Between 1976 and 1977, the quiet suburbs of Oakland County, Michigan, became the stalking ground for a predator who would become known as the Oakland County Child Killer.
There were four gruesome murders of children, with each body posed in the snow. The community was terrorized, and the families of each of the four victims were haunted by the last day they saw their precious children alive.
To this day, Oakland County authorities remain baffled and the killer remains at large. Over the years, police have wondered: was the killer a local pedophile, a local businessman? A drifter? A member of the clergy or a police officer?
Mark Stebbins, 12, planned on becoming a Marine. Mark was in the seventh grade at Lincoln Junior High and was described as a loveable young child by his mother Ruth Stebbins.
Mark was last seen on February 15, 1976, in Ferndale, Michigan. Mark and his mother were at the American Legion Hall where they were having a pool tournament. Bored, Mark asked his mother for money to go to the local hobby shop, but she said “no” because she had already given him his allowance. Mark didn’t seem upset, but he did ask if he could walk home to watch a movie. She agreed.
The Walk Home
Mark left the American Legion Hall at about noon to walk about three-quarters of a mile to his home on E. Saratoga.
Later that day, Ruth called home to check on Mark but got no answer. When she got home a little before 9:00 p.m., she found the house empty. When Mark didn’t arrive home by 11:00 p.m., his mother was terrified. She called the police and reported Mark missing.
“We haven’t had any kidnapping in Ferndale in ten years,” said the police. Police assumed maybe he was out with friends or possibly a runaway, and would turn up soon. Despite thinking he was a runaway, police did conduct a widespread search of Ferndale, checking abandoned buildings, garbage cans, anywhere they could think of.
Ruth was terrified. She stayed up all night waiting for Mark the night he disappeared. “I kept hearing noises and thinking it was Mark,” said Ruth. “The next few days I set three places at the table in the hope he would come home,” Ruth told reporters.
Four days later, on February 19, businessman Mark Boedigheimer found Mark’s body in the snow in a parking lot in Oakdale. Oakdale is a little over 2 hours northeast of Ferndale. At first, the businessman thought it was a mannequin in the snow but looking closer, he saw it was a corpse of a child.
Mark’s body had been carefully placed there, curled up as if he were sleeping near a dumpster. Police said it appeared he had been deceased for less than 8 hours. Police at the scene noticed wounds and bruising that led them to believe he was beaten and tied up.
There have been two accounts of the cause of death. Some reports state there was a ligature mark around Mark’s neck, others report he was smothered. It was also reported that he was molested by his killer.
Strangely, Mark had been washed by his killer and his nails manicured. His clothes were also washed and pressed. He was then carefully placed at the dumpsite in the sleeping position.
The killer would gain the name “Babysitter Killer” because of how he left the body as if he cared for him.
Taunting the Police
In hindsight, an error occurred early in the investigation. Police moved Mark’s body before the county medical examiner arrived at the scene. His body was also taken to the Southfield police station, instead of the morgue. In addition, police removed Mark’s clothing, which destroyed and contaminated any existing evidence.
At the time, the police worked with Dr. Bruce Danto, a psychiatrist who suggested returning to the dumpsite to lure the killer back to the scene. Police did as the doctor suggested and placed a child-sized mannequin dressed as Mark exactly where the body had been located.
However, police would find a funeral service card from Mark’s service at the spot where Mark had been placed. A taunt left by the killer suggesting he had attended the funeral service. Somehow, they had missed him.
Many people attended the funeral and Ruth had a chilling recollection. “I didn’t recognize everyone who came,” said Ruth. “I might have even shaken hands with the killer.”
In the aftermath of Mark’s disappearance, Ruth became despondent and too distressed to work. She ended up on welfare.
Life was never the same again. Before Ruth died in 2011, she told reporters that every time she heard about a child being murdered it brought her right back to that day Mark was found. “Every time a child has been killed since Mark; it happens to me all over. I still think about it every day.”
Jill Robinson, 12, was a little girl who grew up with a deep-seated fear. She had nightmares a man was going to shoot her. “I know it’s crazy, but it feels like someone is going to shoot me,” she told her mom Karol Robinson. In fact, the fear was so persistent her parents took her to see a child psychologist.
Jill was a sweet and precocious child, mature beyond her years, and known to challenge her mother at times. Three nights before Christmas, on December 22, 1976, her mother was making dinner. Jill got into an argument with her mom because Jill refused to make biscuits with her.
“Jill was very bright,” a friend of the Robinson family Ted Rodinsky said. “She had what you might call a changeable pre-teenage nature.”
In an Investigation Discovery interview, Karol emotionally recalls telling Jill, “Well, Jill if you don’t like being here, why don’t you just get your coat and stand out in the front yard and think about it. And when you feel like talking about it come on back in.” Words most every parent has said but words Karol will regret the rest of her life.
