My Story

Police Reporting

Dead Woman In The Snow

By James Donahue

Among the more memorable police stories I covered as a crime reporter was a case that began with the gruesome discovery of the almost nude and frozen body of a young woman in a snowbank. It was exposed when struck by a snowplow on a graveled side-road in Sanilac County’s Worth Township, just north of Port Huron, Michigan.

Sanilac County detectives treated the body as a murder victim almost from the start. The woman was wearing only a leather coat and boots, but no other clothing. Some kind of thin wire was still wrapped around one of her wrists and from the marks on her wrists and ankles, it was obvious that she had been bound. We assumed she had somehow broken free and was attempting to walk for help when she collapsed along the road and froze to death.

While the drifting snow on a cold Michigan winter wastes no time in covering tracks, it did not take detectives long to piece together a partial picture of what had happened to this woman. There was a vacant and dilapidated little shack about a half mile away where they found evidence that was where events leading to the woman’s death began.

Wiring still found around an old chair and other items found in the building told the grim story. She had apparently been brought there, stripped of her clothing and tied to that chair, then left to die in the cold. But she had struggled, broken loose, and protected by what few clothes available to her, was making a run for help. She was probably within a half mile of safety when the exposure to the elements killed her.

The police had a picture of what appeared to have happened. But what they did not have was the identity of the dead woman, who brought her to the shack in that desolate area, or the reason she was left in that state to die.

This was a mystery that haunted the detectives and me for months. I got involved because I was covering police news in Sanilac County. The deputies began their quest to identify the woman by publishing a composite drawing of her face in our newspaper, the Detroit newspapers and the area television stations.

A few days after the picture was released, the Sheriff’s Department received a call from a woman in a Detroit suburb who said she feared that the body might be her daughter. She said she noticed a resemblance, and had been calling her daughter’s Detroit apartment but receiving no answer.

At about that time the woman’s car was found abandoned near Roseville. In the front seat was a partly consumed box of fast food purchased in Roseville on the night she died. All of this led to a positive identification of the victim.

We will not identify the victim in this story for two reasons. One will become obvious as the story progresses. The second reason is that we have totally forgotten her name and have no way of recovering this information without traveling back to Port Huron and spending hours digging through the newspaper’s morgue files.

Within the first week we had more of a picture of what happened. Someone had made contact with the victim either at the restaurant where she purchased the meal, or shortly afterward. She either parked her car and voluntarily got in a vehicle with someone else, or was abducted there.

Sometime during the course of the evening she was driven to the Worth Township location where she was stripped of her clothes, tied to the chair and left in that frozen shack to perish. But who did such a terrible thing and why? This was the question we could not answer.

It remained such a sensational news story that my editor wanted fresh information daily. But once the girl was identified and her car found, there was little more to be had. Out of desperation, I suppose, I was sent on a mission to Detroit to conduct an interview with the victim’s family and learn all I could about her.

It turned out to be an interesting interview. The mother was a robust, all-American and atypical middle-class woman who took great pride in the fact that she was a member of the local fire department. That was a profession few women were involved in at the time, and may still be a rarity. She also was certified as an emergency medical technician and worked on the local ambulance service.

She spoke highly of her dead daughter, boasted that the girl had attended college and had a good job in some office in Detroit. She indicated that she had no idea who would have murdered her daughter.

The case came to such a dead end that Sanilac detectives decided to call on a prominent Detroit area psychic in a last-ditch effort to solve it. I was not allowed to accompany the psychic during her visit to the murder scene, but later the detectives let me accompany them to the psychic’s home in Detroit for a final report as to what she perceived.

That was one of the first contacts I ever had with a working professional person who claimed psychic abilities. It was a strange afternoon spent with her.

When we arrived and were seated in the room where the interview was to be conducted, a chicken feather suddenly appeared on the floor. The woman told us it was a sign from her Indian guide that he was present in the room with us.

She then proceeded to tell us the story we already knew from our own deductions . . . the woman had been abducted by at least two men, driven to the shanty, tied to the chair and left there to freeze to death. She had struggled to break free and was attempting to reach the light of a distant house as she walked down that snowy road in the night, but never made it.

 So much for psychic assistance. She was unable to explain why the woman was murdered, or who did it. And, of course, these were the questions the police hired the psychic to attempt to answer.

In the end, the deteictives told me they learned that the dead victim had a dark secret life that obviously led to her murder. She had been operating on the side as a Detroit prostitute.

The police, working closely with Detroit area investigators, also came to the conclusion that the victim also may have been involved in some kind of narcotics operation.

They concluded that she was murdered because she had crossed the line and was targeted by the Detroit crime syndicate. That was as close as we ever came to solving that murder case.

I have always suspected that the deputies eventually knew the identity of the killers, but because of the political and collective power of the syndicate, chose to do nothing about it.