Serial Rapist Strikes Ann Arbor
While Ann Arbor has seen many incidents of serial types of crime, the serial rapist that struck the city in 1992 left a fear and bitterness that still exists. Fear struck the women of Ann Arbor and bitterness struck the black community, many of whom felt they were unjustly targeted as suspects. This case also was the first to use DNA testing on such a large scale in the City of Ann Arbor and this would lead to accusations that the department unfairly targeted black males in order to obtain blood samples.
This case was unusual in that the detectives had a very limited suspect description to work with. The suspect later arrested and convicted, Ervin Mitchell, snuck up on his victims and beat them severely. These women were unable to obtain any detailed description other than the suspect was a black male, approximately 5'7” tall with a muscular build. Needless to say there were many black males in the city who fit this general description.
The first rape occurred during the morning of September 28, 1992. The victim was walking in Eberwhite Woods, which is a heavily secluded wooded park on the cities westside. The victim was often a visitor of the park as she lived a short distance away.
When she did not return from her morning walk, her family became concerned and a search was eventually undertaken. The victim was found a short time later, unconscious, partially clothed and severely beaten. She had lost a large amount of blood and was close to death.
Detectives were immediately called into the area to search for evidence and interview possible witnesses. What they found was virtually no physical evidence other than a sample of semen from the suspect. The semen recovered from the scenes of the rapes and the murder of a later victim was, in reality, the only evidence recovered from the crimes.
In this first rape, no witnesses were found and the victim, who eventually recovered from the attack, could provide no description other than a very general one.
While this rape was particularly brutal and received extensive press coverage, it eventually faded from public memory. No other rapes occurred in the city that fit this incident and it initially appeared that this was an isolated incident and the suspect was possibly a drifter who had left town.
The second rape occurred on October 1, 1993, and initially received little press coverage. In this incident the victim was walking alone in a wooded area off of Longshore drive. The victim was attacked and beaten from behind, never observing her attacker. During the assault she was beaten into unconsciousness.
While this attack seemed similar to the first, over a year had passed between the two. While stranger rape is uncommon in Ann Arbor, it occurs at a frequency which would not necessarily lead the detectives to believe the two were related. Even if they were, there was little they had to work with until DNA tests confirmed that the suspect was the same.
The next rape occurred on November 2, 1993, and this was different from the first two. In this case the victim was entering her residence in the 800 block of Miller when the suspect walked in behind her, took hold of her head, smashing it into the wall. The victim was raped and the suspect escaped with no witnesses and little in the way of a description.
The most brutal and shocking incident occurred on May 7, 1994, when Christine Gailbreath was raped and murdered as she walked back to her apartment from a local drugstore. Gailbreath lived on Pauline, a short distance from the drugstore and often walked there to shop. Gailbreath had left food cooking on the stove and went to return pop cans at the store. She had left her home at 1:00 p.m. and when she did not return by 3:30 p.m., her husband phoned the police to report her missing.
When the officers arrived they searched the area and store for Gailbreath, but could not locate her. Later that night, Officer Mike Anderson went to Gailbreath's residence and asked her husband what route she may have taken to the store. They decided to search an area that Gailbreath may have used as a short cut, which was a wooded path that she usually did not take. It was later believed that she had taken this shortcut as it was raining out.
As they were halfway into their search, they observed Gailbreath's backpack and open umbrella. Gailbreath's husband was sent back to the patrol vehicle as officers continued the search. A short distance away, Gailbreath's body was found in the field behind the Post Office on W. Stadium. Gailbreath had been raped and strangled to death.
Up to this point little information was released to the public that the rapes were related. One of the investigator's, Sgt. Tom Caldwell stated, “We knew we were dealing with a serial rapist. Now, we're strongly investigating the possibility that this homicide is connected to those rapes.”
The result of the department pronouncing that the previous three rapes were committed by the same suspect was fast and furious. The department was severely criticized for not releasing this information to the community as many felt that women could have taken precautions, if they had known a serial rapist was in their community.
Sgt. Caldwell stated one of the reasons no information was released was because the investigators thought the rapist had left town. Over six months had gone between the murder of Gailbreath and the last rape (November 2, 1993).
Captain Richard Degrand stated, “That was an administrative decision (not to release the information). We were waiting for lab results. We were going to release the information either when we got those results or another incident occurred.”
On May 11, 1994, the police department held a community meeting to discuss the cases and in the hope that possible witnesses would step forward. Chief Douglas Smith addressed the crowd which packed the Dicken School auditorium and informed them that the department had evidence which linked one man to the three prior rapes and believed him to be the suspect in the murder of Christine Gailbreath. In nearly all the cases the suspect delivered a blow to the back of the victim's head, incapacitating them.
Chief Smith stated, “We're concerned this individual is still in town. We're more concerned about catching him. We're sending a message to women to be careful. We have an ongoing problem and we need their help to solve it.”
