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By Tom Henderson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Tom Henderson
All rights reserved.
It had been a very snowy February of 2002 in mid-Michigan. Snow was piled up in walls along the Gortons' driveway in Vienna, north of Flint. It was barely 6 p.m., but it had long since been pitch black when the Gortons — Jeffrey, Brenda and their two kids, Wally, 10, and Jenny, 7 — loaded into the station wagon and slowly eased out onto the busy two-lane highway, Tuscola Road, that ran in front of their house. Jeff made sure the coast was clear before he made his right turn. Speeders were notorious here, a constant complaint of area residents.
It was February 7, the first Thursday of the month, which meant it was their kids' elementary school's monthly roller-rink party at Skateland, a couple of miles away on N. Dort Highway in the small city of Mount Morris.
Jeff was too busy to go in the fall and spring, putting in long hours in his parents' lawn-sprinkler installation and maintenance business, but in the winter he was happy to go.
He liked doing things with Brenda and the kids. He'd volunteer at the school's Fun Fair each year, when the school rooms masqueraded as a carnival. He'd help decorate, pitch in with whatever needed to be done, same as he'd volunteer at the school's Haunted House each Halloween, hanging lights and whatnot. He volunteered at functions at their Baptist church, too, which he attended each Sunday, and was active in Boy Scouts.
Jeff loved holidays. The Gortons' neighborhood had modest, low-slung homes on very large lots, some several acres or more, and there was nothing Jeff liked more than spending hours decorating his house and grounds in the theme of the season. Not just the usual, Halloween and Christmas, but others, too, Thanksgiving, Easter, Fourth of July.
Brenda took pride in her husband's interest in holiday decorating. "The house'd be done up like crazy. People drove by in awe," she says.
They drove the three or four miles to the rink. As usual, the place was jammed. And loud. Music playing, kids laughing and screaming. Everyone knew everyone. The kids would skate till they were hungry, grab a slice of pizza and a soda pop in the adjacent grillroom, and skate some more. Some of the parents skated, too, or they'd sit up in the bleachers or chat over some food in the grill or step out for a smoke.
Jeff was a bit of a flirt. Always had been. Brenda didn't mind as Jeff, as usual, circulated, chatting up the other moms. They didn't seem to mind, either. Again, everyone knew everyone.
Well, this Thursday, not quite.
One guy stood out like a swollen thumb. Everyone knew everyone, but no one knew him. He was very stocky, broad-shouldered, big bellied, had his head shaved, wore big hooped silver earrings and grungy blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He looked like he belonged in a biker bar, not at an elementary school function. There was another stranger in the rink, too, but the bald guy was the one they noticed.
"We seen a stranger walking around. You don't know how many times I wanted to say to him, 'Who you here with?'" recalled Brenda months later. "You do all these school functions, you know everyone. We thought there was gonna be a child-snatching. I'll never forget him. I'll never forget what that man looked like."
There was going to be a snatching, all right. But not the kind Brenda feared. It wouldn't be a kid. But if it went the way the stranger hoped, it'd be worse than anything she ever imagined.
He wasn't there looking for kids. His name was Mike St. Andre, and he would have fit right in at a biker bar. In fact, he fit right in at biker bars all the time. He was an undercover narcotics cop from the hardscrabble blue-collar down-river Detroit suburb of Romulus, whose chief downtown attraction is a topless joint known as the Landing Strip and whose major employer and taxpayer is the sprawling Metropolitan Detroit Airport, which sits smack dab in the middle of the city's thirty-six square miles.
There are a lot of felons serving time in Michigan prisons who got the shock of their lives when they found out St. Andre wasn't who he appeared to be.
This night, St. Andre wasn't interested in kids and he wasn't interested in drugs. He was there to keep an eye on Jeff Gorton. He wanted to watch him, to see if he ate or drank anything. He wanted to see if he sucked out of a straw, put a cup to his lip, wiped his face with a napkin, used a fork or a knife, went outside to puff on a cigarette and toss the butt to the ground.
St. Andre wanted to keep an eye out for any of that stuff, and snatch it if he could, and get it to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab in Lansing. They needed to see if Gorton's DNA matched semen the state police scientists had kept frozen for more than fifteen years in one Flint case and nearly eleven years in a Romulus case.
Both crimes had involved almost unspeakable savagery — slow torture ending in the near-decapitation of victims who were raped and murdered. Both cases likely involved necrophilia, too. Not counting Jimmy Hoffa, they were the two highest-profile unsolved murder cases in Michigan in the last fifty years. If this was the guy who did it, was responsible, and something with his DNA on it needed snatching, St. Andre wanted to be the one who snatched it.
