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Wednesday, July 6,2011

Cold but not forgotten

Bernita White murder case, 10 years later

by Lawrence Cosentino
Burly, blunt Tony Medina walked into the culvert, hefting an imaginary rifle with raised cross hairs. He rested it on a low rock wall and aimed at a picnic pavilion near the entrance to Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo, about 100 yards away.

“There was less foliage in the way 10 years ago,” he said.


We were standing next to a railroad viaduct north of the zoo on an early Monday evening in June. Visitors and picnickers seldom ramble this far north of the zoo, but kids love to whip their bikes up and down the slopes of the viaduct.


A little girl spotted us and slid her bike to a stop.


“Did something happen here?” she asked.


Where do you start?


On Saturday, June 23, 2001, Lansing resident Bernita White was killed by a bullet from a high-powered rifle while walking from the picnic pavilion to the zoo entrance. This hidden culvert, a football field away, could have been the shooter’s vantage point.

Or not. After 10 years, Lansing’s most notorious murder case is still wide open.

Medina, 43, is the regional sales manager for Superior Growers Supply. He is a former repo man, Michigan prison guard, Coast Guard port security officer and self-styled champion of justice. He was working on and off at zoo security around the time Bernita White was killed.


“I always had this kind of superhero thing in my head of righting wrongs,” he said.


Last week, Medina’s Facebook page —“Justice for Bernita!” — marked the 10th anniversary of the murder.


As the years go by, the case cools, but Medina gets hotter.


He pointed his imaginary rifle at the spot where Bernita White fell. The park was empty, but there was a man in his sights.


“I want a revisiting, a reckoning,” he said.




Bumpy ride


June 23, 2001, was a sunny, busy day at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo. About 300 people were inside the zoo and dozens more were enjoying the trees, picnic tables and playgrounds of surrounding Potter Park. Shortly after 3 p.m., one loud shot was heard cracking across the pavilions and lawns near the zoo’s west entrance.


Bernita White was walking with her 5-year-old daughter, Michala. White, 42, fell on the sidewalk leading from the pavilion to the zoo entrance. A bullet had hit her in the left arm, pierced her heart, exited her right side, hurtled on and has not been seen since.


Fearing more shots from a hidden sniper, police evacuated the zoo for the first and only time in the park’s history. But there were no more shots or victims.


The zoo and park closed the rest of the day and Sunday, as Lansing and Michigan State Police officers, detectives and dogs combed the area for clues.


Two days later, police determined that the fatal shot came from a high-powered rifle north of the park. Attention began to focus on White’s husband, a state trooper named Artis White.


Bernita White had filed for divorce from Artis May 24, 2001, but the couple still lived together in their Lansing home with their two young daughters, Michala and Alanna, then 7. In the early afternoon on June 23, Artis White dropped Michala at Potter Park for a friend’s birthday party, with Bernita chaperoning.


“This party was an event that Michala did not want to miss,” White wrote in his 2003 book, “Who Killed My Wife?” According to White’s account, Michala wanted to go inside the zoo and threw a “temper tantrum” until she got her way. He agreed to drive from Potter Park to Delta Mills Park, west of Lansing, to pick up Alanna and bring her back so they could all visit the zoo together.


“Little do I know it would be the most important trip I ever made, according to investigators,” White wrote.


White has made much of the witnesses who saw him at Delta Mills close to the time of the shooting, but the file has not yet been made public and time is a slippery substance.


The Delta Mills alibi troubled Tony Medina so much he piled me into his car and took me for a bumpy ride last week.


We went through the motions of dropping Bernita White and Michala off at the zoo, drove around to the residential area north of the park, clambered out of the car, followed the railway ditch, climbed up to the culvert north of the zoo, said “bang,” made our way back to the car and drove to Delta Mills Park in just under 22 minutes.


Jonathan Priebe, a Lansing Police detective in 2001, worked the Bernita White case nine years, first as assistant to lead detective Marcel Holloway, then as lead detective when Holloway retired in 2004. Priebe retired in 2010, after 26 years with the force.


Last Friday, I met with Priebe and the current lead detective on the Bernita White case, Brad St. Aubin.


Because the case is open, Priebe declined to comment on specific evidence, but he was in a reflective mood.


“I haven’t worked harder on any case,” he said. “It would have been nice to see it go to trial.”


Priebe didn’t name names, but made his conclusion Zamboni smooth for anyone willing to skate there.


“The evidence, the interviews, the information, was all consistent towards a certain individual,” Priebe said “Even though we went to great lengths to look at all other different scenarios that could have happened — possibilities, what-ifs — they all came back to one point of interest.”


In White’s book, he contended that Lansing police are bluffing, and he hasn’t changed his mind since.


