Monday, April 02, 2007

Blue Gremlin

When I was in little boy growing up in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, Michigan, there was a serial child killer on the loose. Known as the Oakland County Child Killer (and sometimes Oakland County Child Molester), all of Hiller Elementary lived in absolute terror for years as this lunatic managed to lure kids into his grip, seemingly in broad daylight in crowded areas. Was he a clergyman? A police officer? Everyone wondered how he could abduct so many children without anyone noticing. Each week we'd have a new DON'T GO WITH STRANGERS seminar, with filmstrips and corresponding badges and handouts. While most of the kids trembled at the mere mention of the subject, I found myself completely intrigued, often engaging my teachers in lengthy discussions about the case. Not a lot happened in my neck of the woods, so a real-life serial killer felt more like watching a scary movie than something to be really afraid of.

It didn't help calm my imagination much that the killer reportedly drove a blue AMC Gremlin with a white racing stripe -- exactly like my former second-grade teacher's car. Miss Blackburn was kind of a man -- what else might she be hiding? I can still remember cutting out all of the articles from the Oakland Tribune and the Detroit Free Press, and studying the profiles of the killer's numerous victims, kids whose lives appeared to be just like mine. Even while relaying this story to my co-worker, I could still readily recall some 30 years later several of the children's names -- like Timothy King, Kristine Mihelich, Jill Robinson and Mark Stebbins -- who seemed like they could have been my friends.

The Oakland County Child Killer was known for meticulously "caring" for his victims, whom the police believe were alive with their abductor for a few days before the end. When Timothy King's mom went on television and mentioned that she looked forward to his safe return so she could get him his favorite dinner, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the medical examiner later determined that Timmy had chicken in his stomach at the time of his death. His victims were always bathed and dressed, with manicured fingernails. For this reason he was sometimes called The Babysitter, although having cared for children in my early teens this name seemed rather odd as I doubt killing the children – although frequently tempting given how bratty most of my “clients” were -- would have been acceptable to anyone.

So while all the normal kids were busy being afraid of the killer, with the mere sight of a blue Gremlin driving past the playground sending children running and screaming in a panic, I spent a huge part of my time fantasizing that he would abduct me. Having seen Linda Blair's tour de force performance in the classic made-for-television movie "Sweet Hostage" a couple years earlier, I knew that the best way to deal with a deranged kidnapper was to befriend him. (Admittedly she f**ked her way into the good graces of her abductor, played by a young Martin Sheen, but you get the idea.) And then once I had the Oakland County Child Killer’s trust, I would be shrewd and clever enough to escape and then quickly race to the authorities to get him arrested, putting an end to this monster's reign of terror. Talk about glamorous! I couldn't wait to be on the news -- or maybe even "Good Morning America" with Nancy Dussault and David Hartman -- and be lauded as a hero. I used to practice what I'd say talking into my mom's Goody hair brush, always giving answers that made me seem brave but never cocky about my actions. (Why did you do it, Kenny? "It was just something I felt I had to do." Were you scared at all, Kenny? I was only scared that this monster would remain free to harm other children.")

Despite my hours of planning, though, there was still one thing standing in the way of me and my heroic effort. Although the killer was definitely in the area, he never bothered to venture into Madison Heights to find his victims. All of that changed one night in early 1977 when my mom and stepdad happened to ask me if I wanted to go to the movies with them. At first when they said they were headed to see the remake of "King Kong" I wasn't very excited, until they mentioned that they were seeing it at the Berkley Theatre. In an instant a plan was hatched in my mind: The Berkley was on 12 Mile and Robina -- just a few blocks from the 7-11 on 12 Mile and Oakshire where Kristine Mihelich had been abducted earlier that month. If the killer wouldn't come to me, I thought, I'll go to him. My stomach was filled with butterflies as we drove to the theater in my stepdad's black Malibu Classic, my anticipation nearly unbearable. As we approached the theater I quickly scoured the parking lot and adjoining streets looking for his blue Gremlin, but saw nothing. Inside the show I panned the crowd looking for anyone suspicious. I was 9 years old, but I felt like I was a mature 12 and I knew what needed to be done. During the film I discreetly excused myself to use the bathroom -- alone -- in the hope that I would find him and he would make his move. Those other kids may not have known what was going on, but I did. And now it was time for him to pay for his crimes. Outside the auditorium, the bathroom and lobby were empty but for an usher or two, and much to my dismay getting abducted was not in the cards that night -- or any other. Instead I watched a crappy movie with my parents, which in turn led to the beginning of my long-term love affair with Jessica Lange.

