The River: The future of the investigations (Part 3)
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – For months, residents of Benton Harbor and family members of victims have been calling for the FBI to open an investigation into the mysterious deaths of at least 6 African-American Benton Harbor residents who were all pulled from the St. Joe River or Lake Michigan.
“I would love to see the FBI look into these cases, reopen some of these cases,” Community activist, Leonard Brown, said.
“I think that the state police, the FBI, the CIA, whoever, needs to come in and investigate. And I hope they do it in time where nobody else can have to worry about having this feeling that me and the other families have with losing their family members to this circumstance,” Canvas Smith, the daughter of Willie Brand, one of the victims, said.
It turns out, the FBI was already involved in a couple of the cases. St. Joseph Interim Director of Public Safety, Steve Neubecker, said an FBI task force was created for the Eric McGinnis case in 1991. Police reports show the FBI assisted in the search for Timothy Allen in 2011.
While it’s not clear how any of the 6 people ended up in the water, public officials from across the county all agree that the FBI shouldn’t or won’t get involved.
“I don’t think it would fall in their purview,” Benton Harbor Director of Public Safety, Dan McGinnis, said.
“We don’t have a problem with any outside agency coming in here, but I don’t know if the FBI would take on something where there’s no evidence,” Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said. “You got to understand that it was thoroughly investigated, reviewed by the prosecutor’s office and there was no sign of foul play.”
We reached out to Prosecutor Mike Sepic. Despite cooperation from every local law enforcement agency in the area, he refused to be part of our story. However, every case is sent to his office for review. Sepic can decide to close the case or send it back to the law enforcement agency for more to be done with the investigation.
The FBI was similarly quiet. A spokesperson for the Detroit Field Division sent us an email saying “It’s the policy of our office (actually the whole of the FBI) to neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”
“Being a former detective, we kinda have a saying, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” Dan McGinnis said.
While McGinnis doesn’t think the FBI should get involved, he’s not saying nothing should be done.
“The volume of the numbers since I have been here. I have been here 20 years. It kinda makes you wonder,” he said. “Without looking, we won’t know if there’s something or not.”
McGinnis also believes some of the cases that were technically solved may warrant another look.
“Even with an accidental death, it’s still kinda inconclusive, because to be conclusive, there would have to be some kind of witnesses that say ‘I saw so and so fall in,’” he said. “Not saying there is anything out there for sure, but I’d love to be at a point where we could get resources to be able to kind of revisit some things and take a look with fresh eyes. It’s on my bucket list before I go.”