THE MITTEN’S MOST WANTED:
True Crime Featurettes
*This page is updated regularly.
THE MAYOR’S DAUGHTER
Usually when the child of a politician is kidnapped, it’s the plot of a bad action movie. But when the teenage daughter of newly retired Lansing Mayor Max Murninghan disappeared on July 9, 1970, it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Murninghans had just returned from a 4th of July vacation to New Hampshire, and this photo of a sunkissed Laurie was taken before she left for work on that fateful day.
Laurie had a part-time job at Gallagher’s Gifts and Antiques near the corner of Saginaw and MLK, where the patio area of El Azteco Restaurant now sits.
Mid-afternoon, a man entered the store and attempted to rob it. He got into a struggle with the owner, Mrs. Gallagher, and struck the elderly woman in the head with his gun. The gun went off and Mrs. Gallagher hit the floor, unconscious. Fearing he’d killed her, he couldn’t leave the only witness, 16-year-old Laurie, behind. He took the $64 cash that was in the register and absconded with Laurie in broad daylight, in one of the busiest areas in town.
But the man had no idea who Laurie was, or the lengths the city would go to to find her. Her father took up constant vigil at the Lansing Police Department. The FBI launched the largest manhunt in their history. Multiple agencies searched relentlessly for the missing girl.
All that manpower was for naught, however, as it was two young boys who discovered Laurie’s body in a swamp while they were out collecting soda cans on a rural country road.
The murder of the mayor’s daughter is one of the oldest cold cases in Lansing, although Laurie’s family maintains that the killer’s identity has been known all along. They claim that a career criminal and police informant, out of jail only because of his connections, committed the crime. That man died several years ago in California, without being held responsible for the death of Laurie Murninghan.
MICHIGAN’S TED BUNDY
Donald Eugene Miller was the quintessential boy next door. Born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, he was clean-cut and polite. A devoutly religious youth pastor and criminal justice major at Michigan State University, Don played the trombone in his college marching band and was known for his odd taste in attire. He also had a deadly fear of rejection, was obsessed with theghost of his dead fiancée, and would eventually be dubbed “Michigan’s Own Ted Bundy” by the media.
Miller’s first victim was his ex-fiancee, Martha Sue Young. She disappeared on New Year’s Eve 1976, just two days after she’d called off their engagement. After begging Martha Sue to go out with him that night, Donald Miller strangled her to death in his 1973 Olds Cutlass when she told him she didn’t love him anymore. He claimed to have dropped her off at home safely after their date, but was the prime suspect in her disappearance from the beginning. In the two and a half years between the night Martha Sue went missing and the day Miller led police to her remains in a Clinton County field, he would kill three more times.
A year and a half after Martha Sue disappeared, Miller set his sites on Marita Choquette, a Grand Ledge woman who reminded him of his former fiancée. The two women were the same height, same weight, and had the same wavy, shoulder-length brown hair and dark-framed glasses. Both women were very religious, and attended MSU. And both women met the same fate when they rejected Donald Miller. He strangled Marita Choquette in his car after taking her to breakfast one morning, then dumped her body in a field out in Holt, where it was discovered by a farmer two weeks after she went missing.
The same day Marita Choquette’s body was found, Wendy Bush disappeared from her Case Hall dorm. She too was a religious MSU co-ed who’d gone on a date with Donald Miller. He strangled her in the Spartan Stadium parking lot after she turned down his advances. He dumped her body in a ditch in Delta Township near where Our Savior Lutheran Church now stands.
Two months later, the wolf in sheep’s clothing was on his way home from work when he spotted a ghost. The petite woman with wavy, shoulder-length brown hair and big, dark rimmed glasses walking down the sidewalk near his home had to be Martha Sue Young. He ran her down with his car, then threw her into the backseat and began to strangle her, demanding to know how she was still alive. Only once he’d killed the woman did he realize that it wasn’t Martha Sue. It was his neighbor, Kristine Stuart, a Lansing school teacher.
Just two days after Kristine Stuart went missing, Donald Miller preyed upon his final victims. On August 16, 1978, he attacked a teenage girl in her Delta Township home after gaining entry by knocking on the door and asking to borrow a pencil and paper. Unaware that the girl was not alone, he was caught off-guard when her younger brother interrupted the attack. As he turned his rage on the boy, the girl escaped the house and was able to flag down help. Several people saw Miller flee from the home, and he was arrested later that day. Both teens survived.
Miller struck a plea deal with prosecutors that stunned the community. In exchange for a shockingly light sentence, he revealed the locations of his victims’ bodies. Martha Sue Young, Wendy Bush, and Kristine Stuart were all still classified as missing at the time, and their families desperately wanted closure. As a result, serial killer Donald Eugene Miller had his first parole hearing just TEN YEARS after his sentencing. He has been up for parole several times since then, each time being denied. His petition for parole will likely be reviewed again in 2021, when he is 66 years old.
