In the front of the mom-and-pop comic book shop were bins of the fantasies: Spidey, Hulk and X-Men. In the storage space in back was the ugly reality.
One of the shop owners -- the woman – was on the floor, ominously still.
No super-hero had come to her aid, just some customers. Regulars.
Lenora Ward: Most of the time we were there on Friday nights.
It was a Friday the 13th a long time ago, July 1990, when Tom and Lenora Ward walked into the suburban Detroit strip mall shop to browse for their usual, a new comic, to be followed by dinner out.
The lady in the shop, Barb, always made comic-buying a pleasure.
Lenora Ward: She knew our names. Immediately when we would walk in, she would light up with a smile. Many times, she would actually come around the counter to greet us.
But not on this early evening, just after 6 p.m. Tom and Lenora had thumbed through the bins and found their comic, but no one was there to take their money, not Barb or her husband Michael, the co-owner. Some teenagers in the shop weren't being waited on either.
Tom Ward: It wasn't uncommon that someone wouldn't be at the cash register. But this was a longer than normal time. So we thought we would stick around, just to make sure, you know, because we liked her.
The teenage customers were itchy to go. They peeked into the back room. They were the first to see Barb.
Lenora Ward: They cried out, "There's somebody back here." And at that time, Tom and I rushed to the back storage area and found Barb -- on the floor. Tom Ward: We thought she perhaps had fallen backwards and hit her head.Lenora Ward: I noticed that she was blue around her mouth. Her pupils were dilated and big. And I could not find a pulse.
Lenora happened to be a nurse and took charge. She noticed only a small amount of blood and concluded that Barb had suffered a heart attack or a seizure. She told her husband to call 911, while she began administering CPR.
Lenora Ward: I had never done CPR on someone that I knew and loved. It was, "Please God, let this be OK. She's a mother."
As the ambulance rushed Barb to the hospital, Lenora Ward felt she'd done her professional best, but she wasn't at all sure her prayers would be answered.
Lenora Ward: I knew that she was medically in dire straits.
The woman rushed into the emergency room that evening was 32-year-old Barbara George. She'd put on weight after having the two children, but she was physically fit, an enthusiastic softball and volleyball player.
Doctors and nurses began working feverishly to get a pulse, thumping the woman's chest in rapid bursts.
But after 15 minutes, it was all over. A doctor pronounced Barb George dead. It fell to the nurse to clean up the body for the family to view. That's when she saw it.
Kris Kehoe, ER nurse: when we were straightening up her hair-- we noticed some blood on the top of her head. I noticed there was a small hole. My first thought as a nurse was there had to be a bullet hole there.
The nurse notified the Clinton Township Police Department, where the dead woman's shop was located. The police called on a very surprised pair of comic book fans: Tom and Lenora Ward.
Lenora Ward: There was a detective that came to our house. And said, "You know, please I have something to talk to you about. Because Barbara had been shot in the head." And --Tom Ward: And our jaws just dropped.Lenora Ward: We just -- we were shocked.Tom Ward: We just couldn't believe it.Lenora Ward: We were shocked. Barbara shot in the head. It didn't seem like it could happen to such a good person.
Barbara George had been shot to death.
And her friends and family still arriving at the comic book shop that night were unaware that Barb's planned surprise birthday party for her husband Michael, amidst his cherished Marvel and Action comics, wasn't going to happen.
The Comics World shop had been Barb and Michael George’s just-go-for-it passion. He'd collected thousands of comics over the years and he liked superheroes' adventures way more than he liked selling insurance. So, with some help from Barb's parents, they took the jump and opened their little shop in a Clinton Township, Mich., strip mall in the winter of 1988.
Joe Kowynia is Barb's brother. These days he earns a living by removing dents and dings from cars, but back in 1990, he was the kid brother who looked up to his sister. He admired her on the ball field.
Joe Kowynia: I used to go to her games. I remember going to tournaments with the family. You know, she was your typical older sister. She was always there to help you.
Barb had been raised in a traditional Polish Catholic family and when she found her man -- Michael George -- marriage became the organizing principle of her life.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: Was she a happy bride?Joe Kowynia: Very happy. Yeah. She couldn't wait.
And when children came along – two girls -- Barbara George seemed complete.
Joe Kowynia: Her kids were her pride and joy. I think that was everything to her.
But as brother Joe and his then-girlfriend Mary -- now Mary Shamo -- drove over to the comic shop on that Friday the 13th, both of them knew that after nine years, Barb and Michael’s marriage had hit more than a rough patch. It was on the skids. He'd talked divorce to a Catholic wife who wouldn't hear of it. Still it was supposed to be a night of celebration: a surprise birthday party in the store for Michael. He was turning 30.
But the festive decorations, cake and candles, could barely spackle over the cracks in the marriage.
Mary Shamo: She wanted to do whatever she could to save the marriage. And that's what this big birthday party was about.
Michael's mother was going to keep the two kids at her house for the weekend while Barb and Michael took off after the party for a cozy couple of days at a lodge.
Dennis Murphy: So that would've been a Friday night and it was going to be a romantic weekend?Joe Kowynia: Right.
That weekend wouldn’t happen, because by the time Joe and Mary got to the comic book store just before 9 p.m., there was confusion. Cop cars.
Dennis Murphy: You come up cold and they got crime scene tape--Joe Kowynia: Exactly.Dennis Murphy: --strung around the store.Joe Kowynia: And I didn't know what to make of it. Mary Shamo: We pulled up and Joe rolled down the window, the police stopped us and they said, "You can't go through, we're investigating a homicide." Somebody was killed. Joe Kowyni: I immediately thought Mike, because I thought no one hated my sister. Absolutely nobody.
But it wasn't Mike. It was his sister, the sister who'd loaned him money when he was short, fought his corner for him, now rendered in a moment to that police-talk word: the victim.
And it was up to detective Sgt. Donald Steckman to make sense of the senseless. He'd been the investigator on duty when the hospital called that they'd had a woman come in with a single gunshot to the head.
Sgt. Steckman: So now we had a full-blown homicide.Dennis Murphy: You know it's going to be a long night?Sgt. Steckman: Yes.
As the detective's team scoured the strip mall dumpsters for maybe a tossed weapon, clothing, or something, he turned over the few facts he had so far. A woman with children was gunned-down execution-style in the back of a little comic book store.
Police interviewed merchants and customers at the mall. Had anyone seen anything out of the ordinary?
It turned out Tom and Lenora Ward did. The couple who'd given Barb first aid had picked up on something when they arrived that evening: a speeding car in front of the comic book shop.
Lenora Ward: And we both thought to ourselves, and then said it to each other, "Boy, that car's going too fast.”
Later they'd wonder if that was the getaway car. Immediately, something else caught their eye: a man coming out of the closing shop door.
Tom Ward: Had on kind of a dark outfit for that time of the year. Greek fisherman's cap is how I would describe it.
The shop was small, deeper than it was wide, with aisles of bins filled with comic books out front by the register and a door to the back storage room. Barbara George had been found just inside the back room. On the far wall was a locked door that led to the alley in the rear.
Crime scene techs began videotaping the crime scene.
There was $750 still in the cash register untouched.
In a glass case just behind the till was a wall of collectable vintage comics -- the good stuff. They hadn't been ransacked.
In the storage area, some bins had been toppled over but the EMTs might have done that as they rushed in to assist Barb George as she lay on the floor.
More than $400 would be found in her pockets. The good jewelry she was wearing wasn't taken.
Later, the medical examiner determined that the shop owner had been shot from above, the bullet entering almost the very top of the skull, indicating she'd been crouching.
Another bullet had been fired first, police believe. It missed and went through a swimsuit calendar on the wall and into the empty shop on the other side of the sheetrock.
If it was a robbery at the comic book store, it was an unusual one.
Just after 8 p.m., Det. Steckman was told that the husband of the victim had just arrived. Michael George walked toward the police line.
Sgt. Steckman: He identified himself. And he said, “What's going on?” We said, “Well there's been an incident here and we're sorry to tell you, but your wife has been injured...”Dennis Murphy: Injured?Sgt. Steckman: I told him that...Dennis Murphy: Not dead?Sgt. Steckman: We never told him what, we never told him what happened to her.Dennis Murphy: He doesn't know what has happened to his wife?Sgt. Steckman: To our knowledge, he had no idea what was going on. And he never really asked, you know, “Is she seriously hurt?” or anything else. And when he started, I said, “Well you need to go over to the hospital because your wife is really seriously injured."
At the hospital, Michael George was informed that his wife had died of a gunshot wound to the head.
