Cold Case Files - Innocent Prey; The Punishment   View more episodes

Aired at 01:00 PM on Tuesday, Apr 06, 2010 (4/6/2010)      View all transcripts from this day


00:00:14>> KURTIS: On a gray night in February, a high-school freshman leaves her boyfriend's house and makes her way to the bus stop.
00:00:21Halfway down a lonely block, she notices a man walking behind her.
00:00:27The young girl crosses over to the other side of the street.
00:00:31The man follows.
00:00:34In a moment, the young girl is grabbed from behind, dragged off the sidewalk and into the backyard of an abandoned garage.
00:00:41>> He asked me have I ever had sex before, and I told him no.
00:00:47So he said, "Okay, I won't make you do much." After he was done, he stood me up and threw me to the ground, and I just laid there, and I watched him jump over the fence.
00:01:00And then I stood up and pulled my underwear and pants up.
00:01:04>> KURTIS: Janet Cha walks back to her boyfriend's house and calls police.
00:01:08>> I couldn't see his face because he wouldn't let me look at his face.
00:01:12But I know he was bald, you know, shaved head.
00:01:14He was about medium build, and he was about six feet.
00:01:20>> KURTIS: A nurse documents Cha's injuries and collects a semen sample.
00:01:26In 1997, in Portland, sexual assaults are prioritized.
00:01:30Those with a named suspect get a second look, those without get put on the shelf.
00:01:37Janet Cha's case is largely forgotten.
00:01:40The memories, however, remain.
00:01:42>> I thought it was just a dream, you know.
00:01:45And so I was telling my sister... I was calling out my sister's name, and I told her...
00:01:48I'll tell her to get off me.
00:02:04>> KURTIS: Two miles away, in another working-class neighborhood, 15-year-old Michelle Horst says good-bye to a friend and begins the short walk home.
00:02:14Five blocks later, a man rounds the corner and crosses her path.
00:02:18>> I, like, kind of glanced over at him and, you know, just like a friendly smirk-- you know, didn't want to be too friendly but... or didn't want to be rude and stuck up.
00:02:28So I just, you know, just kind of gave him a little... and that's when he came behind me and grabbed me.
00:02:35>> KURTIS: Michelle Horst is 5'2", her attacker in excess of six feet.
00:02:40He drags Michelle from the sidewalk and into a yard sheltered from street traffic.
00:02:45>> I couldn't breathe at all.
00:02:47I just felt like I was going to, like, literally pass out.
00:02:50>> KURTIS: The attacker forces Michelle to the ground and rapes her in the yard.
00:02:54Then he tells her to count to 100 and runs into the night.
00:03:00>> He told me that he wouldn't hurt me if I just cooperated, did what he said, and promised not to yell.
00:03:06So... and I did that-- scared.
00:03:10>> KURTIS: Scared, Horst stumbles to her friend's house and calls police.
00:03:16At the hospital, a rape kit is taken and semen collected.
00:03:20Detective Paul Larson meets the victim at the hospital.
00:03:25>> During my interview of her, she said that she didn't think that she could identify the individual.
00:03:31He was a black male.
00:03:32It was dark.
00:03:33>> KURTIS: Like Janet Cha before her, Michelle Horst's case has no identified suspect and is quickly tabled.
00:03:39No one yet recognizes the developing pattern of attack, the signature of a serial rapist.
00:03:46>> The sexual assault detail, if they have similar cases, then you know, they pursue it.
00:03:51But apparently there was nothing that was giving them an indication that there was another incident.
00:03:58>> KURTIS: Michelle Horst's case joins Janet Cha's in the cold files, two girls who attend the same high school never knowing they share the same pain.
00:04:118:15 AM, and the first bell rings for class at Jefferson High School.
00:04:1714-year-old Akilah Johnson is running late and picks up her pace.
00:04:22Less than a half mile from school, she happens across a man idling on a corner.
00:04:28>> He turned to ask me a question, and I answered his question.
00:04:32So at that time, I was just being a by-passer, a friendly by-passer.
00:04:39>> KURTIS: Seconds later, Johnson is a victim, dragged between two houses and choked unconscious.
00:04:46>> I woke up crying, blurry eyed, foggy eyed.
00:04:51I swear I seen clouds and everything-- I'm serious-- when I woke up.
