The calls began flooding into Eaton County’s 911 Emergency Center at 5:35 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2018. A man covered in blood was wandering in the middle of Grand Ledge Highway in Oneida Township. In some instances, callers reported that he was attempting to jump in front of their moving cars.
One caller, who thought the man had been hit by a car, put the man on the phone with 911.
The man told 911: “I had to kill him.”
The man confessing to a killing was Joseph Sadlak, then 29. He directed Eaton County sherriff’s deputies to a former red barn converted into a huge maze of a home at 1640 Grand Ledge Highway. He also provided deputies with the security codes to get inside.
Inside the home, law enforcement found the body of Clinton Decker, 44. He was half on a bed, in a pool of blood. Officers shot a pit bull three times to get to Decker’s body.
This murder climaxed in after at least five years of increasingly terrifying claims by young, mostly homeless and drug-using men. At least two — also covered in blood— had fled the home in terror, pounding on windows at nearby homes to plead for police and a place to hide.
Nearly three and a half years later, Sadlak is awaiting a trial scheduled for Aug. 1, but his defense team is seeking another competency evaluation that could drag the case out further. The defendant has already been found incompetent to assist in his own defense once, which delayed a preliminary hearing to April 2021.
Five years of police reports from before the murder revealed a history of calls for drug overdoses, sexual assault, felonious assault, breaking and entering and welfare checks at Decker’s converted barn home, according to hundreds of pages of reports released in response to a public records request. Interviews with nearby residents, as well as two of the young men who spent time in Decker’s home, also tell the story of the horrors that allegedly occurred behind the red barn’s doors.
Deputies noted in reports that when they reached Decker’s bloody body, rigor mortis had already set in, pegging his death within six hours before officers had entered the home.
An autopsy performed by Dr. Patrick Hansma at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing found the cause of Decker’s death a “homicide” by “multiple blunt and sharp force injuries.”
Decker had been stabbed 31 times and hit with a blunt object at least 20 times. His penis had been sliced lengthwise along the top about an inch and half from his pubic region toward the tip. The autopsy report also revealed 13 stab wounds to Decker’s head, including one through his right eyelid and into his eye, and another that penetrated his nasal cavity and bone.
Four stab wounds were discovered on his neck, including one that sliced through his right carotid artery and penetrated his jugular vein. Two wounds penetrated a lung and his heart.
Most of the blunt force trauma was on his head, and he had one defensive wound on his wrist, though it was not identified as such in the autopsy report.
According to the autopsy report, Decker’s arms also showed evidence of recent and long-term needle use and “acute methamphetamine intoxication.” Specific toxicology reports were redacted in the documents. The autopsy reports also noted that his teeth were in particularly “poor repair” — a possible indication of methamphetimine use.
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug that can be snorted,smoked, taken in pill form or injected. It causes the user a euphoric experience that can last as long as 12 hours. The drug also causes users to crave sugary substances and ignore basic hygiene like dental care.
Meth has long been a national crisis among communities of men who have sex with men, said David Fawcett, a psychiatrist who has been treating men who use meth for three decades. He’s written a book about the crisis, “Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery.”
Early use of the drug causes euphoria and an increased sense of self value. It’s also often “merged” with sexual experiences, creating a powerful combination of addictions. As a person spirals further into addiction, their sexual activity can become increasingly extreme, and some can begin to develop paranoia and delusions. Some also become violent after using the drug.
Fawcett said the drug can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions.
“With meth, more than any other drug, we see psychosis, particularly paranoia,” Fawcett said. “Because of the need for intensity and that psychosis, they can merge in the altered reality that can go on for days. So, people get in such a really weird blend of sexual attraction merged with really kinky and really sometimes outrageous taboo things like Satanic worship, just sort of all woven together. It seems really hot when you’re high, right? But it’s not so much when you’re not. The problem is there is a certain small percentage of people who are mentally ill and for whom meth — either as a catalyst or just as an accelerant on that mental illness — can either hit a tipping point or be like a switch that flips it into this state where it’s much worse than it was before. That’s what I think probably happened here.”
Sadlak, the accused killer, has a documented history of struggling with mental health concerns dating back to 2016, two years before the case first attracted media attention. The young man, his family said, had a closed head injury that changed his personality and led to losing his job. He ended up homeless.
