Tragedy On The Trail: The Murder of April Millsap

By: Halston Herrera and Dave Bartkowiak Jr.

For nearly two years, April Millsap’s family and the community in the small Village of Armada have waited for an answer to why she was killed. Just as she had done countless times before, the 14-year-old left home to walk her dog.

But on the evening of July 24, 2014, she never returned.

April Millsap

April's partially nude, beaten body was found about a mile from her home by a passerby just feet off the paved Macomb Orchard Trail.

Macomb Orchard Trail

The horrific details of her death, which seeped out slowly, sent a shockwave through the quiet community. People who knew April said she was a typical teenager who was into fashion and spending time with her friends. She loved her dog, Penny. Pink was her favorite color. 

"She was caring, very caring and loving."

-- Jennifer Millsap, April's mother

Prayer services and candlelight vigils were held in her honor, and the community covered a fairground garden with
ribbons -- pink ribbons -- to commemorate her life.

Why was it cut so short?

Text message to boyfriend

A chilling text message

“I think I almost got kidnapped omfg.”

That’s the text message April’s boyfriend, Austin Albertson, received the evening she was killed. In an interview with Local 4, Austin said he believes April herself sent the text message and didn’t know the person who killed her.

"Random, random. Just some sick person out to kill," he told Local 4. "It's like a nightmare. Come on, pinch me, wake me up."

Why would someone want to kill April?

April's dog Penny

Dog leads couple to April's body

Witness Michael Sadaj testified that he and his wife passed the dog a first time without paying much attention to the fact that it was alone. However, when they passed it on the trail a second time, Sadaj said the dog was "whimpering" next to what appeared to be a pile of trash. When Sadaj got closer, he noticed it was a body. The 911 call he made was played in court.

“She’s off the trail, tucked back in the woods. Her clothes are all taken off,” Sadaj told a 911 operator.

Deputy Macomb County Medical Examiner Mary Pietrangelo testified that although April’s clothes had been ripped from her body, she was not sexually assaulted. April suffered trauma to her head, face and neck from being hit with something blunt with a “very large force” behind it. Pietrangelo said the teen had injuries consistent with having pressure being put on her body.

Retracing April Millsap's final steps

Retracing April's final steps

Using data from a fitness tracker app, an FBI investigator was able to re-create the final steps April took.

Agent Matthew Zentz, a digital analysis expert, testified that he extracted information from a Sports Tracker app on the Armada teen's cellphone and combined it with location information on Google Earth to create an animation that shows the path April took while walking her dog.

It also shows the path April’s phone took away from the trail through neighborhoods and into a field, presumably after she was killed. 

Motorcycle helmet in court

Who was the man on a motorcycle?

Police said April had been hit with a motorcycle helmet. Prosecutors said witnesses saw the teen with a man on a motorcycle just before she was killed and gave police a detailed visual description for a sketch.

There also were marks on her body which suggested someone had stomped on her.

Jame VanCallis mug with sketch

James VanCallis named person of interest, eventually charged

During the course of the investigation into April’s death, authorities executed two search warrants at James VanCallis’ Wales Township home, initially arresting him for an illegal marijuana grow operation. 

Police also investigated a specially requested trash pickup from the home that was made just days after April was killed. Investigators spent time at a St. Clair County landfill looking for evidence. The search turned up a pair of shoes that allegedly belonged to VanCallis and had a tread similar to the marks that were found on April’s neck and chest.

Witness Amy Spinell worked with police to help develop a composite sketch of the man she said she saw on the trail the day April was killed. During her testimony, she described the man but said she could not positively identify VanCallis as the same man.

Crystal Stadler

VanCallis' ex-girlfriend, Crystal Stadler, called VanCallis "abusive" and "controlling" as she testified in court. 

She said that on the night April's body was found, VanCallis told her he "messed up" and he needed her to "stay by his side."

VanCallis is charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal sexual assault

James VanCallis in court

Defense says there's no evidence directly linking VanCallis

Defense attorney Azhar Sheikh said there is no DNA evidence directly connecting his client to April’s slaying. He also said that while several people have said they saw VanCallis in the area the day April was killed, no one saw him kill her.

VanCallis has not confessed and there has been no evidence of any type of relationship between him and April, Sheikh said.

Donnie VanCallis, James' brother, testified James arrived at his house the night of the murder with a gag gift for him and with no signs of blood or torn clothing. That was sometime between 7:10 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

Previous testimony showed April likely was killed between 6:33 p.m. and 6:48 p.m. on the Macomb Orchard Trail. 

VanCallis chose not to testify at his trial.

VanCallis during verdict

VanCallis found guilty

After closing arguments were made Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, the jury asked to review some exhibits. 

On the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, the jury returned with guilty verdicts. VanCallis was found guilty on all counts including murder, kidnapping and criminal sexual assault. 

"Count 1, first degree premeditated murder, we find the defendant guilty. Count 2, first degree felony murder, we find the defendant guilty. Count 3, kidnapping, we find the defendant guilty. Count 4, assault with intent to commit sexual penetration, we find the defendant guilty," the jury foreman read.

Watch the courtroom video of the verdict being read:

First there were tears before applause erupted in the courtroom. VanCallis stood quietly without emotion. 

After the trial, jury foreman Doug Scott said there was enough "damning evidence" to convict VanCallis, despite the case being largely circumstantial. Scott was the one who read the verdict in court. He focused on VanCallis as the applause erupted in the courtroom. 

"I wanted to look him right straight in the face, and I wanted to see his reaction, and I wanted him to see my eyes, the eyes (of the man) who was telling him he was guilty of this crime," said Scott.

Life in prison

VanCallis was sentenced March 30, 2016 to mandatory life in prison.

"There is no evidence that shows I have done anything wrong," he told the court. “This is a sad chain of events that I’m somehow wrapped up in.”

Judge Mary Chrzanowski told him he had the right appeal.

April Millsap and pink ribbon