Exonerated man seeks to repair image in Michigan
Constantine – For eight years, residents of this small town thought one of their own was a murderer. They believed Ray McCann had sexually assaulted and suffocated an 11-year-old girl in 2007.
People who had known Ray McCann his whole life began to avoid him. Members of his own family turned on him. He was arrested and served 20 months in prison for allegedly lying to police during the murder investigation.
But the town’s suspicion was based on a pack of lies, his attorneys said. And the people who told those lies were the police, who claimed they had evidence linking McCann to the crime.
McCann was cleared in 2015 when another man confessed to the murder.
By that time, his reputation was in tatters. After living his whole life in this western Michigan community 30 miles south of Kalamazoo, he has fled to another town. But the stigma has followed.
“I lost everything. I lost everything I had,” he said. “I still don’t understand how it happened.”
McCann wants to salvage his image by having a judge set aside the perjury conviction and grant him a new trial. He said the evidence was as bogus as the proof police claimed to have in the murder.
During a preliminary hearing in 2014, a detective with the Michigan State Police said McCann lied about going to a path leading to a dam during his search for victim Jodi Parrack. Video from a surveillance camera at a nearby creamery showed McCann never appeared at the path, Det. Bryan Fuller testified.
But, in an affidavit filed by McCann’s attorneys in June, the creamery manager said the camera wasn’t pointed at the path.
A hearing on McCann’s bid to clear his name will be held Dec. 15 at St. Joseph County Circuit Court in Centreville. He is represented by the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school.
A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police defended the agency’s tactics in the investigation.
“Law enforcement officers use a variety of methods to either eliminate or identify individuals involved in the crime,” spokeswoman Shanon Banner said in a statement.
St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough, during an abbreviated phone call when he hung up on a reporter, defended the perjury conviction, saying McCann had pleaded no contest to the charge. McCann said he had done so because he feared a long sentence if the case went to trial.
“I stand behind everything my office and the police did,” McDonough said.
Several weeks after Daniel Furlong confessed to the murder and told police he didn’t know McCann, Constantine Police Chief Mark Honeysett visited McCann at Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian.
McCann thought the chief was going to apologize and tell him he was being released. Instead Honeysett, continuing a years-long pattern where police repeatedly lied to McCann about the evidence against him, told him he knew the two men were friends, according to an audio recording of the meeting.
Asked why he had said that to McCann, Honeysett told The Detroit News that police were still looking for information about how Jodi had died and whether other people were involved.
“Also we wanted to give him a chance to clear up the information,” he said.
McCann wasn’t released from prison until he became eligible for parole in December 2015.
Joining the search
McCann once liked his lot in life.
He was married and a doting dad. He was a police reserve whose main income came from fixing trailers. His passion was youth sports where he coached and refereed.
He was outgoing and made friends easily, said residents. He mowed his older neighbor’s lawn. Everybody seemed to like him, even the people who investigated him. McDonough told a TV reporter McCann wasn’t a bad guy.
For fun, McCann impersonated Elvis Presley. He set up a karaoke room in his garage with a photo of the King on the wall. His favorite song: “Suspicious Minds.”
“I couldn’t name a single person who didn’t like him,” said longtime friend Keith Cantrell. “You couldn’t pick someone less likely to do something illegal.”
McCann’s life changed in November 2007 when he joined a search for Jodi, who had failed to return home for dinner one night. A few hours later, she was found dead. A few hours after that, he was a suspect.
His fellow police officers were suspicious because McCann had suggested to several people they search the cemetery, which is where Jodi was eventually found.
The suspicion grew over the years when McCann’s account of his search differed from other people’s.
He said he had told a store clerk he was looking for a missing girl, told Jodi’s mom a child in the backseat of her car looked like Jodi, and he said he had talked with a fellow officer at a city park. But the other people said those things never happened.
Then, in 2012, McDonough asked McCann why his DNA would be on Jodi, according to a transcript of the interview. McCann said he had no idea.
Later McDonough again asked why McCann’s DNA would be on Jodi, and he said it may have occurred when he pulled the mom away from the body. The mom, Jo Gilson, said McCann hadn’t touched her.
But McCann’s DNA wasn’t on Jodi and authorities knew it, Fuller later testified at the preliminary exam.
Five perjury counts
The discrepancies between McCann’s account and other witnesses’ memories formed the basis of five counts of perjury, each punishable by up to life in prison because they were connected to a murder case.
McCann said the passage of time may have clouded his memories.
He was interviewed 20 times over five years, according to court documents. He did so voluntarily and without an attorney. He denied being involved in the murder 86 times, according to video recordings of the interviews released by police.
“You want a confession I can’t give you,” he told police during a 2011 interview. “Didn’t find her. Didn’t put her there. Didn’t kill her.”
Whether it was poor memory or fear of being falsely charged or an officer trying to impress other officers with the diligence of his search, the reason for the disparities between the recollections of McCann and others was more benign than police thought. They believed McCann was lying to cover up his role in the murder.
The case was first investigated by city police and then a cold case team from the Michigan State Police, who moved into town in 2011.
They collected DNA from McCann and 300 other residents, accumulated 600 pieces of evidence, received 1,700 tips, conducted 3,000 interviews and produced 7,000 pages of notes. None of it connected McCann to the murder.
