College students uncover new evidence in 1988 murder case

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Olivet — New information unearthed by Olivet College criminal justice students has prompted Calhoun County Sheriff's Office detectives to reopen an investigation into a 33-year-old homicide.

On Sept. 25, 1988, three hunters found a man's decomposed body in a wooded area of Homer Township about 35 miles southeast of Battle Creek. The man, who wore a flannel shirt, plaster-encrusted work boots and a Miller Lite digital wristwatch, had been shot twice in the head with a .25 caliber pistol.

On Sept. 25, 1988, three hunters found a man's decomposed body in a wooded area of Homer Township about 35 miles southeast of Battle Creek. The body was determined in 2005 to be that of James Burton, who was 53 when he died. Investigators have reopened the case this year after Olivet College criminal justice students unearthed new evidence.

The corpse's identity remained a mystery until 2005, when Michigan State Police Crime Lab technicians matched the fingerprints to James Burton, who had done jail stints in Alaska, Georgia and Chicago before he was killed at age 53. 

Calhoun County Sheriff's Office detectives tried to track down information about Burton but came up empty. The investigation went cold until it was reopened recently, thanks to a detail uncovered by 10 Olivet College criminal justice students who were studying the case as a class assignment.

"The students discovered that a tip had come in through the Sheriff's Department a few years after the homicide," said Olivet criminal justice Professor Phil Reed, a retired Battle Creek police officer. "This was a possible witness who had not been interviewed. We notified the sheriffs."

Based on the new information, detectives rekindled the investigation, Calhoun County Sheriff's Office Detective Jon Pignataro said.

"We reopened the case about three weeks ago," Pignataro said. "Because it's an active investigation, I can't really go into too much detail about what leads we have so far, but I'm excited that we're working on this case again."

Other colleges and universities that help police with cold cases include Western Michigan University, which partnered with Michigan State Police in September to work on unsolved homicides. At the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic, law students pore over old cases to investigate wrongful conviction claims.

Reed said he started his program five years ago.

"To get into the class, students need to have references and pass a background check, because we often go into police departments and have access to sensitive information," Reed said.

The class takes most of its cases from Battle Creek, where Reed was a cop for 25 years, although Pignataro said he asked Reed if his students could look into the Burton homicide.

"We don’t necessarily have the staff or manpower to investigate all these cold cases, so we thought it would be helpful to have outside people take a look at it," Pignataro said.

Reed, who retired in 2003 as the Battle Creek department's commander of investigations, said his students took on the Burton case last year and picked it up again when the fall semester started in September.

"Each student reviewed the case," Reed said. "While doing that, we discovered the tip that had come in to the sheriffs, and then we realized this person had never been interviewed."

Reed said his students also looked at Burton's clothing: a red-and-black checked flannel shirt, blue jeans, a brown belt with a silver buckle, and work boots caked with dried plaster. 

When investigators first noticed the plaster, they thought the man may have been a handyman or construction worker, according to media reports. But that theory, like every other investigative avenue, fizzled out.

Since cash was found on the victim, police ruled out robbery as a possible motive. 

An artist's rendering based on Burton's remains was distributed to the local media in 1988 by detectives, but nobody came forward to identify him, and he was given the name John Calhoun IV.

The remains were cremated and interred at Oakhill Cemetery in Battle Creek, although a hand was severed from the corpse and put in cold storage for possible future identification.

Fingerprints were sent to the FBI, but under the antiquated system then used, no matches were found. Technological advances in the 1990s included automated fingerprint identification systems, which allowed the FBI to scan and store fingerprints electronically, significantly improving the chances of identification.

Around 2003, Calhoun County Sheriff's Office detectives sent the hand to the Michigan State Police lab for a reexamination. Two years later, a fingerprint hit came back.

But attaching Burton's name to the fingerprints yielded few clues. A background check revealed he'd been arrested in Georgia in 1974 for an unknown offense, in Alaska in 1975 for construction fraud, and in Chicago in 1981 on a weapons charge.

Burton told Chicago police that he was born on Sept. 16, 1935, in Bland, Virginia, but there was no record of his birth. Investigators visited Bland but found no relatives or acquaintances. Nobody had reported Burton missing.

"We don't know what his connection to Michigan was," Pignataro said. "Why was he here? Clearly, that's the big question mark, and for 33 years, nothing has popped up. You'd think over time, someone would ask, 'Whatever happened to so-and-so?' But that has not happened.

"We only have the one picture of him, and very little information," Pignataro said. "We're hoping somebody will recognize him."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN