In 1976 and 1977, four (4) pre-teen children were abducted and murdered over a thirteen-month period. They were:
Mark Stebbins, age 12, last seen in Ferndale on February 15, 1976. His body was found in Southfield on February 19, 1976.
Jill Robinson, age 12, last seen in Royal Oak on December 22, 1976. Her body was found in Troy on December 26, 1976.
Kristin Mihelich, age 10, last seen in Berkley on January 2, 1977. Her body was found in Franklin Village on January 21, 1977.
Timothy King, age 11, last seen in Birmingham on March 16, 1977. His body was found in Livonia on March 22, 1977.
Over the next thirty-six (36) years, police agencies received over 20,000 tips and generated well over 500,000 pages of documents. But the murders were never solved. During this time, dozens of chiefs of police led thousands of police officers in Oakland County’s cities, townships and villages. Four (4) Oakland County Prosecutors also served in office during this time: L. Brooks Patterson until 1988; Richard Thompson until 1996; David Gorcyca until 2008; and Jessica Cooper since 2009.
Throughout those years, many conspiracy theorists surfaced, spinning false leads and misinformation into wild speculative theories - some of which sounded cogent until it is was determined that facts were taken out of context and woven into disjointed and unsupported fictions.
So the cases remain open today. But now, there is a renewed and intense investigation being conducted by an expanded Task Force that was first created in 1977.
The following are questions and answers that may clear up some of the misconceptions that continue to surface and circulate about these homicides.
When was an Oakland County Child Killer (OCCK) Task Force formed?
The original, formal task force was formed in January of 1977. The Michigan State Police (MSP) and the police departments where the children were last seen or where their bodies were found received a federal grant to help pursue the investigation. When the federal grant money ran out in December of 1978, the task force was formally disbanded. However, the investigations continued, throughout the ensuing decades, and individual departments developed and tried to share information when it became available. But, the efforts were not concentrated or centralized.
In 2005, MSP began re-examining cold cases with advanced scientific testing. The four cases known as the “Oakland County Child Killer” cases became part of that review.
When Jessica Cooper became the Oakland County Prosecutor in 2009, and, after being apprised of the renewed efforts, she contacted the Oakland County area police departments and asked them to formally join the MSP in the scientifically renewed investigation of the child killings. Under the new task force, the investigation has become stronger, more active and more cohesive. New investigative and testing techniques not in existence decades ago are generating new leads. The Oakland County Sheriffs’ Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are also active participants in the investigation, as they have always been, providing invaluable assistance.
Were these four children the only child victims during the 1976-1977 period?
No. Unfortunately, there were several other children of various ages who went missing or were killed during that time period in other areas of the state. But only these four (4) killings were attributed to the “Oakland County Child Killer.”
What is the role of the police in an investigation? What is the role of the Prosecutor?
The various police agencies in the county are responsible for conducting the actual investigations. Among other things, they identify witnesses, conduct interviews, obtain statements, collect and test physical evidence, execute search warrants and arrest those responsible. They then submit the results of their investigation to the Prosecutor’s Office for review.
The Prosecutor’s Office is the legal arm of law enforcement. It is NOT an investigating agency. The Prosecutor’s Office may help the police by drafting search warrants and consulting with police concerning the legal aspects of the investigation. The Prosecutor’s Office may also, on occasion, use its subpoena powers in one form or another to aid the police in the investigation. But, it does not itself investigate.
When the investigation is complete and the police bring the results to the Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office reviews the evidence to determine if a prosecution is legally possible. That means a studied review of the reports and physical evidence to determine what evidence would likely be admissible in court and a careful determination of which charges, if any, can be brought.
The Prosecutor’s Office does not have the powers of arrest. Nor does it have the authority to tell the police what or how to investigate. A Prosecutor’s Office can only initiate criminal charges and prosecute someone in court with the assistance and cooperation of the police. Likewise, the police cannot present a case in criminal court (other than a traffic ticket) without the assistance of the Prosecutor.
What is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy theory is a theory that claims that an event or series of events is the result of a plot by a covert group or organization.
In the Oakland County Child Killer cases there have been numerous conspiracy theories that have developed to explain the abductions and murders of these four children. Some very bizarre theories have been offered. In one theory it was thought that the children were being abducted when there was a forecast for snow. In another, a local psychologist was convinced that the killer was trying to send him messages according to where the children’s bodies had been dumped. In essence, a conspiracy theorist forms an opinion and manipulates some of the evidence while ignoring other evidence to fit the theory.
What about Bob?
In October 2010, a representative from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office spoke by phone with someone who identified himself only as “Bob.” The conversation was taped in its entirety. During that conversation, “Bob” read a rambling statement outlining a theory that the Oakland County Child Killer abductions and murders were related to pagan holidays, the lunar calendar, and Wiccan rituals. As bizarre as his statement was, he was politely encouraged to bring forth whatever information he had and to discuss specifics with investigators. “Bob” never contacted the Sheriff or the Prosecutor’s Office again.
