Cover StoryNo smoking gun
Lee Beck was alone in her West Bloomfield home when the call came from the Detroit Police detective. He was phoning to assure her that he was “on the case,” determined to find those responsible for robbing and shooting her husband, Jack Beck, at his business 17 days before.
As the conversation wound to a close, the investigator posed a question that struck her like a punch to the stomach:
“By the way,” he said, “how is your husband doing?”
Jack Beck had been dead for 10 days.
Weeks later, two Detroit Police executives went to her home to apologize, and to assure her they’d do everything they could to find whoever had killed her husband of 39 years.
But the detective’s ignorance of the fact that he was even dealing with a homicide was a harbinger of an investigation that seemed to founder from the start.
The murder of Jack Beck has never been solved. There have been no arrests. Until this week, the investigative file was in storage.
It’s a cold case, meaning that the killer or killers have little to worry about unless someone comes forward with new and compelling information.
But somebody already tried to do just that.
Jack Beck was a workaholic. Though he was 75 and had vowed to retire and close his business within months, he showed no overt signs of slowing down. His work ethic and affinity for people had served him well in the rough-and-tumble scrap-metal trade. He and his wife had raised three sons and put them through college. He owned a lovely home in a tony neighborhood — a place that seemed light-years from his gritty establishment, Baseline Metals, 3600 E. Eight Mile Road.
On Friday, Feb. 25, 2000, Beck did what he’d done almost every day for 25 years. He went to his business to open for the day. Because scrap salvage is a cash business, and the neighborhood around his shop is crime-ridden, he carried a handgun. He also carried a bank bag.
Tom Dombecki, a Baseline employee, found Beck unconscious and bleeding on the floor inside his shop and called 911. Emergency medical technicians transported Beck to Detroit Receiving Hospital, where he would have surgery to remove a single bullet that entered his head about 2 inches above his right ear.
Dombecki says that no police officers had arrived at the scene a half-hour later after he raised the alarm, so he flagged down a passing patrol car. He also called Jack Beck’s youngest son, Michael, and told him what had happened.
When police arrived, they found a pool of blood, the blue bank bag (minus any cash) as well as Beck’s holstered, fully loaded .38-caliber revolver, which medics apparently had set aside. His blood-spattered glasses were on the floor.
Michael Beck and his oldest brother Jeffrey rushed to the hospital to learn of their father’s grave injuries. That afternoon, they went to Baseline Metals at the request of the police to close the shop. What they found shocked them.
“There’s no way you could call the crime scene secure,” Michael Beck says. “It was chaotic. You had people from the neighborhood inside the fence, in the yard, walking through everything. The news people were there. People from next door walked right into the business when we were there.”
Jack Beck’s survivors quickly began to lose confidence in the Detroit Police Department’s conduct of the investigation.
“They missed the most elementary aspects of the case,” Michael Beck says.
After two years of grieving, writing letters of complaint to police brass and waiting for signs of progress, the family hired a private investigator to look into the matter.
That investigator, himself a former Detroit homicide detective, was appalled by what he would discover.
“As far as screw-ups go, this case is way at the top of the list,” the private investigator, S. Hutnick, says. “Just one classic error after another.”
Hutnick was a member of the Detroit Police force for 26 years, including six as a detective in the homicide division. He retired from the force in 1996 to start a new career as a private investigator.
After spending about 40 hours investigating the Jack Beck case, he gave the family a written report. Then, and now, Hutnick lambastes Detroit police investigators for:
• Failing to monitor Jack Beck’s condition after he was transported to Detroit Receiving. “At the beginning of every shift, it’s the detective’s responsibility to call the hospital to get an update on the victim’s condition. Obviously, this wasn’t done,” Hutnick says.
• Failing to recover the bullet removed from Beck during surgery on the day he was taken to Detroit Receiving. This slug would have given investigators the opportunity to determine the type of weapon used; if a suspected weapon were ever found, ballistics tests could be conducted on it.
Inspector Marilyn Hall-Beard, who became the head of DPD’s homicide division in July, says the investigative file contains no reference to a bullet being recovered or placed into evidence.
