KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A former cold case detective who investigated the 1990 murders of two hunters in Kalamazoo County said a federal judge was wrong to release Jeff Titus from prison.
But another former cold case detective, kicked off the investigation years ago after objecting to the pursuit of Titus, said the judge got it right.
Titus, 71, walked out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility near Coldwater on Feb. 24 after U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman vacated his convictions and ruled he was wrongfully convicted. Titus had served 21 years.
Retired Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department cold case detective Mike Brown said the judge freed a guilty man.
“He is guilty as sin,” Brown said. “They didn’t clear him; they just let him out of prison.”
“That doesn’t surprise me, to be honest with you,” he added. “We have a socialist democratic party in charge of our country.”
DETECTIVE: ‘NO DOUBT’ TITUS GUILTY
The federal judge vacated Titus’s conviction in the November 1990 murders of hunters Doug Estes and Jim Bennett in the Fulton State Game Area, right next to Titus’s land. The judge ruled Titus didn’t get a fair trial in 2002 because his defense wasn’t told about evidence against an alternate suspect — Ohio serial killer Thomas Dillon, who has since died.
Brown said he recalls hearing about Dillon, but not until after Titus’s conviction.
“I’m not buying that he’s the guilty guy at all,” he said of Dillon.
Brown said the Kalamazoo County cold case team solved 30 homicides.
“We were damn good homicide investigators,” he said. “There were five of us; we were damn good at what we did.”
He said they had plenty of evidence against Titus.
“There is absolutely no doubt, and I am the last one to ever think I would want to put somebody in prison that’s not guilty of what I charged them with,” Brown said.
Days after the murders, Titus told police he had found the shotgun of one of the victims in the woods.
“It was clean,” Brown said. “It was clean; there was no fingerprints on that gun at all.”
And he said, Titus, who was protective of his land, talked like a guilty man.
“I talked to a lot of people that knew him,” Brown said. “He bragged about the guys dying. He bragged about it.
“He said, ‘If they were on my property, I’d kill them,'” Brown said, though he acknowledged Titus never told anybody outright he killed the men.
OTHER INVESTIGATOR CITED ‘IRON-CLAD’ ALIBI
Not everyone on the cold case team wanted to focus on Titus.
“I didn’t think he did it,” former cold case detective Rich Mattison said.
From the start, Mattison argued against the team pursuing Titus when the case was reopened in 1999.
“It got to the point where we were basically yelling at each other,” Mattison said. “I was standing my ground and they were just shaking their heads at me.”
Instead, he agreed with the original detectives who had cleared Titus after alibi witnesses put him 27 miles away, hunting on their land, at the time of the murders:
“I agreed with Bruce Wiersema and Roy Ballett that he had a pretty iron-clad alibi, the farm people that he knew up there, saw him come in, saw him leave for lunch, saw him come back. His truck was right there all day.”
He said he brought it to a captain.
“You know how I feel about this case and you know I can’t just sit back and be quiet about it,” he recalled telling the captain. “I’m not going to be part of sending an innocent man to prison.”
The captain, he said, took him off the case.
“I was happy,” Mattison said when he learned the judge had released Titus. “I was happy, and sad knowing he’d been there for 21, 22 years. He went in at 50, came out at 71. That’s not fair.”
Brown, the other former cold case detective, said that even though he’s certain of Titus’s guilt, it makes no sense to retry him.
When asked if he owed Titus an apology, Brown responded: “No, hell no. No. Absolutely not. He’s a convicted murderer, twice. I don’t care what anybody says.”
ORIGINAL DETECTIVE ON RELEASE: ‘VINDICATION’
One of the detectives who originally cleared Titus said he feels vindicated by the release.
Former detective Bruce Wiersema was one of two investigators who asked the Michigan Innocence Clinic to take up the case. He is retired now and living in Arizona, but he watched video of Titus’s release online.
“I call that vindication,” he said.
His partner in the original investigation, Roy Ballett, died in January 2022, but Ballett’s sons were there for Titus’s release.
“I’m sure Roy knew it was coming, Roy Ballett, before he died, and I feel good about that,” Wiersema said.
The original detectives had focused on Titus for a time but cleared him based on the alibi witnesses.
“Probably a good idea for cold case teams to develop an actual valid case, instead of taking the easy route,” Wiersema said.
“No question about it, they had tunnel vision on that one,” he said.
The Kalamazoo County prosecutor hasn’t decided yet whether to retry Titus.
“I’m very happy for the man; been a long time coming. What else can I say? Yeah. I’m glad he’s out,” Wiersema said.