Death of Black youth in Benton Harbor in 1991 ruled homicide

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Benton Harbor, Mich. — The death of a 16-year-old Black youth whose body was found in the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan nearly 31 years ago was a homicide, the Michigan Attorney General's office said Tuesday.

Eric McGinnis vanished from Benton Harbor on May 17, 1991. His body washed up along the river days later. It was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but the case was reopened last year following reports that someone had witnessed the events that led to the death.

Eric McGinnis

The suspect in the case has been dead since 2003, said Lynsey Mukomel, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

No charges will be filed in the case, she said.

“While our efforts cannot bring Eric back, nor render justice in the eyes of the law, we do hope the family is vindicated by our department’s confirmation that Eric was indeed the victim of a homicide,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.

McGinnis family attorney Leonard Mungo questioned why the Attorney General's office did not release the name of the suspect.

“While we appreciate the attorney general’s office reopening the case, they also fell far short as to naming that suspect. We believe it is inadequate and disrespectful to protect the name of a murderer. We request a disclosure immediately for the sake of transparency,” Mungo said in a statement.

McGinnis of Benton Harbor was last seen being chased by a White man whose car he had broken into in St. Joseph.

Authorities believe he then tried to swim across the St. Joseph River or fell from a train trestle spanning the waterway. His body was found in the river five days later.

The death divided the west Michigan cities some residents believe are also racially separate.

Some in Benton Harbor, which is predominantly African-American, believes McGinnis was killed for dating a White woman and the cops covered up the crime.

Benton Harbor teenager Eric McGinnis' body was found 30 years ago in the St. Joseph River, near the Silver Beach pier pictured on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

The case was reopened in April 2021 after a man told a TV station in South Bend he saw a group of White teens chase McGinnis shortly before his death.

McGinnis had long been honored in a yearly vigil for Benton Harbor residents whose murders and deaths remain unsolved.

Residents’ views of the death haven’t changed much and McGinnis' death is a reminder of how far apart the two sides remain.

“It was sad, a tragedy, but it was an accident,” said Meg Thompson, 32, a St. Joseph resident who attended several Black Lives Matter rallies told The Detroit News in 2021.

“He was thrown in the river,” said Leonard Brown in the same article by The News. Brown, 51, of Benton Harbor, had been trying to get the FBI to investigate the case for several years. “St. Joe people don’t want Black people in St. Joe.” 

Associated Press contributed.