So Many Secrets, part 3: Murder in Michigan
I was just a kid, maybe 7 years old, when my mom first told me about my uncle Jimmy. Apparently we met once when I was just a baby, but I was too young to remember. He was my mom’s older brother — half-brother in truth, because he had a different father — and had led a very troubled life.
“You have an uncle Jimmy who’s in jail,” my mom told me one day. I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the implications of what she was telling me at that time, and I didn’t ask many questions, but I was raised with the knowledge that I had an uncle who was incarcerated.
In truth, he wasn’t just in jail, he was in prison in the state of Michigan, serving a life sentence for murder. As I got older, I became intrigued by the existence of an uncle I had never met, and by the time I was a teenager, I had started exchanging letters with him. I always addressed my letters “Dear Jimmy” because that was the name I knew him by — my grandma and my mom always referred to him as “Jimmy,” the name he had used when he was a kid — but his letters to me were always signed “Jim.”
We shared a love of music, and we talked about it a lot in our letters. He loved Mahogany Rush and Mott the Hoople and had a weakness for old doowop music, and he knew I was into the standard 80s rock that all the kids loved. Using money he earned at his prison job, he bought me a subscription to Hit Parader magazine for my birthday one year, and it was a gift I loved. I read every issue cover-to-cover, and when the subscription was up, he renewed it for another year. I got to see about six issues of that second year’s subscription, until my step-dad intervened.
If I can digress for a moment… My mom was married to her third husband at that time, a world class jerk. He was a “born-again Christian” in name only, a preacher’s kid with a penchant for pornography, alcohol, marijuana, and expensive clothes and jewelry — the kind of guy that would hide the alcohol when his preacher father came to visit. He didn’t care about being a real Christian, only that he appeared to be a Christian. He had been determined that he was gonna make a good Christian (like he would even know what that was) out of this Godless long-haired teenager.
While I was at school one day, he found a Hit Parader magazine on the floor of my bedroom. It was lying face down right next to my bed where I had dropped it when I fell asleep the night before. There was an advertisement on the back cover for a British band called “Grim Reaper” and their debut album “See You In Hell.” The cover art depicted the Grim Reaper carrying his scythe astride a crimson horse. If you need a good laugh, search for a Grim Reaper music video. They were a godawful band.
“What is this?” my step-dad asked when I got home from school, waving the magazine in my face. I tried to explain that I didn’t even listen to that band, but it didn’t matter to him.
“I won’t have this kind of garbage in my house,” he said, claiming the house that my mom and her previous husband bought. I didn’t get to see the last few issues of that magazine subscription because when they arrived at the house, he threw them straight in the garbage. Nevertheless, it was a gift I really appreciated from my uncle Jim, and I felt like we bonded over music in those years.
At the same time I was corresponding with my uncle Jim in prison, he and my mom were exchanging letters, too, and when my mom left one of those letters on our dining room table one day, I read it and learned something else about my uncle Jim. He called it like he saw it and said what he meant, and despite the fact that he was a convicted murderer, he wasn’t afraid to tell someone when they were screwing up.
“Christianity doesn’t really go hand-in-hand with marijuana and pornography, sis,” he chastised. He saw a hypocritical lifestyle in my mom and her husband and said so. And he would know, because at the same time he was professing to be a Christian himself, he was subscribing to a white separatist philosophy and promoting racist views, a practice he claimed was necessary to survive in prison, but in reality, he had been prejudiced before he ever got locked up. It was through that letter that I learned my uncle wasn’t all bad, and my parents weren’t the exceptionally pious people they pretended to be. Their marriage wouldn’t last, and the occasional joint and skin-flick disappeared with my step-dad.
Back to the story at hand… Jim and I corresponded off and on over the years, and by the early 90s I began to get more curious about my uncle, and how he got to the place he was — in prison for murder. I got up the courage to ask him about his life and the crime that landed him in prison, and he responded in a frank manner that I found captivating. I wish I still had his letters so I could get it word for word, but I’ll have to recount his version of the story as best I can from memory.
Jim’s dad was a man from Ohio named Lester Ward (we don’t know for sure, but that’s what we think) but he never had a role in my uncle’s life. My grandma moved east to the Philadelphia metroplex with Jim in tow and there are some years during his adolescence that I don’t know much about. However, after my Grandpa George committed suicide in jail in 1956, my Grandma became involved with a man named Bob, a business owner, and he and Jim hated each other. One of the stories Jim told me was of taking Bob’s car without permission one night, only to discover a bag in the trunk that contained a sizable amount of money (there’ll be a lot more on that to come.) He crashed the car and took the money and ended up going to jail for it. As you can imagine, the relationship was never good between Bob and Jim after that.
Again, there are a few years that I don’t know much about, but we know for certain that Jim was in and out of trouble with the law frequently. He spent time in reform school, and got busted for small-time scams, like the time he was arrested for using the money order machine at the Red Owl supermarket where he worked in Minot, North Dakota to enrich himself. He was always in trouble.
By the mid-1970s, my uncle Jim had moved to Pittsburgh and was involved in some very serious criminal activity. He looked the part, too. He was a barrel-chested man with a chin that made Jay Leno’s look dainty — an intimidating character.
In his letters to me, Jim was always very careful to describe his partners in crime as “associates.”
“They weren’t friends,” he wrote. “Just some guys I did business with.”
Jim said he and his associates had dealt some drugs, but just low-rent small quantities. The real operation was dealing arms. Jim claimed to be involved with arranging weapons deals for Posse Comitatus and the American Indian Movement, both of which were quite active in the 70s, and it was an arms deal that brought him and an associate named Dan Clements to Michigan. They were to meet someone at a bar and get the deal done.
It was January 25, 1977, a frigid day in Detroit, and the windchill dropped to about 10 degrees after the sun went down. Jim and Dan arrived at the Shorian Motor Inn in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, a suburb about 15 minutes northeast of downtown Detroit, in a white and gold 1972 Chevy pickup. After checking-in to Room 140, they went to the motel bar, the Penthouse Lounge, and sat down in a dark corner booth and proceeded to drink. The man they were supposed to meet showed up just a few minutes later, just after midnight, and Jim said Dan left him behind in the booth as he went to talk with the man. After awhile, Dan and the man they were meeting came back to the booth and they kept drinking and carousing. When the bar closed at 2:30 am, they decided to head back to their motel room.
According to Jim, they continued their drinking binge and added some marijuana to the mix. The party went into the early hours of the morning and at some point, my uncle Jim claimed to have passed out on the bed.
“I don’t know how long I was out,” he wrote, “but I remember being awakened by a commotion.”
When he opened his eyes and the fog cleared, Jim claimed he saw Dan on the other bed, on top of the man they had been there to meet, and the man had a knife in his chest. When the reality of what was happening sunk in, Jim jumped up from the bed and backed away.
“I barely knew this guy,” he wrote. “I had just seen him stab another man. For all I knew, he was gonna turn on me next.”
Jim raised his hands in a calming gesture.
“We have to get out of here, man,” he said, and Dan agreed.
They fled the motel room and almost immediately went their separate ways. At 11 am on January 26th, 1977, the housekeeping staff at the motel discovered the horrific scene in Room 140 and summoned the police. Jim had fled back to Pittsburgh to lay low at an ex-girlfriend’s house, but it wasn’t long before the Pittsburgh police were knocking on the door. Dan had also been apprehended, and both men were taken into custody and charged with murder.
That’s the story as I remember it, as Jim relayed it to me. When I began writing this, though, I felt the need to research the events more thoroughly, and the official version as reported in the newspapers left me with many more questions.
The man murdered that night had a name. Jack Whiteley. He was described as 60 years old, a physical fitness buff, and looked younger than his age. He was a Vice-President of Goss Mechanical Manufacturing Company in Detroit, and he was married with one son.
I suppose anything is possible, but the description of Mr. Whiteley doesn’t sound like a man who would be involved in a weapons deal, and the manner in which his body was found suggests my uncle Jim didn’t tell me the whole story.
