This much is not in dispute.
On Wednesday, May 22, 1991, at the day's first light, a flock of
seagulls noisily abandoned their perches along the two cement piers
jutting into Lake Michigan. Like rambunctious schoolchildren, they
playfully circled above the mouth of the St. Joseph River here in
southwestern Michigan, absorbing the warmth of the new day's sun.
The seas were calm; the sky, partly cloudy.
Almost exactly one hour later, first-year Coast Guard seaman
Saul Brignoni, hosing down a concrete walkway alongside the river,
teasingly shot a blast of water at a covy of gulls resting on the
embankment and spotted what appeared to be a muddy strip of
driftwood floating twenty yards from where he stood. Minutes later,
he received a cryptic radio call from the crew of a nearby dredging
boat. "We got something out here you might want to take a look at."
Brignoni and two colleagues pushed off in their twenty-two-foot
Boston Whaler and on closer inspection discovered that the flotsam
was the bloated body of a fully clothed teenage black boy.
Using a seven-foot-long boat hook, they carefully prodded the
discolored corpse onto a large metal litter, turning their heads to
avoid the putrid gases that rose from the body, along with the early
morning mist from the river.
They then motored back to shore, where they laid the body, face
down, on the wooden deck by their barracks and doused it with a
nearby hose, cleansing it of some of the river silt. Three St. Joseph
police officers soon arrived. While two asked questions of the Coast
Guardsmen, making certain to stay upwind of the body, the third
officer circled the corpse like a buzzard over its prey, snapping
pictures with a 35-millimeter camera. After getting shots of the boy's
short-sleeved shirt, a blue-striped baseball jersey that read MCGINNIS,
Detective Dennis Soucek had his fellow officers carefully turn the
body over. He knelt to get close-ups, focusing on the dead boy's
stonewashed USED jeans, a popular brand, which were unbuckled
and unzipped, exposing blue-striped bikini shorts. He snapped shots
of the victim's upper body, the arms and hands still caked with mud;
the skin, yellowish, almost green in places, was scraped away on the
left forearm. He took photos of the boy's head, which was so swollen
that the face looked separated from the skull, as if someone had
stuffed cotton in the cheeks, the chin, the forehead, and every other
part of the head. Only the ears retained their normal size, and in
proportion to the other features seemed small and insignificant. The
red lips puckered out like a fish's, and there were marks around the
neck, two bloody lines that looked like rope burns. There were other
matters the camera caught as well: a silver ring with a turquoise
stone, a pinky fingernail painted pink, and unlaced high-top Nikes.
Nearby, Jim Dalgleish, a weedy-looking reporter for the Herald-Palladium,
the local newspaper, turned his eyes from the scene, his
worn Nikon hanging around his neck. Dalgleish, who, like other
reporters at the small paper, doubled as a photographer, had heard
over the police radio about "a floater" in the river and had sped over
in his pickup. Drownings are common occurrences around here,
sometimes as many as three to four in a year. The area, after all, is
surrounded by water. The St. Joseph River slices through the
county, its languid surface hiding a sometimes tricky current. The
narrower and shallower Paw Paw River feeds into the St. Joseph just
upstream from the Coast Guard station; its mucky bottom once
devoured a car that had swerved off the road, trapping the driver.
And just two hundred yards downstream from the Coast Guard
station, the St. Joseph empties into Lake Michigan, which at times
can rise up in a fury, whipping eight-to-ten-foot swells onto the two
piers. The force of those waves has swept fishermen and foolhardy
teens into roiling water where even the strongest of swimmers have a
difficult time staying afloat. Dalgliesh, who hadn't the stomach to
look at the puffed-up bodies of floaters, only glanced at this
particular corpse; he did snap some photos after it was placed on an
ambulance stretcher, a white sheet covering it from head to toe.
The body was taken to Mercy Hospital for an autopsy. The
incident was, the police believed, probably a drowning.
Like a swollen snake, the St. Joseph River lazily winds its way north
from Indiana through the hilly cropland of southwestern
Michigan, eventually spilling into the clear waters of Lake
Michigan, where it is 450 feet across at its widest. It is here, near
its mouth, that this otherwise undramatic chute of water becomes
a formidable waterway, not because of its currents but because
of what it separates: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small
Michigan towns whose only connections are two bridges and a
powerful undertow of contrasts.
South of the river on a hill sits St. Joseph, a modest town of nine
thousand that resembles the quaint tourist haunts of the New
England coast. Vacationers on their way from Chicago--it's a two-hour
drive--to the northern woods of Michigan stop here to browse the
downtown mall, shopping at the antique stores, art galleries, and
clothing boutiques. Its beach, just a short walk down a steep bluff
from the downtown, once boasted an amusement park, but,
reflecting today's more environmentally conscious world, now stands
bare, its acres of fine sand and protected dunes luring families and
idle teens during the summer months. The town is made up of both
blue-collar families and professionals, many of whom work at the
international corporate headquarters of Whirlpool, one of the area's
major employers. In recent years they have been joined by affluent
Chicagoans looking for second homes. For those in Benton Harbor,
though, St. Joseph's most defining characteristic is its racial makeup:
it is 95 percent white.
Benton Harbor lies just across the river. It is a larger town, with a
population of twelve thousand, and although, technically speaking, it
is the other sibling in the much-used name the Twin Cities, it couldn't
be more different from St. Joseph. Benton Harbor is 92 percent black
and is dirt poor. It is, as a result, shunned by the citizens of St.
Joseph, whose children are taught from an early age that they're not
to venture into Benton Harbor because of the gangs and the drugs.
A state legislator once publicly warned visitors to lock their doors
when driving through the city's downtown, whose empty movie
theaters, potholed streets, and vacant stores stand as an inverted
image of the mall across the way. And it is suggested from time to
time that the local airport, just north of Benton Harbor, should be
relocated so that visitors wouldn't have to drive through the
wreckage of the town to get to St. Joseph. For the people of St.
Joseph, Benton Harbor is an embarrassment. It's as if someone had
taken an inner-city neighborhood--indeed, the typical family income
is one fourth that in St. Joseph--and plopped it in the middle of this
otherwise picturesque landscape. A further reminder of the relentless
differences was put forward in 1989, when Money magazine anointed
the Benton Harbor metropolitan area, which includes
St. Joseph, the worst place to live in the nation. Everyone, of course,
blamed Benton Harbor for the rating.
It is here, where the St. Joseph River opens into Lake Michigan,
providing sustenance for spawning salmon and seasoned sailors,
that this story begins. And it's here--at the beginning--where
people began to disagree.