00:04:56But then after everything cleared out from that, then he was there on top of me.
00:05:01>> KURTIS: The rape ends as suddenly as it began, Johnson's attacker gone.
00:05:07She runs to school, and the police are called.
00:05:11>> From her description, it sounded as if she had seen him pretty well, although he had told her at the... near the end of the assault to put her... or cover her face.
00:05:23And what she did was put her coat over her face as he was leaving, not to watch him, but she still had been able to see him.
00:05:30>> KURTIS: Sturdevant asks Akilah if she will meet with a police sketch artist.
00:05:34Two days later, her memory is put on paper.
00:05:38>> When I did the sketch, they start showing me eyes and a piece of a nose and lips, you know what I'm saying?-- stuff that I really was just trying to vaguely remember what I saw, because I really didn't look at him in his face like that, you know?
00:05:52>> KURTIS: Akilah's drawing is distributed to law enforcement, as well as the media.
00:05:57More than 30 suspects are generated, all of whom are questioned and eliminated.
00:06:02Meanwhile, semen collected from the assault yields a DNA profile of the rapist.
00:06:08A run through the state data bank, however, fails to provide a match.
00:06:12>> Well, it was disappointing.
00:06:14I had the hope that with the DNA evidence that we would eventually make a connection through some subsequent person being added to the data bank, but you didn't know when that would be.
00:06:24>> KURTIS: Akilah Johnson joins Michelle Horst and Janet Cha in the cold files, the connection between them hidden to everyone except the rapist himself, until his appetite for little girls steals more than their ññññññ thinkthey're on.
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00:10:26>> KURTIS: In Portland, Oregon, city sidewalks have become a hunting ground.
00:10:30A rapist with an obsession for teenage girls has claimed three victims, each in the same way.
00:10:36Investigators, however, miss the connections until the attacker graduates from rape to murder.
00:10:50Day breaks with a gray haze over Portland's north side.
00:10:5414-year-old Melissa Bittler leaves early for school, eager for a morning meeting with her math teacher.
00:11:01At 7:30, she says her good-byes, grabs her backpack, and crosses the street for the last time.
00:11:19>> KURTIS: Fewer than 50 steps from her own home, Melissa Bittler lies face down, her pants and underwear wrapped around her ankles.
00:11:27Homicide detectives Cheryl Kanzler and Paul Weatheroy survey the scene.
00:11:33>> Sexual assault was the absolute first thing that went through my mind, seeing the body the way it was, the positioning, with the buttocks elevated, the pants down around her ankles.
00:11:43>> KURTIS: Drag marks indicate Melissa was taken from the sidewalk into the backyard.
00:11:48A condom wrapper lies just beyond the body.
00:11:51>> It's like you've done your terrible, nasty, little deed, and now you're going to stand up, zip your pants, and walk away and just leave her there like a piece of garbage.
00:11:59>> KURTIS: Identification in Melissa's backpack leads detectives back to her parents.
00:12:04>> I cried.
00:12:07Wasn't sobbing-- it was... I mean, it was like my life ended.
00:12:13>> I suspected everybody, certainly my neighbors.
00:12:17I mean, who would know?
00:12:19I mean, she left at a different time that morning than normal.
00:12:22I mean, it's right across the street.
00:12:26>> KURTIS: Police officers cross every threshold in the Bittler neighborhood, asking the same questions and getting the same answers.
00:12:33No one, it seems, can provide police with a lead.
00:12:37>> I believed it was someone that had offended before, and I felt that it was someone that would offend again.
00:12:45I felt like it was a predator, someone that preyed on little kids for sex and for violence.
00:12:51>> KURTIS: Early on, detectives compile a long list of possible suspects, names collected from phone tips and sex-offender registries.
00:13:01The Bittler neighborhood is mapped into grids.
00:13:04>> The red indicates a half a mile, and then each of these numbers in red indicate where a registered sex offender lives.
00:13:12>> KURTIS: Detectives working overtime take a quadrant and work to narrow the suspect pool.
00:13:19>> We began to look at people who rode her bus, because she rode a TriMet, a public transit system to work every day.
00:13:26We contacted the meter readers, the mailman, the garbage man.
00:13:29I mean, it was nonstop, 24 hours a day, for the first several weeks.
