A Matter of Timing
written & narrated by Mark Bielecki
It was a sunny Saturday morning. The birds were singing, the flowers blooming and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A perfect day to go to the beach, take in a ball game or just go for a walk in the woods. So naturally I was sitting at my desk at State Police headquarters in Lansing catching up on the paperwork I’d been putting off all week. My name is Gregg Maguire. I’m a Captain in the Michigan State Police, in charge of the Special Investigations Division.
Around 8:30 the phone rang which was unusual for a Saturday morning.. The call was from Harvey Clement, Sheriff of Montcalm county. I’d talked with Harvey off-and-on over the last couple of years, after we’d met at a police training seminar and had dinner together. I’d told him that if he ever ran across a ‘puzzler’ of a case, to give me a call.
He runs a small department out of his office in Stanton, which is a small town about 50 miles Northwest of Lansing. The Montcalm County detective squad covers 705 square miles and is stretched pretty thin working on a wide variety of cases from auto theft to drug violations. He said he had a case where a man had died and he thought that the circumstances were suspicious. He told me that none of his detectives had experience with this type of death and asked me to drive over and take a look at it.
When I got there, Sheriff Clement took me to a hunting cabin on First Lake, which is the first in a chain of lakes in the aptly named Six Lakes area. We met with a man named Louis Yeager, owner of the cabin where the person had died.
Yeager had been a friend of Sheriff Clement for years. Clement told me that they’d worked together on charity functions around the county and that Yeager was always very supportive of his department.
The dead man’s name was Fred Fortin. He & Yeager were partners in a chain of retail sporting goods stores in the Grand Rapids area.
Yeager was extremely upset. He told us that Fortin was his closest friend and they’d been business partners since the early 1980’s. He said that they’d started in a cubby hole sized space in East Grand Rapids, which had grown to three locations throughout Kent County. The stores specialized in high-end outdoor sporting apparel, fishing tackle, and hunting equipment.
I asked him to tell me exactly what had happened. He started speaking, slowly at first and said “Our business did well early on. We had a couple of premium apparel lines that no one else in town had. Lately, sales were down because the internet offered the same brands at lower prices. Fred had become very depressed. We’d both invested everything we had in the stores, so if the business failed, we would both be on the brink of bankruptcy. It was so bad that Fred even talked about committing suicide.”
He took a deep breath and continued. “I was worried about him and suggested we come up here to my cabin. I thought the fresh air, exercise, and some fishing would do him good. Help snap him out of his funk, you know. We’d been here about three days and he seemed to be improving. He wasn’t as glum as he’d been and his appetite was getting better. He wanted to have a fish-fry, complete with coleslaw and hush puppies. His ‘can do’ attitude was coming back and I thought he’d turned a corner and was ready to take on the challenges again”
“Thursday morning we decided to go fishing at a trout stream that empties into the lake. We didn’t catch anything and after a couple of hours, he said he was going to try a stream about a half mile away. I thought that was a good idea and said I was going to try a different stream, kind of in the opposite direction. We joked that if we couldn’t catch the fish, at least we’d have them surrounded. We agreed we’d meet back at the cabin around lunchtime.”
“Well, my luck changed at my new fishing spot. I’d caught my limit by 11 o’clock and started back to the cabin. As I was getting nearer the cabin, I started to sense that there was trouble ahead. Something just felt wrong and I ran the rest of the way back. When I opened the door, I saw him. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. He was sitting at the table with white foam coming out of his mouth. His face was hideously contorted, like he was in incredible pain.”
He buried his face in his hands. “That sight will haunt me forever. I’d got there not five minutes after he did and there he was – dead. Why couldn’t I have been just a few minutes earlier?”
“What else did you notice?” I asked him.
“There was a bottle of Irish whiskey on the table and a glass. Both the glass and the bottle smelled of bitter almonds and I’d seen on TV that cyanide smells like that. It made me think that it was cyanide that he took. I thought he was getting better, that he was on his way back to being his old self again. Turns out I was wrong. He’d killed himself after all!”
I then asked “Have you had any visitors to the cabin?”
“No, not since we’ve been here” Yeager replied.
“Was Fortin a smoker?”
“How were his drinking habits? Was he a heavy drinker?”
“No. He’d have a couple of glasses of Bushmills at the end of the day, but nothing excessive.”
“What about doors and windows? Were they open or closed?”
“They were all closed. Why?”
“No particular reason. Just being thorough.” I replied.
“Sheriff, let’s take a look around outside. Maybe we can find something out there”.
When we were safely outside and out of Yeager’s earshot, I turned to Sheriff Clement.
“Harvey, I know this is going to be tough for you, especially since Yeager is a friend of yours. You need to detain him as a ‘person of interest’ in the murder of Fred Fortin.”
Sheriff Clement looked aghast! “Why?” he said.
“He’s lying. He said he got back to the cabin not five minutes after Fortin did. There’s no way for him to know when Fortin returned to the cabin. I also doubt that Fortin had talked about suicide with his business partner. If you look into it, I don’t think you’ll find anyone else that Fortin talked about suicide with. Finally, take a look at their partnership agreement. I’ll bet you’ll find that in the event of a partner’s death, the surviving partner becomes the sole owner of the business. I think this is plain, old fashioned murder for profit.”
I returned to Lansing and my day-to-day duties. I spoke with Harvey again about two weeks later. Turns out I was right. The detectives hadn’t found anyone that Fred Fortin had discussed suicide with. They also got a copy of the partnership agreement which did make the surviving partner the sole owner of the business in the event of a partner’s death.
The business was actually doing quite well – sales were not down because of the internet. Profits had gone down because Yeager was skimming them into a private account using phony purchase orders to a non-existent clothing supplier. It appears that Fortin was on the cusp of discovering Yeager’s embezzling and Yeager knew his theft would soon be exposed. He murdered Fortin in an attempt to cover it up.
When the detectives confronted Yeager with the evidence, he broke down and confessed. He pled guilty to murder in the second degree with a sentence of twenty-five years to life to avoid getting life without possibility of parole.