It’s the darkest, most disturbing case you’ve never heard of, says author J. Reuben Appelman, who wrote The Kill Jar in 2018.
As a 7-year-old, he was nearly abducted from his home in a Detroit suburb in 1976. In 2005, he decided to try to solve the murders of four children who were abducted and later found murdered, and who lived in his neighborhood in Oakland County.
It’s a crime that sounds too familiar:
A multi-millionaire buys a private island and jets there frequently, bringing friends. He stocks the place with plenty of playmates, all well under 18, who service the needs of his buddies, powerful men with deviant sexual interests. He is never sentenced for his crimes.
It is an outline of the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking operation, which began when Epstein lived in New York during his 20s and worked as a high school teacher. After he turned to financial trading and made his fortune, he bought the island of Little St. James in 1998 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But he wasn’t the first multi-millionaire pedophile to shuttle kids off to a remote island for sexual exploitation, he was just the first to get arrested and convicted.
“Pedophile Island,” as North Fox Island is still called by some in Michigan, was a terrifying precursor to Little St. James. It was designed expressly as a summer camp, in which impoverished youth who couldn’t otherwise afford such luxuries were given the exciting prospect of a trip to a “nature camp.”
Francis Shelden, the island’s owner and ringleader in the decades-long saga of North Fox Island, named the place St. Paul’s Nature Camp. He brought dozens his wealthy cronies there to have sex with children for two summers in 1975 and 1976.
The story is of “Pedophile Island” is explained in the “Children of the Snow,” a recent Netflix documentary, which chronicles Appelman’s quest to solve the murders of four children in the Detroit area in 1976 and whether the children’s murders are connected to the island. Or if the island is horrific enough, and the killing of four children in Detroit suburban is unconnected to a pedophile ring frequented by some wealthy men.
An island where boys arrived at what they thought was summer camp only to find a paradise quickly turned into hell on earth.
THE FIRST MISSING BOY
The Detroit suburbs are not the landscape of murder, unlike the city itself. Outside the city, a blanket of quiet, comfortable middle-class homes stretched out in small towns like Ferndale, Royal Oak and Livonia.
Four children from these towns were murdered after being kidnapped and held for days in the mid-1970s. The case was never solved. Today, many who’ve combed through documents associated with the massive police investigation believe that a nexus of evil operating in Detroit at the time included powerful men who may have been involved.
On Feb. 15, 1976, a 12-year-old boy named Mark Stebbins began his walk home from the American Legion Hall. Mark had strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes and his favorite pastime was war and soldiers. He’d told his brother, Mike, he wanted to grow up to be a Marine.
Mark had three blocks to cover that afternoon. An hour after he left, Mike started home from the Legion Hall, where they’d both been visiting their mom. When he got home, there was no sign of Mark. As the evening wore on, Mark’s mother grew understandably worried. Around 11 p.m., she called police who told her not to worry and put Mark’s description out as a missing child.
Despite intensive searching in the normally quiet town of Ferndale, no leads emerged. Four days later, Mark Stebbin’s body was discovered in the rear of a parking lot in town, placed beside a low brick wall. He had rope burns on his neck, wrist and ankles but he still wore the clothes he’d had on the day he disappeared. The cause of death was determined to be suffocation and it became known in the media as a sex crime.
The lead detective got a tip from a parole officer to check out a local sex offender named Arch Sloane, but the lead went nowhere. Despite law enforcement’s commitment, police lacked any persons of interest, witnesses, or likely suspects.
YOUNG BOYS DEBAUCHED BY ADULTS
In Port Huron, Michigan an 8-year-old boy was violently sexually molested and hospitalized in 1976. The perpetrator was identified as Gerald S. (“Jerry”) Richards, an elementary school gym teacher, photographer, amateur magician and camp director on North Fox Island.
The boy recovered and was never connected with the murder of Mark Stebbin. But once Fox Island was connected to a young boy being raped, reporter Marilyn Wright at the Traverse City Record-Eaglebegan digging into the story. What she found led to a deep and intricate network of relationships among various men who visited the island.
Jerry Richards received a prison sentence of two t 10 years. His assistant, a young teen who helped recruit boy “models” for his pornographic photographs, was taken to Fox Island on several occasions but refused to speak with police.
The purpose of Fox Island was not a summer camp but a way to trap boys, many of whom had been Richards’ subjects for a Detroit-based pornography mill, into sex acts with wealthy clientele. The Michigan State Police began to investigate after Richards’s arrest, discovering he had a business partner who volunteered with Big Brothers and was on the Board of Directors of Cranbrook, a wealthy, private prep school.
The partner was Francis Shelden, the same man who had purchased Fox Island after outbidding the State of Michigan, in 1959. From a wealthy, connected Grosse Pointe family, Shelden was also described as a “lifelong bachelor.” He and Richards and Dyer Grossman and Adam Starchild set up a charitable foundation called Brother Paul’s Children’s Mission.
