred. 

“[The husband] then asked Platz if he wanted to go out back and discuss the matter, and the two men got up and left the bar and walked into the restroom together. It was at this time that [the barmaid] phoned the State Police requesting officers. [The barmaid] states after hanging up the phone she heard loud voices and loud thumping noise coming from the men’s restroom. At this point, a young man also seated at the bar got up and said to the barmaid, “I am sorry all this is happening. I’ll be right back.” 

"[The young man] went into the restroom and the barmaid heard loud voices again and it sounded like the walls were going to come down. “I [the barmaid] went to the men’s restroom door and opened it and found Platz holding [the young man] against the wall by the neck and yelling, ‘I don’t need any motherf----- kid telling me what to do,’ then Platz DROVE [the young man] to the floor hard!” 

"At that time, I went back to the bar and the State Police officers came through the front door. Platz, coming from the restroom towards the bar, saw the State Police officers and stated, “What is the State Police doing in my City!” Tpr. Norman asked me to tell Ted Platz to leave and I did. At this time, Platz was telling the other officer that he was not going to leave. The officers spoke with Platz asking him to leave, then Platz grabbed the officers and he was taken from the bar.”

The young man—listed as a 28 year old bar patron—also gave a statement. 

“Mr. Platz came into the bar and called [REDACTED’s] wife a broad. At this time, they started to argue. After a short time they went into the bathroom. We in the bar could still hear them arguing so I went into the bathroom to quiet them down. I told them that all I wanted was a quiet drink and Platz told me to get out. I said that we were being bothered by the noise and then Platz shoved me against the wall. He then shoved me into the urinal and punched me in the (left) eye. He then left the bathroom and went back to the bar area. At this time the State Police arrived. Mr. Platz was arrested and transported to jail. Prior to being transported to jail, Platz was giving the State Police a hard time as to if he was leaving the bar or not. The barmaid had already told Mr. Platz that he was supposed to leave. Mr.  Platz at this time pulled away from one of the officers and told him that he would leave when the barmaid told him to, which she had already done. Mr. Platz then argued with the State Police for a few minutes. After this argument Mr. Platz pushed away from the State Police, the officers had to use force to restrain Mr. Platz as he grabbed both officers and they had to handcuff him for transportation.”

When the young man was asked by Trooper Norman who or what started the confrontation, he said, “Mr. Platz grabbed both officers by their coats and started pushing them backwards.”

The husband—who wasn’t all that happy with Mr. Platz calling his wife a broad—also gave a statement. 

“At about 12:05am Officer Ted Platz came into the Buckboard bar in Reed City. I have known Ted for a long time and always been able to talk to him. This time was different. He called my wife a broad. I was mad because he said that. He started to talk about things that happened a few years ago. My wife moved because she didn’t want to hear him. I asked him if he would talk to me in the restroom. We went into the restroom and Ted Platz and I started discussing things, probably loud, and Mr. [young man] came in the restroom and started yelling at Ted. Ted yelled at him and hit him in the face, and hit him in the face again. He (Ted) turned him around and hit him again. We then went out of the restroom and the bartender asked everyone to leave. There were two State Police officers telling Ted to come along with them. He (Ted) said “No way,” not until the bartender tells him to leave, so then he antagonized the State Police until they had to use force and take him to the floor, when glass and bottles and chairs were broken in the bar.”

When the husband was asked by Tpr. Norman who or what started the confrontation he said that “Ted Platz wouldn’t leave, I did not see who started the pushing first.”

Buckboard Bar Assault Report

On December 29th, less than a month before Janette Roberson’s murder, The Pioneer ran a short couple paragraphs on the assault.

According to Chief Phillip Rathbun in the February 22nd 1983 edition of The Pioneer, “Effective February 18, 1983, Theodore Platz was notified of his termination of employment with the city.”

That occured one month after Janette Roberson's death.

According to City Manager James Nordstrom, “Under the union contact, an officer can use vacation and sick time and still collect a paycheck while incapacitated.”

While the Michigan State Police report of Janette Roberson’s murder mentions nothing about Mr. Platz being suspended at the time he was assisting in processing the crime scene, when I spoke to Prosecutor Talaske, he verified that he was.

One can only imagine what a jury would think when tasked to evaluate evidence collected at a crime scene where there are already significant issues, like people inadvertently walking through blood, and witnesses allowed to leave the scene before being questioned, but then add to that the presence of an officer who’d assaulted two state troopers and a resident a month prior. An officer that technically shouldn't have been there in the first place, if he was suspended, as the prosecutor says.

On Sept 12, 1983 Theodore Platz pled guilty to Attempted Resisting, Obstructing or Assaulting a Police officer in Osceola Circuit court before Judge Lawrence C. Root.

It appears, however, that Osceola County is extremely forgiving. 

Mr. Platz went on to become the head of the probation department for Osceola County - the same county in which he'd earlier been found guilty. be continued...

No comments: