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Justice for Julia

A young woman in a troubled marriage finally finds the courage to get out. Then, she disappears. It was a crime that might have ended up lost in the cold case vault had it not been for a police chief who used his head and his heart.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Didn't say “I'm coming home tomorrow,” just said, “Get my room ready. I'm comin' home.”

Better late than never. Tammy Keenan and her husband Kevin were relieved their daughter Julia had finally snapped to and was leaving her jerk of a husband.

Dennis Murphy: Are you scared of this guy?

Tammy Keenan: Scared enough I went and got a permit to carry a gun.

Julia Keenan had met Tim Dawson on the internet four years before. She was a shift-working, teenage single mother by then and he--the 25-year old father of two young girls -had successfully tugged at her emotions, firing off e-mails about how much he wanted a true relationship.

Tammy Keenan: You know --"I just want a family.  I want to meet somebody who wants kids, and who wants you know, just to focus on a family life, and settle down." She was you know, very susceptible to those kind of suggestions. She was just-- just very naive. And she was somebody ...

Kevin Keenan: A young girl with a young child.

Dennis Murphy: How long is it after they've met on the Internet, and they come over to meet you that she actually moves in with him?

Tammy Keenan: Two weeks.

Dennis Murphy: Two weeks time?

Tammy Keenan: Two weeks.

Tim Dawson rigged phone systems for a living in the Grand Rapids, Mich. area. He was in the middle of a nasty divorce from his first wife. The two--Tim and Julia --still barely more than strangers--moved into a little house together at 141 Maple Street in the town of Sparta and trouble seemed to follow them in the door.

Tammy Keenan: It was a constant drama. Every time one drama would get over, it was another. And that was one of the things, we said, you know, "We just want you to move home for awhile."

Her parents started seeing Julia less and less. And dear childhood friends like Stacey Raisanen found themselves shut out from her life. She called the house once and Tim answered.

Stacey Raisanen: He asked who I was.  And I said, "A friend from, you know, since we were kids." And he just basically said that I wasn't allowed to call there anymore or speak with her. I didn't know what to make of it.

Julia settled into a solitary routine. Pulling a brutal midnight to eight shift at a plastics manufacturing plant, so she'd have some daylight hours to look after her boy, Kevin, and sometimes, his two girls.

A little less than a year into their living-together arrangement, Tim asked her to marry.

Julia shopped for a wedding dress at the bridal salon where she'd worked as a part-time shop assistant in high-school and was still fondly remembered.

Dwin Dykema: "Oh, she was wonderful, very dependable and devoted."

But as her one-time boss, shop owner Dwin Dyekma, showed Julia racks of wedding gowns, she was startled by what she saw.

Dwin Dykema: I noticed that she had a bruise on her neck. And she had another one on her arm. And I said, “Julia, what is this?” She just says, “Well, we just had a fight and things got outta hand.”

Dwin tried but was unable to talk Julia out of the marriage. She decided she wasn't going to sell her a wedding dress.

In October 2001--a year after first chatting up on the internet--Julia and Tim married at the courthouse. A little less than two years later, baby Alex came along. But Happily-Ever-After never did arrive for the Dawsons. The two continued their stormy ways.

Dennis Murphy: Look, did the two of you ever get-- get with Julia, sit her down, say, "Look, honey, we got to talk about this guy"?

Tammy Keenan: Many times. There were calls of crying, "Please come and get me."

Kevin Keenan: And when you get there, he's there.  "Don't ever talk to your family.  You're not allowed to discuss any problems in our house."

Julia let her co-workers on the overnight know that she was living a marriage out of a bad country-western song. She told them how controlling he was, abusive, a hitter.

Her mom and dad, meanwhile, were getting to see their newest grandchild hardly at all. Tim made it known they weren't welcome at their daughter's house.

Kevin Keenan: If I call her cell phone, she says, "You know, he'll know I was talkin' to you.  And-- and it'll be on the bill.  And so I can't do that."

By the spring of 2004, life inside the little house on Maple Street had become so strained that Julia upped and consulted a divorce lawyer. Her parents couldn't have been happier if she'd told them she'd hit the lottery. She was finally going to put Dawson in the rear view mirror.

Kevin Keenan: She called me up and said she finally did it.  "I did it, Dad.  I went and seen a lawyer.  I'm gettin' divorced." I said OK, that's fine, I'm sorry that's happening. And next thing you know, I get a phone call from her.  "Guess where I am, Dad? Tim took me to Las Vegas.  We're okay now."

