KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The man convicted of killing two hunters in a state game area in 1990 said he wonders how hard his defense team’s private investigator worked to keep him out of prison.
That private detective, a retired state police polygraph operator, later married the convicted killer’s wife.
“It’s a shocker and then I wonder, was he working for me?” Jeff Titus told Target 8 in a phone interview from prison. “Was he working for an ulterior motive? I don’t know.”
Titus, a former U.S. Marine, was the first suspect identified in the November 1990 murders of Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, hunters whose bodies were found in the Fulton State Game Area south of Kalamazoo, right behind his land. Each was shot in the back, at close range, through their hunting licenses.
The original detectives told Target 8 they cleared Titus after witnesses provided an alibi, saying Titus was hunting that afternoon on their farm 27 miles away. A decade later, the Kalamazoo County cold case team focused again on Titus and he was charged with their murders. A jury convicted him in 2002 of both murders. He is serving life in prison without parole.
Titus’s defense team, led by attorney William Fette, included Howard Swabash, a recently retired Michigan State Police polygraph examiner.
“He was the private investigator hired by Mr. Fette,” Titus said.
Swabash was married at the time, but court records show his wife filed for divorce in January 2002, five weeks after Titus was charged with murder. Transcripts of the divorce hearing obtained by Target 8 show Swabash’s wife claimed her “husband’s unfaithfulness” led to the breakdown of their marriage, though she didn’t identify the other woman.
Target 8 reached out to Swabash’s ex-wife, but she refused to comment.
On Halloween Day 2002 — three months after a jury convicted Titus — Titus’ wife, Julie, visited him at a Saginaw prison with Swabash.
“He came in that day, on Oct. 31, 2002; he came in with Julie and my daughter,” Titus said.
Prison records reviewed by Target 8 confirm Swabash signed in as a visitor at the same time.
Titus said his wife told him during that visit that she was filing for divorce.
Titus’ wife filed for divorce two weeks after that visit, saying they hadn’t “gotten along for years,” court records show.
Records show Swabash and Titus’ ex-wife got married in Florida in April 2005 — less than three years after the conviction.
Retired Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Roy Ballett was one of the original detectives who cleared Titus in 1990. During Titus’ 2002 trial, the defense did not call Ballett or the other original detective as witnesses. They say they would have testified about his alibi.
Ballett said he confronted Swabash at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse not long after Titus’s conviction.
“I asked him why he did not even bother to give me a call to find out what my feeling might have been on this case if he was going to be an investigator to prove Jeff Titus’s innocence,” Ballett said. “He became very vocal and (said) several curse words, to put it gently, and got on the elevator and left.”
The Michigan Innocence Clinic has taken up Titus’s case at the request of the original detectives.
“Our screening system is very rigorous, such that we’ve only taken about 1 percent of the cases that we’ve reviewed so far, and Jeff Titus is one of those,” said David Moran, the clinic’s director.
While the Innocence Clinic is claiming Titus’s attorneys failed him, Swabash’s connection to Titus’s ex-wife is not part of the appeal.
“It’s unusual,” Moran said of the private detective’s connection to Titus’s ex-wife. “It’s obviously very unusual. In these cases we see a lot of things that cause you to raise your eyebrows. That would be one of them.”
Swabash now operates a private polygraph company in the Kalamazoo area. Neither he nor his wife responded to Target 8’s repeated requests for comment.