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The River: 6 Faces (Part 1)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – From Eric McGinnis in 1991, to Michael Williams earlier this year, mystery surrounds the deaths of at least 6 African-Americans from Benton Harbor in a 27-year period. All of their bodies were pulled from the water.

The ABC57 investigative team spent months sifting through thousands of pages of police reports and autopsies. Aside from McGinnis, the victims have what appear to be similar backgrounds. All of them had mental health and/or drug issues and they didn’t know how to swim.

“My brother was a minister at our church. He was a fun loving person. Always joking. Always loved to make people happy.” Michelle Travis, Michael Williams sister, said.

Travis was planning a family trip with her brother went missing.

“He was packed and everything.” She explained.

Instead, the day they planned to leave, she and her family filed a missing person’s report. It was May 9th of this year when Williams was last seen. A friend dropped him off in St. Joseph, near the intersection of Upton and North Upton Drives just before midnight.

“I don’t know why she took him over there.” Travis said.

Months later, it’s still not clear why. However, the police report shows at least rumors of a drug deal. By all accounts, he was not robbed. He had about $900 on him when he was dropped off. All of that cash and his cell phone was found in his pockets when his body was recovered, according to the autopsy report. But in an interview with the Benton Township Police Department, the female who gave Williams the ride told investigators that William’s told her “if she never saw him again, it would be another Steven Kraft situation.” Kraft is a boy who went missing in 2001 from Benton Township. The strange comment may be explained by a troubled mental state. Police documents says Williams suffered from Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia.

“With sleep and medication, he was okay.” Travis explained. She says Williams had his mental health issues under control when he went missing.

Williams did make a phone call after he was dropped off, asking for a ride, saying he had been “set up,” according to police interviews. His body was found in Lake Michigan 20 days later. The cause of death was listed as a probable drowning. The manner of death was listed as indeterminate.

That was nearly the same cause and manner of death for Willie Brand a year earlier.

“All the suspicions were, he was around the city dead somewhere. Nobody thought to check the water.” Canvas Smith, Brand’s daughter said.

Brand, who was homeless, was last seen on April 29th, 2017. He was staying at his cousin’s house on Searles Street. Smith says her father has some obvious problems.

“(History of drugs), alcoholic, (he had just found out), he had cancer.” She explained.

Police reports show a history of drug and alcohol abuse too. And, according to one woman who worked at the old Chase Bank, Brand may have had a history of falling in the river as well. In an interview with police, she told investigators that Brand had walked into the bank “wet” a couple of months before he disappeared. She claims he told her that he had fallen in the river.

Brand’s body was found in the river a month-and-a-half after he went missing. The police report shows “now signs of trauma or foul play.” The autopsy shows two cuts above the eyes, but lists them as happening after his death.

“He has had a lot harder time in life than he was having then, and he made it through it. And, I don’t think he killed himself.” Smith said.

Then, there was 39-year-old Alonda Brown. She was last seen at her apartment on East High Street. According to the missing person’s report, she had recently lost custody of her children. Her boyfriend also found what appeared to be a suicide note.

Fishermen found her body 3 miles off shore a-month-and-a-half later. Her cause of death was determined to be drowning. The manner was mixed on different documents. It was listed as a suicide on the autopsy and accidental on her death certificate.

“He was laid back, cool, loved to exercise and plan for the future.” Arika Davis said of Dewayne Flowers who went missing in November, 2013.

Davis and Flowers were dating and living together at the time of his disappearance. When she came home from work one night, he was simply gone.

“I immediately started calling his phone, didn’t get no answer.” She said.

He was on parole and was not supposed to be out of the house at that time. The last communication Davis received was a cryptic text message several hours later.

“Saying that ‘I got myself into something and I can’t get out of it.’” She explained. Davis has doubts Flowers even wrote the text himself.

Amateur divers found his body in the river 3 weeks later. The medical examiner’s report list drugs as the cause of death. The manner of death is, once again, a mystery.

“He would not walk that bridge, because he couldn’t swim.” Jacqueline Perry, the cousin of Timothy “Bulldog” Allen, said. Allen, a 44-year-old homeless man with drug and alcohol problems, went missing in November, 2011.

Allen was last seen leaving Lakeland Hospital. Perry says he was admitted for a mental episode.

“He was out of his mind. He was not hisself.” She said.

Police reports show Allen left the hospital on his own accord about 45-minutes after he arrived. But, he was lingering in the parking garage. Eventually security called the St. Joseph Police Department. Officers then escorted Allen to the Napier Avenue bridge. According to police documents, Allen was last seen crossing the bridge by a St. Joseph Township officer, who watched him walk near Blackhawk Trail. Allen’s body was found in the water more than a month-and-a-half later. His death was ruled an accident. Perry thinks something more sinister happened to Allen and the others.

“We may have a serial killer around here.” She said.

Click here to read past stories from The River: A Real Time Investigation and listen to the podcasts.

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