THE STRYCHNINE SAINT OF MICHIGAN
It’s been said that poison is a woman’s weapon. And while statistics prove that femme fatales typically use the same instruments as their male counterparts to exact their crimes (guns and knives being at the top of that list), there have been a number of female serial killers over the years that have used poison to kill. In England in the late 1800s, Mary Ann Cotton is believed to have killed upwards of 20 people with arsenic, including 11 of her own children. In the south, Nannie Doss killed close to a dozen people from the 1920s through the 1950s using rat poison. And in Michigan, there was Mary McKnight, who used strychnine as her weapon of choice to kill her entire family.
Born Mary Murphy, the future serial killer was born and raised in Kalkaska, Michigan. From 1887-1903, dozens of people died in her care, including: at least five of her own children, two husbands, the wife of her first husband’s business partner (and the first wife of her second husband), several infants and toddlers that were either related to her or the children of friends, her teenage niece, her sister, and finally her brother John Murphy, his wife Gertrude, and their baby.
All of Mary’s victims were poisoned with strychnine capsules that she often disguised as medicine. Many of them were ill and under her care at the time of their death. And all of them exhibited the same symptoms: twitching convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and excruciating pain. Until the deaths of the Murphy family, it was simply considered bad luck that so many people around Mary fell ill and died. Once investigators began to suspect foul play, Mary confessed pretty easily. She was sentenced to life in prison, but was released on parole after just 18 years. If estimates are accurate, that’s just one year in prison for each of her victims.
Suggested motives for the McKnight murders include money, jealousy, and mental illness. But one acquaintance claimed it was much simpler than that, saying: “She killed because she liked to go to funerals.”
THE WINDSOR WIFE SLAYER
The Wacousta Cemetery just northwest of Lansing dates back to the Civil War. Nestled among the thousands of aging headstones are those of the Lonsberry family- father William and mother Sarah, buried side by side, surrounded by several of their children. On a hilltop above the Looking Glass River, it’s a peaceful resting spot for a pioneer family. But if those graves could talk, they would tell a ghastly tale.
On a hot July day in 1911, an Eaton County Deputy found himself in the company of a frail 85 year old woman by the name of Mary Lonsberry. She was in poor health, terrified, and desperate to tell a story about her son William that the entire community would soon know by heart.
William “Edgar” Lonsberry was born in Victory, New York in 1849. He married Sarah Wing when he was just 19, and the two moved to Michigan shortly after. They raised a family in Wacousta for many years before purchasing an 80 acre farm near Dimondale with the help of Sarah’s father. Their first home on the farm was a small stone shack, but they later built a much larger house. The couple had nine children together, six of whom lived to adulthood. After the children grew up and moved away, The Lonsberrys brought William’s elderly mother to live with them, and the three kept to themselves in the community.
William and Sarah had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship, often resulting in Sarah leaving home for weeks at a time. So no one thought much of it when she disappeared on New Year’s Day 1905. But when she didn’t return after a few weeks, eyebrows were raised. William told everyone she’d left him and run away to Canada. While most of the family, including son Herman who lived on the property adjacent to his parents, believed William’s story, not everyone was convinced. Sarah’s eldest son from a previous marriage and her and William’s youngest son Floyd were both convinced that William had murdered their mother. This accusation tore the family apart, and Sarah’s disappearance remained unsolved. The truth about what happened to her was hiding in plain sight, in the shack behind the house that was once the family home. But it would not come to be known until six years later.
According to William’s mother, Mary Lonsberry, the three were in the shack on New Year’s Day when William and Sarah began to quarrel over the deed to their farm. As Sarah’s father had financed the property, he was insistent that the deed be in her name to protect his investment. William felt that, as the man of the house, the deed should be in his name. Ownership of the land was a common source of contention for the aging couple, but on this day, William gave his wife an ultimatum- sign the deed over, or he would kill her. When she refused, he flew into a rage and choked her “until her eyes bulged out.” He then tossed her limp body to the ground, causing her to hit her head on a ceramic crock. She bled to death on the floor of the shack as her frightened mother-in-law looked on.
Afraid that his mother would turn him in, William locked her in the shack and kept her prisoner there for the next six years. He nailed one of the doors shut and barred the other from the outside. She spent day after day locked inside the blood-stained shack, tormented by the death of her beloved daughter-in-law, and tortured by her evil son, who abused and threatened her daily. Once, she escaped the shack and was making her way to a neighboring farm when William caught her and attempted to rip her tongue from her mouth with his bare hands. When neighbors heard her screaming, William explained that he was simply trying to get her back into the house and she was throwing a fit. When neighbors asked why she wasn’t allowed to leave, he said it was because she “told such awful stories.”