00:13:35>> KURTIS: At autopsy, the coroner establishes the victim was strangled.
00:13:39Biological samples are collected and sent to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab for DNA testing.
00:13:45Forensic scientist Terry Coons receives an evidence kit with five swabs.
00:13:50They yield a total of eight sperm heads.
00:13:54>> There appears to have been a condom used.
00:13:57Why there was a few and not more, why there was not either zero or a lot, I can only surmise there may have been a hole in the condom.
00:14:09There may have been some manual transfer in taking it off.
00:14:12>> KURTIS: The small sample makes it difficult to isolate male DNA in the fluid sample and even harder to extract a genetic profile.
00:14:20Using short tandem repeat DNA testing, Coons is able to do exactly that, then enters her results into the national DNA database.
00:14:31>> I compared that and saw a match to another case and pulled that case.
00:14:38I now know that we have a serial child rapist who has killed.
00:14:43>> KURTIS: DNA links the murder of Melissa Bittler to the unsolved rape of Akilah Johnson four years earlier.
00:14:49Kanzler and Weatheroy review the Johnson case file and reach out to the victim.
00:14:55>> At first, I was like, "Why are you guys bothering me?" You know what I'm saying?
00:15:00"Okay, you haven't found him over this many years.
00:15:04Why do you keep on messing with me?-- because it's over." I'm just like, "It's out of my life." >> KURTIS: Reluctantly, Johnson relives her attack.
00:15:12Details resonate with Kanzler and Weatheroy.
00:15:16>> When we heard of how he attacked Akilah, we got the impression that he did the same thing with Melissa-- that he may have engaged her in some type of brief greeting or conversation, probably jumped her from behind, and dragged her into the yard as he had dragged Miss Johnson.
00:15:32>> We sit down, and with the assistance of the sex crimes personnel, we begin to look at all the old sexual assault cases-- a tedious, slow task.
00:15:45>> KURTIS: Among the stacks of unsolved rape cases, a handful match the killer's MO.
00:15:50Fewer still have physical evidence available for testing.
00:15:54Untested rape kits are transferred to the crime lab, where DNA links two more victims, Janet Cha and Michelle Horst.
00:16:01>> We became more hopeful we would be able to solve this, but again more worried.
00:16:05He's out.
00:16:06He's murdered Melissa.
00:16:08When's he going to strike again?
00:16:09>> KURTIS: Detectives hit the streets, contacting suspects and collecting their DNA.
00:16:14By April of 2002, five months after Melissa Bittler's murder, science has eliminated more than 75 suspects.
00:16:23>> We've developed hundreds of names, if not 1,000 subjects of interest.
00:16:29So we believe that he's in there.
00:16:32And so now it's just a matter of trying to get to him.
00:16:37>> KURTIS: The clock is ticking.
00:16:38Cold-case detectives need to find their suspect before he can find yet another young victim.
00:16:54>> KURTIS: It's a little after 3:30 in the morning when a call is logged into 911 dispatch.
00:16:58A woman reports awakening to a rapist in the living room of her own home.
00:17:31>> KURTIS: It will take five minutes for help to arrive-- minutes that seem like hours to a victim who is only alive because she played dead.
00:17:49>> KURTIS: Police arrive and remove the woman to a local hospital.
00:17:53There she tells investigators she was sleeping on the floor of her living room when she awoke to hands at her throat.
00:17:59>> She began to struggle.
00:18:01She was choked to the point of unconsciousness.
00:18:05When she came back to, she began coughing.
00:18:07Blood and saliva and things came out of her mouth.
00:18:11>> KURTIS: As she came to, the woman glimpsed her attacker's face and realized it belonged to her cousin's boyfriend, Ladon Stephens.
00:18:19>> I think probably once he realized he was observed, I think he tried... probably would have tried to kill her, and I think the fact that her playing dead saved her.
00:18:30>> KURTIS: Yost needs to move quickly and find Ladon Stephens before Stephens discovers the woman he allegedly raped is x@ @ @ @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@>@ V it's three days like you've never experienced.
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00:20:41x@ @ @ @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@>@ >> KURTIS: In the spring of 2002, a woman is raped in her own living room.
00:21:02Biting and scratching her attacker, the victim gets a look at his face.
00:21:06It is one she knows.
