A Death on the West Side
A retired Ann Arbor police officer recalls the grim pursuit of a serial rapist turned killer.
by Peter Stipe
From the November, 2021 issue
Peter Stipe was an Ann Arbor building inspector when he was recruited to join the police department in 1985. His new book, Badge 112, is both a powerful personal memoir and a vivid account of his twenty-five years with the city, from confronting ferocious dogs in filthy apartments to busting a drug dealer at McDonald's.
This excerpt describes his role in the pursuit of a serial rapist who terrorized the city in the early 1990s. It has been edited for length, and the book's pseudonyms have been replaced by real names.
On May 7, 1994, the husband of Christine Galbraith reported her overdue at home. The officer who took the report had a feeling it was serious and passed it to the sergeant. When Mike Anderson and I reported to our midnight shift, the sergeant sent us to the couple's west-side apartment to collect photos.
It was filled with well-meaning friends and family, but the atmosphere was chaotic. David Galbraith told me that his wife had placed a pot of beans on the stove before running to the store for a couple of items while he lay down for a nap. When he awoke a few hours later, the beans had scorched the pan and his wife hadn't yet returned. Her coat and umbrella were also gone; a cold rain had persisted all day.
Galbraith handed me a stack of pictures, but I thought we ought to look for her before returning to the station. It was clear the crowd was making Mr. Galbraith anxious and I asked whether he'd prefer to be doing something other than sitting around. He jumped at the offer.
We set out on foot while Anderson followed in the patrol car. Mr. Galbraith said the most likely route his wife would have taken to the drugstore at West Stadium and Liberty was through their apartment complex and right down Stadium. But our walk revealed nothing, and by that hour the store had closed.
asked if there was another way she might have gone and he told me they sometimes cut through a vacant lot behind the post office on Stadium to the Boulevard Plaza shopping center. We returned that way. The center's parking lot and the path heading south toward the apartment complex were dark and desolate.
Walking ahead on the narrow trail, something caught my eye to the left. I shined my flashlight on it, and Mr. Galbraith said, "Oh my God, that's her stuff!"
A red umbrella lay open on the ground alongside a backpack and a bottle of soda. It was an ominous sign. I took him to the patrol car and placed him inside with the police radio turned off.
I told Anderson what we'd found and called the sergeant to come meet us. He was already on his way and arrived in just moments. We went back and shone our flashlights along both sides of the trail. Anderson saw something under a clump of bushes. "There she is," he said.
Christine Galbraith lay twisted but face up in the rain. Her slacks and underwear had been pulled down to her ankles. There was no sign of life.
We called dispatch and asked them to call in a department chaplain to meet Anderson and Mr. Galbraith at the station. The sergeant posted me on the trail with Mrs. Galbraith while the full detective division was summoned. If this was the work of our serial rapist, he had just escalated to murder.
Because it was a crime scene, I was confined to a specific scope of movement to ensure its preservation. I wanted so much to cover Mrs. Galbraith's exposed body, but I couldn't. I thumbed through the stack of photos her husband had given me. She was smiling in all of them.
It was a Saturday night, and it took forever for the detectives to get there. When the detective sergeant finally arrived, I showed him the point of the initial attack and the place several yards away where the assailant had dragged Mrs. Galbraith's body.
Having completed my in-service detective training, I was ready to help process the homicide scene. Instead, the detective sergeant produced a clipboard and paper and instructed me to keep a log of the time and names of the personnel entering or exiting the crime scene.
At first I thought he was kidding. It was our diligence that had prevented the victim from being discovered by an innocent passerby. Holding a clipboard seemed like such a dismissive assignment, but he told me that my job was as critical as any he'd assign that night.
It turned into a very long night. When dawn broke, two day-shift officers came out to assist me. We did a thorough search of the area, hoping the suspect had discarded or dropped something that could be used to identify him, but found nothing. I was numb from the cold, damp rain, and the grim image of the scene was embedded in my mind.
The murder sent a wave of fear through the community. The reality that there was a predator among us prompted many women to take steps to protect themselves. Self-defense class enrollment skyrocketed, as did handgun sales.
A multiple-agency task force was formed. Since none of the victims had gotten more than a furtive glimpse of the man, the description was extremely vague: a black male, twenty-five to thirty-five years old, five-foot-seven-inches to six-foot-two-inches tall.
An FBI profile did little to illuminate the suspect. My hunch was that he lived in the area where most of the assaults took place, but my suggestion to interview nearby landlords was rejected--the task force didn't want to use outside resources.
The detective sergeant had read a book about getting DNA from blood samples, and their part in solving a pair of rapes and murders in an English village. The DNA found on both victims matched, but the police had no physical description of the suspect. Someone had the novel idea of gathering blood samples from all the men and teenage boys in the area and comparing the DNA to the crime-scene sample. The killer was found when he falsified his identity to avoid the screening.
The detective sergeant suggested the task force launch a similar search, on the theory that no innocent person would object to helping solve such heinous crimes. But the description was so broad that it fit about 1,000 African American men in the city. Most took their presumption of innocence seriously and felt no compulsion to aid the police department.
