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Did Oakland County Child Killer case focus on wrong car for decades?

Posted: 10:30 PM, May 12, 2017
Updated: 2017-05-12 23:25:30-04

It is one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in the country:  the Oakland County Child Killer case.  It’s also a case that most people associate with a certain car: a blue AMC Gremlin.

Now the 7 Investigators are revealing new information that shows the police and the public may have been focused on the wrong car for 40 years.

“It’s the worst unsolved crime in Michigan,” said Barry King.  His 11-year-old son, Tim, was the fourth and final known victim of the Oakland County Child Killer and he’s been pleading for answers for 40 years. 

Between 1976 and 1977, four children were abducted, held for days, and then murdered.  Despite thousands of tips called in to a massive police Task Force and several promising suspects over the decades – the killer – or killers have never been caught. 

“To have this unsolved crime that long is really heartbreaking for my family, and I think everyone in the community,” Tim King’s brother, Chris, told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Chris King believes the public has been focused on the wrong piece of information ever since his brother was kidnapped in March of 1977.

Two days after Tim’s abduction, police released a suspect sketch.  They said a woman saw a man talking to a boy in the Hunter-Maple drugstore parking lot where Tim was last seen.  She told police the man was standing near a blue AMC Gremlin.  But that information quickly turned into reports that the killer had a Gremlin, or that he was in a Gremlin.

Decades later, reporters and detectives jump into action anytime someone finds a blue Gremlin, even digging up old buried Gremlin car like they did in Grand Blanc Township back in 2013.

“It’s extremely frustrating to me, and it’s always haunted me that they never focused on other cars, because in my heart I always was convinced that Gremlin was not involved in the crime,” said Chris King.

The night of the abduction, 16-year-old Chris went looking for Tim in that parking lot that’s just a few blocks from the King’s home.  He too noticed the blue Gremlin.

“So you saw the Gremlin parked right here [in the parking lot] hours after your brother was abducted,” asked Catallo.

“Yes, that’s correct.  I searched this parking lot after 11:00 at night, and there were 3 or 4 cars parked along this retaining wall, and I walked all along them to see if Tim somehow might be there or be hurt. And one of them was a Gremlin, I specifically remember that,” said Chris.

If the Gremlin was still there – what car did the killer use?

The 7 Investigators have been pouring over police records, and it’s clear that several detectives over the years were very focused on a blue or dark-colored Pontiac LeMans or Pontiac Tempest.

“If we were looking at the wrong car, we may have missed the boat,” said 84-year-old Jack Kalbfleisch, a retired Birmingham Police Detective Lieutenant who worked on the case. 

“There were lots of cars in that parking lot.  To be standing near one or any other didn’t make it real strong.  But it was all we had,” said Kalbfleisch about the Gremlin.  “It sounded good, give it a shot.  But I felt that when additional information comes in… you don’t hold onto it.”

And there was a lot of additional information.

Kalbfleisch says a witness reported seeing a mid-size General Motors car in the Southfield (10 Mile & Greenfield) parking lot where the first victim, Mark Stebbins, was found.

The retired Det. Lt. and other detectives tell the 7 Investigators that an eyewitness saw a blue Pontiac LeMans parked along I-75 in Troy a few hours before Jill Robinson’s body was discovered just north of the 16 Mile Rd./Big Beaver exit.

“He said the vehicle had damage to the left rear, around the tail light,” said Kalbfleisch.  The witness told police at the time that he was confident about the model of the car because he once owned a LeMans.

Bumper marks left in a snow bank on Bruce Lane in the Village of Franklin, where Kristine Mihelich’s body was found, also indicate a 1971 or ’72 Pontiac with a trailer hitch that was bent to the left.

“I took those measurements to all car manufacturers in the area, and General Motors identified it as a Pontiac LeMans,” said Kalbfleisch.

Kalbfleisch has been writing letters to various police chiefs and the FBI since the late 1990’s, begging them to release the information about the Pontiac in the hope of generating new leads.

“We were shaking down everybody that drove a Gremlin, but nobody was looking at a LeMans.  And I heard detectives who were checking out suspects say, ‘it couldn’t be him because he doesn’t have access to a Gremlin,’” said Kalbfleisch.  “I just don’t see the reason for closing your mind for one aspect over another.”

Kalbfleisch also interviewed another witness – a man who later came forward to the King family.  Doug Wilson worked in the automotive industry, so he paid attention to vehicles.  Wilson says he, too, was in the drugstore parking lot at Maple and Woodward on March 16, 1977 -- the night Tim King was abducted. Wilson told the 7 Investigators that he “noticed a man, probably in his late 20’s, talking to what I found out later was Timmy King.” 

Wilson said he also saw an older man, around 55-65 years old, with grey hair.  He said the man looked to be 20-30 pounds overweight.  At one point Wilson wondered if the older man had been the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, but that theory has been ruled out.

In order to get an accurate vehicle description, Kalbfleisch and an FBI agent working the case put Wilson under hypnosis.  He recalled that the car was 1973 Pontiac LeMans 2-door coupe that was either blue or green.  Wilson also remembered a partial license plate of 222.

Witness statement by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd

“He’s a far more credible witness, he’s a car designer, he gives a make and a model of the car that was in the lot that night,” said Chris King.  “So it’s hard to figure why the Gremlin got so much attention.”

“When they found that other automobiles were involved, there appeared to be no follow up or publicity on it.  And that aggravated me more than almost anything else in the file,” said Barry King.

Now the King family wants everyone to erase the blue Gremlin from memory – and to try to think of a possible suspect who might have owned a Pontiac.

“I think it’s worthwhile to come forward again and bring it up again because the police told me they’re re-examining every part of this case,” said Chris King.

If you have any information about the Oakland County Child Killer case, please contact the Task Force at 1-855-MICH-TIP.

If you have a tip for Heather, email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.