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Aviation experts dispute plane theory used to convict Michigan’s ‘ninja killer’

Letters written in support of prisoner Temujin Kensu’s bid for clemency raise questions about expert testimony in his 1987 trial.
Temujin Kensu.
Left: a prison photo of Temujin Kensu taken shortly after he was convicted of the 1986 murder of Scott Macklem. Right: Kensu in 2018.Family photo; Michigan Department of Corrections

Three aviation experts have written letters to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in support of a bid for clemency by a state prisoner nicknamed the “ninja killer,” who has been fighting to overturn his murder conviction for more than 30 years.

The letters, which were delivered to Whitmer’s office by Temujin Kensu’s legal team on Dec. 5, cast doubt on the sensational theory presented at trial that the then-23-year-old could have chartered a private plane to fly him from one end of the state to the other, shot the victim and returned home without leaving a trace.

“It’s so improbable it’s unbelievable,” said Harvey Setter, 82, who wrote one of the letters. Setter, now retired, managed the Delta County Airport in Escanaba, Michigan, between 1982 and 1999.

The two other letters were written by the former owner of an airport service station and a commercial pilot, who both offered a similar assessment to Setter’s, based on their knowledge of local airports connected to the case and past experience with the key witness behind the plane theory. The men say they were not previously contacted by authorities.

Image: A photograph contained in the case file shows an airplane landing in Escanaba, Mich. Detectives flew from Port Huron, Mich. to Escanaba while investigating the murder of Scott Macklem.
A photograph included in the case file shows an airplane landing in Escanaba, Mich. Detectives flew from Port Huron, Mich., to Escanaba while investigating the murder of Scott Macklem.

Kensu, now 60, has insisted since his arrest that he had nothing to do with the fatal shooting of Scott Macklem, 20, a student at St. Clair Community College, in a campus parking lot in 1986.

No physical evidence has ever connected Kensu to the murder. At trial, nine alibi witnesses placed him in Escanaba — more than 400 miles away from the crime scene — in the hours before and after the murder.

Yet Kensu was convicted of murder in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

IMage: Case file photographs of the scene where Scott Macklem was killed at St. Clair Community College.
Case file photographs of the scene where Scott Macklem was killed at St. Clair Community College.

Since his conviction, investigators and attorneys have uncovered additional evidence they say points to his innocence, including the recantation of a jailhouse informant’s testimony and additional alibi witnesses who did not testify at trial. Kensu’s case has been championed by high-profile supporters, including the late Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

The letters represent the newest evidence uncovered in the case in years.

But Mike Wendling, the current top prosecutor in St. Clair County, dismissed the plane theory as a “red herring.” Wendling said in an interview that he’s convinced the jurors convicted Kensu in part because they didn’t believe the alibi witnesses. Three other people testified at trial that they believed they saw Kensu, who went by Fred Freeman before he converted to Buddhism in prison, on campus the morning of the killing.

 “If you were to sit down and look at this case fresh again, Freeman would still be the leading suspect,” Wendling told NBC News.

Kensu’s appeals have been exhausted. He has also been denied clemency three times before, including by Whitmer. Last year, the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit declined to pursue his release on technical grounds, stating in a letter that there was “no new evidence that supports the factual innocence claim.” The unit did not make a determination regarding his innocence or guilt.

Kensu’s future now hangs on his current clemency application, which has been pending before the Michigan Parole Board since June 2022. Once the board reviews the application and issues a recommendation, it sends it to the governor, who has the final say.

Imran Syed, Kensu’s attorney and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said that the letters cast doubt not just on the plane theory itself, but on the credibility of the witness prosecutors used to convince jurors it was possible.

These are not people who have any interest in the case. They’re just experts who would know whether something like this was at all feasible,” Syed said. “And they’re very clear that it’s not.”

The letters, Syed added, build on other evidence presented to appellate courts and the Conviction Integrity Unit in the past that raised questions about the validity of the eyewitness testimony and other key parts of the prosecution’s case.

