Thursday, July 27, 2017

First Responder's - Chapter 4

RCPD and the Osceola County Sheriff’s Dept. remain in these locations today. 
The MSP post closed to public traffic October, 2011.

In 1983 there were three separate law enforcement entities stationed in Reed City within blocks of one another, as well as the Gambles store on Upton Avenue where Janette Roberson was murdered.

Reed City’s Michigan State Police Post was 0.7 of a mile from Gambles, the Reed City Police Department was 0.5 of a mile, and the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department was 0.2 of a mile; two blocks. Someone could literally sprint from the Sheriff’s department to Gambles in under a minute if they were in mediocre health and inclined to do so. Three different law enforcement entities within a mile of the location of the crime scene, which is why they all converged, according to police reports, on top of one another.

As I researched this case, one of the most common public perceptions I encountered was that the first responding officers compromised the scene. I am not one to assume ill of law enforcement strictly on the basis of what someone else says. I like to read things and research things and see things with my own eyes—like, oh, I don’t know, New York cops on video killing an unarmed man for selling untaxed cigarettes.

Generally speaking, cops have a tough, often shitty job, one the average citizen would do well to not take for granted. It’s all fun and games to poke fun at the po-po until such time as you actually need them. So it was with skepticism and a grudging sense of irritation that I listened to numerous stories about corruption; tale after tale of Reed City citizens bemoaning speed traps, or how only “certain names” in town got certain municipal jobs. How special treatment is afforded to some, while others are blah, blah, blah… 

You’ve heard all the stories, I’m sure. If you live in a small town, came from a small town, or have read anything about small town life, it’s practically a cliché. This isn’t anything new. It wasn’t far into my research, though, that I ran across a couple inconsistencies specific to this case. The first involved the Reed City Chief of Police at the time of the murder.

Phillip Rathbun passed away on November 27, 2013 at 78 years of age. According to his obituary, he was born April 19, 1935 in Lansing to Yale Rathbun and Alma Stickney, was raised in Lansing, and married in 1952. He worked as a pageboy for Michigan’s Governor Gerhard Mennen “Soapy” Williams as a young man, and eventually joined the Army, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1963 he moved with his wife to the Reed City area where they raised five daughters. At one time, he worked as a butcher at the local A&P. He and his wife founded and operated the first ambulance service in Osceola County. Rathbun wore many hats in the community over the years, including chief of police, city manager, city councilman, mayor pro-tem and volunteer firefighter. He was police chief for 22 years, seven of those serving double-duty as police chief and city manager. 

Phillip Rathbun was dubbed “Mr. Reed City” and most people I spoke to had good things to say about him. In fact, not a person I spoke to had anything but nice things to say about him, personally - except for one person who shall remain nameless, because I suspect that person was feeding me a line of BS, for a reason that I have yet to determine. 

Sometimes people just like to cause drama.  

From a Cadillac News article written by Matt Seward that ran on January 19, 2010, the 27th anniversary of Janette Roberson’s death:

“Every time I go past the gravestone, I look it,” Rathbun said. “I’ve even done some maintenance on it. One of the trees on it died, and I cleaned it off. I trimmed some other trees. It (the murder) is still on my mind; it’s not forgotten, if you will.”

Rathbun was the Reed City Police Chief at the time of Janette’s murder. He was out of town when it happened, but it took place while he was in charge of the police department.

“That’s one thing from my career that sticks out No. 1 in my mind,” Rathbun said. “Not that I don’t have other concerns, but it bothers me. It has been on my mind and always will until it is solved.”

Rathbun, who retired from the police force in 1998, admits that a lot of details have been blurred by time, but some things still stand out.

“There was some kind of hostility, in my opinion,” Rathbun said. “It was not just passion. Someone was mad at her.”

When asked if he believes the killer would be found, Rathbun didn’t hesitate. “Yep,” he said. “Something will drop out of the woodwork.

“It is something neither one of us (Rathbun and Pratt) has dropped out of our thinking. I know (Pratt) has not closed the case on it.”

