KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Attorney General’s Office says Jeff Titus, convicted of killing two hunters in Kalamazoo County in 1990, should be immediately released from prison after determining sheriff’s detectives years ago kept critical evidence from prosecutors, according to newly filed court documents.
The AG’s office, working with the Michigan Innocence Clinic, asked a federal judge to order a new trial.
Titus, 71, who has served 21 years in prison, was the subject of a 2017 Target 8 investigation that raised questions about why his alibi was not considered before his conviction. Now, evidence shows the murders may have been committed by serial killer Thomas Dillon, who hunted hunters, according to the document filed in federal court.
Hunters Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, who didn’t know each other, were shot and killed not far apart on Nov. 17, 1990, in the Fulton State Game Area in Kalamazoo County. The original detectives quickly cleared Titus after alibi witnesses said he was hunting 27 miles away at the time.
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 told Target 8 they would have testified that they had cleared Titus.
Titus, sentenced to life without parole, has always maintained his innocence.
The Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, working with the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan, started investigating Titus’ case in 2019. The original detectives on the case had approached the Innocence Clinic to take up the case.
In a court document filed Tuesday, the AG’s office said it confirmed a previously undisclosed file in the original Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office homicide case — 30 pages about an “alternate suspect” Thomas Dillon.
Dillon was a serial killer who targeted hunters and outdoorsmen. He was arrested in 1993 and pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder in Ohio, court records show. Records show he also was a suspect in the killing of an outdoorsmen in Pennsylvania that remains unsolved. Dillon died in prison in 2011.
The Kalamazoo County sheriff’s file included an Ohio police report that shows Dillon borrowed two long guns from co-workers on Nov. 17, 1990, the day of the Fulton State Game Area murders. The victims were killed with two different weapons.
The court document shows a woman identified as Helen Nofz identified a car in a ditch not far from where the bodies were found that matched a car owned by Dillon’s wife. One of the original detectives, Bruce Wiersema, drove Nofz and her 8-year-old son Derek to a jail in Ohio, where they independently identified Dillon as the driver of that ditched car. The son told Target 8 that he and his mom had offered to help the stranger, who declined their help. He said he got within 4 feet of the man.
Not until hours later did they learn that two hunters had been killed in the game area. Both were shot in the back and left in the woods.
By that time, the stranger and his car were gone.
The court filed by the AG’s office said the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s file didn’t contain any of the documents about Dillon.
Wiersema, who was with the mom and her son when they identified Dillon, previously 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.
However, the new court document shows Dillon had last checked in at the hunting grounds at noon that day and “would have had enough time to drive from Ohio at noon to the murder site and commit the murders.”
According to the AG’s office, the FBI had conducted surveillance of Dillon and documented times when he would drive hundreds of miles from home and said that he picked up his shell casings at murder scenes.
He killed one of the men in Ohio on Nov. 10, 1990, exactly a week before the Kalamazoo County murders. He killed another hunter in Ohio 11 days later.
Records show Dillon’s cellmate in Ohio told the FBI that Dillon admitted he had killed two hunters standing close together “in a county where no one could prove he had been.”
Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting refused to tell Target 8 on Wednesday whether he would request a new trial for Titus. He said he was awaiting a federal judge’s ruling.