August 8, 2020

The Case That Haunts Kalkaska

April 12, 2015
Evidence points to Jason Ryan as Geraldine Montgomery’s killer, but the wrongful conviction of another man casts a long shadow as Ryan’s second trial approaches


No DNA, fingerprints or other physical evidence tied first suspect Jamie Lee Peterson to the murder of Geraldine Montgomery, yet he was convicted and spent 17 years in prison.

A conclusive DNA match seemed set to make the second suspect’s conviction a slam dunk, but the December trial of Jason Anthony Ryan ended with a hung jury.

Ryan is scheduled to be re-tried in June.

With Peterson free and his conviction vacated, residents are hoping for resolution to a case that’s haunted the village of Kalkaska for two decades.

A COMPLICATED HISTORY

Peterson now lives in a halfway house in Pontiac thanks to the efforts of advocates and attorneys who argued that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

For years, stacks of evidence and pages of arguments piled up. In 2013, newly-elected Kalkaska County prosecutor Michael Perreault agreed to honor requests from wrongful conviction clinics at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University to authorize new DNA tests. These requests had been repeatedly denied by Brian Donnelly, the now-deceased former prosecutor.

The tests led to Peterson’s exoneration and also turned up a new suspect: Ryan. Today, the Davison, Michigan resident sits in jail on a $2 million bond awaiting his second trial for the rape and murder of 68-year-old Montgomery on Oct. 6, 1996.

For a year, state police investigators attempted to find a link between Peterson and Ryan, but they were unable to find a connection. Now, advocates for Peterson are anxious to see the person they believe actually committed the crime brought to justice.

Peterson, 40, repeatedly confessed to the crime, but his supporters say investigators took advantage of a mentally ill and unstable young man, feeding him information about the crime to bolster his confession.

36-year-old Ryan –who was half that age and a neighbor of Montgomery when she was killed – maintains his innocence.

THE "˜C.S.I’ EFFECT

A complex backstory complicates the prosecution of Ryan. To begin, a case brought to prosecution 19 years after the crime occurred poses challenges, especially after two decades of rapid advances in forensic science.

"I think the biggest challenge is the fact that we come from kind of a CSI generation. Now, people are like, "˜Why didn’t the police collect everything in the house and put it in storage?’" said Perreault, referring to the popular television show about crime scene investigations. "Back in 1996, they were extremely limited in their technology."

For example, someone – likely the murderer – turned on Montgomery’s car and left it running in her garage after she was stuffed in the trunk, leaving her to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Perreault said crime scene technicians have always had trouble lifting fingerprints from the car keys.

Today, however, investigators could carefully collect that key and examine it for traces of skin that could be processed to develop a DNA profile. Such a step was unthinkable in the mid-1990s and investigators don’t have that evidence in the Montgomery case.

AN ORIGINAL SUSPECT

Another snag comes from the fact that Ryan was a suspect years ago, in the weeks after Montgomery’s death. He voluntarily gave a DNA sample and was cleared by the original detectives after he passed a polygraph exam.

Ryan’s defense attorney, Jodi Hemingway, argued that the failure of the state to connect her client to the crime in the original investigation causes unfair prejudice, because now he is unable to recall the names of witnesses who could clear him with an "innocent explanation" of how his DNA wound up at the crime scene.

Perreault said he believes investigators did what they could with the technology that was at their disposal in 1996, and the fact that Ryan wasn’t implicated through DNA at that time was not their fault.

In fact, the state police crime lab was only just accredited to sequence DNA that year. The Montgomery crime scene semen samples were processed by a private company called LabCorp. State police lab scientists later processed DNA sequences from numerous suspects, including Ryan.

Perreault said Ryan’s DNA profile didn’t match the crime scene profile when they were tested in 1997 because, at that time, the state police and LabCorp labs used different protocols.


It wasn’t until several years later, when a national database was developed to store and compare DNA profiles, that the manner in which DNA profiles were expressed was standardized, Perreault explained. Once the reporting was standardized, Ryan’s profile matched – a detail that was overlooked until 2013.

SEX SOLICITATION BOMBSHELL

The "innocent explanation" for how Ryan’s DNA wound up at the crime scene was – according to Hemingway and Ryan’s testimony at trial – that Montgomery solicited him for sex. It was coincidence, according to the defense, that Montgomery was murdered the same day.

Hemingway wrote in a motion: "Defendant has suffered actual and substantial prejudice because the alleged rape of Geraldine Montgomery, whose name was unknown to Defendant at the time, was actually a consensual sexual encounter arranged by a third party, who, due to the passage of time, Defendant, through his counsel, has been unable to locate."

According to the motion, Ryan was approached outside the Kalkaska County library by an older woman who paid him to perform odd jobs at her home. They then had sex. The next day, the woman introduced him to Montgomery, who paid him for sex, Hemingway wrote.

No witnesses support Ryan’s version of what happened.