Sharyl Miller, a spokeswoman at Detroit Receiving, says any evidentiary material removed from patients is turned over to hospital security officials, who then pass it on to police. She has no idea what might have happened to the bullet removed from Jack Beck. “Security bags it up and gives it to police. It’s not here,” Miller says.
• Failing to properly secure the crime scene.
• Failing to process the bank bag for fingerprints, DNA or other evidence. The pouch was returned to the family shortly after Beck died; the family assumed it had been properly examined. Tests were not conducted for more than two years after the crime, after Hutnick began working on the case. The family had to return the bag to the police so the tests could be carried out. No fingerprints or DNA were detected.
• Failing to locate and interview all the employees of Baseline Metals.
• Failing to check phone records to learn locations from which calls were made to Baseline Metals that day.
• Failing to capitalize on the best lead they had received — from a man who claimed he’d witnessed the crime, and knew who was responsible.
Five months after Jack Beck was killed, Vestal “Billy” Gibbins walked into the Detroit Police Department and told investigators a bizarre tale.
According to transcripts of detectives’ two separate interviews with Gibbins, the then-29-year-old said he hadn’t come forward sooner because the man he would allege to be the shooter was his girlfriend’s brother and the uncle of their three children. He was worried for his own safety and the safety of his kids.
Gibbins told detectives he was driving on Eight Mile Road early on the morning of Feb. 25, 2000, when he noticed his girlfriend’s brother, John McGuire, and half-brother, Jack Burnette, in a car near Baseline Metals. Burnette had been working for Jack Beck at Baseline for 14 years.
Gibbins said the sight of the two of them together made him suspicious, so he parked his car across Eight Mile and watched. He said McGuire dropped Burnette off at a distance, then parked near Baseline Metals and waited.
Gibbins said that when Jack Beck arrived and opened the gate to his scrap yard, McGuire approached him. He said the men began to argue, then struggle.
“Then I seen John with a gun in his hand. Then John shot Jack Beck. Jack Beck kinda stagger[ed] back, kinda turned[,] stumble then fell,” the transcript says. “John walked up on Jack. Started going through Jack Beck’s pockets. I seen John remove something from Jack Beck’s person. Then I seen John run out of the scrap yard. I seen John run to a parked car. …”
After McGuire drove off, Gibbins said, he saw Burnette walking toward Baseline as though he were going to work. Gibbins said he drove off.
Gibbins said he decided to give police his statement because his conscience had been bothering him, and he believed McGuire and Burnette belonged behind bars.
Detectives gave Gibbins a polygraph test. He passed.
Hutnick, the private investigator, believes Detroit detectives discounted Gibbins’ story because one of them went to the spot where he believed Gibbins was positioned, but couldn’t see the entrance to Baseline Metals.
“The detective went to the wrong spot,” Hutnick says.
But had he? In his initial statement, made July 4, 2000, Gibbins said he had parked next to the Suez Motel. From a cul-de-sac east of the motel, the entrance and yard of Baseline Metals is visible. In a follow-up interview two days later, however, Gibbins said he had parked next to a Long John Silver’s restaurant. The Baseline Metals yard is not readily visible from this location.
Gibbins would have made a problematic witness for other reasons as well. He had ample motive for implicating McGuire and Burnette. It would be an understatement to say there was bad blood between Gibbins and the half-brothers, particularly between Gibbins and McGuire, who had accused Gibbins of abusing his sister and had threatened Gibbins because of it.
But one detail provided by Gibbins is startling.
At the close of his first interview with police, he was asked again if he’d seen McGuire take money from Jack Beck.
“Yes,” Gibbins responded, “a wad of cash in a rubber band.”
Michael Beck, who worked at Baseline Metals off and on for 25 years, says his father kept cash in rubber-banded rolls. And because Friday and Saturday were the busiest days at Baseline, Michael Beck says, his father would have been carrying $3,000 to $4,000.
