Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Chapter Two - The Body Snatchers


I am three years old in the summer of 1971. Gasoline costs a few dimes a gallon. Pro football actually has an off-season. Richard Nixon has yet to do anything wrong. With my corn-silk hair and average teeth, I am swinging away with a big red plastic whiffle ball bat at a big white plastic whiffle ball that my Dad, the esteemed Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr, is throwing at me in the front yard of our house on an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac. Before each throw, it’s the same thing. “Eye on the ball,” he says each time, “Big swing, now.” After a few errant windmills, I finally get ahold of one of those big, juicy grapefruits he was serving up – with a big swing. The ball sails over his head, like a comet, just beyond his outstretched fingertips. In obvious delight, he runs the ball down in the driveway while I stand there, bat still clutched in my wee grip. He turns around, holds the ball up in his big, strong hand before his vastly smiling face, and yells, “That’s the ticket!”


Absolutely, Officer Stolsonburg had been to my house before… Twice, in fact. The second time was on a door-to-door meet-n-greet that the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety conducted in order to better get to know the residents of our neighborhood. It was then that Stolsonburg recognized me from our first encounter.

Sergeant Treu was actually with him on the door-knocker campaign, an outreach program in which KDPS sent public safety officers out into the community to introduce themselves, ask if the folks have any concerns or questions for them, basic stuff. Of course, I was only a few minutes removed from rocking out on the electric guitar, so I must have had a pretty guilty look on my face when I answered the door. But they quickly explained that this wasn’t about that.

As our brief conversation looked to be nearing its finish line, Stolsonburg looked at me carefully and asked, “Aren’t you the guy whose truck rolled backward into the neighbor’s yard?” The guilty look returned – yeah, that was me, all right. Forgot to set the parking brake, came out of the house to find the truck not in the driveway, called in a stolen vehicle, found it a minute later leaned up against Shane and Erin’s swing set, right when the patrol car arrived… See, no big deal.

Stolsonburg, Treu, Shanks and Officer Kelly Pittelkow took over the CPR that Charlie’s mom and her life-long friend, Renee, were furiously and professionally performing on him. And they worked like the pros that they are, all of them and then more, refusing to give up, trying desperately to give Theresa what she was begging them for. The ambulance arrived, and the EMT’s went to work with the paddles and the breather bag, and they too gave it everything they had.

The fact that they were unable to revive Charlie is proof-positive to us that it was his time. If those men and women couldn’t do it… then it couldn’t have been done. The other officers had to literally force Kelly Pittelkow to stop compressing his chest.

My sister lays there in the dirt and the ants near Charlie, as close to him as they allow her to get (because it’s a crime scene now), a sound coming from her that only a mother who has lost a child would recognize. To everyone else, it is too much to bear. It is the sound of a soul letting go of a life.

Officer Pittelkow gently says something like, “Come on, Honey, the ants are crawling up your shorts.” She says that she does not care. Charlie has ants crawling on him, too. He, too, does not care.


It is a strange thing indeed to watch oneself on a police car dash-cam video. But there I am, in my shorts and tee-shirt, hair buzzed down to a quarter-inch for the hot summer nights working in a pizza kitchen. I cross the front yard from right to left, over to the play fort, where my poor sister is sitting at the foot of the slide with my father. Officer Pittelkow is standing near her.

I fall to my knees. My head bobs up and down. The car that is filming has its windows rolled up, so the only sound is that of the air conditioner running. I stay down that way for about five minutes.

By the time I stand up, all manner of people have started crowding in. One is introduced to me as a precinct chaplain. Another is billed as the Medical Examiner’s Investigator. I don’t catch his name – quite probably because he doesn’t bother giving it to me – but there’s something vaguely familiar about him; hardly the moment to go skipping down Memory Lane.

He hands Theresa some kind of pamphlet like you’d see in a rack by the counter at a veterinary clinic. She demands to know what is going to happen. She insists she does not “want them carving him up.” The ME guy assures her, in a soft, low, even voice that they have to take him to the County Coroner because it is an unnatural death (or, as the paperwork states, “death by violence”). He says that if there is an autopsy, it would be minimal, only to ascertain the cause of death.