The job of soliciting the blood of these men fell primarily to the road patrol. The absurdity of the initiative had a peculiar irony for my partner, Bernard Tucker. As an African American male, he was close enough to fitting the description that he would likely have been on the list himself.
The ability to broker compliance had always been one of my strengths, but my creativity and ingenuity were severely taxed when trying to summon up a good reason for so many men to submit to the needle. The indiscriminate nature of the search and the multiple police contacts that each man was subjected to, even after he had complied, eroded what little credibility we enjoyed with these men. They were understandably angry, and they vented it on us.
The anger only increased when it came out that the Michigan State Police Crime Laboratory had retained the samples of those eliminated as suspects. They reasoned that such samples could solve an infinite number of future crimes. A man who lost his job during the investigation filed a lawsuit, and the samples were eventually destroyed.
The bitter irony was that the crime lab already had a sample from the true culprit, but hadn't been asked to compare it to the DNA recovered from our victims.
Early on Christmas Eve, a man attempted to grab a woman's purse and then attacked her on the west side of Ann Arbor. The responding officers thought it looked like the work of the serial rapist, so our communications operator called area cab companies to give them the woman's description of her assailant, including his distinctive clothing: a dark jacket and white gloves.
Christmas Eve and Christmas shifts paid double time, so they were well stocked with officers. We rotated through the squad room, helping ourselves to food brought in by holiday-spirited citizens.
Tucker and I were called out to assist on a burglary call on North University Court. We checked five apartments and found several had been broken into, so we split up the reports and hunkered down to do the follow up.
We were still writing early on Christmas morning, when a Yellow Cab driver called to report a black male walking north across the Broadway Bridge, wearing a dark jacket and white gloves. He also carried a brick.
Officers scarfing food in the squad room streamed out the back door and into their cars. Officers Steve Lawrence and Jim Baird won the race to the Broadway Bridge. Ervin Mitchell surrendered without a struggle.
As it turned out, several patrol officers had a feeling about Mitchell back in September 1993. A K9 track after a vicious sexual assault on W. Liberty led to a residence on Carolina, where Mitchell was found in the basement. But Mitchell was dismissed as a suspect after passing a polygraph exam.
Although the state police held Mitchell's DNA sample from an unrelated Inkster case, the assigned detective never asked to have it compared to the more recent Ann Arbor assaults. Instead, we brought in scores of random men to give DNA samples, while ignoring someone who should have been first in line.
Mitchell went on trial in March of 1995. The best evidence against him had been gathered at the scene of Christine Galbraith's murder. That clipboard I'd manned made me an important witness.
County prosecutor Brian Mackie handled the case personally. Eccentric and seemingly self-absorbed, Mackie had never said more than a passing "hi" to me. He was often seen walking with his eyes to the ground, scavenging for lost coins around parking meters. But by all accounts he was a brilliant lawyer, as I was soon to find out.
Mackie summoned me to his office for a pre-trial briefing and we went over my report thoroughly. I had relived the events during many sleepless nights, and they were etched into my mind. Mackie was satisfied that I was ready.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, I ran into David Galbraith. It was the first time I'd seen him since we found his wife's umbrella and groceries two years before.
I invited him to join me for coffee in the courthouse cafe. He'd remarried, and I was happy that he looked like he was doing OK. He was grateful to have taken part in finding his wife; he felt as if he had at least done something, contributed. I understood.
In the courtroom, Mitchell appeared insolent and detached. He coveted the media frenzy the trial brought him and did not look at all worried. His court-appointed attorney, David Lankford, did not appear as confident.
I'd dealt with Lankford when I was working in the detective bureau, and I thought he was sharp and easy to get along with. He was an honorable attorney with a loathsome client, and he had his work cut out for him.
Mitchell was charged with five assaults, but my testimony focused strictly on Christine Galbraith. Mackie had me recount the events that led to the discovery of her body. He then asked me to describe, in detail, the scene as Mr. Galbraith and I had found it.
Mitchell stared right at me as I described the site, the location of Mrs. Galbraith's items, and the position of her body. I saw him scribble on a legal pad, then push it over to his attorney to read. Lankford never changed expression as I continued testifying.
Then Mackie placed the crime scene photographs on the table attached to the witness stand. It was the first time I had ever seen them. A Michigan Daily photographer snapped a picture at the moment I looked at them and captured my shocked expression. It was a stark reminder of the grim image I had been trying to expel from my memory since that night.
I looked through the stack and testified that the photos were an accurate depiction of what we had found. Lankford waived cross-examination.
Later that day, a retirement party for a veteran officer was held at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club. I was standing in the front room when Lankford walked in. It took some grit for him to appear--suspects and their defense attorneys are often linked in the eyes of police officers. But I was glad to see him.
I walked over, shook his hand, and asked the question that had nagged me all day.
"David, what was it that Mitchell wrote on that pad and showed you while I was testifying?"
"It said you were lying," he replied.
I thought for a second. "I wasn't, but even so, how would he know if he hadn't been present at the scene himself?"
"That is precisely what I wondered," he said.
Ervin Mitchell was convicted on all counts. He could practice his icy glare on his cellmates as he spent the rest of his life in prison. His surviving victims could rest assured that he was gone.
[Originally published in November, 2021.]
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