Alibis Ignored: The Jeff Titus Case

Did mistakes in a 1990 double-murder case send an innocent man to prison?

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) -- An alibi witness who may have been able to clear a man of a double murder was never called to testify, raising new questions about his defense.

The findings of a Target 8 investigation surprised even the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has taken up the case of Jeff Titus.

Titus has already served nearly 15 years in prison for the 1990 murders of Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, two deer hunters, in the Fulton State Game Area southeast of Kalamazoo.

The alibi witness, Eloise Shepard, and her husband, Gerald Shepard, told the original detectives on the case that at the time Estes and Bennett were shot and killed, Titus was hunting at their farm 27 miles away. Their statement, put in writing and signed less than two weeks after the murders, helped lead the original detectives to clear Titus.

In 2002, more than a decade later, neither of the alibi witnesses was called to testify and their statement was never introduced as evidence in Titus' trial, after which a jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder.

It was believed that both the husband and wife were suffering from dementia at the time of the trial, according to the Michigan Innocence Clinic. However, the Shepards' son, Allan Shepard, told Target 8 that his mom never suffered dementia. A neighbor and family friend said the same. Both of his parents have since died.

"She was sharp," Allan Shepard said. "Her mind was sharp. Her body was breaking down, but her mind was sharp."

He said she would have testified, but nobody asked.

"No doubt in my mind she would have testified," he said, adding it "could have" kept Titus out of prison.

Target 8 conducted its own investigation into the case, interviewing witnesses, relatives of the victims, the original detectives who cleared him, as well as Titus in prison.

"Justice was not served," Titus, 64, said. "There's an innocent guy in prison for something he didn't do. But because somebody wants a conviction record, he sits in prison."

"It wasn't Jeff," his mother, Jenny Titus, insisted. "He wouldn't have done that. No way would he have done that."

INNOCENCE CLINIC: DEFENSE FAILED TITUS

The Michigan Innocence Clinic has filed an appeal with the state Court of Appeals, hoping it will order a new trial. It claims Titus' defense attorneys failed him at trial.

"We don't take the case at the Michigan Innocence Clinic until everybody working on it believes two things: one, that the person is completely innocent, not involved at all; and two is that we have new evidence that should convince a judge of it," said Innocence Clinic Director David Moran, who is leading the case.

Nov. 17, 1990 -- more than 26 years ago -- was a Saturday, the second day of firearms deer hunting season, and a perfect day for it. Doug Estes, 33, headed out that afternoon with his stepson and a friend to the thick woods of the Fulton State Game area southeast of Kalamazoo -- right behind Titus' farm.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Estes' widow, Jan Estes, said. "Every day I think of it. I remember it all. Everything, the whole day. I remember it."

Her husband had split from his group.

Jim Bennett
An undated courtesy image taken from video of Jim Bennett.

Jim Bennett, 37, also went hunting that afternoon in the same woods by himself.

Then, shots.

"I try not to think about how long it's been," Bennett's mother, Esther Bennett Wolf, said. "It's pretty hard to talk about. You know, your first child is kind of special. You can't replace him, and there's always regrets about things you wish you'd have done, seen more of him."

HUNTERS SHOT IN BACK AT CLOSE RANGE

The victims were complete strangers, each shot in the back at close range right through their hunting licenses -- one with a slug, one with buckshot. They were found about 20 feet apart, not far from Titus' property line.

"The police told me that they thought that … he (the killer) had shot Estes, then Jim had apparently walked up and saw it and he turned to leave -- you know, to get out of there -- and they shot him in the back," Bennett's mom said.

Doug Estes
An undated courtesy image of Doug Estes.

Estes' stepson discovered the bodies.

Kalamazoo County sheriff's sergeants Bruce Wiersema and Roy Ballett worked the case, turning their focus on Titus, who owned that neighboring farm.

"We kept hearing reports that the person that we should look at would be Jeff Titus because he lived there and there were rumors or innuendos that he was very possessive of his land," Ballett said.

Titus is a former U.S. Marine who served from 1971 to 1977 and retired as a sergeant first class, according to military records. In the early '70s, he was assigned to help protect Marine One for President Richard Nixon. He also served in the Army National Guard from 1985 to 2001.

At the time of the murders, he was married, had two kids and was working security at the veterans hospital in Battle Creek. He had no criminal record.

ALIBI WITNESSES: 'HERE ALL AFTERNOON'

The original detectives said they quickly cleared Titus through alibi witnesses.

One of those witnesses, Stan Driskell, really wasn't much help. He said he was hunting that afternoon with Titus on a farm near Battle Creek -- 27 miles away from the murder scene. He and Titus split up about 4 p.m. that day, walking to separate blinds.

"There was absolutely no way we could see each other," Driskell said.

He said he didn't see Titus again until about 6 p.m., when they were done hunting.

The shootings happened during that two-hour window -- sometime around 4:30 p.m. -- perhaps just enough time for Titus to drive to his home more than a half-hour away, shoot the hunters and return to the farm near Battle Creek.