“Bob” continues his bizarre claims in media interviews that he has information about the child killer’s identity, but won’t reveal the information without first being provided additional information about the cases which law enforcement officials refuse to do for very critical reasons addressed below.
Who is Paul Hughes and why did he file a $100 million lawsuit against the Sheriff, the Prosecutor and representatives from MSP?
No one can answer that question since Mr. Hughes provides no basis in law or fact to support his lawsuit. Mr. Hughes will have to stand before a Federal Court and answer as to why he should not be sanctioned for filing a frivolous law suit.
Why can’t the public know who and what is being investigated?
As long as there remains the possibility that there are still living suspects that could be held responsible in a court of law for these crimes, the release of such information would be detrimental to any potential prosecution. Law enforcement officials would be giving out information which, at the very least, could help potential suspects craft explanations and alibis and possibly destroy evidence in their possession before it could be discovered. And they would be telegraphing all the moves of the investigators. All of this would obviously be extremely harmful to the investigation.
Why can’t the Prosecutor release its knowledge of the case to the victims’ families?
Statistics from the FBI tell us that 86% of all children who are harmed are harmed by people that they know, love or trust. This is not to say that any family member is even remotely involved in these cases. But there is a statistical likelihood that the guy down the street, the babysitter or someone close to the family may be involved or close to someone who is involved. Disclosing information alerts potential targets and provides them with opportunities to invent explanations and alibis and otherwise “cover their tracks.”
In addition, the publishing of some information, such as polygraph results, is actually a crime. Moreover, there are the ethical and professional obligations to respect and protect the privacy of innocent people on whom investigations may touch, no matter how tangentially. Finally, should the investigation produce charges against an individual, family members are frequently called as witnesses, and pre-trial publicity compromises and endangers the integrity of that prosecution because sometimes such witnesses conform their testimony, even if unconsciously, to what they have read or seen in the media.
It is not the province of Prosecutors, without the safeguard of a trial to make pronouncements of innocence or guilt in the media - as much as that might alleviate the pain of the victims’ families. In fact, such a public pronouncement could actually undermine a future prosecution should another perpetrator ever be identified.
Even the most sophisticated of family members can fall prey to a conspiracy theorist. Family members have waited decades for answers. They are in pain, and there are theorists who exploit that pain to write books, seek fame or achieve political or financial gain. They don’t have to be talking about Wiccans and lunar calendars like “Bob.” Every couple years or so someone raises a suspect’s name. Then, without the careful but sometimes slow and tedious investigation that requires going back to source documents and scientifically re-testing and re-examining evidence, another “theory” comes forward. More disjointed, unsupported and unexamined material comes into the public domain and, once again, the families are given false hope as they center on the suspect of the moment. In 2007, one of the families even brought an unsuccessful wrongful death suit against one such “suspect.” Sometimes the pain and the need for resolution is so great, the families misdirect their frustration. The highly skilled and professional men and women of this present task force have collectively spent thousands of hours going back to the original source documents, and tracing down leads all over the country, and re-examining and re-testing the evidence.
While our sympathies always lie with the families, even those who sadly, despite the glaring conflicts of interest, seek to be at the center of the investigation, the direction of their frustration belongs elsewhere. The pressure to make public the details of an ongoing investigation establishes dangerous precedent for law enforcement and greatly impedes, if not destroys any chance to bring a potential living culprit to justice in a court of law. The expanded task force has only been in existence for three (3) years, not thirty-six (36), and it has made momentous strides. Those strides can only continue, if the task force is left unimpeded to do its job.
Don’t you have to talk to the victims’ families pursuant to the Crime Victim’s Rights Act?
The Crime Victim’s Rights Act, MCL 780.756, pertains to giving victim’s information about the proceedings AFTER a charge has been brought.
After thirty-six (36) years is it still possible to prosecute someone?
Absolutely. In the first three and a half (3½) years as Prosecutor, Jessica Cooper has prosecuted and obtained convictions in cases even older than the disappearance and murder of these children. As long as sufficient credible evidence is obtained and/or is still available which identifies a living person as the murderer and proves his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a criminal case can be filed and prosecuted and won.
In 2009, David Tweed was tried and convicted for the 1986 murder of 71 year old Donald Vance.
In 2010, Nolan George, who was identified as a serial killer, was tried and convicted for the 1968 murder of Gwendolyn Perry.
In 2011, Wilburn Cooper was tried and convicted for the 1978 execution-style murder of David McKillop.
In 2011, William Hess and Darrell Castles were tried and convicted for the 1979 robbery and murder of Julius Schnoll.
In 2011, Robert Nowak was tried and convicted for the 2001 murder and dismemberment of Troy Moross.
The success of these cold case prosecutions depends on the police being able to find compelling and admissible evidence. Such evidence may be in the form of new witnesses coming forward or physical evidence that can be re-tested with new technologies, such as DNA.