Locals in this town of 9,000 are far from naive — tragic things happen in all kinds of places. But the collective disbelief that has settled over Saline the past few days is hard to miss. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
Saline — Residents of this small, Washtenaw County community are trying to make sense this week of how three local teenagers could have ended up accused of robbing and killing a Michigan State University student and leaving his body alongside Interstate 69.
Samantha Grigg and Tyrel Bredernitz, both 18, and 16-year-old Brendan Heim are accused of causing the death of MSU sophomore Dustyn Frolka of Owosso on Feb. 15. They are suspected of beating Frolka with brass knuckles and tossing him from a moving car in Bath Township, northeast of Lansing.
At their arraignment in 29th District Court in St. Johns, Grigg said she is a senior at Saline High; Bredernitz is a Saline High graduate; and Heim said he dropped out as a sophomore. All three were jailed without bond in Frolka’s death. The student was arrested for cocaine possession Jan. 31, according to court records, and was kicked out of his dorm as a threat to safety of other residents, the university said.
Locals in this town of 9,000 are far from naive — tragic things happen in all kinds of places. But the collective disbelief that has settled over the past few days here is hard to miss. Wednesday evening, 50 residents gathered in a prayer service for the victim and the local kids now linked with his death.
In the heart of Saline’s small downtown, Ron Ringel is a regular at the Drowsy Parrott coffee shop. He has been a resident and an active member of the community since the mid-1980s. He and his wife have put three children through the local schools here, including Saline High School.
“You immediately go back to thinking ‘How could this happen with kids from Saline,’ ” he said. “When you read something negative, in this case a big negative with violence and death involved, I think there has to be something wrong. That can’t happen here.
“You’re trying to put two and two together and you say ‘I must have sat there in the bleachers many times and watched those kids on the football field.’ ”
The McDonald’s restaurant on East Michigan Avenue hosts a regular morning gathering of local retirees who normally are willing to chat. On Wednesday, they weren’t interested in talking about the week’s events at all.
Nearby, 68-year-old Tom Fullerton was enjoying an early snack and a book by the window. He and his wife came to Saline nine years ago as he was preparing to retire, because he liked that it was small and quiet and allowed you to live life at the pace you chose.
Residents know they have a beautiful, quiet town here and they work hard to keep it that way.
“Appearance is very important here,” he said. “In a lot of ways there really is a feeling of ‘Don’t embarrass us. Don’t go out and get arrested or do something silly.’ ”
Police have said drugs may be involved in the case, which remains under investigation. The town has been hit hard recently by tragedy linked to drugs.
In 2013, three young people died from heroin overdoses. That prompted local officials to convene a task force on addiction that met for the first time Monday.
The heroin issue in the area was personal to Kimberly Ray, who started a Facebook page “Heroin Epidemic in Washtenaw County” to raise awareness of the issue shortly after her son, Johnny Strawbridge, 21, died from an overdose in December.
On Monday, Ray was among the community members at the task force meeting.
“I watched everything he did,” she said of her son. “When you have an addict living in your house, you don’t sleep and you’re petrified they’re going to die. … I know a couple of younger people in the community who’ve died from heroin, and it’s really obvious the community was ashamed.”
Saline Police Chief Larry Hrinik said there is little indication the homicide involving local teens is any indication of a negative trend for the city.
“I think our overall crime rate went up maybe 2 percent last year,” he said. “But none of that was in a major crime area like homicide or robbery. Our increase was more in some of the minor types of crimes.”
Wednesday night, an alliance of local churches hosted an ecumenical prayer service “for the young people accused of murdering that MSU student, for the student himself, and for the families and others impacted by this tragedy,” the Rev. Ian Reed Twiss said on a website announcing the event.
Twiss said in the past few days, emotions among his congregation have run the gamut.
“People are all over the place — shock, sadness, befuddlement, disbelief — you name it,” he said. “We decided it was important to offer a liturgical service for people to bring their feelings and offer up their prayers.”
About 50 people were loosely scattered in pews at First Methodist Church. Many called for mercy for the suspects and comfort for their families, as well as that of the victim.
“Tyrel, Samantha and Brendan, May you know how much we and God still love you,” one prayer request read.