Thursday, July 27, 2017

HOMICIDE - Chapter 1 of [REDACTED]

Some people get away with murder, literally. Not Kardashian literally—literally, literally. The statistics are staggering. 

As of this writing, in the state of Michigan there are [insert number here] unsolved homicides.

That’s how I wanted to start this opening, with an actual verifiable number, but then I found out this information isn’t readily available to the public. You can’t call and have someone print out a list of open homicide cases under the jurisdiction of the Michigan State Police - at least you couldn't when I was researching this case. 

Apparently, how they keep track of open homicide cases is a mystery second only to the construction of Stonehenge.

Once I was told there was no list that Michigan State Police kept of all unsolved homicides, I submitted a records request for the District 6 homicides because that includes the area in which Janette Roberson was murdered. I figured I’d narrow it down a bit to see if that helped.

My request was granted in part and denied in part, the denial portion stating “A master list of statewide unsolved homicides does not exist.” 

Wait, really? How do you keep track of them all in a way that would easily illustrate any similarities or possible serial offenders? Particularly really old cases where the original investigators are no longer attached to the case? You know, some sort of system like the drug store has to alert when you try to fill two prescriptions that would cause drug interactions. Maybe a digitized spreadsheet that notes similarities in crime scenes, possible serial perpetrator MO comparisons, for when Detectives retire and the new guys need to be brought up to speed.

Nothing? Nada?

After I received the District 6 list, it was clear Michigan State Police could get me the information, it would just have to come piecemeal and I’d have to bother them a little more to get it. So I sent another request to Michigan State Police, this time for Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 & 8.

Meanwhile, I studied the District 6 list. From 1970 to 2014—including Janette Roberson—there were 31 unsolved homicide cases in this district. Seven of those were attributed to the Reed City area. I began researching those cases and submitted document requests to the crack MSP FOIA team that I was certain had, by now, grown to love me like a daughter... or the plague. 

Eventually I got a letter that requested I send them $103.49 to get those other District numbers.

Huh? They had more than that of my money sitting on someone’s desk at that time for a request they had asked me to cancel. So I emailed the gal I was working with, prepared her an annotated list of the FOIA requests and charges I had outstanding, as well as the amount of my money they had floating around Lansing somewhere—which was, by the way, more than the amount requested for that District information. I got this response:

Please let Ms. Decker know that after a review of our emails and files, the agreement was that the 2 requests that she paid half on and then cancelled (CR-93318 $117.37 and CR93687 $53.15), those monies would have been credited to the request that was replacing those two (CR95886, billed estimate of $5,828.73). If they don’t intend to pay the balance on CR98556 and complete that request, a request for the refund of those 2 payments should be made to us in writing. We do not have the ability to keep a “balance” and deduct fees for each request. Also, any unpaid requests would still be due at this time. Please let her know she can contact me with any questions.

Thank you, 
            Jessina Beckner

We’ll talk about the $5,828.73 in a bit. That’s a fun story! 

I knew they had the ability to keep a “balance” and deduct fees because they had already done so for other requests of mine, early on. In the beginning, the process seemed to be going pretty smoothly. Then... well, it felt there might have been some intervention involved. I later learned that was, indeed, the case.

At another point, I had received a refund for a document request they approved, changed their minds, and decided not to send me, months after the initial request. Needless to say, by this time—just shy of New Year’s, 2015—I’d had enough of the Michigan State Police FOIA Department. A root canal sans anesthesia while being forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh blather on about Obama’s shortcomings sounded more pleasant than writing even one more document request.

The problem is: that’s what they’re counting on. I learned from my research that it’s common practice to charge exorbitant fees and make it as uncomfortable as possible for the public to get certain information if they didn’t think you should have it. Go ahead, Google it. Look for court cases related to FOIA claims. They reach all the way up to the Supreme Court. It won’t be a productive day, but you will come out the other end enlightened, if not slightly irritated. I should note that it’s not just Michigan State Police. It’s common practice. Even NASA was on the receiving end of some testy questioning by Congress over dragging their heels on FOIA requests.

