ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (WOOD) — A Target 8 investigation into the death of 16-year-old Eric McGinnis in May 1991 in the St. Joseph River has revealed serious flaws in the initial police work on the case and has raised questions about the state attorney general’s recent investigation.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office’s investigation determined the death of the Black teenager a homicide, overturning the initial ruling of accidental drowning. It also identified a suspected killer: Curtis Pitts, who was white. He was 19 at the time. He died by suicide nearly 20 years ago.
Among the flaws in the initial investigation: Detectives failed to talk to Pitts’ alibi witnesses and didn’t ask him to take a polygraph test despite his bizarre answers during an interview a month after the death. They also didn’t reinterview Pitts after his name came up again two years later.
The AG’s investigation relied on witnesses whose descriptions that night don’t match. One of the witnesses it cites failed a polygraph and later changed his story.
That has left McGinnis’ family pushing for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
“You can’t get beyond the idea that Eric was in an all-white community,” McGinnis’ uncle, Bennie Bowers, told Target 8. “He was a young Black boy having sexual activity with a white female. She was popular. She had friends, maybe a new boyfriend, and he was chased. It’s not difficult to fill in the blanks at that point. He was chased and he was found in the river. Speculation is that they caught (him), you’ve got to think that they did, and they killed him.”
Brand new “Coastie” Saul Brignoni thought it was a mud-covered log floating down the St. Joseph River toward Lake Michigan on May 22, 1991.
McGinnis, of neighboring Benton Harbor, had disappeared five days earlier, on May 17.
“It was early morning. I remember being down at our motor life boat — it’s a 44-footer,” Brignoni, a former U.S. Coast Guard member, said. “I was on the starboard side of the boat, cleaning the brass and I remember looking over and I saw him floating down the river.”
It was still looking like a log, he said, as it floated closer to the US. Coast Guard station on the river. Then someone called from the company that was dredging the river.
“They told us there’s something that needed to be looked at,” he said.
A few minutes later, they were pulling in a body.
“His face was swollen and he was in full rigor, I remember that,” he said.
He remembers the mark on the neck — which is, perhaps, what led to rumors of a hanging.
“He had one abrasion that was to his neck, I remember, but it was from the line that they used when they were trying to get him close to the boat,” Brignoni said.
Brignoni, just 19 at the time, lost track of what happened in the decades that followed. He went on to join the California Highway Patrol.
“Countless, countless bodies over the years, but Eric McGinnis was the first one and I’ll never forget him,” Brignoni said. “I remember he had his baseball jersey on and it had his name across the back. He was just a kid. He was just a few years younger than me.”
A RACIAL DIVIDE
The recovery of the Black teenager’s body launched an investigation that further divided two neighboring cities already separated by culture and race.
Benton Harbor is 85% Black with a poverty rate nearing 50%. Just across the river, St. Joe is 86%white with a poverty rate of less than 9%.
Some in Benton Harbor, including McGinnis’ family, believed the death was racially motivated.
Some accused the St. Joseph Police Department, which was investigating the case, of a cover-up.
“They didn’t want to release the status of the investigation because they feared for racial pushback or a riot to some degree from the Benton Harbor community,” Bowers, McGinnis’ uncle, said.
Eric’s mom Ruth McGinnis died in 2008 not knowing what happened to her only child.
“She died with a broken heart,” Bowers said. “My mom died with a broken heart. My mom back in 1991 said the whites in St. Joe and the white police department in St. Joe, these are her words: ‘They’re not going to investigate this.'”
McGinnis was a sophomore at Benton Harbor High School, a member of Junior ROTC and the NAACP in Benton Harbor. He sang in his church’s choir.
“He was a young man that had a lot of enthusiasm about everything that he felt was important,” his uncle said. “He was full of energy — to a fault, sometimes.”
McGinnis stayed sometimes with his uncle, Bennie Bowers, now a retired Michigan State Police lieutenant. His uncle last saw him a week before the death.