A few minutes later, Mary and his brother-in-law Joe came rushing in. The girlfriend was undone by the awful news.
Mary Shamo: I’m blown away. I'm shocked. I wasn't even related to her and I was devastated and I was crying and I was upset. Mike never once cried. He was never once showing remorse or a man in panic that, “Oh my God, my girls' mother is gone. What am I going to do? How am I going to raise Em without her?"
In the coming days, in unexpected places, other people would note his stoic demeanor, too, the tearless grieving they said behind dark sunglasses.
Six-hours after her murder, Michael George had returned from the hospital to show the chief detective, Sgt. Steckman, around the small store, which was now a crime scene.
Don Steckman: And as soon as he walked in the back room, he looked and said there were two cardboard boxes full of very expensive comic books missing. Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: So he's saying, "I had some expensive stuff back here."Donald Steckman: Two boxes of comic books.Dennis Murphy: And it's gone?Donald Steckman: And they're gone.
Michael George made a list of stolen comics and estimated their value at $30,000.
He'd later file an insurance claim for vintage editions of "Spiderman," "Green Lantern," and "Iron Man," to name just a few.
Dennis Murphy: So he's talking about robbery is his likely scenario?Donald Steckman: His whole scenario was it had to be robbery.
At the comic book shop, Michael George would tell the detective that he had no idea what had happened to his wife.
He'd last seen her, he'd said, a little after 4 p.m. when she'd relieved him behind the counter. He said he'd taken the couple's two kids over to his mom's and had remained there, taking a nap on her couch before returning to the store just after 8 p.m. Det. Steckman asked Michael George the questions a cop would when the wife has just been murdered.
Don Steckman: Let's get all this up straight. “Were there any girlfriends?" "No." "Were you having any affairs?" "No." Any problems with your marriage?" "No, everything was fine."Dennis Murphy: Denied it all, huh?Donald Steckman: Denied the whole thing.Dennis Murphy: What are you seeing in demeanor, here it is about midnight?Donald Steckman: The warning lights were going off, because he's walking us through a store where his wife died and never once showed any emotion.
Staff at the hospital that night thought the same thing as the detective: Michael George’s emotional thermostat remained oddly set on cool.
At the funeral, days later, Mary Shamo -- the girlfriend of Barb's brother -- couldn't make out what he was feeling because his eyes were concealed behind dark, dark sunglasses.
Mary Shamo: Like something that a blind person would wear, something you see Stevie Wonder wear.
And Mary’s sense that Michael was acting strange, even goofy, only increased after a visit to the trailer park home where Michael George and Barbara had lived. She and Joe -- Barb's brother -- had gone over to give Michael some support during tough days.
Mary Shamo: And he comes in and her vacuum's sitting there and he grabs the vacuum and he embraces the vacuum and he showed more emotion with this vacuum than he did the whole time.Dennis Murphy: What's he saying to the vacuum?Mary Shamo: And he's just saying, "Oh, this was Barb's vacuum." And, "Oh my God, she's never going to use this vacuum again." And then he would go to a blender and he's like, "She's never going to be in this kitchen again." Dennis Murphy: Are you thinking, "What's up with this guy?"Mary Shamo: And I am looking at him like he was a screwball.
At one point that night, Mary was alone with Michael in the kitchen, and the grieving widower seemed to let her in, she thought, on his charade.
Mary Shamo: Mike sat down at the kitchen table, whipped off his sunglasses and looked at me and says, "So, what do you think of all this, Mary?" And I looked at him like, "OK, was that just an act? Here you are grieving over a vacuum and all these appliances and there wasn't one tear in his eyes, there was no swelling going on in his eyes. He just -- he had nothing going on. It was all an act.
The police, meanwhile, were chasing down bank records and insurance policies, looking for leads on that speeding car, the man in the Greek fisherman's cap, and whether this could indeed have been a botched robbery, after all. And they were getting a crash course on the value of vintage comics.
Unhappily for them, the case detectives hadn't found the gun and hoped-for forensics like a bloody print just weren't there.
But the investigators were getting calls on the QT about Michael George maybe having a girlfriend.
Dennis Murphy: When did you learn about a shop assistant named Renee? A friend of both him and Barb?Donald Steckman: That was two days later. We started receiving phone calls from people advising us that we might want to look at his relationship with his employee named Renee.
It was Barb George who'd met and befriended Renee Kotula at their children's school, and brought her to work at the comic book store. Renee had five children and needed the money. Her floundering marriage had ended in divorce just three weeks before Barb's murder.
Not long after they buried Barbara, Mary Shamo remembers dropping in unexpectedly at the comic book shop along with her boyfriend Joe and the pair got a shocker.
They saw Michael and Renee, the shop assistant, canoodling.
Mary Shamo: They didn't see us pull up, they were really loose and they were giggling together, and their arms were crossed over to each other. And when you lose somebody in your life you kind of look around at the world like, "What's going on? Why does the world keep moving when I’ve just lost somebody so important." And here this man is as happy as a clam. You wouldn't think that he had any care in the world, the way he was carrying on with her.Dennis Murphy: And it wasn't long there after that Renee and Mike were living together, huh?Mary Shamo: Oh yeah.
Michael and Renee would set up a new home together with the help of a $130,000 life insurance payout on Barb that he'd received as beneficiary.
Dennis Murphy: Is he becoming what cops call "a person of interest"?Donald Steckman: Yes, at that point he was. At that point he had to be.
He'd talked to the police casually at the store that night, and then in a more formal interview at the police station six days later. But there would be no follow-ups. According to Det. Steckman, Michael George said he would hire an attorney.
Dennis Murphy: They'd stopped talking.Donald Steckman: Exactly.Dennis Murphy: So this is a big unsolved case?Donald Steckman: Yes.Dennis Murphy: Is it possible that somebody comes into that store and commits a botched robbery and poor Barb is shot. And it's not Mike George at all and that person is out there. Could it be that way? Donald Steckman: I ruled that out, in my own mind. If that was true, and that was your wife that was killed in that robbery, wouldn't you want to do anything the police asked you to do? And everything we asked him to do, he either delayed us or refused to do.
The police investigators may have been stymied, but Michael George’s brother-in-law and his girlfriend Mary didn't have the same restraints. The two began nosing around as amateur detectives.
Mary Shamo: We actually went back to the store and we searched the whole grounds. We were looking for a gun. We went everywhere. We went by his trailer. We looked through his garbage. I mean we just--from the very beginning -- we knew he did it.
But Mary’s Nancy Drew sleuthing didn't produce anything.
The investigation was going nowhere, slipping fast into what cops call the cold-case file.
There was someone out there, though, who did have a vital piece of information about the night of the murder. But his story had slipped through the cracks and would be ignored for the next 17 years.
Comic book superheroes were ageless, resolving one crisis after another all through the early '90s. But the comic book shop in the Clinton Township strip mall was finished.
Michael George, the shop owner, and his second wife, Renee, had moved from town.
Barbara George, the first wife, was in the graveyard. There wasn't much doubt among her friends and family who'd put her in the ground.
Joe Kowynia: I believe he planned out the whole thing. And I believe there's no other suspect.
Lead detective Don Steckman still had to consider a possible botched robbery and there'd been questions about the strange people seen lurking outside the store that evening.
But fresher, more urgent investigations inevitably demanded the time of the Township's small police force.
The murdered woman's brother would stay after the police, asking if there was anything new, but the cops didn't have anything good enough to warrant the arrest of Michael George, much as they suspected him.
Joe Kowynia, Barb George’s brother: They were always telling us that we want to make sure it sticks. We don't want to go to court, he wins and then he's off free.Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: How much frustration is building within the family? He's getting away with murder, as your family sees it.Joe Kowynia: Right. What can you do? You can't take, I mean you can take the law into your own hands. But what's going to happen with that?Dennis Murphy: Did you ever talk about it?Joe Kowynia: I felt it. There's times I felt, you know, that I should do something. But you know I’m a Catholic. I couldn't live with it. I don't know how he does it.
By 1992, Michael and Renee George had settled some 375 miles southeast of Detroit in Windber, Penn. It’s a played-out coal mining town, population 4,000, with more in common with Appalachia than greater Pittsburgh.
On the main drag there, with money from Barb's insurance payout, the George’s had opened their new shop: Comics World.
With his two kids and Renee’s five being raised together in their spacious new home, they found friends in Windber among the other parents involved in their kids' sports teams. Michael coached pastor Brad Westover’s daughter in basketball. He never missed a game.
