READ--> [REDACTED] : A Search for Truth About the Murder of Janette Roberson

(NOTE: Scroll to the bottom to access Chapters individually by clicking on them.)

There are things known and there are things unknown,
and in between are the doors of perception.”
~ Aldous Huxley

The thing to remember is that I’m not a true crime writer. If you are familiar with the genre, if there’s a standard cookie-cutter way those types of books are written, this probably won’t be that book. This is about my experience researching a decades-old murder that remains unsolved.

I never intended to write this book, but one day I woke up, had my morning coffee, went through my emails and private messages, and suddenly realized I’d become invested on a daily basis; taking calls, doing interviews, bothering the city and county clerks for documents—all of whom were extremely helpful—and for the record, I put the patience of a few to the test. Computers had to be consulted, files had to be rifled through, stairs had to be climbed, and in more than a few cases, dank basements had to be negotiated by way of steep cement stairs, even during ongoing repairs to keep the ancient leather-bound volumes safe from the elements. Having said that, I owe a quick shout-out to the gals over at the Osceola County building. You know who you are. I appreciate your tolerance. Jackie Beam with Reed City—you’re a mensch, too. I probably owe you more baked goods.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying public records shouldn’t be readily available and handed over by a clerk with a smile on his (or her) face, and a song in his (or her) heart. They should. Public records are our records. They are not the property of the entity doling them out, despite what they may tell you or how persnickety they get when you request them. They are but the gatekeepers to said records, and if they are doing their jobs correctly, they are not in any way obstructing your ability to retrieve information, nor are they giving you a hard time for asking questions.

Alas, I like to deal in reality. After having typed the acronym FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) more times this year than I care to calculate, often using it as a verb, I can tell you with swift certainty that not every municipal entity is equal when it comes to handing out records. We’ll leave the disparity in how charges are calculated for later. Maybe grab some Tums® and have them ready.

At some point I realized there were things the public should know. Stuff to which we should all be paying more attention. Like the rate of unsolved homicides in this country, or maybe just your area. Check it against national averages when you get a second, if you’re able to locate that information. If your State Police keep that kind of information readily available, you’re lucky. Now check to see where your state falls in the homicide clearance rate category. Are a healthy number of those murders getting solved? Excellent.

If you answered no, ask yourself why that might be. What could hinder cops from solving a case? I’d venture to say that if the record keeping is abysmal, the clearance rate might reflect that. If evidence is not being processed in a timely manner, that could also play into things. 

For your consideration, I’d propose the following: All case files should at this point be digitized. 

That means if you have, for instance, a thirty two year old murder that remains unsolved, and you think you might consider re-working it at some point, (never mind referring to it in the press as “open and ongoing”) you’d better have that case file completely digitized, indexed, and I certainly hope you are regularly submitting prints (if you have them) to AFIS in the hopes of locating the perpetrator, should said perp ever do anything naughty again for which he will be fingerprinted.

From The Restless Sleep – Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad (Stacy Horn, 2005): “There are three reasons a case goes cold. Either they couldn’t solve it (no evidence or witnesses), they didn’t want to solve it, or someone screwed up.”

That’s pretty broad but accurate, nonetheless.

Sometimes they don’t have enough evidence. Cops could even know who did it, but don’t have that one little thing they need to put the monster away. To make matters more complicated, they better have collected enough of those little things along the way to satisfy the prosecutor because those guys and gals aren’t interested in taking something to court if they don’t think they can win. They have their own numbers to think about, and there’s double jeopardy to consider. This combination of circumstances is the reason for the vast majority of unsolved homicides in this country.

It’s a numbers game when you start talking about cases that have gone cold. The departments want arrests. Period. Frankly, We the People do as well. We don’t want jerks out there making meth and driving drunk and kidnapping kids and doing all manner of horrible crap because the manpower in the area has all been assigned to a single homicide. In most cases, the percentages of cold cases climb because they have a growing number of cases with no new leads.

Okay, so maybe there are places where the guys working these tough cases are just… average. Maybe even not so good at their jobs. But I think it’s important to labor under the assumption that we haven’t got a glut of incompetent detectives. Cases get solved. Lots of them. And for every one of them—from burglary to mass murder, and everything in between—there’s more minute to minute, hour to hour legwork and research than any of us would care to ponder. Cases don’t get solved in an hour (minus commercial breaks) in real life. DNA doesn’t get tested and provide a Voila! moment quickly in the real world. Some labs have a backlog of years on evidence testing. 