But, the original detectives said, they had even better alibi witnesses -- the owners of the farm where Titus and Driskell were hunting. The Shepards were lifelong dairy farmers who often let Titus and Driskell hunt on their land.

The couple signed a statement 11 days after the murders:

"He was here all afternoon with Stan," it read in part. "I know that he was here until dark because I saw him drive out of our drive with the deer he was taking home."

Detective Roy Ballett
Retired Detective Roy Ballett speaks to Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker.

"Mrs. Shepard saw them, waved to them as they left and noticed there was a deer in the back of the truck," said Ballett, one of the original detectives. "There was no indication that he had ever left. He would have had to back out in the driveway, which is directly adjacent to their home and then driven past their dining room window."

Their suspect was no longer a suspect. He wasn't even a person of interest.

DITCHED DRIVER 'SWEATING PROFUSELY'

Instead, they chased another lead -- a speeding car that had crashed into a ditch near the murder scene about the time of the shootings. A witness, according to police reports, said the driver was "sweating profusely."

"He was sweaty and nervous and declined the assistance" of passersby, said Michigan Innocence Clinic Director David Moran, the attorney now working with Titus. "That guy was definitely not Jeff Titus. And that guy, whoever he was, is a pretty strong suspect."

But that lead went cold, and so did the case -- a double-murder mystery.

More than a decade later, the Kalamazoo County cold case team picked it up. By that time, one of the original detectives had retired. The other was not assigned to the team.

Titus no longer had the benefit of his best alibi witnesses -- the Shepards. By that time, they were in their 80s.

"I'm very concerned with the fact that the prosecutor's office, the investigating officers would disregard anything that may point towards the innocence," said Ballett, one of the original detectives.

In December 2001, Kalamazoo County prosecutors charged Titus -- a man with no criminal history -- with both murders.

"It's a claim that he, while hunting in Calhoun County near Battle Creek some 30 minutes away from his own farm in Kalamazoo County, suddenly he gets the urge to sneak away, drive all the way back, finds two guys who are hunting too close to his property line, kills them, even steals their deer, loads the deer into his truck, and then drives all the way back to meet up with his hunting partner who is hunting in a different blind," the Innocence Clinic director said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

WHY WEREN'T DETECTIVES CALLED TO THE STAND?

The Innocence Clinic blames the defense team -- William Fette and co-counsel Ward McDonough.

"We believe it's ineffective assistance of counsel," Moran said.

Why, he wonders, wouldn't the defense call the two original detectives who had cleared Titus a decade earlier to the witness stand?

Titus told Target 8 he urged his lead attorney to make that call.

"They should have brought the original detectives in because they cleared me. And I asked him -- I said, 'Bring the detectives in' and he never did," Titus said.

Ballett, one of those original detectives, said nobody from the defense team contacted him; the other detective says he was subpoenaed for the trial but never called as a witness.

"They had a wealth of information that would have we believe destroyed the prosecution's case," the Innocence Clinic director said.

He said they could have testified about the alibi witnesses, the Shepards. They said Titus had parked his pickup in their driveway that day and didn't leave until 6 p.m. -- long after the murders.

"She would have seen it if it left, yes, definitely," Allan Shepard said of his mother. "She didn't miss anything. The driveway goes right by the house to get to the back, where they park in back."

"If that's what they told them (the detectives), then that's what I believe. They don't lie. My parents were honest people, I'll tell you," he continued.

Video taken of the couple about a year after the trial shows the husband's confusion as result of dementia. It also shows his wife still responsive.

DETECTIVES: KEY WITNESS CHANGED STORY

By 2002 -- a dozen years after the murders -- prosecutors had a witness who gutted Titus' defense.

"They don't have the wrong guy," that witness recently told Target 8. "They have the right guy. I have no doubt it was Jeff. No doubt."

The woman said she was hunting that day on her mom's land just down the road from where Titus lived, very near the murder scene. She didn't want to be identified, saying she was afraid what Titus would do if set free.

"He has threatened everybody and he would get anybody who knew anything about it," she said.

She testified at the trial in 2002 that Titus drove into her mother's driveway between 5 and 6 p.m. that day.

"It was just getting dusk, because I'd just been hunting and come up to mom and dad's, because I was walking up the driveway when he (Titus) pulled in and when he said he found a dead body," she told Target 8.

"That places him then near the crime scene at the time of the crime" instead of 27 miles away, David Moran, the Michigan Innocence Clinic director, said.

Michigan Innocence Clinic Director David Moran
Michigan Innocence Clinic Director David Moran.

"That was a crucial moment of the trial," he said. "The prosecution really played that up. They played up, 'This shows that he snuck back.'"

But the original detectives said that's not the story she and her mom told just days after the murders. In a police report written two weeks after the murders, they pegged that visit at between 8 and 9 p.m.

The Innocence Clinic said the original detectives could have cast doubt on the witness's timeline, if the defense had called them to testify.

"You're representing somebody who's being tried for a crime 12 years earlier and the original detectives cleared your client of that crime. Wouldn't you talk to them?" Moran said.

Then there's this: The defense never learned that one of the cold case detectives had concluded that two shooters were involved. A source close to the case said that detective was removed from the case.