For over six years, Mary Lonsberry endured brutal treatment at the hands of her son before finding refuge with a shocked sheriff’s deputy, to whom she told her awful story. He took her into his home to keep her safe, and William was promptly arrested. William denied killing his wife, and maintained that she’d left him and moved to Canada. The children that stood by him all those years continued to believe him. Even though the floor of the shack behind the family home was stained with their mother’s blood. Even though their grandmother bore the physical scars of her son’s abuse. Even though the only other two possible witnesses to the crime, Lonsberry’s next door neighbors, died in a suspicious accident when their boat capsized in the Grand River near the Lonsberry property.
And then police found the body. Buried just two feet beneath the earth in the family’s sheep shed, Sarah Lonsberry’s decomposing corpse was found encased in lime. William had been walking across his wife’s crude burial site multiple times a day for years to tend to his animals, as had the couple’s son Herman, who often helped on the farm. The remains of Sarah Lonsberry were buried at Wacousta Cemetery beside three of her children that had died in their youth. William Lonsberry was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was sensationalized in the media, and William became known as “The Dimondale Murderer” and “The Windsor Wife Killer.”
Still, his sons stood by him. They maintained that their grandmother was insane, and that their mother had been a “she-tiger” who often flew at their father in violent rages. He’d only killed her in self-defense. After the trial, Mary Lonsberry was sent to live with the grandsons who spoke so ill of her. She died less than a year later under suspicious circumstances. When police arrived to investigate, they found that her body had already been embalmed and prepared for burial, erasing any evidence of foul play.
When William Lonsberry died 20 years after murdering his wife, he was buried beside her in the family plot at Wacousta Cemetery. Father and Mother. Together forever.
THE WOLF OF NORTH FOX ISLAND
When he first purchased North Fox Island, an 840 acre patch of dense forest in the northern waters of Lake Michigan, millionaire philanthropist Francis Shelden took seven whitetail deer with him, purchased from a farm in Charlotte, MI. He hoped to establish a whitetail population on his private island. When the deer began to overrun the land, he spoke of bringing wolves in to balance things out. But there was already a wolf on North Fox Island. And it wasn’t interested in deer as prey.
An heir to the Detroit Edison fortune, Ann Arbor native Francis Shelden was an investor, a pilot, a Yale graduate, and a geologist- among other things. He was on the board of directors at Cranbrook Boarding School, and volunteered regularly at Big Brothers of America. And then in 1960, when he was just 32 years old, he bought his own island. Located in the depths of Lake Michigan between the upper and lower peninsulas about 30 miles northwest of Charlevoix, Shelden claimed he intended to turn the island into a resort. He razed the forest to put in an airstrip, and built a sleek glass and timber home atop a dune. He paved roadways and sectioned off the land into individual parcels. But the resort never opened. And Shelden’s true intentions for North Fox Island would not be revealed until years later.
In December 1975, Francis Shelden and North Fox Island were featured in a lengthy article in the Detroit Free Press. He shared that he had changed his mind about the resort and intended to keep the island private, as a nature preserve and hunting camp for himself and a few close friends. What the in-depth article failed to reveal was that in June of 1975, Shelden incorporated an organization called Brother Paul’s Children’s Mission. Touted as a nature and rehabilitation program for troubled youth, the organization was geared toward boys from ages 12-15, mostly from poor neighborhoods near Detroit. Shelden used government subsidies and donations from the public to fly juvenile delinquent teenage boys from southern Michigan to his private island up north for a week of rest, relaxation, and rehabilitation.
In reality, North Fox Island was being used as a base for an international child pornography ring. For over a year, Francis Shelden preyed on young boys from poor communities, taking them to his secluded island where his millionaire friends would fly in to help him manufacture, observe, and take part in the production of child pornography. The truth about Brother Paul’s Children’s Mission began to unravel when a school teacher in Port Huron was arrested for crimes against children in July 1976. He was found in possession of material produced on North Fox Island, and pointed the finger at Francis Shelden as the ringleader.
Shelden fled the country before he could be apprehended, as did the rest of his millionaire friends implicated in the scandal. An entire network of wealthy, influential men avoided prosecution for their crimes against hundreds of Michigan teenagers, perpetrated under the guise of community service. Only one of the men, the school teacher from Port Huron, was ever sent to prison. He served two years.
North Fox Island is now owned by the state, and is advertised as a nature preserve. The infamous airstrip through the center of the island is still intact. Francis Shelden is believed to have died in the Netherlands after many years in hiding. Most of his accomplices were never caught, although one, a young man by the name of Christopher Busch, became known for another reason entirely. But that’s a story for another time…