We won’t even go into the devastating backlog of rape kits Detroit has of this writing—some that go as far back as the 1980s.

You know what? Maybe we will get into it. I think it bears mentioning.

In 2009 over 11,000 sexual assault kits were found abandoned in a Detroit Police storage facility. Eleven thousand. After years of hacking away at red tape and budgetary restraints, in the first 1,600 kits that were processed (very recently, mind you), approximately 100 serial rapists were identified, and ten convicted rapists. 

According to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, just from this 1,600 tested, Perpetrators have moved on from Michigan to commit similar crimes in 23 other states.”

I’ll pause for a minute and let that sink in—or you can beat your head up against the wall for a bit. Whatever you need.

Rape. Let me repeat that. Rape. A woman is sexually assaulted. The violation goes unpunished and justice is delayed because someone can’t keep track of where rape kits are. Are you kidding me? Do you know how hard it is for rape victims to summon the strength to come forward? Let’s pretend it’s your daughter or mother or sister or grandma or auntie or niece who was sexually assaulted, but shoddy recordkeeping and apathy keeps this woman who has suffered from at least knowing the person who hurt her isn’t out there hurting someone else.

Nope, sorry. They’re out there, alright, doing it in twenty-three other states.

Sweet baby Jesus.

I’m going to say this about those 11,000 rape kits that were allowed to languish for years, and then we’ll move on. That fiasco is criminal and whoever at the State Police and/or associated labs that are responsible for thousands of tests having not been processed is responsible for every victim raped by those repeat offenders. Someone should be held liable for that. That’s not just a clerical error. That’s a crime.

Now, the same kind of thing can occur with homicides if the DNA isn’t properly tested and re-tested when new technology comes available. Also, if prints on old cases aren’t re-checked in the system to see if the unknown bad guy may have reoffended in the interim and finally gotten printed. There’s no Great and Powerful Oz sitting in a booth somewhere at every police department who rings a little bell and announces over the intercom when a predator who committed a crime for which there is no fingerprint match suddenly does something bad and finally gets printed.

“Attention! May I have your attention please? You know the guy who brutally assaulted that woman in that case you guys were working thirty years ago? Well he just did it again in Virginia. Go get ‘em!”

That’s not how it works. These things have to be checked regularly. The older the case, the less likely they will get re-checked. And here’s the rub: for a lot of these perpetrators, once isn’t enough. If they can do it once and get away with it, why not again? Maybe even again. And then maybe they evolve and get better at doing the bad stuff so that at some point their MO doesn’t even look like it did with crime number one, and now they are a lot better at not leaving evidence behind.

As I write this, I don’t know if Janette Roberson will ever get justice and that makes me angry. I feel as though I’ve been mad about it for a long time now, and these are just some of the questions I started asking myself after I stumbled across a discussion thread about an unsolved murder that occurred thirty years ago in the small town I’d moved to a few years earlier.

With regard to the research and preparation for this book, there are too many people to thank. Also a couple I’d like to slap. I’ll leave the latter to your imagination, but suffice to say that sometimes we take on ventures of this magnitude because a person or two acts like you’re the bad guy for asking questions at all. Screw those people. If you have questions, ask. And keep asking. If they try to make you feel bad about it, ask them What about a woman getting slaughtered in her place of business and nobody paying for it after thirty years doesn’t deserve further inquiry? Maybe ask if they have a vested interest in people not asking, because when folks don’t want you asking questions, that should send up red flags.

To the people who said, Go get ‘em! and various similar things, Thank you. You guys know who you are and YOU ROCK. To the folks who spoke to me about elements of this case, I appreciate you for sharing your memories of events. Because there are a good number of you who wouldn’t benefit from a public thank you, I’m going to stifle the urge to jot out a complete list. But if I sat with you, perhaps in your living room, or bar, or car, maybe we spoke on the phone while my kids made way too much noise in the background—you guys helped me do this, and I’ll be forever grateful.

I spoke to a lot of fine people while writing this book and I can tell you that the citizens of Reed City are good humans. Downright salt of the earth folks. If Janette Roberson’s case gets solved, it will be because of these people speaking up, asking questions, and telling things they remember. I truly believe it will be the Reed City community that does it. You guys have the answers, and I know that because you have asked all the right questions.

