The River: Lingering questions (Part 1)

The River: Lingering questions (Part 1)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- On May 17, 2018 a small group from Benton Harbor gathered in downtown St. Joseph for a candlelight vigil in honor of murder victims, too many of them unsolved in the minds of the organizers.

"What is going on here? We need answers," asked one of the organizers.

The date of the vigil and march was no coincidence. It took place exactly 27 years to the day after 16-year-old Eric McGinnis was last seen at that same spot on State Street in downtown St. Joe.

"I think Eric McGinnis was thrown in the river,” said Leonard Brown.

Brown grew up in Benton Harbor, a struggling city that's mostly poor and 85-percent black.

Brown now runs a Facebook page dedicated to its history with nearly 10,000 members.

He's posting pictures of the Benton Harbor residents who wound up dead in the river, some in or near prosperous, tourist-friendly and 86-percent white St. Joseph, right across the river.

He's asking his Facebook followers to call federal agents and demand an independent investigation.

"I would love to see the FBI look into these cases, reopen some of these cases, especially the Eric McGinnis case," Brown said.

[UPDATE: Eric McGinnis's case was re-opened and ruled a homicide. In April 2022, ABC57 named the man believed responsible for his death Click here to read more ]

But McGinnis certainly isn't the only one he's talking about.

In 2011, 44-year-old Timothy "Bulldog" Allen was found dead in the river after last being seen by police near the Napier Avenue Bridge.

Two years later Dewayne Flowers, age 33, was discovered in the water off Riverview Drive in Benton Harbor.

In 2014 it was 39-year-old Alonda Brown floating out in Lake Michigan.

Last year, 61-year-old Willie Brand's body turned up in the river.

And just this past May, 48-year-old Michael Williams wound up dead in Lake Michigan, too.

"They were all ruled accidental deaths, accidental drownings, no foul play. I do not believe that, I believe that's just too much of a coincidence. I don't know who exactly threw Eric in the river but somebody threw him in the river that's my true belief and that's a lot of Benton Harbor residents' true belief that somebody threw Eric in the river," Brown said.

But the official investigation shows something completely different.

"I don't believe somebody is killing these individuals over a 30 year period,” Steve Neubecker said.

Neubecker worked on the FBI Violent Crime Task Force in Benton Harbor for 10 years and is now the Interim Public Safety Director in the City of St. Joseph.

He's reviewed the McGinnis case several times.

"The autopsy report that came back was no blunt force trauma, no fractures no bruises and the autopsy ruled by three different agencies after they investigated also that it was an accidental drowning," Neubecker said.

The Friday night in May 1991 McGinnis wound up in the river, he was headed to 505 Pleasant Street, then a teen dance place called "The Club" supposedly to meet a white girl from St. Joe he was dating.

But he didn't go in right away.

Police reports include multiple witnesses who say McGinnis broke into a car, in a nearby parking lot and stole $42.

McGinnis was last seen by an off-duty Berrien County Sheriff's Deputy running south on State Street being chased by the owner of that car, a heavyset white male.

McGinnis was never seen alive again.

The car owner, who passed a lie detector test, said McGinnis was too fast and he lost him on State Street.

Through a Freedom of Information Request, ABC57 News obtained the entire McGinnis file and got access to the remaining evidence, including Eric's school ID and the $49 he had in his pocket when he was pulled from the river by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"He very well could have been running that night in the dark not knowing the river was there, thought he could get across the river, knew he had entered a vehicle and was trying to get away. It's unknown what happened that night," Neubecker said.

Asked if there’s any evidence someone chased McGinnis into the river, threw him into the river, Neubecker said, "There is no evidence of that."

"These two communities came to this one incident in such extraordinarily different perspectives," author Alex Kotlowitz said.

Kotlowitz literally wrote the book on the McGinnis case - "The Other Side of the River."

The former Wall Street Journal reporter spent three years and did hundreds of interviews trying to get answers.

Kotlowitz says he became obsessed with the case and is still frustrated he never got those definitive answers, but came away struck by how the racial divide across the St. Joe River colors people's opinions.

"If you asked people in St. Joe, their speculation was that knowing police were out looking for him he tried to swim the river to get home and drowned. If you ask people in Benton Harbor they would tell you Eric McGinnis most likely died as a result of foul play - somebody pushed him, forced him in and the speculation is because he had been dating a white girl which, in fact, he had," Kotlowitz said.

And for Leonard Brown, the only way to get to the truth is having an outside agency like the FBI look into the McGinnis case and all the other deaths again with a fresh set of eyes.

"A lot of people do not believe the findings that the St. Joe and Berrien County Sheriff gave out about the cases, we don't believe the story. It's not a coincidence something is happening," Brown said.

Click here to read past stories from The River: A Real Time Investigation and listen to the podcasts.

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