The River: The Eric McGinnis murder

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- On May 17, 1991 a 16-year-old Benton Harbor High School student named Eric McGinnis was dropped off at a teen dance spot in downtown St. Joseph, Michigan by his father for a night of fun.

Five days later, Eric’s bloated body was found floating in the St. Joseph River. What really happened that night remained a mystery for more than 30 years.

In 2018, ABC57 News  aired a special investigation called The River, looking into the death of Eric and five other people from Benton Harbor who wound up dead in the same waters over the years.

Then something unusual happened. A witness called ABC57 Anchor and Investigative Reporter Brian Conybeare out of the blue claiming he had information on what happened to Eric, saying it was not an "accidental drowning" as determined by St. Joseph detectives, Michigan State Police and the F.B.I. in 1993.

The witness, Michael Batson, a convicted sex offender, recalled key details of that night. He described seeing five white males chasing Eric across the sand at Silver Beach, and then had a terrifying encounter with the accused killer later that same night.

The suspect, 19-year-old Curtis Pitts, was dating a white girl from St. Joe who also dated Eric, a Black teenager from across the river in Benton Harbor.

Batson’s testimony, spurred the St. Joseph Department of Public Safety to reopen Eric's case in 2021. It was then transferred to the Michigan Attorney General’s Special Investigations Unit.

Based on information provided by ABC57 News, Batson, and another witness currently in prison, the AG’s team determined Eric’s death was a homicide. They named Curtis Pitts as the murderer.

Pitts cannot be charged with any crime, because he died by suicide in 2003, nearly 12 years after Eric’s death.

Now, Eric’s heartbroken family is still pushing for answers and some measure of justice 31 years after he wound up losing his life in the river that’s long divided the two communities once known as the Twin Cities—Benton Harbor predominantly black and poor—St. Joseph predominantly white and prosperous.

Read ABC57's past stories about the Eric McGinnis investigation

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