Brad Westover: Tremendous family man. Respected businessperson in the community.
Jeff Lively has the electrical supply shop three blocks down from Comics World.
Jeff Lively: His life was for the kids. And I’d have to say his life was for Renee. He treated her like gold.
The Georges endeared themselves to a town where families went back generations by raising money for the "Make-a-Wish" charity and giving comics to the public library.
And, besides his good works, Michael George was just a good guy to be around, always the life of the party.
Jeff Lively: The guy always had a smile on his face, always joking. But he can take a joke. I mean, he can dish it out, but he can take it, too. And that's what made him fun to be around. And that's why everybody enjoyed being around him.
But if Lively and other friends knew anything all about Michael George’s life back in Michigan, they didn't press for details.
Jeff Lively: We knew she was murdered. We didn't know how.
As the years passed, Michael and Renee became big deals in the regional comic book scene as organizers of something called the "Pittsburgh Comicon," an annual convention of sorts for enthusiasts to meet their favorite artists and swap comics.
Michael George held court with his famous poker games.
Fellow store owner Jeff Lively went along as a volunteer one year at the Comicon and he remembers Michael George being treated like an action hero himself.
Jeff Lively: All his peers just seemed to idolize him.
The new life in Pennsylvania was good.
Michael George had all but severed ties with his murdered wife's family. Uncles and an aunt back in Clinton Township, Mich., rarely saw Barbara’s two girls.
Come the year 2000 was Michael George even aware that the longtime chief of police in his former town had passed away?
Chief Robert Smith had died without solving the nagging case of the comic book murder.
Eric Smith: Everyone in this town was aware of that crime. And probably myself more so because my dad was the chief of police at that time.
Chief Smith's son, Eric Smith, is now the top law enforcement officer of Macomb County, Mich. As the elected prosecutor, he's responsible for all the criminal cases pursued in Clinton Township and beyond.
Because of his father's connection, he was always very well aware of the murder at the comic book shop.
Eric Smith: I had driven by that store a thousand times with my old man. And just about every time we drove by there, there was something he said.Dennis Murphy: It was still gnawing at him?Eric Smith: There's no question about it.
Four-years after his father's death, he was elected to the prosecutor's job.
Eric Smith: And I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said that a family member of theirs had been murdered or had been killed and nothing had been done. And you could see the desperation on their face. And they really thought that the system had passed them by. if I’m going to be the chief law-enforcement officer of this county, I can't let people out there think that we don't care. So we started a cold case unit very soon after I came in.
One of prosecutor Smith's first acts in office was to send out a letter to all the police departments in his county asking police chiefs and detectives to look at their old unsolveds with "fresh eyes."
Eric Smith: I did it with Michael George in mind. There's no question in my mind that at the time, while I was hoping that we'd get a lot of cases, I was hoping that Clinton Township would pick this case up.Dennis Murphy: And maybe resolve one for the old man?Eric Smith: That's it. That's it. That was the case that was unsolved for my old man, for my dad.
Just as he'd hoped, the Clinton Township P.D. re-opened the dusty comic book murder case and what a surprise the detectives found there. How could they have missed it all those years?
The comic book murder files came out of the archives and the lead detective blowing off the dust was Lt. Craig Keith. He'd been on the Clinton Township force long enough to remember the killing at the strip mall. And he took it personally that someone out there had gotten away with murder. The lieutenant had identified with the victim.
Craig Keith: I was approximately the same age and had children the same age. And maybe that was something that just stuck with me.Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: This is a tough one to pick off the stack.Craig Keith: Yes. Yes. I knew that going in. But to me, I always operate under the theory, "You don't shoot, you don't score." And I thought I owed it to myself, because it was something I had told myself. But, then, I owed it to Barb, too.
The detective needed help: good old-fashioned shoe-leather cops to make the calls, knock on doors.
So he recruited veteran detectives Jimmy Hall and Lenny Hrecho. The three of them went into the old boxes reading and re-reading yellowing police reports.
But there's a reason crimes go into the cold case file and stay unsolved: a lack of evidence. The three wondered if they had one of those here.
Craig Keith: Is this even do-able? And finally, when we came to the conclusion that, "It's doable, we need to notify the family,'' that's when we finally contacted them.
The cold case detectives were painfully aware of giving Barb George’s family false hopes after 17 years. But in early 2007, the detectives laid out what they'd found, warts and all, for Barbara’s brother, Joe, and other family members.
Craig Keith: And we were honest with them. we don't know how successful we're going to be here.
Still, after that meeting with the detectives, Barb's family and friends allowed themselves to be optimistic.
Joe Kowynia: I told my sister when we walked out of that police station, I said, "Something will come out of this."
Joe and Mary -- his girlfriend back then -- had broken up after Barbara’s murder, but they remained close over the years.
Mary Shamo: Joe called me and he told me what was going on. And my immediate reaction was thrilled. I was thrilled beyond belief.
They wondered whether the police would finally make a case on the man they'd suspected all along: Michael George, Barbara's husband.
Mary Shamo: My dad was in the hospital at the time. He was dying of cancer. And I told my dad what was going on. And my dad was just -- and again, he could barely even talk. And he lit right up. And he said, "Good. Good. God's going to get him."
The detectives started their investigation as though it was July 13, 1990, and the 911 call had just come in.
All three of them knew this wasn't going to be an episode of CSI, with forensic science saving the day.
Dennis Murphy: No weapon, no blood smears, no--Craig Keith: Nothing.Dennis Murphy: -- hair fibers --Lenny Hrecho: In terms of what people are used to seeing nowadays, with DNA and things like that--we didn't have it. We just had to do detective work.Dennis Murphy: Which means?Lenny Hrecho: Get out there and interview people.
They say without preconceived theories they chased down all the old leads again, the speeding car, the mystery man in the Greek fisherman's cap.
And re-examined the old motive: was it possible that Barbara had been shot to death over a pricey collectable comic book?
The cold case detectives interviewed over 100 people, and of all those fresh 2007 interviews, the one they did with one man turned out to be the game-changer.
His name is Mike Renaud, a girls' softball coach, now confined to a wheelchair after a swimming pool mishap a few years ago.
Back in 1990, Renaud was a college senior and a "Spiderman" fanatic.
The detectives learned, Renaud had placed a call to the Comics World store on July 13, the night of the murder.
He thought it had been about 5:30 p.m. or so, about 30 minutes before the murder. The avid collector wanted to know why one of his comic books had zoomed in value. A voice he knew very well answered the phone. It was Michael George, the shop owner.
Mike Renaud: He sounded like he was busy. He was in a hurry to get off the phone.Dennis Murphy: Did he say, you know, “I’m busy. There are people in the shop. I got to go."Mike Renaud: No, no. It was just a short--Dennis Murphy: Just something you could hear in his voice or the way he--Mike Renaud: We would b.s. a little bit. And there was no time for b.s.
The cold case cops had struck gold.
Mike Renaud's story was the missing puzzle piece that detectives had been looking for years. Renaud's account, if true, did nothing less than demolish Michael George’s alibi that he'd been napping at his mother's at the time his wife was murdered -- around six pm. Renaud's phone call story meant George was lying. Renaud swore that he'd talked to the store owner at the comic book shop and their brief conversation must have taken place just minutes before Barb was killed.
The embarrassing thing about this nugget of a clue was that Mike Renaud had told the very same story to the police back in 1990, the day after the murder.
What looked like a case-breaker in 2007 had simply slipped through the cracks back when.
They'd had it in the case file all along.
In clear handwriting, there it was, a record of Renaud’s July 14 phone call to the police: "Mr. Renaud stated that he called 'Comic World' ... (around) 5:30 "and “talked [with] the owner Michael George."
Keith: Well, that's the one piece that was missing.
Even so, it was a piece that still had flaws as evidence. There were no existing phone logs to corroborate Renaud’s story or to pin down the exact time he said he placed the call.
To this day, former detective Donald Steckman doesn't know how that note from Renaud went astray, but he says he was unaware of the comic book collector's story of talking to the husband in the shop minutes before the murder.
Donald Steckman: “Well, how did you not see it?" Well, I never saw it. If we'd have seen it, we would not be sitting here today discussing this case, 18 years later.Dennis Murphy: You would have gone for an arrest and-Donald Steckman: Yes.Dennis Murphy: -- indictment?Donald Steckman: No doubt--Dennis Murphy: -- be going to--Donald Steckman: No--Dennis Murphy: -- trial--Donald Steckman: No doubt about it.Dennis Murphy: -- by 1991?Donald Steckman: No doubt about it.
