Suspected serial killer freed after botched Detroit murder case

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — An alleged murderer who slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice system 15 years ago is being investigated as a possible serial killer in three states, police officials told The Detroit News.

James Matthews, 65, is a suspect in two homicides in Michigan, three in Texas and one in New York, according to Detroit police officials. Detectives are poring over old case files to determine if they can connect him to more killings.

An alleged murderer who slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice system 15 years ago is being investigated as a possible serial killer in three states, police officials told The Detroit News.

Authorities also are investigating how a 2003 strangulation case against Matthews was flubbed. Investigators submitted a warrant request to Wayne County prosecutors seeking murder charges against him, but the warrant was never pursued — and then, police say, he went on to kill more victims, all women.

"He should have been charged years ago," Detroit police Chief James Craig said. "There's enough blame to go around: Prosecutors never did anything with the warrant request, and our detectives didn't follow up on it. The case just fell into a black hole.

"We believe (Matthews) is a serial killer who committed more murders after he should have been charged," Craig said. "It's a tragic situation."

Matthews is in the Vernon C. Bain Center jail in New York, awaiting extradition to Wayne County, where he's been charged with murder and sexual assault. Matthews does not have a listed attorney.

In January 2003, Matthews was arrested by Detroit police for allegedly strangling a 35-year-old woman. No charges were filed within the required 72 hours, so he was released from jail. Four months later, Detroit detectives had gathered enough evidence to submit a murder warrant to Wayne County prosecutors.

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After that, police and prosecutors say they don't know what happened to the case.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who was Wayne County prosecutor in 2003, does not recall the file, because he normally would not have handled it in its early stages, spokesman John Roach said.

"The standard practice in his office was that he would not see a file until such time the assistant prosecuting attorney was recommending the approval of a warrant in the case," Roach said in a written statement.

The Detroit police homicide investigator who worked on the 2003 murder case has since retired, Craig said.

"I don't know how this could have happened, but there's absolutely no excuse for it," the chief said. 

Police say Matthews also is responsible for a July 12, 2000, sexual assault. DNA links him to the rape, said Tracy Weinert, an officer with the Detroit police homicide Inactive Squad.

"He and the victim knew each other," she said. "She went to his house, and she was tied up with duct tape and raped over a several-hour period. He left the room, and she was able to exit the house and call 911."

Matthews was arrested, a DNA sample was taken, and a sexual assault warrant submitted to prosecutors.

"But the victim never showed up to the prosecutor's office," Weinert said. "On CSC cases, they don't compel victims to come in to testify, so when she didn't come in they deemed her an uncooperative witness, and (Matthews) was released."

In April 2018, after police contacted the victim and she agreed to testify, a warrant was signed charging Matthews with first-degree criminal sexual assault, Weinert said.

Also in April, Matthews was arrested in New York for a 2007 homicide, although a grand jury later dismissed the charges. He remains in jail, however, because his DNA was in the police computer system stemming from his 2000 sexual assault arrest, when a saliva sample was taken from him.

"NYPD reached out to the prosecutor's office and let them know they got a DNA hit on the rape case, and prosecutors contacted me," Weinert said.

As Detroit detectives investigated the rape case, they discovered the dormant 2003 murder warrant, Weinert said.

On Jan. 11, 2003, police say Matthews strangled a woman in an abandoned house on Detroit's west side. At the time, he was on probation after pleading guilty a year earlier to cocaine possession.

"(The killing) was over a debt," Weinert said. "He said the woman owed him money.

"A warrant was submitted to the prosecutor's office, but it just never came back to us," Weinert said. "I don't know what happened to it."

Weinert declined to give the victim's name because relatives have not been found and notified.

The homicide matches the circumstances of other killings Matthews is suspected of committing, Weinert said.

"The victims are all black women in their 30s, and they were all strangled in abandoned houses," she said.

Wayne County prosecutors on July 31 signed a warrant charging Matthews with first-degree murder for the 2003 strangulation.

"(The murder and rape) cases were recently able to be charged as a result of investigation by the police, aided by forensic evidence," Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, Matthews also was sentenced to two years' probation after pleading guilty in January 2002 to cocaine possession.

"On Nov. 7, 2000, DPD’s narcotic unit searched his home with a warrant and found him to be in possession of .25 grams of cocaine that was in his pants pocket," MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said. "Back in 2003, he stopped reporting to his probation officer and has been on absconder status since."

Weinert said Matthews is expected to be extradited to Michigan to face murder and sexual assault charges within a few weeks. Miller said no decision has been made about whether to charge Matthews with absconding from probation.

Weinert said detectives are trying to determine if Matthews was involved in other homicides.

"We're going through old files to see if other cases match the same M.O.," Weinert said."He's a suspect in a 1999 homicide on (Detroit's) west side, and we think there may be more. Texas (police) are looking through their cases, too; they suspect him in three homicides there. Also, there was a case in New York."

Craig said measures have been put in place since 2003 to guard against warrants getting lost in the system.

"Why weren't the detectives diligent in following up on their warrant 15 years ago? I can't answer that, because I wasn't here then," Craig said. "But now, we track every not-in-custody warrant that’s been submitted for review."

Craig said he's convinced there are more Matthews victims.

"How many murders have been committed by this guy? And not just here in Michigan, but in other states? I have no doubt in my mind he's a serial killer, and there are more women he's killed.

"The way this case was handled is bad all around," Craig said.
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