BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — When Amber Griffin disappeared, those who knew and loved her spoke of her in the present tense.
It’s the only option for the hopeful.
Perhaps, as her boyfriend told them, she had just walked away on her own.
Or perhaps not.
Now, they speak of Griffin in the past tense.
“She didn’t just disappear, no. She wouldn’t have,” her mother Carman Griffin said.
The evidence, police say, suggests she was the victim of a brutal homicide at the hands of her boyfriend Derek Horton, even though they still haven’t found her body.
Horton is charged with felony murder.
Police say the evidence includes blood in a house and in a car, a 911 call, a passerby who saw a man standing over a woman in the dark, bloody women’s pants and, especially critical, an $8 receipt.
Amber Griffin, 27, was Carman Griffin’s only child. She also speaks of her daughter in the past tense, except when she is with her daughter’s children.
“She loved the kids; they love being around her,” Carman Griffin said.
Amber Griffin was the mother of a 7-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl. Her kids still wonder if she’ll come home.
It was Monday, June 22, at 10:02 p.m., that Griffin last texted her mom: “Tell DC and Mello (her kids) I love them and I promise life will be better for all of us soon.”
Her mom didn’t see the text until the next day.
“I got some food from the food bank come get it,” she texted her daughter back. “10 pounds of chicken fajita strips lol.”
Amber Griffin and Horton, 25, her longtime boyfriend, lived together in a camper among a cluster of campers that are year-round homes in a corner of Creek Valley Mobile Home Park off M-37 in Bedford Township, just north of Battle Creek.
“She lived right down here,” neighbor Richard Hinds said from the porch of his camper, a porch made of old wooden pallets.
Hinds said Griffin’s boyfriend drove up in the couple’s car on June 23, the day after her text to her mother. He said Horton asked to use his phone.
“He came driving in, without her, ’cause I didn’t see her, and he came over and said … she took off walking,” Hinds recalled.
MOM’S TEXT: ‘WHERE ARE YOU?’
The next day, on Wednesday, June 24, Griffin’s boyfriend told her mom she had walked away two days earlier from the trailer park.
“He said he’d been out looking with his family,” Carman Griffin said.
She and Horton reported Amber Griffin missing that day to the Battle Creek Police Department.
“Where are you,” Griffin’s mom texted her. “I reported u missing. We r looking for you. Call me plz. I am worried about you where r u.”
BCPD Detective Sgt. Joel Case is leading the investigation.
“(Horton’s) original story was that (Griffin) was outside listening to music in the vehicle and she just up and walked away,” Case said. “Left her ID, her wallet, her phone, her insulin; she’s insulin dependent.
“The original case kicked off as just us trying to find her going on the assumption that she had actually walked off. Knowing she was insulin-dependent and left without her insulin, she could have been laying in the woods, she could have passed out.”
Police quickly grew suspicious. Griffin always texted her mom back. She had never missed a day of work on the HVAC line at Denso Manufacturing in Battle Creek.
“Find out she’s never done a no-call, no-show to work and that was the first day it had happened,” Case said.
“His timetable of when he last saw her and what happened as far as her voluntarily walking away from the camper, we were able to disprove that whole time period pretty much immediately.”
AN EXPLANATION FOR THE BLOOD
Investigators’ suspicions grew when they found blood on the outside of the passenger’s side door of Griffin’s 2003 Chevy Impala.
“(Horton) admitted that some of the blood in the vehicle was hers, but he’s trying to say it was from her cutting her finger on a Patron bottle or a liquor bottle when it fell and she cut her hand,” Case said.
Police later found blood in the car’s trunk.
Then there was the history of violence.
In February 2019, Horton was charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm and in November with domestic violence. Both times, Griffin was listed as the victim.
In the February case, records show, he was charged with a felony, accused of assaulting her at the Econo Lodge in Battle Creek, where he was living.
“She had jumped out of a two-story hotel window trying to get away ’cause she said he was going to kill her, and she couldn’t get out the door, so out the window, broke both wrists, (a) broken nose where he had punched her,” her mom said.