But the good Vegas vibes didn't last and once again Julia was getting ready to bolt.

So with Christmas 2004 approaching, Tammy Keenan was happy to get that phone call from Julia asking them to get her room ready. She was coming home. She was extricating herself and Alex from that husband her family regarded as a useless brute.

But two days later the phone rang again. It was late Saturday night, the eleventh of December 2004. The hardly ever heard from son-in-law on the line.

Kevin Keenan: We were in bed already.

Tammy Keenan: We just thought something' was wrong.  He didn't even sound upset or anything.  He just, you know, "Hey, this is Tim.  Is Julia there?"  "No."  "Have you seen her?"  "No."  "Okay, goodbye."  Didn't say she was missin'. Didn't say - 

Dennis Murphy: Nothing in his voice, in particular?

Tammy Keenan: Can't find her.  No.  Not sounding upset, anything

Kevin Keenan: Right then and there, I knew I'd never see Julia again.

Dennis Murphy: Just by hearing his voice?  The fact that he called you?

Tammy Keenan: We knew something was wrong.

Julia Dawson was missing, and she didn't have the children with her.

Sparta, Mich., north of Grand Rapids, isn't a big place. And when the police come upon a minivan left in an otherwise deserted parking lot at 1:30 on a Sunday morning--as they did on Dec. 12, 2004--they check it out.

Andy Milankowski is chief of a five-officer department.

Chief Andy Milanowski: Everybody always says nothing happens, but it they spent a week with us, they'd find out that a lot more happens here.

The minivan registration came back to an owner on Maple Street just a few blocks away. The town patrol officer continued on rounds until his 911 dispatcher rolled him to that very same address on Maple Street associated with the abandoned vehicle he'd spotted.

The homeowner on Maple Street, Tim Dawson, had reported his wife missing earlier that morning.

Police: Sparta police.

Tim Dawson: Yes, I think I need to file a missing person report.

Police: OK. Who's missing?

Tim Dawson: My wife, Julia Dawson.

The Sparta police officer pulling into the driveway was about to start an investigation that would consume the little town for years to come. The facts didn't look good from the get-go. A wife already missing 12-hours, an abandoned vehicle.

Officer: What can I help you with?

Tim Dawson: My wife left me a while ago and she's not home.

Dawson told the officer he'd last seen his wife Julia about four o'clock Saturday afternoon. She was going to meet a friend for Christmas shopping at the mall. The husband said she never returned.

Officer: Was there a fight of some sort, or some reason why she left?

Tim Dawson: No, she went shopping.

The officer was taking down Dawson's complaint but also checking things out.

Dennis Murphy: What did he see when he went inside, chief?

Andy Milanowski: There was a carpet cleaner.  And it was torn apart at the time.

Six o'clock Sunday morning, and the husband was spot-cleaning an otherwise filthy kitchen carpet with bleach. He said the dog had made a mess.

Officer: You didn't see her leave then?

Tim Dawson: No, 'cause I fell asleep at about a quarter-after-four -- four o'clock.

Julia, he said, left in their green minivan and didn't come back. Never called. She'd left him alone with their 18-month old son, Alex. That night he said he phoned around to her friends and family.  Nothing.

The police officer didn't tell Dawson that he'd come across the family's minivan parked a few blocks away. He told the husband to keep in touch. Then despite the early Sunday morning hour, the cop called his chief at home right away to fill him in.

Dennis Murphy: you met Dawson before?

Andy Milanowski: Yes.

Dennis Murphy: And you had some opinions about his character.

Andy Milanowski: Yes.

Chief Milanowski's officers had been to Dawson's house before. He'd reported a burglary in his home two years earlier. The Chief believed--but could not prove--that Dawson had staged the burglary as an insurance fraud.

Now the wife was missing and for the chief, it was starting to get personal. Chief Milanowski knew Julia Keenan Dawson. She had baby-sat for him in high school. He played in a softball league with her mother.

Andy Milanowski: My first instinct is he killed his wife.

Dennis Murphy: This is a three, four-hour old missing person complaint at this point.  And you thought she was gone.

The sun was up now on that Sunday morning. Julia's sister Katie-Jo woke to a ringing phone.

Katie Jo Keenan: I get a phone call at seven o'clock in the morning.  And that's what woke me up. And it was my mom. And she was absolutely hysterical.

Lifelong friend Stacey Raisanen was alarmed too.

Stacey Raisanen: She was a very good mom. She would never disappear.  She always kept in close contact with everybody.