By the end of 1977 four kids were thought to be definite victims of the Oakland County Child Killer, and at least four others were strongly suspected. But by the time my family moved to Phoenix in early 1979 the killings had long since stopped, and no arrests were ever made. So here I was with a fellow true-crime-junkie co-worker pal the other day telling him this story when naturally I Googled the topic to see if anything had happened since I'd last looked at some microfiche while working at The Orange County Register in the early 1990s. Suddenly, there it was: to my complete and utter shock an arrest had been made in Ohio and that very week a guy named Ted Lamborgine opted to plead guilty to 15 sex-related charges involving boys during the 1970s instead of accepting a plea bargain that would have allowed him to only plead guilty to just two charges -- on the condition that he agree to take a polygraph test regarding the unsolved Oakland County Child Killer cases. (I got chills when I read this.) When Lamborgine chose a guaranteed life in prison over this sweetheart-if-you’re-innocent deal, the prosecutor Robert Moran was quoted as saying, "I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine why he wouldn't cooperate."

Although it's unlikely anyone will ever be tried for the heinous crimes that brought my old neighborhood to its knees, it appears that we may finally know who the Oakland County Child Killer is, and that he is safely behind bars for life. I'm very happy for the victims' families that this day has finally come, although I would be lying if I didn't say that I wish he had been caught back in his heyday, and in a high-profile way. The monster in the blue Gremlin didn't deserve to live freely for another 30 years, and for that the junior detective in me will never forgive myself. (Detnews)

*(I was so obsessed with "Sweet Hostage," in fact, that I had written a similar treatment of my own that my Jody doll used to act out: sadly, the cleverly titled "Let Me Go" starring Jennifer Michaels never even made it into pre-production.)

UPDATE 12/28/10: The Detroit News reports that Christopher Busch, a pedophile who was convicted four times of rape with a minor, along with a companion, Gregory Greeneis, are considered extremely viable suspects in the Oakland County killings. Busch committed suicide in November 1978 and Greeneis died of a heart attack in prison in 1995 when he as 45. Read the compelling case against them HERE.

UPDATE 05/18/11: The first DNA link of any kind was announced, which links James Vincent Gunnels to one of the victims. Gunnels was a sexual victim of Christopher Busch's, and police believe he may have been used to lure some of the OCCK victims in. Read details HERE.
UPDATE 01/27/12: More damning evidence against Christopher Busch. Look at his bedroom after he committed suicide. Grand juries have convened in Wayne and Oakland County. Read HERE.


William said...

Great posting! I love the details throughout- it brought back memories of my own childhood!

Henry Holland said...

This cracked me up:

I was 9 years old, but I felt like I was a mature 12

Hahaha. At that age, those 3 years sounds like a 1,000 years.

Great story, Kenneth! Ah, the late 70's.....

matthew rettenmund said...

I relate to this on so many levels I almost thought for a second I'd been abducted and released by him myself. I lived in Flushing, Michigan, during that time period, but never heard of this story. I don't recall hearing about abductions in general until later in life. But I was also morbidly obsessed with that movie. I'm almost sure that was the one that had aa tagline like "when he found her she was a girl, but he left her a woman," or something. I literally believed this was some kind of magical transformation or scientific thing he was doing to her to make her into a woman! I also have had lots of weird experiences where I've randomly Googled something from the past only to discover it has just been resolved or just had a tragic new period put at the end of its sentence. Hmmm.

mark said...

Your story is brilliant! You are so good! The Sedaris ain't got nothin on you bitch ;) It's REALLY good.

cs said...

That piece is great! It’s almost like there's an op ed piece in it, but that would mean shrinking it. Is there anything to do with an expanded version? It’s kind of creepy and amazing.

Chuck said...

Wow Kenneth, I grew up in Waterford and had the exact same types of thought about the same thing... Weird..

Anonymous said...

Blue Gremlins and Blue Datsun B210's look quite similar. Do a Google Image search and see what I mean.