Chief Rathbun was not noted in the Michigan State Police report as having been among the law enforcement officers present when Detective Pratt arrived, yet on page four of the report, he is listed as one of the people who “it was learned through investigation” had “entered the immediate area of where the victim was found at least once, and some more than one time.”

Because the Reed City report—signed by officers Finkbeiner and Primeau—does not mention their boss’s presence, it’s unclear when he arrived and left that first time. Or, perhaps, they did mention it, but in the documents I recieved, it was redacted. 

Either way, that's concerning.

In the Osceola County report, Det. Sgt. James Southworth writes that he contacted Chief Rathbun, though it is not stated where he was contacted, or the time he was contacted.

According to the Wexford County and Cadillac Police reports, Chief Rathbun returned at some point in the evening, because he was noted on both reports as being there, and both departments arrived much later in the evening to assist with evidence collection.

I spoke with Gladys and Terry Kooiker (mentioned in the report excerpt above) on Oct. 6, 2014 at their home. They were at Gambles on the day of the murder because they needed something from the store, though neither could remember, three decades later, what that something was. It’s no wonder. Could have been anything from a mouse trap to a sink stopper, but whatever the item, its memory would forever be overshadowed by the events that played out once they entered the store.

Both Kooikers worked for Reed City schools and they’d stopped that day on their way home. Based on what time school let out, they estimate being there between 3:30 and 3:45pm. Mrs. Kooiker said they had been inside Gambles maybe 5 minutes, just long enough to find what they needed, and were standing near the register in the center if the store. 

This tracks with the ME report, which states the body was found at approximately 3:50pm.

Mrs. Kooiker remembers overhearing someone say, “Well, her coat is here…”

It wouldn’t have been more than a minute or two that Angie Tillie would run back up the stairs from the basement. They didn’t remember Angie screaming, but Mrs. Kooiker described her as distraught. Mr. Kooiker didn’t remember her saying anything, which would tend to corroborate Flossie Earnest’s recollection of Angie putting her head down on the desk near the register and pointing to the basement pet store entrance, unable to speak.

Mrs. Kooiker said that it only occurred to her later that evening, once they got home, that she didn’t remember anyone checking the store to see if the killer was inside with them.

Mr. Kooiker remembered seeing Officer Finkbeiner walking down the aisle toward him from the front of the store, but he did not recall Officer Primeau arriving with Officer Finkbeiner. In fact, he said that he was not at the front door when Finkbeiner arrived, “with the door already secured at the time”—as written in the Michigan State Police Report—but was told later to watch the door, by Finkbeiner himself.

According to Mr. Kooiker: “I suspect if Primeau was with Finkbeiner, he wouldn’t need me to watch the door, would he?” He was clear about one thing: he was not manning front door when the officers arrived. 

This recollection by Mr. Kooiker is corroborated by Gary McGhee, who was one of the EMT’s on duty when the call came in. According to McGhee, the call came in as a heart attack in progress. The Michigan State Police report also notes this. It’s the reason the call stands out in McGhee’s mind, all these years later. According to his incident report, the dispatch came in at 4:06pm and EMTs Gary McGhee and Pam McDonald pulled up in front of Gambles at 4:08pm. As he was hurrying out of the ambulance, McGhee recalls, “Larry Finkbeiner was holding the glass front door to the store open and people were hurriedly exiting the building. It appeared as if Larry was “shooing” people out of the store. However, this did not seem unusual given the circumstances we thought we were responding to.”

Heart attack. Remember, they still think they’re responding to a heart attack in progress.

McGhee believes there were three or four people, but he cannot be sure of the exact number. “Not a crowd, but three or four people.” He says he was later asked by state police if he could identify any of the folks Officer Finkbeiner allowed to leave the store since he was a local, but could not. He and his partner, Pam McDonald, were busy grabbing their gear, and if there was a heart attack occurring, clearing the area would tend to be an appropriate response.  It should also be noted that Gary McGhee is the son of the man who was the Reed City State Police Post Commander at the time, also named Gary McGhee.