Chief Milanowski decided just hours in that he was going to need help from the county detective’s office. Three sheriffs’ investigators were assigned.

Captain Mark Fletcher took the command.

Mark Fletcher: We received the first call that afternoon.

Right away he had his crime scene techs process the family's minivan discovered in the nearby parking lot.

Mark Fletcher: We processed that vehicle with a fine-toothed comb.  It was printed, it was checked for DNA.

Dennis Murphy: And what did you find in the vehicle when you processed it?

Mark Fletcher: Behind the passenger seat, was Julia's purse, which did not appear to be disheveled in any manner.

Dennis Murphy: So whatever this had been, it hadn't been about a robbery?

Randy Keift: No.  Her cell phone was in the purse.  So there was also a gas can on the passenger floor.

There was a torch lighter and a spotlight, too. Meanwhile, the two lead detectives, Randy Keift and Russ Larson, headed over to 141 Maple Street for an talk with Tim Dawson.

Randy Kieft: His story was that/did some shopping together-- early Saturday morning.  And then they returned home, had lunch, which consisted of leftover Subway sandwich. Mr. Dawson told us that he had laid down on the couch for a nap, and some time during that nap Julia had left, and she had never returned home.

Dawson went on to give the detectives a detailed description of the route he took later that night when he says he bundled Alex into his car seat and began searching for his wife around the shopping malls to the south of Sparta.

While Dawson fielded questions, Detective Russ Larson took a look around the house.

Dennis Murphy: You seeing anything?

Russ Larson: At that point there had been a lot of cleaning that had been done.

Dennis Murphy: Smell-of-bleach kind of thing?  Cleaning fluids?

Russ Larson: In the midst of this carpet that's, you know, has stains everywhere, there's a nice, little clean spot that it's obvious that had been bleached.  That was a big red flag.

The very next day beside a highway north of Sparta, Julia's coat was found by passers-by. In the days ahead the familiar rituals of searching for someone loved, and lost, played out.

A missing person poster amidst the Christmas decorations, Julia reduced to her vitals. Five foot eight, blue eyes, brown hair.

Dozens of volunteers took to wintry roads and snow-covered fields looking for a trace of the young mother of two. Julia's sister and father became the faces of one family's anguish.

Kevin Keenan: It's been so exhausting.  You just wake up every five minutes thinking about her.

There were prayer vigils.

Tammy Keenan: Know that god has his arms around her where ever she is keeping her safe until we can find out what's going on.

And, just before Christmas, came a televised appeal for help from Julia's son from an earlier relationship, Kevin.

Reporter: What do you want to say?

Kevin Keenan: Go find my mom.

Katie Jo Keenan: There wasn't an option not to find her, whether it be dead or alive.

Tim Dawson was conspicuously absent from the volunteer searches. When people with bloodhounds approached him for a piece of Julia's clothing for a scent, he turned them away. The police, meanwhile, had Dawson quietly, squarely, in their scope. They hadn't revealed that they had recovered Julia's coat. Nor that they'd executed a search warrant executed on the Dawson house that turned up a $100,000 life insurance policy payable to Tim. And the investigators suspected that Dawson was being less than truthful about his whereabouts on the evening Julia vanished.

Dennis Murphy: When someone like that lies to you, what's going on?

Randy Kieft: there's one reason why he would have to lie about where he was the night his wife disappeared.  And that would be if he had anything to do with it.

As Christmas approached, the Keenans scraped together a small reward fund. Kevin Keenan just to make people look, the smallest thing just might help. But in their broken hearts, they knew.

Dennis Murphy: towards the end of December, what are you two thinking?

Tammy Keenan: Goin' crazy.

Kevin Keenan: I-- I didn't think we'd ever see Julia alive again.  Definitely, didn't think that.

Tammy Keenan: Didn't know if we'd ever find her.

Kevin Keenan: Didn't know if we could find her.

Tammy Keenan: Even a body.

Dennis Murphy: You didn't think she was alive?

Kevin Keenan: No.

The January thaw was coming.

It had been a snowy Michigan December. The guardrails piled high with frozen drifts from the plows. But just after the New Year came a thaw. A pedestrian was on an overpass when an object caught his eye.

Andy Milanowski: He said he observed somethin' on the side near the guardrail.  And as he got closer and he kept looking' at it and he thought it was a mannequin.

Julia Dawson had been missing for nearly four-weeks at that point.

Andy Milanowski: And then when he got right up to it, he realized it was really a body of a, of a naked woman.