“The Lansing Police Department has everything in all those files that says I’m innocent,” White said. “The tracking system of my van, my cell phone records, all the people I talked to. They have everything they need to come out and say, ‘We’ve got the wrong guy.’” White said it’s easier for the police to keep stringing him along as a “person of interest.”


“The hardest thing to admit is that you’ve been wrong and you don’t know who it is.” White said. “I’ve come to grips with the fact that they won’t.”


Priebe is familiar with the alternative theories. “Did somebody just fire a round in the air half a mile away? Was it a gang initiation, a serial sniper murder? All those were looked into seriously and disproven,” he said.


White, who remarried, lives with his wife of seven years, Marcia, in their Delta Township home. His oldest daughter, Alanna, 17, will enter college this fall. His youngest daughter, Michala, is 15. A stepdaughter, Angie, is a teacher.


White has put in 23 years with the state police, 17 as sergeant, and plans to retire in two years. He now works at the State Police post in Corunna, near Flint.


If the police have nothing on White, as he contends, what is in the big plastic box under Brad St. Aubin’s desk? “There’s much more evidence than people know,” Priebe said. “People with a perception there is no physical evidence, that’s an inaccurate statement, but we can’t go into that.”


Priebe couldn’t resist throwing out a morsel, already alluded to in White’s book but not yet confirmed publicly by the police: the macabre sequel to Bernita White’s murder.


At 10 p.m. June 23, Michigan state troopers told Bernita White’s mother, 67-year-old Barbara Sims, her daughter had been murdered. She had a heart attack and died that night.


“The reason the heart attack came about was not just about losing her daughter,” Priebe said. “But that she anticipated it and had an idea of who the perpetrator was.”




Encyclopedia Brown


In June 2001, Tony Medina was manager of Moore’s Security Services, a private investigation, security and collection agency. Moore’s had the overnight security account for Potter Park Zoo.


Medina usually handled collections but frequently subbed for security personnel at the zoo on weekends. Kids found a way into the zoo every now and then, but it was pretty quiet work and he liked it. “I had the park to myself, talked to the monkeys,” he said.


Medina said he heard about the shooting while at an airport in Phoenix, where he had gone on business.


He came back to the zoo June 24, combed through the brush and talked with park employees, on his own time, even though he didn’t know Bernita or Artis White.


Why? Medina exchanged his imaginary rifle for a shotgun and fired off a spray of reasons. “I have this Encyclopedia Brown thing,” he said, referring to the fictional boy detective.


Medina said he was horrified that such a thing could happen so close to the zoo, which he came to consider “his” territory. More important, it bothered him that a state trooper was involved.


“I always wanted to be a state trooper,” Medina said. “When I was a prison guard, I was just biding my time so I could jump over to the state police.”


Before the security gig, Medina was a repo man and a Michigan prison guard. He served in the Coast Guard after 9/11.

He claims to have made four felony citizens’ arrests in Lansing. “Big ones, too,” he said. “Knife to a lady’s throat. Robbery of a party store. Just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Dogged pursuance is his preferred stance.


“Even as a repo man, I’m a legend in the industry. I could find cars nobody else could find, the scary ones, the dangerous ones. I would not leave until I got my car.”


A few weeks after the murder, Medina called White and offered help with the investigation. White said Medina offered to disclose what he found out for cash, and refused him.


In his book, White mentions Medina, although not by name, as a security officer who patrolled the park just after the shooting. White wrote that the guard found a “large piece of carpet” on the ground and “a dead squirrel that appeared to have been shot.”


Medina and White parted ways for years. After 9/11, Medina joined the Coast Guard, became a father and went through a divorce. He said the murder was far from his mind until his mother bought him a copy of White’s book.


He found the book to be inaccurate and self-serving.


“The way he framed it was all about him, nothing to do with Bernita,” Medina said.


Medina went to White’s home, asking for his money back. He accused White to his face of killing his wife. The conversation, at White’s kitchen table, degenerated into a debate over religion.


“At that point it was man to man,” Medina said. “It could have gone anywhere.”


White told Medina that if he knew something, he should go to the police.


Medina did meet with Priebe some time later, but Priebe didn’t comment on whether Medina had anything significant to contribute to the case. He said Medina just impressed him as “somebody that’s pretty strong about justice and truth.”


That was not White’s impression of Medina.


“I don’t know what his motivation is,” White said. “Maybe he did it. He had just the same opportunity and everything else as I did, on an even playing field.”




Hot and cold


Perversely, the most elusive figure in this saga, with its clash of oversize male egos, is Bernita White.


In contemporary press accounts of the case, neighbors described Bernita White as a warm, nice lady who made cookies and brought them over.


