Michigan man granted new trial after docs reveal serial killer was always suspect in 1990 slayings

Jeff Titus served nearly 21 years of a life sentence

FILE -- Gavel. A man who served nearly 21 years of a life sentence for murder was freed from a Michigan prison last week after state authorities acknowledged that an Ohio serial killer was also a suspect in the case. (Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA)

KALAMAZOO COUNTY, Mich. – A man who served nearly 21 years of a life sentence for murder was freed from a Michigan prison last week after state authorities acknowledged that an Ohio serial killer was also a suspect in the case.

“A state of shock,” Jeff Titus, 71, told The Associated Press moments after walking out of a prison in Coldwater. “Not having handcuffs on or prison blues. I can’t wait to get out and walk in the woods.”

Titus was convicted in 2002 for the murders of two Kalamazoo County hunters in 1990. The murders were similar to those of convicted serial killer Thomas Dillon.

Titus was granted a new trial after Michigan’s Conviction Integrity Unit discovered evidence that pointed to Dillon as the suspect. That evidence wasn’t disclosed to the defense in Titus’ previous trial.

“There is new evidence which undermines the integrity of the original conviction, and justice requires that Mr. Titus be granted a new trial,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said. “I commend Assistant Attorney General John Pallas as well as the members of the Conviction Integrity Unit for their hard work in a multi-state, multi-victim investigation which involved the meticulous review of decades of documents.”

Titus could still face a second trial, but David Moran of the Innocence Clinic told The Associated Press that was very unlikely.

2 hunters killed in 1990

Two deer hunters were found dead in the Fulton State Game Area in Kalamazoo County on Nov. 17, 1990.

Doug Estes and Jim Bennett were fatally shot near Titus’ property. Investigators said there were no witnesses and no physical evidence at the crime scene. Titus was initially ruled out as a suspect because he had been hunting deer 27 miles away. The investigation went cold.

More than a decade later the case was looked at by the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office Cold-Case Unit, which led to charges against Titus.

There was still no physical evidence against Titus. Prosecutors portrayed him as a “hothead who didn’t like trespassers,” according to The Associated Press.

In 2002, Titus was convicted on two counts of first-degree premeditated murder and two counts of felony firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Ohio serial killer Thomas Dillon was a suspect

The Innocence Clinic went to federal court in 2018, arguing that Titus’ constitutional rights were violated because his trial lawyer was not told about the other theory pointing to another suspect.

Michigan’s Conviction Integrity Unit discovered a 30-page undisclosed file in the original Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office homicide materials that indicated serial killer Thomas Dillon was a suspect.

Dillon was a serial killer who was convicted of killing multiple hunters and outdoorsmen in Ohio. He was arrested in 1993 and pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder to avoid the death penalty.

He killed at least five people in Ohio who had been hunting, fishing or jogging, from 1989 to 1992. Dillon died in prison in 2011.

The Conviction Integrity Unit confirmed Dillon was a suspect in the Kalamazoo County case. Police reports noted that two witnesses had gone to Ohio and identified Dillon as having been near the Kalamazoo County crime scene on the day of the murders.

A witness even identified the car they believed Dillon was driving and it was the same model owned by Dillon’s wife. Two co-workers said Dillon had borrowed a gun from each of them to use while hunting on Nov. 17, 1990. The victims in the Kalamazoo County case were killed with two different types of ammunition.

Law enforcement also documented occasions in which Dillon would drive hundreds of miles to kill. Dillon would pick up his shell casings after every murder and he never left any evidence behind.

Dillon confessed to killing two hunters close together. He also confessed to murders that happened a week before the Kalamazoo County murders and confessed to murders that happened a week after the Kalamazoo County murders.

Conviction Integrity Unit

This is the Conviction Integrity Unit’s first case in which the discovery of new evidence has led to a new trial.

Four previous cases of wrongful conviction have been overturned through the Conviction Integrity Unit: Gilbert Poole, Jr., Corey McCall, George DeJesus, and Melvin DeJesus.

The Conviction Integrity Unit has received more than 1,800 requests for assistance.

Do you have a case for the Conviction Integrity Unit? Click here to learn more.

About the Author:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.