The year before the killings started me and my friend (each about 12 years old) were picked up hitchhiking on Woodward near Maple by a guy in a blue Datsun B210 who asked us my friend to have sex with him. Thankfully my friend flipped out with his tempter and at a light with many people around (Long Lake), the driver had no choice but to let us out of the car. He was pretty upset and angry at us, but we were surrounded by cars with people looking at us. He looked just like the sketches we saw later after Timothy was abducted - white male, side burns... I can see him now.

Much later after the killings I told the cops about this via a letter a few times, but no response, no reply.

While you had fantasies about encountering this guy, I think I actually did meet the OCCK.

Royal Oak Jim said...

Does anyone know whether this Ted Lamborgine owned a blue Gremlin back in the 70s? If he was an auto worker, does anyone know whether he was off work at the times the kids were kidnapped? I don't recall seeing those questions answered in the press.

Anonymous said...

The Oakland County Child Killer bathed his victims in dry-cleaning (like for your clothes) fluid--AND,he even cleaned under their fingernails. For that reason, it was suspected that he (and/or others) worked in a dry-cleaning operation. Plus, he fed his victims the SAME MEAL --chicken and corn--before killing them. Tommy McIntyre, who wrote a book about the killings, IS STILL A SUSPECT--he even matched the description, and he was often THE FIRST REPORTER AT EACH CRIME SCENE.

Anonymous said...

We lived in Troy, Mi at the time and I remember everyone talking about it and getting freaked out. We had 5 kids in our family, 2 girls, 3 boys ages at the time 15 14 13 10 and 5. In the summer of 1977 my mom would let all of us ride our bikes from Wattles and Brandywine, near Beach Rd. to the Kroger shopping center where Timothy King was taken. I guess she figured safety in numbers. I recall everyone being asked to look out for men driving Gremlins. I'll never forget it.

chris said...

Blue Gremlin. It appears you posted this in 2007.

I'm 37 now. Born and raised in Troy Michigan. While this may be an interesting study for you and a thought you carried with you as a child to get abducted and catch the whacko known as the oakland county child killer, I have a very different story. I'm not a writer and can't compare to what you so elequantly put together there, but here goes...

On the front yard of my relatively nice home in Troy, I was playing with my bike on a sunny summer day. What I remember is a indeed a blue gremlin pulling up front. A very mean looking bald man sat on the passenger side of the car while a hairier, thiner perhaps scraggly looking man drove. The car slowed to the front of my lawn and the bald man closest to me waved a "come here" motion with his hand. But instead of blindly walking towards the car, I looked back up the lawn to a small garden in front of the windows of my home. My mother was bent behind a bush doing gardening and the sound of the slowing car or the movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to stand up and look back around to the street. It was indeed a blue gremlin. A lighter blue car than you posted in your article, though. The car immediately sped off down the street. She could not get the license plate number nor did I at that age even consider attempting to. While I had heard the stories of this evil monster, I guess it didn't have the dramatic affect on me that it seems it did on you. Perhaps that made me all the more likely of a victim since I never pieced together that may have been the guy I was being told about.

The image of his face had not faded, though the meaning of the encounter was more or less lost on me for about 10 years or so. Later as I was in college, there was a news story on TV about a man they thought was the killer. They showed a picture that immediately stunned me. The shot they showed I have not seen online around this case. The one they're showing now (like in your article) is of a much older man. A younger shot of him as I saw it on the news that day was detail for detail the mean looking bald man sitting in a blue gremlin waving me towards his car in what would have been the late 1970's in Troy Michigan.

For the most part, I don't like to think of this story. I don't talk about it, though I brought it up to my mother years ago and she vaguely remembered the car, but not the passenger or driver. I figure you either don't believe me nor care that this happened at all. Why would you? But for me, it's far to scary of a thought. I think a lot of people have some sick, morbid interest in serial killers. The movies obviously do big business and the news stories draw top internet searches when one breaks every now and then.

But for my own emotional venting of this story to maybe deal with it myself as well as to issue some random disagreement with you, I find myself somewhat critical of your suicidal thought of WANTING to get abducted by that guy. While you thought you had a plan and thought you had a way of talking yourself into hero-dom, I can tell you one bit of info that I don't think you'll find on any website, news stories or even in your recollection of what teachers were telling all of us back in the '70s in Michigan: That rapist and killer did not work alone. There was another man driving the car at least that one day.

