OAKLAND COUNTY, MI — Between 1976 and 1977, a serial killer — or killers — stalked the suburbs of Detroit and targeted children.
During a 13-month period, two girls and two boys were kidnapped and murdered in Oakland County, Michigan. The killer took victims for a period ranging from four to 19 days before slaying them and dumping their bodies. Some were shot; others were smothered. The two male victims were raped.
The case made national headlines, and the killer was dubbed the “Oakland Killer” and the “Oakland County Child Killer.” Still, despite some differences in the murderer’s M.O., the nickname that stuck was the “Babysitter Killer” — because of his habit of keeping victims bathed and fed until he ended their lives.
The resulting murder investigation was the largest in United States history up until that time.
Fear and near mass hysteria swept the Detroit area as media and authorities inundated young people with information on “stranger danger,” and parents encouraged children to go to “safe houses” if they felt threatened.
Several people have been named as suspects over the years, and many theories have been developed — but the cases remain unsolved. The killer — or killers — remain at large.
The first victim was 12-year-old Mark Stebbins. He was last seen leaving an American Legion Hall on Sunday afternoon, February 15, 1976. He had been playing pool with his brother, but gotten tired and told his mother that he was heading home to watch TV.His body was found on February 19, fully clothed and neatly laid out in a snowbank in the parking lot of an office building at Ten Mile Road and Greenfield.
Mark had been strangled and sexually assaulted with an object, and had suffered two lacerations to the left rear of his head. Investigators also found rope marks on his wrists and ankles that indicated that he had been bound during his time in captivity.
On December 22, 1976, Jill Robinson, 12, packed a backpack and ran away from her home after an argument with her mother over whether or not to have biscuits for dinner.
The day after her disappearance, her bicycle was found behind a hobby store on Main Street — and on December 26, the girl’s body was found along the side of Interstate 75 near Big Beaver Road in Troy. An investigation revealed that she had been killed by a single 12-gauge shotgun blast to the head.Like Mark, she was fully clothed and the body had been neatly laid out in the snow.
Kristine Mihelich, 10, was last seen Sunday, January 2, 1977, at 3 P.M. at a 7-Eleven store on Twelve Mile Road at Oakshire in Berkley.
She was reported missing by her mother three hours later, and a mail carrier spotted her fully clothed body 19 days later on the side of a rural road in Franklin Village. Kristine had been smothered, and the body was placed with her eyes closed and arms folded across her chest.
The final victim, 11-year-old Timothy King, grabbed his skateboard, borrowed 30 cents from his older sister, and left his home in Birmingham on March 16, 1977, to buy candy at a drugstore on nearby Maple Road at about 8:30 P.M. He left the store by the rear entrance — and disappeared.
In the late evening hours of March 22, 1977, two teenagers in a car found Timothy’s body in a shallow ditch just across the county line in Wayne County.
Police said that he was suffocated and sexually assaulted with an object — and, once again, the body was carefully posed in fresh clothing.
A forensic investigation revealed that Timothy had eaten fried chicken and then been suffocated approximately six hours before his body was found.
The Detroit News offered a $100,000 reward for the killer’s apprehension, and local stations have aggressively covered the case over the years. A presentation on WXYT titled “Winter’s Fear: The Children, the Killer, the Search,” won a 1977 Peabody Award.
After the discovery of Kristine Mihelich’s body, authorities realized they were potentially dealing with a serial killer.Soon after Timothy King was abducted, a composite drawing of the suspected kidnapper and his vehicle, a blue AMC Gremlin with a white side stripe, was released.
The suspect was described as a white male with a dark complexion, 25 to 35 years old, with shaggy hair and sideburns.
Michigan State Police led a group of law-enforcement officials to form a task force. The consortium reportedly investigated over 18,000 tips, but disbanded in 1978 after failing to arrest or charge a suspect.
Over the years, some of the victims’ family members have criticized the police investigation. Timothy King’s sister Catherine Broad compiled an archive of investigation material on her blog, and the King family produced a documentary entitled Decades of Deceit.The documentary claims that investigators and prosecutors conducted a shoddy investigations and dismissed leads that the King family discovered in 2006. Timonthy King’s father, Barry King, posts updates to the case on his blog, A Father’s Story.
In 2016, he wrote that he believed that Christopher Busch, the son of a high-level General Motors executive, who was convicted of multiple sex crimes against children, was involved in the death of his son.
Busch was questioned in connection with the abductions and killings, but released after reportedly passing a polygraph examination. But in 2008, WXYZ reported that three lie-detector experts took another look at the case and determined that Busch was not being truthful, according to a search-warrant affidavit.
Busch committed suicide in 1978 — after which investigators found bloody ropes on the floor and a pencil drawing of a young boy, who reportedly resembled Mark Stebbins, apparently screaming in agony, taped on the wall of his bedroom.
According to the King family, the ligatures found on the scene have gone missing, and there is no sign of them in the case files.
In 2012, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper held a press conference to announce that Arch “Ed” Sloan, a convicted pedophile and early suspect in the killings, had officially become a person of interest. Cooper says a hair found in Sloan’s 1966 Pontiac Bonneville fits the mitochondrial DNA profile of hairs found on the two male victims.
Sloan is not the donor of the hair, but Cooper’s Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton says they went public to find out who Sloan used to associate with in hopes of identifying the hair. Sloan was reportedly known to loan his car to pedophile friends.
Several years after the killings, Sloan was sentenced to life in prison for the rape of a young boy in 1983. He remains behind bars.
Other suspects who have been named over the years include James Vincent Gunnels, who was raped by Busch, and whose hair was partially DNA matched with hair found on Kristine Mihelich – meaning that the hair belongs to Gunnels or one of his relatives on his mother’s side. Chris King, Timmy’s brother, has said he believes Gunnels is connected somehow.
At one point, serial killer John Wayne Gacy was named as a potential suspect. Although, according to DNA tests conducted in 2013, Gacy was not involved in the Oakland County killings.
On March 27, 2007, investigators told WXYZ that another convicted pedophile named Theodore Lamborgine was considered the top suspect in this case. Lamborgine pleaded guilty to 15 sex-related counts involving young boys rather than accept a plea bargain that would have required him to take a polygraph test on the Oakland County child killings. In October 2007, the family of Mark Stebbins filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lamborgine seeking $25,000.
As the investigation continues, families and friends still hope for closure — and police believe that there could be more victims out there.
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Main photo: Four murder victims who may have been victims of the “Babysitter Killer” [WXYZ-TV Detroit Channel 7 / YouTube (screenshot)]