A child care center that was verbally threatened this week by a…
A child care center that was verbally threatened this week by a…
A national study shows Michigan lags behind other states when …
An external audit obtained by Target 8 shows the City of …
Joyce Coulier's mom first saw the crime-scene photographs early…
In 2012, Kalamazoo enforcers dished out 56,942 parking tickets,…
Who is dying from heroin in the suburbs of West Michigan? …
Even wealthy celebrity Angelina Jolie took note that the $3,000…
One West Michigan woman has taken her quest to make sure women …
Updated: Tuesday, 20 Nov 2012, 6:54 AM EST
Published : Monday, 19 Nov 2012, 11:02 PM EST
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - He stabbed a 17-year-old repeatedly until he was sure she was dead. Then, 14 years later, he killed a woman and dumped her body in the woods.
So, how is it that John Douglas White was free to fulfill a sick, childhood fantasy and kill again?
White, 55, has confessed to killing 24-year-old Rebekah Gay in her mobile home near Mount Pleasant as her 3-year-old son was in another room.
"I really hurt for that little boy," said Theresa Morris, White's first known victim. "I really hurt for her family. They trusted him, so I know exactly what they're going through."
Morris had also trusted him, until he stabbed her 15 times in 1980 in the basement of his Battle Creek home. She was 17.
For that, he spent two years in prison.
"I'm really upset with the system," she said.
And, so are the relatives of White's second known victim, who had predicted he would kill again.
"Oh, God, it tore my heart out, because I knew that girl wouldn't have had to die if they would have just kept him in prison," said David Axe, the uncle of White's second known victim, Vicky Sue Wall. "There's something wrong with the courts, there really is," Axe said.
Through old police and court records, and interviews with more than a dozen people, Target 8 found answers:
They include a courtroom mistake, plea deals and old laws that failed to protect victims, and technology that
wasn't advanced enough to keep White behind bars.
STABBING AND SMILING
In 1980, White was 22, married and living in Battle Creek when he invited his 17-year-old neighbor, then Theresa Etherton, to his basement to look at his race track. The first jab, from behind, was under her right shoulder blade. And, he kept stabbing, and smiling.
"He wiped my mouth off and he kissed me and he held my hand and he said, 'You're going to go now,'" she recalled. "He says, 'I'm really sorry you had to go like this.' He said, 'But what the f---, you're just a woman.'"
A jury convicted White of attempted murder. He apologized and asked for help instead of prison time.
"I wouldn't listen to people that tried to tell me that I did have a problem, and I realize that now," White told the judge.
"It is by the sheer grace of God, or whatever, that the victim in this case is still alive," Calhoun County Circuit Judge Paul Nicolich told White at sentencing. The judge sentenced him to five to 10 years in prison and recommended mental health counseling in prison.
"They sent him away, and they left me alone," the victim recently told Target 8. "They promised me he wasn't going to ever hurt anyone again."
But White wasn't gone for long.
AN APPEAL AND A DEAL
What Theresa didn't know was that White appealed -- and won -- claiming that his attorney had made a mistake by not raising an insanity defense. The defense attorney, James Tompert, was being paid by White's father, who didn't want to spend $1,000 or more for an independent psychiatric exam needed to claim insanity.
White had claimed "partial amnesia."
The state Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict and remanded the case.
"Defense counsel was more concerned with the desires of defendant's father, who retained him, than with the best interests of his client," the appellate judges wrote.
Instead of a new trial, though, White got a deal -- two years probation, no more jail time, as long as he got mental health treatment.
Morris, the victim, said she knew nothing about the deal.
Then, a couple years later, at a Secretary of State office: "I was standing in line, and I heard his voice," she said. "And, I'd been hearing that voice in my head almost every day."
"I turned around, and he's just smiling."
The defense attorney whose mistake led to the appeal died recently; so did the judge who handled the case.
The prosecutor who approved the plea deal, Conrad Sindt, is now a Calhoun County judge. He said he only vaguely recalls the case.
White likely would get more prison time if this had happened under today's sentencing guidelines, Sindt said. Judges had no guidelines back then.
"Under today's guidelines, it (probation) would be inconceivable," Sindt said.
He also said it's possible they approved the plea deal out of fear that White would have won his insanity defense.
Also, this was just a few years before the state's Victim's Rights Act, which requires courts include victims every step of the way. It also allows victims to sign up for notices when a defendant is released from prison.
AN EVASIVE SUSPECT
In July 1994, nine years after White's probation was up, 26-year-old Vicky Sue Wall disappeared from Comstock Township near Kalamazoo.
White had recently quit his job as a long-haul truck driver, and was working maintenance at Textile Systems Inc. in Oshtemo Township, where Wall once worked.
He was still married, with two children and one on the way. He had met Vicky Wall at work, and they were having an affair.
