BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Attorney General’s Office says its main suspect the cold case death of a Benton Harbor 16-year-old admitted to someone years ago that he had knocked Eric McGinnis into the river.
The AG’s Office released a report on its investigation into the Eric McGinnis case Wednesday, one day after McGinnis’ family held a news conference to call for answers and charges against the 1990s investigators, who they say botched the response.
“I made it clear that this family deserves to have that report,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said while speaking in Kalamazoo Wednesday.
The investigative report names Curtis Pitts as the main suspect in the murder. Pitts died by suicide in 2003.
McGinnis disappeared on May 17, 1991. He was found dead in the St. Joseph River later that month. At the time, his death was ruled an accidental drowning — though his family never thought that. They always believed he was killed because he was Black.
Benton Harbor Director of Public Safety Daniel McGinnis is the cousin of Eric McGinnis. He asked the state AG to look into the case, which it did starting last year.
The AG’s Office said it determined McGinnis’ death was a homicide and found two possible suspects in McGinnis’ death, both of whom are now dead. As a result, the AG’s office says the case should be closed without charges.
The investigation found that McGinnis intended to go to a bar called The Club in St. Joseph on the day he went missing. State investigators say stories about that evening are unclear, but at some point that night, McGinnis broke into the vehicle of Theodore Warmbein and stole some money. Warmbein then caught up to McGinnis in his vehicle and pushed or threw him to the ground. McGinnis got away and Warmbein chased him.
Witnesses who spoke with the AG’s investigators say other people also chased McGinnis that night, including Curtis Pitts. The witnesses saw five white men chasing a Black man — McGinnis.
Pitts reportedly later told one witness he kicked McGinnis in the head, knocking him into the St. Joseph River. Pitts told the witness he and others who had been chasing McGinnis went into the water to pull McGinnis out but couldn’t get him.
Witness interviews conducted by state investigators now and local police then says Pitts referred to Black people using the N-word.
“Clearly, there were racial elements to it. There’s no question about that,” Attorney General Nessel said.
The report also says that a man named Daniel Thornton came forward in 1993 and gave much of this information to police then. However, police did not find Thornton’s story believable and did not pursue the case further. Thornton was in jail at the time and police suspected he might be trying to get a lighter sentence by giving information in another case.
But in 2021, the state investigators were able to corroborate much of the information from Thornton.
“Our investigation did include some really pivotal interviews that were not done back 30 years ago,” Nessel said. “It’s not clear to me whether or not those individuals refused to cooperate at that time or whether the police did not get to that point in the investigation.”
Her office’s report names Pitts as the main suspect in McGinnis’ death. Pitts died in 2003. The report also named Theodore Warmbein — the man from whom McGinnis allegedly stole and who was allegedly among the group chasing him. Warmbein died in 2007.
The attorney general’s report also lists a third suspect, whose name was redacted from the documents released to the public, but said investigators did not find enough evidence to charge that person.
“That case involved some other actors who may have committed some crimes, not homicides, but the statute of limitations have run (out),” Nessel explained.
She said she is open to other avenues that could bring justice for the family.
“I think that it’s worth exploring other ways to view the case and to see was there an injustice that was done here and was it intentional,” Nessel said.
McGinnis’s family and their attorney have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate on the grounds of the recently passed Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Nessel said she welcomes the idea.
“Are there other actors at play why this case was never resolved? I don’t know the answer to that question. If the Department of Justice can provide that answer, then I think it’s a good thing,” Nessel said.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.