00:21:08Her rapist is also her cousin's boyfriend, a 33-year-old delivery man named Ladon Stephens.
00:21:16>> She would not, you know, budge off that fact that it was Ladon Stephens, so I was 100% behind her.
00:21:22>> KURTIS: Detectives Craig Yost and Dennis Minnis pick up the suspect and run a background check on Stephens.
00:21:27They find crimes against women that date back 20 years, including rape and attempted rape on girls as young as nine years old.
00:21:36>> We arrested him, took some photographs of him, because during the sexual assault, she had bit him on one of his hands and caused some scratches under one of his armpits.
00:21:46>> KURTIS: Marks on Stephens's body match the victim's description.
00:21:49Stephens claims the injuries are work related, but Yost and Minnis aren't buying it.
00:21:54They believe Stephens is good for the assault and maybe more.
00:21:58>> As we're looking at him, some things are coming to mind.
00:22:02Ladon's date of birth is December 13, which is the day that Melissa Bittler was killed.
00:22:07>> KURTIS: Melissa Bittler was a local 14-year-old found raped and murdered five months earlier.
00:22:13Like the Jane Doe rape victim, Bittler was attacked from behind.
00:22:18Like Jane Doe, Bittler was raped.
00:22:20And like their Jane Doe, Bittler was choked.
00:22:23Yost and Minnis believe the similarities are too powerful to dismiss.
00:22:28>> Detective Minnis said to me, "You know, this guy could have done Bittler." And I said, "Yeah, it's very possible." >> KURTIS: Yost shares the hunch with detectives working the Bittler homicide.
00:22:39The initial response is mixed.
00:22:41>> And we all kind of looked at each other, and I remember some of the detectives saying, "It's not him.
00:22:47He struck an adult in a house.
00:22:49That's way out of character." >> Well, there was a lot of differences, but I think some of the similarities was that he was very violent, that he was engaging in sex from behind, and he was doing it with force.
00:23:04I think all of those kind of made us think that maybe this might match our suspect, who was escalating over time.
00:23:12>> KURTIS: Yost decides to roll the dice and submits Stephens's DNA standard for genetic testing.
00:23:20>> After I did the warrant and turned the things into the crime lab, you know, I kept thinking, "Well, maybe he is, maybe he is." But I thought, "You know, he's probably not.
00:23:28I'm probably getting my hopes up too high, and I hope I didn't, you know, give them false hope." >> KURTIS: Five months into the cold murder investigation, false hope is better than no hope.
00:23:37With Stephens safely stowed in the county lockup, detectives await DNA results that could keep him there permanently.
00:23:51On the 12th floor of the Portland Police Bureau, forensic scientist Terry Coons has a singular focus: compare the genetic signature of Melissa Bittler's killer with those of possible suspects in her murder.
00:24:04>> You've spend so much time looking at them, and they're not it.
00:24:07Over and over again, they're not it.
00:24:10And you don't know if you ever will find something that matches.
00:24:15>> KURTIS: On a Thursday afternoon, Coons takes another run at the Bittler case.
00:24:19She extracts a DNA profile from the standard submitted by rape suspect Ladon Stephens and compares it against semen found at the Bittler crime scene.
00:24:29That same day, Coons analyzes preliminary results.
00:24:32>> I saw tears in her eyes, and so I knew that she had some good news.
00:24:38>> I actually start... sat at my desk, and I started to cry.
00:24:40And people came running over, "What's the matter?
00:24:42What's the matter?" And I said, "It's Bittler.
00:24:44It's done." >> KURTIS: DNA links Ladon Stephens to the murder of Melissa Bittler and to the 1997 rapes of Janet Cha, Michelle Horst, and Akilah Johnson.
00:24:56In the Jane Doe assault for which Stephens was arrested, there is no initial forensic link, as the attacker left no semen.
00:25:03That hole, however, is quickly plugged when detectives find a pair of Stephens's underwear stained with the victim's blood.
00:25:09>> I call it his last rape.
00:25:15but the evidence that nailed him to that was her blood on his underwear.
00:25:22>> KURTIS: Stephens will face a fourth count of rape to go along with a charge of murder.
00:25:27>> I was joyful, and it was...
00:25:30it was done sooner than I expected.
00:25:35>> We so much thought that he would just go on killing the rest of his victims.