Mr. Whiteley was found on the bed with a pillow over his face, and he hadn’t simply been stabbed in the chest, he had been stabbed in the chest twice, and his throat was slashed. He had also been bound. On January 27th, 1977, the Detroit Free Press reported one of Jack Whiteley’s wrists had been bound with electrical cord, and the other hand appeared to have been bound, but he had managed to pull that hand free. The police also reported that it appeared someone had first tried to tie him to a chair with bath towels.
Again, I digress for a moment. When I was a kid, “guilt by association” was a concept my parents cautioned me about regularly.
“Be careful who you hang out with, Troy,” my mom would say, “because if someone gets in trouble, you could end up in trouble, too.” It was likely my uncle Jim’s situation that led to those frequent admonitions. He had been a bad man, and he admitted as much in his letters to me, but he insisted he was not a murderer, that he had simply been caught up in a situation with an even badder man.
Today, I’m not so sure that’s true. Jim had made it seem as though a fight had broken out between Dan Clements and Jack Whiteley, and he awoke to witness the aftermath, but if Jim was passed out on one of the beds, could Dan Clements have tied Mr. Whiteley up on his own? First attempting to tie him to a chair with towels, and then tying his wrists with an electrical cord? It doesn’t seem likely to me. And why tie him up? That seems like something you do when you want something, not the kind of thing you do when an argument turns into a fight. Was it a robbery? At first report, the police said they didn’t think robbery was a motive because Jack Whiteley only had 40 to 50 dollars on him that night and a couple credit cards in his wallet. Several days later, the story had changed and the police were saying they thought Mr. Whiteley’s encounter with Jim and Dan was purely chance — that he had struck up a conversation with them in the bar and that they had decided to rob him. I suppose it’s possible they tied him up when they discovered he didn’t have much money on him in an attempt to score more cash or valuables, and the whole thing went south. But the throat slashing… that’s an execution. A depraved, sick, evil thing to do for a simple robbery.
On the other hand, why does a man of 60 years old, a respected vice president of a local company, decide to have drinks with two thirty-something shady characters, complete strangers, at midnight on a Tuesday? And why would he go back to their hotel room at 2:30 in the morning for more partying when he had to work the next day? Were they really strangers, or did they know each other? And did they have some business to conduct? Whether it was a random robbery or some kind of deal gone bad, we can’t really know for sure.
As was common practice in the day, the motel kept a record of the license plates of their guests, and the white and gold Chevy truck had a Louisiana plate. Dan Clements was from Louisiana. I haven’t been able to confirm it for certain, but I believe the truck was registered to Dan, and that is how the police tracked him down. Initial news reports named Clements as a suspect and a bulletin was put out for him and his truck. Police were also looking for an unnamed second man (Jim). Within days, they had Dan in custody, and Jim was captured soon after at the aforementioned ex-girlfriend’s house.
That’s the official version of the story, and obviously there are details missing. There are only three people in the world who would know exactly what happened that night in 1977 outside of Detroit, and they are all dead.
In my correspondence with Jim, he related what happened after he was taken into custody. The state of Michigan decided to try Jim and Dan separately, and Jim said Dan had assured him that he would take the blame for all of it and make it clear that Jim had nothing to do with the murder. So, Jim went to trial thinking he would get some time for the things he had done, but not for murder.
Jim was charged with murder in the first degree and went to trial. The prosecution called Dan Clements to testify against my uncle and when he got on the stand, he did just what he said he would do — he testified that Jim had nothing to do with the murder.
“Objection your honor,” the prosecutor said. “May we approach?”
The prosecution approached the bench, then followed the judge into chambers. The gyst of their objection was that Clements had told them that he would testify against Jim, but when they put him on the stand, he surprised them by saying my uncle was innocent of the crime.
