MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Documents show how a man suspected of committing a 1989 double homicide was allowed to leave prison, only to allegedly kill two more women earlier this year.
Leon Means, 61, is now charged with four murders that were committed decades apart.
Michigan Parole Board documents obtained by Target 8 through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act show what led to his release after two decades in prison and that police and prosecutors did try to keep him behind bars.
1989 DOUBLE HOMICIDE
On April 8, 1989, while in the middle of serving a prison term for a Muskegon County home invasion, Means escaped by jumping from a van that was taking him back to prison after a medical appointment.
While Means was on the run, his estranged wife and mother-in-law were murdered. Cynthia Lou Herrera-Means was stabbed 27 times. Her mother, Linda Lou Herrera, was stabbed 15 times.
Prosecutors initially suspected the murders were linked to a string of drug-related murders in the area, but they later focused on Means as their suspect. He was eventually arrested and charged with escaping prison and two counts of murder.
But the murder charges were dropped when Means was convicted and sentenced to at least 18 years in prison for the escape. After an appeal, that sentence was changed to 15 to 50 years in prison.
In 1989, Muskegon County Prosecutor Tony Tague told the Muskegon Chronicle that “Early on, we had hoped the Michigan State Police Crime Lab, after extensive analysis, would come up with physical evidence linking someone to the murders, but the majority of the reports came back with little conclusive evidence.”
Brett Gardner, who was the Muskegon County chief assistant prosecutor at the time, told reporters that the escape conviction “basically insures that he (Means) will be in prison for a substantial period of time and gives us the room to prepare our case on the homicide.”
In 1990, Tague told the Muskegon Chronicle, “We vigorously prosecuted Means for the escape, assuring he would be in prison for virtually the rest of his life.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: Linda Herrera’s 100-year-old father: ‘Put him in the grave’
According to Parole Board documents, Means first came up for parole in March of 1996. The board voted to defer a decision, leaving Means behind bars.
A short time after that decision, Means plotted with one of his brothers to smuggle marijuana into the prison. The phone conversation setting it all up was recorded by the prison and the drugs were found when the brother came to visit. Means entered a plea and was sentenced to another 2 to 7.5 years in prison.
Means didn’t come up for parole again until August 2009. The parole board heard from another of his brothers who owns a catering business and had offered to give Means a job if released.
The Parole board noted that Means had earned his GED in prison, had learned to cook and had a job waiting for him, and had “very good family support.” It also said he had taken responsibility for his crimes and that the Michigan Department of Corrections’ assessment tool COMPAS showed a “significant reduction in risk.”
The documents described Means as “tired and worn,” but also said that age 56, he was “still motivated, has been down a long time.”
“(Means) can be supervised in the community,” the Parole Board concluded.
The Parole Board voted to release Means to a Michigan Intensive Parole ReEntry Unit, which would transition Means back into society. But before Means could be released, a detainer was placed on him by the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office and Michigan State Police.
Parole documents from January 2010 show Means “incurred Felony Suspend Charges from Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office for Murder Suspect w/ MSP. … Due to this information, suspend and list for interview.”
The documents went on to say that Means he was “still a suspect in the murder of his wife and mother-in-law” and that the Parole Board would have to confirm that the murder case had been dismissed before ordering re-parole.
In May 2010, the situation changed. The Parole Board voted again to release Means on parole.
The notations in the report said that a Parole Board member had contacted the prosecutor regarding the murder accusations. It also said Means “recognizes he will be a success, has no desire to come back, has support with a place to stay and a job waiting for him… In addition has insight to his issues.”
The board noted Means had been granted parole in 2009 that was “suspended for a detainer that has since been revoked.”
“(Means) has been in prison since 1986 and there has been no movement by the (prosecuting attorney) or the MSP to resolve why there is still a pending investigation for murder. … Based on conduct and work record and (parole board interview) as well as his granting of a parole last (year), will support parole at this time,” the notes read in part.
Current Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 he doesn’t know what happened with the detainer in 2010. Hilson took over the prosecutor’s office in January 2013 following Tague’s retirement . While Hilson did work in the office in 2010, he said he was not dealing with parole cases or the Means case at the time, so he does not know why the detainer was removed.
Means was released from parole in July 2012.
MEANS ACCUSED OF OCTOBER HOMICIDES
Then, on Oct. 14, 2014, 62-year-old Judy Bushman and 63-year-old Anna Lawson were both found dead in their homes in Muskegon Heights. Both knew Means well.
The next day, Means was found in Lawson’s car and arrested.
He has allegedly since confessed to killing his estranged wife and mother-in-law in 1989, and to the murders of Bushman and Lawson.