David Manwarren’s first year selling Christmas trees would be his last.
November 26th, 1977; Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Battle Creek Enquirer article was scheduled to run on December 11th—a holiday puff piece on Christmas tree sales.
Later, in hindsight, the photographer would recall only one red flag during his visit to the home of David Manwarren, novice tree salesman;
a request that the Enquirer refrain from printing the family’s home address—455 West Van Buren Street—in the newspaper. “There are people looking for us,” David Manwarren, age twenty-two, said without elaboration.
Homicide detectives would later rue the photographer’s lack of follow-up questions.
Within a week three members of the Manwarren family—David,
wife Glenda, age twenty-two, and son David Jr., age three—would be dead; only eighteen-month old Terry was spared.
The lighthearted write-up on Christmas tree sales was scrapped;
photos taken for the piece would instead run alongside grisly accounts of the family’s murder.
When David failed to report to the tree lot for two days—December 3rd and 4th—his father paid the family a visit.
Finding the Manwarren car in the driveway and a front window smashed he contacted the police.
Officers from the Battle Creek Police Department entered the house and found the three eldest Manwarrens
slain in the bedroom—Terry, unharmed, had been toddling through blood-soaked scene for hours.
Investigators have been fairly tightlipped regarding the crime scene details, but the following facts are known:
all three Manwarrens had been killed with a single shotgun blast to the head or neck.
David, clad in his undershorts, was found sprawled on the couple’s bed.
David Junior, state of dress unknown, was found on a mattress on the bedroom floor
and Glenda, in her nightgown, was on the floor nearby.
The Battle Creek Enquirer would later report “a rape occurred in the house,” but the identity of the victim
and the type of assault inflicted has never been disclosed.
The murder weapon, a shotgun belonging to David Manwarren, was also found in the bedroom, devoid of fingerprints.
Due to the gun’s location some newspaper articles initially raised the possibility of murder-suicide,
but the coroner would later determine all three Manwarrens died as a result of homicidal violence.
Investigators suspected murder-suicide was unlikely as soon as they entered the crime scene—though this detail took almost a week to leak to the press,
the Manwarren’s killer left the murder weapon behind but he stole the family’s living room furniture.
Detectives were unable to determine the means by which the killer or killers entered the Manwarren home.
The shattered window—located on the west side of the house—had been broken from the inside,
and investigators believe it may have been damaged during the removal of the furniture.
The family’s overturned Christmas tree, the only sign of struggle in the home,
was a possible casualty of the furniture theft as well.
Oddly, the assailant(s) carried off the couch, loveseat and easy chair but left the Manwarren’s color television behind—a few days after the murders someone kicked in the front door and stole the TV as well.
Acting on a tip, investigators located the Manwarrens’ furniture less than a week after the crime,
brazenly displayed in an apartment inhabited by local ne’er-do-well Robert Lee Tanner, age sixteen.
Tanner, known on the streets as Beaver, was a one-man crime wave;
his juvenile record reportedly contained more than twenty-five felony arrests,
and he was the prime suspect in a homicide which had occurred the previous summer.
Possession of the murdered family’s furniture was incriminating, certainly, but insufficient for a murder conviction.
In the pre-forensics era detectives were far more reliant on testimonial evidence,
and Beaver Tanner wasn’t talking.
He declined to explain how he came into possession of the Manwarrens’ furniture,
and due to his fearsome reputation in the community none of his criminal associates were talking either.
Approximately one month after the murders, on January 31st, 1978,
Tanner was convicted of possession of the stolen living room set—since he was only sixteen
his prosecution was confined to juvenile court.
He was bound over into the custody of the Calhoun County juvenile authorities for an indeterminate sentence,
and the investigation into the Manwarren murders stalled.
“Is the [Manwarren] investigation closed? Not by a damn sight. We know, and a lot of people on the street know, who did the murders. We also suspect this creep to be the killer of Deborah Bradley, the young black woman found dead behind a church on Van Buren Street, not too far from the Manwarren house. We know he killed Miss Bradley. We know he killed the Manwarrens. We have the knowledge but not the evidence he murdered them. We’re going to keep this case open until somebody comes out of the woodwork and gives us some good information so we can go to the prosecutor and get a murder warrant.” Battle Creek Police Chief Russell Sholes, Battle Creek Enquirer, December 4th, 1978
August 24th, 1976, fifteen months before the Manwarren murders.
Twenty-four-year old Deborah Bradley, accompanied by her fourteen-year sister, dashed out to buy milk at 12:45am.
