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Maybee’s wounds fresh 2 years after Bruck’s slaying

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Maybee — After more than two years, purple ribbons still hang from town utility poles, sturdy pillars draped with heartbreak.

A purple bow still hangs on some of the trees in downtown Maybee, two years after Chelsea Bruck disappeared from a Halloween party.

The strips, now faded, were there during a six-month search for a 22-year-old woman who vanished after a raucous Halloween party in 2014.

They were there when Chelsea Bruck’s badly beaten body was found under a clump of leaves and branches last year.

And they remained last month when the case against the man charged with killing her was moved to circuit court for trial.

Chelsea Bruck.

These milestones of murder are foreign to Maybee, a farm town of 560 people in Monroe County. People just aren’t killed here, said residents.

“That was insane,” said Jo Ann Terrasi, owner of Jo’s Barber Shop. “We’re not used to it. This is a nice little town.”

When her two 20-something daughters go out, Terrasi finds her thoughts drifting to Bruck.

The death also preys on the mind of Lisa Milhan, who is preparing to open a cafe across the street from the barbershop.

No matter how slow business is, Milhan won’t allow employees to work by themselves. It would make them vulnerable to someone trying to do them harm, she said.

“We were all on our tippy toes, trying to absorb it,” she said.

Milhan and her daughter, Marquis, recently looked at photos spread over the counter of Curbside Café that they planned to hang on the walls.

Milhan said she continually pesters Marquis to call her whenever she returns home from going out. Marquis, 26, complained her mom still treats her like a little girl.

Worried after Bruck’s slaying, Lisa Milhan said she pesters daughter Marquis to call her whenever she returns home from going out.

The person authorities say is responsible for the fear coursing through the community is an unemployed, high school dropout with a long string of misdemeanors.

Daniel Clay, 28, who is being held at the Monroe County Jail, is charged with open murder, which encompasses first-degree, second-degree and felony murder. No trial date has been set.

He declined to comment for this story.

As for Maybee, a welcome sign describes it as “The Best Little Town in Michigan.”

A hulking grain elevator looms over the two-block shopping district, where telephone poles are bedecked with not just purple ribbons but American flags.

Everyone seems connected to everyone else.

One of Terrasi’s customers is Bruck’s father. Milhan’s husband is a farmer who has helped the Bruck family with their 160-acre farm just outside town. Many residents use the bank where Bruck’s mother was a teller.

On Friday nights, seemingly the entire town gathers at the Little Brown Jug, whose daily special is hand-breaded walleye, lake perch and Alaska pollock.

The customers all know each other. Bruck’s sister, Megan, used to be a waitress there.

“It’s a tight-knit town where everyone is family,” said Matt McMahon, a customer at the Little Brown Jug. “Chelsea was everyone’s sister, everyone’s daughter.”

The night she went missing

In Monroe County, it was the party of the season.

Big Mike’s Annual Halloween Bash had a stage, fireball twirling, a 40-foot bonfire and prizes for best costumes.

Held at a farmhouse in Newport, it was more concert than party, featuring eight heavy metal bands with names such as Psychopathic Daze, Armageddon Awaits and Everything Must Die.

The yearly get-together was always popular, but the one in October 2014 drew a bigger crowd than usual, 600 people, witnesses said. It also was unruly, with several people kicked out for fighting.

“It was huge, a lot of new faces,” said Heather Brooks, a friend of Bruck’s who worked with her at Olga’s Kitchen in Monroe.

Bruck arrived around 11 p.m. The youngest of five children, she was outgoing and boisterous, said friends.

And she really wanted one of those costume prizes. She worked three weeks on her outfit, sewing leaves to a green vest. She was the Batman villainess Poison Ivy, who kills victims with a kiss.

Clay, who attended the party, also wanted a prize, but not for best costume, he later told police. He wanted to hook up with a woman.

He and a friend walked up to a group of people that included Bruck, said a member of the group, Jessica Pribyl. She testified during Clay’s preliminary exam on Nov. 2 that there was little if any conversation.

“She was always sweet and caring of everyone,” Pribyl told The News.

Bruck, who had been drinking cheap wine from a gallon-size bottle, walked into a wooden post, gashing her forehead and bridge of her nose, said witnesses.

After hurting herself at 12:45 a.m., she wanted to go home. But the friend who had brought her had already left. Another friend, who had Bruck’s phone and wallet, also had left. She asked several people for a ride, but they demurred.

Finally, around 3 a.m., she left the party by foot. It’s unclear where she was going. Her home was eight miles away.

As she walked along a dirt road clutching her purple wig, a car pulled beside her. The driver, Clay, asked whether she needed a lift, he later told police. She stumbled into his car.

Clay told police he and Bruck had rough sex and he accidentally strangled her.

But a medical examiner testified during the preliminary exam that Bruck had been beaten to death.

What’s more, the injuries were too severe to be inflicted by a fist, said Dr. Leigh Hlavaty, deputy chief medical examiner for Wayne County. A blunt object must have been used,

Bruck’s nose, jaw and eye sockets were broken, said Hlavaty. Two teeth were chipped.

Clay told police he then drove around for 30 to 45 minutes. He dumped Bruck’s torn costume at an abandoned industrial site near Flat Rock some 15 miles from the party. He drove another six miles before dumping the body in a woods near Carleton.

The case against Clay

When Bruck failed to return home from the party, her family began to look for her. They were eventually joined by hundreds of volunteers who spent months searching woods, fields and waterways.

They blanketed Monroe County with 300,000 fliers asking for information about her.

The police also were busy, conducting 840 interviews and sifting through 1,000 tips.

Despite the searches and fliers and interviews and tips, police were stymied. One problem: Most people at the party were too drunk or high to assist in the investigation.

“You didn’t know who or what or why,” Marquis Milhan said. “You have a million questions.”

Police finally caught a break earlier this year.

Daniel Clay passes Bruck’s parents, Matt and Leannda Bruck, in court. In Maybee, purple ribbons are reminders of the search for her.

In May, Clay and another man were arrested for accosting a woman in downtown Monroe, snatching her backpack full of tattoo supplies.

A new law allowed police to collect Clay’s DNA to see if it matched anything in the Michigan State Police database. The old law limited such collection to people charged with violent felonies.

The DNA matched material on Bruck’s black yoga pants, which had been discovered last year when police, acting on a tip, searched the Flat Rock industrial site.

Clay subsequently told police he was involved in the death but that it was an accident.

In July, he was charged in Bruck’s death. He also was charged with a sexual assault that had occurred in June.

He allegedly walked into the apartment of a Monroe woman, struck her in the face, yanked her off the couch by her hair and raped her, said police.

Kelli Richter, who had been dating Clay for a month at the time of his arrest, was stunned.

“It’s just crazy,” she said. “You think you know someone, but you really don’t.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell