KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A man under investigation in the death of Kalamazoo County mother of eight Heather Kelley has been indicted on a federal charge of escaping a halfway house at the time of her disappearance.
The 37-year-old man was scheduled to be released from federal custody on April 26 but the escape charge, filed this week in federal court, means the feds can continue holding him, giving police in Kalamazoo County more time to investigate. He’s being held in the Newaygo County Jail.
The indictment also raises questions about what happened to the ankle tether that was supposed to have tracked him the night Kelley, 35, of Portage, went missing in December.
Police are investigating her case as a homicide, even though they haven’t found her body.
Search warrants obtained by Target 8 show the man was serving out the end of a federal cocaine sentence at KPEP, a halfway house in Kalamazoo. The warrants also show that at 9:30 p.m. the day of Kelley’s disappearance, his tether went dead.
Jennifer Toon, a Texas criminal justice activist who served time in prison and on a tether at a halfway house, said it’s not unusual for tether batteries to die. They need recharging daily.
“So if it goes dead, then you haven’t been charging it,” said Toon, project director of Lioness: Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance in Texas.
In Texas, that leads to an immediate notification to those who monitor the tethers, she said.
“All it would have taken is a supervising officer or a command center immediately to call the halfway house and say, ‘So-and-so’s battery is dead, put eyes on him.’ That’s what happens with us in Texas,” Toon said.
But KPEP spokesman John Truscott said that’s not what the contract with the Bureau of Prisons calls for.
“It’s a monitoring device to make sure that a person is in the location they’re supposed to be and where it was decided by a judge they should be,” Truscott said.
The halfway house monitors the tethers and reports violations, including dead batteries, to prison officials in writing, he said.
“A tether is to determine for the Bureau of Prisons how a person is complying with their rules,” Truscott said. “It’s not meant for an instantaneous response to law enforcement. Just because a tether loses its charge, it’s not a law enforcement violation. There’s no reason to activate law enforcement, and frankly with how stretched they are these days, they wouldn’t go after them anyway.”
The tether went dead, court records show, about the same time Kelley was calling her kids to say she was meeting her boyfriend in Kalamazoo. Phone records show they were together that night at a Kalamazoo dinner club where the man worked.
He returned to the halfway house early the next morning with what a roommate described as deep scratches on his chest and back, court records show.
Just before 6 a.m., the tether was back on. Police say they believe Kelley was killed and her body disposed of during that 8.5-hour window.
After her car was discovered with her blood in it, the man fled the halfway house and cut off his tether, search warrants show. He was arrested several days later.
A spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., refused to discuss the case.
“For privacy, safety, and security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not comment on matters related to pending litigation, ongoing legal proceedings, or ongoing investigations,” spokesman Donald Murphy said.
He referred Target 8 to KPEP.
“I can tell you, KPEP did everything they were supposed to do in this case,” Truscott, the KPEP spokesman, said. “They also, when a tether goes out, will call and follow up to make sure a person is where they’re supposed to be at that given time. That is standard practice and everything was complied with in this case.”
The CEO of KPEP is the spouse of a WOOD TV8 employee. That employee was not involved in preparing this report.