I heard this conversation. My Dad heard this conversation. So did Officer Pittelkow, and it is due to the fact that her body microphone was recording everything (with the audio feeding back to the dash-cam on her police cruiser parked in my driveway) that I have no problem saying all of that. I can even link up the audio file with the video footage of this conversation taking place, shot through the windshield of another police cruiser that was parked on the lawn, pointing right at the fort… Hell, a 12-year old kid could do that.

That paltry attempt to quell my sister’s horror would turn out to be grotesquely false, but over the course of this nightmare, it turns out that a lot of the things that came bubbling up out of the ME’s office were pretty much bullshit.


It is getting dark. The crickets are chirping. The mosquitoes are biting. And the detectives are taking their sweet time. I guess that’s easy to do when the primary subject of your investigation is already deceased. Numerous times through this time frame in the police videos, one cop or another will periodically (by which I mean many minutes apart) mention this. What’s taking so long? Where are they? Because none of them get to leave until the detectives figure it out. And they sure can’t do that when they aren’t even there.

So we wait.

In the meantime, the midsummer heat and humidity have already rendered Charlie’s organs unfit for donation, so no part of him will live on. It’s unforgivable.

Anyway, backstory: Theresa, on this night, is two days removed from gallbladder removal surgery. That’s not nearly as invasive as it used to be, but it is still no picnic. She was in bed, on her prescribed medication, when the terrible discovery was made. For the purpose of her recovery from surgery, her friend since childhood was staying at the house to both assist her and to help care for Charlie.

Renee Corwin is a Michigan native who had the good sense to get an education and move to someplace where she could make a good living. She’s a Psychiatric Nurse who is employed by the California Department of Corrections. Not only was she perfectly qualified for the task, she was also a regular summertime visitor. She would use her vacation time to visit her family in the Great Lakes region, and to visit Theresa and Charlie.

So it is a damn good thing that she was the first one to fly out that door.


At 10:20 pm, nearly two and a half hours after the first 911 call was placed, the first detective flounces across the screen of Pittelkow’s dash-cam. I’ll call her Sheila Goodell, because that’s her name. She interviews Renee, which is kind of interesting, since the report of Renee’s interview ends up being written by the other detective, Kristen Cole. (I later found out through various news articles that Cole is one of our better homicide investigators.) I never saw her interview anybody, actually. I was interviewed by Goodell. So were my parents – but Cole is the author of those reports, too.

(Shrug.) Whatever. It was their tardiness that was more offensive to everyone at the scene anyhow. Goodell asked questions, some tough ones, pretty much the same ones to each person. She did her job. They took Charlie’s cell phone, even though it was without service and therefore not a communication device, a fact we conveyed to them again and again. We still don’t have it back, come to think of it.

My first duty came, a phone call, a very hard call to place. Lenise Williams is Charlie’s Godmother - well, one of his Godmothers, he has two. And she was there in no time. She, along with Officer Pittelkow, got my distraught sibling back in bed.

Lenise stood by Theresa's bed while the detective peppered her with questions. She called in her cousin, a police captain, to better manage the scene. She rounded up the emergency prescriptions that were called in. She took care of so much of this awful business. That’s what friends do. Even when it’s too terrible to look at.

Outside, the Medical Examiner’s Office is making their move. I stand in the driveway with Ryan Shank and other officers and watch it happen. My nephew’s death is not an abstract to me, not in any way. They zip him up in a blue nylon bag and load him into the back of a white cargo van with blue letters on the side of it. At that moment, for all I know, they could be dry cleaners. At 10:55 pm, he arrives at WMed, 1000 Oakland Drive.

Before the first police reports are typed up. While there are still cop cars with their dash-cam videos grinding away footage of our property. To them, he isn’t anybody’s little boy. To them, he's a stack of cash. And if you’ve ever seen anyone grab for money before, you know what that looks like.


Mike Treu and Kelly Pittelkow are the last ones to leave. It is well past 11:00 pm. Their cameras keep recording. They drive north on Westnedge, over the hill, where Westnedge and Park split into one-ways. They are in no hurry as they keep driving north, through the empty heart of a child’s hometown.

The Heller Family has nothing but love and admiration for the men and women who are charged with serving and protecting this city. That’s why Theresa and I, for the past two years, have picked up donations for the Fraternal Order of Police in both Kalamazoo and Ottawa Counties. And it’s why we were so honored to receive from FOP Lodge 98 a very generous contribution to our nonprofit organization, Flowers from Charlie the Merchant, which you can find here:

pH 4.19.16



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