May 2011 report: New person identified in Oakland County Child Killer case

  • This report is from May 19, 2011

DETROIT – With the help of DNA technology, there has been a physical match in the Oakland County Child Killer case, providing a new suspect never before named.

From February 1976 to March 1977, a serial killer was abducting and holding four young children against their will for several days before killing them, then cleaning their bodies and clothes and placing them on display throughout Metro Detroit.

For 35 years it has been an unsolved mystery with a lot of speculation, but no physical evidence.

There is new hope for solving the murders of Mark Stebbins, Kristin Mihelich, Jill Robinson and Timothy King.

There are four blockbuster new pieces of evidence:

  • White animal hair connects all four cases.
  • A DNA match from new hairs discovered on one of the victims leads to this new suspect.
  • Police find a startling drawing at a suspect's home.
  • A police report surfaces from the 1970s that sent investigators looking around a northern Michigan cottage Tuesday afternoon.
  • The white animal hair believed to be from a dog is found on all four victims. It tells investigators that the murders are definitely connected.

    One hair was found on the body of 11-year-old King. However, it never has been revealed before that three additional hairs were found on Mihelich, including two on her blouse.

    The 10-year-old girl was taken from the streets in Berkley Jan. 2 1977. Her dead body was found 19 days later, still wearing the same clothes she disappeared in. Investigators believe the hair fragments may belong to the person who dumped her body.

    "Never, we never knew it," said Mihelich's sister, Erica Ascroft-McAvoy, when asked if her family ever knew there was hair found on her body.

    Ascroft-McAvoy was shocked to find out about the hairs. She then was floored to find out that according to police files obtained for the first time, police have been able to make a DNA match in the Oakland County Child Killer case.

    The hair found on Mihelich's blouse is a mitochondrial DNA match with a man living in Kalamazoo. But because of the quality of the hair, a perfect DNA match is impossible. A mitochondrial match narrows the hair to 1 percent of the Caucasian population. Police reports say this is "the first physical evidence match in the Oakland County Child Killer case's history."

    "I think there is a mountain of evidence that in fact they will never divulge to us, even as family," said Ascroft-McAvoy.

    According to police reports obtained by the Defenders, police think the hair belongs to 49-year-old James Vincent Gunnels. Gunnels was in police custody until just one month ago, living in a halfway house in Kalamazoo. He has a long history of property crimes, but never has been charged in any criminal sexual case. The victims' families were recently told Gunnels would stay in prison for decades unless he cooperated in the Oakland County Child Killer case. But tonight Gunnels is a free man -- police saying they do not have enough evidence to hold him or charge him.

    "Law enforcement needs to make a deal with him, extend that olive branch, and get him into a witness program, or put him some place, but they have to put the pressure on him to make him talk. He knows more," said Ascroft-McAvoy.

    Police took a DNA swab of Gunnels and gave him a lie detector test while he was still in prison. Police say he intentionally held his breath to try and cause the lie detector test to be inconclusive.

    While talking to his sister from prison on a recorded phone line about the Oakland County Child Killer case, Gunnels' sister said "They have your DNA on one of the victims." Gunnels' response: "I wasn't there when it happened."

    "They are going on the theory that he may have possibly been the one that disposed of her body. And that if he were to pick her up and if she were to be slumped over his shoulder, they are thinking maybe that is how that hair got into, what would be the abdomen region on the blouse," said Ascroft-McAvoy.

    According to hundreds of police documents scrutinized by the Defenders, investigators believe Gunnels may have been part of a group involved in the child killings or a lure to draw the kids closer to the killer. Gunnels was only 16-years-old at the time. Police investigating Gunnels have learned he was molested by a key suspect in the Oakland County Child Killer case -- a man named Christopher Busch. Busch was convicted of sexually assaulting Gunnels. Gunnels told police Busch molested him at the Busch family cottage on Ess Lake in northern Michigan.

    "He said he has been up north with Busch, and took a couple of trips with him. He's been in his car hundreds of times," said Chris King, brother of Timothy King.

    Investigators are looking into the possibility that Tim King was taken to that same cottage on Ess Lake. The 11-year-old disappeared from Birmingham on March 16, 1977. According to this police report obtained by the Defenders, three days later on March 19, police in Montmorency County got a call that Christopher Busch, a known pedophile, was at Ess Lake with three young boys ages 13, 14, and 15. Three days after the tip call to police, Timothy King's dead body is dumped in Livonia in the same clothes he was abducted in. The families want to know if Gunnels lured King and other kids into Busch's car and took them to the cottage.

    "It would be heartbreaking to think that Tim could be in that cottage, and someone called the PD because they knew he shouldn't be around minors," said Chris King.

    "They have examined people about having been used as a "lure" and how they got kids in the car," said Barry King, Tim's father.

    Chris and his father Barry say James Vincent Gunnels needs to be pressured to talk.

    "He also states that if his hair was on the victim it was because he was in Busch's car hundreds of times, which seems to put Christine Mihelich in Chris Busch's car," Chris King said.

    As for Chris Busch, he cannot be prosecuted or questioned because he is dead. His body was found with a bullet between the eyes in a Bloomfield Hills home in November 1978. It was ruled a suicide. The victims families' aren't convinced. They were never told about Busch as a suspect when he was found dead. Never told that police found these blood-stained ropes in his house -- the ropes were kept in an evidence locker for years, but now have gone missing. Also, in Christopher Busch's bedroom, this frightening drawing of a young boy being tortured. It has never been seen by the public before now. Police immediately recognizing the similarities to 11-year-old victim Mark Stebbins -- abducted in Ferndale on Feb. 15, 1976. His dead body found four days later.

    Remember Busch died in 1978, but police never told the families about this drawing

    "I don't really want to tell you what I'm thinking about that picture," said Mike Stebbins, Mark Stebbins' brother.

    Police never even told Mike Stebbins there was a drawing. He asked Local 4 to provide him with a copy saying he wants to see it. He wants the public to see it, so that someone will take action. He says you can tell by the hair, the coat, the face, that the drawing is of his brother.

    "And that hurts me so freaking bad," Stebbins said.

    Jill Robinson is the only one of the four victims not smothered to death. She was abducted Dec. 22, 1976. Her body was found four days later. She was shot with a 12-gauge shotgun. James Gunnels, the man whose hair was found on victim Kristin Mihelich's blouse, told police that when he was with Chris Busch at the Ess Lake cottage, Busch taught him how to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun.

    The families want Busch's cottage and all other known Busch properties searched.

    "I've been tearing myself up for 35 years -- because there is not a day that goes by that I don't think about this," Ascroft-McAvoy said.

    On Tuesday, the Defenders were at the Ess Lake cottage up north. And so was a Wayne County prosecutor and an investigator. Wayne County is involved because Tim King's body was found in Livonia. To date, no search warrants have been executed at the home. Police did search Busch's home in Bloomfield Hills. They did not get a positive DNA match. The families were told it's too expensive to search other properties.

    But the King family is offering to pay the bill. Police and prosecutors have discussed taking this evidence to a grand jury, but the plan has not moved beyond the discussion stage.

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