David Schock uses film to unearth information about cold cases

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dr. David Schock felt that he was handed the opportunity — and the obligation — to seek justice for Janet Chandler, whose unsolved murder took place in 1979.

In 2003, as Schock told a large audience at the NALS-Lunch ‘N’ Learn last Thursday, he was an associate professor of communication at Hope College; he refers to himself as “a recovering academic.” When he took  the students in one of his classes to meet with the Holland Police Public Information Officer on the subject of how journalists can best use law enforcement as sources and how not to burn bridges with police departments, the PIO told them he was retiring.

“So I said to him, well, you’ve been doing this for 30 years, what was the one that got away? And he said Janet Chandler.”

From then on, Schock regarded finding out more about Chandler’s death as his personal mission. He also took it upon himself to make it his entire documentary class’s mission as well.

Thus, in 2004, Holland’s Knickerbocker Theater screened the film, Who Killed Janet Chandler?

“When we showed it at the Knick,” Schock says. “I was sitting with the person who I love most in the world [his wife Kathy] and she’d told me, when you make a film like this, no matter what, you need to walk down that aisle and talk about it. So it ended, and there was just silence. And I don’t know that I’ve ever walked a longer aisle. The lights came up, and then it broke — tears and applause. Lots of tears.”

But in some sense that was just the beginning of the story. As a result of the thousands of hours of research he and the students had put into the documentary, it was deemed prudent to assemble a broader investigatory unit some 25 years after the crime.

In April 2004, a press release by Hope College University reported that “the Holland Police Department, Michigan State Police and Ottawa County sheriff and prosecutor’s office announced the formation of a ‘cold case’ team.”

The original circumstances surrounding the death of the young Norton Shores woman were misleading to officers. Chandler, a Hope College student, had taken a term off and was working as a receptionist at the Blue Mill Inn motel in Holland along US-31.

At the time, there were many for-hire security guards from the private firm Wackenhut staying at the hotel, in town to “police” a strike at a local business. On the evening of Jan. 31, 1979, one of them called and reported that he had been on the phone with Chandler while she was at the front desk and he had overheard a robbery going down.

The police arrived to find that Janet Chandler was missing along with something like $500. There were signs of a struggle, and two sets of footprints leading out to where a vehicle had been parked. She had left a burning cigarette in the ashtray on her desk.

About 24 hours later, her nude body was found by a snow plow driver in a turnaround off of US-31.

Despite ten volumes of evidence collected, Holland Police and the Michigan State Police, called in because of where the body was found, were never able to find her killers.

But Schock said he operates under the premise, “Somebody knows somethin’. Somebody ALWAYS knows somethin’,” which is at the very top of Schock’s website, www.delayedjustice.com.

And often, time has resulted in old guilts festering, or connections made by people who rethink what they knew, or even the deaths of people who had threatened harm if people told what they knew. These are some of the factors that are on the side of cold case investigators, even aside from the technological advances in crime forensics.
So it was that in 2006, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney Ronald Frantz brought charges against six people, one of whom had been Janet Chandler’s supervisor at the motel and allegedly her best friend, Laurie Ann Swank.

The true tale of what happened was horrific. Aided by Swank — whose testimony helped bring the others to justice — a group of Wackenhut guards led by the man Schock called the ringleader, Carl Paiva, planned a “surprise party” for Janet Chandler.

The stated intention was to sexually assault Chandler so she would be “brought down a few notches,” to “teach her a lesson,” in words from Swank’s testimony recorded on www.delayedjustice.com. The planners did not shy away from the possibility that the assaults might result in her death; in fact, they intended for her to die.

All six of the prosecutions were successful. At least in part, Schock credits prosecutor Donna Prendergast with the results.  “She was absolutely brilliant. She could read the jury; she knew just exactly when she’d met her burden of proof and she didn’t go any further than that,” he comments.

Five people are now in prison for the crime. Carl Paiva died during his stay there, and Swank will soon be released.

For Schock, Who?Killed Janet Chandler? was the beginning of a career  using the camera and formidable research skills to shine a light on unsolved crimes. While he would be the first to say that the real credit goes to the meticulous investigations by law enforcement, he has recently met with success in another case: charges have been brought in the 1990 Eastown murder of Joel Battaglia.

Though that is his passion and where he spends most of his time, Schock also takes some filmic and literary detours. NALS — and Grand Rapids Legal News readers — were first introduced to the multi-talented individual because he authored Judicial Deceit with former Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Weaver.

As he began last week’s presentation, Schock said, “I’m happy to come because y’all know how to throw a good meeting. When Justice Weaver and I were here, you were so welcoming, and she sends her regards. We enjoyed that presentation about as much as we enjoyed any presentation we’ve done.”

He has also made documentaries on such topics as African-American poets and a group of elite Native American sharpshooters from Michigan.

A visit to the Delayed Justice website indicates that his motivation is primarily compassion for the families and friends of victims in unsolved cases. He told the NALS group that he is driven by the need to spread information as widely as possible so that the “somebody who knows somethin’” will come forward.

He also seems to be driven by the need for fairness, the balance that comes from seeing people reap what they sow. For example, during the Janet Chandler trials, it came out that there were actually 10-12 men who raped and tortured Chandler during her ordeal. He said he understands that law enforcement is unable to pursue the others (and the site goes into that in detail), but Delayed Justice has a list of other potential perpetrators, along with why they are on that list and the warning that all are to be presumed innocent, which satisfies his and other people’s sense of fairness.

The website also introduces something called the Primary Documentary Investigation, which is a set of materials and video interviews that could be made into a film.

One of them is about Mina Dekker, a 19-year-old Grand Rapids secretary killed in 1938. Interestingly, she was the subject of a detailed article in the national publication True Detective later that year.

Schock interviews her then-14-year-old brother, one of the few people still alive who directly remembers the vicious murder, and republishes the entire magazine story along with newspaper articles from the time. The crime comes alive from the past, and there is still hope that someone who knows something will be willing to tell, in this case as in the others.