KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Those fighting to clear a former U.S. Marine in the shooting deaths of two hunters 30 years ago are now focused on a serial killer who hunted outdoorsmen.
Jeff Titus, now 68, has served 18 years in prison for murders that the original detectives in the case are convinced he did not commit.
The director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which is working to clear Titus, said he questions why detectives didn’t pursue a more likely suspect, notorious serial killer Thomas Dillon, in the murders of Doug Estes and Jim Bennett in the Fulton State Game Area on Nov. 17, 1990.
“On weekends, (Dillon) liked to go out to hunting areas and fishing areas in Ohio and kill people,” clinic director David Moran said.
Moran points to a composite drawing of a man spotted by witnesses about the time of the double murder in Kalamazoo County. It looks eerily similar to a photograph of Dillon.
DILLON KILLED AT LEAST 5 OTHERS AROUND TIME OF MURDERS
Helen Nofz and her 8-year-old son spotted the man, a stranger, who had driven his car off a snowy road about half a mile from the murder scene.
“I just remember it was a snowy day. We were on our way into town and a car had slid off into the ditch,” Nofz’s son, now 38, said.
The son told Target 8 that he and his mom offered to help the stranger, who declined. He said he got within 4 feet of the man.
“I remember the glasses. I remember like the round face and the knit hat. That’s mostly what I remember,” the son said. “He had like his hat pushed back and he was like dripping sweat, basically.”
Not until hours later did they learn that two hunters had been killed in the nearby game area, both shot in the back, two different shotguns used, both victims left in the woods.
By that time, the stranger and his car were gone.
They told detectives about the encounter and helped a sketch artist with a composite but it became only a footnote in the original police reports.
Three years later, the West Michigan murders still unsolved, police in Ohio arrested Dillon, then 42, of Magnolia, Ohio, in the deaths of five men from 1989 to 1992 — two hunters, two fishermen and a jogger. He was accused of shooting them at random all over east and central Ohio, all with high-powered rifles.
Police in Ohio quickly reached out to Kalamazoo County detectives, “and said, ‘We’ve got this guy, he’s been killing hunters and he may have been involved in this double homicide in your county,’” Moran said.
The boy and his mom drove to Coshocton County, Ohio, in February 1993, less than three years after the Kalamazoo County double murder, to see if they could recognize the man in the ditched car.
“I just remember that there was a police lineup,” the son said. “There was a room with a bunch of people and we went in and they said, ‘Who was the guy that you saw?’ I remember we both picked the same guy.”
Thomas Dillon — a positive ID.
Target 8 recently showed the son the composite of the man he and his mother had seen 30 years ago in the ditched car, along with a photograph of Dillon.
“Yeah, I can see the resemblance there,” the son said.
Moran, the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, is also struck by the resemblance.
“That man in the sketch looks exactly like Thomas Dillon,” Moran said.
DETECTIVES DIDN’T FOLLOW DILLON LEAD
What Moran is baffled by is why Kalamazoo County sheriff’s detectives didn’t pursue the lead.
One of the original detectives, Bruce Wiersema, who is now retired, was with the mom and son when they identified Dillon. He told Target 8 that Dillon refused to talk to him back then. He also recalled the serial killer had an alibi.
Dillon had been deer hunting that day at a private hunting grounds in Ravenna, Ohio, 285 miles away.
Instead, the original detectives pursued other leads — and also ruled out Titus, who owned land next to where the two hunters had died. They said alibi witnesses told them Titus, who had no criminal record, had been hunting that afternoon 27 miles away.
The murders remained unsolved until a decade later, when new cold case detectives took over and focused on Titus.
Without the two alibi witnesses, who were elderly and reportedly had dementia, Titus was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 2002. His defense attorney never called the original detectives as witnesses. Both the original detectives said they would have testified that they had cleared Titus.
Titus, who got life without parole, maintains his innocence.
The man who was 8 when he and his mom saw the car in the ditch lived around the corner from Titus.
“I was shocked, I was surprised,” he said of Titus’s conviction. “Every encounter I ever had with him was positive. He was a good guy. He’d come plow our driveway occasionally.”
The two original detectives asked the Michigan Innocence Clinic to help clear Titus.
However, that was before the Michigan Innocence Clinic learned about the serial killer.
ATTORNEY: DILLON HAD TIME TO COMMIT MURDERS
Moran said the producer of the “Undisclosed” podcast, Susan Simpson, who was working on the Titus case, made the possible connection this summer. Simpson worked on the case with the producer of a true-crime television series, “The Killer In Question.”
Moran said he recently scoured through the Kalamazoo County sheriff’s boxes of evidence and found a small file about Dillon, titled “Serial killer.”
“He killed a hunter a week before and he killed another hunter about a week after the killings in the Fulton game area,” Moran said. “This is what he was doing at that time.”
He said Dillon also was suspected of killings in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Moran said records raise questions about Dillon’s alibi in the Fulton State Game Area murders.
It’s about a five-and-a-half hour drive from Ravenna, Ohio, where Dillon had been hunting that day, to the Fulton State Game Area. Moran said he left Ravenna before noon. The two hunters in Kalamazoo County were killed between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. that day.
“He actually had plenty of time to make the drive, make it to the Fulton game area and make it in time to kill those two hunters,” Moran said.
“That was his M.O.,” he continued. “We know that he drove all over Ohio to commit these killings. He had studied the works of serial killer Ted Bundy, who taught that you should commit your crimes in different jurisdictions so that it would be hard for the authorities to piece them together.”
DETECTIVE: ‘DAMN GOOD CHANCE THAT HE DID IT’
Retired Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office Detective Royce Ballett, who worked the case until 1993, said he only recently learned about the serial killer.
He said he didn’t know that the mom and her son had gone to Ohio for a lineup, and picked out Thomas Dillon.
“What should have happened is that you keep an eye on that and when you find out that he’s been convicted of five homicides and sent to prison, the least you could do is drive down to Ohio and say, ‘OK, Tom.’”
Confessions are easier with nothing to lose.
Dillon died in prison in 2011.
“I think that there’s a damn good chance that he did it,” the retired detective said. “But it could be anybody at this point anyway, except Jeff Titus. Because Jeff Titus had as close an air-tight alibi as you can get.”
The Michigan Innocence Clinic director said a federal appeal is on hold while Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Conviction Integrity Unit considers taking up Titus’s case.
AG spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney confirmed that the Conviction Integrity Unit has received an application to review the case.
On Nov. 1, “Killer in Question,” a two-hour documentary focusing on the Titus case, will air on Investigation Discovery.