Presented here is the description of a serial homicide investigation in the 1960s that involved the sexually motivated murders of seven mostly college-aged women in Michigan. The discussion provided here draws primarily on Edward Keyes’s, The Michigan Murders.1 The case is longer and more detailed than the other From the Case File chapter introductions. It can serve as a capstone discussion of many of the issues covered in Criminal Investigation, including the basic problems of criminal investigation, the value of eyewitness identifica- tions, the value of other evidence, the potential value of DNA evidence, how proof can be established, and the impact of technology on investigations. Questions for discussion and review are presented at the conclusion of the case.
Appendix Capstone Case
Capstone CASE The Coed Murders
The nightmare began on the evening of July 10, 1967, when nineteen-year-old Mary Fleszar did not return to her apartment, which was located just a few blocks from the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) campus in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Mary was a student at the university. As is the case in most missing person investigations, the first task for investigators was to determine when and where she was last seen. In reconstructing the last known whereabouts of Mary, an EMU police officer recalled seeing a girl matching her description walking near campus at about 8:45 p.m. the night before she was reported missing. She was alone. Another witness reported he had seen the girl at about 9:00 p.m. that same night in the same area, walking on the sidewalk. The witness reported that a car had driven up next to her and stopped. According to report the witness gave, the only person in the vehicle was a young man, and the vehicle was bluish-gray in color, possibly a Chevy. The witness said it appeared that the young man inside the car said
something to Mary, she shook her head, and the car drove off. Shortly thereafter, the same car passed the witness’s house again and pulled into a driveway in front of Mary, blocking her path. Mary walked around the back of the car and continued down the sidewalk. The car pulled out of the driveway and, tires squealing, drove down the street. At this point the witness lost sight of Mary and the vehicle. Mary was never again seen alive.
On August 7, 1967, a heavily decomposed nude body was found on farmland two miles north of Ypsilanti. The body was identified as Mary Fleszar through dental records. It was clear to investigators that the cause of death was certainly not natural, accidental, or suicide, given the area in which the body was found (an open field) and the circumstances of her disappearance. In addition, given the location of the body and the fact that no clothes were found in the vicinity, in all probability she had not been killed
where she was found. Her body had probably been dumped there. With the identity of the decedent determined and the crime established as a homicide, the investigators turned their attention to who had killed Mary, and where. Matted grass around the body and the positioning of the body suggested the corpse had been moved several times. Did the killer return to the scene, or was the body moved by animals? The autopsy revealed Mary had been stabbed approximately thirty times and severely beaten. It could not be determined if she had been sexually assaulted. Most puzzling was that the girl’s feet were missing and her lower leg bones appeared to have been smashed. Wild animals may have been able to carry away the feet, but only the killer could have crushed her leg bones.
Two days before the funeral for Mary, one of the maintenance men at the funeral home reported to the police that a man in a bluish-gray Chevy had come to the funeral home and asked to take pictures of the corpse, but he had not been carrying a camera. This was certainly of extraordinary interest to investigators, but the worker could only describe this man as sort of young and ordinary in appearance. Investigators had no good leads into who caused Mary’s death. The description of the vehicle possibly involved in the crime was the most promising lead, but even that was nearly worthless.
To the relief of residents, students, parents, and the police, throughout the spring of 1968 there were no more murders. It appeared that the murder of Mary was an isolated event. How wrong this was. On Monday, July 1, 1968, a second EMU student, twenty- two-year-old Joan Schell, was reported missing. Police determined from several eyewitnesses, one of whom was her friend, that she had last been seen at a bus stop when a car with three men stopped and talked to her. The car was described as a late model two- door with a red body and a black vinyl top. One of the men in the car was described as being in his twenties, about 6’ tall, clean-cut, good-looking, and dark-haired. He was wearing a green T-shirt. After what appeared to be a brief conversation between Joan and the men, Joan had gotten into the car and the car drove off. One of the witnesses told the police he saw one of the men in the car in the EMU Union at about 11:00 p.m. that evening, after the building was closed. In checking this possible lead, the police found no signs of forced entry into the union, indicating that whoever this was must have had a key.
The disappearance was, of course, front-page news. Joan’s boyfriend, Dickie Shantz, who had been absent without leave from his army base at the time of Joan’s disappearance, was questioned by investigators but eventually cleared. Other friends and acquaintances of Joan were also questioned but dismissed as possible suspects. On Friday, four days after she was reported missing, the body of Joan Schell was found at a nearby construction site. The body was nude and covered with dried blood, although no blood was found in the area around her body. Most unusual about the body was that the top one-third was in an advanced state of decomposition but the bottom two-thirds were well preserved. In addition, the grass around the corpse was trampled, perhaps indicating that the body had been recently disposed of. Where was she killed? And where was the body kept until it was disposed of? The autopsy provided few answers. It revealed that Joan had been stabbed twenty-five times, including once into the side of her head, with a knife about four inches long. Due to the presence of semen and related injuries, it was determined that she had also been sexually assaulted.
