Babysitter Wanted: the Sisyphean Search for the Oakland County Child Killer

Posted: July 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

It all began with a twelve-year-old boy in Michigan
with a hankering to watch TV.
At approximately 12:30pm on February 15th, 1976, 7th-grader
Mark Stebbins departed the American Legion Hall in Ferndale after informing his mother
that he intended to watch a movie scheduled air on television that afternoon; the Hall,
at 9 Mile and Livernois, was located approximately three blocks from the Stebbins family home. When Mark hadn’t called
or returned by 10pm his frantic mother reported her son missing; the good people
of Oakland County didn’t realize it at the time, but a Pandora’s Box had been opened and a vile pestilence that would claim
the lives of at least four innocent children had swirled out. Oakland County would never be the same,
its innocence left as broken and violated
as the bodies of the killer’s young victims.

Four days passed; Mark’s distraught mother Ruth continued to set
a place for her son at the family dinner table, hoping and praying that this nod
to normalcy would somehow cajole the fates into releasing her missing child. Night after night
Mrs. Stebbins lay awake in the darkness, achingly desperate to learn the location of her absent son; but tragically,
the discovery of Mark’s whereabouts would not lead to the joyous homecoming
for which his mother yearned.
Mark would never again take his rightful place
at the Stebbins family dinner table.

Just before noon on February 19th a small male corpse was found in a parking lot
in nearby Oak Park; the fully-dressed body had been neatly tucked into a fetal position, the hood of the dead boy’s parka drawn up as if to cushion his
lifeless head from the frigid ground. After four days of torment Mark Stebbins had at last been found.

At the time of
his discovery Mark had been dead approximately 8 hours;
an autopsy later revealed that he had been bound and sexually assaulted,
possibly with an object, and ultimately smothered. After death Mark’s corpse
had been meticulously scrubbed and his clothing washed and pressed before being neatly replaced
on his still-warm body. What species of fiend could wreak such vile blasphemy on the unblemished innocence of a defenseless child yet still retain the presence
of mind to eradicate trace evidence from his victim’s corpse?

The grotesqueries continued;
immediately after Mark’s funeral one of his funeral cards was discovered
placed at the exact spot where his body had lain, tossed on the cold ground as casually as
the murdered child’s defiled corpse. Was the funeral card
left by Mark’s killer? There had been several people in the throng of mourners at the church Mrs. Stebbins hadn’t recognized; had the brazen killer
attended Mark’s funeral? Authorities believed the card was a message,
but the exact sentiment the killer wished to convey remained maddeningly opaque. Mark’s discarded funeral card may have been the first time
the Oakland County child killer taunted authorities,
but it would be far from the last.

Jill Robbins, also twelve, was the next Oakland County child to go missing.
On the evening of Wednesday, December 22nd, 1976, Jill and her mother argued about dinner preparations—Jill, with premature adolescent obstinacy,
declined to bake biscuits for the family dinner. Exasperated by her daughter’s
insubordination Karol Robinson, in a fit of pique she will doubtless regret to her dying day, told her daughter
that if she was unwilling to contribute to family life she should leave:
“Get out,” Karol shouted, words that will undoubtedly
provide the soundtrack to a lifetime’s worth of nightmares. Jill, incensed at her mother’s directive,
packed a small bag with a blanket and toiletries and stormed out of their house in Royal Oak and into the frigid night;
she then pedaled her bicycle into the darkness, angry, vulnerable,
and alone.

Jill was spotted at approximately 7:30pm that evening near the Tiny Tim Hobby Center on Gardenia Avenue;
her bicycle was found the next day leaning against a tree behind a shop on Main Street.
Despite the discovery of Jill’s only means of transportation the police refused to take Jill’s disappearance seriously;
the argument preceding her departure had marked her, in the jaded eyes of law enforcement,
as a typical runaway; they saw no need to waste time and resources on a truant tween
who would doubtless reappear by week’s end.
Jill’s family members, however, were not so sanguine;
they believed Jill had merely stormed off in anger,
intending to return home when she cooled off—if Jill were able she would contact them, they believed.
By December 25th, with Jill’s presents laying unopened under the Christmas tree, the Robinson family was
distraught—they knew something dire had befallen the missing 7th-grader.

The Robinson family’s grim holiday presaged tragedy.
Jill’s body was discovered the day after Christmas by the side of the highway in nearby Troy,
approximately fifteen miles from the store
where her bicycle had been discovered; she’d been shot in the face at the scene with a shotgun.
Like Mark Stebbins, Jill had been meticulously scrubbed and her clothing washed and pressed;
but unlike Mark, her body
bore no overt signs of sexual assault
or trauma.