Tammy Keenan: On January 2nd, they called, and said that they had found a body, and that they believed it was hers.  But they had to do an autopsy, but it matched.  She had a tattoo.

The missing wife and mother had been found.

She'd been dumped by the side of the road 20 miles north of her home in Sparta, Mich. Because the body had been so well-preserved in the snow, it told the medical-examiner a lot: that her last meal was consistent with the subway sandwich her husband said she'd had for lunch that day she was reported missing. And something else, her naked body was so clean it appeared to have been scrubbed before being left out in the elements. He was also confident that the body had been out on the side of the road, lying there since shortly after she was reported missing.

Randy Kieft: It was pretty clear to the medical examiner that it was a ligature strangulation that had caused the death.

Dennis Murphy: And you recovered a belt at the scene. Didn't you?

Randy Kieft: We did. It was-extremely consistent with the-- the width of the marks on her neck.

Dennis Murphy: So now you have exactly what you suspected right from the start.  You got a homicide.

Andy Milanowski: Yes.

Dennis Murphy: Dead, been murdered.

Andy Milanowski: Yes. Yeah.  And my suspicion just kept growing stronger that it was Tim.

Tim Dawson, the husband who spot-cleaned kitchen carpets before dawn and was known as a hitter, was not only the police's prime suspect in the murder, he was the parents' as well but they didn't want him to know that.

Julia's mother stood next to Tim at the funeral home as they made the official I.D. of the body.

Tammy Keenan: Hold his hand while he-- her body came into the funeral home. And it was the oddest thing he had the coldest, stiffest hand.  And we tried to cooperate.  And not give him the impression that he was really gettin' investigated.

Pastor Frank Graves: Family and friends, we begin this memorial service on behalf of Julia.

On Jan. 8 2005, hundreds of mourners packed Grand Rapids' Emmanuel Lutheran Church for Julia's funeral.

Pastor Frank Graves: There is a murderer among us. Maybe even in the sanctuary.

Dennis Murphy: The pastor said something chilling.

Kevin Keenan: He said, "There is a murderer amongst us. " It was just, boom, it just hit everybody in the whole church.

Tim Dawson had insisted that Julia's remains be cremated.

Katie Jo Keenan: We don't understand the push for cremations, and as long as we've known Julia, never once has that come up.

The detectives brought Dawson in for another round of questioning. They read him his rights again. He stuck by his story--Julia never returned from shopping--and the interrogators made it clear they didn't believe a word of it.

Detective: We were able to determine that she died that Saturday the 11th, sometime mid-to- late afternoon ... when she was at home, OK?

Tim Dawson: OK.

Detective: And the only two people that are at home is going to be you and her, Tim.

The detectives suggested to him that maybe Julia died during rough sex play, an accident he then covered up badly.

Detective: I know that you've lied, and you know that you lied.

Tim Dawson:  So you guys are saying that you think I killed her.

Detective: There's only two ways that this happened: either it was an accident 'cause again, we know that she died at home, we know when she died, and again, and again most importantly, we know how she died.

Randy Kieft: We wanted to present him with the lies that he had told us, and give him the opportunity to explain those lies. It was at that point that he decided he wasn't going to talk to us.

Tim Dawson: If this is the way the questions are going to go, I want to call my attorney.

If he'd done it, there wasn't going to be a confession.

Dennis Murphy: Did you put his house, him under surveillance?

Andy Milanowski: Yeah, we kept a running log of like where he was.

The detectives learned everything they could about Tim Dawson and found two suspicious fires in his past -- fires accompanied by insurance settlements. They heard accounts of an abusive first marriage.

The investigators decided they would follow Tim Dawson's comings and goings in real time.

Russ Larson: We had a GPS unit on his vehicle.  Through that we were able to locate a couple relationships he'd been in.

Dennis Murphy: The grieving husband has some very current girlfriends?

Russ Larson: Yes. We found two.

While Tim Dawson was meeting new women, Julia's parents were going to court. They wanted visitation rights with Alex, the grandchild Dawson had cut out of their lives.

Judge: The court does make a finding ...

They were successful. The family court let them see Julia's boy on a regular basis.

Kevin Keenan: It feels great, it's a victory for grandparents everywhere, anyone who's going through something like this.

It was that spring--the April after the January that Julia's body had been found, when a family member alerted police that Tim Dawson was trying to kill himself. He gobbled a handful of pills and drove to a local ball field.

As usual, one of the detectives was watching him drive as he tracked Dawson on his laptop.

