The River: Death of Eric McGinnis in 1991 ruled homicide

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- The death of 16-year-old Eric McGinnis in 1991 has been ruled a homicide after the Attorney General’s Office spoke with a witness who came forward to ABC57’s Brian Conybeare. 

The witness provided enough information for the Attorney General to determine McGinnis’ death was not an accidental drowning, but a homicide.

Gentry Shelby, a special investigator for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office spent months going over the case and talking to witnesses about what really happened that night.

The new witness who came forward told ABC57 that he was at Silver Beach in St. Joe with a friend when they both saw a black teenager, they now believe was McGinnis, being chased by four or five white men on May 17, 1991, the same Friday night McGinnis vanished. The friend of the witness confirmed 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.

“Our finding was that Eric McGinnis was killed as a result of being assaulted and thrown in the river,” Shelby said.

He says the suspect who chased and kicked McGinnis that night committed suicide nearly 12 years later and no one else can be charged in Eric’s death.

“There’s just not enough evidence supporting charges for anybody that still exists,” Shelby said.

“To the St. Joe community and the St. Joe police department I say to you someone needs to be held accountable,” Bennie Bowers Jr said.

Bowers is a retired Michigan State Police trooper and McGinnis’ uncle.

Bowers and his family called a news conference on Tuesday to demand answers from investigators on why it took more than 30 years to finally solve the crime.

McGinnis’ family has hired a civil rights attorney who is asking the US Justice Department to open a formal hate crime investigation into his death using the newly approved Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Law.

“Emmett Till wound up dead in the Mississippi Tallahatchie River. Eric McGinnis was found dead in the St. Joseph River,” said Leonard Mungo, the Bowers family attorney. “Northern lynching and southern lynching there’s no difference.”

The night he died, McGinnis had gone to 505 Pleasant Street in downtown St Joe. At the time, it was an alcohol free dance spot for teens known as The Club. McGinnis had dated a white girl there, sparking rumors that was the reason he was killed.

Current Saint Joseph Public Safety Director Steve Neubecker says neither he nor any of his current officers were on the force in 1991. It was his office that reopened the case when the witness came forward to ABC57 last year before transferring it to the Attorney General’s Office.

“My pain goes out to the Bowers family and the McGinnis family. 31 years of suffering, not knowing what happened to Eric McGinnis is heartfelt. I’m sorry to the family and I wish this case would’ve been solved years ago,” Neubecker said.

Case timeline:

May 17, 1991 Eric disappeared
May 22, 1991 Eric’s body found in St. Joe River
1993 case closed as accidental drowning
May 17, 2021 Case reopened by St. Joseph Department of Public Safety
November 2021 Case transferred to Michigan Attorney General
April 2022 Case ruled a homicide - and closed due to death of the suspect

To read more about our investigation, click here.

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