00:25:41He had nothing to lose.
00:25:42>> KURTIS: Stephens now stands to lose everything, as prosecutors announce they will seek the death penalty for the murder of Melissa Bittler.
00:25:56In the winter of 2004, senior prosecutor Rod Underhill reviews the case against Ladon Stephens.
00:26:02Spread on his desk, several notebooks, seized during a search of Stephens's car-- journals that offer disturbing insights into the mind of a predator.
00:26:13>> He literally wrote, in his own handwriting, that he would target young females, and he would tell us why-- that he enjoyed seeing the fear in their faces during his attacks and that he targeted a specific gender together with a specific age because it would give him the most power and the most control and the most fear of all the people that he could think of.
00:26:40>> KURTIS: On January 26, 2004, the capital murder trial of Ladon Stephens begins.
00:26:45Underhill makes the defendant's journal a centerpiece of his opening statement.
00:26:51>> "I needed the perfect victim.
00:26:54I decided my victims be female children." We wanted the trier of fact to help use it to help determine his guilt, and then ultimately to help determine his punishment.
00:27:07>> KURTIS: On February 12, the Stephens case goes to a jury.
00:27:12Seven days later, they return a verdict: guilty on all counts.
00:27:17>> I was just so joyous and overcome.
00:27:23I just wanted to sit there all day and listen to the jurors go, "Guilty, guilty, guilty." >> KURTIS: At Stephens's sentencing, 19 victims take the stand, among them, Akilah Johnson.
00:27:34>> I got to look him the eyes, and I got to let him feel my pain and my anger and my hurt, everything all at once, constantly keeping that eye contact so he would know that "I'm not frightened of you." >> KURTIS: Prosecutors argue for the death penalty.
00:27:52The jury disagrees and sentences Stephens to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
00:27:59For Johnson, Janet Cha, and Michelle Horst, seven years ago they were teenagers, hoping someone, someday would make things right.
00:28:08Now they are young women happy to see that day has arrived, even if it has come at a terrible price.
00:28:17>> I was just more upset that a life had to be taken to... you know, for them to stop him.
00:28:24>> KURTIS: For Mary Bittler, no verdict will wipe away the memories of the day she packed her 14-year-old off to school for the last time or ever stop the what-ifs.
00:28:37>> What if I had gone with her?
00:28:39I mean, I will always what-if.
00:28:42Then I sometimes think maybe Melissa was supposed to help us catch him, because this community rallied around her murder case, and there were so many people that wanted him caught.
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00:30:06Call the number on your scre >> Okay, we need to this for Sally.
00:33:28You need to be honest with me.
00:33:30>> So did Bonnie do anything wrong, do you think?
00:33:33>> I think she very much did.
00:33:34>> And how about yourself?
00:33:35>> I'm guilty of second-degree murder.
00:33:38>> I helped him put her in the bathtub, the cold water.
00:33:42And while he was dunking her, I held on to her feet.
00:33:45>> Even though you were afraid it could cause some kind of damage to Sally, including death?
00:33:51>> Yes.
00:34:02>> KURTIS: In the town of Battle Creek, Michigan, at a little after 6:30 PM, an ambulance rolls into action-- its destination, 54 Jericho Road.
00:34:13Inside the home, a six-year-old girl named Sally Chesebro apparently drowned in her own bathtub.
00:34:20Joe Arbic is an emergency medical technician.
00:34:25When he arrives at Jericho Road, he suspects there is more here than simple tragedy.
00:34:31>> It... just none of it made any sense, because you had...
00:34:35you know, they said she drowned, but she was clothed, and then her hair was dry on the inside and just barely wet on the out.
00:34:42>> KURTIS: Sally Chesebro lives at 54 Jericho Road with her mother, Bonnie, her stepfather, David, and her seven-year-old sister, Nancy.
00:34:50Bonnie tells Arbic she waited an hour before calling an ambulance and then attempted to dress her daughter.
00:34:56Bonnie and David offer no explanation for the delay and little else as to what might have happened.
00:35:02>> Normally, if you have a child injured or hurt, the parents are right there, and you have to get them away to even, you know, work on them.
00:35:09They were all standoffish.
00:35:10They never came near her.
00:35:11I knew there was something wrong from the time it all happened.
