My Story

Oh The Horror!

Ghastly Police Stories I Remember

By James Donahue

Police and court reporting brings news reporters into close contact with the darker side of a world that most people never see. Over the years I covered some extreme traffic accidents, train wrecks, structure fires, murders, bank robberies and so many other events that it would be difficult to remember them all. But a few have remained fixed in my memory simply because of their gruesome morbidity.

I must warn you at this point. Read on at your own risk.

I remember a murder case in Bangor, Michigan, that involved a jealous husband who blew away his unfaithful wife and her lover with a double barrel 12-gauge shotgun in the yard of their home.

It seemed that the woman worked nights at a local plant and had been having an affair with one of the co-workers at the plant. The husband found out about it. One night when the husband was not supposed to be home, the woman’s lover drove her home from work. As they pulled in the driveway they found the husband waiting for them with the loaded shotgun in his hands.

He ordered them both out of the car, then immediately shot and killed the lover. As the police told the story, he then turned the shotgun on his wife as she pleaded with him. He said he had to do it and pulled the trigger, killing her instantly. He was using double-ought buckshot, favored by deer hunters. It was a very messy crime scene.

On another occasion, while working in the Benton Harbor office of the old News Palladium, I was renting a cottage on Paw Paw Lake at Coloma, Michigan. When I was getting ready to go home that evening, my editor asked me to take a camera and stop at an address along the way to take some pictures of a crime scene as a courtesy to the police.

I grabbed one of the big four-by-five inch speed graphic press cameras, a handful of film holders and flash bulbs, and drove to the scene. It turned out to be a suicide. Some guy had turned a 12-gauge shotgun on himself, shooting himself in the mouth by using his big toe to manipulate the trigger.

The blast tore open the back of his skull, spreading his brains all over the room. It was the most gory scene I have ever seen either before or since. There was a smell of death in that room that I can still remember. I shot the pictures the police wanted then got out of there. When I got home my wife had a nice supper prepared, but I had no appetite.

Another reporter friend was riding with the Berrien County police one night when they were called to a bad tanker truck accident on I-94 near the Van Buren County Line where I worked. Fortunately I was not called to that scene. That reporter was haunted for the rest of his life by what he witnessed there.

He said the truck was a large one, laden with gasoline. The cab was crushed and the driver was trapped inside. As police waited for an ambulance crew to arrive with the Jaws of Life tools to cut him free, flames broke out around the engine.

As the fire gained, the driver knew he was going to burn. He pleaded with the police to shoot him so he did not have to suffer the agony of what he knew was about to happen. The police couldn’t do it. That reporter said he watched the man burn alive and listened to his screams as the truck went up in flames.

While working on the South Haven bureau, I also was a member of the city’s volunteer fire department. One night we were called to a house fire that had a good start before we arrived.

Fire was coming out of some of the windows as we were rolling out the hoses. A woman in her night clothes was in the yard screaming that her husband was still inside. The crew captain, Charles Tourtelotte, grabbed an oxygen tank and mask and entered the burning house through a window while we turned a hose of water on him.

There were an anxious few moments before he appeared at the window and lifted the body of a man to the window. Other fire fighters helped hoist the man out and to the ground. Chuck said he found the man lying face up on the living room floor, his eyes open, and fire burning everything around him.

The man wasn’t breathing and we thought he was probably dead. Chuck ripped off his mask then bent over the man and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while waiting for the fire department’s special ambulance and rescue truck to arrive. The man’s face and lips were so badly burned that the skin peeled off on Chuck’s face.

Miraculously the victim started to breath. They put him in the rescue truck, put an oxygen mask on him, but then found that his heart was stopped. They managed to get his heart beating again as the vehicle raced to the hospital.

A month or two later, while the full-time fire department people were sitting on chairs before the open doors at the fire hall, the man walked up and thanked them for saving his life. That was one of the good stories.

We went to another house fire at Snover, just to the east of South Haven, where the blaze had such a head-start we could not save the building. All we could do was keep the fire from spreading to a second house standing a few feet away.

Snover was then, and may still be an all-black community. After we got the fire out we found the remains of a still in the ruins. Next to the still were the charred remains of a man. We questioned the family living in the house we saved, located on the same property, and they refused to tell us anything.

I felt sadness for those people because they had just lost a father, husband or family member in that fire and were afraid to mourn because they were afraid of us. Even though we were fire fighters, we represented authority. It appears that they were cooking moonshine in the still and it exploded. It was a tragic and gruesome death for that man.

Somewhere around the South Haven area I covered another tragedy involving some young boys who dug holes in the damp sandy soil that prevails along the Lake Michigan shoreline. When their holes got deep enough, they got the bright idea of digging tunnels so they could crawl from one of the pits to the other. While digging their tunnels, the sand collapsed on top of them and there they suffocated to death.

In later years as a reporter working in Sanilac County I covered a case where a woman in Worth Township, located north of Port Huron, got quite drunk and then wandered out of the house in the night. She apparently was walking along the side of US-25, a relatively busy highway between Port Huron and Lexington.

Police thought she may have passed out in her drunken state. Whatever the reason, she was lying on the road when a car ran over her head. Police said it was squashed like a pumpkin all over the road. They couldn’t stop talking about it.

Lastly I will include the story of two very foolish teenage boys at Port Sanilac who found some old sticks of dynamite in a box in a shed. Old dynamite gets extremely unstable because the contents start breaking down.

These kids were daring one another to light the sticks then put the lighted sticks in their mouths as if smoking cigars. I don’t have to tell you what happened except to say that when the bodies were found the boy’s heads were blown clean off.