“The last time I spoke with him is when I put him on the bus to send him back to Benton Harbor, and he did something that I never heard him or witness him do with me before,” Bowers recalled. “I put him on the bus in Kalamazoo, he stopped briefly, he turned around and said, ‘You know, Uncle Junior, I love you.’ He never had said that before, and that was the last time I seen him. He was a great kid.”
An autopsy ruled the death a drowning and found no signs of injury. McGinnis had a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 — about half the level considered intoxicated.
“98% SURE IT’S A HOMICIDE”
Last year, 30 years after McGinnis’ death, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel assigned two special investigators to reopen the case after a witness came forward.
One of those investigators, Gentry Shelby, said he’s “98% sure that it was a homicide.”
But, he said, he does not believe the homicide was racially motivated.
“I believe the thing happened just as they said: That he was chased down to the river, to the pier. I believe that based on the evidence and testimony from witnesses that Curtis Pitts kicked him. I believe that Eric went in the water,” Shelby said. “I believe that Mr. Pitts and two other individuals went into the river to get him out — as an attempt to save him. I believe that happened.
“I don’t think they wanted it to happen that way — when I say they, Mr. Pitts and the party that was with him. I don’t think they wanted it to happen that way, only because they went in to go get him.”
The AG investigator is a retired Detroit police detective who investigated homicides for six years.
He told Target 8 he was surprised by what local police did not do back then — alibi witnesses not questioned, tips not followed — but he blamed it on a lack of experience.
“I can backseat quarterback and call it a lot of things,” Shelby said. “When I opened the case, I had questions right off. Why wasn’t this done? Why wasn’t that done? Why wasn’t that question asked? Why wasn’t this question asked? And why weren’t those folks talked to the way that I would have talked to them?”
St. Joseph Police Department Lt. Jim Reeves was the original lead detective on the case. He’s now retired.
“St. Joe was a sleepy town so to speak, safe and sleepy,” Reeves said. “This was my first potential homicide that I was responsible for.”
Area police departments quickly formed a task force to work the case. He said they questioned at least 100 witnesses.
“We had so many people that would give information or fail to give information, and they would report what they heard, what they thought,” Reeves said. “We tried to track down everything that came to us.”
The original detective acknowledged he made mistakes, but says it was not a cover-up. He now is questioning the AG’s findings.
“It’s easy to blame a dead guy,” Reeves said.
After reading the AG’s recently released report that ruled the death a homicide and identified the suspect, he said: “There is no evidence.”
Curtis Pitts’ mom also wants to see the evidence that her son is the killer.
“Why would they pinpoint my son, other than he was the easiest target?” she said. “Because he passed away.”
“Something’s not right,” she said.
Target 8 reviewed 420 pages of police reports on the death and interviewed those identified as witnesses and others involved in the case. The review shows that the witnesses the AG is relying on told stories that are inconsistent.
HOW IT STARTED
There are disputes among witnesses about what happened the night of May 17, 1991 — how this all got started. Some say McGinnis and his girlfriend, a white girl, were at The Club, a hangout for teens along the bluff in St. Joseph. Others say he never made it into The Club that night.
The AG, however, said there’s no disputing this: About 9:30 that night, McGinnis broke into a car not far from The Club and stole $44.
The car’s owner, 41-year-old Ted Warmbein, who was white, spotted McGinnis, tackled him, lost control of him, then gave chase, later telling police he lost him downtown after about a block. A witness called police, starting a search.
That witness told Target 8 Warmbein was huffing and puffing and couldn’t catch McGinnis.
Other witnesses said they heard Warmbein yell: “If I catch up to you, I’ll kill you.”
“Warmbein was probably the first person of interest that we had to focus on since he was the victim from larceny from the vehicle, or break-in if you will, and money was stolen, and when Eric’s body was recovered and later ID’d, that exact amount of money that was reported stolen was in one pocket and the money that Eric had in the other pocket was the $5 that his father had given him before dropping him off … to get into the club,” Reeves, the original detective, said.
