KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Two weeks after Jeff Titus’s release from prison, the man wrongfully convicted of two 1990 murders stood in the woods with a battery-powered shaver.

“I said I was going to shave this when I get out, and that’s what this day is,” he said on Thursday before pushing the shaver through his long, gray beard like a shovel through snow.

“I feel like I’m getting back to being a human,” he said as tufts of gray fell to his feet.

Titus, 71, had vowed more than a year ago not to shave or cut his hair until he was released from prison.

“I figured I’d be out before Christmas, I’d play Santa Claus,” he said.

Jeff Titus shaves his beard, which he vowed not to do until he was free from prison, on March 9, 2023. (Ken Kolker/WOOD TV8)
Jeff Titus shaves his beard, which he vowed not to do until he was free from prison, on March 9, 2023. (Ken Kolker/WOOD TV8)

He is living with a relative in Southwest Michigan. He doesn’t want to say where because he knows some people might still think he’s a killer.

“All these woods, deer running everywhere and turkeys, oh man,” he said before identifying the trees that surrounded him.

“That’s a beech, that’s a cherry tree over there,” he said. “I’ll tell you, being in the outdoors again, to be back in the woods, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The original Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office detectives in the 1990 murders of hunters Doug Estes and Jim Bennett focused at first on Titus but quickly cleared him. The victims were shot in the back in the Fulton State Game Area next to Titus’s property. Titus, an avid hunter, was known to be protective of his land. A decade later, a cold case team ignored the alibi witnesses who put Titus 27 miles away, leading to his conviction and a double life sentence in 2002.

In prison, Titus worked as a tutor and on the yard crew while making greeting cards on the side.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s just you and me against the world — and the world’s cheating,” one of his cards reads.

“I’ve probably got 15 to 20,000 greeting cards,” he said.

He said he was robbed in prison and sucker-punched.

“Somebody threw boiling hot water with soap in it on my back,” he said.

Twenty-one years of his life, lost.

“I missed the birth of my three grandsons; I missed walking both of my daughters down the aisle,” he said.

His mom last visited him before COVID-19 and hoped to live long enough to see him on the right side of the razor wire.

“She didn’t get to make it,” he said. “She died May 19th of ’21.”

The Michigan Innocence Clinic took up his case a decade ago at the request of the original detectives. That led to a Target 8 investigation in 2017 that exposed serious flaws in the case.

But it was the producers of a podcast and true-crime TV show who discovered an alternate suspect, an Ohio serial killer named Thomas Dillon who has since died.

Late last month, a federal judge cleared the convictions and ordered Titus’s immediate release after ruling that investigators wrongly withheld evidence about Dillon.

His first stop: Sweetwater’s Donut Mill in Battle Creek, with producers from the podcast and TV program. Then there was the stop at McDonald’s for lunch for two that included a Shamrock Shake.

“I was shocked,” he said. “It was $23 for the two of us.”

Back in the woods next to where he’s now staying, Titus watches the birds, breathes the fresh air and looks forward to deer hunting again. He’s learning how to use an iPhone.

“You can just turn around and cook something and fix you whatever you want,” he said. “I mean, drink regular coffee that’s perked, because all we had in there was instant.”

He’s expecting to file a claim soon for state wrongful imprisonment compensation: $50,000 a year for more than $1 million in all.

“How many years did I spend in that hellhole to get that when I could have been out making money?” he said.

He also hopes to sell his greeting cards.

“It ain’t going to do no good to sit there and be angry and mad and everything else,” he said. “It’s just going to eat at me, so it’s best to just put it off to the side and then make the best of what I’ve got right now.”