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Blood, Semen, Saliva, Prints

The lies and money behind a 1970s serial murder case

J. Reuben Appelman
May 2, 2016 · 10 min read
Credit: alicjane/iStock/Getty

It’s autumn of 2010 and I’m standing in the exact spot where 10-year-old Kristine Mihelich’s ice-burned body had been found in the dead of winter, 1977, her newly plum-colored face a muted beacon in the freshly fallen snow off the side of a wooded cul-de-sac 30 minutes from the more slushy detritus of Detroit. It was 34 years ago that Kristine had been snatched, exploited like a new toy, then re-gifted to the world as a mere conjecture of what she’d been when new.

A mailman had discovered Kristine on his regular route here in Franklin Village, only ten minutes from my boyhood home. He’d banked his mail truck and walked toward swaths of color off the side of the road. There was no blood at the drop scene but he’d been drawn by Kristine’s coat, slightly frozen to the mannequin of her torso.

The mailman, a homely guy in his early thirties, stood over Kristine’s body, then made hurried footprints back to his vehicle.

At the time, Franklin Village, even beyond this street, was still very wooded, pocked here and there with chimneys that built downward into great rooms that found fireplaces with dogs snoring next to them, balls rolling across the hardwood flooring, the smell of bread being baked and, more or less, families still intact between the walls of their architecturally-sound homes.

Franklin Village, at least metaphorically, should have been hanging from a Christmas tree back then, encased in glass. When the snow fell, it was as if you could hear somebody moan from five houses down. It was that quiet inside its orb.

Nobody died in Franklin Village until they were old, and Kristine didn’t die here, either. She’d been killed during captivity, somewhere else, then driven around for a while and dumped here like a stack of newspapers hitting the curb in a Dickens movie.

The street I’m standing on, Bruce Lane, where Kristine had been tossed, bares the given name of a well-known Detroit area psychiatrist of the time, Bruce Danto. Danto had a track record of writing about serial killers in the early 70s, so a drop site with his name attached to it was titillating to the local press. Conjecture was that Kristine’s killer had been directly challenging the psychiatrist. Kristine was dropped miles from where she’d been abducted and, since you don’t ever know Bruce Lane is here unless you’re looking for it, the killer was presumed to have been making a public statement with his placement of her body.

Other people thought Danto himself was Kristine’s murderer and that his academic fascination with serial killings was a translucent cover for the obtuse-looking doctor with a receding hairline and bad glasses.

For a while, people even suspected the ungainly mailman with only lightly developed social skills and a house full of trinkets. After all, he’d found the body and there were no other footprints in the snow besides his. Police chalked that up to the overnight dithering that would have fouled the area around Kristine’s deposit, covering anybody else’s tracks. As well, a news chopper had come in almost immediately after Kristine was discovered, and any footprints that might have previously trailed out of the snow like an ellipses leading to the killer might have been blown away by its downdraft.

When police had interviewed the mailman after finding Kristine’s body, he’d indeed “seemed off.” He was nervous, avoided eye contact, and was generally silent throughout the interview process. None of that leads to being truly suspect, of course.

He’d just found a body, is all.

Kristine had been missing for 19 days back then, and when they found her they knew she’d been Victim #3 to what’d been labeled by the police as the Oakland County Child Killer (O.C.C.K.), also dubbed “The Babysitter” because of the way each victim had been tended to. According to investigators and the press alike, the killer had bathed his victims after death, combed their hair, clipped their nails, even cleaned and pressed their clothes before giving them back to the world almost neater than they’d left it: each body laid out like a new suit atop the snow, each of these suits found in various parts of the city during the thirteen months spanning from mid-winter of 1976 to the end of winter in 1977, the beginning of the end of the Led Zeppelin era; Zeppelin’s final tour began nine days after Timothy King was found in a ditch about 30 minutes from home, redressed after having been anally assaulted and suffocated.

