Rubin: TV’s Bill Proctor still looking for answers

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

You watched Bill Proctor ask people questions on Channel 7 for 33 years. You don’t see him anymore, but he’s still asking, poking around old cases where he thinks someone innocent is stuck behind bars.

One of his success stories hit the news early this week, and then Lamarr Monson hit the streets Wednesday evening — free, pending a retrial, after serving 20 years for a murder Proctor is certain he did not commit.

That makes Proctor, 68, a target for a few questions himself. And after three decades with a microphone in his hand at WXYZ, he struggles for answers when the focus is on him.

“I don’t know where it comes from,” he says — the push to become a licensed private investigator, the drive to right wrongs, the willingness to spend his alleged retirement immersed in old legal documents and frustrating battles with bureaucrats.

But he does offer this: “I’ve never played golf.”

Aha. A clue. And here’s another:

“Part of the excitement of being a reporter is discovering wrongdoing.”

And one more:

“We all should be upset to learn that somebody’s liberty has been stolen by the government we are supposed to support and respect.”

Proctor, it should be noted, once worked in law enforcement, guarding federal buildings in Washington, D.C., as an officer with the Federal Protective Service. Helmet on head and baton in hand, he would fend off college kids protesting the Vietnam War, then probably sit with some of them as he took night school classes at the University of Maryland.

He’s not anti-cop. He’s anti-sloppiness, anti-indifference and anti-injustice — and thrilled beyond measure for Lamarr Monson.

A flawed subject

Life does not always hand you perfect protagonists.

Monson, 44, was selling crack out of a ratty Detroit apartment building when his quasi-girlfriend, Christina Brown, was murdered in 1996. He was 23, and though she was tall and told everyone in the building she was 17, she was actually a 12-year-old runaway.

It’s a bloody, seamy and convoluted tale. Bottom line, after a 24-hour interrogation, Monson signed a typewritten confession that according to the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, he never read.

The confession did not mention the actual murder weapon, a toilet-tank lid marked with a bloody thumbprint. The lid was not introduced as evidence during the trial that brought him a 30-50 year sentence, and it took nearly two decades before the print was tied to a man named Robert Lewis.

Lewis had been fingered after the fact by his addict girlfriend of the time, Shellena Bentley. Unable to interest the police in her account, Bentley called Proctor.

It was March of 2013, 60 days before his retirement. She laid out the story and then added one more thing: You covered it.

He did not immediately remember. There were too many other murders for this one to rate a special Post-it Note in his brain, but he was intrigued.

Searching for answers

By 2013, Proctor had already established a nonprofit called Proving Innocence. He also has a detective agency, Bill Proctor & Associates, that’s largely devoted to innocence cases.

His satellite headquarters is his Bloomfield Hills dining room, where a whiteboard hangs on the wall across from a shelf that holds family photos and his Emmy Award.

“The criminal justice system, unfortunately, is applied by people,” he says. The voice is softer than the one he used on the air, but every bit as deep and inviting.

Sometimes, he says, those people make honest mistakes. Sometimes they make dishonest ones, or take shortcuts.

The trigger for him was a series he reported about a lifer now known by the Buddhist name Temujin Kensu. Witnesses place Kensu in the Upper Peninsula on the night of a 1986 killing in Port Huron, and he was granted a new trial in 2010 — but that decision was overturned on appeal. Proctor sees it as a failure, and it stings.

For the Monson case, he made three trips to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in search of Lewis and managed to speak to him once by phone. It was Proctor who brought Bentley to the Innocence Clinic, where director David Moran calls him “exceptionally good at getting results.”

The stakes are higher now, Proctor says, and he’s licensed to carry a gun, but in a sense he’s just searching for honest answers the same way he used to.

Then his phone rings, loudly, well into the evening. The conversation is brief. He asks the caller to try again in the morning.

Presumably, justice has already been delayed. He’s tired now. It can wait a few more hours.