Reports showed that Sadlak had called 911 on Nov. 24 — just days before the murder — to request transportation from Decker’s red barn house to Sparrow for an unknown mental health concern, one of many 911 calls for medical and criminal activity released in the county’s reports.
Reports of methamphetamine and cocaine drove the 911 calls over five years, according to call logs and conversations with people who were there. Most of those witnesses declined to speak on the record, but a majority said Decker deserved to die and that he was an “evil” man.
Two men who had interactions with Decker agreed to speak with City Pulse for this story. One asked to remain anonymous and have certain details of his alleged abuse omitted to prevent others from being able to identify him. For this coverage, he will be known as “Jack Smith.”
Smith said he had visited Decker’s converted barn home in Oneida Township twice. Both times were to have sex with men other than Decker, in what has been described as Decker’s secret “BDSM dungeon” — a room consisting of a sling and various bondage, discipline and sadomasochism-related sex toys.
Smith said the home was also filled with security cameras, a fact confirmed in both the homicide investigation and from other police reports tied to Decker’s Grand Ledge Highway address.
Smith said Decker attempted to dupe him into compromising situations in order to exploit him.
The first attempt involved Decker mentioning a “friend” who had left a DVD filled with child pornography at his home and seeking advice on what to do with it. Smith said he suggested Decker destroy the sexually abusive material or turn it over to the police for investigation.
Decker has been convicted of a sex crime involving children, according to media reports. A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, which maintains the state’s Sex Offender Registry, said an offender’s record is removed from public access after the offender dies. As a result, she was unable to confirm whether Decker had any sex crime convictions.
In another instance, Smith said, Decker attempted to get him to participate in the purchase and transport of a substantial amount of meth from Florida. He declined. Smith also believed the indoor security cameras were used to record such interactions to blackmail people under threat of revealing their incriminating statements. There were more instances, he said, but he asked they not be repeated because they could identify him to meth users in the local community.
Smith said he has been meth-free for just under five years.
Kevin Herman-Starnes, 31, spent his early life bouncing around between Jackson and northern Michigan. He was in the custody of his grandmother while his father was in and out of prison, and moved to Lansing when he was 24. Soon after, he found himself living on the streets.
He tried to get assistance through the Lansing Housing Commission but came up short, he said.
An acquantance (whom Herman-Starnes refused to identify) later told him about “this guy” who would be able to help him out and give him a place to stay. That “guy” turned out to be Decker.
Unbeknownst to Herman-Starnes, his introduction to Decker was similar to introductions he would subsequently witness Decker make to “hundreds” of other young, homeless men in the Lansing area. And Decker wasn’t the only man engaged in the activity, Herman-Starnes said. He also described a wide network of other men recruiting young, homeless men into sex work.
After connecting with Decker, Herman-Starnes soon found himself sitting in the living room of the red barn house, drinking beer and eating pizza. He remembered sexual comments and not-so-subtle hints that Decker wanted to have sex with him. Herman-Starnes ignored them.
Later that week, he said Decker took the duo over to a series of three houses located between Oakland and Saginaw streets within walking distance of the Volunteers of America, now the New Hope Center, a major hub for the homeless. Herman-Starnes also explicitly recalled the hull of a white limousine in the backyard of one of the homes. Photos on the Facebook page of Decker’s former roommate at the time revealed a white limousine parked in the yard of a home.
It was inside one of these homes, within weeks of meeting Decker, that Herman-Starnes said Decker drew a handgun and raped him. His friend was also in the house and did not intervene.
“After that, you either surrendered yourself sexually to (Decker) on command or he would take it from you and you would get beaten,” Herman-Starnes told City Pulse last week.
Herman-Starnes was a frequent visitor during the spring and summer of 2015, according to a neighbor’s subsequent statement recorded by police. He would leave on the Eatran just before 7 a.m., shortly before Decker’s then-fiancee was expected to return home from work.
In late November of that year, Herman-Starnes said he had sex with Decker in exchange for $50 but Decker refused to pay. Later that day, Decker called him promising to pay for the sex and Herman-Starnes met Decker and climbed into his PT Cruiser in southwest Lansing.
They went to Decker’s red barn house where Herman-Starnes said he was led upstairs, under the presumption Decker was engaging his sexual services again and would also pay him for the night before. Instead, he said Decker pulled out a handgun, laid out a white sheet in the room with various tools and said he had someone coming over to kill him for stealing his Vicodin.
