KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The recent release of Jeff Titus from prison 21 years after his wrongful conviction in a double murder was based on a single file labeled “serial killer” that a judge ruled was kept from his defense attorneys.
The 30-page file, created by one of the original detectives in the November 1990 murders of Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, focused on an alternate suspect, a serial killer who hunted down men in Ohio. Kalamazoo County cold case detectives who picked up the investigation years later say they never saw that file and have said they knew nothing about the alternate suspect.
But a Target 8 investigation shows the cold case team was aware of the Ohio suspect before Titus’s conviction and did nothing to look into him.
The cold case detectives whose work led to Titus’s conviction, Sgt. Mike Werkema and Mike Brown, were asked directly about the alternative suspect in a recent Investigation Discovery documentary, “The Hunted.”
“Did you know about the serial killer? That there was a guy who was a serial killer who had been looked at?” the producer asked Werkema.
“No, I did not,” Werkema said. “No, I mean, this is interesting.”
“You don’t know anything about the serial killer?” the producer asked Brown.
“Nope,” Brown responded. “Fill me in.”
But Target 8 found a police report among court filings that shows at least one of those detectives knew.
The report shows that Werkema helped reinterview a woman about the Ohio killer in May 2002, months before Titus’s conviction. That woman, Helen Nofz, who lived next to Jeff Titus, recalled how on the day of the 1990 murders, a stranger had slammed a car into a ditch just down the road from her, near the murder scene and about the same time.
“He was sweating, seemed nervous and not like smiling or friendly, just needed help,” Nofz told Target 8. “He said he was in the ditch because some deer had crossed.”
He was acting, she said, like a man who wanted to leave quickly.
“I said I’d call the police,” Nofz said. “He said he wasn’t interested in me calling the police because someone else would fix his car.”
At the time, she helped police with a composite drawing.
More than two years later, in 1993, after Thomas Dillon was arrested and identified as the killer of five men in Ohio, she and her son picked him out of a lineup. They did that at the request of one of the original detectives in the Kalamazoo County murders. Not only did she and her 8-year-old son pick out Dillon, but her composite bore an uncanny resemblance to the confessed killer.
The original investigators ruled out both Titus and, later Dillon, both through alibis.
But when the cold case detectives visited Nofz 17 years later, in 2000, they were focused on Titus, not Dillon. They had dismissed Titus’s alibi.
Nofz said they talked about Dillon.
“I talked about the car in the ditch and that was the whole reason they were talking to me,” she said.
She said she had no idea the detectives didn’t pursue it.
“I didn’t know what happened after that,” she said.
At Titus’s trial two years later, she was called as a defense witness.
“The whole reason I was there is because what happened down at the corner and Thomas Dillon; that’s why I was testifying,” she said.
But transcripts show that while she testified about the sweaty driver in the ditch, Dillon’s name never came up in court. Nobody asked.
Michigan Innocence Clinic Director David Moran said he had believed until now that the cold case detectives hadn’t heard of the serial killer connection. He questions why the cold case detectives didn’t pursue Dillon.
“They had blinders on,” Moran said. “It’s a real problem in wrongful conviction cases is the police get a bee in their bonnet, they get a theory and everything else is excluded. All other lines of investigation get shut down once they settle on a suspect.”
Werkema, now retired, acknowledged to Target 8 that Dillon had come up during the cold case investigation but said his team didn’t have enough to pursue him.
Asked why they didn’t investigate him after Nofz told them she had picked Dillon out of a lineup, he responded: “She did not pick him out of a lineup. She said of the people there, (No.) 3 looks most like him. That’s not an identification.”
An FBI report contradicts that.
“Upon completion of the line-up, it was learned both witnesses positively identified Dillon as the individual they saw at the vehicle stuck in the ditch,” the report says.
Werkema blames one of the original detectives who had already eliminated the serial killer after finding he had an alibi. He was hunting in Ohio until noon the day of the shooting — 285 miles away. It was the same original detective who had cleared Titus through an alibi, which the cold case team discounted.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic’s Moran, however, argues Dillon had plenty of time to drive to Kalamazoo County from the Ohio hunting grounds to kill. He left Ohio sometime after noon. The killings happened between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Google Maps shows the drive is 4 hours, 6 minutes.
“I did the same thing on my Google Maps and said, nope, he could have made it easily,” Moran said.
Werkema said his team would have done more if it had seen the 30 pages of reports gathered by one of the original detectives, or if it had learned that Dillon had talked to a cellmate about killing two people, or that the FBI had tracked Dillon enough to know he often drove hundreds of miles at a time.
“We’d have gone to Ohio and talked to Dillon,” Werkema said. “By all means we would have talked to Dillon. He was already serving life in prison; we would have focused on establishing a relationship with him because he would have nothing to lose to talk to us.”
Dillon died in prison in 2011.
It’s still not clear what happened to the 30-page serial killer file on Dillon. Werkema and two other members of the cold case team told Target 8 they never saw it.
“It had never been a part of the original file,” retired Detective Rich Mattison told Target 8. “I have no explanation as to why it wasn’t. That would have been a bombshell and we did not know it.”
He said the only report he saw about Dillon back then showed the original detectives had eliminated him as a suspect. He said he never saw anything about the woman and her son picking out Dillon in a lineup.
“It would have changed the complexion of the whole case,” he said. “You know? There’s another possibility. That would have sealed the whole deal.”
But he had been removed from the case, he said, because he argued they were targeting the wrong man: Titus.
The head of the Michigan Innocence Clinic found the serial killer reports in June 2020 in the case file at Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department. He said he can’t explain why he found it but the cold case team couldn’t.
“I can’t answer that because I wasn’t there when they went through it, but it was a big file, a very, very big file,” Moran said. “It took me many hours to go through it.”
Bruce Wiersema is the original detective who created the serial killer file. He is retired in Arizona. He said the reports on Dillon were in the case file.
“It was in the file when it was turned over to the cold case team, the entire package was turned over,” he said.
He said the serial killer refused his request for an interview. In an affidavit, Wiersema said he was “overwhelmed” by the case.
“I was assigned as lead investigator, even though I did not have enough experience investigating homicides,” he said.
He said he believes Dillon was the killer.
Werkema, the retired cold case sergeant, said he believes the judge was right to release Titus from prison because the defense didn’t know about Dillon. But he still believes Titus is guilty.
“I still believe Jeff Titus is the killer, yes,” Werkema said. “Based on his character, the things that he did, yes, he’s the killer. He’s a dangerous man and I’m pretty much afraid of him. I hope he’s worthy of his new freedom and he does the right thing with it.”