With four kidnap-murders confirmed attributable to the O.C.C.K. and five other kidnap-murders suspected, the area was swept by fear and hysteria. Scotch-taped to every storefront and stapled to every pillar were posters of the Child Killer’s suspected automobile and a sketch of his face. Hundreds of drivers were stopped on the sides of local roads for interrogation by police officers; if you’d driven a car resembling the one allegedly driven by The Babysitter, getting through those few square miles of my normally user-friendly neighbor had been like trying to pass a German checkpoint during World War II.

Kristine’s autopsy showed her to have been nicely fed while in captivity and then asphyxiated, probably by the killer’s bare hand squeezing her nose and mouth to trap the air. The murder term for this is “burking,” which involves the killer restraining the victim’s torso, most commonly in a bear hug, throughout the suffocation process. Burking leaves very few physical marks, if any.

I don’t know what Kristine’s parents thought at the time, imagining their daughter being killed in this fashion, but I can guess that the “thinking” part of them was mostly turned off. Violence just pushes against us.

It was January 2nd of 1977 that Kristine was abducted, the day after New Year’s Day. The first victim, Mark Stebbins, was abducted the day after Valentine’s Day. The second victim, Jill Robinson, was found the day after Christmas — both Mark and Jill during the previous winter, of 1976. The fourth and presumably final victim, Timothy King, went missing shortly after Kristine was found, on the evening before St. Patrick’s Day of 1977.

The victims from left to right: Timothy King, Kristine Mihelich, Mark Stebbins, Jill Robinson. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty

The dates suggest a link between holidays and the abductor’s Method of Operation. People have thought that, anyway, wanting to bring structure to the chaos: four dead children, four holidays. All of us pine for something linear, something we can trust that brings the pieces together like a magnet pulling back the continents to where they started, a logical connection like coming home, but sometimes the facts are just the facts with nothing in between them.

Right now, well over 30 years, millions of dollars, and hundreds of detectives working on the largest homicide investigation in Michigan State history have failed to be rewarded with any meaningful structure to these crimes. The killer has, presumably, never been caught.

One of the suspects in these killings, Christopher Busch, was rich. Bearded and obese, still living in his parents’ upscale home into his twenties, Busch was a child porn addict with multiple pedophilia-based charges pending against him in seemingly unrelated cases. A few weeks after being polygraphed about the O.C.C.K. murders, Busch was found dead in his home, shot through the forehead by a rifle while lying in bed in the sizable, upstairs bedroom he’d become a man in.

The police report says Christopher Busch’s death was a suicide. The temptation is to think he felt shame or wanted to avoid prison; the police were on his tail and so he offed himself before an institutional finale, you’d think. The temptation is to think he’s their killer. And yet a police report from that alleged suicide negates the presence of gunshot residue on this suspect, meaning it’s unlikely that he fired a weapon. Four spent cartridges were found at the scene. Christopher Busch is now a victim but he might also be a suspect, too; dirty in the O.C.C.K. case and then face-fucked with a rifle by somebody with more to lose than him.

The police report from his alleged suicide in 1978 has no mention of blood. If you watch enough television, you know that nobody gets shot in the head without bleeding. I’ve held that report in my fingertips about a half-dozen times so far. I keep thinking about it, waiting for the word “spatter” to appear, but it never does. In the photos from his crime scene, Christopher Busch is a big, sheet-covered lump in the bed, showing no blood at all, not even soaked into the sheets where he lay.

I’m in my rented car on a side trip to a suburb outside Chicago, holding a photocopied, fourth-grade Science Fair award that Timothy King’s older sister, Cathy Broad, had mailed to me a few months earlier.

Cathy was 17 when her brother Tim — Victim #4 — was abducted by the O.C.C.K. She’d loaned him 30 cents that evening to buy candy at a nearby store, Hunter Maple Pharmacy. It’d been dark out but Tim was allowed to walk alone those few blocks through their neighborhood. The first three O.C.C.K. victims had been blue collar, on the other side of Oakland County, whereas Birmingham, where the Kings lived with their relative wealth, still seemed untouchable, a safe place to live.