She said Griffin signed herself out of the hospital the next day.
“I took her home with me,” she said. “Twenty minutes later, she was gone.”
Her mom said she repeatedly tried to get her to leave Horton.
“Until she met him, she loved to go out and have fun with her friends and hang out with us and the kids,” Carman Griffin said. “She got with him and it was like, no, can’t come around nobody, always beat up.”
Court records show the assault charges against Horton were dismissed.
“She was scared of him and she knew she could not go to court, he was not going to let her go to court,” her mom said. “He was not going to let her go to court.
“She literally wouldn’t leave him or couldn’t leave him because he would threaten me, threaten to do something to me or the kids, and I’m like, ‘Amber, it doesn’t matter, I’ll deal with him. You gotta get away from him or he’s going to kill you,’ and she’s like, ‘Mom, I know.’”
She said Horton was the reason she started caring for her daughter’s two children. She still is.
“I literally had to take the kids away when she met him because of how abusive he was,” she said.
Deshawn Colbert is the father of Amber Griffin’s children. He is in prison for life without parole for a murder and robbery eight years ago in Battle Creek. He said he spoke by phone often with Griffin, who told him she feared for her life at the hands of her boyfriend.
“She always told me that he beat her up, at times she said he pulled a gun out on her,” he told Target 8 investigators in a telephone interview.
He said he talks to their two children by phone nearly every day.
“For our kids, when I talk to them, my son, he still thinks she might come home,” Colbert said.
A neighbor said Griffin and her boyfriend had lived in the camper at Creek Valley for only a few weeks, but it was long enough for him to realize something was wrong.
“She had black and blue eyes while here,” Michael Kreinbrook said. “This man was very abusive.
“They invited me into their trailer, and she looked at me, I didn’t understand the look at that time, but I think it was a look for help, and I didn’t notice it, but I wish I would have because I would have tried to save her from that man. I really would have.”
911 CALL: A DISTANT SCREAM
Investigators’ suspicions grew even more when they discovered a 911 call had been made from Griffin’s phone at 2:02 a.m. on Tuesday, June 23, just hours after that last text she had sent to her mother.
Griffin’s mom later listened to some of the 911 call, just enough to identify the voices of her daughter and Horton.
“I heard him say, ‘Why would you do that?’ and she’s like, ‘Why does it matter?’ and a distant, you can just hear her screaming and then getting away from the phone,” Carman Griffin recounted.
Even with GPS, police at the time of that call couldn’t pinpoint where it came from and couldn’t find the screaming woman.
“They were checking the area that the phone call came in,” but found nothing, Case said.
For police, the discovery of the days-old 911 call was still not enough to arrest Horton.
But police say they quickly learned that the call had come from a two-story home on Oneita Street and that Griffin and her boyfriend had been there.
“It was a gathering, a couple people hanging out,” Case said. “They were smoking weed, drinking booze, hanging out, having a good time.”
SIGNS OF A BLOODY STRUGGLE
Charles Walker III owns the home on Oneita. His grandson, police say, is a friend of Horton.
Walker told Target 8 that his grandson and others gathered outside, but that the party never got inside. He said he didn’t know Griffin or her boyfriend and didn’t know they were there that night. He said he went to bed at 11 p.m., three hours before Griffin’s 911 call for help.
When police searched his house days after she was reported missing, they found signs of a struggle.
“There was blood on all three levels of the house, the basement, the main level and the upstairs portion of that house,” Case said. “A pretty significant amount.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she was alive leaving that house on Oneita,” he continued. “In fact, I would say she probably was alive when they left there.”
Police also found blood and hair on a basement window — the glass broken outward as if someone had tried to escape. Detectives are confident the blood is Griffin’s, but are waiting for DNA test results to confirm that.
Walker, the homeowner, said he heard none of it. Police say their investigation has found he was not involved in the disappearance or death.
“If she came in here, I don’t know how she came in here,” Walker said.
He said police told him they found blood, but only on the basement window.