When the attorneys returned to the courtroom, Dan Clements was dismissed from the witness stand, the judge directed the court reporter to have his testimony stricken from the record, and admonished the jury to forget what they had just heard. They were left with the remaining evidence that Jim had been present during the commission of the crime and that he had a criminal record as long as your arm. Things did not look good for my uncle.
Surprisingly, Jim’s trial ended in a mistrial. My memory is unclear as to whether the mistrial was immediately declared due to Clements’ contradictory testimony, or whether it was a hung jury or some other reason that a mistrial was declared, but it was a mistrial nonetheless. Jim would have to be tried again. And he was.
The second trial was, again, for first degree murder. And again, a mistrial was declared due to a hung jury. Dan Clements had been tried, quickly convicted and sent to prison, (I believe he died while incarcerated) but the State of Michigan was having a hard time getting a conviction in this case. There would be a third trial for Jim.
In the third trial, the charge was second degree murder. My uncle’s explanation was an oversimplification with perhaps a nugget of truth.
“It was my third trial,” he wrote in one of his letters, “so the attitude seemed to be ‘He must be guilty of something.’” Jim was convicted of second degree murder in 1979 and sent to prison with a life sentence, but with a chance for parole.
For the rest of my adolescence and much of my adult life, my uncle Jim was in prison. Conversations would sometimes circle around to the topic, and us kids would always ask “Is Jimmy ever gonna get out of prison?” The answer was always the same.
“Someday he will,” my mom would say, but every year that went by, it started to seem less likely. He was 37 when he was convicted, and a life sentence in Michigan was 20 to 30 years. He went before the parole board on a number of occasions but he was denied each time. Sometimes they would call him out for minor infractions, like the time he removed a blade from a disposable razor so he could cut the zipper out of a sweatshirt. The guards found the empty plastic shell of the razor, and it went down as a black mark on his record — an attempt to make a weapon. Other times he was denied for no reason at all. He hadn’t served enough time. He wasn’t rehabilitated.
I remember being at my grandmother’s house one year at Christmas when I was about 17 years old, and I was sitting on the steps in the kitchen, talking to my Aunt Tammy. My grandpa Bob and my grandma Ruth were in the kitchen and we were chatting and listening to Christmas music playing from a clock radio that they kept on top of the fridge. Before I knew what was happening, my grandma ran out of the kitchen sobbing and my grandpa went after her.
“Honey, what’s the matter?” he called after her as he chased her into the next room. “This song always makes me think of Jimmy,” she sobbed from the other room. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Bing Crosby was playing on the radio.
To further complicate my uncle Jim’s hopes for parole, the state of Michigan passed a law which modified life sentences to life without parole, and the law was applied retroactively, which meant my uncle might never get out of prison. However, a group of Michigan law students saw a problem with the new law — essentially, they believed it was wrong for politicians who wanted to be seen as tough on crime to overturn the will of jurors and judges who had already decided the fate of offenders. They succeeded in their campaign, and the law was overturned. My uncle, who had served more than a decade beyond his first potential release date, would be considered for parole once again.
On September 14th, 2009 James Dunn was granted parole by the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board. He served 32 ½ years if you count the time he spent in custody while on trial. After release, he moved to Minot, North Dakota to be close to my grandma and to try to catch up on decades lost. I got to see him one time in early 2010, and he lived six more years as a free man with no legal entanglements. It might have been the longest stretch of his life that he ever lived as a free man without getting in some kind of trouble. He died on January 9th, 2016 after suffering a stroke. He was 73 years old.
I’ll admit, until I started researching this story, I had never known the name of the man who wound up dead on that morning in 1977. He was just a nameless man in a story that had always been about my uncle Jim. It became much more real to me when I learned his name, and in the course of writing this story I started to feel guilty. I’ve been pouring out this story of the challenges our family faced with little regard for Jack Whiteley. Actually, we’ve been doing it for years. I wonder how many times Jack Whiteley’s family cried for him? He never got to come home for Christmas. I wonder how his family will feel if they ever run across this story? If I could apologize to them on behalf of my family, I would, even though I have no part in what happened to him, and nothing anyone could ever say would make up for their loss.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.