The River: What really happened to Eric McGinnis?

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Thirty years after a teenager from Benton Harbor disappeared while out for a night of fun in nearby St. Joseph, ABC57 News confirmed police have now reopened the case after a new eyewitness came forward to ABC57 Anchor and investigative reporter Brian Conybeare.

In October 2018, ABC57 News investigated the mysterious deaths of six different people who all wound up dead in the St. Joseph River over the years; all African-American, and all from Benton Harbor.

But one lasting question still stands out to this day. What really happened to Eric McGinnis?

The 16-year-old Benton Harbor High School junior disappeared 30 years ago, on May 17, 1991. His bloated body was found 5 days later floating in the river that separates 85 percent black Benton Harbor from now 76-percent white St. Joseph.

Leonard Brown runs a Facebook page dedicated to Benton Harbor history. At the time, Brown wanted authorities to take another look at the cold case.

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

Eric was just heading out for a night of fun in downtown St. Joe at a 21 and under dance spot called "The Club" where Czar's 505 nightclub is now located.

He allegedly got caught breaking into a car in a parking lot nearby, stealing $44 in cash, and was chased by the car's owner.

Eric was last seen near State and Elm Streets running away from the river and being chased by the car's older, white owner.

The owner says he couldn't keep up with the teen and gave up the pursuit.

Investigators say the man also passed a lie detector test at the time and had nothing to do with Eric's death, which is officially classified as an accidental drowning.

Now exactly three decades after his death, it's still not clear exactly how Eric ended up in the water.

After seeing our special investigation called The River in 2018, a new witness came forward to ABC57 News claiming he saw a group of white teenagers chasing Eric toward the South Pier along Silver Beach.

ABC57 has confirmed the St. Joseph Police have now formally reopened the case based on this new eyewitness. 

We are not identifying him, or airing his story, until he has spoken with detectives and they’ve pursued any new leads.

Dan McGinnis is the current Public Safety director in Benton Harbor and a cousin of Eric’s.

He understands how painful the unanswered questions have been for his extended family and the entire Twin Cities community, long divided along racial lines.

“Unfortunately, there's a lot of mistrust on our side of the bridge a lot of it related to this incident. Hopefully with a resolution to this it will help some of the bad feelings and some of that pain," McGinnis said.

His agency is not officially part of the newly reopened case, but Director McGinnis believes finally getting closure and learning the truth will help bridge the divide between the two communities.

“I just really hope that his and moving forward we can start to heal some of those feelings and come together. It's not ‘us versus them’, it’s ‘we’ and somewhere we lost that and that's very important," McGinnis said.

Dozens of people gathered on the 30th anniversary of Eric’s disappearance to hold a candlelight vigil in his honor and retrace his known steps that night. 

All of them holding out hope Eric's case may finally be solved.

Click here to read all of our stories from The River series

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