Herman-Starnes was able to bolt out the front door when Decker was distracted, according to a police report and interview with Herman-Starnes, who is now serving time for an armed robbery conviction at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian. He knocked over a bookshelf in the narrow hallway leading to the stairs to delay Decker and ran to a nearby home.
There, he beat on the front window of a nearby residence, pleading with them to dial 911 because someone was trying to hurt or kill him. While the startled residents inside the home called 911, they also shut off all the lights and retreated upstairs. The husband armed himself with a pistol.
Both the husband and wife also saw Decker’s PT Cruiser be driven slowly past before it turned around, according to their statements to police. Shortly after, Decker called the neighbors to ask if a young man had run through or was in their yard. The neighbors lied, saying there was no one there to their knowledge. Decker went on to warn them that a young man had just pulled a knife on him and could be nearby and dangerous.
Deputies arrived and handcuffed Herman-Starnes, Decker and a third man — a recovering heroin user who was Decker's roommate — and transported them to the Delta substation.
Decker accused Herman-Starnes of pulling a knife on him and demanding $100. Decker also claimed he knocked the knife from his hand with a phone book and that Herman-Starnes ran away with Decker in pursuit. When detectives tried to push back on his story based on what Herman-Starnes had told them, Decker demanded his attorney. He gave the detectives a name that did not appear to be an attorney on a Google search, and Decker then began screaming at his roommate and urging him not to speak with the detectives and to demand an attorney too.
Officers moved Decker to a location in the substation where he would be unable to hear the interviews, and while that was happening Decker became increasingly belligerent — calling one of the officers “Dykezilla.” He also faked falling into a wall, went limp and complained that he was having difficulty breathing — a complaint he had issued previously before refusing medical care or transportation to the hospital. The Delta Township Fire Department was then dispatched to the substation for the second time that evening to transport Decker to a local hospital.
After the investigation was finished, detectives sought a warrant for Decker’s arrest for felonious assault. But county Prosecutor Doug Lloyd’s office declined to issue the warrant. In a letter to City Pulse, Lloyd declined to elaborate on why the warrant was not authorized. He also declined to comment on Sadlak’s prosecution, citing legal ethics that prevent disclosure.
In November 2017, Eaton County law enforcement responded to a call about a young man hiding behind another home near Decker’s distinctive red barn house and to an additional call that Decker and other men were talking about disposing of two dead bodies. When officers arrived on the scene, they found a man cowering in fear behind a nearby dwelling, reports showed.
The young man told law enforcement he had run from Decker’s house because the men were plotting to kill him. Because he was distraught and incoherent, law enforcement had the 20-year-old man taken to the emergency room at Sparrow Hospital’s St. Lawrence campus.
While there, he disclosed that he had been repeatedly raped inside Decker’s home. The lead nurse on duty — as legally required — called Eaton County dispatch to report the alleged rapes.
In an interview with a deputy, the young man said he was too embarrassed at the time he had his initial contact with Eaton County deputies to disclose that he had been held in the house for three days, plied with drugs and repeatedly raped by Decker and at least four other men. He told the deputy he could not recall how many times he had been raped by the five men because he had been drugged with something that made his mind go blank.
He told a deputy he had originally gone to the house to be injected with cocaine and then have sex with Decker. But the drug Decker injected him with made him feel different than cocaine. He also said that he laid in the den of Decker’s home for a time in a fetal position, before he felt someone fondling him. He assumed this was Decker.
Over next two and half days, the man was repeatedly injected with the substance that he was told was cocaine but that created the same, unfamiliar “blank” response. During that time, he said men he could not identify penetrated him sexually without his consent.
Because the man was heavily sedated and being detained on a psychiatric hold at Sparrow, the deputy gave the man a report number and advised him to call him after he was released. After 10 days, the man still had not called the deputy, nor had a sexual assault kit been received from Sparrow. The deputy closed the case without further investigation or a referral to a detective — which former law enforcement officials said does not align with standard investigative practices.
“This is really troubling,” said former Eaton County Sheriff Rick Jones. “That report should have, at the very least, been referred to the detectives. And why didn’t they get the sexual assault kit? That just makes no sense. This was not handled in the way I was trained or trained officers to handle sexual assault cases. This is bad.”
Jones, a former state legislator, challenged current Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich in 2020 but lost. In his analysis of the documents obtained by City Pulse, he said he found nothing to indicate that Reich had acted improperly.
Reich declined interview requests and did not respond to questions sent to him by email.