So, as much as I would love to tell you how many unsolved murders Michigan State Police has on the books for the entire state, I can’t. I should be able to, but I can’t because as a citizen, I don’t have unlimited funds to throw around in order to get information that should be freely accessible. I only know that in the area of Michigan where Janette Roberson was killed, District 6, I was given a list that has 31 names on it. That’s one district, and we’ll take their word that Michigan State Police gave me all the names, although I have no facts to back that up.

Now let’s multiply 31 (unidentified killers) by eight (for 8 districts) and get a pretend number that will stand in place of the accurate number Michigan State Police is unable to supply us in anywhere close to a timely and reasonable manner, and we’ll call it Unsolved Homicides for Dummies.

248; The number is probably much higher than that, given District Six likely has less unsolved homicides than some of the southern areas. They’re really murdery down south, or so I’ve heard.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about it, though, using our fake number that’s probably way lower than the real number. 248 people who killed someone—give or take a few who may have died in the interim in a manner nowhere close to befitting their crimes—so, 248 killers walking free, eating stuff they like to eat, today a Whopper, maybe tomorrow a sandwich from Panera, and they’re watching their favorite TV shows, Facebooking about their kids’ accomplishments, or online gambling, maybe spending a Friday afternoon contacting their local congressman with a detailed list of gripes. Perhaps they’re at Walmart arguing with the deli manager, or getting an oil change at Jiffy Lube.

248 people going on with their daily lives as if nothing untoward occurred. You know, like them slashing up the body of another human being before dinner. Stuff like that.

One thing’s for certain. The person who killed Janette Roberson has issues. You don’t do what was done to her and then go on to be a productive member of society. Oh, it might look like that on the surface, but the type of rage required to do that sort of thing doesn’t go away. It’s constantly on simmer. You don’t want to be anywhere around when it boils over. Whoever this person is, they are not a nice person. This person is a monster. This person slaughtered a twenty-seven-year-old woman, then gathered his weapon (or weapons) and got the hell out of dodge like the coward that he is.

Here’s the thing about Janette that gets me. You haven’t really come into yourself as a woman in your twenties. That comes later, mid-life, when you’ve learned how to separate the worries that matter from the rest of the crap. It’s when you innately come to realize the small crap mustn’t be sweated. You’re the most you that you’ve ever been in your forties, fifties, and beyond, and for that reason, you’re more confident. You finally understand how all the pieces fit, so life begins to move more smoothly around you, rather than feeling like you’re running directly into oncoming traffic.

This is a generalization of course, but that’s how it feels to me, having travelled from birth through my late forties. It’s something I’ve earned. I’ve earned every bit of the woman I am, and my wish for each woman out there is that she can say that, too. That’s why it’s called “coming into yourself.”

Janette Roberson was cheated out of that chance. It was stolen from her. She left this world while still in her twenties, feeling around in front of her, trying to make things fit. I wish I could go back and have a cup of coffee with her now. Just fifteen minutes, I’d take it. I don’t know enough about her to adequately relate all the uniqueness she brought to the world in the twenty-seven years she had here. I don’t believe I’ve spoken to a single person who does. I’m not sure if any of the people I talked to really knew who Janette was in January of 1983. Her kids were too young, still in elementary school. Her mother is gone as I write this, and probably took the largest volume of Janette’s memories with her to the grave. The family members I’ve spoken to weren’t part of her day-to-day life at the time she was murdered, so it’s hard to say if anyone really knew who Janette Roberson was when she died. There’s a whole world that goes on inside you at that age when you’re doing all that puzzling. She wasn’t given the chance to be become the woman she was meant to be.

Then there was the town. Reed City, Michigan.