And now the investigative leads pointed just one way: toward the husband.
Craig Keith: It just kept coming back to Mike. And it was like a funnel effect. We started off looking at a lot of things and a lot of people. And it just narrowed down -- just like a funnel.
It was time for the cold case detectives to take a road trip to Pennsylvania, a trip across miles and time. They were going to make a surprise visit to Michael George at Comics World.
Two of the cold-case detectives -- Hrecho and Hall -- punched up a MapQuest address for Comics World in Windber, Penn., and motored southeast.
It was Aug. 3, 2007. And like commandoes synchronizing their watches, the detectives had decided to execute simultaneous surprise interviews on Michael George’s turf.
Hrecho: We had teams of detectives go to all three locations exactly the same time.
It would be Michael at the store, his wife Renee at the house, and Michael’s mother at her home, back in Hazel Park, Mich.
Dennis Murphy: Unannounced?Craig Keith: Unannounced.
When they found Comics World, the two detectives waited for some customers to leave, checked their watches, then sauntered in.
Hrecho: We were probably about a minute behind the other detectives. So, when we walked in Mike George was on the phone. And, we assume he's talking to Renee, his wife. And, he says, "No, there's nobody here." And, he had his back to us as we walked through the door. He turned around, he goes, "They're here." And he got off the phone and he just looked pretty sick at that point.
Det. Hall switched on the tape recorder he'd concealed in his jacket.
Hrecho: Introduced ourselves. Mike was pretty much unemotional. He said, "Hey, come on in. Have a seat." Started talking to him.
This is some of that conversation:
(audiotape interview)Det. Hrecho: We are re-opening that case. We have a few questions for you. Want to talk to you about it.Michael George: OK.Det. Hrecho: What did the police tell you back then, our department?Michael George: They had leads. They never, you know, told me what the leads were.
Lenny Hrecho: He didn't say much at the beginning. Dennis Murphy: I mean, does he say “This is great news”?Jim Hall: No, very unemotional.Dennis Murphy: “I've wondered for 17 years. What's happening? I've been waiting for you guys”?Lenny Hrecho: No, he doesn't give--Dennis Murphy: “…solve it”?Jim Hall: No.Lenny Hrecho: Does not give the typical response like, “You found somebody?” Or, “Well, that's good.” You know, like you said--Jim Hall: “What do you have?”Lenny Hrecho: Nothing. He just started stammering.
After 17 years, Michael George claimed a flickering memory for events.
(audiotape interview)Michael George: I remember the funeral. I don't remember anything. I remember the funeral because there were so many cars.
Dennis Murphy: Is he getting sweaty, twitchy, anything?Lenny Hrecho: Oh, he was very nervous. Jim Hall: He was very pale.Lenny Hrecho: Very nervous.Jim Hall: Didn't make eye contact. Most of the interview his head was looking down towards the table.
His memory was fuzzy on things like how he got the news about his wife's death.
Michael George: I don't know if I learned at the store, or either at the morgue, or hospital. I don't know exactly when.
In 1990, in his late-night conversation with the lead detective at the store after the murder, Michael George had speculated that Barb was killed in a botched robbery, someone after valuable vintage comic books.
But now the cops sitting before him were telling George that they'd explored all that anew and found no evidence of any comics being taken from the store.
George said the cops had to be wrong. He knew he'd been ripped off.
(audiotape interview)Michael George: I knew stuff was gone.Det. Hrecho: OK. What was taken, maybe the cops are missing something.Michael George: Very old books.Det. Hrecho: OK. What kind of books were they?Michael George: They were golden age books. The whole case was gone, the whole box was gone.
Hrecho: He couldn't remember exactly how many comics were taken or the amount. And he never offered up that robbery motive, until we brought it up.Dennis Murphy: Is that as interesting as anything else you heard that afternoon?Lenny Hrecho: Oh, absolutely.Jim Hall: Well, very interesting he'd come up with a new motive.
Michael George gave the detectives a totally new theory of the murder, not simply about stealing vintage comic books anymore, but about revenge.
(audiotape interview)Michael George: I think Barb was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I think somebody wanted to get back at me. I don't know who it was, but I should have been there so they could get back at me. And so she could raise these two girls instead of me.
Dennis Murphy: So this was a vendetta and what, Barbara took the bullet that was meant for him?Jim Hall: Exactly, and that was something entirely different from what he told the police back in 1990.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor back in Michigan -- the son of the onetime police chief -- was deeply curious about how the swoop-down interview was going.
Dennis Murphy: Were you surprised to hear that he talked to them? That he hadn't lawyered up or said, "I’m getting on the phone to my attorney right now"?Eric Smith: Very surprised. But I really think he was so shocked by the fact that we're still looking at him. So shocked that he didn't know what to do. and that's why we didn't call him. That's why we didn't give him a heads up.
As the interview continued, Michael George now owned up to his philandering and a marriage in trouble -- as he hadn't in 1990.
(audiotape interview)Det. Hrecho: Describe for me your marriage to her at the time of her death?Michael George: It was rocky because we had all the pressures. I'd just quit my job to open up that store. You know, we would have our fights, we would have our arguments.Det. Hrecho: You say it's rocky, and people have fights and arguments like that. What was the cause (of) most of it? Anything like extra-marital affair?"Michael George: Yeah, yeah.Det. Hrecho: On her side or on your side?Michael George: My side.
Late in the 90-minute interview, the conversation circled back to an earlier theme: the supposed theft of valuable comics he'd reported as a $30,000 insurance loss. The detectives asked if anyone knew that he kept pricey books in the back storage room. That's when things got testy and George’s previously passive tone becomes more direct and confrontational.
(audiotape interview)Det. Hall: Then I’m just trying to find out how that that individual, the suspect, would have known they were there, that's all. Unless it was an inside job, or unless –Det. Hrecho: They weren't taken.Det. Hall: -- they weren't taken, it was big insurance fraud.Michael George: So you're saying I’m lying now.Det. Hall: No, no, I, no. I'm just, I’m just saying that, that's a possibility, Mike. you have to look at all options."Michael George: So now you're saying that I lied about the books being gone. So now, so now what you're saying is I better get a lawyer. Det. Hall: We didn't say that.Michael George: Yeah, you did. You just said one of the possibilities.Det. Hall: That is a possibility.Michael George: Insurance. OK, stop. If you're going to show up tomorrow, let me know, I’ll get a lawyer, because this is bulls---- now.
The next day, in fact, he would need a lawyer, a criminal defense lawyer. The Michigan detectives, and the Pennsylvania state police, arrested him at his workplace, the comic book store.
As he was led away after a later court appearance, he loudly proclaimed that police had nabbed the wrong man. Was he right?
(Extradition hearing) Michael George: No, I didn't do it. I was with my daughters and my mom. They know. They know I didn't do this.
The cold case had turned red-hot. After 17 years, Michael George was returning to Michigan.
And like superman himself, the cold case detectives were seeking truth, justice, and the American way, i.e., a trial before a jury of his peers.
In a Michigan courtroom not far from his old comic book store, Michael George was standing trial, charged with the first-degree murder of his then-wife Barbara.
Kaplan, prosecutor: He was the husband from hell.
The man who intended to put George away was Steve Kaplan, the head of the county's cold-case unit. Going into this trial, his team's record was 20 for 20. Once mothballed cases had resulted in 20 convictions.
But getting the comic book man with nothing but circumstantial evidence -- no weapon, no witness, no DNA -- made this case maybe the toughest of all to win.
(opening statement)Steven Kaplan: We will prove to you that it was a murder. And if it's a murder, there's only one person in this world who had a reason to kill this wonderful person, and that's Michael George.
Steve Kaplan: We're attempting to show that he hated his wife. He wanted to replace her with a younger, thinner and better-looking model.
And that younger model, the prosecutor told the jury, was the other woman, shop assistant Renee Kotula. George and she had moved in together a few months after the murder and later married.
Kaplan: Renee was working at the comic book store. And he and Renee were having a tempestuous affair which he didn't even try to keep secret, except from his wife.
The prosecutor carved away at Michael George’s character. He said Renee wasn't the first infidelity.
There was this woman who'd struck up an affair with George two years before the murder. She'd asked that our cameras in the courtroom not show her entire face on TV.
(in court)Patrice Sartori: I was under the impression, when we were dating, that he was separated from his wife, because he lived separately from her. Or he was divorcing her.
And the parade of testimony that Michael George was a womanizing creep continued with an old customer of his from the comic book store.
Theresa Danieluk: My name's Theresa Danieluk.