Before today, the records from Eaton County that detail Sadlak’s transportation to Sparrow Hospital from Decker’s red barn house on Grand Ledge Highway have not been reported.
In May 2019, WXYZ reported that on Dec. 1, 2018, Sadlak had called his family from the hospital parking lot. He was on a bench in shorts and a t-shirt. His family said he was desperate, so they checked him in at StoneCrest Center, a mental health facility in Detroit. They even called the facility to specifically warn them not to let Sadlak have contact with Decker. His father said Decker was “dangerous.”
Nonetheless, on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, Decker walked out of StoneCrest accompanied by Sadlak, who was, according to his family, on a host of mental health medications — including antidepressants and antipsychotics. Sadlak reportedly suffered a closed head injury in 2016 that left him agitated, suicidal and depressed. After landing on the streets, he began using drugs.
In the same May 2019 interview, the family told WXYZ that the more time their son spent around Decker, the more of a toll it took on his deteriorating mental health condition. The family did not respond to a request from City Pulse to be interviewed, which was sent to them through their son’s defense attorney.
After being picked up off the side of Grand Ledge Highway on Dec. 9, Sadlak was taken to the Delta Township substation and placed in an interview room, according to police reports.
At 9:38 that night, detectives Ted Johnson and Heather Stefan interviewed Sadlak, according to a heavily redacted supplemental report filed by Johnson. For at least a third time that night, Sadlak waived his rights. During the interview, Sadlak informed the detectives that he and Decker spoke daily about God. But Sadlak also said Decker was a pagan, and “some of the things he was doing was bringing negative energy to the house.” Sadlak went on to say that Decker was using his pagan traditions to “steal souls and blood,” and that Decker was “sneaky.”
By the time of the murder, Sadlak said, “the house was so filled with negative energy that, at that point, he was having conversations with it.” He told detectives it was “overwhelming.”
According to Johnson’s redacted supplemental reports, Sadlak also told the detectives about how Decker was taking some of his “soul” and how he learned that Decker had also stolen “the soul of the woman he was supposed to be with.” He also went on to tell detectives that this woman “had a child and that really hurt him because now he killed his wife and unborn child.”
Sadlak, according to reports from responding deputies and the 911 center, had made similar claims that Decker killed his “wife and unborn child.” At a preliminary hearing in April last year, Johnson testified that he had found no evidence to support any of these claims during his investigation, but he also testified he felt the statements were still “rational” remarks from Sadlak.
Following his interview with detectives, Sadlak was taken to the county jail on a murder charge. Five days before Christmas in 2018, his attorneys successfully argued for a competency exam.
After spending time at a state psychiatric facility in Ypsilanti, doctors there ruled he was not competent to assist in his own criminal defense, as did psychiatrists hired by his attorneys.
In September 2020, the court ruled that Sadlak was competent to assist in his own defense. After the preliminary hearing in Charlotte, Sadlak was sent to circuit court to face a murder charge. The murder trial was slated to begin on Aug. 1, but his defense team has since filed a request with the court to order another competency hearing, arguing that his mental health condition has deteriorated since being lodged in the county jail.
Sadlak’s defense team will face a judge Thursday (May 19) seeking another competency hearing for their client. Prosecutors are opposing the move, which would delay a planned Aug. 1 trial date. Conrad Vincent, one Sadlak’s defense attorneys, declined to discuss the case on the record, citing legal ethics. Vincent declined to make his client available for an interview for this story.
Decker’s husband and partner of 13 years Chadrick Decker also declined to comment. Facebook messages to Decker’s sister and half sister went without response.
Herman-Starnes said he understood why others might have repeatedly returned to Decker’s home despite the alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse he heaped on visitors. He said he personally thought of killing Decker “many times,” but “I didn’t have the balls to do it.”
“When you don’t have anybody and anything; they get you strung out on drugs and to the point where you’re so out of your mind you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore,” he said. “They just take advantage and they know what they’re doing. I don’t know. You just feel so lost at the same time. I talked about it in jail with my counselor. You kind of bond with your abuser.
“You hate them and you want them to die but at the same time, you need them. You rely on them for a place to eat; for a place to sleep, to use the bathroom, especially during winter you have a warm place to stay. But at the same time all of that, at the end of the day, they’re still abusing you, they’re still raping you, they’re still feeding you full of drugs,” Herman-Starnes said.
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