In the mid to late 1970s, the Woodward Corridor of the Greater Detroit Area, and its surrounding neighborhoods and towns, becomes the hunting grounds for a predator with a predilection for children ages ten to twelve. The Oakland County Child Killer claims the lives of four confirmed innocents, fueling public panic and creating a crisis for local law enforcement.
In this episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie tell the story of that crisis, the investigation, and the case’s remaining mysteries.
A public police radio broadcast warns locals about the child abduction-murders occurring in Oakland County and relays the suspected perpetrator’s psychological profile and physical description. Police also request that anyone with information related to the case come forward.
On June 22, 1974, thirteen-year-old James Davison vanishes after walking alone to a friend’s house. He is found several days later in an alleyway, unconscious but still alive after having been held captive and strangled. In 1976, sixteen-year-old Cynthia Rae Cadieux is found naked in the snow with her skull cracked open. Other cases of violence against children crop up, and while not all are connected to the Oakland County Child Killer, the quick succession of traumatic events provokes fear and hysteria in the suburbs of Oakland County.
Michigan State Police Captain, Robert H. Robertson receives a call from an officer reporting another child homicide; the body found belonged to twelve-year-old Mark Stebbins. On the night of February 15th, 1976, the boy leaves a social event early to catch a television show at home, with his mother expected to follow soon after. However, when she returns, Mark is nowhere to be found. Four days later, Mark’s body is found in a snowbank after days of captivity. The medical examiner rules suffocation as the cause of death and reports that the boy was sexually assaulted with an unidentified object. There are no traces of semen or bodily fluids.
After a furious argument with her mother, twelve-year-old Jill Robinson runs away December 22, 1976. The day after Christmas, a trucker comes upon her body along the side of the interstate. Unlike Mark Stebbins, Jill is still fully clothed and had been shot point blank in the head with a shotgun. There are no signs of sexual assault. Despite the dissimilarities between the killings, the serial killer theory finally gains credence and the Oakland County Child Killer nightmare officially begins. One detective suggests to Captain Robertson that the killer shot Jill in the face to hide the true cause of death – suffocation.
Deborah Ashcroft frantically calls police on the evening of January 2nd, 1977 to report her ten-year-old daughter, Kristine Mihelich, missing. She is terrified Kristine has become the Oakland County Child Killer’s latest victim. Unfortunately, her gut feeling proves correct. Nineteen days after Kristine disappears, a mail carrier named Jerome Wozny accidentally tramples across the crime scene and discovers Kristine’s body partially buried beneath the snow.
Oakland County Sheriff Johannes Spreen arrives on scene, as do Robertson and his State Police team, and Spreen becomes ticked off when he learns Robertson and Co. are leading the case. He begrudgingly agrees to cooperate and Robertson introduces him to Detective Sergeant Joseph Krease, who’s been assigned to lead a special task force to catch the killer. A lab tech comes over to tell the group that the girl was smothered and posed in the snow with her arms folded across her chest.
Psychologist, professor, and cop, Dr. Jerry Tobias hypothesizes that the unsub must be an authority figure, such as a cop, priest or fireman, otherwise the unaccompanied minors would have made a scene when they were abducted. Tobias also estimates that the killer lives locally and rurally with a set-up that allows him to keep the children in captivity for extended periods of time. The schedule of the kidnappings seems to further indicate that he is unemployed or has an unconventional work schedule. He can blend in and dump the bodies of multiple children without drawing attention, so is probably white, possibly middle class, and a regular around the neighborhoods.
Two undercover cops scope out Kristine Mihelich’s funeral and take pictures, hoping that if her killer came to watch, they’d spot him. Their boss, observation specialist Lieutenant R. Jerry Simmons, notices someone peculiar in the photographs – a shaggy white man with glasses standing apart from the main crowd and looking on.
Before such a man can be found and brought in for questioning, eleven-year-old Timothy King is kidnapped by the Oakland County Child Killer. However, unlike the other children, a witness named Edith Raubacher comes forward. She saw a man and a little boy resembling Timothy standing outside the supermarket next to a blue Gremlin. Raubacher describes the man to be about six feet tall, white but with Mediterranean features, and a lot of thick hair with long sideburns.
An artist’s rendering is distributed to the media and Timothy’s father gets up in front of a press conference to beg the Oakland County Child Killer to return his son. The boy’s mother writes a letter for reprint in newspaper, but it’s intended for her son in hopes he’ll get a chance to read it. The letter references Timothy’s favorite food – Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Six days after his kidnapping, on March 22, 1977, Timothy’s body is found by two teenagers. Detective Krease speaks to the assembled crowd of reporters and asks that they don’t release the child’s identity until the parents are notified and the official report comes out. They respect this request. The medical examiner later reveals that Timothy was sexually assaulted and--before being suffocated--fed Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Not long after, two detectives spot a man who matches the suspected killer’s description at a diner. The man, named Benjamin Ward, is brought in for questioning, but you’ll have to wait until next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories to hear what happens next.