GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A friend of the man charged Friday with the murder of Joel Battaglia in the East Hills neighborhood 24 years ago said the suspect recently confided in him about the killing as police were closing in.
“I said, ‘Hey, you know, what’s really going on?” Lupe Harwood, who lives across the street from Aurelias Marshall, told 24 Hour News 8. “He said, ‘My brother and I were involved in some things 20-something years ago.’ He said it’s coming back to haunt him.”
Marshall, now 56, known to friends as A.J., was arraigned Friday in the 1990 brutal beating death of 23-year-old Joel Battaglia.
His friend described Marshall as a good neighbor, a father, who played in a band at a church.
“Every Sunday, you’d see him leave, every Sunday, be gone all day,” Harwood said.
Records show a criminal history — 2 to 15 years in prison in 1993 for child abuse, writing bad checks as late as 2003, but nothing serious since then.
The friend said he knew nothing about the Battaglia case until police arrested Marshall, Marshall’s brother and two others for perjury in October. They’re accused of lying while being questioned about the case under investigative subpoenas.
He said Marshall told him the death involved a barroom brawl, but police say Battaglia, a Catholic Central graduate, was killed in a robbery while walking home from Mulligan’s Pub just before 2 a.m. on June 11, 1990. His parents said his wallet was taken during the robbery.
The friend said Marshall did not say he killed Battaglia. “He actually said he was there, he never admitted to killing him,” he said.
Harwood said Marshall left for Georgia after his perjury arrest and occasionally called him from there. Over the past three weeks, he said he watched as police stopped at the house to look for him.
During a press conference Friday morning, Grand Rapids police and Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth said detectives identified Marshall as a person of interest from almost the beginning, but didn’t have enough evidence to file charges.
“You may know who people are, you may suspect people are involved, but until and unless you can get them to talk at some level, there’s nothing that they can do,” Forsyth said.
Police said they never closed the case, but their interest was rekindled following the June 2014 release of David Schock’s documentary surrounding Battaglia’s murder. Police looked at the evidence and re-interviewed people again. However, it didn’t lead to any more tips.
They wouldn’t provide any details on what led to the arrest.
A probable cause affidavit obtained by 24 Hour News 8 shows Battaglia was “assaulted repeatedly” during the robbery. It also states that relatives, friends and associates of the suspect identified him as “being involved directly in the assault upon Christopher Joel Battaglia and the attempted and/or robbery of him during which he died.”
The affidavit said the suspect was involved in a “violent, violent child abuse” in the early 1990s and that he fled to Georgia after a warrant was issued in that case.
Forsyth gave credit to Grand Rapids detectives Patrick Needham and Erik Boillat, along with Assistant Prosecutor Kelli Koncki.
The victim’s parents, Jerry and Gail Battaglia, were also at the police department as authorities announced the arrest.
Forsyth said the Battaglias have sent him Christmas cards for years, updating him about their other son, Jeremy, and his family.
“There was always a void when I look at that card,” Forsyth said. “It’s what might have been if Joel were still alive, what would he have done, what would his family have been like, and at some level I have always felt somewhat guilty because I really couldn’t do anything to help them.”
He received their latest card just two days before the arrest.
“I’ve done this a long time, some cases affect me more than others, as best you can you try to keep a distance because if you get too emotionally involved you’re not going to do this very long, but this is one I always wanted to get to this point for them, because I knew it meant so much to them, their friends and their family,” Forsyth said while choking up.
For Battaglia’s parents, they hope the relief will lead to answers.
“Finally, after all this time, there’s some resolution,” a tearful Gail Battaglia said. “I did feel that somebody did this to my son and should be accountable.”
If given a chance, Jerry Battaglia would ask the alleged killer: “How could you do this? How could you do this to our son?”