At this point a task force was created to coordinate the activities of the five police agencies involved in the investigation, and a reward for information relating to the arrest of the killer was established. With few good leads to pursue, a major goal on the part of investigators was to find where Joan’s body had been kept prior to being dumped at the construction site. Investigators needed a crime scene—one that would provide them with evidence. A sketch of the individual with whom Joan was last seen was prepared and disseminated through the media. Two EMU students came forward to the police and said they had seen Joan with an individual by the name of John Collins the night she disappeared. Interestingly, John was a student at EMU and held a part-time job at the union (Joan also worked part time at the union). The information provided by these witnesses did not match the information provided by the other witnesses, but, determined not to leave any stone unturned, police found and interviewed John. Investigators learned he drove a DeSoto that was neither red nor black. John told the detectives that he had not been in the city when Joan disappeared and that he was the nephew of a Michigan State Police officer. Another apparent dead-end.
On the morning of March 21, 1969, the dead body of a young woman was found in a cemetery located
about four miles outside Ypsilanti. The woman who discovered the body lived near the cemetery, and she told the police she had seen a white station wagon leave the cemetery at about midnight the previous night. Another witness reported that he had seen a late-model green station wagon cruising around the cemetery the night before the discovery of the body. Through items contained in an overnight case found near the body, the victim was identified as Jane Mixer, a twenty-three-year-old law student at the University of Michigan. The victim was fully clothed and appeared to be deliberately and carefully placed in line with a grave marker. One of her shoes rested on her lower abdomen. The victim had two gunshot wounds to her head and a tightly bound noose from a nylon stocking around her neck. Was there any significance to the shoe on her abdomen? Why was she placed at this particular grave site? And where was she killed? The autopsy revealed that she had died from the gunshot wounds to her head; the noose had been placed around her neck after she was already dead. It was also determined that the victim was currently in her menstrual period and that she had not been sexually assaulted.
In tracking the last activities of Jane, the police learned she had posted a note requesting a ride home on the ride board at the University of Michigan Student Union. In searching her apartment, the police discovered on her desk a note that read, “David Hanson Lvg. 6:30 PM” and a check mark by David Hanson’s name in the phonebook. The police thought they had a big break. They quickly found David Hanson, but he told investigators that he had been in theatre rehearsal at 6:30 p.m. the night Jane disappeared, that he had no knowledge of her or her attempt to find a ride home, and that he drove a green Volkswagen. Yet another dead-end. The police figured the killer had probably seen the ride request posted by Jane and called her claiming to be David Hanson, saying he would give her a ride home and would pick her up at 6:30 p.m. He was late, so she looked in the phone book, called David Hanson, and found that he was not at home. Probably just minutes later, the killer, believed to be David Hanson by Jane, had shown up at her apartment, and Jane left with him and was never seen alive again. Once again, the police had few leads to pursue in the investigation, and they still did not even have a crime scene. Investigators spoke with Jane’s boyfriend and other acquaintances, but they were all cleared of any wrongdoing. They also checked and interviewed all the other David Hansons in the area, but to no avail.
The situation was only to get worse. Four days later, on March 25, 1969, the nude and beaten body of Maralynn Skelton, sixteen, was found in a remote rural area one-quarter mile from where Joan Schell’s body had been found the previous summer. The victim had been severely beaten to death and had numerous welts covering her body, as if she had been flogged by a belt with a large buckle. She had sustained massive head injuries. Other marks on her hands and feet indicated that she had been bound, probably during the beating. A piece of dark blue cloth was found deep in her throat. But most revolting was a tree branch that protruded from her vagina. All her clothes were piled neatly nearby except for her underwear. In searching for witnesses in the area, the police found one person who had heard someone scream a few nights prior to the discovery of the body. Another witness had seen a red car in the area, and another had seen a small, white two-door car in the area. The police determined that the last place Maralynn was known to be alive was a nearby shopping center. She had called a friend from the shopping center to see if the friend could pick her up. No other witnesses had seen or heard anything of Maralynn after that phone call.