For two summers, St. Paul’s Nature Camp operated with the primary purpose of transporting boys, holding them on Fox Island, molesting them and filming the acts. The operation, which was partially publicly funded, yielded profits through charging “clients” and the sale of pornography, including still photos and films. Shelden brought dozens of wealthy, connected men to the island for the purpose of sex with boys.
ROYAL OAK 1976
On Dec. 22, 1976, another Michigan suburb lost another child. Twelve-year-old Jill Robinson left her house after dark following a disagreement with her mom. She was headed by bicycle to her dad’s house, last seen riding north on Woodward Avenue around 7:30 p.m., according to “Children of the Snow.”
Just as in Mark’s case, four days passed before Jill was found. On Dec. 26, a motorist pulled over to check out something that didn’t look right in a snowbank. Robinson had been dumped on the side of the interstate.
The cases had key differences: Jill had been shot in the face and she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. The autopsy showed she’d been held for several days, her body had been washed, and she may have been suffocated before she was shot.
Her case and Mark’s were not immediately connected because of the differences in the gender of the two victims and the way she was murdered.
THE 11 O’CLOCK NEWS
Kristine Mihelich asked her mom if she could go to the store not far from home one afternoon, but she got “no” for an answer. It was two days into the new year of 1977, and the day was turning out to be sunny, a good reason for a bored 10-year-old to want to get out of the house.
Milhelich begged and bargained with her mom. When she promised she’d cross 12 Mile at the light, she got permission and left around 3 p.m. As darkness fell around 6 p.m., what her mom Debbie thought would be a half-hour trip was obviously long overdue, and she called the Berkley Police Department.
The police said they would begin a search and make sure the 11 O’clock news had the story.
The police immediately gathered 50 officers who came from various jurisdictions around Detroit in what would become a multi-jurisdictional task force. They set up a tip line and began investigating every lead, no matter how small.
On Jan. 21, seven miles outside Berkley, a postal carrier found Mihelich’s body lying in a ditch in the snow. Her mother would be notified that day by law officers accompanied by a minister. The autopsy report showed the girl was asphyxiated. She was left in the snow, fully clothed, and had been fed and kept somewhere, by someone, for 19 days. Her body, like the other two, had been thoroughly washed.
Mihelich’s death was a turning point in the case, because not only did the Task Force get going, after acknowledging they had a single killer on their hands, but the media began running stories linking the three child murders together.
GREENE AND BUSCH
As the task force compiled what little evidence they could find, the Flint Police Department called Southfield Police to pass on what a suspect named Gregory Greene told them. Greene, a convicted pedophile, claimed he knew who the killer was.
Greene gave up the name Christopher Brian Busch, 25, of Alma, Michigan. Greene’s sometime partner in crime, Busch was the son of H. Lee Busch, the Comptroller for the Asian and European offices of General Motors. When detectives arrested Busch and accompanied him to his house, he gave them free rein to look through his belongings. They found child porn, including a stack of 8-mm films, along with other incriminating evidence including drugs and rope.
Busch admitted to being a pedophile. He told officers he habitually cruised the areas where two of the murdered children lived. The polygraph showed he was truthful when he said “No” to being asked if he’d killed Mark, Jill and Kristine.
Busch could afford to post the significant bond required and since he had no prior record and no current charges, he walked free. A week later, an 11-year-old boy named Tim King went missing.
THE OAKLAND COUNTY CHILD KILLER
On March 16, King disappeared from a parking lot behind a drug store during the middle of the day. He’d been walking there his whole childhood, as it was a busy commercial center near his house in Birmingham. His parents called the police that night and a massive hunt got underway.
The streets took on a quiet, empty mood except for the constant overhead whir of helicopters.
The Michigan State Police took over the investigation, and every news station carried the story of what was now called the “Oakland County Child Killer.”
Six days after he didn’t come home from the drug store, King’s body was found in the city of Livonia. Like Mark, he had been bound at the wrists. The cause of death was asphyxiation. “Children of the Snow” reported that “like all three victims, his body was described as being meticulously cleaned.”
Author and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Emanual Tanaynoted he believed the killer was a sexual sadist who was able to win the confidence of the children he abducted very quickly.
FOX ISLAND IS SHUTTERED
In December 1978, the Oakland County Child Killer task force shut down operations. They were the largest homicide task force in US history, and when they walked away, four murder cases went cold.
A few months later, investigators discovered that pornographic films made on Fox Island were being sold internationally. Shelden fled the country, using his connections to fly across the Atlantic and settle in Amsterdam. Richards sat in a jail cell, now divorced.
