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Kalamazoo murder case an ill-fated bid for love

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo – — When Chris Brownell learned her son was romantically involved with her friend, she grew concerned.

Brownell had kicked her son, Joe Janssen, out of their home after he broke all of its windows and chased her with a shovel, forcing her to leap a fence to get away.

She warned the friend, Debra Jean, that Janssen was a paranoid schizophrenic who turned violent when he didn’t take his medication.

But Jean waved away the concern, saying she had never seen that side of him, Brownell told Kalamazoo police, according to an investigative report.

Several weeks later, Jean, 62, was found stabbed to death in her Kalamazoo home in May.

Janssen, 25, was charged with murder and is being held in the Kalamazoo County Jail. He is awaiting the results of a mental competency examination to see if he’s fit for trial.

Brownell declined to be interviewed for this story but others described their reaction to the death.

“I can’t tell you how much it hurts,” said Jean’s mother, Betty LePert of Kalamazoo. “This never should have happened.”

As for why Jean became involved with a troubled man less than half her age, acquaintances said it may have been loneliness.

She had few friends and was estranged from her family, they said.

“She didn’t have anyone in her life for a long time,” said Sharon Carlson, a neighbor who did errands for Jean.

When Jean was discovered in her spare bedroom, a note written in crayon lay atop the body, according to the investigative report.

“Sacrifised,” it read.

Jean went missing May 29, and it took nine days for anyone to notice, according to the report.

Long divorced, she had no children and wasn’t on speaking terms with her siblings, said relatives.

“(She) burned so many bridges,” said a former sister-in-law, Kim LePert of Kalamazoo.

Jean was retired from her job as a factory worker for Flowserve Corp., which makes parts for heavy industry.

As for Janssen, he was diagnosed as autistic during childhood and began showing signs of schizophrenia in his early 20s, Brownell told police.

He is supposed to take several medications but rarely does, she said. He complained the medicine “made him feel weird.”

‘He goes off’

When he’s off his meds, he speaks and acts irrationally, said Brownell.

He once tried to dig a tunnel through the concrete floor of her basement because he wanted to escape.

“He goes off and puts a lot of people in danger,” said Brownell.

In March 2014, Janssen chased his mom with a shovel because she had refused to give him money for marijuana, she said.

Three months later, he stole a bicycle at Western Michigan University and, when campus police tried to arrest him, he punched a police officer, according to court records.

He pleaded guilty to assault of an officer, assault and destruction of property, serving 107 days in jail before being released in July 2014.

He has no memory of the incidents, said his mom.

After his release from jail, Janssen kept trying to return to his mother’s home but she wouldn’t let him, she told police.

Jean then offered to let him stay with her.

Janssen and Jean both liked to drink, Brownell’s husband, Jerry Melson, told police.

They would show up drunk at Brownell’s home with Janssen driving Jean’s car, he said.

On May 6, three weeks before the stabbing, officers were called to Jean’s home because Janssen had passed out from drinking so much, according to a police report.

Janssen began staying at Jean’s home in early May, he told police. He worked around the home and yard, raking leaves and mowing the grass.

Romantic link

He said the couple occasionally went out to dinner, and became linked romantically.

Brownell said she could tell they were involved with each other by their behavior when they visited her.

There was another reason Brownell objected to the relationship.

Janssen continually refused to take his medications, so he was assigned to an adult foster care home to ensure he received the medicine, said his probation officer, Mark Bartkowski.

But Janssen never stayed at the home, Bartkowski wrote in a June 9 report to the court.

He began staying with Jean around the same time he was supposed to start at the foster care home.

‘House was smothering’

On May 29, Janssen was awakened by a drunken Jean striking him on the head, he told police. She told him to get out of the house.

A note on a coffee table carried the same message, according to the police investigative report.

“LEAVE NOW,” read the note, with the words underlined six times. “IF YOU’RE NOT GONE WHEN I RETURN, you will be taken to JAIL. I’M NOT SORRY AT ALL, Debra.”

Janssen said he didn’t know why she was upset.

The couple fought in the living room, leaving a trail of broken glass and damaged furniture: lamp, end table, box fan, said the report. The knob of the kitchen door was broken off. One wall had a body-size indentation.

Janssen told police he stabbed Jean several times in the chest.

He then moved the body to a spare bedroom and covered it with an afghan.

“The house was smothering,” he said. “I’m a murderer who suicides.”

During the confession at police headquarters, he ate Goldfish crackers.

‘Hope for the Flowers’

After the stabbing, Janssen took Jean’s car and ran over a street sign three miles from the home, according to the investigative report.

He fled the scene, walked a mile and a half to Cash-N-A-Flash and tried to sell Jean’s cellphone, but the pawn shop wouldn’t buy it.

Four days later, on June 2, he showed up at his mom’s home, pressing his body against the back door as if shielding himself against something.

Brownell called police, who took Janssen to a local hospital’s psychiatric ward. Three hours later, he was back at the house, sleeping on the back porch.

This time, Brownell called his probation officer, and Janssen was arrested on suspicion of violating his probation by not staying at the adult foster care home.

In his backpack, police found “Hope for the Flowers,” a children’s novel about aspiration.

At that point, people still didn’t know anything was remiss at Jean’s home.

Finally, on June 7, a neighbor who noticed Jean’s absence called Kim LePert. She called police, who found the body.

As detectives stood outside the home that day, they were approached by a fraught Brownell.

“Please tell me she’s not dead,” she told them. “Please tell me he didn’t ...”

FDonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell