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Standoff in Harbor Springs

Despite wealth and privilege, David Whitlow’s life unraveled

Patrick Sullivan - September 10th, 2012  

There is a quaint, old-fashioned sign outside of the arched stone gate at the entrance to the Harbor Point Association that reads “AUTOMOBILES NOT ALLOWED.”

Residents and guests drive up and are met by a horse and buggy, which takes them past the guardhouse and the rest of the way to their cottage on the nearly-mile-long fingerlike peninsula that stretches into Little Traverse Bay, south of Harbor Springs.

This is no ordinary gated community. And it is not the typical setting for an armed standoff with police.

But that’s exactly what happened here in June, when an increasingly unstable resident, David Cornell Whitlow, greeted police with a machete, said he could kill an officer by throwing a knife at him, and threatened to blow up his cottage after he filled it with natural gas from a stove.

Whitlow was taken by surprise during the standoff, tasered and arrested. He now sits in the Emmet County jail awaiting an examination to determine if he is competent to stand trial on the dozen felony charges he faces stemming from the incident.


Peace and serenity at Harbor Point were interrupted June 12, prompting association security to call 911 just after noon. They said Whitlow, 55, was outside of his cottage walking around with a black object they could not identify. Whitlow had recently exhibited erratic behavior that caused the association to exercise their authority to inspect Whitlow’s cottage. They were concerned.

A day earlier, police had been out to the cottage on what police call a “civil assist.”

Staff at Harbor Point needed to serve Whitlow with a notice that they intended to inspect his home. They asked for help from police because they feared for their safety. A message left for comment with the Harbor Point Association was not returned.

When police showed up, according to police reports, Whitlow told them that any effort to enter his property would be met with force.

Now, police were asked back for a second day in a row. This time, because of Whitlow’s hostility, they decided more officers were warranted.

Deputies from the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office and officers from the Harbor Springs Police staged at the police department in Harbor Springs that afternoon and came up with a plan.

Police quietly surrounded Cottage 54, where Whitlow lived. Det./Sgt. J. L. Sumpter of the sheriff’s department contacted Whitlow by telephone and Whitlow said he didn’t want any police coming to his house.

Soon Whitlow made a hostile move -- police said he threw an exploding firework in the direction of officers, a move that was taken as an attempt to scare police. It landed around 35 feet from where some officers were positioned.

The firework in question would have been illegal in Michigan last year but is legal this year, but the fact it was used to terrorize police led to one of the felony charges against Whitlow, Sheriff Peter Wallin said.


The police tried for around an hour to get Whitlow to come out peacefully.

Sgt. Sumpter had several phone conversations with the suspect that ended with Whitlow hanging up. In one call, he attempted to convince Whitlow to come out, apparently after Whitlow insulted him and challenged the officer to a fight.

In a police video filmed during the standoff, Sumpter’s half of the phone call is audible.

The conversation began with a pleasantsounding request from Sumpter: “Hey, David, do you mind coming out to the front and talking to me for a minute? I’ll just tell you where we’re at and you can tell us where you’re at and we can figure things out.”

Whitlow turned down that invitation.

In another call minutes later, Whitlow apparently taunted the detective.

“Hey David, we’re going to stay here all day until I get to talk to you, you know that, right?” Sumpter said.

Whitlow said something and Sumpter responded: “Alright, I’ll meet you there. I’ll meet you there right now, I’ll take that bet,” Sumpter said.

Whitlow said something, and the detective responded: “I don’t need a weapon. I’ll go hand-to-hand with you. Right on the beach. Let’s go.”

More back-and-forth followed. “Right now. I’ll meet you there. Alright?

Let’s go. I’m dropping my gun. Alright. Two o’clock. I’ll meet you at the beach at 2 o’clock. You’re on. I’m not kidding, either, let’s go.”

Sumpter wrote in his report that at one point during the conversations, Whitlow begged to be killed.

“One shot, one kill is all I want,” Sumpter quoted Whitlow.

Whitlow would not come out off of his porch, however, so Sumpter and the other officers devised a plan to distract Whitlow while other officers snuck around the side of his house to arrest him.


Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Keiser, who had been at Whitlow’s house a day earlier, was the officer charged with appearing to Whitlow in front of his cottage to engage him in conversation.

He yelled to Whitlow that he wanted him to come down into his yard to speak with him.

“Whitlow stated he remembered me,” Keiser wrote in his report. “I told Whitlow I needed to speak with him and asked him if he would come down off the porch. Whitlow became agitated and began to yell.”

This is when things got worse and more dangerous.

“Whitlow grabbed a machete and threatened to kill me and any other police officer who came near him,” Keiser wrote.

Keiser told Whitlow to drop his weapon, and instead Whitlow picked up a knife in his right hand, held it at shoulder level, and made a throwing motion, the officer wrote.

“Whitlow then told me he could kill me from where he was,” Keiser wrote. “I continued to engage him in order to keep his attention, telling him to drop the weapons.”

Whitlow’s attention was indeed focused toward Keiser. He didn’t notice as several officers ran to the side of his house, crept up to the side of his porch, and one of them, a Harbor Springs Police officer, shot Whitlow with a taser.


As officer David Heater jogged along the side of the house and approached the porch, Whitlow could be heard yelling at Lt. Keiser and other officers in position in front of his porch. “Back off now, goddamnit, back the f--- off. I can kill you from here motherf-----s.”

That’s when the audio is interrupted by a loud -- BANG! -- and Whitlow can be heard again, saying, “Ow! F----r!

Next there’s lots more shouting and Whitlow yelled, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”

There was more commotion and yelling as Whitlow dropped his weapons and dropped to his knees and officers swarmed the porch and handcuffed Whitlow.

In the video, Whitlow’s hair is long and stringy. He wore a dark sport coat with light pants and a light dress shirt.

As officers pinned him and cuffed him, he said, “Come on, I have rheumatoid arthritis,” and later he said, “F---, you guys have stepped on my constitutional rights for too f------ long; you’re all in for a major lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, Heater can be heard marveling at how he shot a taser at Whitlow, who is six feet three inches tall and weighs around 185 pounds, and yet Whitlow was still able to come in his direction with the machete.

“You’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to go down,” he said.

During his arrest, Whitlow said he suffered from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict,” he said. “I don’t want to be alive any more, goddamn it. I want to be with my friends and family. Just f---ing shoot me goddamn it. What do I have to do?”


A deputy was sent inside to clear the house and make sure it was safe.

Tapped for the job was Dep. Rich Bankey, who upon entering could smell that the house was filled with natural gas.

In the kitchen he found the stove was turned on and the oven door was open, with a firework set inside.

He “noticed several burner knobs were turned on with burners running,” he wrote. He “turned off all of the knobs to prevent a possible discharge of the items from the heat.”

Sheriff Wallin said the situation was extremely dangerous and it’s lucky nobody got injured or killed.

“It was very dangerous, lives and property could have been lost. People could have gotten hurt,” Wallin said. “Fortunately it ended in a safe manner.”

Whitlow was taken to the hospital and then the jail and charged with 12 felonies stemming from the incident. The most serious charge he faces, manufacture of explosives with malicious intent, stemming from the allegedly booby-trapped stove, carries up to 15 years in prison.

Since Whitlow has been in jail, he’s been charged with additional crimes for allegedly attempting to make weapons in jail, Wallin said.

On July 30, Whitlow was ordered to undergo an evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry.


Bond was originally set at $1.5 million for Whitlow and it’s since been reduced to $500,000, but it appears unlikely the man who had been living in a cottage he co-owned with his brother that is worth over $2 million can afford to post bail.

Whitlow has been in a downward spiral of alcoholism and mental illness for years, according to court records pertaining to his estranged wife’s divorce case against him and a personal protection order she sought and received.

In addition to the Harbor Point property, which was sold last month for over $2 million, Whitlow and his wife of nine years also owned another home in Harbor Springs and a home in Pine, Ariz., which has been sold since the divorce was filed. That house sold for $265,000 in March.

Perhaps no other detail speaks to Whitlow’s fall from wealth more than the fact that Whitlow, a man whose own divorce attorney described him as a once wealthy man, was charged with passing a bad check at a hardware store earlier this year.

Whitlow is accused of purchasing numerous items at Meyer Ace Hardware in Harbor Springs on April 17 with a check made out for $1,062.

A bad check notice was sent to Whitlow, which he apparently ignored, according to a Harbor Springs Police affidavit.

Demand was made again for Whitlow to pay the debt when he was in jail on May 29. He was arrested three days earlier for allegedly violating a personal protection order his estranged wife filed against him.

On June 7, he still had not made good on the check and a warrant request was submitted to the prosecutor’s office. When he was finally arrested on the day of the standoff, police arrested Whitlow on the bad check charge.


Since the standoff, Whitlow’s estranged wife has sought to get court protection for assets to make sure Whitlow cannot post bail.

According to papers filed in the divorce case, the wife’s attorney, Mary Beth Kur, said her client “is extremely apprehensive that the defendant will use the funds (from the sale of the Harbor Point property) to post bond and then squander them as he has other money over the past few months.”

The couple were married for over nine years and lived off of investment income, according to the suit. Over the nine years, there were over 30 trips to hospitals or emergency rooms and six or seven stints in rehab.

Earlier this year, Whitlow went on a spending spree, Kur argued. He spent money on gambling, guitars, televisions “and unknown other things.”

“Defendant told Plaintiff recently that he was going to buy a guitar, amplifiers, speakers, and ‘the works.’ Defendant does not play the guitar,” Kur wrote.

Whitlow also gave large amounts of money to people he met at Harbor Hall, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, Kur said, and on a recent trip to the casino he withdrew over $1,500.

Whitlow’s behavior became more and more erratic. At Harbor Hall, Whitlow told his estranged wife he began to talk to god, the woman wrote in a brief she filed in April.


According to a brief filed by one of David Whitlow’s attorneys, William Sullivan, Whitlow was very wealthy and then lost his fortune throughout his marriage.

None of Whitlow’s attorneys returned messages seeking comment. Kur did not return a message seeking comment.

Prior to the divorce case, which was filed April 12, Whitlow’s wife sought a restraining order against him.

The woman said in her application for a personal protection order in December that her husband had become unstable recently and his health and mental state were deteriorating. He’d become increasingly prone to threaten violence, she said.

And he had been told by doctors he had only six months to live.

“He knows he’s dying, he does not care who he takes down with him,” she wrote. “I fear if he is given the chance he will kill me.”

At this point, she wrote, Whitlow has stopped taking care of himself for months. He hadn’t bathed. His fingernails had grown long. He hadn’t washed or changed his clothes.

“I was so afraid last night I slept with pepper spray and the phone by my pillow,” the woman wrote. “I did not know what he was going to do.”


Whitlow was charged with violating the PPO on May 26.

He allegedly put a red bicycle and left a note -- carved into a birch tree -- at the house the couple had once shared in Harbor Springs.

His wife arrived home to find the red bicycle and the note, which contained her initials and announced the bike was being returned. She later told police she thought the message was supposed to look like a grave marker.

She also said she had never seen the bicycle before.

When state police trooper Jeff Ruthis investigated, she told him she thought police coddled her husband and that he never got in trouble for things like he should.

When Ruthis interviewed Whitlow, he admitted to dropping off the bike, but he said he drove with a friend he met in rehab and the friend dropped off the bike.

He became agitated when he was arrested for a PPO violation.

In his police report, Ruthis documented several comments from Whitlow during the arrest -- he said, “I have been insane several times,” and, later, “I know senators and congressmen!” Perhaps most disturbingly, Whitlow talked about his anger: “It’s only by self restraint this town’s not full of corpses,” Ruthis wrote in his police report.

Later Ruthis said Whitlow bragged that the authorities took it easy on him, “Whitlow went on to talk about his criminal history and sarcastically said how all of the charges were reduced or dismissed.”

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