Mark Stebbins, victim #1, was killed in February of 1976. Kristine Mihelich, victim #3, was killed in January of 1977.
In between those dates, on May 7, 1976, Christopher Busch—the suicide victim who mysteriously didn’t have any gunshot residue on his hands and, until his death, had been a prime suspect in the Oakland County Child Killer case—engaged in the sexual violation of the teenaged Vincent Gunnels, whom he’d been grooming for many months prior to any of the OCCK killings. Busch would later be charged with criminal sexual conduct for the Gunnels offense, while Gunnels himself would spend his adulthood in and out of incarceration.
If the mitochondrial DNA evidence is to be believed, the hair found on Kristine Mihelich belonged to either Vincent Gunnels or somebody in his family line.
When recently placed back into custody and questioned about the mitochondrial match to his hair, Gunnels told police that he was often in Christopher Busch’s vehicle. That’s all he would say, but in doing so he avoided directly implicating himself in the murder of Kristine Mihelich while simultaneously giving up Christopher Busch as a possibly guilty party.
He didn’t say, “I don’t know how that hair got on the dead girl’s body.”
Spending time in Busch’s vehicle would account for transference of Gunnels’s hair to Kristine’s shirt or coat, even without Gunnels’s presence during the crime itself. But it’s also possible that Vincent Gunnels carried Kristine Mihelich’s body and plunked her in the snow on Bruce Lane that day, transferring the evidentiary hair while doing so.
What’s important is that the hair found on Kristine likely came either directly from Vincent Gunnels or from his relationship, in some fashion, to Christopher Busch’s vehicle, and therefore Christopher Busch.
When I look at photos of Vincent Gunnels online—his hair cropped short, a thick mustache, his skin having whitened from spending more years under prison halogens than sunlight—I still see the boy he must have been decades prior. Cathy Broad and I talk on the phone about him throughout the next few months, speculating about his involvement with Busch, but I’m always imagining the wind in his hair and the sound of traffic as he runs across a suburban street, just being a kid, before Christopher Busch, before Kristine Mihelich, before whatever happened happened.
WELCOME TO THE CASS
Cass Corridor in the 1970s was one of the poorest areas in the country, teeming with prostitutes and junkies and welfare babies who either crawled around in the grass out front of scrap-lot homes or lined the arm’swidth interior hallways of tenement housing. The streets of the Cass were isolated and potholed, with steam that rose in wintertime from iron manhole covers. Commercial buildings and homes alike were rapidly decomposing, made of brick or cinder block that peeled away in chunks and fell to the neglected streets.
Liquor stores and makeshift bars rounded out the corners of every block. Pimps surveyed their periphery, sauntering back and forth beneath lottery signs in sore need of bulb replacement.
Inside the decaying tenements, like in most ghettos, drugs were sold, weapons were exchanged, and young girls were prostituted behind bolted doors. It was the same inside the structurally unsound single-family homes that lined these short residential blocks. Most were rentals in great disrepair. Prostitutes of all ages, wearing homemade skirts that barely concealed the bruises on their legs, hustled the sidewalks outside of their homes.
Looming over the Cass neighborhood was the two-hundred-foot-tall, Gothic-looking, stone-built Masonic Temple, constructed to last for centuries. The largest Masonic temple in the world, its interior was crafted for spectacle and austerity both. A fifteen-hundred-seat, fifty-foot-high cathedral as its centerpiece loomed as large here as the Sistine Chapel does in the Vatican.
The Masonic, as it is called, contained—and still does—three different ballrooms, each of them over 17,000 square feet, as well as a 4,500-seat theater of red velvet, gold inlay, and artisan plaster to host the many symphonies, operas, and social balls underwritten by old, improbable, unthinkable money to the people of the Cass. The splendor of the Masonic amid the impoverished landscape of the Cass might seem an unlikely, even obnoxious contrast, but land in the hood is cheap, and the rich like cheap more than tact.
The Masonic’s cornerstone was cemented in 1922, reportedly by the same trowel George Washington had used to mud the cornerstone on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. A lot happens over time, though. In the 1970s, prostitutes and their johns fucked against the building as a matter of course, the old grandeur of the Masonic encroached upon by gritty realism.
Not far from the Masonic’s ballrooms and event spaces were the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, where Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson had grown up. The projects were five blocks long, squeezed with fourteen-story high-rises, and home to over 10,000 of Detroit’s most impoverished citizens. At the time of my visit in 2010, the halfmile-long ghetto was primarily vacant, the windows boarded up or broken out. There were no plans for demolition of the massive buildings: Whatever impoverished ghosts remained, they now crackled and dragged through the halls.
In the 1970s, though, on weekend nights, suburbanites in their slicked-over sedans venturing into the Cass for an engagement at the Masonic would sometimes get lost and end up on the Eastside. I’d heard stories growing up of the terror one’s grandparents had felt pulling a U-turn near the Brewster buildings.
