Secrets and Lies

Date Published 06.14.11
Were it to happen today, the Oakland County Child Killings would be a leading, Nancy Grace-obsessed news story.  We'd know the victims' names, how many cents the boy had in his pocket when he went to the drugstore for candy and disappeared.

The details are ready-made for a media culture ravenous for high drama --- over a 13-month period, four white, middle class kids, two boys and two girls, were abducted, kept alive for several days, and murdered.

The killer was dubbed "The Babysitter," because the children showed evidence of having been cleaned and fed their favorite foods.  A catchy nickname, but inappropriate, in my opinion.  I prefer The Murderer.

The truth is the case registers very little with the general public.  It's only when I encounter people from Detroit of a certain age --- especially those who, like the victims, were 10 or 11 years old in 1976-1977 --- that there's a look of pained recognition, a somber pall at the memory of a boogeyman come to life.

"That did happen, right?"  a man who grew up in suburban Detroit said to me once.  "Why do I feel like I might have imagined it?"

"Probably because it's never talked about," I said.

Not only did it happen, but the most recent developments in the long-unsolved case are so sensational, so like the broad twists in an amateur paperback mystery, that were I to watch the plot unfold in a thriller on cable I'd snort and say, yeah right.


The Oakland County Child Killings may have remained a vague, bad memory but for a chance conversation between two men in Las Vegas in July 2006.

Patrick Coffey, a polygraph examiner from California, was giving a speech at a polygraph conference.  After his presentation he began talking with Lawrence Wasser, a forensic polygraph examiner from Michigan.  Coffey mentioned that he'd grown up in Birmingham, Michigan, and that part of the reason he'd gotten into polygraph examination was because his neighbor and friend, Tim King, had been murdered by the Oakland County Child Killer.

What happened next is in dispute, but Coffey maintains that Wasser confided something extraordinary: 30 years ago he'd conducted an attorney-client privileged polygraph on the killer, who had confessed.  Wasser said the suspect and attorney, neither of whom he identified by name, were now dead.

Coffey was stunned.  The case had languished in a black hole for years.  After nearly three decades the victims' families had little hope it would ever be solved.  But Wasser, apparently regretting his spontaneous outburst and possibly concerned about the attorney-client privilege issue, ignored Coffey's further entreaties on the subject.

Nevertheless, Coffey got in touch with members of the King family, who reached out to investigators they trusted.  The family eventually got a phone call; with it came, at long last, the polygraphed suspect's name.

That chance encounter between two polygraph examiners would have a reverberating effect on the case.  The result was a renewed interest in three long-ago events, seemingly unrelated at the time.

Some of these pieces were never thought to be part of the puzzle, but when arrayed in sequence the parts fit and, in a complex and vexing case, began to make sense.

North Fox Island

If I've learned anything from researching and writing about crime, it's that a lot of bad things happened in the '70s.  That's one of the only reasons I can think for why this wasn't a bigger story at the time.

The Fox Islands are two small, uninhabited islands off the coast of northern Michigan, about 20 miles west of Charlevoix.  North Fox is the smaller island, a desolate 800 acres of woods bisected by a prominent airstrip.

North Fox Island

Francis D. Shelden must have found the airstrip convenient.  In 1976, he owned North Fox Island, and liked to fly his private plane there --- with a group of unsuspecting young boys as his passengers.  But I'll get to that.

Shelden was in his late 40s then, Yale educated, an entrepreneur and heir to a family fortune whose home base was in Ann Arbor.  He fancied himself something of a philanthropist.  He was also sexually interested in prepubescent boys.

Shelden, with the help of several like-minded associates, decided to combine his interests and started Brother Paul's Children's Mission, a "nature camp" for boys aged 7 to 16, located on his tiny, isolated and uninhabited island.

The organization even obtained tax-exempt status as a charity from the Internal Revenue Service.

The problem was, Brother Paul's was actually a front for an underground child pornography network.  Boys were coerced into sexual acts and then photographed for use in porn magazines.  Pictures that later turned up in such magazines were determined to have been taken on North Fox Island.

Authorities caught on by the summer of '76, and Brother Paul's chief organizer, Gerald Richards, was arrested on charges of criminal sexual conduct with a minor.  Shortly thereafter Shelden was charged, but by then he'd cleaned out his Ann Arbor and island residences and fled in his private plane.  The twin-engine plane was later discovered in Arizona.

