Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Police & Fire

Victim of 1983 Whitehouse killing far from forgotten

In a quiet country cemetery just northeast of Whitehouse this week, Pam Purney will set a six-pack of beer on a grave, open a bottle of white wine, and drink a toast to her best friend.

Janean Brown would have been 40 Wednesday, but she didn't even make 20.

On a chilly November morning in 1983, someone slashed the petite brunette's throat nearly ear to ear, stripped her body, and dumped it in a shallow stream in woods just outside Whitehouse.

Investigative records show that evidence led to several suspects, including the son of the president of Fortune 500 company Dana Corp. While police received numerous tips, they lacked one key ingredient: answers.

They're still elusive.

More than 20 years after the crime, no one has been arrested. Sheriff's detectives now plan to ask the region's interagency cold-case squad to review three boxes full of grisly crime-scene photos and witness statements. They also are checking whether any evidence can be resubmitted to a crime lab for re-evaluation with DNA and other current technology in an attempt to resolve a case considered among the top unsolved crimes in the county.

"For someone that young to be murdered in that fashion, it's something that is right on the top of every law enforcement officer's list to solve," said Lt. Don Atkinson, now head of the detective bureau.

The main suspects at the time still live in the area, and some of them have children older than Ms. Brown was when she died. They maintain their innocence and say they want the case solved.

While police are seeking to reopen the investigation, they have reached no conclusions and hope new techniques will help solve this decades-old mystery.

If the cold-case squad decides to pursue the case, it would be the fifth hard look that detectives would take into the slaying of a woman whose dreams of traveling the world and raising children died with her one Friday morning.

It was a simple kiss - at a downtown Whitehouse bar, between a barmaid and a roofer - and it would lead to a fateful decision for Ms. Brown.

A year out of high school, the second-shift aide at a local nursing home was considered meek, but she liked to drink and stay out late - too late for the grandparents who raised her. So she went to live wtih Ms. Purney and her parents in a subdivision on the edge of Whitehouse.

In the fall of 1983, she began dating a 25-year-old roofer just out of the Army named Harold Estep. Three months into their relationship, after spending a Thursday night with Harold and Pam at the Copper Lantern bar, Ms. Brown started to walk out of the tavern.

As she turned around to say goodbye to Harold, she saw the barmaid planting a kiss on her boyfriend.

Ms. Brown and Ms. Purney caught a ride home, but Ms. Brown remained furious. She got up, put back on her purple sweater with a white heart, grabbed her friend's old Anthony Wayne High School cheerleader jacket, and left about 3:15 to 3:30 a.m. to walk to her boyfriend's apartment uptown.

"She was going to confront him," Ms. Purney recalled.

Mr. Estep later told police that Ms. Brown never made it to his apartment.

Ms. Brown was later seen walking west toward her home when she ran into one of her nursing home patients, Chester Roberts, who was out for a pre-dawn jaunt.

She made small talk with Mr. Roberts until they parted ways at the nursing home lot. A van then pulled into the lot. Ms. Brown talked to the driver and got in the passenger-side sliding door.

Several workers at the nursing home who recalled seeing this didn't get a look at anybody inside, but they remembered the van as clean, a late model - possibly tan - with a big picture window.

Police asked Mr. Estep and others if they knew of anyone who owned a van that fit that description. In response, they mentioned Andy Gustafson.

Standing up from his stool at the Moose Lodge he manages, Mr. Gustafson shrugs when he thinks about all the things that have been said about him the past 20 years.

He's been called a spoiled rich kid. He's been called a drug abuser.

And he's been called a killer.

"People will say what they want to say," the 47-year-old said nonchalantly."I didn't do it, and I don't know who did."

Back when he was thinner, his hair was thicker, and gray hadn't yet crept into his beard, Mr. Gustafson was a 26-year-old father of two when Ms. Brown's body was found on property next to his mobile home - about 36 hours after she disappeared.

Finding the 5-foot-2 woman badly beaten and nearly decapitated, authorities began canvassing the area for witnesses. Within a day, they approached Mr. Gustafson.