But like the Epstein case, decades after Shelden’s camp or horrors, or the Franklin Cover-Up in Omaha in the 1980s—the depravity of such acts was brushed off as too horrible to be true. For the parents, the suffering of their murdered children at the hands of a monster was with them every day. For investigators, the terror inflicted and the men behind it were all too real.
In 2005, Appelman moved back to Detroit to conduct in-depth interviews, determined to solve the Oakland County murders. He was certain there must be a connection between the killings and Pedophile Island. Partnering. He along with Cathy Broad, King’s sister, began to delve into the connection between the island and murder victims.
King’s father Barry gathered thousands of pages of documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and Cathy, an attorney, reviewed them alongside Appelman.
Cory Williams, a detective with the Livonia police, was a teenager in 1976. His father was a homicide detective, and Williams remembered the case. Reviewing a file one day, he noticed a quote from Richard Lawson, a known pedophile who was arrested years before.
The report was from Dormont, Pennsylvania. Williams seized on the information, realizing in a moment he might have a new lead on the Oakland murders.
Lawson was a police informant in the 70s who identified an area in Detroit where out-of-town predators would go and accused “bad-eyed” Bob Moore as a central figure in securing children from the streets. Moore and his fellow pedophiles hosted sex parties, plied kids with drugs and cash and filmed their acts.
According to Lawson, Moore ran an organized recruitment business, paying kids to find other kids for the parties.
But “Bad-Eyed Bob” didn’t distribute the films. He shipped his Super 8 reels and still photos to Shelden, who distributed them in Amsterdam. Frank had a lot of help from his other compatriot, the gym teacher and photographer Richards.
BETTER LIFE MONTHLY: #1 BOY-LOVE MAGAZINE
Michael Farquhar appears in “Children of the Snow” and recounts his years from 12 to 16 years old as Richard’s assistant. After building a relationship with Richards, who befriended him as a kid from the neighborhood, Farquhar became entangled with the lifestyle. Wealthy men, including a priest, were among his abusers.
He was taken to motel rooms, sold by Richards, and threatened with blackmail if he ever told. Farquhar didn’t believe his mother would understand or know what to do.
Richards later testified he was part of a pedophile organization that promoted a “philosophical society” called Better Life Monthly. They produced a magazine and kept each other informed about where to find child porn. Their “Better Life” was code for “boy love.”
When he first met Shelden, Farquhar was in his early teens. Trips to Fox Island involved no more than half a dozen boys, who were dropped off with little supervision. They passed the time by exploring, swimming, and hanging out together. They paid for their “camp” with photo sessions and “visiting” with charitable donors who used them sexually.
Farquhar was flown to the island more than once, sometimes just with Shelden.
The boys were housed in cabins that doubled as porn studios.
In July 1976, one of the younger boys taken to the island, an 8-year-old, told an adult, and the police began interviewing every name he gave them. Farquhar refused to cooperate with the police and called Richards. Shelden began hiding the evidence and packing his belonging.
Several months later, police issued warrants for two counts of child abuse for Shelden and Richards. The Lansing State Journal reported authorities had located Shelden’s plane in Provo, Utah, in February 1977.
In 2005, Williams began to implement twin strategies to connect the Detroit-area pedophile ring with the Oakland County child murders. He first submitted DNA from the crime scenes of the four murder victims for re-analysis. At the same time, he began tracking down the films and still photos that got sent to Amsterdam in the 1970s.
Twelve years earlier, a major bust in the Netherlands netted a huge amount of child porn. After Amsterdam detectives reviewed tens of thousands of images, they informed Williams that the four Oakland County victims weren’t in any piece of evidence they’d scrutinized.
Mihelich’s body yielded a foreign hair and DNA analysis connected it to a pedophile named Vince Gunnels, who was 16 at the time Kristine was murdered.
Gunnels admitted to riding around in Busch’s car on multiple occasions, and investigators wondered if Kristine could have been in Busch’s car as well. Perhaps the hair could have been transferred to Gunnels?
Gunnels failed two polygraph tests, despite being offered improved prison conditions if he passed. Like other convicted pedophiles tied to the murder victims, he denied any knowledge or involvement.
Additional DNA evidence, including a hair recovered from Stebbins corpse and one from King’s, yielded the same partial DNA profile. That profile has never been tied to anyone.
Williams also uncovered slides in the stacks of evidence labeled “debris,” which had human hairs. The slides had been sitting in a police storage room for 30 years, mislabeled.
In 2007, these additional human hairs were sent to the state lab in Lansing and finally analyzed.
In March 2009, the evidence came to life. The hairs came from a vehicle owned by Archibald “Arch” Sloane, and DNA from the hair also matched three hairs found on the first and fourth victims. The DNA still couldn’t be tied to a known profile, although investigators believe if the DNA were identified, it would most likely reveal the killer.
Sloane had been released from prison for child molestation a few months before Stebbins was murdered. He lived in a decrepit trailer where he lured boys. He also owned multiple vehicles.
