And Still Counting

Date Published 12.18.07
Some extraordinary crime stories occurred in 2007. Sad sack pizza maker Michael Devlin was arrested in Missouri for the kidnapping of 13-year-old Ben Ownby. The pale, dark-haired boy who opened Devlin’s apartment door for police? Shawn Hornbeck, a boy who had been riding his bike on a brisk fall day five years before when he disappeared. Shawn was now 16, and after years of abuse by his captor, free.

Shawn Hornbeck reunited with his Mom

2007 also saw the capture of Bruce Mendenhall, 56, a truck driver who is suspected in as many as seven murders of women across the country.

A loudmouth who once ran for mayor of Albion, Illinois, the tiny farm town where he lived with his family, Mendenhall initially spilled forth to astonished police, implicating himself and giving matter-of-fact statements of guilt. Since then he's become more reticent, but the items found in his truck --- bloody clothing, rifle, knives, latex gloves, and black tape, to name a few --- should do the talking in his case.

Less publicized but no less remarkable was a possible breakthrough in the Oakland County Child Killer case. During a 13-month period between 1976-1977, four children were abducted and murdered in Oakland County, Michigan. The victims included boys and girls, and most had been walking in safe neighborhoods during the day when they were abducted.

A disturbing detail in an already horrifying case was that the children had all been held and kept alive for four to 19 days before being killed. The killer bathed them, fed them, and neatly pressed their clothes. For this the press dubbed him "The Babysitter Killer."

But that nickname, however twisted, connotes nurturing; the Oakland County Child Killer is a preferable name --- cold, unembellished, and ugly, like the killings themselves.

The killer appeared to stop abruptly after the murder of Timothy King in March of 1977. Oakland County had been under siege by hysteria, and after a while a sense of normalcy resumed, but things would never be the same.

The Oakland County Child Killer investigation was the largest in U.S. history at the time. A task force was convened. Investigators ran down over 18,000 tips. They even exhumed a possible suspect’s body; it wasn’t him.

The truth is authorities never really caught a good break. Twenty years turned into thirty, and the case languished in the cold case files. That's why it was shocking to come across a recent headline announcing that the family of one of the victims was filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a 65-year-old Ohio man, claiming that he was “more likely than not” the Oakland County Child Killer.

The man’s name is Ted Lamborgine. In 2005 a tip from a prisoner led investigators to question Lamborgine about a child porn ring that operated in Detroit in the 1970s. Lamborgine copped to being a pedophile but remained silent on the Oakland County murders.

Ted Lamborgine

The similarities are damning. Lamborgine and a pack of sick buddies preyed on poor kids from the Cass Corridor, a particularly run-down section of the city, but Lamborgine liked to cross 8 Mile Road into the tonier areas to troll for kids and mix with suburban pedophiles. One of his victims described being held captive, assaulted, and then fed. Lamborgine packed up and moved to Ohio right around the time the murders stopped.

But the strongest and most damning piece of evidence against Lamborgine is what he won’ t say. He pleaded guilty to 15 sex-related charges involving young boys rather than accept a plea bargain that required him to take a polygraph about the Oakland County killings. He also rejected an offer of a reduced sentence in exchange for a polygraph on the case. It's hard to imagine an innocent man making such a decision.

The Devlin, Mendenhall, and Oakland County Child Killer stories all received varying degrees of publicity this year; they certainly can’ t be categorized as neglected or snubbed by the media. But one aspect of the stories has been mostly missed in the coverage --- the possibility of other victims.

A recent study concluded that serial killers might be responsible for up to 10 times more deaths than previously estimated because investigators overlook and undercount marginalized victims like prostitutes and transients. The study underscores an important point about serial killers: murder is their sole and driving ambition, and they don’t stop unless they’re caught.

For instance, Mendenhall, 56, has been crisscrossing the country in his truck for years. He’s currently implicated in the deaths of seven women, but for someone like him the number seven means nothing --- it might as well be twenty-two, or forty-eight. Preying on vulnerable women was what fueled him; seven is probably a quarter of his total victims.

I’ve looked into the backgrounds of each of the three men. I’ve reviewed timelines and familiarized myself with their victim type. I’ve read up on their criminal behavior. With that in mind, I researched unsolved cases with an eye for possible connections.

I’m not at all certain Devlin, Mendenhall and Lamborgine are responsible for the cases I’ve laid out below. I’m only certain that they’re responsible for more than we know.

Scott Kleeschulte

It was June 8, 1988, the last day of school for Scott Kleeschulte. The nine-year-old took the bus home and then went out to play. A severe thunderstorm was brewing in the skies above St. Charles, Missouri. Scott’s sister saw him walking in the neighborhood before the storm. After the storm, around 4:30 p.m., a neighbor spotted Scott kicking up water. He was never seen again.