His father said he believed his son was out of the country.  Shelden died in 1996, having been charged but never extradited.

The story's details are almost too sensationalist to believe --- the millionaire pedophile, the scary island, the escape in a private plane.

In retrospect, it may have been that larger-than-life quality that muddied the waters; when the villains are so flamboyant, it's easy to miss the lesser bit players in the story.

Nothing appeared to link the North Fox Island porn ring with the child murders that were occurring around the same time in the southern part of the state.

A throwaway line in the Traverse Record-Eagle about one of the men involved in the porn ring could easily be overlooked:

"Police confiscated eight rolls of film from Christopher Busch, 25, of Birmingham."

Four Murders

Mark Stebbins, 12, was the first to disappear.  He left the American Legion Hall in Ferndale after telling his mother he was going home to watch television.  It was Feb. 15, a Sunday afternoon.  Four days later his body was found on a snowbank in the parking lot of an office building on Ten Mile Road. He'd been strangled and sexually assaulted.  His wrists showed evidence of rope marks.

On Dec. 26, 1976 the body of Jill Robinson, 12, was found alongside Interstate 75 in Troy.  She was killed by a shotgun blast to the face.  Jill had disappeared four days earlier after arguing with her mother.

Kristine Mihelich, 10, was last seen on Sunday, Jan. 2, 1977 around 3:00 p.m., buying a magazine at a 7-Eleven in Berkley.  Her body was found 19 days later in Franklin Village.  Her arms were folded across her chest.  She'd been smothered. 

Timothy King, 11, was a straight-A sixth grader from Birmingham.  On Wednesday, March 16, he borrowed 30 cents from his sister to buy candy at the Hunter-Maple Pharmacy in a shopping center near his house.  It was around 8:30 p.m. when he left the store through the rear entrance, which opened to a parking lot, and disappeared.

On March 22, Tim's body was found in a ditch in Livonia.  He'd been suffocated and sexually abused.  Marks on his wrists and ankles suggested he'd been bound.  Like the other children he showed evidence of having been cleaned; even his clothes had been washed and pressed.

Clockwise, from top left:  Mark Stebbins, Jill Robinson,
Kristine Mihelich, Timothy King

It was now apparent Oakland County had a serial killer on its hands, and a particularly twisted one at that. While Tim was missing Marion King, his mother, had written a letter to the Detroit News saying that she wanted him home so she could serve him his favorite meal, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Tim's autopsy report revealed he'd eaten fried chicken before he was killed.

This time it appeared a witness had glimpsed the killer.  A woman came forward to say she'd seen Tim in the parking lot talking with a white male, 25 to 35 years old, 5 '9 and husky, with brown hair and mutton chops.  A composite sketch was released.  The man was reportedly driving a blue AMC gremlin with a white stripe on the side.

People who grew up in Detroit around this time vividly recall the panic that ensued.  A major task force was assembled.  Thousands of leads were pursued.  But like most high-profile cases, momentum slowly dissipated over time, especially when it appeared there were no more victims; by December of '78, the task force had disbanded.

The Suicide

A life of privilege wasn't enough protection in the end.

Boarding school in Switzerland, multiple homes --- they mean nothing when you're sick inside and can't, or won't, stop yourself.

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, 1978, when police were called to investigate a suicide in one of metropolitan Detroit's wealthiest neighborhoods.

The 27-year-old man lying in bed with a bullet between his eyes had led a troubled life for a long time.

He'd been repeatedly arrested for criminal sexual conduct with minors.  His obsession was boys, many, many boys, coerced, bribed, and forced.

Neighbors would recall a parade of young boys traipsing through the house.  When things got bad, the man's wealthy parents would appear with a quiet request and a wad of cash.

Now he was dead, a 22-caliber rifle by his side.

The man's name was Christopher Busch.  Sound familiar?  You might recall the blurb about the North Fox Island child pornography ring:  "Police confiscated eight rolls of film from Christopher Busch, 25, of Birmingham."

Christopher Busch.  He was also the Oakland County Child Killing suspect who had implicated himself in the case during a polygraph with Larry Wasser, though the victims' families, and the public, wouldn't learn his name until that fateful conversation at a Las Vegas convention nearly 30 years after his death.

Part 2 coming soon...

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.