Kaplan: Theresa Danieluk is our best witness showing Michael George’s bad character.
Theresa testified that she and her 12-year-old son went to Comics World every Saturday, including the Saturday before Barb's murder. She remembered Michael George sidling up to her that day, even though Barb was in the store.
Steven Kaplan: And what, if anything, did Michael George say to you about Barbara George?Theresa Danieluk: That she was unattractive. And she was heavy. That he wouldn't have been with her if it wasn't for his two daughters.
And that same customer could not believe later that Michael George made what she thought was clearly a pass at her during his own wife's viewing at the funeral home.
Steve Kaplan: In front of an open casket, he approaches Theresa Danieluk who was there to pay her respects and he gave her a hug.Theresa Danieluk: It was a hug that I would give my husband. Not that I would give to someone else. And, I felt very uncomfortable.Steven Kaplan: How far were you from Barbara George’s coffin when he hugged you?Theresa Danieluk: I was very close to her. When he hugged me I could see her over his shoulder.
And there was more. Weeks later, back inside the comic book shop, he slipped the same woman a note.
Steven Kaplan: Read it to us.Theresa Danieluk: “You look very, very, very pretty today. Thanks for coming in, sincerely Michael.”Steven Kaplan: Phone number on there?Theresa Danieluk: 263-
Kaplan: All of that evidence showed that he didn't like his wife and he didn't care about his wife. His conduct is inconsistent with an innocent husband whose wife has been the victim of a horrible crime.
It was a crime, not incidentally, argued the prosecutor, that Michael George profited from.
Kaplan told the jury the husband -- a onetime insurance salesman himself -- received $130,000, tax-free, from his wife's insurance policies. Not bad money in 1990.
(opening statement)Kaplan: She was worth more to him dead than alive.
And a witness who'd worked with Michael George in the insurance business thought it unusual that she'd have two policies for $130,000 and his was worth only $30,000 after he'd let another one for $50,000 lapse.
Brad Staeb: Typically the husband is the breadwinner. There is economic value for each spouse. Mike should have had much more than what Barb had.
But persuading the jury that Michael George didn't like his wife and was an amoral man, in general, when it came to women, wasn't going to be enough to get the prosecutor a murder conviction.
He had to take the jury back to the comic book shop on July 13, 1990 and hammer home why it wasn't a botched robbery -- a major theme of his argument.
Steve Kaplan: If the jury accepts our proposition that this is not a robbery, they're left with only one conclusion. The person who killed Barbara George is somebody who knew her and had a reason to kill her.
The prosecution laid out the evidence you've already heard about money not taken from the register or from the victim's pockets. How Barb's good jewelry went untouched.
And valuable comics stolen?
The prosecutor let the jury listen to Michael George himself on that subject in his interview with the detectives in 2007, how his own theory of the crime had shifted from a robbery to a vendetta.
(Interview tape)Michael George: I think Barb was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I think somebody wanted to get back at me.
The prosecutor thought the changing story was terribly important.
Steve Kaplan: You tell the police it's a robbery and 17-years later you concoct this new theory.Dennis Murphy: It's some sort of a vendetta, right?Steve Kaplan: Yeah, a vendetta against him, the defendant. If he truly thought somebody was out to get him, he would have shared that with the police. Because he would have wanted protection from that killer. He would have wanted his children protected and his mother protected.
What's more, that same witness -- the comic store patron -- who'd testified about Michael George’s inappropriate note and hug had something very important to add for the prosecution's case about the supposed theft of valuable comics from the back of the store.
Theresa Danieluk said she'd been talking to Michael George about a week after the murder and he'd told her "nothing was taken." All his good comics were still there.
It was more testimony for the prosecution's theory about a robbery that wasn't.
There were smaller pieces of the puzzle the prosecution threw in as it built its circumstantial case, like testimony from a nearby shop worker who recalled hearing frequent arguments between Barb and Mike George but nothing like the one on her last day.
Kimberly Koliba: It was more violent.Mr. Kaplan: What does that mean?Kimberly Koliba: Louder. He sounded much angrier than normal arguments.
And the lead detective back then, Don Steckman, telling his story about Michael George seeming to know that his wife had suffered a head injury in the back of the store. It was information he didn't have at the time, testified the former cop.
Steven Kaplan: Had you indicated where she was found?Donald Steckman: No.Kaplan: Had you indicated whether her head had been injured?Steckman: No. Kaplan: Had you asked for his theory?Steckman: No.Kaplan: How is it that he told you?Steckman: It was, he volunteered that statement.
But to tie the case all together for the jury, the prosecutor would put the murder of Barb George on a timeline and explain why a reflexively answered telephone meant Michael George did it.
The defendant's 1990 story was that he'd left his Clinton Township shop sometime after 4 p.m. to go to his mother's house.
She lived in Hazel Park, about a half hour away.
It's Michael George’s alibi that he was at his mother's house from about 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
A little after he arrives, his mother said she took her grandchildren to the park and he was sleeping on the couch when they got back, sometime after 6 p.m.
Barb was murdered a little after 6 p.m. If Michael George’s account is true, he was at his mother's at that time and, therefore, could not be the killer.
The prosecution called its star witness to give Michael George’s alibi the lie.
Michael Renaud, the comic book collector who called the shop late that afternoon, was about to recollect again an 18-year old memory: how he'd been talking to a co-worker at the department store where he worked back then about a comic he owned that had jumped in price.
Renaud told the co-worker that the Georges over at the comic book shop would know what was going on.
He called Comics World on Friday the 13th.
Mr. Kaplan: Who answered the phone?Mike Renaud: Michael George.Mr. Kaplan: How long did you talk to the defendant at that time?Mike Renaud: Less than five minutes.Mr. Kaplan: What time did you call the defendant?Mike Renaud: Anywhere between 5:15 and 5:45. Mr. Kaplan: Do you remember how he seemed to you?Mike Renaud: He seemed like he was in a hurry.
Dennis Murphy: How important is he to your case?Steve Kaplan: Without Michael Renaud we cannot win this case. Because, without Michael Renaud, we cannot place the defendant physically in that store close to the time of Barbara’s shooting.Dennis Murphy: So if he's in that store between 5:15, 5:45, he can't be asleep at his mother's house.Steve Kaplan: Not only can't he be asleep at his mother's house, but he has to be the killer. And the reason he has to be the killer is he's denying being at the store.
And Renaud said he was sure of the time he'd called because he knew it was a little after the co-worker had clocked in that day. The co-worker had gone back to look at his time stamp and it read 4:53 pm....a time certain that stood out in a case with some fuzzy memories.
And then there was this woman, an acquaintance of Barb's, who had another timeline detail to bolster the Prosecution's case. She testified that when she arrived at the shop about 5:30 that night, the front door was locked. Barb had ducked into the nearby fast food place, Hungry Howie's.
Steve Kaplan: Now, if somebody called the store at about 5:30 p.m., while Barb is at the Hungry Howie's ordering food, she can't answer the phone, can she?Barbee Hancock: If she's not there, no, she cannot answer the phone.
But someone else could and the prosecution speculated that it was Michael George, and he had brought a gun with him.
Steve Kaplan: Notice the time. That's the time we believe defendant returned to the comic book store, entering with his key through the back door without Barb George not knowing he's there.(closing argument)Kaplan: The phone rang. Barb is out of the store. Ring, ring, ring. "What do I do? Do I answer? Do I not answer?" It's instinctive. It's reflexive to answer a phone. "Hello." And that's the mistake he made.
A murder with no witnesses.
No weapon recovered.
The prosecutor had essentially given the jury the following: a shabby husband who wanted out, and who made big bucks from her death, a robbery that wasn't, a story about a late afternoon phone call 18 years before.
If you've ever served on a criminal trial jury, or even watched an episode of any legal drama on TV, you'll recognize this moment. The prosecutor arises --in this case it’s Steve Kaplan -- and says "Your honor, the people rest."
And the defense response in this Michigan courtroom, just as predictably, was to try to get the case thrown out. Not enough evidence, said the defense. The state hadn't met its burden, argued defense attorney Carl Marlinga in asking the judge for what's called a directed verdict.
Marlinga: When you just don't know. You have to pull the plug. You have to say, "That's it."
And then it got really strange.
Dennis Murphy: And you say, "Your honor, the state has not proved its case. We ask that you dismiss it right now, that it not go to the jury."Carl Marlinga: Right.Dennis Murphy: It happens all the time.Carl Marlinga: Right. And we did.Dennis Murphy: And almost always you're rebuffed.Carl Marlinga: That's right. And almost always you're rebuffed within about 10 to 15 seconds.Dennis Murphy: That didn't happen here.Carl Marlinga: No.
