Cold Case Michigan: An interview with author Tobin T. Buhk
Blanketed by forests, dotted by lakes, crisscrossed by rivers and surrounded by Great Lakes, Michigan is a good place to hide secrets, bury bodies and stash evidence. Dig deep enough, and you will unearth something sinister. Is the suicide note of a prominent Detroit physician also a confession to murder? Were inmates unlawfully released from Jackson State Penitentiary to carry out a contract killing on a politician before he could turn State's evidence? Who silenced a fiery radio personality known as "the voice of the people'?? Did a notorious serial killer stalk women in Lansing during the 1970s?
Join true crime author Tobin T. Buhk as he excavates some of the most vexing unsolved crimes in Michigan history.
Buy the book HERE
Swell AI Transcript: CC_Tobin
Tobin, welcome to Crime Capsule. We are so glad to have you. Thank you for having me today. It is our pleasure. So Tobin, I have to say, you are helping us round out at the very end of our series on cold cases for the cold winter months, a long sort of deep dive into these unsolved and mysterious enigmatic cases that have plagued investigators and tantalized researchers and amused amateur sleuths for years and years. And I have to say just right up front, as I was reading your book, Cold Case Michigan, I was struck by the fact that many of your cases are not just cold, they are on ice. I mean, there are so many where there are just no leads whatsoever. What's your take on that? Just right off the bat.
Well, my take on it right off the bat is that I think that people function on the mistaken assumption that cases aren't just always going to be solved, but that they're solved easily. And I think that in some instances, either because of environmental situations, environmental factors, or simply because they're crafty killers, there just aren't that many clues to find. And so that, you know, if you have a killer, for example, I once wrote about a serial killer here in Michigan who was, his crimes were not sexually motivated. And so there was nothing left as physical evidence. You know, he killed with an edge weapon. One instance, he walked up, stabbed a woman in the chest on Halloween and walked away. She was dead before she hit the ground. No fibers, no hairs, no blood, no body fluids, virtually nothing. And sometimes that happens.
You know, I choose the phrase on ice deliberately because our listeners may not be aware, but today is one of the worst days of this winter snowstorm that has got you, I believe the term is shellacked up there with snow, up by Lake Michigan. Shellacked would be it.
Yeah, we were hit hard. We had about two feet of snow over the last three, four days. So it's one of those kind of storms that just happened from time to time. And yeah, you know, we love it, but we hate it at the same time. It's kind of a love-hate relationship we have with Mother Nature here in West Michigan. A lot of snow, lake effect snow.
Well, not to be flipped, but it does make one wonder how many bodies are currently being covered in those two to three feet right now that future investigators are going to have to unearth. So I'm glad that you have begun to dig out a little bit. Tell us a little bit just about you and your background, Tobin. How did you come to doing this work?
So I began my interest in true crime writing a number of years ago. When I was very interested in forensic science, I was in love with the show Law and Order Special Victims Unit. And those shows always have a really amazing M.E. and they can do things that like they're blood spatter experts. And their ballistics experts and they can get East River water analyzed and they can get DNA results. And you know, they can solve these crimes in 60 minutes, right? Or, you know, less than that when you consider the commercials and the reality isn't that.
That's televised reality. Now, I happen to be a very good friend of the local medical examiner and he was very concerned at the time about something called the CSI effect. And basically, juries get programmed to expect certain things from evidence because of shows like CSI and its various offshoots. And they can sort of expect before they're going to put somebody in prison for life, for example, they might want to see a DNA match. And that's not just always possible.
It's not the reality. And so we decided to So, I got my gloves bloody and helped out with autopsies and got to see some things and hear some things that I kind of wish I had unseen and unheard, to be honest with you. I mean, to walk in that world is to walk on the, on the edge of a cliff. And so, you know, it's, it's real dark side of humanity. But the works, I wrote two books as a result of that experience. And they were my first two on forensic science.
Now, I've always loved history. And so, my interest in forensics and my love of puzzles and my fascination with history came colliding together. And I have been writing about historic true crime ever since. And you had mentioned that some of the cases in this book are old. They go a way back. And sometimes people ask me, when I speak about this topic publicly, where's the relevance of all this? And I would offer to them the idea that Crime runs in cycles, and we see history repeating itself in some very real ways and some very interesting, eerily similar ways.