While crossing a vacant lot a man sprang from the bushes carrying a shotgun and demanded both women follow him.
Her sister managed to break away and flee, but Deborah wasn’t so lucky.
Law enforcement immediately launched an extensive search but to no avail;
approximately twelve hours later Deborah’s nude body was found behind the Church of God in Christ,
just around the corner from the Manwarren home.
The recent divorcée, primary caretaker of her invalid mother, had been raped and shot once in the head.
It’s unclear whether Deborah’s sister got a good look at the assailant—he may have simply been a person of interest due to his previous criminality—but Battle Creek detectives immediately zeroed in on Robert Lee Tanner, local scourge.
Authorities arrested him shortly after the crime but,
unable to develop enough evidence to obtain a murder indictment, they were forced to release him shortly thereafter.
Approximately one year later the Manwarrens would be dead.
The sentencing guidelines of the 1970s were lenient, and juvenile sentencing especially so;
six months after being incarcerated for possession of stolen goods Beaver Tanner,
now age seventeen, was back on the streets of Battle Creek.
He wouldn’t stay out long, however—two months after his release, on August 2nd, 1978,
an armed robbery would land him back behind bars.
Eligible for adult court at last,
he was sentenced to ten to fifteen years in the penitentiary for home invasion robbery.
The Manwarren murders, already cold, were getting colder.
“He was caught in connection with an armed robbery of several persons in a house. [Robert Lee Tanner] had the three of them—a woman and her two daughters—lined up sitting on the couch. He had a gun he found in the house leveled at them. We think he was about to shoot them when the uniformed guys arrived. He split, but thankfully we were able to catch him nearby both with a stolen gun and money. What made it so bad for the three people was that one of the daughters recognized him. That was a bad thing. He’s not one likely to leave any witnesses.” Unnamed Battle Creek homicide detective, Battle Creek Enquirer, December 4th, 1978
A year into his armed robbery sentence investigators,
aided by a prison snitch, finally gathered sufficient evidence to prosecute Tanner for Deborah Bradley’s murder.
According to the Battle Creek Enquirer,
detectives had been able to “tie” Tanner to the stolen gun used in the crime,
and his presence behind bars had reportedly loosened the lips of several of his criminal associates.
Media accounts of the testimonial evidence against Tanner are vague,
and the reason for the District Attorney’s next move is unclear:
Robert Tanner was allowed to plead down from capital rape and murder to a single count of voluntary manslaughter,
punishable by a maximum of ten to fifteen years in prison.
In February of 1986, just over six years later, twenty-six year old Beaver Tanner was back on the prowl.
He was not rehabilitated.
On December 6th, 1987, nearly ten years to the day after the Manwarren murders,
recent Calvin College graduate Joan Rudenga, age twenty-four, encountered an intruder in her Grand Rapids home—in the ensuing confrontation she was stabbed twenty-seven times.
A roommate who ran to her aid, John Pierik, age twenty-one,
was stabbed six times as he chased the assailant from the house.
Responding officers followed the killer’s bloody footprints in the snow and swiftly apprehended the attacker.
He’d been paroled less than one year earlier,
but prison hadn’t diminished Robert Lee Tanner’s unquenchable thirst for violence.
Although Jon Pierik made a full recovery, Joan Rudenga was permanently paralyzed in the attack;
she had never seen Robert Lee Tanner before their fateful encounter. [A 2015 video of Joan Wegner née Rudenga speaking about her ordeal is embedded below.]
Sentenced to life in prison for two counts of assault with intent to commit murder,
Beaver Tanner has dwelt behind bars ever since—and with the passage of years the Manwarren murders have fallen off the media, and presumably law enforcement, radar.
In light of this lack of attention my Christmas wish this year is directed at the Battle Creek Police Department:
do a little digging in the crime lab Santa sack and see if you can find the rape kit from the Manwarren crime scene.
Even if we choose to trust the parole board and assume Tanner will pass all future Christmases in prison
I’ve always wondered if he had an accomplice in the Manwarren murders—he may have been a one-man crime wave,
but I doubt even a super-predator could move a sofa and loveseat all by himself.
In the spirit of the season, a merry Christmas to you and yours, dear readers; or happy holidays, festive Kwanzaa, jolly Festivus—hell, hail Satan if you prefer.
And remember, on Christmas eve—as you nestle snug in your bed, visions of sugarplums adance in your head—if you hear a strange noise in the dark of the night
it probably isn’t Santa Claus climbing down your chimney.