Tim never came back.

Tim’s parents, whose modest two-story home was less than a mile from the Busch family compound, made public pleas to the abductor, on television and in the newspaper. They begged for their son, who was small for his age and mischievous. They promised Tim, if he were listening, that he’d be okay. His father told Tim not to worry about the baseball tryouts he’d missed. His mother said they’d have fried chicken, his favorite meal, when he got home.

Six days later, Tim was found in a ditch. His stomach contained evidence of a fried chicken dinner having been fed to him while in captivity.

Cathy left the Detroit area right after high school, presumably to run away from the terror she’d felt in Tim’s absence. She became a lawyer. She rarely talked to the press and for the first 25 years played it safe with the various police departments, hoping for information to arrive.

It never did.

Now Cathy lives in a beautiful home, in a neighborhood where the streets are named after all the good presidents. There’s artwork on her walls, custom cabinets, hardwood floors, signs of teenagers having trafficked through, and a spaciousness that feels helpful to getting your head right.

Cathy’s smaller than I imagined her, and then I remember that Tim was small for his age, too. Like a lot of smaller, nicer people that you know, there’s a bit of a knife-fighter under Cathy’s skin and she’s got an office full of documents on her brother’s case to prove it. Over the next four hours, she brings out many of those documents for review and lays them across the kitchen island; we lean in together and study her pencil markings along the margins.

Cathy looks up at some point and asks me if I know the difference between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. I don’t, even though I’ve spent a month reading criminal forensics books by superstars like Henry Lee and Michael Baden; both of them worked on the O.J. Simpson case and both proved Simpson guilty, though that evidence never made it into either court or the public eye because of good lawyering on the Simpson team.

“A mitochondrial DNA match,” Cathy says, “would mean that your family line was matched. A nuclear DNA match would mean that you, specifically, were matched.”

She tells me something about needing the bulb of the hair for nuclear but only a fragment of the hair for mitochondrial. “So,” she says. “Mitochondrial equals you or one of your relatives or blood line, although that could go back thousands of years, and nuclear equals you.”

“They found a hair on Kristine fucking years ago and they never let us know,” she tells me. And then she says, “They made a mitochondrial DNA match to one of Christopher Busch’s friends.”

Other murder cases, lots of them, have been closed based on mitochondrial DNA. I ask Cathy how she found out about the hair, the match, about all of it and she tells me that one of the cops let her in. She tells me his name, says he’s on TV a lot.

A year after Cathy tells me this, the mitochondrial DNA finding is leaked and the press begins writing about it. The man on the scalp-end of that hair will get a lot of attention thrown his way. At first, he’s in prison on other beefs and can’t be publicly questioned. Later, local reporters try to sabotage him outside of the halfway house he moves to. Nothing will immediately come of it. The press will look stupid and exploitative, and the man will be struggling to keep a job under the scrutiny of public accusation and drug addiction.

He’d been a teenager when hanging around with Christopher Busch, when the hair from his head somehow transferred to Kristine’s coat. He’d been fifteen and gangly, a boy riding shotgun to a possible monster.

Now, decades later, he’d returned from prison as a man.

*Thousands of pages of local, state, and federal case documents, including witness statements, autopsy reports, catalogs of evidence, crime scene photos, interrogation transcription, polygraph results, personal correspondences and interviews, as well as other files of consequence to the O.C.C.K crimes were meticulously studied in preparation for this article. As no person mentioned in this article has been found, by a court of law, to be guilty of the O.C.C.K. crimes, no guilt should be presumed. Any views, opinions, or assumptions expressed herein are based solely on the author’s wish to synthesize raw material into a logical narrative and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency known to the author.

Excerpted from the book THE KILL JAR by J. Reuben Appelman. Forthcoming on hardcover and e-book from Simon & Schuster on August 14, 2018, and now available for pre-order here

J. Reuben Appelman

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J. Reuben Appelman is a screenwriter and author in multiple genres. His book, The Kill Jar, is now available from Simon & Schuster.

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