00:35:14>> KURTIS: Sally Chesebro is unconscious and not breathing.
00:35:18She is rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors work for almost 45 minutes.
00:35:23At 7:25 PM, Sally is pronounced .ad.
00:35:30Her body is autopsied the following morning.
00:35:33The coroner finds no evidence of water in Sally's lungs-- curious, but not necessarily inconsistent with a drowning.
00:35:41The cause of death is listed as indeterminable.
00:35:45The case is closed and stays that way for nearly 14 years, until another little girl grows up and keeps a promise to her baby sister.
00:36:01In the fall of 1992, homicide detective Dennis Mullen, a 20- year veteran of the Battle Creek Police Department, receives a phone call.
00:36:10On the other end of the line is a woman named Nancy Spaulding, once a 7-year-old named Nancy Chesebro.
00:36:17>> She introduced herself by name and said that she needed to make a complaint to the police department about her sister's death, that her sister didn't die accidentally.
00:36:30>> I did want something to come of it.
00:36:34I really wanted justice for Sally, because I had promised that to her at her funeral.
00:36:40>> KURTIS: Nancy tells Mullen that her sister, Sally, was killed in 1978 at the hands of her mother and father.
00:36:48>> She was present when this occurred and was a witness to a great... a great part of it, and she needed to come forward and bring out the truth as to what happened that day.
00:37:02>> KURTIS: Detective Mullen pulls the Chesebro file but finds little more than an autopsy report and an accidental death notice.
00:37:12The detective will have to start from scratch.
00:37:14The good news is he has an eyewitness, a seven-year-old now all grown up who provides the details on how her parents murdered her sister 14 years earlier.
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00:39:15In the spring of 1978, Nancy and Sally Chesebro live in fear of the adults they know best, their mother and father.
00:39:23>> We would be pushed down the stairs, whipped with anything, a belt, weeping willow branches-- anything they'd grab.
00:39:34I've had so many hospital emergencies with stitches because of things being thrown at me.
00:39:41>> KURTIS: Where kids are concerned, physical beating is often a stepping stone to sexual abuse.
00:39:48The Chesebro household is no exception.
00:39:51According to Nancy, she and her sister would be forced to perform sexual acts on Nancy's stepfather and Sally's biological father, David, as their mother watched.
00:40:02>> Sally and I would have to perform oral sex on him.
00:40:06Bonnie would tell us how to do it.
00:40:10She... Bonnie was pretty much a cheerleader, the coach on the side.
00:40:14>> KURTIS: Inside 54 Jericho Road, Nancy and Sally can depend only upon each other.
00:40:20Of all the atrocities visited upon them, there is one the two sisters fear most.
00:40:25They call it the cold bath treatment.
00:40:29>> The bathtub, we would have to fill it up with nothing but cold water and lay down on our back.
00:40:35And sometimes we may be only in there for a few minutes, but days we've been in there for hours.
00:40:43Those would go on every week, five, six sometimes a week.
00:40:52>> KURTIS: The so-called cold bath treatment is more like freezing torture, a punishment as frequent as it is unforgiving.
00:41:01>> They would hold us under, push us down, make us stay down, yell, beat us.
00:41:09Many, many times we were forced into the water and dunked under.
00:41:13>> KURTIS: According to Nancy, on the night of March 9, 1978, she and Sally decide to use their mother's nail polish.
00:41:20Bonnie Walton is furious and demands to know whose idea it was.
00:41:25Six-year-old Sally confesses and is told to draw a cold water bath.
00:41:30What happens next is unclear in the mind of seven-year-old Nancy.
00:41:35All she knows, her sister was in the tub for too long.
00:41:38At some point, her parents left the bathroom, and Nancy walked in.
00:41:43>> I just wanted to get her out.
00:41:44And I walked in, and she was laying face under the water.
00:41:49And I tried pulling her up, and she was heavy, real heavy.
00:41:56I don't think even at my age that I am now I could have even picked her up.
00:42:00I screamed and hollered for Bonnie.
00:42:03>> KURTIS: Bonnie and David Walton take the naked child from the tub.
00:42:08After attempting CPR, drying and dressing her daughter, Bonnie Walton calls for an ambulance, but it is too late to save Sally's life.
00:42:19Nancy is told exactly what to say about the incident.