Mark Fletcher: I knew exactly where he was. We directed the patrol officer right to his vehicle.

Dennis Murphy: So, your intervention saved his life?

Mark Fletcher: Potentially.

So you'd think that the dogged investigators would have had their suspect on the ropes at this point.

But when they took their case to the district attorney and showed him what they had, he doused it with cold water. It was a loser.

Andy Milanowski: He didn't think that he could win it in trial with what we had so far.  And we did.

Julia's parents begged the prosecutor to reconsider.

Tammy Keenan: He looked right at us and said, you know, "Maybe ten or 15 years he'll confess.  I think he did it.  I don't know if I'll ever prosecute him."

Kevin Keenan: that's what he told us.

Dennis Murphy: welcome to cold case land and maybe they'll crack him. Fifteen years down the line.

Tammy Keenan: Didn't give us a reason.

Kevin Keenan: Can't you at least try? We don't want to wait 15 years, can't we try?

Tim Dawson, meanwhile, had recovered nicely from his suicide attempt. He'd picked up his son, loaded up a motorhome and headed south, at least that's what the GPS told them till it crapped out.

The suspect husband was out of Dodge.

Russ Larson: Initially, it was panic.  We just lost our suspect to a homicide.  And there were a lot of sleepless nights, tryin' to figure out where he went. 

Was Julia's murder never to be avenged?

Julia Dawson had been strangled, her body dumped on the side of a wintry Michigan highway. But after ten months of digging, the prosecutor thought the case the detectives brought him was too thin to take to trial.

Dennis Murphy: You've got what you think is a pretty good case you'd be happy to take to a grand jury.  But the DA is not gonna green light it.  It's not going forward?

Andy Milanowski: Correct.

Julia's parents were at their wits end. Family friend and attorney Jane Dykema:

Jane Dykema: They despaired a lot. When Ken County backed out of it, it was- it, it was just --it's hard to describe how, how scary that was.

Julia's body had been encased in ice.

And now it appeared the investigation into her murder was following her into the deep freeze. Meanwhile, the only suspect in the killing, the victim's husband Tim Dawson, made a run for the sun, 1200 miles south.

He'd loaded a motor home with a few possessions and he and his by then two-year-son Alex headed to Texas--Kerrville--in the hill country west of the state capitol.

The Michigan detectives hadn't given up. They had been tracking Dawson for months by way of a GPS tracking device they'd secretly wired to his vehicle. But the gadget had failed on his way south.

Investigators caught a break when a lawman in Texas thought the guy living in a mobile home park with a young boy suspicious. The curious cop learned Dawson was from Grand Rapids and after a few calls up there, the Michigan detectives were soon back on Dawson's trail.

A bench warrant allowed them to rig another GPS device to Dawson's truck.

Dawson's RV was tied down and hooked-up in a mobile home park in Kerrville. And he had a new woman he was living with. Like the others she was young with a small child.

Now not only was Michigan following Dawson again, the eyes of Texas were upon him, too.

Dennis Murphy: Chief, tell me about the rest of 2005, 2006, about keeping' the faith with all of this thing.

Andy Milanowski: My main role was to keep in touch with the family.

Dennis Murphy: How many times can you say, "Trust us.  We're on it.  You're gonna get a result here?"

Andy Milanowski: I don't know how many times I said it, but I said it a lot.

But if the Michigan investigators were going to get any results, they need to shop around for a new prosecutor. So they decided to do a polite run around their local D.A.--they asked for his permission--and he agreed--to let them make their case before the state attorney general's office. It was January 2007 --Iulia had been dead for  two years--if the special investigations unit of the A.G.'s office turned them down too, then it was going to be say goodnight to the Julia Dawson murder file.

The west Michigan detectives drove down to Detroit for the first of a series of meetings with an assistant attorney general named Bill Rollstin.

Bill Rollstin: We met two or three times.  Looked over some of the physical evidence.  And it wasn't very long before-- we know we had the right man./once you understood his past history of violence towards women,and the the insurance proceeds, provided him with a 100,000 reasons to do what he did.

The Attorney General's office would take on the case.

Bill Rollstin: It took us about another 12 months to do more forensic evidence testing and review the 8,000 pages of documents.

Julia's parents had been doing more legal work themselves. Now that they knew Dawson was in Texas with their grandson Alex, they went back to the courts to reassert their right to visitations with the boy.

Once again, the court agreed with them.

Tammy Keenan: Finally, January 2006, we're allowed to see him.  We fly to Texas.  We're allowed visitation every three months for three days.