And I find that cases from the past can be very, very instructive about cases from the present and maybe even offer preventative tips for cases in the future. So a lot of times I write about cases from yesteryear, but they're very much cautionary tales from our our world. And what's interesting too, is you think about like the FBI and profilers, you know, that's what they do.
They take old cases and they try to weave together profiles and that's how they track down criminals. So I think, I hate to say it this way, but in something old, there's also something new.
Always. And, you know, sometimes we've had this conversation many times on this show, you know, sometimes you have to have the passage of time take place before, you know, those voices can speak or before those clues can reveal themselves. It's not upfront, you know, sometimes things have to kind of be in motion in different ways before you actually get a glimpse of what you're, what you're talking about there is to see the new and the old. Now, this is your, as I understand it, your 11th book. And if I'm mistaken on that point, it's because after 10, Tobin, I stopped counting. Tell me, how did this one in particular, Cold Case Michigan, come to be?
I have always been very fascinated with cold cases. And I think that when I speak about this publicly, and I do quite a bit of public speaking, I find that when I start talking about a cold case, people's ears kind of perk up. They're very fascinated. And I think part of that might be the fact that people love puzzles. I think mystery is still the most popular genre of fiction.
And I think there's also a sense that people want justice and they want to feel like they live in a society where the law enforcement can give them that justice. And when there isn't an answer for it, it's almost like a, it's like a type of a gapers block. You know, people want to sort of stop and pause and look at the ugliness of a case unsolved and hopefully solve it so that there can be justice, that there can be closure for that. my own personal interest in cold cases goes all the way back to 1888.
And no, I'm not that old. Although sometimes I look like I wasn't gonna ask. So I was a teenager, I graduated from high school, my older brother, graduated with a PhD in psychology. We're very close. And we went backpacking across Europe, which is quite an interesting experience. Now in the 80s, when you flew transatlantic flights, it isn't like it is today.
Today, you go on a transatlantic flight and you have basically have a media center in the back of your seat. You know, you can dial up whatever movie you want. Now, in the 80s, you were at the mercy of what they decided to show in the cabin and you know, you were happy to get it. Well, we flew British Airways and what we were served was five hours of cricket highlights.
Now, yeah, I don't understand cricket and no disrespect to the cricketers of the world. I grew up on baseball and honestly, I don't understand cricket. And even after watching five hours of highlights, I still don't get it. Just the concept of sticky wickets and you know, it's just foreign to me, right?
So on our last night, we were in London. And we did a little bit of a pub crawl, and we wound up next to this brightest, whitest church you can ever imagine. It's one o'clock in the morning, and this thing's just bathed in spotlights, right?
Well, it turns out that that's the White Chapel, right, where White Chapel gets its name from. And we wound up at the Ten Bells, which is a pub right by the White Chapel where the Jack the Ripper supposedly met. some of his victims. And walking around in London, even today, it's like taking a step back in times. Red Brick and, you know, Misty. It's what you would imagine it to be.
Now, the next day, we were flying back to the States. And I faced what I remember being a really, really difficult decision for a teenager. I could either watch five more hours of cricket highlights, or I could read a book. So I wandered into the little bookstore.
I mean, here I am. I love to read and I love to write, but you know, as a teenage writer, you know, didn't like those things so much. And so I wandered into the, into the little bookstore at the terminal there at Heathrow. And there it was, like a bright light went off. You know, it was love at first fright. It was Donald Rumbelow's complete Jack the Ripper, which in my humble opinion is the book on Jack the Ripper. Donald Rumbelow was a former detective with Scotland Yard.
And, you know, the Jack the Ripper case is an unsolved case, cold case. One could say the most infamous cold case ever. There's more books written about Jack the Ripper than anybody else. And we don't even know who the guy is, which gives you a pretty good indication of the fascination with cold cases, why I was hooked. So it was only a matter of time before I was going to write about Cold cases in my home state here, Michigan. So I went looking. I went looking for Jack the Ripper. I didn't find him in Michigan to be honest with you, but I found some very Ripper-esque style crimes that took place here.
