Charges dropped against 3 in 2019 Warren death, but police, victim's family dispute findings

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Warren — Macomb prosecutors dropped involuntary manslaughter charges against three men accused in the July 2019 beating of an Auburn Hills man after re-examining evidence in the case. 

July 2019:Three arrested after return to scene of fatal beating in Warren

A 40-year veteran defense attorney, who represented one of the men accused in the beating of 24-year-old Kenny Klingler in Warren, claims the investigation by the Warren Police Department focused on the three men to the exclusion of other evidence.

Kenny Klingler was found dead in the roadway on Mound Road on July 4, 2019.

"The true facts, that everybody chose to ignore for 18 months, finally came out," said attorney Robbie Lang.

Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer questions why, after a year, the Macomb County Medical Examiner's Office changed its determination of the manner of the death of the victim, found on a road in Warren, from homicide to "indeterminate." 

He also faulted the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office for "failing to follow through" with the prosecution.

Macomb's medical examiner, Dr. Daniel Spitz, said the determination was changed based on new information involving "enhanced video that raised some questions" about the initial police theory of the case, which was that the man was beaten and fell into the road and was not hit by oncoming traffic.

The Prosecutor's Office said its decision to press charges was "based on evidence that, as it turns out, was not completely accurate," and that dropping the case was in the best interest of justice.

The family of Klingler describes "18 months of hell" since Klingler was last seen alive, staggering onto southbound Mound Road.

The night in question

On July 4, 2019, Klingler was found dead in the road on Mound, north of 13 Mile.

In the hours before his death, Klingler had been at a party in Troy, police said at the time, and he met three Warren men there: Christopher Twarowski, Christopher Zehnpfennig and Nathan Domagalski.

Christopher Zehnpfennig

After Klingler told the men he had no place to stay, they said he could stay at their home on Chapp in Warren, police said at the time.

But during the ride over, the men argued and the driver stopped in the parking lot of Michigan Auto & Golf Cart Sales, on the 31600 block of Mound, Dwyer said. 

Police say the victim was beaten in the parking lot and left for dead. He "collapsed" into the roadway, but was never hit by any vehicles, police said at the time. 

Christopher Twarowski

But Lang, attorney for Zehnpfennig, said video shows Klingler was the aggressor, that the three men barely touched him, and that slowed-down footage actually shows at least three vehicles hitting the man.

Then-Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith portrayed the confrontation differently in a July 5 statement announcing charges against the three men.

“The repeated fatal blows suffered by the victim at the hands of these defendants is beyond reprehensible," Smith said at the time. "They could have called 911, knowing the physical state they left the victim in. Instead they made the most selfish choice possible — they left the scene. And, left the victim to die.”    

The footage available on local TV news shows Klingler throwing punches and another man trying to push him away.

Lang says the full video never shows punches clearly land nor does anyone's head hit the pavement.

The footage led police to believe the fight led to Klingler's death. When Zehnpfennig returned to the scene of the fight about 90 minutes later to pick up the shoes he had left there, police arrested him.

Lang says Klingler was "completely intoxicated" on alcohol and marijuana prior to the fight, and had reportedly made suicidal statements at the party.

After Klingler's death, Warren police spoke to the party host in Troy, Lang said, citing the case file.

Nathan Domagalski

Before police informed the host of Klingler's death, he reportedly told them that Klingler had been depressed and intoxicated. He worried that his friend would walk into traffic.

Victim's death leaves 'big hole,' investigation brings no closure

Betty Klingler remembers getting a knock on her door that day. It was a detective from Warren, telling her that her son was dead and that three men were in custody.

In the time since, Klingler said she has found police and the prosecution tough to reach and that it's been hard to get answers.

"We still don't know how he died, and we still don't know why," Klingler said. "That's not closure to me."

She doesn't find the reports of her son's intoxication unusual or objectionable for a grown man on Independence Day.

"It was a holiday. He's 24," she said.

Nor was it unusual that he would get into a car with three men he had just met: He was a very trusting person, she said.

What she has trouble buying is the idea he would just start a fight randomly or that, if intoxicated, he could hold his own in "three-on-one self-defense" for as long as he did. 