 “All of these things just add up to show that he simply didn’t do this, regardless of what procedural or technical reasons the courts may have had not to overturn this conviction in the past,” Syed said. “Hopefully, the governor’s office looks at this from a factual perspective. I think factually, with all the evidence presented, there’s simply no way he committed this crime, and then there’s just absolutely no reason he should remain in prison.”

During the trial, jurors heard witness testimony and statements made by St. Clair County Prosecutor Robert Cleland that Kensu, a martial arts practitioner, was violent, cunning and skilled in the art of mind control. Cleland argued that Kensu, who had previously dated Macklem’s fiance, killed the man out of jealousy.

Image: Case file photographs show various martial arts weapons collected during the investigation of Fred Freeman (Temujin Kensu).
Case file photographs show various martial arts weapons collected during the investigation of Fred Freeman (Temujin Kensu).

To rebut the alibi witnesses, Cleland, who is now a federal judge, called to the stand a pilot named Bob Evans, who testified that it was possible for Kensu to have chartered a plane and flown from Escanaba, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to Port Huron and back between 1:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. the day of the murder, which occurred shortly before 9 a.m. Several alibi witnesses testified at trial that they were with Kensu in Escanaba at those times.

Evans told the jury that private pilots often hung around airports waiting for potential customers.

“Somebody’s always willing to do it,” he said.

Evans has since died. Cleland never presented any evidence that such a flight happened, according to trial records.

Wendling, the current prosecutor, said he thinks his predecessor didn’t need to introduce the plane theory, which has been the subject of scrutiny for years, to convict Kensu.

“If I’m 30 years later, looking at this case and the media attention and the position that [Freeman] has taken, I’m thinking, ‘Why did I even mention the damn airplane?’” Wendling said.

But one juror, interviewed in 1995 by Detroit-based investigative journalist Bill Proctor, said that he was undecided until he heard Evans’ testimony.

“The prosecutor, Mr. Cleland, he explained to us that it was very possible,” the juror said, according to a video recording of the interview reviewed by NBC News. “He had time to come back here and to make the round trip. It doesn’t take long, if you are flying.”

Cleland did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Whitmer’s office said that the governor reviews applications after the state Parole Board issues a recommendation. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections said that neither it nor the Parole Board comments on active cases.

Setter, who managed the airport in Escanaba at the time Port Huron detectives were investigating the murder, said he doesn’t have an opinion about Kensu’s innocence and didn’t remember the case until he was contacted by Joshua Sharpe, an investigative journalist and Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.

Sharpe, whose work has helped lead to the release of two innocent people, tracked down Setter and the other men while working with the Michigan Innocence Clinic on Kensu’s case as part of his fellowship, which is focused on wrongful convictions.

At trial, a detective testified that he spoke with the manager of Escanaba’s airport during his investigation. The detective said that while the manager found no records of a flight taking off the day Macklem was killed, the manager said it was “possible” a plane could take off or land without logging the flight.

“I don’t remember anything about this thing,” Setter said in an interview. “Nobody talked to me.”

Setter questioned the theory that private pilots sat around at the small airport waiting for potential customers. At the time, the Delta County Airport offered both scheduled, but limited, commercial service to cities such as Detroit and Chicago, as well as unscheduled service by private pilots. But strict rules govern a private pilot’s ability to charter flights, he said.

“As far as people hanging around waiting for a flight, that’s highly unlikely,” he said.

Rick Orzel, 71, who ran services, including fuel and maintenance, for airplanes at the St. Clair County Airport in Port Huron at the time of the murder, said in his letter that a flight from Port Huron to Escanaba would have required fuel — but no detectives ever approached him asking for records of fuel sales, which he maintained for years.

Orzel, who was also close friends with Evans, the pilot who testified at trial, also said in an interview that the assertion that pilots hung out at airports waiting to pick up passengers was a “complete fabrication.”

The St. Clair County airport, he said, was so inactive that days would pass without a single airplane taking off.

“There weren’t any pilots hanging around at all, let alone hanging around for customers,” he said.

In his letter, Bob Thoms, 67, a flight instructor and commercial pilot who was lifelong friends with Evans, wrote that he was “not known for honesty.”

“He was a really good storyteller,” Thoms said in an interview. “Sometimes — let’s put it this way — you had to fact-check what he told you.”