00:42:21>> That she was taking a bath and was playing with a toy in the bathtub and must have fallen or something, and that's all I know-- and told me that if I didn't tell them this, that they would kill me.
00:42:34>> KURTIS: Nancy keeps her mouth shut as paramedics arrive and take her sister away.
00:42:39After Sally's death, her sister's life goes from bad to worse as her mother begins loaning Nancy out for sex.
00:42:49>> She had men come in and out, and she pimped me out to other guys.
00:42:54And one guy she had a threesome with me and him and things like that.
00:43:02>> KURTIS: At 12, Nancy is placed in a foster home.
00:43:06At 22, she is a new mom and finally ready to begin the search for justice.
00:43:12>> I thought she was straight up.
00:43:15There was a lot of pain and a lot of emotion in her voice, and I believed her right from the first... after the first few minutes.
00:43:22>> KURTIS: Dennis Mullen might believe Nancy Spaulding but has nothing in the way of physical evidence to support her story.
00:43:28The detective's next step: contact Sally's parents, rattle their cage, and see what happens.
00:43:43>> Hi there.
00:43:44Bonnie, why don't you have a seat in this red chair?
00:43:48Bonnie, this is Detective Walters.
00:43:50>> How are you?
00:43:52>> Bonnie VanDam.
00:43:53>> Nice to meet you.
00:43:54>> KURTIS: On March 16, 1993, Detective Mullen sits down with Bonnie Walton, now Bonnie VanDam, and asks what happened to her daughter Sally in 1978.
00:44:16>> KURTIS: Bonnie admits to holding Sally's feet while her husband David dunks the child into freezing water.
00:44:22She claims, however, they were simply trying to punish their daughter, not kill her.
00:44:40>> KURTIS: Mullen contacts Bonnie's husband at the time, David Walton, who denies any involvement in Sally's death and refuses to talk.
00:44:49Mullen can perhaps make a case for child punishment gone horribly wrong.
00:44:54There is, however, a problem.
00:44:55Sally Chesebro's autopsy report indicates no water found in the little girl's lungs, begging the question, how could Sally's parents have drowned her if she didn't actually drown?x@ @ @ @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@ @@@@@@@@@@@@@@>@?.=(=PCPCPCPCPCPCPCPCPC2h,x@ @ @ @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@>@ >> KURTIS: Nancy Spaulding was seven years old when she found her little sister, Sally, floating face down in a tub of cold water.
00:48:04Although no water was found in Sally's lungs, the death was believed to be an accidental drowning.
00:48:1014 years later, in the fall of 1992, Nancy Spaulding calls police and tells them Sally's parents, Bonnie and David Walton, killed Sally.
00:48:22Detectives pull in Bonnie, now Bonnie VanDam, who confirms at least part of the story.
00:48:38>> KURTIS: VanDam claims her former husband, David Walton, held Sally's head under the water and that the death was an accident, a punishment gone too far.
00:48:48Walton denies any wrongdoing and then refuses to speak to police again, until 1998, when David Walton appears to have a change of heart.
00:49:03On a summer morning in Michigan, Detective Dennis Mullen gets a phone call from a man he's been waiting five years to speak to.
00:49:10David Walton says he has become a Christian and wants to tell all about his daughter Sally's death.
00:49:17>> I believe that he wanted to make things right.
00:49:19He wanted to make things right in his heart.
00:49:30>> KURTIS: Walton admits to holding six-year-old Sally's head under the water but claims his wife was the prime mover behind the death.
00:49:38>> He kind of blames Bonnie.
00:49:40It's Bonnie telling him to do it.
00:49:42It's... Bonnie directing things, and he's responding to her directions.
00:50:04>> KURTIS: Detective Mullen has gathered the pieces of a murder investigation and believes they fit.
00:50:09He has an eyewitness in Nancy Spaulding and two parents who have admitted to involvement.
00:50:14There is, however, a problem.
00:50:16If the Waltons drowned their daughter, as they claim, why does the autopsy report indicate no water found in the girl's lungs?
00:50:24It's a question that must be answered if cold-case detectives ever expect to get their case before a jury.
00:50:30Meanwhile, Sally's sister, Nancy, simply waits.
00:50:34>> I really wanted justice for Sally because I had promised that to her at her funeral.