The late ’70s in Detroit saw the first seeds of carjacking sprout. People who were “fucking high as shit,” as my dad would say, would skip out from the shadows with a handgun, crack it against the window to shatter it if the door was locked, and pull the vehicle’s goose-necked driver through the glass.Running smooth as a mill in the heart of Cass Corridor was an industry of pedophilia. Hundreds of children over the course of the decade were either lured with cash offerings or “trunked”…
But there were even more insidious elements than the addicts, dealers, and turf sharks at work. Running smooth as a mill in the heart of Cass Corridor was an industry of pedophilia. Hundreds of children over the course of the decade were either lured with cash offerings or “trunked,” the street term for being lifted from the curb outside one’s home and thrown into a car.
Scores were held in captivity, often close to home, and sold off as either feed for a blossoming child porn industry making its way underground to the East Coast hubs, or as one-offs to johns who would venture in from the suburbs during daylight for a baggie of heroin and a quickie. There were independent operators—there will always be those—but there were more profitable kid runners as well whose proficiency at the trade, and power, allowed them a measure of immunity over time.
The Detroit Police Department, presumably in order to get a grip on the Cass’s rampant problem, “turned” a known pedophile of the time named Richard Lawson and employed him as a confidential informant.
Lawson, hovering at almost six and a half feet and well over two hundred pounds, occasionally gave up the odd john here and there. More often than not, though, Lawson used the police badge he had been granted by the PD—for “eventualities” related to being an informant—in much the same way the Pied Piper of lore lured children away from their village by the sound of his flute. He’d flip open his badge and the doe-eyed would follow.
Later, Lawson would be tied to one Ted Lamborgine, a sort of rock star in the pederast scene in Pontiac thirty miles outside Detroit.
Ted Lamborgine will begin to come up more in my research and will eventually be tied to Christopher Busch through the testimony of one of Busch’s molestation victims, a boy who survived his rape by Busch but who will claim to have crossed paths with victim #4, Timothy King, during King’s captivity.
The Schvitz is a steam house a few blocks from Cass Corridor central and the Masonic. A relic from the 1930s, the Schvitz is built like a warehouse: made of concrete, nondescript, twenty feet high and about fifty feet long, with no windows and a single unmarked door.
Weeds growing up its side, the Schvitz is the type of place you could disappear inside of. Most buildings in Detroit are like this, vacant-seeming even if they’re not, the exteriors unpainted for decades, crumbling with decay. But to me the Schvitz exterior presents an intentional illusion; it’s supposed to look dumpy. Goings-on happened here, and, I am told, continue to happen here, that specifically require a lack of notice from passersby.
Around its inception, members of the Purple Gang, known as the Jewish Mafia, took saunas at the Schvitz, ate steak dinners, and got smacked on the back with soaped-up mops of grape leaves. Years after that, the Schvitz became more illicit: In the 1960s, homosexuals could mingle there in privacy, have furtive sexual encounters in the dimly lit rooms, and then go home to their wives and day jobs.
By 1985, when I was fifteen, the same age Gunnels had been while riding in Christopher Busch’s car, I’d had my own dark suitor, a man in his mid-forties who’d been grooming me, only I was too young to know what that meant. The father of a friend, he’d taken me and a couple of other boys to the Schvitz for an afternoon steam.when I was fifteen, the same age Gunnels had been while riding in Christopher Busch’s car, I’d had my own dark suitor, a man in his mid-forties who’d been grooming me, only I was too young to know what that meant.
Like any father of any friend, I’d thought, only slightly sharper. He used to kiss me on the cheeks when he said hello, first one side of my face and then the other—like mobsters, or like the Europeans—and I’d smell the pomade in his slicked-back hair and the aftershave on his face when he leaned in.
On weekends, he’d come into the bagel store where I worked my first job, and he’d bullshit with whatever boy was there but especially with me, it seemed, always leaning over the counter to touch faces, sometimes grabbing the back of my head to bring us closer. I just went along with it. He was nice, he wore expensive jewelry that impressed me, and I didn’t want to disappoint him by being cold. I didn’t find him threatening at all. Later, he invited me to the bathhouse with two of the other boys.
Without asking permission from my parents, I went, and although those other boys went along with us, his attention seemed focused on me while we all undressed in a locker room and wrapped clean white towels around our waists for the short walk to an indoor hot tub. We soaked in silence for a while, the man leaning his head back against the rim of the tub and relaxing. When we got bored, we stepped out of the tub and dripped across ancient-seeming tiles to a steam room, the three of us boys wearing thin, inexpensive gold chains that glistened with sweat and heat against our undeveloped chests. The man wore his own gold chain, thick like a rope.
We sat in the steam room for a while, the hot, mentholated air filling my lungs, then retired to a dining room, still wearing only our towels, which seemed odd to me.
In the dining room were several cloth-covered tables but no other patrons, as if the room had been reserved just for us.
We were served a steak-and-salad meal. It was long past lunchtime but not quite dinnertime yet. I had never eaten a meal practically naked before, but I liked it. I felt like I was in a Mafia movie.