When I think back of that near encounter my heart still races a little. Had my mother not been gardening... had you actually had your encounter with him... it is incredibly likely one of us would have been bathed, fed and listed on a website as the 5th known victim of a serial killer and his partner that may or may not ever have been caught.

Feel free to ignore my email, I'm just some random guy to you. But to this day I know this story is true and carry that little bit of inner fear whenever I think or read about it. I wish I could meet this man now. I would gladly serve prison time to get just 10 minutes alone with him...

Anyway, neither of us got any closer to him so life went on.
I'm doing what I love in California now and it sounds like you're enjoying life as well.

Anonymous said...

great story, however, the advertisement at the end of the story was for, with 2 gays guys about to kiss. WTF is that about. Especially the story was talking about pedophelia.

Carole A. Ward said...

I, too, have been very much affected by what happened in Oakland County during that awful time. I was twelve, and Jill Robinson went to my school. These events hit way close to home for me, and affected the way I was raised thereafter, and the way I raised my own their perpetual perturbation!

Yes, that is actually a word.

I've never forgotten the images of that time, nor the names and faces of the victims. I had Jill's father as one of my college professors years later, and the first time he walked into the classroom I shuddered. I could see Jill's visage in his face. The resemblance really rocked me.

He'd mentioned Jill and what had happened to her during his introduction to the class, so I felt safe in approaching him afterward. (If he had not mentioned her, I would have respected his boundaries.) I will never forget the look on his face when he realized that Jill would've been an adult woman of 32 at that point.

As a writer who is very fascinated about the inner workings of the mind, I'm still quite haunted by that time in my childhood and how it shaped the way a fearful generation raised their own children.

Very much pondering...

faustus67 said...

I remember those days - growing up in Royal Oak at the time. I also acquired an interest in crime and unsolved mysteries. Even now - living in England, I remember devouring very newspaper article I could find about the Oakland county killer and the infamous blue Gremlin. I also kept thinking - and indeed still do sometimes, that these kids (forever kids now) could have been my friends. And the paranoia of the time - I saw friend talking to someone in a car that I new wasn't his parent's, so I dashed to his rescue only to discover that it was his brother. Odd memories those - thanks for showing that I'm not strange for my interest in this case!

Maddy said...

Yep, I was there too. I kept the clippings. I was 9 or 10. Turned out we knew the Lawson guy. Ya, creepy. We didn't trust anyone.
Royal Oak Jim, Ted did, I was told he owned the blue car for a short bit, then had a green Ford. Here it is years later, and I find out we knew Lawson, I remember him, and maybe Ted ? Too hard to tell now. He's old. Ya, ended my safe childhood. I should send you my pic from then. I could have been one too. At least he's in jail.
Loved sweet hostage....

wendy said...

Wow! I just read the postings, and some of the articles. Talk about memories! During this time, I remember the Helping Hands signs in the windows of homes that were willing to help children flee from danger. I was a student at Edison Elementary; I was in the Fifth grade, and I was on my crossing guard post. I left school about fifteen minutes before the bell to help younger students cross the road. I was approached by a middle aged man in a long trench style coat whom said, "Hey little girl come here and Santa will tell you some nice stories". Well, as I said I was in fifth grade and this was not a way to lure a child whom had been bombarded with the safety talk-news-and downright fear that had taken over our suburb. I was almost too afraid to leave my front porch. Anyway, I ran as fast as I could to the "helping hand" home and to no avail there was no one home. I then ran as fast as I could screaming to the principal. It was the scariest thing I had ever encountered. The police took my statement;later I found out that there was another child that very day that had been approached in the same vacinity I had been in. As a safety precaution, the school stopped allowing elementary students to cross the younger children. I hope they still practice this type of safety! I have often wondered if the killer had ever been caught. I have prayed for the families and the detectives that have worked the case. I know they need closure, and the killer should have to endure the same punishment the innnocent children went through. I am now and adult with children of my own living in another state, but I have never forgotten. To this day I keep my doors locked at all times. I often unconciously lock the door when my husband is mowing the yard. It taught me a lesson in safety that I have relayed to my children.

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