Priebe talked with the friends who were at the Potter Park party with Bernita. “A lovely lady, no enemies, just taking care of the children,” Priebe said. “I never talked to anybody who had a bad word to say about Bernita White.”


Medina is right about the self-absorption of White’s book, but there are some nuggets about Bernita white. She had a “soft voice,” was “quiet and reserved.”


“Nobody who knew her would want to kill her,” White wrote.


According to several source, including Artis White himself, Bernita White’s sister, Belinda, has always believed Artis White is her sister’s killer. Each year, Belinda takes out an advertisement in the Lansing State Journal calling for justice to be done in the case.


Brad St. Aubin agreed to leave my number with Belinda last week and pass on an invitation to talk. The next morning, St. Aubin told she was “leaning toward not calling” me. She did not call.


Where the Bernita White case is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be much for St.


Aubin to do after 10 years. The case file sits in a plastic case on his cubicle floor while he investigates several fresher unsolved murders, all of which require dozens of reports, in addition to other police duties.


Priebe suggested that by now, the ball is in another court.


“Maybe all the investigation that can be done has been done — all the documentation, reports, interviews,” Priebe said. “It’s at a point where it goes from the investigation part of things to the prosecution part of things. For me, for several years, it sat at that point.”


On the “Justice For Bernita” Facebook page, Medina posted a link to a recent article about Priebe’s latest venture, developing lightweight protective shields for law enforcement officers.


Medina said Priebe swore he’d bring the case to trial before he retired. “Looks like he gave up on that,” he commented on the Facebook page.


That raises Priebe’s ire. Priebe said he brought the case to Ingham County Prosecutor Steward Dunnings III several times, but Dunnings never made an arrest. The first time Priebe brought the case to Dunnings was “within a year to a year and a half of the homicide,” Priebe said.


According to Priebe, the assistant prosecutors, including Michael Ferency, were ready to go forward “on a couple of occasions, even though the case was not a “platter job” (detective lingo for slam dunk).


Dunnings disagreed. He said that other experts, including Ferency and an assistant state attorney general, reviewed the case and came to the same conclusion, although the call not to prosecute was ultimately his.


“There’s not enough to convict,” Dunnings said.


Priebe called it “a very prosecutable case.”


After conducting more interviews, Priebe brought the case to Dunnings one last time, before retiring last year.


“They said, ‘See if you can get some more,’ and I had to turn it over to Brad,”Priebe said.


That left the plastic box to St. Aubin, an officer 18 years, who was assigned to the case when Priebe retired.


Priebe and St. Aubin said they understand it’s a tough call for a prosecutor.


“Once we go down that road, you don’t stop,” St. Aubin said. “If you want it to go right and it goes left, that decision’s final. He could write a book and say ‘I killed my wife’ and we can’t prosecute him again.”


Dunnings knows the file is getting colder, but he said that doesn’t change his job. “You can’t go to a jury and say, ‘Well, you might have a reasonable doubt, but this case is never going to get any better, so we want you to convict,’” he said.


Dunnings also knows Priebe would have loved to get the case to trial before he retired, but that cuts no ice with juries, either.


“That’s why there’s a separation, where the police investigate and the prosecutors make an objective review of whether the case is sufficient to go forward,” he said.


But Dunnings is still hopeful the case can be closed.


“You may not know who has knowledge, and for whatever reason, they might come forward,” he said. “Look at the Draheim case.”


In April 2001, David Draheim was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1986 stabbing of Jeanette Kirby, a lag of 16 years between crime and conviction. The initial investigative team disbanded, but two cold case teams revisited the murder and finally succeeded in bringing Draheim to trial.


Whatever happens next, Priebe is finished with the case, except for one possibility. If the prosecutor moves, he’d be called as a witness.


“You’d spend about two and a half months in court, because that’s about how long this case would take,” St. Aubin told him.


“Three months,” Priebe said. Meanwhile, Tony Medina is still smoldering.


“He drives right by my daughter’s house every day when he goes to his job,” Medina said, careful not to name the “he.”


“I want this murderer off the streets.” He backed off for a crane shot of his inner detective movie.


“From the beginning of time, somebody or other has had to step up and say, ‘Bullshit.’” As Tony Medina heats up, Artis White cools down, as if the pair were obeying a law of conservation of rage. After 23 years with the Michigan State Police, White is looking forward to retiring in two years. His docket included fishing last weekend and euchre with the in-laws at a family reunion this weekend. He said he is still in touch with Benita White’s family, but it’s awkward.


“We don’t pick out drapes together,” he said.


“I’m concentrating on family stuff,” he mused. “I’m not as much the antagonist as I was 10 years ago, taunting the detectives by saying they have the wrong guy,” he said. “I’m trying not to point blame, because it doesn’t do any good.”

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