The River: Michigan's Attorney General takes over reopened Eric McGinnis case
Three years after an ABC57 News Investigation into the mysterious drownings of multiple people from Benton Harbor, the Michigan Attorney General's Special Investigation Unit is taking over the case of Eric McGinnis.
30 years to the day after the 16-year-old Benton Harbor High School student disappeared, ABC57 News anchor Brian Conybeare provided new information spurring the St. Joseph Police Department to reopen the long-dormant case.
A new witness came forward telling ABC57 he was at Silver Beach in St. Joe with a friend when they both saw a black teenager, they now believe was Eric McGinnis, being chased by four or five white men on May 17, 1991, the same Friday night Eric vanished.
The friend of the witness confirms he saw the pursuit that night too.
The witness says the group chased the teenager along the sandy Lake Michigan shoreline all the way from the south end of Silver Beach to the South Pier and ultimately to the same river Eric's body was found floating in five days later.
Eric's death was originally ruled an accidental drowning after a highly-publicized, racially-fraught investigation back in 1991 but his family never bought the official explanation.
Eric's uncle, retired Michigan State Trooper Bennie Bowers, Jr. sat down with ABC57 News to talk publicly about the investigation for the first time saying, "The negligence Continues to grow the more you talk about it. We’ve been thinking and talking about this thing for 30 years!"
Bowers and many Benton Harbor residents have long been haunted by all the unanswered questions about exactly how Eric wound up in the water that night. And he still gets emotional when talking about his sister, Ruth McGinnis – Eric’s mom.
"My sister died with a broken heart," Bowers said.
And he fears the original investigation was rushed to a conclusion by the authorities in mostly white St. Joe at the time because they didn’t want to spark any more racial turmoil from across the river in Benton Harbor if it actually turned out to be murder.
“Maybe somebody wanted it pushed along, because OK, water in the lungs: drowning. Let’s wrap them up we’re done with it as opposed to doing the type of autopsy that would require a pathologist, a criminal pathologist, to do the type of work that needed to be done to determine if there was suspicious behavior associated with his drowning,” said Bowers.
Despite all that, Bowers now has renewed hope the mystery will finally be solved because a new set of experienced Special Agents from Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Office are now going over all the evidence and interviewing witnesses.
"The McGinnis family deserves closure,” said Special Agent Gentry Shelby, a 22-year veteran of the Detroit Metro Police Department who now works in the Attorney Generals Special Investigations Unit.
His team is taking over the case at the request of current St. Joseph Department of Public Safety Director Steve Neubecker who confirms his detectives are working with Shelby to get to the truth.
Special Agent Shelby is talking with the new witness and his attorney and asking anyone else with solid information, not old rumors, to come forward.
“It’s that information that’s going to help us get to the bottom of this 30-year mystery,” Gentry said. “My intention here is to take all of the information from the McGinnis case and reconstruct it but I’m going to go back and do an even deeper dive. I want to talk to the community. I want to talk to friends of Mr. McGinnis.”
And it turns out Shelby and his team already know the Benton Harbor community well, having overturned the wrongful conviction of Corey McCall.
McCall walked out of prison on June 25,2021 after serving 16 years of a mandatory life sentence in a grisly triple murder on Parker Avenue in Benton Harbor 2005. Turns out though, he was not the gunman in that deadly robbery and Gentry’s team proved it in court leading to a judge setting McCall free.
Special Agent Shelby says while the cases may be very different, his team is already going to work on the extensive McGinnis file and all the old police interviews
“This dive is going to be a lot deeper and the fact that in the McCall case, we did not ask the public for any assistance. We were able to find that out on our own.”
And for Bowers, having experienced homicide detectives with a fresh set of eyes going over all the evidence gives him renewed hope the mystery about what really happened that night 30-years ago will finally be solved and maybe even bridge the long-standing racial tension between 85% Black Benton Harbor and its neighbor on the other side of the river 84% white St. Joseph.
“I’m sure that this special investigator from the Attorney General’s office, if and when he speaks to the [new witness], he’s going to gather the information that he needs to bring more clarity to the situation and if it’s the truth the [McGinnis] family would appreciate it to be very honest with you. And the community would appreciate it, both communities. It’s needed in both communities.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Eric McGinnis case and see the original ABC57 News Investigation, The River click here.