Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Media, the Police, and the Washtenaw County Murders - 1967-1969

Before law enforcement and the public realized there may be a serial killer in their midst, three local coeds were found murdered and left scattered around the rural countryside of Washtenaw County outside of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mary Fleszar (19) disappeared on the evening of July 9, 1967. She was an Eastern Michigan University student whose body was found a 150 yards from the road on an abandoned farm thirty-two days after she disappeared. In the absence of any real clues, police investigators surmised that she may have been killed by a transient and dumped there. The condition of her remains shocked detectives on the scene.

Just over a year later, on July 30, 1968, another EMU coed, Joan Schell (20) was hitchhiking and seen getting into a car with three young men. Her body was found a week later on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. Police determined that she had been killed elsewhere, and her nude body was dumped 12 feet from the road and covered with grass clippings. Little effort was made to conceal the body. 

A couple of investigators familiar with the Fleszar case the year before thought that these murders could possibly be related, but Schell's murder was generally regarded as an isolated incident by most investigators.

A third coed was found murdered eight months later; University of Michigan graduate student, Jane Mixer (23). Her fully clothed body was laid out on a grave site just inside the gate of Denton Cemetery; a yellow raincoat covered her up. 

Detectives on the scene felt that this murder was significantly different than the previous two, but the press ran with the story and began linking the three murders together in the public's mind.

A self-perpetuating engine of public opinion was fueled by the public's desire for the latest news and the media's commercial and competitive interests. This relationship led to the breakdown of collective solidarity in the communities of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. A generalized fear gripped the public psyche, suspicion ran rampant, and faith in law enforcement efforts declined. Fear fed upon itself and magnified divisions already in the community.

To provide the community with a sense of psychological comfort and help contain the threat, the police floated the story that the killer or killers were a bunch of drug crazed transients. This well-publicized fiction was based on wishful thinking and may have prevented police from recognizing the killer when he was in their custody. Their suspect was clean cut and simply didn't fit the profile.

The universities attracted lots of non-student hippie types who always seemed to be hanging around causing trouble. After all, the murdered girls were college students, so the threat may be limited to EMU and U of M and not the general populace.

Only five days after the Mixer murder, Maralyn Skelton's dead body was found horribly abused along a roadside. She was a sixteen year old who recently had dropped out of Romulus High School and was last seen hitchhiking in front of Arborland on Washtenaw Ave. 

Twenty-one days later, Dawn Basom (13), a local Ypsilanti junior high school student was snatched less than 100 yards from her house. Now the frenzied community felt no one was safe. The time between slayings was decreasing as the death toll was rising.

When the police were powerless to capture the killer, the public appealed for divine intervention. The media reported on prayer vigils held in local churches, and some religious people believed that the deaths of the victims had some sort of sacrificial purpose and spiritual significance. 

Marjorie Beineman, the mother of the last victim, believed, "God must have sent Karen to find the killer." She was convinced that her daughter's sacrifice was according to God's divine plan to save others, precious little comfort for a grieving mother.

Still, others believed that the killer was thought to have a Svengali type of hypnotic, superhuman power to spirit his victims away without a trace. If God's divine presence can take human-saintly form, then the opposite must be true, the devils' disciples exist on Earth as evil incarnate.

The public was desperate for its deliverance from evil. Faith in the local police was at an all time low, and there were too many reporters chasing too little news. Something had to be done to move this case along.

Enter the psychic - Peter Hurkos. His presence gave the media something new to report on, but the police were not happy with this interloper. Assistant Prosecutor Booker T. Williams had a more proactive attitude, "What is there to lose? Maybe he can help break the case."