Following the argument, Jill packed her blue knapsack with makeup and a blanket. She left her home in Royal Oak, Michigan, pedaling her bicycle down Woodward Avenue.
When Jill never came back inside, and her mother could not find her, Jill called the police. Initially, the police thought Jill was a runaway. they assumed Jill had gone to her friend’s house, maybe even her dad’s as Jill’s parents were divorced. But she never made it there. She was last seen at 7:30 p.m. at Tiny Tim’s Hobby Center.
Because police thought Jill was a likely runaway, the case wasn’t worked like an abduction or a lost child. There was no massive search for the little girl. Despite her bike being found behind the hobby store the night, she disappeared; police still acted unconcerned.
That Christmas, Jill’s presents sat under the tree untouched while her family searched for her.
On December 26, everything changed. Jill’s body was found by a motorist along Interstate 75, about 20 minutes away from her home, in Troy.
Like Mark Stebbins, it appeared the killer had staged her. The only difference was — Jill was shot in the face with a twelve-gauge shotgun that removed half her head. She was fully clothed with her backpack still on. Autopsy results revealed that she may have died of shock and hemorrhage, rather than the wound itself.
As if to taunt the police, Jill’s body was laid neatly in the snow within sight of the Troy Police Department. She was fully dressed in her clothing that had been washed and pressed. The autopsy revealed Jill had not been molested.
Police had again mishandled the case, treating Jill like a runaway, valuable evidence undoubtedly lost. In addition, the state police lab nor the sheriff’s department were called to the scene.
To this day, police are baffled as to why Jill was shot, and the other victims all died of strangulation or being smothered. Did she fight back leading to this heinous murder — or did she tell her deranged abductor of her longtime fear of being shot?
Tom Robinson has spent years angry at the police for the way his daughter’s case was mishandled. “They won’t respond to what they consider a runaway for 48 hours, but she wasn’t a runaway,” Tom said. “She was a kid who got angry, stomped her feet out of the house, and got picked up by a creep.”
The family still suffers from Jill’s death. “It’s the small things that get to you,” said Karol. “The hardest thing is when someone asks how many children I have, and I automatically say three. I can’t believe that now it’s only two.”
Kristine Marie Mihelich, 10, went missing seven days after Jill Robinson’s body was found. On January 2, 1977, Kristine was abducted during broad daylight while walking to the 7–11 store near her home in Berkley, Michigan.
Another child was gone. Oakland County went into a panic and the reality of “stranger danger” terrified the community.
Kristine’s mother Deborah Jarvis relives that day constantly. “Kris was bored, so she asked if she could go to the store to get a magazine,” said Deborah. “She wasn’t usually allowed to cross Twelve Mile Road, but she had gone shopping for me earlier, so I gave in. I explained how to go, to wait for the light, and I told her to hurry. She promised she would.”
When Kristine failed to come back home after a half-hour, Deborah called the police.
For twenty days, Deborah paced the floor frantically, exhausting herself with worry.
Deborah kept a 24-hour vigil waiting for her daughter to come home. She went on the news to beg for her daughter’s return and she raised $17,000 to offer a reward fund. None of it would matter.
On January 22, 1977, Kristine’s body was found by postal worker Jerome Wozny on a dead-end road about 16 minutes from her home.
When police got to the scene, they discovered Kristine’s body had been carefully placed just like the other two victims. She had been carried like a parent would carry a child with one arm under their head, the other under their leg, then carefully placed in the snow. The killer had closed her eyes and crossed her arms. He then tucked her in with snow, patting it down and leaving handprints. Another bizarre and grotesque murder scene.
It was later determined Kristine had been smothered but police never released what was used. Police also said there were no “obvious” signs of molestation. However, experts agree it is likely he did engage in some kind of sexual activity with her.
Like the last two victims, her body and clothing were washed. Shockingly, the autopsy showed that Kristine’s kidnapper had killed her less than 24 hours before she was discovered. He had held her captive for 20 days.
For Deborah, life has never been the same. She described her life as a living hell but somehow gets a strange comfort knowing the killer didn’t kill Kristine right away. “Kris was a joy,” Deborah told reporters. “This is why whoever took her and kept her so long was enjoying her company. At least this is what we have told ourselves, and I prefer not to think any differently.”
Timothy King, 11, was born to Barry and Marion King and was the youngest of four siblings. He had two brothers Mark and Chris, and his sister Cathy. The King family lived in Birmingham, Michigan, in a white-collar professional neighborhood.
Timothy was a good kid who loved to play hockey and baseball. His favorite thing to do was to zoom around the neighborhood on his skateboard and frequent the parks where he played sports. He had a paper route and was a responsible young boy who rarely got into mischief.
