Slayings unsettle rural St. Joseph County
Three Rivers, Mich. — A young man was fatally shot in a dirt alley last month. The next week, the body of a migrant worker was dumped along a country road. The next day, an elderly man was killed in his home.
A rural enclave in southwest Michigan that had rarely been touched by murder was suddenly awash with it.
Residents who never locked their doors, even while on vacation, began bolting them. They postponed nighttime errands until daytime. Instead of greeting strangers with a wave, they cast wary glances.
A country way of life is on hold in St. Joseph County.
“Stabbings, manhunts, gunshots. What is going on in this town lately?” asked Leigh Ann Shake, of Sturgis.
As residents grappled with the deaths, they were revisited by one of the county’s most notorious crimes: the murder of an 11-year-old girl in 2007.
For eight years, residents wondered who strangled and sexually assaulted Jodi Parrack before leaving her body in a cemetery near her home in Constantine.
Authorities announced Sept. 10 that Dan Furlong, 66, a friend of Jodi’s grandfather’s, had been arrested and charged in the case.
He is being held without bond at the St. Joseph County Jail. A preliminary exam hearing is scheduled for Oct. 14 in Centreville District Court.
Furlong is not a suspect in the three recent deaths, which are unrelated to each other, said police.
An arrest in the Parrack case “has been a long time coming,” said county prosecutor John McDonough. “It’s been a long, long, long time.”
Furlong’s arrest came on the eve of one of the county’s most popular events, the Constantine Harvest Fest on Sept. 12.
The festival’s prince and princess, 6 and 4, wearing paper crowns, rode on the rear seat of a golf cart as they led a line of children on bicycles and pedal-driven tractors.
The parade passed the two-block shopping district, lined with American flags and store windows with “Falcon Pride” signs and T-shirts exhorting the high school football team.
This is the type of thing residents love about their farm town, far from the city and its crime, they said.
But talk inevitably turned to Jodi Parrack and the three recent murders. The big city had found its way to the small town.
“There’s no perfect and quiet community,” said Robyn Shank, a retired nurse. “It’s getting bad everywhere.”
Drug problems on the rise
Residents worry the spate of murders is a harbinger of rising crime.
While the county averages just one homicide a year, it is dealing with the rural scourge of methamphetamine, said law enforcement officials.
Police are checking whether the alley shooting on Aug. 20 was related to drugs.
Westly George is charged with walking up to Gene Jackson amid a large crowd and shooting him four times, according to police. It happened in a ramshackle neighborhood in Three Rivers in the northern part of the county, just a few miles from Constantine.
George, 28, and Jackson, 24, had convictions for selling drugs, according to court records.
Brina Jones, a Wal-Mart clerk in nearby Sturgis, said drugs are getting so bad she’s afraid to take her child outside. “Everywhere is getting bad but small cities? Wow,” she said.
A former Lutheran church one block from the shooting was reopened to hold a funeral service for Jackson, whose name remains on its sign four weeks later.
Nine miles south, the scenery in Constantine Township is different, with larger homes and leafier lots — but the fear is equally pervasive.
That’s where Vern Chupp was killed Sept. 1 — authorities are still investigating how and why — inside his secluded log cabin along the St. Joseph River.
Chupp, 70, who lived by himself, was a successful builder in the area. If he wasn’t safe in a gated lot at the end of a long dirt road, what might happen to less-secluded residents, neighbors wonder.
“Nothing ever really happens here, then, all of a sudden, it’s whammo,” said Karen Taylor, who lives near Chupp’s home. “It kinda freaks me out.”
‘It makes you wonder’
Residents in sparsely populated Florence Township, east of Constantine, once liked their solitude.
But that was before someone dumped a body with a gunshot wound to the head along one of their country roads Aug. 31. The man, whose identity wasn’t released, was a Mexican resident who worked in the cornfields that stretch from one end of the county to the other, said police.
Residents now look out their windows, wary of any unfamiliar faces in the neighborhood.
Kristi King confronted a stranger who walked past her house several times last week. “It’s very unsettling,” she said about the overnight dumping of the body. “It makes you wonder what’s happening when you’re sound asleep.”
The owner of the yard where the body was found has begun locking her doors for the first time.
On the heels of the three deaths, residents learned about a break in the Jodi Parrack case.
In July, a 10-year-old girl from White Pigeon told police she was assaulted by a man in her neighborhood.
The man, identified by the girl as Furlong, asked her to help him move some stuff next to his trailer, said police. He pushed her against his car, put his hand over her mouth and reached for a knife, said police. But the girl escaped, and her mother called authorities.
A state law that went into effect July 1 requires DNA to be collected from anyone charged with a felony. Previously, it was limited to people charged with murder or rape.
After Furlong’s arrest Aug. 12, police matched his DNA to the Jodi Parrack crime scene. He was charged with homicide, kidnapping and criminal sexual conduct.
“I’m glad,” Jodi’s mother, Jo Gilson, said about the arrest.
Furlong, who lived in Constantine at the time of the murder, was a longtime friend of Gilson’s father, she said.
Furlong’s arrest had little to do with a Herculean effort by police to solve the case.
A three-man cold case team from the Michigan State Police moved into Constantine in 2011 and examined the crime for 31/2 years.
They sifted through 600 pieces of evidence, 1,700 tips, 3,000 interviews and 7,000 pages of notes.
The weight of the investigation landed on Ray McCann, a Constantine police reservist who helped search for Jodi when she failed to return home from a friend’s house.
McCann was charged with perjury after his description of what he did during the search was contradicted by several people, said police.
He was sentenced to 20 months to 20 years in prison as the town speculated he was somehow involved in the murder.
But the arrest of Furlong shows McCann had nothing to do with the murder, said McCann’s daughter, Ashley. Police said there’s no connection between Furlong and McCann.
“This is how the police and community repaid him for trying to help,” said Ashley McCann.
She said authorities were under pressure to make an arrest in the high-profile case.
She attributed her father’s misstatements to the fact he was interviewed nearly two dozen times over 61/2 years as he dealt with the stress of being suspected of murder.
McCann, who has been in prison since his arrest in April of last year, is eligible for parole in December.
As for Gilson, she and 10 friends gathered at the White Pigeon Township Cemetery on Sept. 2, which would have been her daughter’s 19th birthday.
Standing at Jodi’s grave, they released sky lanterns that spelled “Happy birthday, Jodi.”
There had been whispers of developments in the murder case, which turned out to be Furlong’s arrest eight days later, but Gilson forbade such talk at the gathering.
This wasn’t the time to discuss death, she said. This was a day to celebrate her daughter’s life.