Gibbins’ statement seems as ludicrous as it is compelling. It’s difficult to believe he could have seen such a fine detail from across Eight Mile Road. Yet his knowledge of this specific fact is tantalizing, to say the least.
According to transcripts of his interviews, detectives did nothing to pin Gibbins down on the rubber-banded cash detail. And it’s impossible to do so now. Months after he implicated McGuire and Burnette, Gibbins suffered a brutal beating that left him with the mental capacity of a 6-year-old, his mother, Rhonda Brown, says.
Gibbins died July 26, 2002, at the age of 31. The autopsy report says the cause was “multiple drugs intoxication and complications thereof,” including aspiration pneumonia. He apparently vomited food into his lungs.
Police detectives asked the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for warrants against McGuire and Burnette in September 2001.
Eric Restuccia, who was then a Wayne County prosecutor, reviewed the warrant request and denied it. Restuccia, who is now with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, says he nixed the warrant because Gibbins was the sole source, and he was not considered lucid after the beating.
“He wasn’t able to articulate anything,” Restuccia says. “If it’s the kind of case where he’s not able to describe what he’s seen, his credibility is at issue. His ability to interact was very limited. It’s almost like he suffered profound cognition loss.”
Restuccia says the Beck family’s inquiries with Detroit police may have prompted investigators to request a warrant before enough evidence had been compiled.
“Sometimes the police department wants there to be an official response from the prosecutor,” he says. “If they are getting pressure from the family, they can turn it over to the prosecutor and let the prosecutor make the decision.”
Rustuccia eventually met with Hutnick and the members of the Beck family to review new information Hutnick had dug up. But their meeting came in September 2002, two months after Gibbins had died.
Restuccia, Hutnick and Steve Dolunt, a Detroit Police detective who revisited the case in 2002, all agree that Gibbins’ knowledge of the rubber-banded cash made them suspect he might have been more than a bystander.
“Was he involved?” Restuccia says, refering to Gibbins. “This is speculation. I don’t mean to defame this man. He’s dead. But you often have witnesses who will give you truthful information about other people’s involvement, but lie about their own.”
Rhonda Brown, Gibbins’ mother, says the notion that her son would do anything in concert with McGuire or Burnette is absurd.
“My son could not stand them, not any of them,” she says. “My son never got along with them.”
She claims the man who beat her son on Feb. 9, 2001, was a friend of McGuire and Burnette.
That incident occurred in Warren, where Gibbins had gone to retrieve mail from a trailer Brown owned. While doing so, he encountered a neighbor, John Yuhanna Daniel, and the pair argued.
According to a Warren police report, Gibbins alleged that Daniel had a “snow shovel in his hands and Daniel then struck him in the mouth with the shovel, causing him to fall to the ground. Gibbins stated he then covered his head with his jacket while Daniel struck him several times on the back with the shovel.”
Daniel told police that Gibbins had slapped him. “Daniel then stated he lifted shovel he was holding in attempt to defend himself/scare Gibbins away but he never hit Gibbins with it,” the report states.
A witness told police that she saw Daniel strike Gibbins in the head with the shovel and then kick him after he had fallen.
Though police initially recommended that Daniel be charged with aggravated assault, prosecutors declined to do so. No charges were ever filed.
Brown says that if her son had been involved in any crime, he would have told her.
“He tells me when he does anything wrong,” Brown says. “My kids could tell me anything they wanted and I would not get down on them and degrade them as a person.”
After the beating, she says, Gibbins lived with her in Lake Orion for the last year and a half of his life.
On the morning Gibbins died, his mother says, he was sleeping in the living room. She heard him stop snoring, and expected him to get up.
“But he didn’t get up,” Brown says. “I went to check on him and it looked like he had a little milk ring across the top of his lip. I walked straight to the kitchen and back with a wet paper towel, and then I saw he was turning colors. I started screaming at my husband. He started doing CPR. I watched him die right there. …
“We went over to the medical examiner. He said he died because he was overmedicated. He said my son had done either heroin or morphine. He made a sign with his fingers like he was giving himself a shot in the arm. He made me so mad. I said, ‘You are so fucking stupid. If he’s like a 6- or 8-year-old, how the hell did he give himself a shot? Don’t you think you should check for needle marks before you say that?’ I said, ‘You’re a fucking liar. If you would have said he had weed in his system, I would have believed you.’”