Dennis Murphy: How was Alex doing? What were you seeing there?

Tammy Keenan: He seemed to be fine. Happy little boy.

But how would they ever get Alex to be comfortable with them, with him living 1200 miles away being raised by a hostile former-in-law, a suspected murderer, and his latest girlfriend?

Maybe the answer would come from a major event in January of 2008, more than three-years after Julia's murder. The new A.G. on the case had delivered in a major way. The detectives finally had a piece of paper they thought they might never see: an arrest warrant for Tim Dawson.

The detectives and the small town chief packed their bags.

Randy Kieft: Three of us, and Chief Andy Milanowski, went to Kerrville, Texas, to make the arrest on the suspect.

Kerrville sheriff's deputies in unmarked vehicles surrounded Dawson's trailer park. Dawson pulled in after work and the deal went down, as they say in Texas.

Randy Kieft: The vice unit boxed 'im in.  Told 'im that he was under arrest.  He asked, "What for?" They told 'im for murder.

Dennis Murphy: No resistance?

Randy Kieft: No resistance whatsoever.

Detective: Hello, Tim.

Tim Dawson: Hi.

Detective: Probably didn't expect to see us, did ya?

Tim Dawson: No, sir.

Dennis Murphy: You make one phone call up here, don't you?

Andy Milanowski: Yeah.

Dennis Murphy: Who'd you call?

Andy Milanowski: Tammy.

Dennis Murphy: She'd been waiting for that call for a long, long time.

Andy Milanowski: Oh, she sure was.  I was waitin' to make it.  Gosh, i'm sorry.

Dennis Murphy: Remember what you told ‘em, chief?

Andy Milanowski: I said, "Tammy, we got him.  He's arrested.  He's at the jail." It was very emotional for me 'cause I dealt with her for three years.

Dawson waived extradition and was returned to Michigan.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox:

Mike Cox: Today we are announcing first degree premeditated murder charges against her husband.

Judge: All rise.

On Jan. 31, 2008, in the same courthouse where he and Julia had been married, Tim Dawson heard the state's charges against him.

Judge: Homicide, premeditated, first degree.

The cops were confident they had their man, but now -- without a lick of DNA, hair or fingerprint evidence -- a prosecutor would have to try and prove it to a jury.

In October 2008 -- nearly four years after her body was discovered beside a highway -- Julia Dawson's husband Tim went on trial for her murder in the Kent County Courthouse. He'd pleaded not guilty.

Michigan assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin laid out the state's case -- it was an uphill battle heavy on circumstantial evidence -- light on eyewitnesses.

Bill Rollstin: Tim Dawson decided to kill his wife rather than go through a second divorce.

The prosecution introduced jurors to Julia as a dying woman.

Dr. David Start, Medical Examiner: The cause of death is ligature strangulation with blunt force head injury.

...the last moments in a bleak marriage, as co-workers understood it.

Bill Rollstin: Did she ever express to you whether she was happy in her marriage?

Carla Everingham, co-worker: Yes, she was not happy.

Bill Rollstin: What did you hear Mr. Dawson say to her?

Lisa Wright: You b*tch, you better be by yourself.

Jessica Bush: She came to work with a black eye. She said that he called her a fat pig.

A wife, the court heard, who was abused every time she opened her cell phone. It had been programmed by her husband:

Bill Rollstin: The “My information” section contains the name contains the name "fat slut," is that correct?

Detective: That's correct.

It was another phone, the prosecution argued, that gave the lie to Dawson's alibi: that he'd been home napping and studying when Julia died.

His cell phone log said otherwise:

Bill Rollstin: Does the time of that call agree with Mr. Dawson’s story about sleeping at that time?

Keift: It does not.

Dawson had also told detectives -- in great detail -- how  he drove south of town looking for Julia. But cell tower signals put him north.

Bill Rollstin: The phone call that was made at 11:46 places Mr. Dawson very near where her coat was found?

Fletcher:  Yes sir, up in this cell district. He said he was down here. The phone call that was made puts him here, not there.

Could the cell tower data be wrong? Not according to a phone company tech:

Michael Avery, Verizon Engineer: There are so many other sites around here that are much much closer, that the chance is, you know, basically zero.

The cops told the jury about how they drove and timed the route they believed Tim Dawson took that night to prove he had enough time to dump her body and get back home.

Bill Rollstin: How long did it take you to drive up to where Julia's body was dumped and return to Tim Dawson's home on 141 Maple?