To the one person who went with me through every bit of information we could track down, argued every point, repeatedly bothered people neither of us knew, asked questions, got equally irritated when certain entities weren’t as forthcoming with public documents as we knew they lawfully should have been, and kept at it with me, toe to toe, thank you Jen Carlson. My trusty “research assistant” is really a woman who was once a girl who lived in Reed City when Janette Roberson was killed, and it stuck with her all these years later. We did this together and I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my outrage. 

There were days I needed someone else to shoulder it, and you were always there to do so. Also, you’re as pigheaded as me, and that seemed to work for what we needed to get done. Thank you, Jen.

I do think it would be remiss of me not to extend my warmest thanks to Detective Sgt. George Pratt (MSP, Osceola County), Assistant District Commander Cam Henke (MSP), Detective Sgt. Mike Stephens (MSP), and Reed City Police Chief Chuck Davis—all of whom have, at some point, patiently dealt with my (or my assistant’s) questions, and for that we are extremely grateful.

Finally, to Janette Roberson: I’m so sorry. Sorry about everything you lost, sorry for the loss of your family and friends, and sorry for the physical pain you must have endured. But most of all, I’m sorry he’s still out there.

I hope they get him one day.

In most cases, I have used actual names of people found in public documents generated by Michigan State Police, Reed City Police Department, Osceola County Sheriff’s Department, Cadillac Police Department, and Wexford County, among others.

All true names of law enforcement officers and municipal workers have been used. Those who choose to work for city, county, and state governments, as well as law enforcement, do so at the pleasure of the taxpayer, and because their duty to the people (and power over them) requires a great deal of trust, their actions while in the course of performing their job should always be transparent, particularly in a situation where any question of their performance is at issue.

In a few instances (either at the request of the person I interviewed, or at my own discretion, based on my interaction with the interviewee) I have chosen to use a pseudonym. In these cases, the name will appear as such: “Name” in full quotes.

Also, in certain cases I have further redacted documents supplied to me by the above law enforcement entities, or redacted sections of interviews I did with witnesses (which will be noted as [REDACTED] within the text) in the interest of respecting the ongoing investigation.

If you told me your story but do not find it retold on these pages, it is likely because you were the only person who offered that information and I could not corroborate it. There are quite a few of those stories—some rather intriguing—that still rattle around in my white matter, and will continue to do so for years to come. The absence of such stories within this book speaks only to a concerted effort to withhold leads passed on to me that I, in turn, passed on to police, as well as a personal rule to include nothing that could not be corroborated by law enforcement or attributed to multiple sources. Rest assured that anything I found which could even remotely be of investigative value was turned over to Michigan State Police, as I had no way of knowing, in most cases, whether it was new information to them or not, except in the case where the person who relayed the information specified they had never spoken to police. In those circumstances, I passed the information along, as well as encouraged the individual to contact MSP directly.

This book is based upon multiple police reports, news articles, witness accounts, and other public documents I was able to track down. There is (I’m told) a great deal of information I do not have access to, so the absence of something within these pages should not be interpreted by the reader to indicate that it does not exist.

Finally, as with any crime that has yet to be solved, there is a great deal of gossip, innuendo, and misinformation that continues to swirl around the murder of Janette Roberson. I did my best within these pages to dispel or correct as much of that as possible. You will note as you read that there are sometimes differences and/or inconsistencies between the statements given by witnesses. I have, in all cases, relayed what was told to me, even if it seemed to contradict the statement of other witnesses, and left it up to the reader to decide what they believe. Three decades is a long time. Memories fade; perceptions of time are stretched or shortened. Details are forgotten or remembered differently, years later. Read each witness statement with that in mind. How accurate would you be if asked to remember the details of an event over thirty years ago?

I was not privy to any of the original witness statements, and those would be the best source for a clear picture of what happened to Janette Roberson on January 19, 1983. Those will probably never be released, (until such time as the likely perpetrator dies) so their integrity remains intact, should a prosecution ever be possible.

(AUTHOR's final note: It should be stated that there will come a time when Michigan State Police will not legally be able to withhold the witness statements that hold the key to this crime. At some point, all parties will no longer be alive, and the exclusion they used, time and again - that any release of those statements and other documents might hinder an ongoing investigation - will no longer apply. I've personally got nothing but time on my hands and plan to reFOIA the documents at such time as I believe the person who committed this act has died. I firmly believe that the community deserves to have all of the information about what occured that day, even in the event that the perpetrator is unable to be held to account within the legal justice system. Knowledge, as always, is power. We can't learn from a thing if we dont' have a clear picture of what that thing is.)

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