This time Judge James M. Biernat listened intently for 20 minutes as Michael George’s defense lawyer argued that there was no way the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in the comic book shop with a gun in his hand after 6 p.m. the evening his wife was killed and, likewise, no one could say that it wasn't a botched hold-up.
Marlinga: Nobody knows that it's not a robbery.
Lawyer Marlinga was saying, in effect, the prosecution hadn't given the jury enough evidence to render a verdict that was anything but speculation or guesswork.
Marlinga: A trial judge is obligated to make a call to say whether or not there's sufficient evidence to justify this.
Prosecutor Kaplan knew that, by law, the judge has to regard all evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution. He took just 30 seconds and parried with a brief citation of case law arguing why the case should go to the jury.
And then the judge retired to his chambers to ponder this motion to dismiss. In first-degree murder trials it hardly ever happens in American courtrooms, less than 1 percent of the time, that the case would be short-circuited before it ever got to a jury. But the judge was out, and he stayed out for hours.
Dennis Murphy: What was going on?Eric Smith, the county's chief prosecutor: Well, I could tell you what was going on in the prosecution's end. We were fit to be tied. We've all tried hundreds of cases. And these motions for directed verdicts are dismissed almost immediately. Dennis Murphy: Did you expect it was possible he was going to come out and say, "This case is dismissed. Jurors, you're released. We don't have a case here."Eric Smith: Well, initially, never crossed my mind. After a couple hours, it still hadn't crossed my mind. After five hours you start to worry.
For the defense, Carl Marlinga was feeling better by the hour.
Marlinga: I remember walking outside with my client and saying this is obviously good news. I cannot lie to you. Judges don't take this long to decide these motions.
Detroit news reporter Edward Cardenas hurriedly roughed out a story he never expected he'd be writing that day, that the judge had abruptly ended the murder trial of Michael George because of a lack of sufficient evidence. He didn't know whether he'd have to file that story or not.
Cardenas: The tension was high. Everybody had no idea how the judge was going to rule. And you could not tell which way he was leaning.
After hours of watching the clock go round, the defendant, out on a $1 million bond, praying with his circle of friends and family in the hallway, the judge, at last, returned to the bench.
Judge James Biernat: The court has been reviewing this matter for approximately five hours. I think an extraordinary length of time to review any motion for directed verdict.
There was a case to be made for the defense's position, he started.
Judge: Albeit, it could be argued that this evidence is marginal.
Then he seemed to point out the merits of the prosecution's argument.
Judge: This is in many ways a classic murder case. If the evidence is believed by the jury, then the jury could reach a finding of guilt.
On the one hand. And the other.
Where was the judge going?
Cardenas: Myself and the other reporters that were there covering the case, we all were kind of looking at each other and wondering which way it was going to go because he kept on back and forth with his points.
He came to a conclusion.
Judge: So the court, at this point, cannot substitute its judgment for that of the jury.
He decided for the prosecution. There was enough evidence to go forward.
Judge: The directed verdict is denied.
The defense had lost a five-hour long high-stakes game and apparently by the closest of margins.
Marlinga: That's probably the toughest moment I ever had as a lawyer. Dennis Murphy: You thought you might have had it.Carl Marlinga: I thought I might have delivered this guy from this horrible, horrible experience of not only having lost his wife, but then being falsely blamed for it after all of these years. I thought, I thought the ordeal was almost over.
The jurors filed back in for the defense case unaware of how close they'd come to being thanked and sent home without ever hearing any more evidence.
The murder trial of Michael George continued.
The defense team, fired up by the belief that the judge had almost tossed out the case, immediately went on the attack.
No one saw Michael George at the comic book store that night, a defense attorney argued.
Kosmala: There was simply no, zero, zip, nada physical evidence.
Michael George had been right all along, as the defense saw it. Someone was after his collector's comics.
Dennis Murphy: So your theory of this awful incident is that a person or two committed a botched robbery. And in the end of it --Carl Marlinga: Yes.Dennis Murphy: -- Barbara George ended up dead on the floor.Carl Marlinga: Yes.
And the defense's first witness, Fred Hodgson, was presented as someone who had seen a person lurking outside the shop, just before the murder, someone who may have been in on it. At the time, Hodgson was with a friend named Joe Gray. Hodgson noticed something strange. He turned to his buddy saying, "Take a look there."
Hodgson: “Joe, did you see that guy? He's wearing a fake beard." It looked awfully weird.
A little guy who looked like a mountain man, some kind of costume almost. He created a sketch with a police artist 17 years later.
Hodgson: What looked like a younger person who obviously wouldn't have facial hair, but big bushy, fake beard and moustache.
He and the friend were so suspicious about the mysterious bearded man -- or maybe even it was a woman -- that they gave Barb in the store behind the counter a heads-up.
All three went out back of the comic book shop to look for the petite character, but no one was there.
The two young men were so curious they continued to search the rest of the mall but never did spot that person again.
Marlinga: To believe that that person was not involved is preposterous. That is one of the killers.
And then an acquaintance of the murdered woman testified that Barb George was rattled even before the bearded person had shown up. Barb had gotten a call about 45 minutes earlier from someone asking about very expensive comics. The caller had shaken her.
Barbee Hancock: She was uncomfortable. It made her uneasy... Tense, nervous and scared.
And the defense suggested there were others about the comic book shop that day worthy of a look, including the person driving the speeding car.
The never-identified man in a distinctive cap seen by one of the store's regulars.
Tom Ward: The person seemed to be wearing a Greek fishing-cap and was looking over their shoulder towards the door. Carl Marlinga: It's obvious that Joe Gray and Fred Hodgson and then Tom and Lenora Ward saw the actual killer or killers.
Whoever did it, theorized the defense, had first shot out the eye of the swimsuit model on the wall calendar. It was evidence, argued the defense, of a robbery.
Marlinga: Proprietor puts up some kind of struggle. A shot is fired. A second shot is fired. At that point, all bets are off. You just grab what you can and you leave.Dennis Murphy: Except the proprietor, Barbara, is cowering down, then you're just out of there. It didn't work. Do you kill for Batman #6?Carl Marlinga: No you kill not to be arrested as an armed robber.
And as for the customer who testified that Michael George had told her nothing was taken. That conversation, said the defense, was never anything she disclosed at the time of the initial investigation.
Marlinga: That first came up April 16 of 2007, some 17 years later. Is that correct or isn't it?Danieluk: I’m not really -- I mean, it's 17 years ago.Carl Marlinga: Now, if we had the benefit of knowing exactly what he said in 1990, we could have come to a better conclusion of what he really meant by that. He could have been saying that nothing by the registers were taken. The money wasn't taken from the registers. The expensive comic books that you would have had to have smashed and grabbed by the registers, those weren't touched. But instead, we had a very angry woman -- upset with him because he hit on her.
But the defense had to account for a much more recent conversation: the one Michael George had with the two detectives at his store in the summer of 2007. During the recorded interview, they said, a surprised and flustered George had changed his theory of the crime from botched robbery to vendetta.
Carl Marlinga: I think that this was the easiest part of the case.
The defense lawyer says if you listen to the detective's question carefully you have to consider the context, just what is it that they've asked Michael George?
(Audio interview)Det. Hrecho: In your mind, who do you speculate would've had something to do with her death?Michael George: Somebody that hated me a lot more than her, I would think. Because I was supposed to be at the store. I think Barb was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I think somebody wanted to get back at me.
The key word, Marlinga told the jury, is "speculate."
Marlinga: The detective actually invites Michael to speculate, knowing that this is a 17-year-old case. He's asking, what new lines of thought can you give us?
Michael George hadn't changed his story about the robbery at all, argued Marlinga.
In that same interview, he says again that vintage comic books were missing, just as he'd told the lead detective in their tour of the store just hours after the murder.
(audio interview) Michael George: They were golden age books. the whole case was gone, the whole box was gone.
Then there was all the business about the defendant's demeanor and behavior the night of the murder.
The prosecution had said isn't it curious that when Michael George is informed by the police that his wife has been injured, he seems to know details that he shouldn't. In the storage room. An injury to the head.
None of the cops had told him about that.
The defense angled for a different spin of that conversation during cross-examination.