His adrenaline barely under control, sure he was working the case of a lifetime, St. Andre watched and waited and followed Gorton around as he chatted up the wives, went in the rink to watch his kids and then — here it comes! — returned to the food area, got in line and picked up some pizza. Good old messy pizza. He watched Gorton chow down. He watched the sauce grease accumulate on Gorton's lips and the corner of his mouth. He watched Gorton wipe his mouth, eat some more, then wipe it again. Gorton went through one napkin. A second. He did St. Andre a favor by twisting his used napkins into strings so there'd be no mistaking which were his. St. Andre watched Gorton drink his pop. He watched and watched. And then he snatched.CHAPTER 2
"WE GOT HIM"
Like many kids growing up in the suburbs of a city that calls itself "Hockeytown, USA," Mike St. Andre wanted to be a professional hockey player. He was pretty good, and worked hard at it, too.
He had a job as a paperboy, in the early 1970s, when papers were still delivered by kids with bikes instead of adults with cars, the way they are now. When he was 12, he started delivering the afternoon Detroit News to his neighbors in Trenton, a middle-class community across a channel of the Detroit River from affluent Grosse Ile and its mansions. Factory workers lived in Trenton, factory owners on the island.
St. Andre's district manager was a guy named Dan Snyder. Most managers had reputations as tyrants, gruff guys who scared their kids into showing up on time, day after day, and scared them into being accurate with their accounts and collecting on time.
But Snyder "was the greatest guy in the world," recalls St. Andre. Snyder was his boss for a year, then left the newspaper business.
"That was the last I saw him. Until he showed up at my door," says the burly St. Andre. Snyder came to his house in 1984. About the time that he was in the 10th grade, St. Andre gave up on his dreams of playing hockey and decided to become a cop. After graduation from Trenton High in 1979, he paid his own way through the Metro Detroit Police Academy, then got a job patrolling the area Huron-Clinton Metro Parks that ring Detroit, pretty much the bottom rung of law enforcement.
In 1984, he applied for a job in Romulus, and, to his surprise, Snyder, his old boss, now a cop in Romulus, too, was the one who showed up at his house to interview him. Snyder remembered him as a hard-working, reliable kid on his paper route — and hired him.
In 1989, St. Andre was assigned to a DEA task force at Metropolitan Airport, working undercover to ferret out drugs, smugglers and people illegally carrying large sums of money. With its proximity to Canada, Metro was a major transit point for couriers.
Mostly St. Andre worked tips from airline personnel, evolving out of overheard conversations or educated hunches. Usually, St. Andre had no probable cause when he approached a suspect coming off a plane. The tips would never have stood up in court. But there's no law against asking people if they will submit to a search, and no law against them being stupid enough to agree. All they had to say was "Nope," and they'd have been able to keep on going.
St. Andre was amazed by how many said "Okay" instead, and within minutes he'd find pounds of cocaine, or bags of pot, or bundles of cash in suitcases, in some instances more than $1 million.
When the 1991 case of a murdered flight attendant made headlines for weeks in the Detroit papers — and, in the if-it-bleeds-it-leads department, dominated local TV news night after night — St. Andre had been one of the guys who worked the airport hard. Armed with composite sketches made by eyewitnesses, he spent many hours scanning faces, looking for a traveler returning to the scene of the crime, or, more likely, some airline employee who had used a uniform to avoid raising the suspicions of his victim.
His surveillance at the airport was futile.
Nearly a decade later, in 2000, he was assigned to Romulus' special investigations unit, which mostly did undercover narcotics work. But now, at the behest of the Michigan State Police, he was taking a break from drugs and up in the Flint area trying to catch the same perp he'd been looking for in 1991.
Snyder, newly promoted to the head of the detective bureau, had been told early that morning by the MSP that a suspect had finally emerged, and Romulus' help was needed for round-the-clock surveillance.
Within twenty minutes, Snyder and his partner, Gordie Malaniak, were on their way to the state police post on Corunna Road, just west of the city of Flint. Four other Romulus cops — St. Andre, Greg Brandemihl, Jeff Hlinak and Mike Ondejko — would later join them. After getting briefed, accompanied by State Police Sergeant Mark Reaves, Malaniak, St. Andre, Brandemihl and Hlinak went out to relieve state troopers who'd been watching the Gorton house all day.
Instead of the tedium that a crew of state police had suffered through all day — cold, nothing happening, time dragging by — less than half an hour into their shift, out came the Gorton family, piling into a blue 1993 Pontiac station wagon and heading out.
Driving separate cars scattered around the area, one by one the police pulled in behind Gorton. Soon, they were at the rink. St. Andre and Brandemihl saw kids and parents lined up at the door and worried they wouldn't fit in, but there was nothing to do for it.
St. Andre went in first, paying $5 admission.
"Where are your kids?" asked the attendant, expecting to be collecting more money.
"They're already in."
Brandemihl waited a few minutes, then followed him inside.
