Harold Estep talks about the night his girlfriend disappeared and was murdered, and how he feels about the upcoming trial of Andy Gustafson.
THE BLADE/LORI KING
For 30 years, Harold Estep lived under a shadow of doubt.
On a November night in 1983, his girlfriend, Janean Brown, went missing after spending the evening with him at a downtown Whitehouse bar. The next day, her body would be found in a ditch a mile and a half outside of town, bludgeoned with a belt, and nearly decapitated.
Mr. Estep, 25 at the time, would be questioned by investigators in the hours after Ms. Brown’s body was discovered and again and again over the next three decades.
Not until the recent indictment of Andrew Gustafson on aggravated murder charges for her death would the veil of suspicion that had hung over Mr. Estep be lifted.
“That’s a tough thing to carry all these years,” Mr. Estep, 54, said during an interview at his apartment in Whitehouse. “Somebody died that didn’t need to die. It was senseless.”
He said the June 5 arrest of Mr. Gustafson, a former Swanton Township man who also was among the initial suspects in the homicide, “hit me right in the face.”
“We couldn't wait for it to come to an end, and we knew that it was close to an end, but the day it happened it was like he lived back 30 years,” said Joyce Graber, Mr. Estep’s partner of eight years.
“He was a basket case. It was like it was 30 years ago and someone had just told him that she had passed away.”
For those who knew and loved Ms. Brown, it was the news they’d been waiting decades to hear. For Mr. Estep, a wheelchair technician at the Anne Grady Center, and his own family who also had been interviewed by police over the years, it was a burden lifted.
“For the whole family,” said Debbie Gingrich, Mr. Estep’s oldest sister. “It was very much of a relief. It was wonderful to know [the accused] was arrested.”
She said she, her six other siblings, and their parents never doubted Harold’s innocence.
“My mom and dad were alive then and they looked right at him — we all did — and said if he did it he needs to come clean,” Ms. Gingrich recalled.
Mr. Estep, for his part, always has been cooperative with investigators, said Rob Miller, chief of the special units division of the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office.
In 2011, when the Lucas County Cold Case Unit reopened the investigation into Ms. Brown’s death, Mr. Estep not only answered detectives’ questions, he gave them a swab of his mouth. His DNA, which was not a match, was the key to exonerating him in her death once and for all.
“We’re satisfied he’s not a suspect,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Estep, he said, voluntarily gave a DNA sample and spoke at length with cold-case investigators. Mr. Miller said boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses of homicide victims are always looked at closely in such investigations.
“It’s the most obvious suspect and we hope that through our thorough investigation to either exclude or include family members” as suspects, he said.
“A fresh set of eyes and science” are what led to Mr. Gustafson’s indictment in the 30-year-old case, Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Estep clearly remembers the evening Ms. Brown, whom he’d been dating for three or four months, disappeared.
Hung over from drinking the night before, Mr. Estep said he sipped soft drinks at the Copper Lantern bar. Ms. Brown had a few drinks, and they had a nice time, no arguments, no problems until they parted company about 2:30 a.m. when the bar closed.
Mr. Estep said that as Ms. Brown left in a car with her girlfriend, Pam Rader, and two friends who were giving them a ride home, Ms. Brown saw the barmaid — a woman Mr. Estep said he didn’t even know — plant a kiss on him in the parking lot. Though he didn’t initiate it, he still feels guilt that the innocent kiss led to Ms. Brown’s death.
Ms. Rader, whose family Ms. Brown had been living with in Whitehouse, said the kiss so upset Ms. Brown that when they got home, Ms. Brown told her she was going to Mr. Estep’s apartment to talk to him.
He, meanwhile, had walked home to the apartment he shared with his sister above the Calico Kitchen restaurant and had gone to sleep.
He said he went to work on a roofing job a few hours later and got a call that afternoon from Ms. Rader asking if he’d seen Ms. Brown. He hadn’t. While attending an anniversary party for his parents, he received the news that Ms. Brown was dead, her body found outside town. He was stunned.
“What do you say? What do you even think?” Mr. Estep said.
Michael Grosjean, Ms. Brown’s brother, said he remembers seeing Mr. Estep at his grandparents’ house after his sister’s death. His grandparents, Edward and Marjorie Brown, had adopted and raised Ms. Brown from birth.
“I was just 16 at the time,” said Mr. Grosjean, who now lives in Florida. “I remember him coming over to my grandpa’s house after Janean was found. I remember him just sobbing the whole time he was there. I don’t think anyone in the family ever thought he was a suspect.”
On the morning of June 5, Michigan State Police along with FBI agents and federal marshals showed up at Nexteer Automotive in Saginaw where Mr. Gustafson, 56, of Birch Run, Mich., had been working for the past year. He was arrested on a warrant charging him with two counts of aggravated murder and one count of murder.
Back in 1983, investigators had searched Mr. Gustafson’s van, which matched the description of one Ms. Brown was reportedly seen getting into in the early morning hours after she left the Copper Lantern. They also searched his mobile home, which was on property next to where her body was found.
Mr. Estep said he remembers seeing Mr. Gustafson at the Copper Lantern the night Ms. Brown disappeared. He said Mr. Gustafson had made a lewd comment to Ms. Brown, and Mr. Estep advised her to ignore him.
Mr. Estep said he knew Mr. Gustafson, though they were not friends. As the son of then-Dana Corp. President Stan Gustafson, he ran in a different social circle, Mr. Estep said.
“I never socialized with him because I was never good enough, cut and dried,” Mr. Estep said. “I went to school with him, his wife, his wife’s brothers and sisters.”
Only recently has he learned more details about Ms. Brown’s death. He believes they were kept from him because he was a suspect.
“For someone to do what they did to that poor girl, shame on them. That’s all I’ve got to say about that,” he said. “I’m not the judge. I’m not the jury. I’ve been in public places where Andy’s been before. We grew up here. He’s always stayed around here all these years.”
When Mr. Gustafson made his first appearance in Lucas County Common Pleas Court a week ago, Mr. Estep was there. When the defendant returns to court Wednesday for arraignment, Mr. Estep said he will be there.
“I won’t miss a day of it. I don’t care what anybody says,” Mr. Estep said.
“I’ve had this for 30 years.”
Like Ms. Brown’s family, he said he hopes for justice and he hopes for closure.
“If Andy did do it, they’ll find him guilty. If he didn’t, they’ll let him go and keep looking, I guess,” Mr. Estep said.
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