"The police and the prosecution didn't reveal that fact to the defense," Moran said. "We don't know if the prosecution knew it, but the police knew it."

PROSECUTOR: EGO DRIVING ORIGINAL DETECTIVES

Fette, the lead defense attorney, has since been disbarred over an unrelated financial transaction. He did not respond to repeated messages Target 8 left at his home. Co-counsel Ward McDonough at first agreed to an interview but later declined. Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffrey Getting has not returned calls for comment.

In a Court of Appeals hearing in January, a Kalamazoo County assistant prosecutor argued against overturning the case, saying the two original detectives conducted a "failed investigation." Both, he said, are trying to save face.

"He comes forward out of ego," Assistant Prosecutor Mark Holsomback said of one of the detectives. "He thinks he's right in clearing the defendant as a suspect when he's obviously not."

There is no physical evidence that Titus committed the murders -- no DNA, no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no shell casings, and no eyewitnesses.

Other witnesses testified that Titus had threatened them in the past, sometimes while armed, and had talked about what he would do to trespassers. That includes the woman who hunted on her parents' property next door. She said Titus pointed a gun at her after finding her in an oak tree on her parents' land.

A witness testified Titus answered "probably" when she asked if he was the killer; other witnesses recalled Titus saying the victims deserved it because they were trespassers.

"Jeff Titus is a man who was disliked by his neighbors, who made inappropriate comments about the murders that happened at his property line to his coworkers at the VA hospital," Moran said.

There was also the 12-guage shotgun that belonged to one of the victims, which Titus claimed he later found in the woods. Prosecutors said there was evidence he had cleaned it.

The defense suggested the murders involved drugs. In fact, Estes, one of the victims, had a criminal history that included narcotics.

Years after the guilty verdict, the original detectives reached out to the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

"This was one where two retired police detectives called me up and said. 'The wrong man's in prison,'" Moran said. "'We know because we cleared him.' When we get a call like that, that call goes right to the top of the stack.

"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."

Also after the verdict, Titus' former hunting partner, Stan Driskell, conducted his own investigation.

Driskell and Titus were an odd pairing. Driskell is a double Ph.D. researcher who lives in Ann Arbor. But both loved to hunt and often hunted together.

"Jeff Titus is a consummate hunter," Driskell said.

At first, after talking to the cold case team, he wondered if maybe Titus did do it. He said he even wore a wire for police during a phone conversation with him.

Driskell later took a criminology class before spending four months reviewing the case, reading police reports and trial transcripts, walking the woods, taking his own measurements, driving the route Titus would have taken, even conducting ballistics tests.

He turned his results over to the Innocence Clinic and to Target 8.

"He could not have done it," Driskell said. "This is not beyond a question of doubt. This is definitive. He did not do the crime, period."

JUROR: WE GOT IT RIGHT

Target 8 tracked down the jury foreman, identified in court records only as juror no. 176.

He said he was surprised he got picked for the jury at all. He was a Kalamazoo County juvenile probation officer at the time who worked closely with the prosecutor's office.

He said he has no doubt the jury got it right.

"It was a very serious decision to make," said the man, who didn't want to be identified. "There wasn't a dry eye in the jury room when we came to the final decision."

But he said he had no idea the original detectives had cleared Titus. He said he doesn't know if the jury would have been swayed had the original detectives testified about clearing Titus.

"It's a good question, but I don't know if I could answer that, really," he said.

He knew nothing of the alibi witnesses who put Titus in another county. When asked whether that could have swayed the jury, he said, "I would say no."

"That would have been up to the people in the courtroom to present that information at that time," he said. "You can't try the case in someone's front lawn or on a sidewalk.

MOTHERS WANT JUSTICE

Relatives of the victims said they wished the Innocence Clinic would have left it alone.

"It just brings it all back," said Doug Estes' widow. "It brings it back for my son who was there. It brings it back for everybody. It's not just me.  It's everybody."

"I think it's a waste of money," said Jim Bennett's mother. "I'd feel really bad if they decided to turn it around. I don't know where they could get any evidence to do that."

Both women sat through every minute of the trial.

"I was sure in my mind that he did it," Bennett's mom said.

But both say they had no idea the original detectives had cleared Titus and were fighting for his freedom and had no idea an alibi was ignored.

"If they have the wrong guy, I'm really sorry," Estes' widow said. "I don't want them to have the wrong guy. I want the right guy to be there and I believe that he's the right guy."

But Titus' mom said there's no chance her son killed the hunters.

"I didn't raise no killers," she said.

She said she visits her son twice a week in prison.

"I'd like to see Jeff get out before I go," she said. "I'm not in good health. I'd like to see him out of prison."

"I hate to see her go to the grave with me still in here," Titus said.

Back at the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Moran and his team recently won a big victory -- getting a new trial for a Detroit man convicted of killing a 12-year-old girl in 1996.

Moran was waiting for the prisoner's release. Then he got the call: He was being set free after 20 years behind bars.

He hopes for the same for Titus.

"The evidence against Jeff is frankly ridiculous," he said.

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