Brandemihl, the son of a cop, spent four years in Army Intelligence in Germany before joining the Romulus police in 1987. He was an evidence tech for the department at the time of the 1991 murder, but ironically was not called to the scene. Snyder, the detective in charge of the crime scene, knew the case was going to be a big one and, no disrespect to his own people but wanting the best help he could get, had chosen to call in a state police evidence team instead.
Brandemihl was a member of SIU. Inside the rink, he and St. Andre pretended they were old friends who, coincidentally, had run into each other.
"Hey, how you doing?" said Brandemihl.
St. Andre spotted Gorton. His kids and his wife were putting on skates. They went into the rink. Gorton followed, taking a spot in the bleachers. St. Andre, on an adrenaline rush and acting the cowboy, sat behind Gorton, close enough to touch him. He got out the Nextel and called Snyder, who was back at the Flint post.
"You won't believe what's going on. I'm sitting behind your best friend. I could tap him on the shoulder." If it seemed a foolish thing to do, well, St. Andre will admit to being brazen. The rink was very loud, music and the screams and hollering of what seemed like hundreds of kids covering up his conversation.
Later St. Andre would say, "Brandemihl was looking at me like, 'I don't believe you.' Hey, Gorton didn't know who I was. I was just fitting in. Talking on a cell phone."
Gorton got up and left the rink. St. Andre moseyed out after him, into the adjoining entryway, where Gorton circulated from woman to woman. St. Andre was surprised by how easily Gorton seemed to fit in. The women knew him. They seemed to like him, and he had an ease with them that seemed odd for a suspected serial killer whose brutality had been so vivid in the crime-scene photos. Who had playfully tortured his victims for quite some time before trying to decapitate them with a serrated knife. Who had posed his victims after death. Who had taken the time to clean up and, in one case, had been so cool as to make several trips to his car, hauling off the woman's belongings.
But although Gorton seemed at ease with the women, he was nervous, too. Fidgety. Looking over his shoulder. Did he suspect something?
"In our mind, he doesn't know anything. He'd gotten away with what he'd done all these years. But it was odd he'd act so nervous," said Brandemihl. "He didn't know we were there. Then we realized, he'd done so much over the years, he was always nervous."
Gorton circulated for twenty minutes. Finally his kids came back out. They wanted to eat, and the Gortons went into the snack bar.
The room was filled with long tables. St. Andre and Brandemihl sat two tables away from the Gortons. Jeff's wife and kids stayed at the table, and he got in line to get food. St. Andre got in line behind him.
Gorton picked up some Styrofoam cups, and ordered pizza and a pitcher of Mountain Dew. St. Andre ordered two pops and took his seat. A spot opened up at the table next to the Gortons and the two cops slid over.
Gorton wiped his greasy mouth with a napkin then twisted it into a string. First one, then a second.
"You know what? We got you," said St. Andre to himself.
The Gortons put their refuse on their trays and pushed them aside, in front of an empty seat. Someone came up, asked if the Gortons were done, then pushed the trays farther down the table to make room.
"Watch this," said St. Andre to his partner. It was 7:25 p.m.
His next move was brazen. St. Andre would counter that what seems brazen really wasn't, that the bolder you are, the more invisible you can be. Or so he thought. He walked over, tapped Gorton on the shoulder: "Are you done with your tray? If you're done, I'll take it."
Gorton nodded and St. Andre picked it up and walked to the far end of the room, where Brandemihl had gone. Making sure the Gortons weren't looking, Brandemihl quickly opened up a manilla evidence bag and St. Andre dumped in the tray's contents.
But they still didn't have Gorton's cup, and they were determined to get it. Piece of chewing gum would be nice, too. Or a cigarette butt.
A few minutes later, the two kids went back into the rink to resume skating. Gorton remained seated. There were Styrofoam cups all over the table, and one right in front of him. St. Andre eyeballed it.
Gorton reached out, poured Mountain Dew into it from a pitcher, took four or five swallows, set it down and got up. St. Andre walked over, picked up the half-filled cup and set it inside a larger size cup so he wouldn't have to touch it any more than necessary.
He noticed people looking at him. "It was like, 'Hey, if you want a pop that bad, we'll buy you one.'"
Little did he know that Gorton had looked back and seen him grab the cup, too. He told his wife, "That guy just took my pop."
"Yeah, right, Jeff," said his wife skeptically. She was willing to believe the scruffy guy with the earrings was a child-snatcher, but who steals someone's half-empty cup of pop?
St. Andre passed the cup to Brandemihl. He went outside and gave the evidence bag and the cup to Malaniak, then returned to the rink, hopefully to get more DNA evidence. Malaniak went over to Reaves' car and gave the bag and cup to him. Reaves poured the pop out on the ground, put the cup-inside-a-cup in another evidence bag, started his car and headed for the Flint post. The plan was: He'd give the stuff to fellow state trooper, Hal Zettle, who would drive it west on I-69 to the small town of Perry.
Excerpted from Blood Justice by Tom Henderson. Copyright © 2004 Tom Henderson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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