Police reports show Warmbein had an alibi for the rest of that night and later passed polygraph tests.
“Both of those were indicating to us, the police department, that Mr. Warmbein was very truthful,” Reeves said.
Police cleared him.
ALIBI WITNESSES NOT QUESTIONED
About a month after the death, Reeves considered another possible suspect — Pitts, the same man recently identified as the killer, after learning Pitts had a possible motive.
Pitts and McGinnis had dated the same girl.
Pitts gave a curious answer when the detective asked during an interview: “Did you have anything to do with Eric’s death at all?”
“No,” Pitts said. “Not that I know of.”
Pitts and his girlfriend said they were at a party that night with friends 20 minutes away in Berrien Springs. They identified two alibi witnesses. Those alibi witnesses, who didn’t want to be identified, told Target 8 that police back then never questioned them.
Last year, AG investigators knocked on their doors.
“(They) asked me if i was partying with him, if I remember this and that, 30 years ago,” one of the alibi witnesses told Target 8. “Why didn’t you come to me 30 years ago and ask? Now it’s important for you to come now and expect me to remember 30 years ago? We did a lot of partying back then. I was 19 years old.”
He said he doubts that Pitts, a man he described as his best friend, was a killer. At the time of his suicide in 2003, Pitts was an apprentice electrician who had a short criminal record that included drunken driving and misdemeanor assault.
“Me and Curtis have been friends for 15 years-plus and he would tell me anything,” he said. “Never said anything about it. You know, killing somebody, I’m sure he would say something. He’d have regret about it or something.”
However, he described Pitts as a “fighter. He’d hold his own.” And he said he had seen Pitts do a roundhouse kick like the one described by a witness in the death of McGinnis.
The other alibi witness also told the AG detectives last year that she couldn’t remember partying with Pitts and his girlfriend that night 31 years ago.
“Where were the police 30 years ago?” she asked. “Here’s this young man and he’s murdered and nobody cares for 30 years? I don’t understand that.”
Not only that, while police back then gave Pitts’ girlfriend a polygraph test, which she passed, they never asked Pitts to take one.
“Why wouldn’t they polygraph him? Which was a question that I had,” said Shelby, the AG special investigator. “Why not polygraph the main suspect? Why not sit him down, put the light on him and ask him the hard questions?”
Reeves, the original lead detective, said he didn’t give Pitts a polygraph “because his information was corroborated by other people.”
But certainly not by those alibi witnesses.
“I didn’t speak to them,” Reeves said.
He now says they should have been interviewed.
“Absolutely,” he said.
POLICE THEORY: FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Instead, police focused on the theory that McGinnis was on the run after stealing from the car.
“A lot of people would dare to say that he was in a fight-or-flight mode and he was looking for ways to get home, or at least get out of here,” Reeves said.
To get to his home in Benton Harbor, he would have to cross the St. Joseph River. Either, police thought, he jumped in the river to swim or he fell in. And, Reeves noted, perhaps he had a reason for not taking a chance by running across the bridge that spans the river.
“(The) sheriff’s department is there and you’re out in the open,” Reeves said.
A now-retired state police detective lieutenant who reviewed the case in 1991 agreed. He told Target 8 he saw no evidence it was a homicide. So did an FBI agent who reviewed the case back then for the US. Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations. He found none.
At Target 8’s request, that FBI agent, Stanley Lapekas, now retired, reviewed the AG report that closed the case.
“It’s a stretch to say that, and I’m not saying he didn’t do it, that Pitts murdered Eric,” Lapekas said.
JAIL WITNESS COMES FORWARD
Two years after the death, in 1993, Pitts’ name came up again from a man locked up at the Berrien County Jail on a larceny charge, a man just beginning a life of crime.
