ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (WOOD) — The mother of the man identified by the state Attorney General’s Office as the suspected killer of 16-year-old Eric McGinnis in 1991 said police had ruled out her son decades ago.
Linda Clark, the mother of suspect Curtis Pitts, said she’d heard nothing more about the case until last week, when the AG’s office called her home to say it was releasing her son’s name.
“The main suspect who is believed to have committed this murder is Curtis Pitts,” the AG report states.
The death of the Black teenager originally ruled an accidental drowning is now being called a homicide.
Pitts, who was white, died by suicide in 2003 — 12 years after McGinnis’ death.
“Why would they pinpoint my son, other than he was the easiest target?” Clark said.
“That’s why they put it out,” she said. “He can’t defend himself.”
The body of McGinnis was pulled from the St. Joseph River in the city of St. Joseph in May 1991.
McGinnis’ family believes the death was racially motivated and that police didn’t do their job when they investigated it.
They are hoping for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice under the recently passed Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
Pitts’ mom said St. Joseph police interviewed her son shortly after the death. Her son, 19 at the time, denied any involvement.
“They questioned my son and we talked and he said, ‘I don’t know why. I had nothing to do with it,'” she said.
The AG’s report shows conflicting stories about what happened the night of May 17, 1991, the last time McGinnis was seen alive.
“We do know that, at some point during the night, Eric broke into the vehicle of an individual by the name of Theodore Warmbein and stole $44 in cash,” the AG report states.
Warmbein, 42 at the time, caught McGinnis in his car and chased him until losing sight of him downtown, according to the report.
Police back then believed that McGinnis jumped into the river to escape Warmbein and “tragically drowned from the combination of the cold water, heavy clothing and due to his weakened condition having just recovered from the chicken pox.”
Police said they found $49 in McGinnis’s pockets after recovering his body. They said his mom had given him $5 to get into a club that night.
Police said Warmbein was cleared in the death after passing a polygraph. He died in 2007 of bladder cancer.
As for Pitts, he and McGinnis had been dating the same girl, according to the report.
When police interviewed Pitts back then, he claimed he didn’t know McGinnis and didn’t know his girlfriend had dated him.
But the AG’s report shows Pitts was “rather defensive,” though he was not offered a polygraph.
Two years later, Daniel Thornton, a man just launching his career as a life-long criminal, told police he and a friend saw Pitts at a St. Joseph club for teens with McGinnis and the girl. He said McGinnis slapped the girl during an argument and that Pitts had witnessed it.
He told police he saw Pitts and others chase McGinnis, then saw Pitts kick the victim in the head at the South Pier, knocking him into the river.
But that witness failed a polygraph, and the friend he was with denied seeing anything.
However, the AG’s office says it recently interviewed other witnesses who identified Pitts as the suspect, saying he was among five people who chased McGinnis that night. Warbein was identified as one of the five. Witnesses said Pitts called McGinnis the N-word, and that Pitts admitted to one that he had knocked McGinnis into the river with a kick to the head.
At the time of his death a dozen years later, Pitts was an apprentice electrician who had a short criminal record that included drunk driving and misdemeanor assault.
“He was a really, really good person,” his mother said. “Liked animals, kids. He was real helpful.”
She said her son wasn’t a racist.
“Never had been. He had all kinds of nationalities for friends,” she said. “I don’t know who these witnesses are, but maybe one of them did it and is trying to get out of it.”
Her son, she said, is not the McGinnis family’s closure.
“I wish them the best of luck. I would definitely like to know the real story. But until somebody really does confess to it, we’re not going to find out,” she said.