On June 26, 1987, 65-year-old Robert Karey, a marijuana dealer known as “Old Man Bob,” was slain by shotgun fire in his home on Minden Street in Detroit, Michigan. Eighteen-year-old Todd Knapp, from Grosse Pointe, who had recently begun living with Karey and helping him with his business, was in the home at the time but did not see the gunman.
Knapp told police he was at a kitchen table packaging marijuana and sorting the bags by weight into several buckets when he heard Karey answer the back door and someone demand something. Karey then said, “I’m dead this time. I’m really dead” followed by a shotgun blast. Knapp ran upstairs and heard a second blast.
Police found a sawed-off 20-guage shotgun on the kitchen table but it was not tested for prints because it was considered contaminated after a police officer handled it and set it aside.
Karey was known to make as much as $900 in a night catering to white youths from Gross Pointe and Detroit’s East side and usually kept the day’s earnings in his pockets. He was carrying less than $40 when police found his body.
Thomas Culberson, a security guard who had gone to Karey’s house to purchase marijuana at about the same time as the shooting, told police he saw two white men run from the house and drive off.
Not long after the shooting, Jamie Lawrence, who was in jail on an unrelated charge, heard about Karey’s death and asked to speak to a detective. Lawrence said that two or three weeks before the murder, he heard 21-year-old Thomas Highers
talk about robbing Karey and, if necessary, killing him.
According to Lawrence Highers and his 20-year-old brother, Raymond, were customers of Karey’s and Raymond owed Karey $1,000.
Two days after the murder, Culberson viewed a photographic lineup and identified Raymond Highers as the driver of the car he saw speeding away from Karey’s home. Culberson failed to pick out Thomas Highers.
The Highers were arrested and charged with the murder of Karey, assault with intent to murder Knapp and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Both went on trial in February 1988 before a judge who heard the case without a jury.
Culberson said he heard a gunshot and saw Raymond Highers and a person who resembled Thomas Highers flee from Karey’s home. He said they drove off in a light-colored Dodge Omni or Plymouth Horizon automobile.
Lawrence testified that he heard Thomas Highers talk about robbing Karey approximately two or three weeks before the murder and heard Highers say that if necessary, he would kill Karey. Another witness, Hattie Williams, testified that Thomas Highers had a vicious argument with Karey and threatened to kill him two or three days prior to the murder.
Raymond testified in his own defense and denied that he or Thomas were involved in the murder. He admitted that he had purchased marijuana from Karey on one occasion in May 1987 and that he had given numerous people rides to Karey’s home—perhaps as many as 30 times—so they could purchase marijuana.
Raymond said that he and Thomas left their home in Flat Rock, Michigan to drive to Detroit on the evening of June 26 at about 9:30 p.m., purchased some crack cocaine and went to the home of a friend, David Conway, to get high. Later, he and Thomas drove to Karey’s home to try to borrow some money, but the police were there, so they turned around and left. Conway testified that when the brothers returned, they reported that police were raiding Karey’s home. Thomas did not testify at the trial. Two other witnesses testified that on that evening, the Highers loaded some wicker chairs into their car and drove off to sell them to get money to purchase more cocaine.
Prosecutors argued that the Highers brothers had formerly lived in the neighborhood, had since moved away, but still returned to purchase drugs from Karey. The brothers, the prosecution claimed, killed and robbed Karey in a dispute over money.
On March 4, 1988, Judge Terrance Boyle convicted Thomas and Raymond Highers on all counts – first degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony – although he said it was a close case. The judge said he did not find Lawrence credible and ultimately relied on Culberson’s identification. The Highers brothers were both sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder, plus consecutive terms of 12½ to 25 years for the assault and two years for possession of a firearm.
In 2009, years after their convictions were upheld on appeal, Kevin Zieleniewski, an attorney and former resident of Detroit, came across a posting on Facebook describing the Highers’ case, how they were serving life in prison and how both maintained their innocence.
Reading the posting triggered a memory. Zieleniewski recalled a conversation in 1993 or 1994 when he was attending law school in Detroit. His roommate, John Hielscher, told him that he had been at Karey’s on the night Karey was killed. Hielscher said that he went to Karey’s with some high school friends to buy marijuana, but they were scared off when four black youths, one with a pistol and one with a long gun, told them to leave. As they fled, Hielscher said, they heard a gunshot. They never told the police because they were afraid.
Zieleniewski reconnected with Hielscher and also reached out to the Highers brothers and their attorney. Ultimately, Hielscher agreed to come forward and testify on behalf of the Highers who filed a motion for a new trial.
At a hearing on the motion held in Wayne County Circuit Court in March 2012, Zieleniewski and Hielscher testified as did James Gianunzio. Hielscher and Gianunzio testified that on the night of the killing, they were recent graduates of Grosse Pointe North High School and went Karey’s home in a friend’s Plymouth Horizon to purchase marijuana.
The two testified they had reached the back door of Karey’s home when they saw four black men, two of them armed, coming toward them. Hielscher said he heard a gunshot as they ran away.
Highers’ attorneys, Valerie Newman and Janet Napp, argued that the testimony showed that the white men that Culberson saw at Karey’s house the night he was killed were actually Hielscher and Gianunzio rather than Thomas and Raymond Highers.
In July 2012, Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon rejected the prosecution argument that the witnesses were lying as part of a conspiracy to free the Highers brothers and granted the motion for a new trial. The judge said the testimony was credible and that the two white males seen fleeing Karey’s home were not the killers and were not the Highers brothers.
On August 13, 2012, after 25 years in prison, Thomas and Raymond Highers were released on bond. On September 26, 2013, the prosecution decided not to retry the case and dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley