In the spring of 1991, Michigan State Police formed a task force to investigate a series of abductions and sexual assaults that had occurred hundreds of miles apart in several counties located in the southeastern and central portions of the state.
In each case, a man drove up to teen-aged boys and girls, asked for directions, then forced the victims into his car at gunpoint, made them put tape over their eyes and later forced them to engage in oral sex with him.
In August 1990, a man chased after a vehicle in Monroe County after he saw what he believed was an attempted abduction of a seven-year-old girl. The vehicle escaped, but the witness said he thought it was a Ford.
A 14-year-old boy reported being abducted and assaulted on March 12, 1991, in Ingham County. He said the car was a two-door vehicle. On May 10, 1991, an 18-year-old woman reported a similar attack in Hillsdale County. She said the man forced her to remove her underwear and perform oral sex on him. Afterward, the man returned her clothing and drove off in what she said was a four-door Chevrolet Cavalier.
Other similar attacks were reported in Saginaw County as well.
Police said they got a break on June 29, 1991, when a 13-year-old girl reported that she had been forced into a car in Monroe County, but managed to escape by climbing over the front seat and leaping out the back door of the moving vehicle. Based on her description of the car, which she said bore a Michigan license plate, police believed the car was a four-door Oldsmobile Calais with a white exterior and a blue interior. Police determined that about 18 such cars had been sold in Michigan and Ohio and obtained ownership information for the cars.
One of the cars was owned by the wife of 49-year-old Thomas Sawyer, a resident of Beverly, Michigan who had no criminal record and managed a G. Whillikers restaurant in Oakland County, Michigan.
The car was put in a line-up of cars and was selected by the man who witnessed the August 1990 attempted abduction in Monroe County—even though he had initially said he saw a Ford.
Not long after the May 10 attack in Hillsdale County, policed showed the victim a photo line-up and she selected as her attacker the photograph of a former Michigan State police officer who had been convicted of a sex offense and acquitted of two sexual assaults of young girls.
But after Sawyer’s car was picked in the car line-up, the woman was brought to a live line-up that included Sawyer and five police officers. The woman was unable to identify Sawyer by his appearance, but she said she believed she recognized his voice as that of her attacker.
The 14-year-old boy from Ingham County identified Sawyer as did the 13-year-old from Monroe County. On October 21, 1991, Sawyer was arrested and charged in all three incidents with kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct and illegal use of a firearm.
In June 1992, Sawyer went on trial before a jury in Hillsdale County on the charges involving the 18-year-old woman. Just days before trial, the prosecution turned over several dozen pages of forensic reports to the defense, one of which said that semen and saliva had been found on the victim’s underwear.
When Sawyer’s lawyer asked for DNA testing to be performed, the prosecutor told the judge that the police investigator on the case had spoken to the victim about the biological evidence, who said the semen and saliva belonged to a boyfriend.
When the judge asked a Michigan State Police laboratory analyst what testing might show, the analyst said, “I would be able to test the seminal stain versus the blood and saliva of Thomas Sawyer and the saliva of the boyfriend, the alleged boyfriend, and also the victim. We would be able to narrow down, include or exclude the boyfriend (or) Thomas Sawyer.”
The judge refused to allow the testing requesting by the defense to be performed.
On the witness stand, the victim, despite her earlier difficulty in identifying Sawyer, pointed to him at the defense table as her attacker. The victim testified that she had put on clean clothes the morning of the attack and gave them to police immediately after the attack—an inconsistency the defense attacked.
The prosecution also presented a jail inmate who testified that prior to trial, he and Sawyer were locked up together and Sawyer admitted to the assault.
In his defense, Sawyer said he was at the G. Whillikers restaurant that he managed in Oakland County more than 100 miles away. Five witnesses, some of whom worked at the restaurant, verified that he was at work at the time of the attack.
On June 15, 1992, the jury convicted Sawyer of kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison on the kidnapping and sexual conduct charges and a consecutive sentence of two years for the weapons charge.
In November 1992, Sawyer was convicted by a jury in Ingham County for the attack on the 14-year-old boy, despite defense witnesses who testified Sawyer was in Oakland County at the time. He was sentenced to life in prison.
At a later trial, Sawyer was acquitted of the incident in Monroe County.
More than two years after his conviction in the Hillsdale case, Sawyer’s lawyer filed a Freedom of Information request with the Michigan State police and obtained forensic records showing that prior to Sawyer’s trial, despite the prosecution claim that no tests had been performed, police crime laboratory analysts actually had performed blood tests on the semen and saliva found on the victim’s underwear. The tests, according to the records, had excluded Sawyer as the source of the semen. No tests had been done to determine the source of the saliva.
After his conviction in the Hillsdale case was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals, Sawyer filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging his trial was unfair because of the prosecution’s failure to disclose the evidence of the exclusion.
A federal judge rejected the claim, but in August 2002, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Sawyer’s conviction. The court noted that the victim had testified to wearing clean clothing on the day of the attack and giving those clothes immediately to police after the attack. “She also testified that the perpetrator had handed her clothing and underwear back to her after making her take them off,” the court said.
The court held that the existence of a semen stain on the victim’s underwear from a source other than Sawyer would have been favorable to him because the attacker would have wiped or cleaned himself with the underwear before handing it back to the victim.
In February 2003, the charges were dismissed. Sawyer remained in prison, serving the life sentence imposed in the Ingham County case.
– Maurice Possley