Authorities hope technology will help find murderer of four Oakland kids in '70s
It has been 29 years since the body of a missing Ferndale boy was found in a Southfield parking lot, the first of four children who were lured or abducted from supposedly safe suburban streets in 1976 and 1977 by the still-unknown Oakland County child killer.
Mark Stebbins, 12, of Ferndale said goodbye to his mother at an American Legion hall in Ferndale on Feb. 15, 1976, and said he was walking home. Four days later his body was found along 10 Mile and an autopsy determined he had been smothered.
Michigan State Police and eight other police agencies will announce today that those four victims and the unsolved crimes are very much on their minds.
"I read an e-mail from the father of one of the victims recently in which he said police have given up on finding the Oakland County child killer," said State Police Detective Sgt. Garry Gray. "I want him and everyone else to know nothing could be further from the truth."
Faded, dog-eared, fingerprint-smudged files containing thousands of tips and leads from the initial investigation were recently trucked from the state police post in Northville to the Metro North post in Oak Park, where Gray and others hope new technology, including computers and DNA evidence, may help investigators find the person or persons responsible.
"I believe there was more than one person involved in these," said Gray. "And it's also quite possible that these were four different homicides done by four different people."
But the similarities in the deaths of Mark Stebbins; Jill Robinson, 12, of Royal Oak; Kristine Milhelich, 10, of Berkley; and Timothy King, 11, of Birmingham have intrigued anyone familiar with the cases to this day.
Robinson disappeared Dec. 22, 1976, and her body was found Dec. 26 along Interstate 75 in Troy. Milhelich vanished Jan. 7, 1977, in Berkley; her body was found 19 days later near 13 Mile in Franklin. King was last seen March 16, 1977, outside a Maple Road drugstore and found six days later along Gill Road in Livonia.
The killings stopped as abruptly as they started, leading police to speculate the person responsible either died, was incarcerated, moved or somehow stopped his or her deadly behavior.
The King abduction-slaying was linked to a man seen driving a blue Gremlin near the Birmingham drugstore and for months anyone driving such a vehicle drew suspicious stares. Gray and others believe the infamous blue Gremlin some witnesses claimed seeing may have had nothing to do with any of the slayings. But there were similarities in the cases, including:
� All four were alone and abducted from business areas.
� None of the kidnappings were reported by witnesses, leading to speculation the children went willingly with their abductors.
� Two were abducted on Sunday afternoon, two on Wednesday evenings.
� All were held in captivity from three to 19 days.
� All appeared well-fed and very clean, as if bathed before or after their deaths.
� All were left along roadsides where they could be easily found.
� Three of the young victims were smothered. Robinson was killed by a shotgun blast.
At the peak of the investigation, more than 200 investigators were part of one of the first multi-agency police task forces of its kind. They combed through more than 20,000 tips. Many of those reports, taken by telephone and written by hand, could be placed in a computer program that can make dozens of comparisons and detect the slightest of similarities that may lead to a killer, Gray said.
Gray said a statewide advisory would be put out to news media outlets seeking tips on the unsolved cases. He also plans to seek a grant that will enable the hiring of workers to input the mountainous stack of reports into a computer program. Tips were classified as low (little to zero probability), medium (possible) or high (high likelihood requiring further investigation) categories.
"A tip is only as good as the investigator handling it," said Gray. "Who knows? Maybe someone had a bad day years ago and missed something. Or didn't see the possible links in the thousands of tips that came in. The important thing is keeping an open mind."
Sean Bell was 5 years old when her niece, Kristine Mihelich, was born. She was 16 when Kristine was murdered.
"We were like sisters; I was her big sister when this happened," said Bell of Petoskey. "I'm really happy they are still trying to find out who killed her. The whole family is. It would help us with at least some closure."
Berkley Police Sgt. Ray Anger, a 31-year police veteran who was part of the original task force, also is hopeful. Anger, who has lived and breathed the Mihelich case nearly his entire career, was part of a group that traveled to Wyoming in August 1999 to exhume the body of a former Warren man, David Norberg, who was suspected in the murders.
A necklace found among Norberg's belongings after he died in a car crash in 1981 was engraved with "Kristine" and it was thought that if a hair found with her body matched one of Norberg's locks, they might have corroborative evidence that he was the killer. There was no match.
"One of these days someone is going to pick up a telephone and call one of the victim's parents and say 'I have some news for you.' " said Anger. "I hope that person to make that call is me. It would be a comfort to the family and certainly a highlight to a career."
One thing investigators agree upon is that the killer, or someone who witnessed or knew something about the crimes, could still be alive and eager to clear their conscience before they die.
Not content with waiting for that one break, they will continue to run down leads, both new and old, said Detective Sgt. Dave Robertson, whose father, retired State Police Capt. Robert Robertson, headed the original task force in the 1970s.