Unlike the carefully staged tableau of the Stebbins murder the Robinson dumpsite
had a frantic, haphazard feel; police later theorized that the killer had
unsuccessfully smothered Jill at his lair,
then carried out his grim post-mortem ritual of cleaning and re-dressing her body whilst
erroneously believing she was dead. When Jill began to revive at the scene,
the police surmised, the killer had panicked and finished the job with a shotgun blast.
Discharging a firearm at the dumpsite location was especially risky
as Jill had been found within eyesight of the Troy police station,
but the killer’s luck held as steadfastly as it would for the next three decades.

Although in hindsight the link seems glaring, at the time
law enforcement failed to connect the Stebbins and Robinson murders;
there were, after all, many dissimilarities—the causes of death differed,
as did the sex of the victims—and predators who prey on both males and females are statistically rare.
The disparate strands of carnage would be firmly intertwined seven days later, however,
when ten-year-old Kristine Mihelich exited the 7/11 at Twelve Mile Road in Berkeley at 3pm on the afternoon of Sunday, January 2nd, 1977.
A newly-purchased movie magazine clutched in her hand, the pixyish 5th grader with soulful eyes walked out of the brightly-lit convenience store
and into the annals of true crime lore.

Nineteen days passed;
hoping she’d been kidnapped for financial gain Kristine’s desperate family raised ransom money from neighbors,
but a call from Kristine’s kidnapper never arrived. Nineteen days of waiting and wondering while corrosive fear blighted the Mihelich family’s very souls.
Nineteen days.

Kristine’s mother Deborah Jarvis appeared in the media begging for her daughter’s safe return,
but Mrs. Jarvis’ heartfelt plea was for naught; on January 21st a mailman in rural Franklin Village stumbled upon Kristine’s body laid out neatly
in the snow—despite the fact that she’d been missing for nearly three weeks Kristine appeared well-nourished
and her clothing was pristine. Although Kristine had been fully dressed and wearing her backpack
when discovered her mother was positive her daughter had not dressed herself; Kristine’s pants
were tucked into her boots, a style Kristine disliked,
and her blouse was tied in front instead of in back as was her usual custom.

Like Jill Robinson, Kristine’s body bore no outward signs of sexual abuse; so why in Christ’s name,
detectives wondered, had her killer kept her alive for the better part of a month, each additional day presenting
futher opportunities for his victim to escape or be rescued? Kristine’s mother
Deborah Jarvis thinks she knows the reason for her daughter’s extended captivity:
“Kris was really a joy,” Mrs. Jarvis explains.
“This is why whoever took her kept her so long.
He was enjoying her company. At least this is what we have told ourselves,
and I prefer not to think any differently.” I have always found this quote from Mrs. Jarvis heartrending; how ghastly is a situation if the only
aspect from which you can glean comfort is the fact that your child’s murderer enjoyed her company?

The discovery of Kristine’s body
marked a turning point in the investigation of the Oakland County child murders;
like Mark Stebbins Kristine had been smothered, and like Jill Robinson she was a female child
who had been abducted yet not overtly sexually violated. The bloody pieces of the murderous puzzle
clanged grimly into place,
and the police could no longer deny that a predator stalked the leafy streets
of hitherto safe, suburban Oakland County. The news of a serial killer in their midst sent the local media into a frenzy;
in a macabre twist journalists dubbed the still-at-large killer the Babysitter, a blackly humorous acknowledgement
of the care the killer lavished on the lifeless bodies of his murdered victims. Parents were frantic; playgrounds and shopping plazas
stood empty as children were shuttled back and forth to school by anxious guardians and then locked away
as securely as the British crown jewels.

The media attention did not deter the Babysitter; his murderous reign in Oakland County was not yet complete.
At approximately 8pm on Wednesday, March 16th, 1977, freckle-faced sixth-grader Tim King borrowed thirty cents from his sister and rode his treasured skateboard
to a nearby drugstore to buy candy.
His purchase complete, Tim exited the store via a rear exit which opened into a parking lot;
there he was spotted conversing with a mutton-chopped man in a blue compact car, possibly an AMC Gremlin,
emblazoned with a white hockey stripe.
This would prove to be the last known sighting of the ginger-haired eleven year old;
Tim King vanished—though his corporeal location was a mystery,
his fate was chillingly clear.