Fletcher: 56 minutes and 15 seconds.

To button up its timeline of the crime, the prosecution put on an eyewitness --a chiropractor who officed near the Dawsons--he testified to what he saw around 6:30 the evening Julia disappeared.

Dr. George Freeland: I saw a gentleman walk by that window.

Bill Rollstin: Do you see the gentleman in court today?

Dr. George Freeland: Yes, I do.

Bill Rollstin: Can you point him out for us?

Dr. George Freeland: It's Mr. Tim Dawson right there.

And by the way jurors, said the prosecution, he was having Valentine's Day sex with another woman just a month after burying his wife.

Theresa Cole: We went back to my place.

Bill Rollstin: Who's idea was that?

Theresa Cole: Probably both of us.

It was building a circumstantial case, the prosecution bundled it all together: the suspicious stuff found in the family van; the gas can, torch lighter and spotlight they argued that Dawson had used to destroy evidence. And most importantly, that spot-cleaned stain on the kitchen carpet, the very spot, the state theorized that Julia Dawson crumpled to her death.

The prosecution was hammering away at the accused and to the portrait of a controlling abusive husband they added a detail about that insurance money. Julia had a policy payable to him of $100,000 upon her death. Curiously someone called the insurance company just one day after Julia went missing: an anonymous caller who knew before anyone else that Julia Dawson was no longer alive.

Tesha Peterman, Auto-Owners Insurance Co.: Please suspend the policy for Julia Dawson as she has passed away. Thanks you and signed my name.

Rallston: Is there anybody who would be able to get you to suspend the policy other than the agent, the owner or the beneficiary?

Tesha Peterman: No.

Had the state made its case beyond a reasonable doubt? Not as the defense re-spun the evidence.

In Dawson's corner, veteran defense attorney Charles Rominger would be attacking the weakness in the people's case. What it couldn't show the jurors:

Chuck Rominger: There was no finding of fibers, there was no finding of hair, there was no finding of DNA specimens, on anything.

As for the stained kitchen carpet? Jurors you need to know the Dawson had a dog and sometimes had to clean-up after its messes.

And there was something the prosecution wasn't telling you about that family van, argued the defense: that crime scene techs had found both an unexplained fingerprint and some mystery DNA.

Rominger:  So the DNA you found and analyzed remains attached to a mystery donor, for lack of a better description,  correct?

Anne Hunt, Mich. State Police Forensic Scientist: Two mystery donors at least.

And on Julia's body there was a total lack of evidence that might have explained who'd done this to her.

Romminger: Did you find anything?

Sgt.Sally Wolter, Mich. State Police: No.

Rominger: Nothing.

Wolter: No.

As for the chiropractor neighbor who'd pointed out Tim Dawson as the man he'd seen walking that night... under defense cross-examination, he conceded he'd seemed less certain of his I.D. back when police had showed him an array of photos.

Rominger: Quote, "i'm not sure". End of quote. Did you say that?

Doctor Freeland: that was the first part of it, yes.

Rominger: Did you say that?

Doctor Freeland: I did, yes.

Rominger: You go on to say, if I had to make a guess, guess, number 5?

Doctor Freeland: That's correct.

Then in a strange twist, a hint that there may have been more to Julia's lifestyle, was reluctantly introduced by that woman who ran the bridal salon and had refused to sell Julia a wedding dress.

Dwin Dykma had put up a notice on a website asking people to be aware that Julia was missing. The website was a forum for the local S&M scene.

Dwin Dykma: It's a kinky lifestyle group,

Rominger: A kinky lifestyle group. Are you a member of that group?

Dwin Dykma: I am a member of that group.

The defense used the web posting to suggest Julia had a secret, alternative lifestyle that may have led to her death:

Rominger: She loved the Internet, and was kind of a kinky girl.

Sexual adventuring gone wrong? Abducted while shopping?

Something very bad happened to Julia Dawson, argued the defense, but it wasn't the husband Tim who'd done it. No evidence could link him to her murder.

In fact, the defense argued, Julia's body may have been left on the roadside only a few days before it was discovered --not within the prosecution's timeline that had her buried in the snow for nearly a month. 

Called to the stand were a stroller, dog walker and county worker who traveled that stretch of highway in the days that Julia was still regarded as a missing person, who, according to the defense should have discovered her, even with the snow cover.

Rominger: Between Dec. 11 and Dec. 20th, did you discover the remains of Julia Dawson?

Louis Lincoln: No.

Rominger: Did you ever see a dead woman?