There is no mention of needle marks on Gibbins in the autopsy report.
John Patrick McGuire, 38, sits in the living room of his mother’s Hazel Park home, which is situated about a mile north of the old Baseline Metals shop.
Though Gibbins had named him as the alleged shooter in July 2000, Detroit police did not question McGuire for more than two years. Hutnick’s fresh investigation led them to do so. When they did, they had to bring him to Detroit from Jackson State Prison, where he had been sentenced to 1-to-10 years for larceny.
“I’m no angel,” he admits. “I’ve done a lot of things wrong.”
But shooting and robbing Jack Beck is not one of them, he insists.
McGuire’s offenses include convictions for unarmed robbery in 1991, possession of cocaine in 1992, possessing stolen property in 1993, home invasion in 1996 (he went to Jackson after pleading guilty in that case), and larceny in 2001 (for which he went back to Jackson).
McGuire makes no secret of his antipathy for Gibbins, or even his disdain for Jack Beck, whom, he believes, took advantage of his half-brother, Jack Burnette.
But he denies that he or Burnette had anything to do with Beck’s murder.
“I wound up being a victim,” says McGuire, who’s been out of prison for six months and is now working in a factory.
“If you want to point your finger at anyone in this case, it’s the Detroit Police Department.”
McGuire says he was living in Novi, working for a furniture company at the time Beck was shot. McGuire says he met Jack Beck once in the early ’90s, when he sold him some aluminum, but hadn’t seen him since.
He says he’d like to sympathize with the Beck family for their loss and their desire for justice. But he also says he believes the Becks’ “money and power” and their constant pressure on Detroit police had created a “witch-hunt” that had focused erroneously on himself and his half-brother.
“They want to hang somebody and they don’t care if it’s the right person or not,” he says.
He claims that when he was taken from prison to Detroit to be interviewed in June 2002, he offered to take a polygraph test.
“They said there was no reason to give me the test,” he says. “They said they were basically trying to cover their asses.”
So he was outraged to discover that Detroit police turned around and asked the Parole Board to deny his scheduled November 2002 release until the futile DNA tests on the bank bag were finally complete.
“I spent five months extra in prison for something I had nothing to do with,” McGuire says.
And not just any prison. He was transferred to a maximum-security lockup, where many of the inmates were doing life terms. Most of the inmates were black, he says, gesturing to the Confederate flag tattooed on his calf.
“Anything can happen on any day in there,” he says. “People get stabbed. If you have to fight for your life, you get a fighting ticket, and then you get an extra year. ... I slept with a knife.”
McGuire says he does not know Daniel, the man who beat his accuser, Gibbins.
But, “I’d like to buy him a beer. I’d like to buy him a sports car,” McGuire says.
He says when he heard that Gibbins had died, he thought, “It couldn’t have happened to a better guy. He was a real lowlife. ... He tried to put me in prison for the rest of my life for something I didn’t do. He would do any cowardly thing he could. For all the aggravation he’s caused me, fuck him.”
McGuire says Gibbins accused him of the murder because McGuire had threatened him over Gibbins’ treatment of his sister.
“One time [Gibbins] called over here and I told him, ‘If you ever come on this block, your momma will have someplace to go on Memorial Day,’” McGuire says. “After that, he stayed away from me.” And away from McGuire’s sister, Misty, and Gibbins’ three children, all of whom were living on Tawas Avenue in Hazel Park.
McGuire says Gibbins had good reason to want him behind bars, and he may have believed he would get a reward, though none has been offered.
Jack Beck, McGuire says, exploited his half-brother, Jack Burnette, after Burnette’s feet and ankles were badly injured in an accident at Baseline. He underwent three surgeries, but settled for only $12,000 in workman’s compensation, which was a pittance considering the debilitating nature of the injury, McGuire says.