The abduction of Tim King has always struck me as the most dreadful of the OCCK crimes,
both for Tim himself and for his family. Although the families of the previous Babysitter
victims knew their missing children were in peril there was a still a chance their loved one might survive;
although rare, it is not unheard of for child abductors to ultimately release their prey.
The King family, however, were starkly aware
that the killer had murdered each and every one of his previous victims;
there was no denying the grim destiny that awaited their beloved son and little brother.
Similarly, the first three OCCK victims may have believed they would survive their ordeal—after all,
why would the kidnapper be treating them with such care if he intended to brutally murder them?
Tim King and his family had no such comforting panacea to which to cling—unless
he was found quickly, both Tim and his family had to know
he would surely die.

After Tim’s abduction Oakland County teemed with police presence—roadblocks were established,
and law enforcement launched
a house-to-house search for clues; unlike the apathy exhibited in the wake of the Jill Robinson abduction
the police response to Tim King’s disappearance was focused, massive and swift. No stone was left unturned in the search for the missing straight-A
Adams Elementary student, but no trace of Tim King
was found.

Hoping to appeal to the Babysitter’s sense of human decency,
Tim’s mother penned an open letter printed on the front page of The Detroit News
beseeching the killer to release her son and promising Tim his favorite meal
of Colonel Sanders’ chicken upon his return. I cannot imagine the agony the King family endured as the minutes ticked by, acutely aware that the odds of Tim’s survival lessened with each moment,
grains of sand passing through an infernal hourglass
crafted in the bowels of hell.

Six days later, roughly eleven miles from the King residence, two teenagers in a car spotted
a small form in a shallow roadside ditch abutting Gill Road in Livonia; it was the still-warm body of Tim King,
his cherished skateboard placed neatly by his side. An autopsy later revealed that like Mark Stebbins, Tim had been bound, sexually assaulted and smothered;
oddly, as was the case with Mark, despite the indication of sexual abuse there was no semen present.
These crimes occurred decades before the advent of DNA technology; was the killer prescient?
Or did the OCCK abuse the boys with objects instead of vile flesh due to his own sexual inadequacies?

On a final, twisted note
the autopsy further revealed the presence of poultry garnished with eleven herbs and spices
in the murdered child’s digestive tract—shortly before his death Timothy King had been fed the Colonel’s finest—the Kentucky Fried Chicken
Tim’s mother had promised her missing son had been provided instead by his captor.
Was the killer winking at the ineptitude of law enforcement?
Or was the Babysitter simply providing his victim with his favorite food as a fitting last meal?
One thing was clear—as is the case with many serial killers,
the Oakland County child killer was closely following the press coverage of his crimes.

And finally with the death of Tim King the brutal winter was over; with the coming of spring
the scourge of child killing in Oakland County abruptly ceased.
Timothy King was the Oakland County child killer’s last known victim—despite
the passage of almost forty years and the best efforts of law enforcement the Babysitter’s identity
remains unknown. Tim King’s father, increasingly frail,
continues to appear in the media asking for information pertaining to the crimes;
his son’s death clearly haunts him still,
and the recent lawsuit filed by Kristine Mihelich’s mother is further evidence that for
the OCCK victims’ families closure remains elusive. In my next few blog posts I intend to provide a re-cap of the most popular Babysitter suspects; through
knowledge comes understanding, and hopefully taking a broad view of the developments in the case over the last three decades will aid in forming
a more complete picture of the investigation into and likely perpetrator of these ghastly crimes.

Comments
  1. […] his victims well—at least until he killed them. For this reason, some reporters called him the Babysitter, in addition to his bureaucratic sounding moniker of the Oakland County Child […]

  2. Lance says:

    Funny. Something the other day got me to google Kristine Mihelich. I remember being caught up in the frenzy back then when I was little older than they.
    I was always watchful whenever I went to the Sav-on on Crooks & Maplewood for candy and stuff. Especially knowing how most of the kids went there, that was a primo place for that scumbag to pick up kids. I stole my brother’s lockblade and carried it everywhere until it was confiscated by a teacher at Jane Addams.

  3. It is nice that you took the time to do the research on the OCCK in the few weeks between this & the previous post made about Paul Hughes & his informant. You actually did a very good job absorbing the facts into this lurid tale of the OCCK. I believe that you could write a book on the OCCK, but would like to see a book written about the victims & their families in those years (1976-77), not really a book that documents the ongoing bungled investigation. I know that you could put this together.

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