Retiring prosecutor: Cases solved, memories he can’t shake

Murder victim's family praises commitment of outgoing Kent County official

Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth
Retiring Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth. (Dec. 21, 2016)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Every year after Joel Battaglia was killed in a street robbery in 1990, his mom has sent Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth a Christmas card — even as the case went unsolved.

She said that will continue after Forsyth’s retirement after the end of the year.

“When Joel was killed, I was 44 years old,” Gail Battaglia said. “When the case was solved last summer and when we went to trial, I was 70, and I thought, you know, that’s a lifetime, and through that lifetime Bill has stayed with us, he’s cared about the case. To me, it’s remarkable. He never forgot about us.”

Her son’s murder in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids went unsolved until last year, when Aurelias Marshall was sent to prison for life.

“Somehow because of who Bill is, he got to know our Joel, perhaps through the people Joel knew, and he became to believe in his goodness,” Jerry Battaglia, Joel Battaglia’s father, said. “And I believe that’s why his heart was so strong in wanting to know and solve this case.”

Forsyth, 67, has been prosecuting criminals for 42 years — the last 40 in Kent County and the last 30 as the elected prosecutor.

“To me, he’s a soulful man. You feel his soul when you talk to him,” Gail Battaglia said.

“You feel horrible about what happened with their son,” Forsyth said. “They went 25 years without really knowing who did it and why they did it. That would be tough to live with.

“Through it all, they were very gracious, very humble, and every year, I would get a Christmas card from them,” he continued.

Forsyth said many of the cases he handled became personal, like the 1986 murder of Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Joseph Taylor. The killer’s trial was Forsyth’s first as an elected prosecutor.

“The last trial I tried was the killing of Bobby Kozminski,” he said.

Kozminski, another GRPD officer, was killed in the line of duty in 2007.

“I told myself at the time, I’m not trying another case,” he said.

Forsyth recalled some of the big cases, criminals he helped put away, and victims he said he cannot forget.

“I’ve seen some things that I’d just as soon forget, but you can’t,” he said. “Kiko Cruz, who beheaded the young man up in Sparta, then videotaped himself doing a variety of things to the skull. That’s a memory I’ll always have. I would just as soon not have it.”

Another such case: the mom and two young sisters killed in their Walker home in 2003 by her son.

“What Jon Siesling did to his family. I could live without that,” he said. “At the end of the day, somebody needs to be held accountable for that. You get some satisfaction from that, trying to help the community, help the victims’ families.”

Perhaps one of his most troubling cases was the random murders of David and Vivian Bouwman in their Kentwood home in 2013.

A month previous, Forsyth had held off on charging Javonte Higgins for a break-in and car chase that put him in the hospital. That decision was aimed at keeping the county from paying Higgins’ hospital bills.

“We could have charged him with a crime and probably kept (him) in jail, but chose not to initially because he was in the hospital with what we were told were serious enough injuries where he couldn’t walk,” Forsyth said.

But Higgins did walk — out of the hospital before killing the Bouwmans.

“You make a lot of decisions on whether to charge them now or charge them later,” Forsyth said. “But given what I knew at the time, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

It was Forsyth who built up the prosecutor’s victim/witness program, which helps victims through every step of a case.

“There were victims who were seemingly forgotten and just shoved off to the side,” he said. “To me, they’re just as entitled to rights as the defendant is.”

On Tuesday, Forsyth checked his mailbox and found a Christmas card from the Battaglias.

“I pray every day for Bill and for his wife and for his children that God will bless him with every blessing, poured out, pressed down, overflowing all of their days. and my hope is that his retirement will be amazing,” Gail Battaglia said.