Officer Finkbeiner was the only law enforcement officer McGee remembers seeing as they arrived at Gambles. He also recalls seeing Angie Tillie as they entered the store and she was “visibly upset.” He and his partner were told nothing. No one spoke a word to them as they were led down to the basement by Officer Finkbeiner. They walked down the stairs behind him, “…stepped to the right a little, down an aisle” and through the pet department, where they followed along the far right wall to the back of the room. According to McGhee, Officer Finkbeiner pushed open a door at the rear of the room and just inside was a woman “…lying beneath a rack of animal cages that was elevated off the floor.”

The birds were squawking like crazy, that’s another thing he remembers, because it added to the surreal nature of the scene. While McGhee jumped into action, his partner froze in the doorway behind him. It took him a couple seconds to realize he wasn’t being assisted. He looked up and saw Pam McDonald unable to move because she also expected to find a heart attack victim, not a gruesome murder scene. She was crying and shaking.

McGhee told me, “I feel bad about it now, but I screamed at her to go upstairs.” It was clear to him she wasn’t going to be able to help. He said the victim was not breathing when they found her and that her body was “cool, not cold” so he believed it had not just happened but had been a little while.

I said to Gary, “The report says, Attendants at the scene: Gary McGhee, Tom Stanfield, and Pam McDonald. Reed City Hospital, Dr. White at 4:13. The victim was on telemetry. What does that mean, telemetry?”

“People can only legally/officially be declared dead by a physician. As paramedics, we make an assessment of the patient including obtaining an electrocardiogram (ECG). We then call the hospital and speak with a physician. The physician then, based on our reported findings, “pronounces” the patient deceased. The medical examiner is then notified if indicated and may or may not come to the scene. In Osceola County at the time, I was a Medical Examiner Investigator, appointed by the Medical Examiner. As such, in certain types of deaths (i.e. auto accidents) where the cause of death is obvious, we were trained to perform certain examinations and tests, complete specific forms, and then submit them to the Medical Examiner without the Medical Examiner actually having to come to the death scene. However, because of the situation, I requested that the medical examiner (Dr. Williams) actually come to this scene. I remember that he was there before we left at 5:26pm which is consistent with the report.”

“In this situation, as documented, I made my assessment at 4:10pm which included obtaining an ECG which depicted the total absence of any electrical heart activity. This time would have been recorded (printed) on the ECG tracing obtained at the time. I then called Reed City Hospital on the “bedside” telemetry (UHF) radio we used at the time, and spoke with Dr. Catherine White (D.O.)—who was the physician on duty at Reed City Hospital Emergency Department. This contact was made, as documented, from the victim’s side in the basement at 4:13pm and the victim was “officially” pronounced deceased at that time. The actual time of death was obviously some time before that—but not too long, based on my findings. Dr. White never came to the scene.”

Then he said, “Did the reports mention anything about the blood I stepped in?”

Huh?” That was all I could muster.

It was clear that McGhee was chagrined about it, even three decades later.

“Please remember, I have been involved in fire & EMS for over thirty six years. I am nearly fifty-four years old now. This incident occurred over thirty years ago, when I was relatively young (twenty-two) and a relatively inexperienced paramedic. What I did—or observed then—may not have been as good as it is now. I know my documentation was not nearly as thorough then as it is now. My memory of the incident is also limited. I received my paramedic degree in June 1981 and started at Osceola County EMS in October that same year, without any prior experience at the paramedic level. The blood spot/puddle was located outside the entrance to the back room through which I entered, maybe eight to ten feet. Definitely closer to the entrance to the back room than to the stairway. I admit that I did not see it when I was walking toward the doorway; I was not looking for anything like that since I thought I was responding to a heart attack victim. I did not see the blood until when I was leaving the room to go back upstairs. It was then that it became evident that the initial assault most likely occurred outside the room where she found and that she had been dragged or otherwise moved to where the body was located. The blood was still wet. I did not know for sure that I had stepped in it while walking toward the entrance to the back room but there was the possibility, since I walked right through the area where it was located.”