THE KING FAMILY
One of King’s neighbors was a kid across the street named Patrick Coffey, who was best friends with Chris, Tim’s older brother. Patrick grew up to become a polygrapher, and in July 2006, he had a chance encounter leading him back to the old neighborhood and the mysterious murder of his friend’s brother.
At a Las Vegas convention where Coffey was the guest speaker, a stranger walked up to compliment his speech and they struck up a conversation. Coffey said the reason he became a polygrapher was because of the King case. The stranger said he ran a polygraph test on a man who confessed to the killings in 2005.
He told Coffey the test subject admitted it during the pre-interview, but the polygrapher at the convention couldn’t give up the subject’s name to keep his professional code of ethics. He said that the man was dead, and so was his attorney.
The private polygraph was still protected years later.
When Williams got this information, relayed to him from Cathy Broad, he reviewed all the polygraphs done, knowing the subject and his attorney were no longer alive.
The match came with a familiar two names: Busch and Greene. Busch, 25 at the time, had a history of molesting children in four Michigan counties. Upon his arrest, he was caught with child porn, a shotgun and pounds of marijuana—and his name had appeared in Shelden’s client list.
Greene moved to Michigan in 1975 and two years later, after being charged with multiple felonies against children, he swiftly gave up Busch’s name to the cops, trying to save himself. Both men took polygraphs, and after an hour of questioning Busch passed. Polygraph technology at the time relied heavily on the judgment of the polygrapher.
The two men were charged with the same crimes: child sexual assault, but while Greene got life in prison, Busch received a fine and probation. The difference had nothing to do with guilt and everything to do with how connected Busch was through his GM-executive father.
A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE?
Williams reported in “Children of the Snow” he thought maybe Busch and Greene shouldn’t have passed their polygraphs. After talking with experts, he concluded Green failed the test outright and Busch’s scores showed deception.
Like DNA advances, the polygraph has improved vastly in the last 30 years.
Coffey, the polygraphy expert, stated in “Children of the Snow” he has no doubt that both Busch and Greene would’ve failed if they took the test today.
Broad, Appelman and Williams uncovered compelling new evidence: two polygraphs that should never have cleared two suspects.
They gave the Michigan State Police, who are now trying to solve these cases, the new evidence. They heard nothing for months. Eventually, they went to Marney Keenan, a reporter with the Detroit News.
State police called the victim’s families together the day after the Keenan’s Detroit News article came out. They still gave no information but instead tried to placate the victim’s families.
The media, however, jumped on the story. Reporters began digging into his court files, mug shots, jail records and the current whereabouts of the key players from the Oakland murders and the Fox Island scandal. In November 2008, police searched Busch’s home for additional forensic evidence.
Thirty years before, in November 1978, Busch killed himself with a shotgun. The autopsy revealed he had an astronomically high blood-alcohol-content level at .41. Multiple officials who worked the case, now retired, were highly suspicious that the death was a suicide.
He shot himself in the top of the head, and his body was found under a blanket. Williams noted the scene had some characteristics of being staged. On the wall in his room, there was a hand-drawn sketch of a boy who closely resembled Stebbins. On the floor were piles of rope similar to what was used to bind two of the victims.
After Busch died, the killings stopped. A few months after his death, he was dropped as a suspect and the task force disbanded.
Williams, who is continuing to investigate this case, remains suspicious that the suicide was real. King’s family, Appelman and other investigators believe it’s possible Busch was the weak link in an organization to abduct children, and he may have been murdered to protect others.
FULL CIRCLE WITH ARCH SLOANE
The forensic evidence consists of fibers and hairs. The DNA is limited to what can be extracted from hairs. But Sloane, the serial child molester who is serving a life sentence for raping a 10-year-old boy, failed a polygraphy about King. He’s confessed to nothing related to the Oakland County child murders.
In a public plea, the Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper announced in July 2012 that they had a vehicle connected to the case, a Pontiac Bonneville, and they needed help from the public tracking it down. This announcement tipped Sloane off to a fact Williams and King’s family wanted kept secret. The hair found didn’t belong to Sloane but could only be tied to his vehicle. Sloane now knew they had nothing on him and predictably, despite being offered immunity and a sweet deal of a prison transfer with a new background as a fraud artist instead of a pedophile, clammed up.
The King family believes the Michigan State Police have failed to do their job and may be covering up mistakes to protecting powerful players. At this point, they are just as concerned with understanding the many flaws in the investigation as finding King’s killer.
They know whoever killed King was a sick pedophile. He could have been a street-level player like Greene or Busch, but given the extent of the pedophile-ring operating with impunity in the Detroit area in the 1970s, it’s also possible King and the other victims died at the hands of more than one man.
Four children might have been killed by a monster hidden from the spotlight all these years because, like Shelden, the killer possibly had the means and influence to get away free.