Michael Devlin was 23 in 1988. He lived about twenty miles away in Webster Groves. Experts say most serial offenders begin to act on their fantasies in their mid-twenties. In 2002 and 2007 Devlin drove an hour or so outside St. Louis to abduct young boys. It would make sense that in 1988 he might not have traveled as far; he was still fine-tuning his routine.

Devlin abducted both Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby from wooded, rural areas. St. Charles at that time was a similar sort of place. Scott disappeared at almost exactly the same time of day as the other two boys --- late afternoon.

Compare a picture of Scott:

with one of Ben Ownby:

Tammy Zywicki

Tammy Zywicki was about to begin her senior year of college at Grinnell University in Iowa. It was August 23, 1992, and like thousands of other college students Tammy participated in the ritual of driving her late-model car, packed with her stuff, back to school.

But sometime that afternoon Tammy’s 1985 Pontiac T1000 broke down. She’d first had trouble with it back in New Jersey, her home state and where she began the trip, but she thought the car was fixed. Now she was on Interstate 80 in central Illinois, only about two hundred miles from Grinnell, and the car was giving her trouble again.

Witnesses placed Tammy and her disabled car near mile marker 83 on Interstate 80 between 3:10 p.m. and 4 p.m. A semi-truck was seen parked on the shoulder of the road behind her car. A man was looking under the hood of Tammy’s Pontiac as she stood by.

Later that day, Tammy’s car was ticketed as abandoned. Illinois State Police towed the car the next day. A week later Tammy’s body, duct-taped inside a red blanket, was found off a freeway near Springfield, Missouri. She’d been sexually assaulted and stabbed eight times.

Tammy Zywicki

Bruce Mendenhall, now suspected in the deaths of at least seven women in several states, was driving a semi-truck at the time of Tammy’s murder. He lived in Albion, Illinois, which is southeast of where Tammy’s car broke down; Albion forms a kind of triangle with Springfield, where Tammy’s body was found, to the west and the spot of her abduction to the north.

Witnesses described the man seen with Tammy that day as tall, brown-haired, and between 35 to 40 years old. Mendenhall fits that description, and he would have been 41 at the time.

Investigators released a sketch of the vehicle witnesses saw parked behind Tammy’s car. It was a white truck with brown and yellow stripes on the cab and trailer.

Mendenhall’s cab is yellow, and his trailer is white with brown stripes along the side.

The FBI is putting together a timeline of Mendenhall’s truck routes and travels. They're looking at him for several unsolved murders, including Tammy Zywicki's.

Tiffany Papesh

A man sits in jail in Ohio for the abduction and murder of Tiffany Papesh, but hardly anyone --- not Tiffany’s family, nor local authorities --- seems to think he did it.

It was June 13, 1980 when Tiffany, a dimpled-faced eight-year-old, was sent from her home in Maple Heights, Ohio to a convenience store only a half a block away for hamburger buns. Somewhere in that short distance she disappeared and was never seen again.

In 1983, a convicted child molester named Hbrandon Lee Flagner confessed to abducting and killing Tiffany. Flagner was convicted mostly on the basis of his confession, despite contradictory statements, a mechanically stamped time card from work that put him more than an hour away when Tiffany vanished, and the fact that her body was never found.

Flagner now denies killing Tiffany and says his confession was false; he says at the time he wanted to stay in prison to get into a treatment program for child molesters, and thought the confession would keep him there.

Police and Tiffany's family allegedly believe Flagner's innocent, and that the real killer remains free. The consensus is that after hearing about Flagner's history as a child molester the jury just wanted to put him away.

If Flagner didn't abduct and kill Tiffany Papesh, then who did? Ted Lamborgine, now the top suspect in the Oakland County Child killings, moved to Ohio right around the time Tiffany vanished. He settled in Parma Heights, only twelve minutes away from the spot where she was taken. The details of Tiffany's abduction --- during the day, while on an errand to the store just a short distance away --- eerily parallel the last known moments of two of the Oakland victims. Oakland County victim Kristine Mihelich, 10, was last seen at a 7-Eleven store, buying a magazine. Timothy King, 11, was seen leaving a drugstore after purchasing some candy.

Tiffany strongly resembles the female victims in Oakland County.

Tiffany Papesh

Oakland County child victims

Serial offenders operate in secret, emboldened by their ability to keep committing crimes no one can solve. Eventually they trip up, or someone gets a conscience and calls in a tip. Until then, their secret, violent life accelerates unabated, like any addiction. Michael Devlin, Bruce Mendenhall, and Ted Lamborgine were, for the most part, caught red-handed in the crimes that made them infamous. It’s the crimes that haven’ t been connected to them yet --- the victims they continue to keep secret --- that are calling out to be solved.

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.