The media began to refer to the four homicides as the “coed murders.” Indeed, the similarities between the cases were striking. Only the murder of Jane Mixer appeared substantially different (death as the result of a gunshot). But to the dismay of everyone involved, the investigation of the four homicides seemed to be going nowhere. The major problem in the investigation was a lack of good information. At this point six jurisdictions were involved in the investigation, and twenty persons were assigned to the investigative task force. The task force received and considered a substantial amount of information, including the possible relevance of other unsolved homicides in other jurisdictions in the state and across the country. One promising suspect that came to the attention of the police was a man by the name of David Parker. He had been a suspect in the Boston Strangler homicides and was, coincidently, a graduate student at the University of Michigan at the time of the murders. He even had a connection with a David Hansen (with an e). But after much investigation, it was determined Parker had not been in the area when some of the murders occurred. Things were not going well for investigators. They still did not even have a crime scene.
On April 16, 1969, a month after the murder of Maralynn Skelton, the body of thirteen-year-old Dawn
Basom was discovered in a remote residential area outside Ypsilanti. The girl had been reported missing the night before and had disappeared within a half mile of her home as she was walking on the sidewalk. When found she was clad only in her bra and blouse. It was determined that she had been dead for less than twelve hours. She had been strangled with a black electrical cord, which was still tightly knotted around her neck. It also appeared that she had been repeatedly slashed across her torso, gagged, and raped. Later, the police found some of her clothes in the area, as if they had been tossed from a moving vehicle.
Then the police finally got a break, but it did not turn out to be as big as they hoped. While searching for witnesses to the murder of Dawn Basom and for a place where she, or any of the other women, might have been murdered, a police officer came across an abandoned farmhouse. The farmhouse was just outside Ypsilanti and close to where some of the bodies had been found. In searching the farmhouse, the officer discovered some women’s clothes, jewelry, and, in the basement, blood and a black electrical cord—a black electrical cord that matched the one used to strangle Dawn Basom. A crime scene at last! The basement of the house, it was reasoned, could also have been a naturally cool place in which to preserve a human body (the body of Joan Schell). The police set up a stakeout operation at the farmhouse and hoped the killer would return, perhaps with another victim. The police had difficulties keeping the discovery and stakeout of the farmhouse a secret, but they hoped for the best. After a week of watching the farmhouse, nothing unusual was observed. Investigators went into the farmhouse once again and discovered, to their surprise, another earring in the basement (later determined to belong to Maralynn Skelton) and a piece of a blouse (that belonged to Dawn Basom). This meant four things: (1) The killer had returned to the farmhouse, (2) at least some of the murders had probably been committed by the same person, (3) the killer was keeping personal items from the victims as souvenirs, and (4) the stakeout did not work very well. A few days later, a fire broke out in the barn and destroyed it, but the house was undamaged. Police quickly arrested the arsonist, Robert Gross, but after questioning and a polygraph, it was determined by investigators that he was not involved in the homicides. Shortly after the fire and the arrest of Gross, a reporter from the Ypsilanti Press, John Cobb, found five plump lilacs on the driveway
of the farmhouse. Cobb brought the discovery to the attention of the police, and the police found it strange that only he noticed these flowers, even though many police officers were in the area. The police wondered if the five lilacs represented the five dead girls. Did the killer return again? Could the reporter be the killer? The police had found a crime scene, but they still had more questions than answers.
There seemed to be no end to the nightmare. On June 9, 1969, the body of a woman was discovered in the rarely used driveway of another deserted farmhouse in the area. The body was partially clad in a torn blouse and skirt. On the ground next to the body were torn underwear and pantyhose, the pantyhose slashed through the crotch. The woman had been stabbed multiple times, as though her killer was in a frenzy, but a single gunshot to her head was what had caused her death. Her throat had been cut, but it appeared this had occurred after her death. She had been sexually assaulted. Once again, it did not appear that she had been killed where her body was found. In canvassing the area, investigators found shoes, buttons from a coat, and blood in the same general area where several of the other bodies had been found. All these items were matched to the unidentified body. After several days with the body still not identified, the police placed a photograph of the dead woman’s face in the newspaper in hopes someone would recognize her. Sure enough, the victim’s roommate came forward and identified her as Alice Kalom, a twenty-three- year-old University of Michigan student. At about this same time, Alice’s parents read the story in the newspaper; they identified Alice’s body later that same day. The police were unable to track the last activities of Alice. Understandably, investigators were extremely frustrated. They had six homicide victims and no suspects. They had some evidence to believe that most, if not all, of the crimes were related (MO), and they had numerous incomplete descriptions of vehicles that could have been involved. This was not much to work with.
After this sixth homicide, a Detroit Free Press reporter contacted Peter Harkos, a well-known psychic (the same psychic who identified the wrong person as the culprit in the Boston Strangler case) and asked if he could provide a telepathic composite of the killer. The reporter met with Harkos in California, and Harkos provided a description. He said the killer was 5’7,” brilliant, maybe a student, loved cars, drove a motorcycle, had one eye that was bigger than the