VanCallis guilty in murder of April Millsap of Armada

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A black motorcycle helmet was key to jurors finding James VanCallis guilty Monday of killing April Millsap along a popular hiking trail near Armada.

The six men and six women found the 34-year-old St. Clair County man guilty on all counts of murder, kidnapping and attempted sexual assault.

Jurors, according to an official with the case, said they felt there was “overwhelming” evidence to convict VanCallis in the beating death of the 14-year-old girl. They said the police’s contention that the helmet was used to kill Millsap was “credible.”

Hand claps, celebratory gestures and a couple of “Amens” drowned out gasps and crying after the verdict was read by a jury foreman, who looked directly at VanCallis.

Supporters of Jennifer Millsap, who sat in the front row of Macomb Circuit Court Judge Mary Chrzanowski’s courtroom, said the verdict helps bring some relief to the girl’s mother.

“She’s very relieved to be done with this chapter (of her life) and continue her grieving process,” Jean Persely said.

VanCallis, 34, is scheduled to be sentenced March 30. He faces life in prison without parole.

The jury of six men and six women deliberated for more than six hours over two days before reaching its verdict. The trial lasted more than two weeks.

Assistant Macomb County Prosecutor William Cataldo, who prosecuted the case, hugged April’s mother after the verdict, as did VanCallis’ attorney, Azhar Sheikh. “She’s been very gracious” and has been through a lot, Sheikh said.

VanCallis’ family, including his mother, rushed from the courtroom after the verdict and didn’t speak to reporters.

Sheikh said his client plans to appeal.

“It was definitely more sympathy than (evidence),” Sheikh said. He said he didn’t regret not putting VanCallis on the stand.

He said he felt the jurors performed their duty properly. “Had they come back with a verdict right away I would have found it very troubling.”

Armada Police Chief Howard Smith said he believed an animation culled from Google Earth and a sports app on April Millsap’s phone was the “smoking gun” that brought the case against VanCallis together.

“That’s what really cinched it for me,” Smith said. The app was overlapped with Google Earth and allowed investigators to see where the girl’s telephone was, which, investigators said, was at the same place at the same time as the motorcycle VanCallis was believed to have been riding.

Jessie Kanehl, a friend of the Millsap family who has been in court to support Jennifer Millsap since the beginning of the trial, said: “April is here. She has been here with (her mother). She’s very happy her mom will feel a sense of peace now that justice has been served.”

Karyn Risch, who wore a pink T-shirt that read “April ... Always in Armada,” said she was “thrilled” with the guilty verdict.

“I am thrilled the jury took their time,” Risch said as she gathered with other Millsap supporters.

During closing arguments Friday, Cataldo spent 90 minutes asking jurors to convict VanCallis.

He showed jurors how he thought a black motorcycle helmet was used to kill Millsap in July 2014.

An autopsy photo jurors saw Friday showed the girl had a bruise above one of her eyes. Cataldo said the bruise matched the impression of a piece of the helmet. However, there was no DNA detected on the helmet.

“He cleaned off the DNA,” Cataldo said. “He cleaned off April.”

Sheikh argued during the trial there was no DNA evidence to connect VanCallis to Millsap’s killing.

Millsap died of blunt force trauma and neck compression, according to autopsy results.

Smith said VanCallis was given ample time during his interviews with police to give his side of the story but instead, according to Smith, VanCallis slammed his fist on a table during police questioning and said, “Lawyer.”

The case against VanCallis was a solid one, said Smith, and Monday’s verdict was “just.”

“There was (DNA) but what was left behind was not enough stuff to do anything with,” said Smith, who added there still was a “lot of evidence” in which to convict VanCallis.

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