After 31 years without a break in the case, Janette Roberson's family and local police hope to find...
REED CITY — Many Reed City residents won’t be able to call to mind her name, but her murder has become something of a legend in this community, a reminder that small-town life isn’t always smiling neighbors waving from the front porches of their Victorian homes.
Janette Roberson, the victim of “the pet shop murder,” is now the bearer of a legacy no one would wish for themselves. Thirty-one years after she was tortured, killed and tossed aside on a basement floor, Roberson’s killer remains at large and, although the case is still active, police have no new evidence to connect a suspect to the crime.
Her sister, Lana Lockhart, remains hopeful though that someone will come forward with new information that could be the break the case needs, and now she’s calling on Reed City residents to take a stand for Roberson.
On Sunday, Jan. 19, Reed City residents and those in the surrounding communities are invited to Walk for Justice for Janette, an event designed to raise awareness about the still-open murder case that has less potential for resolution as each day passes.
Lockhart wants people to remember her sister for who she was when she was alive — a mother of two, an animal lover who once refused to sell a bird to a man who played his music too loud, “a beautiful young person who never hurt anybody and who never would hurt anybody.” Lockhart hopes remembering Roberson’s life might force someone to come forward as the culprit in her death.
“I just want everybody to know Janette was a human being, she wasn't a case number,” Lockhart said. “She had a family. She still has a family that cares. I feel she's been forgotten.”
The crime and the coverage
Roberson’s body was found on Jan. 19, 1983 in the basement of the now-defunct Gamble’s store in downtown Reed City. A Gamble’s employee for about six months, Roberson’s life was cut short between 2 and 4 p.m. in the store’s basement in a 10-by-10 room filled with pet supplies and stock shelves.
On a busy day for the downtown business, the store, by all accounts, was filled with customers and employees, yet no one heard a thing.
“This took place in an open business in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, in the middle of winter,” recalls Det. George Pratt, the lead investigator on the case until 2012. “There were over 100 people who came into the store that day, and everyone who worked in the store was busy. They had three freight trucks that came in, and they were working on unloading freight as it arrived.”
The 27-year-old mother of two died of an apparent head wound, according to initial reports published in the Pioneer. Police wouldn’t confirm any sexual trauma at the time, but a reward of $2,000 for tips leading to a conviction was offered by the Reed City Chamber of Commerce.
“How could something this gruesome take place in a nice small community such as Reed City,” asked an article published in the Pioneer on Jan. 27, 1983.
Details about the investigation were covered in the Pioneer, but without much nuance or detail.
An article published in the Pioneer on Jan. 22, 1983, states police were looking to talk to two women who purchased fish equipment that day but were not considered suspects. That article also mentions that Roberson’s assailant could have been hiding in the basement to ambush her, and the cause of death is described as a “blow to the head from a heavy blunt object.”
article from Feb. 12, 1983, says police were looking for a man who purchased gerbils from Janette on the morning of the murder. The same article says that “a man who was driving a green truck” was questioned but not taken into custody.
Months later, police released an artist’s sketch and description of a possible suspect: a white man with sandy blonde hair, standing about 5-foot-9-inches tall and weighing about 170 pounds, who might have been wearing a blue jacket that day.
In the 31 years that have elapsed since Roberson’s death, police say some details of the murder have been released that could have compromised the case. In particular, the autopsy report was mistakenly released to the family some years back. Additional details about Roberson’s murder -- such as the revelation that she was stabbed multiple times with multiple objects and sexually assaulted -- became public knowledge through word of mouth.
Even today as new officers review the case, some investigative details remain under wraps. That’s ideal, because then only the real killer will be able to confess those details that are still known only to police, said Reed City Police Chief Chuck Davis, who plans to review the case this year.
“If there is still hope, you can’t let some of those issues out,” he said. “Part of (the information that leaked) was damaging. People don’t think of it that way, but if you’re wearing my shoes, it’s damaging. We would love to bring some closure for the family because this legend has been going on for so long.”
Can the case be closed?
In the 31 years since Roberson’s murder, police have interviewed and re-interviewed countless suspects and witnesses, but have never procured enough information to make an arrest.
But someone knows something.
Finding them is the trick.
“At the very least, there’s one person who knows exactly what happened and that’s the person who’s responsible,” said Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Mike Stephens. “In many cases though, there are some people who know even the smallest piece of information but they think it’s not relevant so they don’t bother to contact the police. That piece of information could create the break that the case has been waiting for for 31 years.”