00:50:40But I was looking at it realistically, that it may never happen, that I would need to find it within myself.
00:50:55>> KURTIS: In 2002, Calhoun County puts together a cold-case unit.
00:51:00They're looking for their first case, and they want one they can win.
00:51:03>> And the 28th he gets sentenced.
00:51:05>> KURTIS: Bill Howe is an investigator with the unit.
00:51:09>> Our heart went out to Sally and to Nancy when we read the case, and we just knew that this was a case we were going to go with.
00:51:16>> KURTI T team already has parents admitting one of them held Sally's head under water and an autopsy report that seems to contradict their version of events.
00:51:26To make sense of the evidence, cold-case detectives turn to Dr.
00:51:30Thomas Adams, a physiologist whose expertise lies in the regulation of body temperature.
00:51:38Investigators ask Adams a simple yet hardly straightforward question: how could a little girl be held under the water and die but have no water in her lungs?
00:51:48>> I think in any case, you always look for just one thing, and it isn't that simple.
00:51:53There are many things, I think, that were happening simultaneously for her.
00:51:56>> KURTIS: According to Adams, one possible explanation lies in a medical condition called laryngo spasm.
00:52:03>> It's an involuntary contraction of the muscles of the larynx that stops people from breathing.
00:52:09It's the similar response to what happens when you get a sudden blast of cold water and it takes your breath away.
00:52:15>> KURTIS: According to Adams, as Sally was repeatedly dunked under the water, she could have suffered such a spasm, been unable to breathe and, therefore, unable to take water into her lungs.
00:52:27This, coupled with the rapid cooling of the body from the cold water, could have caused her heart to stop.
00:52:33>> 85 degrees Fahrenheit is fairly well recognized as a dangerous internal body temperature.
00:52:42It's the point at which the electrical activity in the heart is no longer rhythmatic.
00:52:47And I think that cardiac arrest probably is what killed her so quickly.
00:52:51>> KURTIS: Dr. Adams creates a chart, which shows how quickly a child could die from cold water immersion.
00:52:58>> This would be the beginning of hypothermia.
00:53:02>> KURTIS: It takes into account water temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 degrees, cold enough to plunge a child's body into hypothermia and begin the lethal chain reaction that triggers cardiac arrest.
00:53:18After 24 years, Adams's findings seem to make sense of the conflicting evidence.
00:53:24Cold-case detectives take their case to the DA, who agrees to prepare charges.
00:54:12May 20, 2002-- Bonnie VanDam is arrested in her home and brought in for questioning.
00:54:28>> KURTIS: VanDam sticks to her denials and puts the blame on her husband David's shoulders.
00:54:48>> KURTIS: The same day, David Walton is arrested at the nursing home where he now lives.
00:54:53Both are charged with murder.
00:54:5618 months later, the bench trial of Bonnie VanDam opens before a Calhoun County judge.
00:55:02It will be tried under the murder statute in effect at the time of the crime in 1978, one that requires a specific showing of malice on the part of the defendant.
00:55:15>> In this case, Bonnie VanDam had to know that her holding Sally's legs while David held her in the bathtub that night were going to result in death.
00:55:24That was a problem.
00:55:26We knew it was going to be a problem.
00:55:29>> The entire trial rested on one letter of one word.
00:55:32She said in her taped interview that she knew what she did could have killed Sally.
00:55:39The issue, if she had said she knew what she had done would kill Sally, the judge said that he could have found her guilty.
00:55:58>> KURTIS: Based largely on the use of the word "could" instead of "would," Bonnie VanDam is found not guilty and walks out of court a free woman.
00:56:07Her acquittal is a major blow to the cold-case unit.
00:56:11Six weeks later, they try again with the trial of David Walton.
00:56:15Once again, Jeff Kabot prosecutes for the state and seeks to take the jury back in time to a bathroom inside a home at 54 Jericho Road.
00:56:26>> It's like you want to put them there in that bathroom as David Walton is dunking Sally's head under the water in that water that's, you know, 50-some degrees, over and over, as she begs him to stop.
00:56:39>> KURTIS: Unlike his former wife, David Walton does not have the niceties of language to hide behind or any reasonable expectation other than when you hold a little girl's head under water, she is most likely going to die.
00:56:53On January 13, 2004, Walton is convicted of second-degree