Many in the crowd felt strongly that the police department mishandled the situation by not releasing a statement to the public initially, indicating that a serial rapist was in the city. Chief Smith told the crowd that detectives had two suspects and did not want to release the information, fearing the suspects would flee the area. He also believed releasing the information to the public would not have saved Gailbreath's life, as the suspect attacked her in broad daylight, in an open field. He added, “Hindsight is always 20-20. But we can't accept responsibility for the homicide.”
While the investigators had few clues to work with, they eventually began receiving tips from the public. The tips began pouring in after the murder of Christine Gailbreath and every available detective was used to investigate them. It was at this point that the investigators would make another decision that would lead to severe criticism of the department and charges of racism.
The investigators had little information about the suspect. Literally all that was known about the suspect was the fact he was a black male, 5'7” and he had a muscular build. Obviously there were many men in Ann Arbor that fit this very general description. After the murder of Christine Gailbreath, investigators received hundreds of tips from ex-wives and girlfriends describing their former husbands and boyfriends that fit this description and they felt could be a suspect in the crimes.
There was tremendous pressure to solve the crime before another female was victimized. As the investigators had many suspects to eliminate, a decision was made to ask for each suspect to submit a blood sample, so it could be matched against the suspect's DNA, which had been collected from the rapes. This was done voluntarily and was done so each potential suspect could be eliminated from suspicion and done so extremely quickly. Initially there was no outcry as the investigators had numerous potential suspects submit to blood withdrawals so their DNA could be tested against the suspects. Three months after the murder of Gailbreath, investigators cleared 130 men, 54 of which submitted to blood withdrawals.
As the investigation continued, women's groups continued to criticize the police department for not releasing the fact that a serial rapist had been stalking women in the city. Black males began protesting that they felt the police department was trying to intimidate them by forcing them to submit to the blood tests and “randomly” stopping them on the street, forcing them to submit to the blood withdrawal (a charge which was utterly false). Captain Richard Degrand stated of the suspects, “If they can't be cleared through an alibi, they are offered a consent form and asked to give a blood sample. I have not heard of any complaints from people who have consented to give blood. We have only gotten search warrants in three or four cases.”
Mayor Ingrid Sheldon summed it up stating, “The police are damned if they do and damned if they don't. We all have some responsibility to recognize the pressure the police, as well as the black males of the community are under.”
While the suspect was extremely elusive, he was nearly captured eight months before the murder of Christine Gailbreath. During the early morning hours of September 2, 1993, a female was attacked as she walked along Liberty Street. She was able to fight off her attacker, who ran from the scene.
Officers arrived within minutes and a track was started using the department's tracking dog, Homer. Homer picked up the suspect's scent and followed it to a home on Charlton. The officers made contact with Ervin Mitchell, who was staying with a female at the residence. She was interviewed by the officers and gave Mitchell the alibi that he needed. Mitchell would later be arrested and convicted for the murder of Christine Gailbreath.
Despite the citywide warnings about the serial rapist and a multi-jurisdictional task force investigating the crimes, he would strike again on October 17, 1994, just after 9:00p.m. A lone female was walking along a narrow path which passes along Community High School and was brutally struck in the head. She had just picked up a carry-out order from a restaurant and was walking back to her apartment. Once knocked unconscious, the suspect still continued to beat the victim in the face. The suspect then raped the victim, with no witnesses hearing or seeing anything.
Again investigators were left with nearly no evidence to work with as the victim was unconscious after the blow to her head. The same, all too familiar description was supplied to the investigators, who relayed this information to a very frustrated public. There was little doubt the same suspect was involved in this latest attack. “We strongly suspect it's the same suspect due to the nature of the assault,” stated Lt. John Atkinson. “He hit her over the head with his fist and he hit her more than once. She was badly beaten.” Tips continued to pour in and many more men submitted to blood testing to eliminate them as potential suspects.
The break in the case would finally come from a very observant taxi cab driver. A female had fought off an attack and described the suspect's gloves to the officer. The driver read a newspaper account of the incident and observed Mitchell walking down the street the next day, wearing gloves that matched the description. He followed Mitchell while his dispatcher called the department. Responding officers arrested Mitchell, who was eventually found to be the rapist.
Mitchell's trial concluded in June of 1995 and he was convicted by a jury for the rape and murder of Christine Gailbreath and the rapes of three other women. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison for the attacks. He eventually appealed his case, based in part on the length of the sentences for the crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and from 50 to 75 years in prison for the rape convictions. The Court of Appeals found that the sentences were not extreme and agreed with the sentencing court that the “brutality and the viciousness and terrors associated with these cases are beyond any contemplated by the guidelines. The defendant terrorized an entire community for more than two years. His rape victim may never fully recover from these appalling crimes. The defendant's inhumane conduct clearly mandates severe punishment.”