Well, we're going to come to those in just a moment, but I will say is one small point of consolation if it helps. I lived in the United Kingdom for a good number of years, almost a decade, and tried as I might, I still after 10 years could not understand cricket, either. And you know, like my English friends would just stand there shaking their heads at this idiot American who could not seem to remember the approximately 37 ways that a bowler and a batsman, you know, could legally interact over the pitch. And so it's not just me. It's, oh man, I tried. And I was, I really gave it like a sincere effort. All I remember now is leg over wicket, leg over wicket. That's bad. That's a bad thing. Okay. That's, and then there are other things that happen too, but just leg over wicket is bad.
I'm having flashbacks here, man.
You know, and maybe it was because I grew up on baseball, too, and it's just like I couldn't unlearn the one to learn the other. But, you know, I just yeah, it was it was it was a triumphal embarrassment on part on on on part of the, you know, the the upstart Americans who, you know, are quite used to to. being right about things and or winning wars. You know, the Brits were gleeful at my incompetence on this front. And I'm just, I'm so sorry, I've let us all down. So let's talk about Meine Decker. Moving swiftly on.
Meine Decker is a real enigma. Yeah, yeah. If I had to describe the case in a word, it would be an enigma. And mystery lovers, you know, I think it's kind of a closed room mystery in a lot of ways. and as to how the perpetrator got in and out and where the evidence went to.
Yeah. It's interesting, because we'll take one half step back before coming to this case directly. I do want to ask you about the, you know, when you take the bird's eye view of Cold Case Michigan, your book has about a dozen or so cases, and they span really the last century of criminal activity and unsolved cases in the area. And, you know, what struck me, just one thing that struck me, and I want to just kind of get this out there and ask you, Tobin, because it is, fascinating. It's not like these cases are just kind of cut and dried.
Somebody shoots somebody else with a .38 snub-nosed revolver, you know, and walks away and kind of we just don't know who done it, but that's about it. Many of the cases in your book, and I mean many of them, they are grisly, they are macabre, they are violent, and it's the kind of violence that in many cases you write, seems to have been personal, okay? You know, which there's always that kind of instance of like, when there's overkill, was there a vendetta? Was there, was there revenge going on? And that leads to the investigation in a different direction and so forth. This is a long question, but I just want to ask you, you know, what was it like for you as a researcher and then writing these up, dealing with that level of really ghastly violence in a lot of these particular stories?
Well, it isn't just disturbing at the risk of sounding like a real creeper here. It wasn't as disturbing as you might think because of my background in forensic science. So let me let me tell you that you can. really get used to some things. And I found that when I watched the first, helped out with the first autopsy, watched the first autopsy, I was very much like a deer in headlights, you know, just kind of stunned into like, like awe and shock. And I think I was numb from that for a while. Then you get to the 15th, the 20th autopsy now, and all of a sudden, it's amazing what you can get used to. And I think that I was no longer bothered by some things. And that fact bothered me, right? So I know that it's kind of a hard thing to get your mind around. But it isn't that I like violence in any way, shape, or form.
But I've grown accustomed to reading about it, I think, in a way that it doesn't keep me up at night so much. And that, I think, has a lot to do with where I've been. But I will say this. I don't glorify it. So it's not put into the books to be gratuitous. But I think it's very, very important to look at it. And the reason for that is I think there are clues to possible perpetrators when you look at actually how the crime was committed. So you look at Dr. Loomis, for example. and whose wife was, he found, bludgeoned to death with a two-by-four on the floor of their front parlor.
Well, she was hit so many times so hard from such an angle that if you really look at the violence itself, you can conclude that it was probably a male. It was probably somebody taller than her. because it was a downward angle on the thing. And even beyond that, you got to understand a little bit, and I think the readers need to understand that a head injury like that is going to cause a cast off stains.
There's going to be blood everywhere. And that's really important because not just to this case, but to the Mina Decker case, the blood is very, very important. A perpetrator couldn't have done what these perpetrators did without being covered in the stuff. So, if you take a look at the grisly part of it, You can get some clues, you can deduce some clues from, and again, one of the things that I took from the brutality of that Loomis crime was the fact that any one of those blows would have probably killed her. Why hit her so many times?
And I think that it's reasonable, you look at other crimes that have been solved that have that level of brutality to it. And one could reasonably conclude that it becomes more than just a random act of violence. This is more than a thief who happened to just sneak in. This is, there's some real passion behind this. He didn't want to just kill her. He wanted to destroy her. And that gives us a very good indication of who we might want to look for.