He told the original detective he saw Pitts, McGinnis and the girlfriend in The Club that night, that the three argued and that Pitts and others later followed McGinnis out. He said they chased McGinnis down the hill toward Lake Michigan, then north toward the South Pier. At the South Pier, the witness said he watched Pitts kick McGinnis in the head and knock him into the river, before Pitts and others threw rocks at him.
He told Reeves he had heard Pitts refer to Black people using the N-word.
The original detectives doubted his story, saying he couldn’t describe McGinnis and couldn’t identify the girlfriend. He also failed a polygraph.
“The polygraph examiner found him to be very deceptive,” Reeves said.
Not only that, but the witness identified a friend who was with him at the pier. That friend denied being there or having any knowledge of the death.
The AG investigator set up a recent meeting with the jailhouse witness, who is back in prison for arson, unlawful imprisonment and assault by strangulation.
“I could see that he was upset that I even asked him,” the investigator said. “And he said to me, ‘I told them what happened 30 years ago and they wouldn’t listen to me,’ and he also added, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘They let that guy get away with killing that man, or that boy.’ Something like that: ‘They let him get away with murder, and I told them what happened. I don’t want to have nothing to do with this.’ And he got up and walked out. That’s all I was able to get out of him.”
Target 8 spoke to the jailhouse witness from prison. He refused to discuss the case and said he fears for his safety.
He questioned why the AG’s office publicly released his name.
“I think they’re putting my life at risk by saying that,” he said. “I’m in an almost maximum security prison with people who are convicted of murder and stuff and that would label me as a snitch, to put my life at risk.”
When asked about failing the polygraph back then, he said: “OK, so here’s my question to you. If that’s the case, right, why now? Why now is my name coming up? And why now does anybody care what I have to say? If I’m not believable or if I’m a liar, then why now?”
When asked if he actually saw Pitts kick McGinnis in the head, as he initially told police, he responded: “If I answer that, or if I say yes, or whatever, then that makes me look like a snitch. That’s not a question that I can answer.”
A NEW WITNESS
The AG investigator Shelby told Target 8 it was another witness, a registered sex offender named Michael Batson, who validated the story told by that jailhouse witness.
“It’s different if you have one witness’s testimony, but when you have another person,” he said.
The AG investigator said Batson told his story to police years ago.
“But he felt that his information was not going further,” Shelby said.
He also told his probation officer and she took notes, which the AG investigators found, including these from 2003:
“Defendant contacted by St. Joseph PD about knowledge of high-profile incident which took place several years ago.”
“Still bringing up beach incident at inappropriate times.”
“He would go and say, ‘Hey listen, I really need to talk to you about this,’ and the probation agent would go, ‘Mr. Batson interrupted our group again to talk about this high-profile murder that happened on the beach, period,'” Shelby said.
“The notes validate the story, and it’s not one entry, it’s several entries,” he continued. “It’s a half-a-dozen entries over a course of a period of years: Mr. Batson is talking about this murder. Mr. Batson said somebody killed himself as a result of this murder. He was talking about Mr. Pitts. She’s documenting it. Whether or not she’s telling anybody, I don’t know.”
It’s not clear if the probation agent ever told police.
Batson finally agreed to sit down and talk to the AG investigators in March.
“When he finally talked to us, he broke down on multiple occasions, crying, very emotional, because he finally had someone to listen to him,” Shelby said.
Batson told them he and a friend were smoking on the beach that night when they saw five white men, including Pitts and Warmbein, chasing a Black kid.
It was Warmbein who had chased McGinnis earlier from his car up on the bluff.
“Mr. Batson says in the beginning when he’s watching these five individuals chase Mr. McGinnis, Eric McGinnis is holding his coat and he says, ‘As he’s running past us on the beach, he looks at us like, can you help me?’ And he said that he didn’t help him because it was obvious why he was running,” Shelby said.
Batson told him he figured the kid had stolen the coat.
While he didn’t witness an assault, Batson said Pitts that night told him: “We can take care of you right now just like we took care of that f-ing N-word. There’s the water, go ahead and look.”