“I remember telling Officer Mike Primeau when I got back upstairs that I might have stepped in the blood on my way into the room. He told me that they might need my boots then to match/rule out against any footprints that they might find during the investigation. In light of this, I called my fiancée and she brought me another pair to the store. She came to the front door of the store and handed them to me through the open door. She did not enter the store. I did not take my boots off until she arrived with the other pair. Admittedly, probably a mistake. I took my boots off and they were placed in a paper bag. I remember that it had to be a paper bag. I don’t know for sure what happened to them thereafter. I left the store with my other boots on. I remember getting my boots back a few days later; they were at the EMS office when I returned to work one day.”

I felt bad for the guy. He was obviously horrified it had occurred in the first place, but to my mind, he wasn’t at fault. He was following directly behind a police officer.

“Officer Finkbeiner led you down there, right?" I asked. "Did he even know the blood was there? Did you see boxes blocking the aisles, or any reason why he would have led you directly through an area with obvious blood on the floor? Presumably there were other ways to get to the back of the store.”

“I do not remember there being anything blocking our path to the back room. I did not see the blood on the floor until I was leaving the back room. It was only then that I suspected the initial assault may have occurred there, and also realized—to much embarrassment—that I may have walked through it on my way into the room.”

When asked, McGhee was not sure if Officer Finkbeiner had been down to the basement before EMTs arrived, or if he was seeing the body for the first time with them. One has to wonder, though, how Officer Finkbeiner would have known exactly where to find the body if he was just going down there the first time with the EMTs and nobody exchanged any words. McGhee said there was no discussion as they walked from the front door where Finkbeiner had been “shooing people from the store” while he led them downstairs. 

Did Finkbeiner know they had a murder at this time? Presumably he would have heard the same dispatch from his patrol car radio that everyone else heard: Heart attack in progress.

When did Officer Finkbeiner become aware they were on a murder call and not a heart attack? His report states he arrived and entered with the EMTs. If that is true, how did he know exactly where the body was? Even if an employee had told him it was in the basement, how did he know where, exactly? Did one of the employees tell him before the EMTs pulled up, before he was shooing people out of the store? 

He led EMTs in a straight path directly to the back room and opened the door. The Reed City report states Officers Finkbeiner and Primeau arrived at 4:04pm. According to their report, the EMTs arrived at 4:08. That’s four minutes of unaccounted for time. Did he spend it all shooing people out of the store, or did he go downstairs and view the body, alone or with others, prior to EMTs arriving? 

According to the Reed City report that Officers Primeau and Finkbeiner signed, “Upon arriving at the scene, PO observed the Osceola EMS vehicle also arriving at the scene. Undersigned officers, along with the EMS attendants entered the building (Gambles) thru the south door or what is called the front entrance.”

Four minutes between the times the Reed City report says their officers arrived and when EMS states they arrived. Did he stand out on the sidewalk and shoo customers out for four whole minutes? The city report clearly states they all arrived at the same time.

Asked if he recalled any other law enforcement officer arriving, McGhee said, “I do remember Mike Primeau being in the basement where the body was located while we were still down there, but I am not sure when he arrived. He definitely came in after me. Osceola County’s Jim Southworth was there, and I remember him being in the basement while I was assessing the victim. Once it was determined that the victim was deceased, I left the basement and went back upstairs where I remained until I was authorized to leave. I don’t recall going back downstairs at any time until we went back to pick up the body for transport to Grand Rapids. Officer Mike Primeau accompanied Tom Stanfield, (the replacement for Pam McDonald) and me in the ambulance when we transported the body to Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids. This was to preserve the chain of evidence. He also returned to Reed City with us in the ambulance and we took him back to the Gambles store when we arrived back in Reed City. When we arrived at Blodgett, the receiving pathologist (or assistant) did a visual examination of the body with me, Tom, and Mike Primeau present. It was from that examination it was determined that there was an item with a particular shape that was used in the assault. We returned to the Gambles store to drop Officer Mike Primeau off and advised the investigators that were still present what to look for as a possible weapon. It was early morning, as documented, 1:00am.” be continued...

Reporters in the foreground, along with (from center) 
Officer Larry Finkbeiner, Deputy Terry Oyster, and Det. Sgt. George Pratt.

1 comment:

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