Marlinga: There's no indication from you that there had been any kind of a shooting at the store, is there?Donald Steckman: No, sir.Marlinga: There's no indication from you that there's been a robbery at the store, is there?Donald Steckman: No, sir.Marlinga: Isn't it reasonable that with those circumstances that a person would think that there would have been some type of accident?Donald Steckman: It's possible.Marlinga: It makes perfect sense with this back room, with things piled high, for him to say, "Something must have hit her on the back of the head." His response is far more consistent with an innocent guy walking upon the scene than it is a murderer, who had two hours to think about what he's going to tell the police when he returns.
A continuing theme of the defense case was that no one really can say with certainty what anyone said or saw 18-years before because, in part, the police work back then was so inept.
Mr. Marlinga: And did you ever do a canvass of the neighborhood to see who might have seen him between the hours roughly of five o'clock and seven o'clock?Donald Steckman: No, sir. Mr. Marlinga: Did you ever ask him to have his hands tested to see if he had recently fired a gun?Donald Steckman: No, sir.
When police bumbling came up, Michael George made a point of putting on a little show for the jury, laughs, smirks, shakes of the head, as if to say “Aren't these guys Keystone Kops?”
Michael George’s story, of course, was that he was asleep on his mother's couch across town when the murder occurred.
And to put him in that house, the defense called a neighbor of his mother's. Someone the police had never interviewed back in 1990.
Dennis Murphy: What was the best card you were holding?Carl Marlinga: The best card was the alibi witness.
That neighbor, Peggy Marintette, testified that in 1990 she got home from work every day between 5:45 and 6 p.m. and on that Friday in question she distinctly remembered seeing not Michael George but a vehicle parked outside his mother's house.
Joe Kosmala: Do you know whose van that was?Peggy Marintette: I thought it was Michael’s at the time.
And why would anyone possible remember such a subliminal detail of daily life?
Carl Marlinga: I remember this day because that's the day that, you know, this God-awful thing happened. That I found out that my neighbor's daughter-in-law was murdered.
If it was his white van parked outside, and if he was indeed inside his mother's house at that time, just about 6 p.m., it's case closed.
Marlinga: Michael could not have been at the store committing this murder.
The defense put on George’s mother who told her story about Michael getting back to her house between 5 and 5:30 pm, taking the children to play in the nearby park, waving to her neighbor, Peggy, in her car and then coming home sometime after 6 o'clock -- and seeing her son.
Defense attorney Marlinga: Now, when you got back, did you observe Michael at all?Janet George: Yeah. I went in.Defense attorney Marlinga: Where was he?Janet George: He was on the couch, sleeping.
His daughter, now grown but then 4-years old, said she even remembers how he slept that day.
Joseph Kosmala: And how is it that you know he was sleeping and not just laying there reading a book or something?Tracey George: Because he was sleeping on his stomach, head into the pillow.
It had been mostly "he said, she said," vapors of memory until the defense had its opportunity to challenge the man in the wheelchair, Mike Renaud. If anyone's testimony could send Michael George away for the rest of his life, it would be his.
Renaud: That was the night that Mrs. George was shot.
The avid comic book collector testified he was certain he'd talked to George inside the shop between 5:15 and 5:45 p.m. that evening.
A co-worker had fixed that time in his head after locating his time card that had him punched in at 4:53 pm. Renaud said he called the comics store a little after that.
In cross-examination, the defense attorney went after Renaud’s memory, wondering why years ago it had taken him three phone calls to the police to clarify the time that he'd placed the call.
The defense pressed him: couldn't that call have been placed as early as 5 o'clock?
Dennis Murphy: For your purposes, explain the Renaud phone call. You need to have Michael George at the shop around 5:00?Carl Marlinga: I need to have Michael George at the shop between 4:53 and 5:00.
And here's why. If Michael George is indeed on the phone talking to Mike Renaud at 5, the defense is saying it's because he hasn't left the store yet to go to his mother's.
The defense put on the stand Joe Gray, that friend who'd helped hunt in vain for the weird bearded character just before Barb was murdered. He testified that he'd been at the mall another time that day, around 4:15, and yes, he'd seen Michael George, with his daughters, take off for his mom's as late as 5 o'clock.
The defense jumped on that 5 o'clock possibility.
Marlinga: I think this is perfect. Now this is lining up. Renaud calls the store slightly before 5 p.m. Michael George answers it, is friendly, but seems in a hurry. And he is indeed trying to get his girls into the car to get them out of there to go over to his mom's house.
And this is how the defense tried to explain away Mike Renaud’s key testimony that he called the store around 5:30.
(closing argument)Carl Marlinga: But there are some real difficulties in believing that that call came in at 5:15 to 5:30. Now what happened is that Mike Renaud, trying to be a bit of a hero, when he now testifies 17 years later, he knows that 5:00 is too early for the prosecution's timeline. So I do think that there is an attempt, not-- not overtly to lie, but to make things come out in the light most favorable to the side that he's rooting for.
But if the jurors wanted to look Michael George in the eye and hear the story from his own mouth, they would be disappointed. He would elect, as was his right, not to take the stand.
His lead lawyer made the call. The defendant was just too easy a crier when it came to remembering the event.
Marlinga: If you put this person on the stand, knowing that he breaks down in tears at almost any question, you could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an instant.
And, not a small point, he would have faced withering cross-examination about his admitted womanizing.
Marlinga: He didn't want to do that.
Marlinga said when he met the defendant for the first time, he made a confession -- he'd willingly copped to being a lousy husband.
Marlinga: He said, "Carl, I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but I did not do this.”
Besides, he didn't need to put his guy on the stand. Carl Marlinga was convinced the jury would see the case as he did, that the prosecution had nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Now it was up to the jury. After three weeks of competing theories, timelines and testimony, they had to sort it all out.
Renee Johnson: You know, all the attorneys have introduced themselves and you have the defendant there. And I was like, "Oh my gosh. I can't believe I’m sitting here!”Sandra Layne: I have to say that this was the best, most exciting thing I would never want to do again.
Twelve strangers had gotten jury summonses and now they were sitting together in judgment on another person accused of something a long time ago.
The two sides made their closing arguments.
The prosecution first.
Kaplan: The only one in this world who didn't want her in this world anymore is the defendant. He's the one with the financial motives. He's the one with the romantic motives. He's the one who wants to start his new family without her.
Then the defense.
Carl Marlinga: It's the prosecution's obligation to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was at the store. I suggest and argue to you that that will be an impossible burden. You cannot in good faith come back with a guilty verdict knowing that there's that reasonable doubt.
Michael George’s fate was in the hands of the jury.
Madette: Unless you sat on this jury, no one would really understand what it was like to have the power to influence someone's life. To be able to send someone to jail. That was just such an emotional rollercoaster.
Nine of the jurors took us inside their deliberations, finally able to talk about the case. They got it late on a Friday afternoon and remembered their discussion going all over the place at first.
Garry: It probably wasn't within, maybe even, I want to say maybe 20 minutes, we said, “OK. Let's take a vote right now, see where we stand and kind of go from there."
Garry Kuzinkoski had been chosen foreperson.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: Twelve people, what was your count?Garry: Seven and five. Seven guilty, five not guilty.Murphy: So you're a pretty divided group?Garry: Yes, it was. Kay: I was at not guilty, because I just didn't think, at that moment, we had enough evidence.
What they agreed on right away was the prosecution's portrayal of Michael George as a womanizing louse.
Crissie Nelson: On the marriage, there was -- obviously he was having an affair.Dennis Murphy: So, it was messy right from the start? You knew that?Crissie Nelson: Yeah. But they asked us that during the jury selection, if that would be some bias against the case. And so you kind of had to let that go. But there were so many lies and deceit that you couldn't help but to keep that in your thoughts. Mike Ellis: I got the idea that he was just a liar beyond all comprehension. You know, he couldn't be trusted.Meilute Repsha: He was very deceptive.Madette: He was someone, to me, who had a hidden agenda.Dennis Murphy: Almost like a secret life that Barbara didn't know about?Chrissie: Yes. Murphy: And yet you had to remember that this wasn't a case about adultery.Chrissie: Correct.Murphy: It was a case about murder.Chrissie: CorrectMurphy: And whatever you felt about him...Chrissie: Exactly.Murphy: … may not connect the dots to get to murder.Chrissie: Correct. And that's just what we did.Kay: Just because we don't maybe approve of the way he lived his life doesn't make him a killer. I absolutely agree with that.
Another point the jurors agreed on was a key defense theme: they felt the initial police work on the case came up short: from phone calls not traced, to gunshot residue tests not administered, to some leads never followed.
