Dateline   |  April 04, 2014

Graduation Night, part 2

A group of Detroiters joins forces to uncover the truth about a murder that happened on the night of a high school graduation more than two decades before.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> was in the wind in detroit . 2009 . a woman's simple facebook post

>> just thinking about it.

>> wondering what you should do?

>> yeah. wondering what to do about it. what he did was call his old college roommate, john hielscher, the man who back in 1993 told him a story about the murder of old man bob.

>> tell me why you called john hielscher.

>> to see if he remembered telling me the story he told me back all those years about the night that old man bob was killed.

>> and he did remember.

>> he did. he remembered it exactly on the phone as he did when he first told me the story.

>> the story, that john hielscher had been there when old man bob was killed. had seen things and never talked to police. and now, once kevin looked at the pictures of the highers' brothers, he understood clear as day that john's story could expose a terrible injustice if it was ever revealed, that is. so kevin stewed about it for a bit, talked to his wife and took her advice.

>> we had no hesitation that we should do something with this. you know, you're a lawyer, you you know what to do with it. just go ahead and do it. it's the right thing to do.

>> so he boarded a plane for detroit on his own dime and john faced down his fears and both met with the lawyer who represented those imprisoned brothers.

>> we met at a restaurant in grosse pointe and talked to the lawyer and he didn't seem like he believed me too much. i said you know what, give me a lie detector test . i'll take the test and then we'll go from there. if you don't believe me, let's do this right now.

>> okay. so?

>> a couple weeks later, we ended up taking a lie detector test . it was one of the toughest thing to do when you're strapped up. i was sweating buckets.

>> and the polygrapher said he passed with flying colors . and then nothing. neither kevin nor john heard anything more from that lawyer.

>> i thought it got dropped. kind of wishing oh, good it's not going to come back, that's it.

>> and that would have been the end of it most likely had it not been for her. over on the other side of detroit , though john and kevin couldn't possibly have known it, was a private investigator who, truth be told, had just about given up on the case of the highers brothers.

>> we weren't getting anywhere.

>> she agreed to work the case for a fraction of her usual fee when the highers family begged her to find evidence of their innocence. she tended to agree with them. but in her long search, she had been unable to find anyone or any facts that could challenge the story about old man bob's murder that was told at the trial, which was this.

>> i was home and it was a friday night. he's getting a lot of phone calls . there's a guy weighing out weed in the kitchen. there's someone saying i'm going to be over, mostly people come to the back door.

>> an eyewitness to it all was sitting in his car out on the street. we built this animation to illustrate what he later told the police.

>> about 9:30, an omni, horizon pulled up in front of his house and two guys walked up the driveway to the back door and he hears shots fired and shortly thereafter, he sees some guys hoofing down the driveway. they get back in the omni horizon and drive off.

>> this guy, the witness says, must have been them?

>> right. everybody assumes the people running down the driveway shot him, yes.

>> the dealer known as old man bob was dead of a single gunshot wound to the chest. detectives looked high and low for that get away car. no luck. so the cop canvassed the usual suspects and bingo, a jailhouse informant named a possible shooter. neighborhood kid named tommy highers. what do you know, tommy knew old man bob. owed him money. used drugs. even told friends he was going to visit bob that night. they prepared a lineup. but when they showed the pictures to that eyewitness, he didn't pick out tommy . he pointed to tommy 's brother ray . told police he was positive, 100% sure ray was one of the young men running down the driveway and hopping in the car after the murder. so both brothers were arrested and tried and convicted and sitting in the courtroom, the aunt who loved them all their lives was devastated.

>> i can't even imagine why they got life without parole. even without parole.

>> this is aunt jan hert.

>> it was very hopeless. very hopeless.

>> did you believe that they would have done this?

>> never. i never believed it for one minute.

>> the family stuck by tommy and ray as the men watched their 20s and then their 30s come and go in state prison . now, here they were in their mid-40s. still telling everybody and anybody, including us, that they did not kill old man bob.

>> i just walked with the faith and i was just like, this is not the end.

>> brothers had turned down any and all plea deals determined, instead, to clear their names. they joined every prison program, took every class they could to improve themselves.

>> we schooled ourselves. we always took any kind of programs they had to offer.

>> both of you?

>> yeah, absolutely. worked every day. and just held our heads up.

>> but to prove their innocence, they needed some solid new evidence and by 2009 , after 22 years, even their family had about given up on that.

>> had you actually gotten to the stage where you thought, well, they'll be there for the rest of their lives, nothing we can do about it?

>> i did. to be honest, i did.

>> so too did the private eye , julie ann kun yoe. stop working the case or tried to. but tommy kept on the calling.

>> i'd be like, you can't keep calling me. then one day i picked up the phone and it was tommy again and i didn't have anything to do. i said, fine, fine. this was purely to get tommy off my back. i thought i was going to do a couple things and i'd be done again. yeah. i can get tommy out of my life.

>> she picked up the phone, called tommy 's lawyer who sent her a copy of the affidavit, the sworn story told by, guess who? that old college roommate of kevin 's, john hielscher. the one who claimed he was there at old man bob's when the murder took place. and when the private eye read that --

>> i got halfway through this