The son of then-Dana President Stanley Gustafson, Andy grew up in a six-bedroom Manley Road home in the shadow of the eighth green of the Brandywine Country Club. But the comfortable lifestyle came to an end during his senior year of high school, when he impregnated his 15-year-old girlfriend.

They married and moved to a mobile home on his parents' property, where they were raising their children when Detectuve Daryll Symington knocked on their door on a Sunday afternoon.

The detective showed Mr. Gustafson the picture of Ms. Brown, and Mr. Gustafson told him he didn't recognize her. But Mr. Estep told police that Mr. Gustafson had seen Ms. Brown at the bar Thursday night and had blurted out that she had a "cute butt."

Mr. Gustafson now says he did not immediately recognize her because he didn't hang out with Ms. Brown much. He said he only later recognized who she was after talking with friends about the killing.

Four days after Ms. Brown's body was found, sheriff's deputies obtained a search warrant and went through the Gustafson van and mobile home, carting away boxes of evidence - including a knife that later tested positive for a speck of blood.

He'd worked his way up from being an internal auditor at Dana to company president, and in December, 1983, Stan Gustafson celebrated 25 years with the Fortune 500 firm.

But the 53-year-old had a fatal heart attack at the family's Michigan cottage the day after Christmas in 1983. Andy Gustafson said he can't prove it, but he believes the stress of the case killed his father.

The Gustafsons hired defense lawyer Robert Kaplan, who advised his client not to talk about the case. Dana provided a security specialist to conduct a private investigation on Andy's behalf.

While detectives never got a second interview with Andy Gustafson, he continued to be a focus when the case was reopened through the years. In 1987, they tracked down the new owner of the old Gustafson van and searched it again. And they later searched his parents' old Manley Road home after his mother, Joyce, had moved to a nearby condominium. Neither search turned up useful evidence, detectives said.

Mr. Gustafson went on with his life. After his mobile home burned down in 1991, he built a new home on the same property. He became a millwright at Textileather and four years ago helped start the Moose Lodge in Whitehouse.

Among Mr. Gustafson's supporters is David Rogers, a builder from Swanton who said he was with him the morning Ms. Brown was killed.

"That guy wouldn't hurt a fly," Mr. Rogers said. "He was a true gentleman, and I'm sure he still is."

Mr. Gustafson had told Detective Symington that he and Mr. Rogers left the Copper Lantern around the 2:30 a.m. closing time and that he took Mr. Rogers home before going home himself. Mr. Rogers confirmed that to police. He said he believes the pair were targeted with suspicion because of the notoriety of their extended families. Mr. Rogers is the nephew of the late bandleader Guy Lombardo.

"With my mother's maiden name, and Andy's father being the president of Dana Corp., somebody thought that there was some financial horsepower that gave me or even Andy the luxury of committing murder at any given moment," said Mr. Rogers, now 45. "I've never heard such a crock."

In addition to Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Rogers, police have questioned a number of people.

Among them:

  • William Heisinger, now 47, who still lives down the road from Mr. Gustafson. An acquaintance of Ms. Brown's, he said he went home with his wife before the killing. His family owned a brown Chevy van that authorities searched in 1987. Two years later he admitted to inappropriately touching three girls he was babysitting. He was convicted of sexual battery and served prison time.

    Heisinger told The Blade that he was Ms. Brown's "confidant" - something Ms. Purney and Mr. Estep deny - and that he didn't have anything to do with her slaying. "She was really a nice girl, gregarious, outgoing, and just fun to be around," he said.

  • Mr. Estep, now 45, of Delta. Now a supervisor at Betco, he was among the first to volunteer for an interview with police. He said he went home after Ms. Brown left the bar and didn't see her again.

    Detectives tried to question Mr. Estep several years after the murder, but he told a reporter that he felt harassed by police and refused to talk to detectives because they didn't keep the notes from their first interview with him - part of what he considers a bungled investigation.

    Mr. Estep said he hopes authorities pursue the latest DNA technology to solve the Brown case. He said he'd be willing to submit a sample to speed up the wheels of justice: "I know I've got nothing to hide."