The day Timothy vanished, Timothy’s parents had gone out to dinner with a client of his father’s law firm and figured Timothy could take care of himself for a few hours. “Since he had sat for other children in the neighborhood,” Marion recalled. “We decided he could take care of himself. And we weren’t going far or for very long.”
At about 7:30 p.m. Timothy decided he wanted to go get candy from the local drugstore about three blocks away. He borrowed 30 cents from his sister as she was leaving and told her to leave the door open for him. With skateboard in hand, he headed to the store on Maple Road.
At about 8:00 p.m. it is known Timothy left through the rear entrance of the drugstore that opened to a parking lot shared with a supermarket. That was the last time Timothy would be seen alive.
This time there would be witnesses. Two individuals reported seeing Timothy in the parking lot with a shaggy-haired man with sideburns. The man had been standing next to a blue Gremlin with white stripes on the sides. Police would eventually question every Gremlin owner in Oakland County.
In 1977, in a New York Times article, the task force put together a profile of the killer and described him as someone above-average intelligence and education, a white man with a compulsion for cleanliness and who is not involved with drugs or alcohol. Possibly a professional or someone in a position of authority that the children would trust, and a schedule that allowed him freedom. The killer most likely lived and worked in Oakland County given his familiarity with the area.
With all of Oakland County in panic, police knew they needed to get Timothy home before it was too late. With the killer previously holding his victims for a few days before killing them, police knew time was of the essence. However, it took two days for police to even release the suspect composite.
Barry, Timothy’s father, wrote an open letter to the killer that was on the front page of the Detroit News pleading with the abductor to release Timothy unharmed. This effort fell upon deaf ears.
In another letter, his mother pleaded for his safe return and Marion stated that when Tim comes home, they would serve him his favorite Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The family offered a reward and did everything possible to find him.
Late evening on March 22, 1977, two teenagers were driving in a car and spotted the body of a child in a shallow ditch. The body was found 300 feet south of Eight Mile Road in Livonia, only 20 minutes from his home.
He was posed, his skateboard was placed next to his body, and his clothing neatly pressed and washed. The autopsy revealed Timothy had been sexually assaulted by an object, rope burns on both his wrists and ankles, and suffocated approximately six hours before he was found. Shockingly, the postmortem report showed that Timothy had eaten fried chicken before he was murdered. The murderer had kept Tim alive for six days and fed him his favorite meal before killing him.
In December 1978, the task force disbanded after spending its $2 million budget, and Michigan State Police took over the case. The killings had stopped after Tim’s murder and police theorized the killer may have left the area, been arrested, or died.
Throughout the years, police zeroed in several suspects, some of whom were child molesters. They even exhumed the body of one suspect, but all have led to dead ends.
So many mistakes had been made in each of the cases. The system failed all of the children and a killer, if still alive, has lived in our midst for decades, possibly killing others.
After Tim’s murder, Barry was doing his best and went back to work a few days after his son’s funeral. However, Marion found it hard to cope. Timothy’s siblings also suffered psychological wounds in years to come. The subject turned into a “forbidden” subject and no one talked about it at home. “His mother was never the same,” said Barry.
During the following 30 years, Timothy’s sister Catherine King Broad became an attorney, got married, had children and moved to Idaho. His brother Mark became a businessman and moved to the state of Texas, and Chris became an editor and tech writer who still lives in Michigan.
“We just couldn’t talk. My mom was so broken by this,” said Catherine. “I felt like I could never bring it up.”
Marion passed away in 2004 — never knowing who killed her youngest son and never seeing justice. Barry King remarried Janice, who had been friends with Marion. He still lives in the same home on Yorkshire Road in Birmingham. In his living room, you can find photos of Tim displayed along with a painting of him in a hockey uniform.
Barry writes the blog “A Father’s Story” with a timeline of videos, blog posts, statements, and information regarding the case. It is his hope that someone will come forward with missing information. “I’ve enjoyed it because, in a way, it’s given me an opportunity to vent,” said Barry.
“Here’s a guy who’s 85 and he’s going to keep plowing ahead in hopes this might help someone remember something,” King’s son Chris said. “He’s a man on a mission and he’s going to keep at it.”
Perhaps the most heartbreaking is the reminder of a gift Tim gave his father. Tim painted a piece of wood that says, “Happy Birthday, dear dad. Best wishes, Tim.” Barry remembers Tim telling him the gift was the best he could do because Tim didn’t have any money to buy anything.
“I told my family,” Barry tells the ABA Journal. “When I go to the crematorium, I want this to go in with me because I want to take Tim with me.”
The case was reopened, and new leads have been explored as late as 2013.