But they remained fixated on McCann and charged him with perjury in 2014.
Fuller had told McCann’s then-wife, Angela, they planned to bring criminal charges against McCann to pressure him to talk about the murder.
“I don’t know if (McCann) will ever just say the truth,” said Fuller, according to a video recording of the 2011 interview. “He’s going to have to be charged. He’ll get so scared he’ll talk.”
As police investigated the murder, it quickly became clear who they thought had committed the act.
They not only told residents they suspected McCann but said they had the evidence to prove it. Among the people they told were McCann’s son, sister and then-wife, according to the video recordings.
McCann’s sister-in-law, Julie McCann, said police told her McCann’s DNA was on Jodi and that sand from Jodi’s sneakers came from his yard.
“That’s, like, blowing my mind,” she said about her reaction back then. “‘Oh, my God, did he do this?’”
Police also impugned McCann’s character in other ways as they tried to gather information about him.
They told his 16-year-old son, Pokey, that McCann was lazy, possibly selling drugs and may have been using his computer to seek gay sex.
“I’m almost afraid to go home,” responded Pokey, according to a video of the 2012 interview.
McCann wasn’t surprised by the accusations. He had heard them repeatedly during his 20 interviews.
Police told him they had “scientific evidence” that showed he had touched Jodi’s body and placed it in cemetery, that he had been within 23 feet of the body before it was found, that they had video that showed him around town when Jodi went missing.
If any statements made to McCann, Pokey, sister Ann Nusbaum or Julie McCann were supported by evidence, they weren’t found by The Detroit News in a comprehensive review of police and court documents.
Within 10 days of his perjury arrest in 2014, McCann was attacked in prison. An inmate yanked him off the top of a bunk, struck him in the head with a padlock and tried to gouge his eyes out.
He didn’t know the reason for the attack but could guess. Police officers and suspected child killers aren’t popular in prison.
More painful was the reception he received in his hometown.
“The people I grew up with – the parents, the kids – it’s like the whole town turned their backs on me. They threw me aside,” he said.
Residents began to shun him. So did members of his family.
When his sister was young, McCann took her bowling and roller skating, Nusbaum said. When she had a son and the child’s dad was absent, McCann filled the void, driving him long distances to wrestling matches and cheering from the stands.
Yet, when police began whispering in Nusbaum’s ear, she forgot that version of her brother and replaced it with someone capable of sexually assaulting and killing an 11-year-old girl.
The siblings stopped talking. McCann felt betrayed.
“That’s your own family,” he said. “You think they would know better than to have some stranger come tear us apart.”
Nusbaum told The News she was raised to believe the police were the good guys, that they were the ones who always told the truth.
She no longer thinks that and believes the police were lying all the while.
“I was letting people fill my head with what they thought,” she said. “They would tell me I didn’t know my own brother.”
She and McCann are slowly rekindling their relationship, she said. They email each other once a week.
The fractured relationship that hurts McCann the most is with his son. They were once tight, bonding over sports and music, McCann said.
But they’ve talked only three times since Pokey went to live with his mom in 2012, McCann said. He didn’t get to see him graduate.
He’s not sure why his son is angry but believes it has to do with the accusations hurled by police.
“Pokey was Ray’s pride and joy. He meant everything to him,” said McCann’s friend Ed Steinebach.
The case was finally solved in 2015 when a 10-year-old girl from White Pigeon told police Furlong had tried to abduct her. Police arrested him and took his DNA, which matched material found on Jodi Parrack.
Furlong, who lived in Constantine at the time of the murder, had never been a suspect.
During his confession, he described how Jodi had ridden by his house on her bicycle and he asked her to help him move something. He threw her in a boat in his garage and sexually assaulted her, Furlong said. He later used a plastic shopping bag to suffocate her and dumped her body in the cemetery.
Furlong said he didn’t know McCann and that McCann had nothing to do with the murder, but Jodi’s mother remains dubious. Gilson said McCann’s misstatements to police show he’s hiding something.
“Maybe if he had told the truth like everyone else, he wouldn’t have been a suspect,” she said.
As McCann tries to pick up the shards of his life, he does so from a new town, Marcellus.
Constantine is 15 miles away but he rarely visits. Too many bad memories, he said.
He goes there to visit his father’s grave. He said one positive thing about the ordeal is that Ray McCann Sr. didn’t have to watch his son’s life become engulfed by a nightmare.
“I can’t imagine if he was around. It would have torn him up,” said McCann.
In Marcellus, the once-outgoing McCann mostly keeps to himself. It hasn’t stopped residents from doing a double-take when they recognize his face or name from the news.
Still drawn to sports, he has begun attending high school football and basketball games. A woman who learned about his interest in mentoring kids said a youth wrestling team needs a coach.
McCann liked the idea, especially because his grandson is getting old enough to wrestle. But he didn’t want to bring up his criminal record. He told the woman he might check it out.
What he really wants to do is get out of Michigan. He has a lead on an automotive-related job in Tennessee. He doesn’t want to leave his family, especially his mother and daughter, who have supported him throughout the morass.
But he needs a fresh start, he said. It’s his best chance at a semblance of a regular life.
“I still don’t understand it,” McCann said about the last 10 years of his life. “Maybe someday I will.”