I recently read the excellent book “Snow Killings” about an unidentified serial killer known as the “Oakland County Child Killer”.
The madman murdered several children in the state of Michigan, US, in the 1970s, and has eluded capture all this time.
Below is my interview with Marney Rich Keenan, author of the abovementioned book. Thank you, Marney, for speaking with ForenSeek!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am journalist who spent the majority of my career in city magazines and newspapers. I retired recently after 26 years as a columnist and reporter for The Detroit News. “The Snow Killings” is my first book, but I did spend ten years reporting, researching and writing it. I live with my husband Chris, who is an advertising art director and together we raised three amazing daughters.
Where did you first hear about the Oakland County Child Killer?
Actually, I grew up in Oakland County so I was very familiar with the case. It was a really unparalleled time. Close to four million people lived in the metro Detroit tri-county area during the time the children were snatched, and because media coverage saturated the entire state, no one escaped the fear and anxiety. I remember seeing traffic jams at elementary school dismissal time because no parent would allow their kids to walk home alone. No child was unsupervised, not even in their own backyard. Kids in elementary schools were fingerprinted by police in case the unthinkable happened. The other eerie part was the pervasive sense of mistrust within the community. Because there was no witness to any of the four kids’ abductions – no one heard any screams or saw kids being forced into cars – it was thought that each child must have gone with their captors willingly, and thus, the lure was someone they knew or felt they could trust. This made everyone suspect: teachers, ministers, coaches, police officers.
For those unacquainted with this case: what does the term “Oakland County Child Killer” refer to? What were these events?
During thirteen months in 1976 and 1977, four children living in Oakland County between the ages of 10 and 12 vanished from neighborhood sidewalks. They were held captive from four to nineteen days before their still warm bodies were dumped by public roadsides, almost as a taunt.
At the time, the Oakland County Child Killer triggered the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history. Yet, in less than two years of existence, the task force formed to find the killer closed up shop. After nearly eighteen thousand tips and close to five thousand interviews, it had failed to even name a single person of interest. They promised to field tips that came in, but for all intents and purposes, they didn’t work the case. In the winters that followed (because the kids were taken whenever it snowed) or on anniversaries of the crimes, reporters would circle back to their police sources for their theories on why the killings stopped. With prescient similarities, police posited the same story line: the killer came from a wealthy family who was either dead or his family had him committed to a mental institution for life. That was when the legend began. In truth, police knew that their most likely killer had been dead since 1978. But rather than risk letting the public know they had committed a grave error – indeed they had apprehended the killer in the midst of the killing spree, but then let him go — the Task Force decided to bury it. Because they quite possibly had blood on their hands, they covered it up to save face.
The case gathered dust for more than 30 years until a chance discovery by one victim’s family pointed to the son of a wealthy auto executive: a four-time convicted pedophile who was freed weeks before the fourth child disappeared.
The narrative in my book follows the trajectory of the case through two sets of eyes: a tenacious detective who uncovers evidence that hubris and political ambition sought to thwart and, in intervening chapters, the family of an eleven-year-old victim, as their grief is compounded by the discovery of a cover-up that was designed to keep them in the dark forever.
What is Oakland County, Michigan like? “Quiet” area, “tough” area?
Oakland County is the second most populous county in the state. For decades, the 900 square mile area located directly north of downtown Detroit (just across Eminem’s infamous Eight Mile Road) has been ranked as one of the top 10 most affluent counties in the nation. It was originally the premier site for summer homes and country estates belonging to auto barons. In the mid-seventies, families were attracted to the desirable neighborhoods, national ranked schools and thriving arts and cultural centers. It still is a beautiful place to live, but once you know about this case it’s hard to not be affected not just by the loss, but also by the deception on the part of law enforcement.
Who were the killer’s victims?
On February 15, 1976, around lunch time, twelve-year-old Mark Stebbins said goodbye to his mother and older brother at the American Legion Hall in Ferndale. His mother was a bartender at the hall and there had been a pool tournament that day. Mark was a sweet, freckled, strawberry haired kid who wanted to be a Marine when he grew up. He began walking home because he wanted to watch a movie on T.V. He never made it. His body was found four days later, fully clothed and lying against a partial wall bordering a strip mall parking lot.
Then, three days before Christmas that same year, around 6 p.m, Jill Robinson, 12, jumped on her bike in Royal Oak to ride to her father’s house in nearby Birmingham. Jill was the oldest of three daughters. She was looking forward to Christmas and she had bought each of her two younger sisters presents. She too disappeared. Her body was found the day after Christmas in the snow in the pull off lane of I-75.
Only one week later, Kristine Mihelich, 10, who lived in nearby Berkley, pleaded with her mom to walk up to the 7-11 to buy a teen magazine because it had her idols on the cover: Donny and Marie Osmond. Kris promised her mother she would be careful crossing busy 12 Mile Road and left at 3 p.m. She did purchase her magazine but she was never seen again after that. Kris would be held the longest – for nineteen days – until her body turned up in a snowbank in upscale residential area in Franklin. The local mail carrier spotted her on his daily route.
Then, on March 16, 1977, Timothy King, 11, a straight-A student in the sixth grade, borrowed 30 cents from his older sister for a candy bar and walked three blocks with his skateboard to the neighborhood pharmacy, where upon he vanished. Six days later, two teenagers were driving down a gravel road in Livonia when they spotted something red in the ditch. It was Tim’s hockey jacket. Since the body was still warm, police started CPR, but it was of no use.
What was the killer’s profile like?
Early on police developed a wide-ranging profile drawing on contributions from social scientists, local psychiatrists, criminologists, sex crime experts and even, psychic mediums. The 30-some questions asked of these experts ranged from “Why did the killer abduct in winter?” to “Why were the children abducted on Wednesdays and Sundays?” to “What is the killer’s intellectual background?” But, as one criminal profiler said at the time: “because there still remain many unanswered questions, much speculation and very little objective information, in reality, there just isn’t much material from which a profile can accurately be drawn.”
Knowing what we know now — that the four children were likely used in the child pornography ring, which was a multi-million-dollar industry at the time, a more apt profile of the killers might be: wealthy, highly educated, sadistic predators who viewed children from the suburbs as “delicacies” and then disposed of them when they were done.
Was there anything unusual about the OCCK, something that was particular just to him in the history of serial killers?
Rather than unusual, I’m more struck by the similarities between the OCCK case and other serial killer cases. All told, the lack of physical evidence, the cleanliness of the victims’ bodies and clothes, the code of silence among suspects that remains to this day and the inability to solve this case — despite a decade and a half of exhaustive investigation on the part of Det. Cory Williams — leads me to believe that law enforcement were involved, not just in the cover-up, but perhaps in the cleaning up of the crimes themselves. Which, of course, is similar to the Golden State Killer, who wound up being a former cop, and thus, knew how to elude his captors for forty years.
Incidentally, Dennis Rader (BTK Killer) was a compliance officer who wore a uniform. And too, John Wayne Gacy sometimes posed as a cop.
Do you think there are more victims than just the ones listed as the sure victims of the OCCK?
From January 1976 until March, 1977 when the final victim of the OCCK was killed, there were actually seven unsolved child murders with ties to Oakland County, which is why everyone living here was in full-blown panic mode. In addition to Mark Stebbins, Jill Robinson, Kristine Mihelich and Tim King, three teenage girls, Cynthia Cadieux, Sheila Srock and Jane Louise Allan, were also murdered. By July, 1977, the police decided that the similarities between the OCCK four — they were all in public places when they were abducted, they were all held captive over period of days, all deposited along roadsides where they would be readily found — clearly separated them from the teenage girls. In short order, two Cadieux’s and Srock’s cases were both solved and their killers were convicted. And while Jane Louise Allan’s case remains unsolved, police have linked her death to a motorcycle gang in Ohio.
To be sure, there were many more attempted abductions, and to their credit, several of those people have stepped forward, which is what is needed. This case will die in darkness if we allow that to happen. The onus is on all of us to keep this case in the public eye. The truth matters, not just to the loved ones of the victims, but to all of us. Unless there is some accountability, what happened in this case can happen again and again.
His last murder supposedly took place in 1977. What do you think happened to him after that? Did he alter his modus operandi and go on killing, or did he simply have enough and stop?
The most prominent suspect, Christopher Brian Busch was found dead in his bedroom of a single blast to the forehead from a hunting rifle in November, 1978. The coroner ruled Busch’s death a suicide, but the evidence suggested otherwise. At the time, Busch, 23, was a four-time convicted pedophile who had never seen the inside of a jail cell. His father, H. Lee Busch who was the Executive Financial Director for General Motors, paid a defense attorney handsomely and flew her all around in a privately owned airplane to arrange plea deals for his son. After Busch’s death, no more children went missing.
It is interesting to note that a month after Busch’s death, the Oakland County Child Killings Task Force closed up shop, saying it had run out of money. After fielding over 18,000 tips and spending more than $1 million, the Task Force had failed to name even one person of interest.
How well do you think the police did their jobs on this case?
It has been said of the early investigation that law enforcement was in over their heads; that the right hand did not know what the left was doing. But because the kids were snatched in four different jurisdictions and their bodies dropped in four more locations, you had as many as eight different local police departments all vying to be the agency that could make solving this case be their own crowning achievement.
Of course, we know now that Oakland County political leaders gave Christopher Busch a free pass as did the local Birmingham police whose response to parents who reported a suspicious sexual predator was something akin to: “Sorry, we can’t touch him. He is the son of a prominent GM executive.”