And that case is in your book. And that is one that listeners can absolutely learn more about for themselves. I was also thinking of the case regarding the headhunters, those sort of shrunken heads that were found in this sort of box underneath floorboards and very, very unusual. And we'll leave that one again for our listeners to discover. They're perplexing in some ways.
Every one of them, every one of them is a puzzle. But the Loomis case is very, very important, I think, for the Mina-Decker case. And it's also a really good example of what I mean when I say that sometimes older cases can be instructive of, can help us solve newer cases. Because I think if, they're parallel in a lot of ways. Not only are we talking about blunt force trauma. But the type of head wounds and how they were inflicted, if you follow the standard line of thinking about who did it in the Dr. Luman's case, I think that gives you a really good indication of who you should look for in the Mina Decker case. So they're not the same perpetrator. I don't mean to indicate that, you know, somebody didn't get from Detroit in 1927 up to Grand Rapids, you know, in 1938 to do another crime. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is one case I think is very, very suggestive about this other case. And that's because we can look at patterns.
Well, let's let's shift gears and let's take a look at Mina. And we are now in Grand Rapids in March of 1938. And, you know, it's funny, as I was reading about her, you know, this particular case did not start with conflict or tension or pre-existing drama in the same way that many of the others did. I mean, you had The most amount of drama that you had as you're introducing the personages, you know, the figures in this case, is that young Myna Decker, you know, 19 years old, a stenographer at a local company. had had a breakup with a boyfriend. And, and even then it wasn't quite clear whether it was a total breakup or whether it was just sort of a passing, you know, phase or something like that. But we're not talking about vengeful ex-husbands. You know, we're not talking about, you know, stalkers right off the bat. We're not talking about land deals gone wrong and there's somebody out, you know, looking to settle a score here. This, if this were a cinema, You know, sort of opening, it would almost be like Robert Altman's The Player, where you just have people at work, just people at work, you know, like a normal day, in a normal American city, in a normal afternoon, you know, and they're about to take a normal lunch break, and the whole thing is so normal. That it's almost a little eerie, Toby.
That is what makes it eerie. Because you and me and all of our listeners, they're out there living those normal lives too. And they're going to do their normal day to day business. And so that's when I mentioned earlier why I think people might be so fascinated with cold cases is because this is like a nightmare for people, you know, to go about your daily business and become a victim of a violent crime. So maybe there's something you can do about that. But the system can give you justice, right? And I think maybe people demand that to a certain degree. Tell us about Mina. Mina was well-liked by all accounts. She grew up in a very, very conservative family. They were religious. The dad worked for a local Christian reformed church, I believe. And she was a choir girl. And this was a type of family, I think, where the devil's triad was alcohol, smoking, premarital sex and and you might throw in there a gambling right away, too. Yeah, so I think that She was very much and that may be part of the problem is that Mina Decker might have been subject of a post-mortem whitewashing Because I think the community very much looked at her wanted to see her as a one-woman kind of guy a kind of guy a one-woman kind of gal and And I think that maybe that isn't in the strictest sense true. But she had a boyfriend and you're right. It was unclear, I think, whether it was a full on break. He was apparently very, very fond of her and was pretty taken aback by the breakup. I think it came to a misunderstanding. She must have seen him with another woman, perhaps having lunch. and jumped to some conclusions. They broke up. So, yeah, I mean, she was, she had a sister and, you know, by all accounts, a very beloved person.
Yeah. Yeah. And she was, you know, yeah, just the beginning of her career and yeah, all that stuff.
Yeah. So she was the only employee really of a father-son owned firm. And, She got that job right after high school, I believe. And she worked in the office primarily. Now, the firm made abrasives, so sandpapers and things for industrial uses. A lot of cobblers and shoemakers use these things to repair shoes, fix shoes.
And the company was in the second story of, I'm sorry, third story of a four-story building. She would have worked in the office, which would have been adjacent to the warehouse where they kept their stores. The building is in a busy part of Grand Rapids. It was across from a train station at the time. And the second and fourth floor were vacant. The first floor was occupied by a different firm. And there was one public staircase leading up into the Bear Manning office where Mina worked. And that staircase went right past the lunchroom for the guys who worked at the first floor firm. So, they could see who was coming and going. Very visible, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I'm trying to sort of get a sense of just what the beginning of that day looked like because, you know, by the lunch hour, I mean, everything had changed and yet there was no indication early on that anything was about to change.