Yet he says his half-brother refused to sue Beck, whom he “thought the world of. ... But I had a different opinion of the man.”
He says Beck had disingenuously offered to make Burnette a partner in Baseline.
He “was always selling Jack [Burnette] hope. ... He had him buffaloed,” McGuire says.
Detroit detectives did interview Jack Burnette two days after Jack Beck was shot. He denied any involvement or knowledge of the crime.
When Gibbins came forward and made his accusations, they questioned him again and administered a polygraph test, which Burnette passed.
Of course, Gibbins passed a polygraph too. The contradiction helps illustrate why lie-detector tests are not admissible in court. Since one accused the other of being involved in the murder, and the other denied being involved, one of them clearly was lying.
Burnette declined to be interviewed for this story, but his mother, Dacie McGuire, is not so reticent.
She says if her sons were responsible for Jack Beck’s murder, she’d want them locked up. But she is certain they weren’t.
She readily admits that her son John McGuire has had his share of trouble with the law.
“He’s been into a lot of mischief,” she says. “John is a drugger, and he’s fought heroin all his life. He might have tried to rob [Beck], but he wouldn’t have killed him. I’m not one to say my kids wouldn’t do something. ...
“If John needs money, he’ll take stuff out of here [her home], because he knows I won’t press charges,” she says.
As for the morning of shooting, she says Burnette was at her home.
“This was a cold, rainy morning,” she says. “Jack came in the kitchen and asked if I had any Darvocet. He has to walk around an hour or so before he gets his feet to moving. I said, ‘You can’t go to work when you’re in pain like this. Why don’t you call in?’ So he did. He called down to Jack’s place [Baseline Metals] and asked if Jack was there. Whoever answered said he wasn’t. So Jack said he’d call back. Couple hours later someone from work called him and asked if he’d heard that Jack Beck had been killed.”
After repeated visits from investigators, she says, she’d had enough.
“Detectives kept coming around,” she says, “and I told the boys, ‘Don’t implicate yourself in anything you don’t have to.’ Jack is gullible. I was afraid they’d try to trick him. He’s soft-hearted and gullible. … My youngest grandchild could knock Jack down. He washes dishes because he can’t do anything else because of his feet. Jack drinks a lot. It’s the only thing that eases the pain in his feet. He drinks himself into a stupor and sleeps.
“Jack [Burnette] couldn’t have done anything to hurt Jack Beck because he thought so well of him. And John wouldn’t have gone down there to jeopardize Jack’s job.”
She says she considered Gibbins, father of three of her grandchildren, “a stone idiot. ... He caused my family so much misery. He’d only come around long enough to get my daughter pregnant, then he’d leave again. And he whipped my daughter so many times. The best thing that ever happened to those kids is he died.”
Of the three Beck boys, Michael worked at Baseline most recently. He says there was always an element of danger around the scrap yard.
“Guns weren’t out of the norm down there,” he says. “Most commonly, it was a switchblade. That and liquor, drugs, every day.”
He is uncertain who shot his father.
“The only thing I do know is that Jack Burnette had something to do with it,” Michael Beck says.
He says that Burnette, who had worked for his father longer than anyone else, had recently done a stretch in jail for a parole violation. When he was freed, Jack Beck gave him his job back. But Burnette soon learned that Jack Beck intended to close Baseline Metals, and Jack Beck rebuffed Burnette’s suggestion that he be allowed to run the business. Burnette’s days of employment there were numbered, Michael Beck says.
Furthermore, he says, his father told him that he had learned that Burnette was stealing materials from the yard.
“My father attempted a few months prior to get him [Burnette] arrested for it. He had the witnesses,” Michael Beck says. “But the cops said, ‘Hey, if we don’t catch him in the act, there’s nothing we can do.’
“Burnette knew that he [Jack Beck] was tying to get him in trouble. He knew the place was going to be shutting down. He was going to be the big loser.”
Two days after Jack Beck was shot, Burnette told police investigators that he had been fired a few years before for stealing, but that he and Jack Beck had since patched things up and there had been no more problems.