Done eating, we pushed our plates aside, and the man said, “We’ll see a movie now.”
He stood up and we followed him to a small viewing room with a heavy door that he opened for us. I could see inside the room to a series of large leather recliners facing a sedan-sized movie screen. The man put his arm around my shoulder as I went in.
“If you have to do anything in there,” he said, “just do it, you know?” I wasn’t sure of what he was talking about, but I figured it out soon enough.
I sat in a recliner and the man sat in a recliner nearby. The door shut behind us and the room went fully dark. After a few awkward moments a porn film started rolling from a projector at the back of the room.
I watched the movie and felt anxious. Two people screwed onscreen, some other people screwed onscreen, and then at some point the movie was over and the lights in the room slowly ascended. We stood up in our towels and exited the makeshift theater.
Naked and soapy in the shared showers while we rinsed off afterward, the man stepped too close to me and rubbed his hands over my back. “Let me get that for you,” he said, pretending that the two feet of spine moving down from my neck was something that needed procedural attention, his ringed, heavy-feeling fingers landing between my shoulder blades before I could turn away.
The first touch, for a predator, must be exhilarating. For me, as his prey, the first touch was paralytic.
I Google the address for the Schvitz, then put it into my GPS and steer through side streets. When I get out of my SUV, I step around a massive pothole full of water and motor oil. There’s no traffic. I stand in the street and recognize nothing, but there’s a small handwritten sign on a stick in the ground that reads schvitz parking and then an arrow pointing around back. Without that handwritten sign I wouldn’t know I was here, and I presume that’s exactly the point.
The houses up the street are partially boarded, most of them written off as abandoned. Squatters have taken over. Adorning the nearby porches are half-fixed children’s bicycles, makeshift laundry lines of electrical wire, and the occasional gas station–issue hibachi. There’s a man sitting on a concrete stoop fifty yards away, staring at me.
When I walk to the back of the building, I think about Timothy King and the route he’d taken in Birmingham to get home. He’d left a pharmacy through the back door at night, crossed a poorly lit parking lot, and never gotten to finish his five-minute walk home. Somebody stuffed him into an automobile, we can presume. The details of the precise moment of abduction are not known to the public or to me. What is known is that things happen to us within eyeshot of the rest of the world and nobody recognizes it as a “happening” until it’s done. Ellie’s ex-boyfriend, for instance, hung himself in a closet with his own belt, by lifting his legs off the ground. I believe his parents found him hanging like that, but in the dead space between the act and the discovery of the act there was no recognition from the world, no gesture of understanding that a man was looping a leather belt around his neck for impractical purposes. Outside my high school once, I saw a kid sitting by himself and thought he was a loser. Two days later there was an announcement over the PA that he’d shot himself. We had a moment of silence. When I was nine, a boy pushed me on the playground and I actively hated him for it. That year his whole family died of carbon monoxide poisoning while they slept.
I want to believe that in the lead-up to death there are signs, but there usually are not.
Here’s the most beautiful feeling I have ever had: It’s probably the same as yours, but I was drunk when it happened. I just want to be better than that now. I want to feel joy but the only way I know how to is to feel the darkness beforehand. I have to fuck myself up in order to call myself a survivor.
In the back of my mind is always the memory of my father punching my brother so hard it left dots on his back from the meshing of his little Detroit Lions jersey—or the memory of weed smoke on my brother’s friends when they were eleven and I was six, and how my brother used to hide his pot in a hollowed-out Foreigner eight-track.
Or the glass bullets of cocaine I’d found in a wicker basket my dad kept, or how my sister used to sit in her bedroom all the time and just cry for what seemed like no reason.
Or the stacks of Hustler magazine in our garage and how I burned down our backyard looking at one of the centerfolds and playing with matches at the same time—how sex and fire mingled.
There was something about my darkness that Ellie completely understood. No matter what I was doing, Ellie had already done worse, lived through worse, felt worse about herself. But our relationship was cosmic, too, if you believe in that shit. I always felt my skin vibrating in her presence, even when she’d done something hurtful.
The best thing about being with Ellie was never having to hide, never needing a bar or a warehouse to conceal my sins. I could hold Ellie and cry to her and know she was there. I could fall to pieces and still get up feeling like a man.
You don’t get that feeling walking out of the Schvitz.
You want to smoke a cigarette, get robbed in the parking lot, stick a knife into somebody. You want to drive your car into the river and drown.
But none of that happens.
You walk out of the Schvitz and you go home, and that’s sometimes worse than anything violent. There’s a huge mega-freeway of ache inside you, and it’s empty, and you’re the only one on it.
And nobody even knows it’s there besides you. And if you tell anybody, your whole life is over in a blink. And so you don’t.
Whoever killed these kids had that feeling inside. I know it. The cops will argue differently, that psychotics don’t feel, but my hunch tells me to follow the loss.
Excerpted from THE KILL JAR by J. Reuben Appelman. Copyright © 2018 by J. Reuben Appelman. Excerpted by permission of Gallery Books. All rights reserved.