No, I think that that There were some things that came up later on that indicated there was trouble brewing for Meidecker. But at this point in time, it was business as usual. So I think that there may have been people who had come in and out of the warehouse to buy abrasives that morning. It might have been a slow day. I don't think anybody really paid much attention to the comings and goings prior to the noon hour because nothing had really happened at that point in time.
Now, as the story goes, father and son go to lunch and they leave Mina alone there by herself in the office. And a few minutes later, a delivery boy, a telegram delivery boy comes by and his name is Banning. And he's only there for a few minutes on business. 17 year old kid. He later told the police that when he was with Mina, she heard a sound in the warehouse and she sort of jerked her head to the side. She appeared afraid, although he didn't think really much of it at the time. And they keep the union telegram boys on a real tight schedule.
So he was only there for a few minutes and then he left. Minutes later, and I'd have to go back and look at the text, but maybe it's like 22 minutes later. A shoe salesman by the name of Peters goes up to the to the Bear Manning to buy some sandpaper. And when he gets into the office, he sees that there's nobody there. The lights are on, but nobody's home, right? Which he thought was odd.
See, he went into the warehouse to see if he could find anybody. And that's where he stumbled across Mina Decker, who's laying in a pool, a widening pool of blood between stacks of, you know, crates of material, wallpaper, not wallpaper, sandpaper and abrasives and things, bleeding profusely from a head wound. So Peters races down to the first floor and gathers a few of the first floor workers and they come up. And one of them calls the police, one of them calls an ambulance. And those folks are on the scene within minutes, and she's taken to a local hospital.
Blunt head trauma, like she sustained, sometimes kill a person on the spot, sometimes not. And there's a really interesting physical dynamic about it. I won't go into the detail here, but basically what happens is Physicians have what are called the golden hour to vacate pressure around, around, you know, bleeding and intracranial bleeding or it's lights out.
So they went, she never regained consciousness because she sustained such a massive head wound. that it didn't matter what they did, she was going to die. But at the very first, at the very beginning, they looked at it as a possible accident that somehow she had fallen and hit her head. And to me, that's one of the kind of a mystifying thing because that kind of a level head wound, you would not get just falling off a ladder. She was hit six times over the head with a ball-peen hammer, and she was bludgeoned with such force that it ejected a piece of skull across the floor.
So looking at that, you know, there'd be a lot of bludge, hair, that might have obscured a lot of the wound itself, but you would think that A massive injury like that wouldn't necessarily lead to anybody thinking it was an accident, but that's how they played it at first. The doctor took a look at her head and came back and said, yeah, she'd been hit six times with a wall peen hammer. This is no accident unless she hit herself six times in the head herself and it's impossible. So, they went back and they started to look at it as a crime scene.
You know, it's remarkable to think that even in the first instance with that kind of assault, you know, I mean, and we'll get into the investigation more next week, but just the thought that, you know, a box of sandpaper could fall off a shelf and hit her in the head and do that, or even a shelf could, tip over somehow I mean kind of randomly or she might have stumbled and I mean it just it's completely beyond the pale of explanation Yeah, it just it's not I'm sorry. I'm just so sorry. You don't get to play that
Well, no. And if she had an uncontrolled fall from a ladder, say three feet, you know, it wouldn't take much to break a neck or to have a have a closed head injury that might not even even damage the scalp. I mean, unless she's hit with something sharp, there wouldn't be those kind of angular wounds. Right. So to me, the forensics of it just doesn't fit an accident. But, you know, that's how they that's how they looked at it at the very earliest stage of the investigation.
But that, you know, was quickly dispelled by the physician. He said, no, no, no, this is a hammer you got to be looking for. So I was going to say that, you know, I think hours passed. I mean, not a long, long time, but that might've been a very, very crucial period of time because if the perpetrator had still been in that building, then maybe the evidence would have been discarded in that period of time.
and we will go in search of that perpetrator and that hammer next week as we dive into the investigation itself. For now, thank you so much for joining us and for introducing us to this particular case. We'll see you back shortly. Sounds great. Thank you for having me.