Silvia Gable: No.

Rominger: Ever observe anything unusual on the embankment?

Alan Moore: No.

Maybe someone in a tricked out red car had had something to do with the murder. A witness who lived across the street from the park where Julia's van was found said he spotted one near the parked van days before Julia was reported missing.

Ervin Barnard, neighbor: There was a lady and a man that come out and stood by the van a few minutes and talked.

And a private detective testified that he may have seen that same car, parked this time outside the bridal salon of the woman who posted on the S&M website.

Paul Mardirosian, Private Investigator: I thought, is this the red vehicle that we've been all along looking for, you know, the one that Mr. Barnard had seen in the park earlier?

Had the defense planted seeds of doubt?

Now the jurors would have to weigh the testimony of 80 witnesses and 165 exhibits presented over three weeks time.

The murder trial of Tim Dawson took three weeks...The jury deliberated for less than seven hours. Families of the defendant and the victim squeezed into the packed courtroom.

Mr. Forman, what is your verdict?

Forman: We the jury find the defendant, Timothy Allen Dawson, guilty of first degree murder.

Tammy Keenan: We knew that when this day came, one way or another, this would finally have some closure. That this would be an end to whatever the outcome, it was a good thing.

A month later, Tim Dawson was back in court to hear his sentence. Julia's mother was allowed to read a statement first.

Tammy Keenan: The pain he has caused will never be gone for any of us.

Then, as an impassive Tim Dawson stood and listened, a child psychologist who treated three of his children and step- children read their messages to him.

Psychologist Juliana Shaper: This is from Kevin. "Why did you kill my mom?  Why did you put us through this?  Every day, it feels horrible to not have a mom. I feel sad I did not protect Mom from you.”This is from Britney.  She's 12.  "Dad, why didn't you get help? Why did you kill Julia?  Why did you move and take Alex?  Why did you lie to us?”

Dawson, who never took the stand during his trial, finally spoke.

Tim Dawson: I'm innocent.  I did not commit this crime.  I know that one day that will be proven.  And until then, i hope the pain is taken out of their hearts and that god blesses them all.  Thank you.

Unswayed, Judge James Redford threw the book at him, imposing Michigan's mandatory sentence for first degree murder.

Judge Redford: Timothy Dawson, it is my duty as the judge of this court to sentence you for the premeditated and deliberate murder of your wife, Julia Dawson, to be incarcerated in the department of corrections for your life without any possibility of parole.

Jayne Dykema: Initially, of course, it was just huge relief that finally he's going to pay for what he's done.  But then also what about Alex? 

Alex, the now five-year old son of Julia and Tim Dawson had been living in Kerrville, Texas for the past four years. Tammy and Kevin Keenan wanted their grandson back. Tim Dawson's most recent girlfriend had physical custody of the boy, and she showed every indication of keeping him.

Family attorney and friend Jane Dykma.

Jane Dykema: We immediately filed a suit affecting the parent-child relationship, asking for custody.

A Texas court ruled for the Keenans, the grandparents were awarded custody -- and a joyful reunion of alex and his step-siblings took place at Grand Rapids' Gerald Ford International Airport.

Today Tammy and Kevin are raising Alex. They have had the first of what promises to be many difficult conversations with him.

Dennis Murphy: Does he know about his mom?  About your daughter, now? 

Tammy: I wish that he would never have to hear how she died. We sat down with him, and-- talked to him that his dad just made some bad choices.  And when you do that, you have to answer to them, and are punished sometimes.  And jail's school, is what he was told.  It's where you go to learn to make better choices.  And he's gonna be there.

Tim Dawson has appealed the life sentence he had begun serving at the Michigan penitentiary in Saginaw. And there's a new start for little Alex in a home outside Grand Rapids.

Tim Dawson: There's an angel wind chime that hangs over the bed, and I would always kind of touch it when I would walk out the room.  And I'd say, "Good night, Julia."  And-- I explained to Alex what the wind chime was.  And I think it was the fourth day, I kind of said goodnight to him, and turned lights off, and walked by and hit the wind chime.  And I said, "Goodnight, Julia."  And I was turning to walk down the hallway.  And-- I heard him go, "Goodnight, Mom."  So, he-- he knows that that's his mom.  He knows his mom's in heaven.

Dennis Murphy: And that wind chime is her voice.

Tammy Keenan:  Yeah.  And he talks about his mom now instead of just her name. 

Mom. Julia who died young. A woman who tried to get out, but never quite made it.