He told police that Pitts, Warmbein and another man were soaking wet.
After the body was found, Batson told police Pitts visited his house and told him he had done a roundhouse kick to the side of McGinnis’ head, that McGinnis hit his head on the pier and fell in the water. He said Pitts told him they went into the water hoping to fish him out.
The AG says the man who was smoking with Batson night backed up the story.
Batson refused Target 8’s request for an interview, but in an exchange of text messages he said the AG’s report was incomplete. For one thing, he said, two groups were chasing McGinnis that night — the group of five and a separate group of eight. He called it a lynching.
Warmbein died of bladder cancer in 2007.
What’s still not clear is how Pitts and Warmbein — both with different motives for chasing McGinnis — joined forces that night. The AG investigator said there’s no indication that the two knew each other.
“I think they just had something they realized that something was in common,” Shelby said. “As he was chasing Mr. McGinnis down the streets, he yells, ‘He just broke into my car.’ Maybe Curtis Pitts heard that and joined in the chase and said, ‘We’ve been after him anyway.’ Maybe it was one of those things.”
The original detective and another detective who worked the case are skeptical.
“I find that to be ridiculous,” Reeves said. “Mr. Warmbein was a man in his 40s; he was reportedly slightly intoxicated at the time that this incident happened and he was a heavy smoker and he was overweight and by accounts that the reports indicate, he was extremely winded by the time he chased the suspect who broke into his car.”
Police reports show other inconsistencies. The jailhouse witness told police this all went down after midnight, but the new witness told police the sun hadn’t set.
“It was dusk,” the AG investigator said. “From the information we got from Mr. Batson, he said it was not dark yet, but it was getting dark.”
Also, the jailhouse witness, after failing a polygraph, later changed his story to say he never saw the kick and that Pitts just told him about it.
Then, there’s this: The AG investigators say based on witness accounts, the final confrontation happened somewhere on the South Pier. Five days later, the body surfaced more than 1,500 feet upriver, near the railroad bridge.
“Huge problem,” Reeves, the original lead detective, said. “My experience of growing up in this area and being a police officer in this area and recovering bodies, this river flows west.”
How, he wondered, could the body have floated east, upriver, against the current of a river that’s rushing toward Lake Michigan?
But the AG investigator said an expert told him water from the powerful lake can push upriver.
“Maybe he’s not down far enough to hit the undertow, to get kicked out to the lake,” the AG investigator said. “Maybe he’s just down far enough a couple of feet where he’s on that top current that’s pushing him that way, and maybe he gets hung up on some rebar, or some cement or some debris down there, and can’t break free.”
Target 8 has watched as Lake Michigan waves pushed upriver.
‘MURDER, ALL DAY’
The new investigation closed the case without criminal charges. The key players, the AG’s office said, are dead. But Shelby, the AG investigator, said he has enough evidence to charge Pitts if he were alive.
“It would have to be murder, all day,” he said.
The original detective sees it another way.
“I don’t know where the proof is. It’s a nice way to say this is what happened: OK, people of Benton Harbor, people of St. Joe, people of Berrien County, this is what happened, so let’s just…” and Reeves slapped his hands together, as if to wipe them clean.
As for McGinnis’ uncle, Bennie Bowers, the retired state police lieutenant, he remains convinced the attack was a racially motivated hate crime.
“They did not want this to be a murder in 1991 of a Black boy being chased in an all-white community after having an affair, sexual activity with a white female in a bathroom (at The Club) and white males chasing him through downtown St. Joe and killing him,” Bowers said.
Bowers criticized the AG’s report that closed the case without criminal charges, calling it convoluted. He said his family has asked the AG’s office for the entire file on the case.
“The investigation was not done very well at all,” Bowers said. “I shouldn’t say very well. That’s a light way of putting it. It wasn’t an investigation.”
The family has asked the Department of Justice to investigate under the recently passed Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
“Those that are involved have not been brought to justice,” Bowers said.