  • Larry Rader, now 42, of Grand Rapids. The brother of Ms. Purney and a former boyfriend of Ms. Brown, Mr. Rader said he went home from the bar early that night and fell asleep. Ms. Purney said she heard her brother snoring before Ms. Brown left the morning she was killed.

    Mr. Rader said Ms. Brown's death changed him because he always thought they'd get back together and marry.

    Each of those questioned by detectives has his own theory on what really happened that Friday morning more than two decades ago. They all said they want the real killer to be found.

    Pam Purney is running toward Janean Brown's screams.

    She finally finds her best friend tortured and in tears, held down by two men Pam can't see. Pam reaches for her best friend, but it's too late. The men slit Janean's throat.

    Then Pam wakes up.

    Ms. Purney said that nightmare haunted her for more than a decade after the killing - helping fuel a personal drive to push for resolution to the case, to the point of some complaints that she's a publicity hound.

    The attention subsided in the 1990s, but she said she hasn't given up.

    Detectives insist they haven't either, despite struggles of their own in reopening the case:

  • They inherited a crime scene that had been rained on the night before and trampled by volunteer firefighters who had come to light the area to retrieve the body - both destroying potential evidence.

  • A 1991 police task force called the autopsy "questionable in scope and lacking in information." Then-Waterville Township Police Chief Mike Lutton recommended the body be exhumed for a second autopsy to search for potential trace evidence.

  • Two lab tests had different blood types for Ms. Brown. While the confusion eventually was cleared up, the conflicting results fanned complaints that local authorities were mishandling the case.

    In 1991, then-Whitehouse Mayor Diane McGilvery pushed for an outside investigation into Ms. Brown's death, telling council members that "her murder, and the subsequent investigation, have become so shrouded in controversy and rumor that local resolution of the matter appears unlikely."

    While council didn't agree with her beliefs, the complaints did lead to the task force - the final of four stints of investigations done by authorities trying to solve the case.

    Beyond pushing for a second autopsy, Mr. Lutton, now a Lake Township officer, offered another theory on the killing: cult activity.

    "We feel there is a strong possibility that there was cult activity at the time of Ms. Brown's murder and that she indeed may have been part of a sacrifice, be it spontaneous or planned," he wrote to the sheriff then.

    Still, the cult theory- just like the possible exhumation - was a matter of debate in the detective bureau until the task force disbanded later in 1991. At the time, the case files were moved back to the basement - 20 feet away from several boxes of physical evidence.

    Inside those evidence boxes sit at least one knife and the fingernail clippings of Ms. Brown, both of which, in 1987, had specks of human blood too small to test at that time.

    Lieutenant Atkinson of the sheriff's office hopes the latest developments in technology can help solve the case. His bureau is reviewing all the evidence to see what could be resubmitted to a crime lab, and he said he hopes the case will be taken on by the area's cold-case squad - whose members range from the FBI to the Lucas County coroner's office.

    As for exhuming the body, the coroner, Dr. James Patrick, cautioned that there may not be useful evidence after 20 years, but he said he would defer to a recommendation from the cold-case squad.

    In the meantime, detectives and former acquaintances of Ms. Brown wait for the day someone's conscience overpowers him or her. Last November, the 20-year statute of limitations expired on prosecuting all crimes except for the actual killing, offering one incentive for reluctant witnesses to cooperate.

    And Ms. Purney continues to make twice-a-year visits to the grave in Roth Cemetery - on Ms. Brown's birthday and the date of her death. Ms. Purney said she brings her and Ms. Brown's favorite alcoholic beverages, drinks some for herself, pours some on the grave for Ms. Brown, and talks to the grave of her friend.

    She knows she gets some strange looks from passers-by, but it doesn't matter. She still feels a bond with Ms. Brown, and - between the demands of raising two children - she said she'll continue to push to find her friend's killer.

    "I made a promise to her the day we buried her," she said. "I promised I'd never stop - no matter what it took."

    Contact Joe Mahr at: or 419-724-6180.

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