On August 3, 1980, 21-year-old Cherita Thomas disappeared after the car she was driving broke down en route to pick up her child at a babysitter after an evening of drinking with friends in Oscoda, Michigan.
Earlier that day, Thomas and a friend, Patricia Bates, decided to go to a softball tournament in Mikado, Michigan. Thomas didn’t have a car, so Bates drove her car. They first went to see Thomas’s fiancé so she could get some money and then Thomas and Bates dropped their children off with Bates’s sister, Anna Bouchard, in Oscoda. Then, they stopped at the Hilltop Bar in Oscoda before leaving for Mikado.
At the bar, they had a drink and spoke with 28-year-old Jimmie Nelson, who was Bouchard’s brother-in-law. They continued to Mikado, and stopped at the softball tournament, then went to a bar to get something to eat. Bates later said people stared at them and as they were leaving and the bartender told them not to come back.
Bates and Thomas went back to the tournament and, despite what the bartender had said, they went back to the same bar with the softball team. At about 10 p.m. Thomas wanted to leave, but Bates wanted to stay. Thomas promised to pick up all the children and take them to her apartment, which was in the same building where Bates lived. So Bates drew Thomas a map to Bouchard’s house, gave her Bouchard’s telephone number, and allowed Thomas to take her car.
The car broke down before Thomas got to Bouchard’s house. Three teenage boys spotted the car with steam pouring out of its hood and stopped to help. Thomas refused a ride and after the youths wrapped her radiator hose with duct tape, she drove off. The car broke down again, however. Two other witnesses told police that they saw a car with steam coming out of the hood on Sunset Road. One witness said Thomas left on foot and returned as a passenger in a blue pickup truck. When the car didn’t start, Thomas and the man driving the truck left in the truck. The other witness said he saw the blue truck near the broken down car and that it drove off with two people inside.
When Bates got home about 2:30 a.m. and her car was not there, she called Bouchard, who said Thomas had not arrived to pick up the children. Early in the morning, the witness who saw Thomas leave in the blue truck called police because the car was still there and was blocking his driveway. Inside the car, police found Thomas’s purse, but the car keys were missing.
When the news that Thomas was missing became public, residents of Oscoda searched the nearby woods. Among the searchers was Jimmie Nelson, Bouchard’s brother-in-law. No trace of Thomas was ever found.
About two weeks after Thomas disappeared, police interviewed Nelson because he drove a blue pickup truck and lived near where the car Thomas was driving was found. Nelson had a reputation as a violent man and a racist and Thomas was one of the few black people living in that area. Nelson said his wife had his truck and that he wasn’t “out and about” when Thomas disappeared. Police never looked at Nelson’s truck.
The primary suspect at the time was Grant Goddard, a federal fugitive who owned a blue truck and had reportedly been seen in the area. Two months after Thomas disappeared, Goddard’s blue truck was found stripped in the national forest near where Thomas had disappeared. Another man who was a convicted sex offender who owned a blue truck also was a suspect.
No one was arrested and the investigation went cold. Over the years, detectives would attempt to revive the investigation. In 1993, Goddard was interviewed in federal prison and was eliminated as a suspect when he provided an alibi that checked out.
In 1995, Nelson was questioned again by police and after initially denying that he helped Thomas with her car, he said it was possible that not only had he helped her, but that he gave her a ride. He said Thomas was alive when he last saw her.
In December 2000, two FBI agents interviewed Nelson and in this interview, he denied seeing Thomas on the night she disappeared. Four months later, the agents interviewed Nelson again and he said that his memory had improved because he had visited a hypnotist that morning. For the first time, Nelson said he was in the Hilltop bar when Thomas came in and told him her car had broken down. Nelson said he drove Thomas to her car. When he could not get the car started, he said he drove Thomas to her apartment so she could get her wallet and keys and then took her to a restaurant where she went inside.
Days later, Nelson was questioned again. When police told him that his account didn’t hold up because the restaurant would have been closed at the time he said he dropped Thomas off, Nelson changed his story. He said he didn’t remember where he dropped Thomas off that night.
On December 28, 2004, police arrested Nelson for Thomas’s murder at his residence in Houston, Texas. He was also charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. After a preliminary examination, however, an Iosco County Circuit Court judge concluded there was insufficient evidence to support a murder charge. The prosecution appealed.
In the meantime, Nelson went to trial on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to police about whether he had seen Thomas or helped her on the night she disappeared. In October 2006, he was convicted and was sentenced to two years in prison.
In December 2008, the Michigan Court of Appeals granted the prosecution’s appeal of the lower court finding of insufficient evidence on the murder charge and sent the case back to the Iosco County Circuit where, on April 24, 2009, a judge ordered Nelson to stand trial on the murder charge.
Nelson was convicted of second-degree murder following a two-day bench trial in October 2010 based on the testimony of the witnesses who said they saw him helping Thomas with her car and the testimony that he had lied about whether he helped her. Nelson was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
Nelson appealed and in August 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the murder conviction. The court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to establish that Nelson killed Thomas. The court said that “speculation is not a sufficient basis upon which to convict an accused under our system of justice.”
The prosecution appealed and in February 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals to consider other issues that Nelson had raised which had not been decided by the Court of Appeals. In June 2013, the Court of Appeals granted a motion by the prosecution to hold the case in abeyance for six months.
In August 2013, the trial court considered a joint motion by the prosecution and the defense to release Nelson on bond. At the hearing, prosecution and defense lawyers told the judge that information had “come to light calling into question the factual basis underlying the state’s circumstantial case.” The judge denied the motion, but in September 2013, the Court of Appeals reversed and on November 22, 2013, Nelson was released on bond.
On February 24, 2014, the Court of Appeals finally returned to the remaining issues in Nelson’s appeal. At the urging of both the prosecution and the defense, the court vacated Nelson’s murder conviction because of newly discovered evidence. The evidence was filed under seal, but the appeals court said “the evidence implicates another person as the perpetrator of Thomas’s death.”
On April 21, 2014, the Iosco County Prosecutor dismissed the murder charge against Nelson.
– Maurice Possley