Surveillance video showed Wall getting into a black
pickup with a bearded man in the Meijer parking lot on Gull Road. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, the last time she was seen alive.
Then-Kalamazoo County Sheriff's Deputy Eric Dunithan was the first to question White, behind Galesburg City Hall. The deputy knew him from around Augusta, where White grew up.
White was evasive.
"He at first said he didn't know what I was talking about," Dunithan recalled. "He hadn't seen her, and when I confronted him with the video of him up there, he said he did see her up there, did meet her up there."
But, he told the deputy, she was alive when he left her.
"I knew that he had killed her," Dunithan said.
Within days, White tried to kill himself with pills and booze. Later, he told detectives he may have hurt Wall during one of his blackouts.
"John advised that he has blackout spells and that he thinks he does violent things when he has blackouts," a detective wrote after interviewing White early on in the investigation. "I asked him if it was possible that he had done something to Vicky or hurt her. He indicated that was possible."
White's wife told a friend about his "multiple personalities" and how, when he's doing things, he "feels like he is watching from somewhere else."
At the same time, it appeared detectives were closing in. Detectives couldn't see any blood in his pickup truck, but they checked it with luminol, a chemical that emits a blue glow when it mixes with iron found in blood.
It glowed in several spots.
"He'd done a pretty good job of cleaning it," Dunithan said.
At the time, DNA testing was in its infancy. A state police DNA expert told Target 8 they needed 500 nanograms of blood -- enough to cover part of a dime -- to test for DNA. And, it had to be fresh.
"It had to be something quite visible and sizeable," said Jeff Nye, biology program coordinator for the Michigan State Police Crime Lab.
Today, instead of 500 nanograms, they need just half a nanogram, and it doesn't have to be as fresh, Nye said.
A source close to the 1994 investigation told Target 8 that prosecutors might have gotten a murder conviction had they confirmed it was the victim's blood.
Relatives, in the meantime, kept searching for Wall's body.
"I knew she was close by because he didn't have much time to get rid of her," her uncle, David Axe, said.
A GRUESOME DISCOVERY
Six weeks after the disappearance, Kalamazoo County resident Thomas Meskil was walking down a two-track on land next to his parents' home in the 7400 block of East H Avenue, two miles from the Meijer store parking lot.
"I noticed two drag marks on this side of the drive," Meskil told Target 8.
He followed the marks down the two-track. "As I got farther, I seen a white tennis shoe."
A trail of bent-over weeds led to a pair of women's underwear.
"Right then, when the odor hit me, and I noticed the skull was showing, that's when I turned around and high-tailed it out of here," Meskil said.
The body was naked, except for a shirt and bra around the neck. But, it was so badly decomposed that an autopsy couldn't determine a cause of death, though the pathologist said that the "manner of death was suggestive of homicide."
Prosecutors charged White with open murder.
In a jail letter written to his wife, and obtained by Target 8, even White was preparing for life in prison.
"I am just feeling some relief now that things are starting up," he wrote, adding he was coming to grips "on the possibility that I may go to prison for the rest of my life, and I can't help but think it may be for the better for you and the kids."
But, White refused to talk again with detectives or to take a lie detector test.
Without evidence, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
"They felt they were lucky to get that because it took so long to find the body," said Dunithan, the retired Kalamazoo County deputy. "She was so decomposed that they couldn't even figure out a cause of death.
"You'd like to see him go away for life, but you know, you get what you can get," Dunithan said.
At sentencing, White apologized to Wall's family, calling the death a "tragic accident." He didn't provide details. And, he added: "I love Vicky very much."
Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge John F. Foley sentenced White to the most time he could: 8 to 15 years in prison.
"It appears from your previous violent acts against a woman and this unexplained violent action, that you have a dangerous level of self-control," the judge told him.
Sources told Target 8 that White later told a prison psychologist about his fantasies -- to kill the prosecutor, Carrie Klein, and his defense attorney, Kathleen Brickley, and have sex with their bodies. The prison warned both women.
Both declined to comment. Klein is still with the prosecutor's office; Brickley is now a judge.
In 2007, after serving nearly 13 years for Wall's death, White was a free man. Prison officials say he went through group therapy sessions,
as well as violent offender treatment.
His son, Gabriel White, said his father didn't change.
"He knew that he was mentally sick but he refused to engage it and tell people about it, accept help for it," the son said.
He moved to Mount Pleasant, became pastor of a small church and got engaged.
"He was completely crazy until the end," his son said.
On Halloween Day, White killed his fiance's daughter, 24-year-old Rebekah Gay, then dumped her body in a ditch. He told police it was part of a sexual fantasy involving dead women.
The death has left a retired deputy shaking his head.
"I knew that he would do it again," Dunithan said. "It was inevitable."