"He is not who they portray him to be," Klingler said Monday, rejecting the labels unstable, aggressive and lunatic she sees used by people who didn't know her son.

"If you needed $5 and he only had $5, he would give it to you," Klingler said. "I don't believe for one second he just started attacking someone."

Klingler said her son took care of his grandmother, 90, at her Auburn Hills home, but was weeks away from moving to Colorado in August. He liked Colorado's outdoor culture and enjoyed hiking.

Since his death, Klingler and her husband, Brian, have taken over the grandmother's care. 

The Klinglers have three other sons, including Kenny's twin, Rob. Betty Klingler said their children have helped her get through the toughest time of her life.

"Our sons are what make us our best selves," Klingler said. "We have a beautiful family, but it has a big hole."

Police 'need to be held accountable'

On the morning of July 4, 2019, before he gave a ride to a man he did not know, Zehnpfennig worked at WXYZ-TV as a freelance photographer. He was 23, attending Oakland University and renting the home in Warren.

Seventeen months later, two weeks from the end of his legal troubles, Zehnpfennig has moved back home with his parents and is at the start of rebuilding his life. He "would love to go back into journalism," having experienced the courtroom "on the other side of the camera."

But for now, he works at a warehouse.

"I'm trying to escape the financial hole I've found myself in," he said, which starts with "$60-70,000" the family put toward bond and his attorney. Then there is the lost work.

"My reputation is hanging on by a thread," Zehnpfennig said, citing 47 pieces of negative press he has collected. "And it's because the police lied to the press and told a very inaccurate story."

Zehnpfennig said he is talking with lawyers about pursuing a civil case against the Warren Police Department.

"They need to be held accountable," Zehnpfennig said. "We had to prove our innocence, instead of being presumed innocent."

Zehnpfennig feels the ordeal could have been avoided if the three men hadn't "extended the hand of friendship" to a friend-of-a-friend who was in a tough spot. He will be less likely to do so in the future.

"Don't give rides to strangers," he said.

Investigation questioned

Spitz, the Macomb medical examiner, said the office "did not have all the information" when it determined Klingler's death was a homicide. 

Police had insisted that security camera footage showed the fight.

The medical examiner hadn't seen the enhanced footage of the crash, which Lang's office provided. 

Under oath, the medical examiner changed his opinion. Klingler's death was not a homicide, but was "indeterminate" in manner. Authorities simply couldn't tell which injuries were suffered in the fight and which in the roadway.

After the preliminary examination where both Spitz and a crash reconstructionist in the Warren Police Department changed their minds about the facts of Klingler's death, the judge requested briefs from the prosecution and defense, said Cory Newman, chief of district courts for the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office. 

Police never did crash reconstruction at the scene, nor did they test vehicles that had stopped to see if they had hit Klingler, according to the 33-page brief Lang filed Oct. 26, as he opposed his client being bound over for trial. 

Klingler says the investigation was "botched" and laments that "nobody in Warren PD did one damn thing right."

Lang says he was proud to represent Zehnpfennig.

"These were three innocent kids," Lang said.

But Betty Klingler disagrees. The suspects "should all be in jail for involuntary manslaughter. They beat my son up," she said.

The assistant prosecutor who had been handling the case, Paul Bukowski, was suspended from the office in September for his alleged role in former prosecutor Smith's legal troubles, the Macomb Daily reported.

Newman took over and, after a review, recommended the case be dropped.

Betty Klingler said the family heard from a county victim's rights advocate on a Friday that Newman needed to meet to talk about the case. Brian couldn't make it because of work, so Betty went alone the following Monday and patched Brian in via speakerphone.

It was at that meeting that she learned the office was dropping the case, Klingler said.

"(The office) let me walk in that room and be ambushed, without my husband," Klingler said.

On Nov. 9, the judge signed the prosecution's request to drop the case.

Technically, authorities could still pursue the charges if new evidence were uncovered.

"I doubt that will happen," Lang said.

Dwyer defends the investigation and calls accusations it was botched "very disturbing" and "totally erroneous."

"I am disappointed the medical examiner would change his determination after a year," Dwyer said. "I question why that was changed. Our investigation was thorough. The victim was beat up and left to die."