Investigators later learned something about Ryan that called into question his account of these events. In 2006, a woman witnessed Ryan masturbating outside a senior citizens’ home.

That evidence, Perreault argued in a motion, disproves the assertion that Ryan had "no desire to have sex with an "˜old lady’" or that he was solicited.

Perreault said the evidence is relevant because it shows Ryan has a "sexual appetite" for the elderly that could explain what happened to Montgomery. Hemingway said she believes this former incident is not relevant to the Montgomery case because whatever happened there occurred a decade later.

THE PETERSON CASE LOOMS

At least one juror had too much doubt to convict Ryan. A mistrial was declared after fewer than two days of deliberation.

Hemingway said she believes the trial ended in a hung jury because the original investigation was a mess.

"I’m saying this investigation was conducted so poorly that nobody can rely on it," she said. "None of that information was reliable and I don’t think that it’s fair to barrel headlong into a third capital trial based on a shoddy investigation."

She said the state’s theory of what happened in the case has now shifted four or five times, from Peterson being the sole culprit, to Peterson acting with an unknown accomplice, to Peterson acting with Ryan, to Ryan acting either alone or with an unknown accomplice.

"At some point, rather than shifting their theory to fit the current fact pattern, the People – whose obligation is to first seek the truth – must concede that they do not know what happened in this case and they may never know," Hemingway wrote in a motion.

Perreault defended the original investigation and said he is now focused on the Ryan prosecution. Asked if the shadow of the Peterson prosecution poses an obstacle for Ryan’s prosecution, Perreault said jurors will be questioned about whether they already have a bias, and if they do, they’ll be sent home.

"I think I’ve heard just some community scuttlebutt about it, but we address that issue in voir dire [explanations to the jury]," he said.

A TROUBLING CONFESSION

Peterson’s exoneration is predicated on the conclusion that a jury today would determine his confession was false.

In an opinion that vacated Peterson’s conviction, Circuit Court Judge Janet Allen wrote there is a much better understanding about false confessions by the mentally ill today than there was when Peterson was tried in 1998.

"False confessions, especially by those who are cognitively impaired, are very real," Allen wrote.

Perreault, in arguing against the introduction of Peterson’s confession in the Ryan case, included a 1997 letter Peterson wrote his parents from jail, a letter that was in the hands of investigators just days after he became the prime suspect in the Montgomery murder.

He wrote, "Well Dad, I finally made a name for myself like you wanted. "¦ Damn, I must be the best con "˜liar’ in the world. So [how] does it feel to know your son is taking credit for something he didn’t do?" He wrote that he convinced investigators that he killed Montgomery by using "bits of info" he got from the police.

"I’m probably one of the smartest con artists alive," he wrote. "The only thing that’s gonna suck is when they get my DNA back. "¦ It won’t be mine."

Peterson described being heartbroken over a breakup with a girl and he wrote that he hoped to be killed in prison.

"Well, I was on the news. I’m famous.

Well, I made someone of myself. Like you always wanted me to be," he wrote.

CONFESSION NOT ADMISSABLE

Jurors in Ryan’s case will not hear Peterson’s confession, unless Hemingway wins an interlocutory appeal. Circuit Court Judge George Mertz ruled the confession off-limits because it was not trustworthy and bound to confuse the jury.

Hemingway said she believes the confessions should be allowed, even if they are untrustworthy.

"Whether I believe those were true confessions or false confessions, it’s relevant information," she said.

Perreault argued that the law precludes confession admission unless the "corroborating circumstances clearly indicate" the statements are true. In this case, Perreault argued in a motion, circumstances show that Peterson’s confessions were false.

"He wanted to make a name for himself.

He was a loser. He wanted to throw it in his dad’s face," Perreault said at a hearing. "He had just ended a relationship. There was a pending (unrelated) rape charge at that point."

It will be unfair to prosecutors if the confession is admitted, Perreault argued, because jurors won’t understand the context and they won’t know that Peterson had reason to lie.

NEIGHBORHOOD (COURT) WATCH

Former village council member Harold Eickholt has questioned Peterson’s guilt for years. Eickholt, whose wife Bernadette was a good friend of Montgomery, watched several days of Ryan’s trial and said that, as much as he thought Peterson was innocent, he thinks Ryan is guilty.

"This case could have been ended 13 years ago if they had submitted the evidence like they said they did," Eickholt said. "That’s the problem here in Kalkaska – they can’t bury their egos. Their egos are still hanging out there with Donnelly."

Eickholt was frustrated by Ryan’s account that Montgomery solicited him for sex. He said he wished Perreault had defended Montgomery’s reputation more fervently.

"He should have brought everybody in from the Church of Christ who could testify that she wasn’t a loose woman," he said.

Retired teacher Ann Kirtley attended every day of the Ryan trial and she also thinks Ryan is guilty. She scoffed at the defense implication that Montgomery solicited Ryan for sex and then happened to be murdered by someone else that same day.

"It was absolutely preposterous," she said.

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