Mr. Marlinga: And did you ever do a canvass of the neighborhood to see if there were any neighbors or anybody else in the area who might have seen him between the hours roughly of 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock?Donald Steckman: No, sir. Chris Capano: As far as July of 1990, the police work was very very unsatisfying to us.Dennis Murphy: Do you guys agree with Chris on that?Jurors: Absolutely.Garry: ...Township should be just totally ashamed of...Chris: They should totally just be ashamed...Garry: Of the work they did.
Whatever happened inside that comic book shop, the jurors thought it was probably not a robbery gone wrong. Too much easy money left untouched.
Chrissie Nelson: She had money in her pockets. There was money in the register. Behind the register there was a showcase that had expensive comic books back there. That wasn't bashed in and taken.Meilute: You would think that anyone that was casing the joint would probably come to the front of the store...Madette: ...not the back...Meilute: To rob that first, rather than rummaging through a number of boxes in the back.
And certainly no jurors thought someone unknown had been out to target Barb.
Chrissie: Everyone that testified said she was a wonderful woman. Everybody said she was likeable and bubbly and smiling all the time... Kay: She didn't have enemies that would be likely to want to hurt her.
And so they looked at the prosecutor's argument that the husband, Michael George, had the motive to murder his wife.
There was no question about the defendant and girlfriends.
Kay: He wanted to divorce her to get rid of her. And she was not willing to do that. She was trying to make the marriage work.
This juror said he could picture Michael George slipping into the back door of the shop about 5:30 just as the prosecution had suggested.
Mike Ellis: So I’m thinking that he confronted her because he didn't want to be with her and got nervous, got mad.
And some jurors debating premeditation were persuaded that the $130,000 insurance payoff on Barb's death would have given the husband incentive.
Renee Johnson: Insurance money, sure. I mean, you know, there were witnesses after that that said that he was talking about what kind of car he should buy. Or should he open another comic book store.
The testimony about Michael George’s demeanor after the murder -- wearing the dark shades, the creepy come-ons to the female customer -- had registered in the circumstantial composite the prosecution had drawn…
Meilute: It's just so inappropriate.
But there was one story in particular that had stuck with jurors, the one about what George had said to the police officers just after arriving at the scene after 8 p.m. that night.
Garry: She must have fallen and hit her head in the back room, and the back room is what he specifies.Chrissie Nelson: And her head...Mike Ellis: Who would have known that she was in the back room?Renee Johnson: Right.Mike Ellis: And who would have known she hurt her head?
But the jurors would not reach a consensus that Friday afternoon. Some of them said they had doubts about whether the prosecution had made its case.
Kay Daniels: I was not convinced he was guilty when we went into the jury room ... he may, you know, have all these character flaws but that does not mean he did it, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. You just can't think, “Oh he probably did it.”Dennis Murphy: The burden's on the state Kay: The burden's totally on the state.
The jury called it quits for the weekend. They'd resume deliberations Monday morning.
Kay: I went home for the weekend thinking it's at least going to be a hung jury because I don't think I can ever be convinced.
Every one of them felt the weight that had been placed on their collective shoulders.
Chrissie: You know, you're sitting here all day and you're listening to all these testimonies. You're seeing autopsy photos and then you try to go back home to your regular life, you know, and it's hard...
Monday morning, March 17, 2008. The jurors were back and they read the transcript of George’s police interview in Pennsylvania. They pieced together a timeline. When had the defendant left the comic book shop? Had his mother told the truth, that he was in her house napping when the murder occurred, or, did they believe Mike Renaud, the comic book collector's account of talking to Michael George on the phone inside his store within minutes of the homicide?
Two jurors had been on the fence all day. It was getting late but jurors say no one was being pressured.
Mike Ellis: And that's when we took the vote. And we had a unanimous decision at that point.
The jury had reached a verdict.
And now they had to walk back into court and hear it read.
Judge: "Please be seated. Thank you."Madette Bui: My heart was racing like it's never raced. And my heart was pounding. My hands were sweating.
Every day during the three-week murder trial, Michael George left his mother's house for court. He was free on bond.
But for how long?
Monday, March 17, 2008 happened to be the 16th wedding anniversary of Michael and his second wife, Renee.
Would it be champagne or handcuffs when the jury came back?
In the courthouse, the day dragged on. The jury has deliberated late into the afternoon.
Edward Cardenas: The feeling was the longer that the jury went that it was looking more and more that it was going to be not guilty.
Edward Cardenas of the Detroit News thought it came down to which story the jury believed.
Edward Cardenas: The jury was to consider whether Michael George was lying in wait or lying on his mother's couch.
About 5 p.m., the jurors sent word to the judge. They had reached a decision.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: Do you ever get used to that moment?Carl Marlinga, defense attorney: No.Dennis Murphy: "We got a verdict -- coming in"?Carl Marlinga: No. No. your heart pounds so hard that it vibrates your shirt. Steve Kaplan: You don't know. You don't know. You give it your best effort.
Before the jury walked in, the judge warned the courtroom against any outbursts.
Michael George prayed quietly to himself.
His freedom, his family, the life he'd enjoyed in Pennsylvania were at risk forever. A murder conviction meant mandatory life. No possibility of parole.
The jury of eight-women and four men filed in.
Madette, juror: My hands were sweating. And I took a look at Michael George and I saw his family. I was numb and scared at the same time. Joe Kowynia: My brother turns to me, he says, "Is your heart beating fast?" And I said, "Yeah, it is." I mean, this is it.
The foreman read the verdict.
Foreman: Count number one, first-degree murder. We find the defendant guilty.
Guilty of first-degree murder, Michael George slumped and sobbed in his attorney's arms.
Barb's sister and two brothers seemed to share a gasp of relief.
Joe Kowynia: He took away my oldest sister. She didn't get to see me get married. She didn't get to see my son being born. She will never get to see him do anything. I mean he took a part of me away.
Across the room, the convicted man's younger daughter -- one of the two nieces estranged from Barb's family -- collapsed into her stepmother Renee.
Michael George would go on weeping for a full two-minutes.
Edward Cardenas: I’ve never seen a defendant break down like that.
But Lt. Craig Keith, the cold case detective who rediscovered the crucial evidence, was unmoved by George’s tears.
Craig Keith: Mike showed no emotion back in 1990. And now he cries. And, my impression of that is Mike is crying for himself. Steve Kaplan, prosecutor: They're crocodile tears. He's crying because he knows his freedom has ended.Carl Marlinga: It was devastating. It was just devastating.
Barely able to stand, George was helped to the podium to face the judge, the same judge who had apparently been a heartbeat away from dismissing the case altogether.
Judge: The jury has found you guilty of all charges. At this time, I’m remanding you to the custody of the Macomb County Sheriff's Department."
The comic book man was now a convict. His hands were cuffed and deputies led him away.
Madette: I had no doubt that the verdict that we came to was the correct one.
The jurors had returned to their deliberation room. They said they could hear George sobbing but that didn't shake their confidence in their verdict. They said it had come down to the testimony of the man in the wheelchair.
Dennis Murphy: I think I hear you all saying he was tripped up by answering that phone call from Michael Renaud.Jurors: Yes.Kay Daniels: He should not have been there when Mike Renaud called.Dennis Murphy: Absent that, where were you? Sandra: I would still be in that room. Carl Marlinga, defense attorney: I think that the jury got it wrong. I believe that we have a strong shot with this judge to be able to get an outright reversal or a new trial.
For now, anyway, the cold case unit of Kaplan and prosecutor Eric Smith has won another conviction. Their undefeated streak continues, 21 for 21.
And Smith notched one for his dad, the late police chief.
When the verdict came down, he got the word via text-message from a reporter.
Eric Smith: There was some hooting and hollering going on over here when we got that. I really thought he's finally going to face the just punishment he deserves. My next thoughts went right to my old man. And I thought I wish he was here to share this with. But I know he's smiling.
For Barb's family, it's grim satisfaction more than smiles.
Joe Kowynia: It's finally over after all these years. My sister had her vindication, she can rest now. I thought I was going to be happier in the verdict. But with my niece there, then I wasn't as happy at the time. But you know, as each day goes on, you know, I feel better about it, and I’m glad. I mean, he needs to pay for his crime.
But is the case of the comic book murder really at "the end”? Or will there be a criminal courts sequel? The defense has asked the judge who seemed so torn by the slim evidence in the case to set aside the jury's verdict, or order a new trial. Judge Biernat will hear oral arguments this Thursday, then consider his options: the historic and controversial ones -- override the jury or grant a new trial -- or the more traditional one -- let an appellate court make the decision.