Lots of drama plaguing Reed City in January 1983, I tell you what. An embezzlement scandal was brewing in the city clerk’s office. (Incidentally, Janette’s mother was the City Clerk and Treasurer.) Threatened litigation over a business owner who’d opened a Tool and Die, but alleged he’d been purposely misled about the property and it was going to cost him a pretty penny to fix. The State Police were still smarting from a failed attempt at getting a proposition passed on the 1982 ballot—one that was summarily voted down after months of mudslinging between the local cops (city/county) and State Police. 

Speaking of cops, one of them got himself tossed in the pokey after assaulting two state troopers and a bar customer, just a few weeks before Janette’s murder. It’s not clear if the assaults had anything to do with the aforementioned ballot proposal, though the officer did have an awful lot to say about it to the press after his firing. It may have just been plain old drunken stupidity and anger. It’s clear he had the latter, based on the amount of f-bombs that were tossed around in ALL CAPS in the police report. 

Let’s see, what else? Oh! The city was about $80 thousand dollars in debt at the time, the council itself got along about as well as a group of caged tigers fighting over the last hunk of meat, and they did it on TV in the form of live broadcasts.

It was an interesting time to be a denizen of Reed City in the 1980s. But little did they know, there was a killer in their midst, one who’d prove capable of indescribable violence.

The first time I cried in relation to this case was when I viewed a photocopy of the Reed City Police department’s property sign-out log. For a time, RCPD had items stored, which were eventually turned over to Michigan State Police. As of this writing, according to Reed City Police Chief Chuck Davis, he maintains a full copy of the first responders report, crime scene photos, and an evidence locker—although it is unclear what evidence Reed City PD maintains. According to him, everything else was forwarded to the Michigan State Police.

The copy of the property log, dappled with what looks like spots of mold, with its handwritten WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHO scrawled at the top, does not inspire confidence with regard to record keeping in the 1980s. I’d like to think if I were murdered today, someone would at least type the label of my evidence box, and not have to draw any lines by hand. I think my blood, hair, and fibers have at least earned that much for their collective time here on Earth. I’ve tried to be a decent citizen.

There was something sad about it, this half-page that made up what appears to be six years, during which time some of the items associated with the Roberson case were stored in a box and accounted for by a hastily-scrawled chart. To me, it doesn’t seem to show the appropriate level of respect if you consider the severity of what occurred in the basement pet department of the Gambles store on January 19, 1983.

Second only to reading the gruesome details outlined with painful specificity in the Medical Examiner’s report, looking at the property sign-out sheet left me with a nagging feeling of uneasiness. Add to that sadness and anger, because for over three decades, some truly horrible person has been allowed to go about their life, living, breathing, eating, maybe singing along with their favorite radio station, when all that’s left of Janette Roberson are scant memories and, according to the Michigan State Police, approximately five-thousand pages documenting the investigation into her murder.

Reed City  PD property sign out log

I wish I could go back there, you know? Jump into that proverbial time machine and click the vacuum-sealed door closed. I think if you would have asked me where I wanted to take the time machine, let’s say, ten years ago, I would have said something like, “Back to wherever I can go to kill Hitler—or maybe drop me on the sidewalk in front of The Dakota early enough on December 8, 1980 that I can shove Mark David Chapman into the bushes or something.”

Today there would be no hesitation. “Reed City, Michigan; Upton Avenue; January 19, 1983. Let’s say, eleven-thirty.” That’s the time Gene Johnson remembers being there. He’s the only customer I was able to track down who’d actually seen or spoken to Janette Roberson that day.

Gene was the Director of Maintenance at the hospital in Reed City at the time of the murder. He frequented the store to get supplies, they’d write out a receipt and he’d stick it on the “spike” for hospital billing. On the day of the murder, Gene says he went into the store at around 11:30. He remembers meeting Janette in the middle of the store near the stairs that led down to the basement. He walked toward her after entering the front door, and she was heading toward him from the back of the store. He says he doesn’t remember her carrying anything.

“Can I help you?” Janette asked, pleasantly.

“I know this store better than you!” Gene chided.