“I don’t know if she was trying to get in the window or go out the window,” Walker said.
It’s still not clear, Case said, where or exactly when Griffin was killed.
Police believe that after beating her inside the home on Oneita, Horton followed her outside, where he continued the attack.
That, they say, could explain a call to Silent Observer after the case had gone public from a tipster describing what he had seen days earlier, the morning of the alleged assault, not far from the home on Oneita.
“Somebody early morning, that same morning, going to work, saw a man standing over a woman on the side of the road that we believe was likely him in the middle of assaulting her,” Case said.
The same day that police searched the home on Oneita, they learned that the homeowner, Walker, also owned a vacant home about a half-mile away on Waubascon Road. In the woods next to the home, about 20 yards in, police found a pair of bloody women’s pants, Case said.
“There’s a turnaround in that driveway,” he said. “We’re thinking likely she was transported there in a vehicle and we’re thinking that at some point her body ended up in the woods.”
Then came the discovery that police said clinched the case, also outside the home on Waubascon.
“At the end of the turnaround, there was a receipt laying on the ground,” Case said.
The receipt from Mix Hardware in Battle Creek was for $8 cash, dated June 23 at 2:31 p.m. That was about 12 hours after Griffin’s 911 call and the day before Horton reported her missing.
“We went to the hardware store, watched the video and sure enough it was Derek Horton on video purchasing a shovel,” Case said.
Griffin’s boyfriend, that same man who later reported her missing, bought a shovel made in China.
“That receipt really sealed the deal,” Case said. “That was when he went from being a cooperating boyfriend that was acting as if he was concerned, acting as if he was trying to help police find his missing girlfriend, to no more talking, lawyering up and being lodged in the jail, which is where he’s at now.”
Police theorize Horton had dumped Griffin in the woods off Waubascon before buying the shovel.
“We have reason to believe that her body probably was laying at least at some point,” Case said. “I don’t know if she was dead or alive at that point.”
Police believe he returned to the woods off Waubascon with the shovel. They don’t know if he buried her or if he moved her body elsewhere, they said.
“Based on his appearance, he did not appear as if he was in very good shape,” Case said. “It’s not easy work, so he could have gotten defeated and demoralized and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do something else.’”
Police said that Charles Walker’s grandson, Julice Haggerty, drove Horton to the hardware store to buy the shovel.
Haggerty, 27, of Battle Creek, is charged with lying to police and being an accessory after the fact for allegedly hiding evidence.
THE SEARCH CONTINUES
Police said they searched the vacant home and outbuildings on Wabauscon. They also searched the neighboring woods a dozen times — with cadaver dogs, a drone and a state police helicopter.
“At this point, because we don’t have her body, we don’t know if she was strangled, maybe she was beaten to death, she could have been stabbed, she could have been shot. We truly don’t know,” Case said.
A body, he said, would make it easier to convict Horton of the most serious charge, first-degree murder.
“The difference between a first-degree murder and a second-degree murder, that evidence could be on the body itself,” Case said. “Having the body would clearly make the case stronger.”
But even without a body, he said, “we feel that we have a strong case that we could convince a jury that he’s the one who’s responsible for killing her.”
The case is eerily similar to the 2010 murder of Venus Stewart in St. Joseph County. In the Stewart case, police found a Walmart receipt for a shovel, tarp and gloves. That led them to surveillance video showing her estranged husband Doug Stewart buying them. Even though her body was still missing, a jury quickly convicted Stewart of first-degree murder. Two years ago, Stewart led police to her remains in some woods about 12 miles from where she was last seen.
And so Griffin’s mom, police and volunteers keep searching.
“We’ve been everywhere,” her mom said. “We don’t even know where to go anymore.
“Something keeps making us come back here,” she said after posting new missing signs on a tree out front of the home on Waubascon.
In the thick woods nearby, close to where police found bloody women’s pants, a handful of fresh, shallow holes are scattered among the trees.
“A lot of random people have been back here digging,” Griffin’s mom said.
She said she had one message for Horton:
“Just tell me where Amber’s at.”