WAKESHMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Out of the thousands of stories she’s covered, former WOOD TV8 reporter Dani Carlson said the Venus Stewart case impacted her so deeply, she could never throw away all of her stories or notes, even after moving away.
Out of the thousands of stories I’ve done #VenusStewart really impacted me as a reporter and a person. I could never throw away all of my stories and notes. pic.twitter.com/zIjAKlvo37— Dani Carlson (@DaniCarlsonSays) October 22, 2018
“It’s just one of those stories that always really stuck with me. And Venus herself was only a couple years older than me when I started doing the story,” she told 24 Hour News 8 Monday, hours after learning that the missing mother’s remains had been found.
ENCOUNTERS WITH A KILLER
Carlson covered the case extensively during her time in West Michigan, from the search parties to the hearings at the St. Joseph County Courthouse in Centreville.
That’s where she met Doug Stewart shortly before he was charged with his estranged wife’s murder.
“It was nothing, nothing remarkable honestly, talking with him. And then it was just a couple weeks later that all this information came out: Doug was going to be arrested and that was the first time we heard the name Ricky Spencer. And the entire plot just unfolded from there,” she recounted.
Even after Doug Stewart was convicted of first-degree murder, he maintained his innocence. Which is why Monday’s development that Doug Stewart had led investigators to Venus Stewart’s body surprised her.
“I was shocked,” she said. “He had been proclaiming his innocence for almost a decade at this point. When I talked to him, he said he was innocent. He just kept repeatedly saying he didn’t do this and even as far as, after he went to prison, he had sent letters to members of the local media saying, ‘Ricky Spencer did this. I didn’t do this. Now my daughters are without a mom.’ So he went to great lengths to say that he didn’t do this. And so honestly I didn’t believe it at first, was my initial reaction.”
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GETTING VENUS BACK
Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Todd Petersen said after a couple of years of talking with investigators, Doug Stewart struck a deal with them last week, after they agreed to allow him to be part of a prison dog program and to teach sign language from prison. Petersen said they also agreed to give Doug Stewart and the rest of the prisoners in his unit access to an Xbox during free time, but added that deal was in the works earlier.
Petersen said time, persistence and pressure from his family and the victim’s family, who have forged a relationship in the past year, also led to Doug Stewart’s decision.
“We just didn’t feel like the minute details about what had happened that day — even though he did give us those — were as important as making sure the family got her back,” Petersen said.
Petersen said Doug Stewart led them to a two-track near South 42nd Street and East U Avenue in 42nd Street in Wakeshma Township, about 20 miles southeast of Kalamazoo and 12 miles north of where Venus Stewart was last seen alive. Petersen said Doug Stewart was very familiar with the area — his father had worked there cutting wood as a business, and Doug Stewart would work for him as a teenager.
“He was very sure about where it was at,” Petersen said.
The detective said when the team narrowed it down and began to dig, the blue tarp Doug Stewart bought from a Walmart the day before Venus Stewart’s death was one of the first things they saw.
“We’re extremely excited about the fact that the family can now have some closure to this, finally,” the detective said.
Petersen said he believes the family is relieved, but the developments have taken them back to the day more than eight years ago, when Venus Stewart vanished in her pajamas as she walked outside to get the mail.
On Facebook, the Venus Foundation posted that it was “so happy to hear Venus’ remains were found,” but “also saddened by the killer getting his additional 15 minutes of fame.”