This was the first time he’d met Janette, she hadn’t worked at Gambles that long. He heard they hired someone to work downstairs, but never went down to the pet store, only shopped upstairs. In fact, he’d only been in the basement twice, both with David Engels, the store owner. First when the old Men’s Store (the business next door) had been acquired and David was getting ready to expand. The second time, according to Gene, “…was when Dave was setting up the pet store.”

From the Michigan State Police report: “The original Gambles Store is located at 114 W. Upton Ave., which is in the main business block of the city of Reed City, just to the west of US-131, was separated from adjacent buildings by brick/block walls, however after the present owner purchased the business in 1980, the building to the east, 112 W. Upton Ave., was also purchased and in the wall separating these buildings, doorways were installed, both on the main (street level) floor and the basement to give access between them.”

Essentially two stores became one, with holes cut in the walls between them. In the basement today, the archway that was cut to join the two basements remains as it existed then—rough, jagged rock cut into a door-sized archway, glossed over lightly to temper the surface of the craggy rocks.

On January 19, 1983, Gene asked where everyone was. Janette told him they were all unloading the truck. He says he saw employees unloading into both back doors, which would have been the Gambles back door, as well as the side expanded into. Gene said he was maybe in the store fifteen minutes, total. He says he saw Dave and Bonnie unloading. (David and Bonnie Engels, the owners). 

According to Gene, they were coming in and out stacking totes. On delivery days, Gene remembers, “Bonnie would come in, but she wasn’t there every day. Seems like Dave was there every day, from the day he opened the place.”

Gene told Janette he could find what he needed, and remembers her saying she had to take care of something in the pet department. She went downstairs. Gene never saw her again. It was the first and last time he ever interacted with Janette Roberson.

You know what? Scratch eleven-thirty. Let’s go back to 8:00am. If I’ve got a time machine at my disposal, I’d like to stand across the street and watch the employees filter into their businesses on Upton to begin their workdays. January 19, 1983 was a Wednesday, the middle of the week, and I’m told it was a fairly typical day, if perhaps a tad warmer than usual for that time of year.

What I’d be doing is scanning everyone’s faces, looking for any indication of what I knew was to come. Every person that passed me on the sidewalk would be scrutinized as I waited for the Gambles store owner—or his brother, the manager—to unlock the front doors and let the waiting employees inside. I’d be watching for anything that foretold the events to follow, trying to get a handle on when it might have spun out of control. I wouldn’t be able to do that, of course, even if I could travel back in time. I’d need a lot more information than the faces of a few co-workers and passers-by to figure out how, later that day, at approximately 3:50 in the afternoon, the body of Janette Roberson would be found brutalized in the basement pet department of the store where she worked.

I want to make something very clear. The word brutalized does not accurately reflect the condition of Janette Roberson’s body. There is no single word in the English language to adequately describe what was done to her. Law enforcement officers and profilers would technically categorize her injuries as “overkill.” Multiple weapons; multiple wounds.

If I were standing across the street from Gambles that day, Flossie Earnest—a surname that does not belie her personality—would have been one of the employees arriving for a busy workday. It was truck day, all hands on deck, so when she and Angie Tillie weren’t ringing up customers, they’d be stocking shelves from the boxes and totes being disgorged from the truck by other employees, including the owner and manager, who were—according to multiple witnesses—both present that day.

In 1983, Flossie and Angie were in their 50s and 60s respectively, and by the time I began researching this story, Angie was in her 90s, living in a nursing home. I learned this from Flossie, who was one of the first people I spoke to in any formal way about the murder. She helped me get in contact with a relative of Angie’s, but as it turned out, I wasn’t able to speak directly with her. The woman’s family felt it would be too upsetting. I couldn’t fault them for it. Over three decades later, the mere mention of Janette’s name still brought Angie Tillie to tears.

It’s no wonder. Angie saw Janette Roberson’s body. I’m certain it was something she never expected to encounter at work that day, and in the days and years to come, she’d certainly wish she never had. be continued.

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