In August, Stephens took over Roberson’s case from Det. George Pratt, a man who retired from MSP after serving the department for longer than Stephens has been alive. While Stephens says no one knows the case better than Pratt and the two continue to communicate when tips come in, Stephens feels his nearly three years on cold case teams makes him well-suited to pick up the investigation.
“With suspects in these cases, they feel kind of like they’ve gotten away with it this long, and they’re ready to talk,” Stephens said.
Murder cases don’t close without a conviction, and to solve the case today, Stephens would need a confession from a suspect. Identifying a suspect with certainty will be complicated, especially after years of rumor-influenced memories and aging evidence.
When the investigation began in 1983, DNA collection and analysis wasn’t exactly part of standard operating procedure, Pratt said.
“What we have we consider as solid DNA evidence, but you’ve got to understand it was 1983 and taking samples and DNA collection wasn’t initiated until after 1996,” Pratt said, referring to the year when databanks of DNA evidence started being established for use in criminal investigations.
DNA evidence was collected at the scene and has been entered into national databases. DNA work has been done in the case as even as recently as 2010, 2011 and 2012, but evidence from the case has never been matched to a suspect. If the perpetrator commits another crime and their DNA profile is entered into the national database, it could be linked back to Roberson’s case.
Is that likely? Anything is possible, Pratt says, especially considering the violent nature of this crime.
“This person could have committed this crime and not committed another crime ever, but because of the violence, that’s not likely,” he said. “As far as a motive, we’ve never established a true motive. On occasion, you have a transference of aggression to people that just triggers the assailant. You can’t say that all perpetrators commit another crime, but this was very violent so we think we should’ve seen something like this happen someplace else.
“They always say the first 48 hours are the most crucial in any investigation, and as time goes on, information does seem to dwindle. ...Any information that I’ve heard (recently) has already been researched and checked out. If we were able to prove who done it prior to now, we would’ve done that.”
Unsolved murder in a small town seems like something fit for a crime novel, at least to Reed City-based author Jeni Decker.
Living in Reed City, Decker grew up aware of Roberson’s case. Now a published author - her memoir “I Wish I were Engulfed in Flames” received some critical praise after being released in 2012 — she thought the story might fit well with her latest project, the self-published Dex Morneau crime series. As she began to research the case for inspiration for her next crime novel, Decker found Lockhart in South Carolina. As the women communicated about the case — with Decker promising to share all her research with Lockhart — Decker decided to organize an awareness raising walk on the 31st anniversary of Roberson’s death.
To spread the word, Decker has peppered Reed City and surrounding communities with posters featuring Roberson’s picture, a note about the walk and little tags with contact information for local police for those who might want to report a tip.
“When I go back to the posters, every one of them have three or four (tags) pulled off, so there is citizen interest,” Decker said. “All they’re left with is gossip because they’ve never been given much information. The general thought around town is that the police know but they don’t have enough evidence.”
Throughout the years, there have been some key suspects who have been interviewed repeatedly, but there’s never been enough evidence for an arrest, Stephens said.
Since he took over the case in August, he’s never received more tips than he has in the past two months, when he says he’s gotten a few every couple weeks. He attributes that to the awareness-raising efforts going on in Reed City now.
“I don’t want to say there’s a renewed interest, because I don’t think this ever lost interest,” Stephens said. “It seems like now, with the walk being organized, there are some tips coming in again.”
Bringing the case back to the forefront of people’s minds has been Decker’s goal.
“We’d just like to have a nice showing for this walk so the community can see we just want support and if they know of anything at all -- even if they just think it’s small -- we’d like them to come forward,” Decker said. “It’s been a number of years, and we’re told people might have been afraid or people might have passed on since then who have been involved in the case, but just anything could help.”
When Reed City residents walk in Roberson’s remembrance, Lockhart hopes the significance of the crime weighs heavy enough on the right person’s heart that they decide to come forward and help close the case.
“I would hope that it would get solved, I have my ideas as to who did it, but getting the proof, that's another story,” Lockhart said. “Unless someone decides to come clean, I'm not sure I'll ever get proof.”
Walk for Justice For Janette
On Sunday, Jan. 19, local residents are invited to walk through Reed City in Janette's honor. Walkers can meet at 2 p.m. at the Reed City Depot, located at the corner of Chestnut Street and Upton Avenue. The walk will proceed down Chestnut Street and loop back through downtown, ending where participants met.
Anyone with information about the murder can contact one of the following numbers and can remain anonymous.
Michigan State Police (989) 773-5951
Reed City Police Department (231) 832-3743
Silent Observer (toll free) 866-774-2345