And too, the ultimate in public deception at the hands of the OCCK Task Force was laid bare in the months after Christopher Busch’s death. Task Force officers took one look at the suicide scene and all the planted evidence — the drawing of Mark Stebbins’ face wailing in pain, the ropes on the closet floor, the shotgun shell on Busch’s desk consistent with the caliber of gun used to kill Jill Robinson — and thought: this is our killer. But when Task Force top brass looked in their files and realized they had arrested Christopher Busch at the height of the child-killings hysteria and then let him go free – only to have Tim King go missing three weeks later – someone high up in the Task Force decided to bury the Chris Busch files right then and there. They had to save face rather than risk letting a terrorized community know they had committed a grave error. When no more kids went missing, they knew for sure.
There are some highly publicized suspects in the case. What are your thoughts on them?
Of those still living, Theodore Lamborgine and Arch Sloan still operate under a threat of some kind of grave harm that could come to them or their families. I say this because both, who are behind bars for life, turned down very generous offers for a shortened sentences and a new identity in exchange for information that would help solve the case. Lamborgine definitely failed a polygraph on the abduction and murders of all four children and Sloan failed a polygraph on Tim King. It’s maddening, but evidently, they have both decided they will take their secrets to the grave.
When did the idea of a book about the case come to you?
In 2009, I broke the Christopher Busch lead for The Detroit News and covered the case for the paper from thereon in. Because the Christopher Busch lead came from the family of fourth victim, Tim King. Barry King, Tim’s father and a prominent business attorney here in town, made it his mission to find justice for his son. And he was up against unbelievable barriers and stonewalling on the part of law enforcement. He was one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known. At one point in 2012, he sent me a note that said: “Stop talking and write the book.”
What was it like researching and writing it? How long did it take you to write the book, altogether?
I knew the only way I was going to be able to write the definitive book on the case was to get inside the investigation. To that aim, I forged a solid working relationship with the lead detective Wayne County Det. Sgt. Cory Williams who spent the last fourteen years of his career devoted to the case. I assured him that I was in it for the long haul and would not publish until a time that we both agreed upon. That way, he knew he could trust me. I spent ten years working on the book.
What kinds of sources did you use to write the book?
I relied mainly on my own reporting and interviews. I also did extensive research of law enforcement records obtained through FOIA and the federal, state and local levels. My primary sources were: Det. Cory Williams, Barry King, Catherine King Broad (Tim’s sister), Mark Stebbins’ brother: Mike Stebbins; Kristine Mihelich’s mother and sister: Deborah Jarvis and Erica McAvoy; Jill Robinson’s family: Karol Self, Tom and Marla Robinson; local politicians and law enforcement, victims and witnesses.
Can readers expect any new revelations from your book, something you managed to dig up that others have not?
I am most proud of the facts I was able to uncover that revealed a decades-long coverup of malfeasance and obstruction on the part of law enforcement that denied justice for the victims. It’s very important to remember in this story that we were never supposed to know about Christopher Busch. That was all by design, orchestrated by both his family, politicians and the police at the time. Were it not for a happenstance conversation between polygraphers – one a childhood friend of Tim Kings – this case would have never cracked open.
What has the reception of your book been like?
It was published in July – at the height of the pandemic – so I’ve been unable to do the traditional book promotion. That said, social media, podcasts, local libraries that have allowed me to do Zoom presentations and the true crime community including talents like you, Teemu, are getting the word out, which is wonderful.
I really believe that this case will be solved in the near future, either by advances in DNA or with people coming forward. In that vein, since the book has been published, we have heard from living victims of the child porn rings and these very brave survivors are helping us to make connections to our case. So, it’s very encouraging.
What are you working on currently? New true crime book, perhaps?
Actually I’m still investigating this case, what with new leads that have come in. I hope to write either a revised edition or a second book on the case. Also, there is a big project underway that will soon launch on both my website www.thesnowkillings.com and Tim King’s sister’s website: www.catherinebroad.blog. Called “The Oakland County Child Killer Archive Project” it is an open source repository and archive of all the case documents so that the public can search with fresh eyes and hopefully make connections that others have missed. It’s exciting because at long last, the case that has been so poisoned by deceit and cronyism now has a real shot at transparency. The memory of Mark, Jill, Kristine and Tim deserve nothing less.
Anything you’d like to add that I forgot to ask about?
Nope. Thanks for the opportunity to get the word out.
And finally, my regular questions I ask all my interviewees:
Your top 3 movies?
Field of Dreams, Michael Clayton, Sleepless in Seattle
Your top 3 books?
“Giving Good Weight” by John McPhee, “Lit” by Mary Karr, “Personal History” by Katherine Graham
Your top 3 albums?
Medusa by Annie Lennox
Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt
Wilco, the Album.
Again, thank you for all of this, Teemu. I really appreciate getting this out to the public.