“I really think the robbery was payback,” Michael Beck says. “I don’t think he [Burnette] ever intended for my father to get shot, but I definitely think he intended to rob him. He’s the only person I’ve ever thought had something to do with it.”
Michael Beck says his suspicions are reinforced by the fact that Burnette called in sick the Friday Jack Beck was shot — a payday.
“That was my biggest red flag, that he called in,” Michael Beck says. “I worked with him for over 10 years. He never called in. He just didn’t show up.”
Neither did Burnette ever seek payment for the days he had worked at Baseline in the week before the shooting, Michael Beck says.
And though Burnette presented the private investigator with a card indicating that he was “vice president” of Baseline, though Burnette’s mother and half-brother attest to his fondness for his employer, Burnette did not attend Jack Beck’s funeral.
During World War II, Jack Beck, a native Detroiter, was a member of the famed Merrill’s Marauders, the all-volunteer outfit that harassed and defeated the Japanese in the forbidding jungles of Burma. Every man in the unit received the Bronze Star.
After the war, he returned to Detroit. He was working in the circulation department of the now-defunct Detroit Times when he met his future wife on a blind date. He was 38. She was 28.
“He made me nervous because I knew I liked him,” Lee Beck says. “When we danced, I was stepping all over his feet.”
Jack Beck went into business with his brother. They owned a bar and then a liquor store in Detroit. But his brother died of cancer in the ’70s, and a friend advised Beck to get into the scrap trade. He did, and his business flourished, in part because he could get along with all kinds of people.
He was not above sharing a shot or a beer with a customer or one of his employees in his office.
“My dad was a great guy,” says Jeffrey Beck, the eldest son. “He was well-respected by a lot of people. He always loved to joke around with people. He was very easygoing. He had a lot of friends.
“He loved his family. He was very close with us. He was like the worrywart. He was the one who would stay up and wait for me to come home.”
He worked hard himself, and he respected hardworking people of every stripe.
“One night we went out to dinner at Carl’s Chop House, and we were almost home when he decided he hadn’t left enough for a tip. He turned around, went back and left more money for the waitress,” Jeffrey Beck says.
His compassion extended even to the girls working the hardscrabble stretch of Eight Mile where his business was located.
“There’d be girls — prostitutes — walking around in the winter,” Jeffrey Beck says. “He’d let them come in and get warm, warm up their hands and stuff.”
He collected stamps and coins. But his true avocation was the study of religion.
“He was fascinated by different religions. People would come up to him and talk to him about religion,” Jeffrey Beck says. “You’d walk through the airport with him, and you could guarantee he’d stop and talk to someone. And nine times out of 10, he’d give them some money.”
Yet Jack Beck did not assiduously practice his own religion, Judaism, though son Jeffrey says he would observe the High Holidays.
“He wanted us to learn the traditions,” he says, adding that when his sons came of age, he let them decide if they wanted bar mitzvahs.
A few years back, one of his sons entered him in a contest that sought look-alikes for Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s restaurant chain. Jack Beck was one of five finalists.
“The prize was, he and I went to New York,” Lee Beck says. “They put us up in a nice hotel and we had a long weekend there. They took us out to dinner. We had our own limo. He was thrilled with that. He hardly took any time off work, but because he’d won that contest, he closed the place for the weekend.”
Inspector Marilyn Hall-Beard, the new chief of Detroit’s homicide division, is a busy woman. There have been nearly 300 homicides in the city so far in 2003. She says about half of those investigations have been closed, a ratio that stacks up well in comparison with other big city departments.
She had never seen the file on the Jack Beck murder case until Monday. A cursory review leaves her perplexed.
“The unfortunate thing is that physical evidence that we could have utilized may have been lost,” she says with a sigh.
“I’m a little discouraged at the case management.”
She believes that Gibbins’ statements might have been given too much weight.
“It seems like we developed tunnel vision, and we weren’t looking to all avenues,” Hall-Beard says.
She says she intends to take the case and give it back to the cold case squad.
“I’ll let them review it and see where we can go,” she says. “Once they take it, they’ll have to start all over again.”
Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.