A Tale of 2 Men and 1 Murder Confession

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The prisoner faces a video camera, folded arms exposing a Grim Reaper tattoo. He slumps back in his chair and begins to talk, almost casually--about murder.

"I had a gun . . . ," he says, "a starter pistol."

His narrow eyes are weary, his forearm muscles twitch, his tone is matter-of-fact as he describes, in a rambling drawl, a winter day long ago.

"I rolled the window down and she come over to the passenger side."

The prisoner says he drove to a wooded area, parked his car on a dirt road and forced the girl out.

"I made her take her clothes off, and I strangled her . . . ," he says. "I hit her in the head with a rock. Then I put a piece of, I think it was like a refrigerator door, or some kind of large sheet metal . . . over her and ah, some other debris. . . . And I left."

The room is silent, finally.

The detective asking the questions is content. He has waited years for this moment. His suspicions, he believes, are confirmed.

On this April day in 1997, this man, already convicted of a murder in Arkansas, says he abducted and killed a 17-year-old girl near Battle Creek in 1983.

And yet this confession didn't end a mystery. It began one.

While the prisoner spoke, another man already was behind bars for the murder.

He still is.

*

If this were detective fiction, there might be a stubborn cop who rides a hunch, locks horns with the higher-ups and doggedly pursues the truth until justice prevails, the bad guy is behind bars and the innocent man walks free.

Real life is messier.

This story has a real detective, Dennis Mullen, big as a linebacker and headstrong as they come, who plunged into a murder mystery, clashed with prosecutors, thought he had uncovered a terrible injustice--but couldn't unlock the prison door.

This story revolves around two men.

Thomas Cress, who is mentally disabled, is the one serving a life sentence for killing 17-year-old Patricia Rosansky. He has maintained his innocence and passed a lie detector test.

Michael Ronning, the tattooed Arkansas murderer with Battle Creek roots, is the man who confessed to Mullen that he killed the girl. He, too, passed a polygraph.

As this strange case has unfolded, witnesses have recanted or been accused of railroading Cress for a $5,000 reward; a judge has reversed his own decision to allow a retrial; critical evidence that might have determined the real killer has been destroyed.

And Mullen quit police work in frustration.

Cress recently appealed for a new trial. For now, he sits in a Michigan prison that serves inmates with mental problems. He has battled depression, and he suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago.

"I have done half my life in the penitentiary for something I haven't done," the 44-year-old Cress says in an interview. "That's all I have to say."

The inmate with Coke-bottle-thick glasses and a receding hairline pauses a moment.

"I think the evidence supports the fact I'm not guilty," he adds. "You just can't tell a lie and get away with it."

*

Tom Cress lived on society's fringes.

He delivered newspapers, did carpentry, even sold neighbors discarded cereal boxes from a Kellogg's plant. He couldn't read or write and had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. He was a petty thief. And he drank a lot.

In 1983, Cress lived a few doors from Patricia Rosansky, but he says he barely knew her.

The teenager was within view of her high school, heading to class, when she disappeared in February 1983. Her partially clothed body, covered with garbage and leaves, was found two months later. Her skull was crushed. She had been sexually assaulted.

Nearly a year after the killing--but just days after a $5,000 reward was offered--witnesses came forward and said Cress bragged about committing the crime.

They testified at his 1985 trial, but there was no physical evidence--not a bloodstain, fingerprint or fiber--to implicate Cress.

These were pre-DNA days, so there were no sophisticated tests for semen recovered or four hairs that Rosansky was clutching. Both sides agreed the hairs were not from Cress.

Cress had an alibi: He was delivering papers at the time. A co-worker vouched for him.

At trial's end, Cress was convicted and sentenced to life.

By 1992 his appeals had run out.

But that same year, a stranger offered Cress new hope.

*

Michael Ronning was a killer. A jury had already concluded that.

But how was this Arkansas inmate connected to a long-ago murder hundreds of miles away and a man he says he doesn't know?

Dennis Mullen had a theory.

Having investigated about 80 homicides over three decades, Mullen always looked to the streets. "There isn't a case you couldn't solve if you talk to enough people and walk enough," he says. "I don't get frustrated easily."

But this one frustrated him.

All the walking and talking in the Rosansky case led him to one conclusion and prosecutors to another. Frustration turned to disillusionment, and this spring Mullen quit the force, convinced his name had been muddied and his efforts to discover the truth thwarted.

Over 12 years, Mullen came to believe Cress did not kill Patricia Rosansky. Instead, he thought, evidence pointed to Ronning.

His ex-supervisor, Joe Newman, then one of the top men in the Battle Creek department, agrees. "We feel like we have never been able to bring the truth forward," Newman says.

Mullen first heard of Ronning in early 1986 after Arkansas State Police charged the former Michigan man with the murder of a 21-year-old abducted from her home in Jonesboro, Ark.

Her body was found 40 miles away and, like Rosansky's, was in a wooded area, covered with branches. Ronning was convicted and sentenced to life.

Mullen says Ronning's wife, Vicky, told Arkansas police the couple had lived in a Battle Creek apartment building a few years earlier when a woman was murdered.

Mullen had worked that case. Maggie Hume, 20, was found in her closet, strangled and sexually assaulted, covered by clothes.

The detective started piecing together a puzzle. He learned Ronning abruptly left town the day of the 1982 Hume murder. And he discovered that shortly after Ronning arrived at a cousin's home in Texas, a teenage girl living there disappeared.

Years later, squirrel hunters found that girl's skeleton in a field, covered with roofing shingles. A surveying crew found the skeleton of another girl, a runaway, 800 yards away. Police in Bedford, Texas, consider Ronning a suspect in both cases.

The puzzle was taking form.

Mullen approached Ronning in Arkansas. He refused to talk.

But Vicky Ronning did talk after she wound up in a Michigan jail on an old warrant.

She told Mullen about the couple's nomadic life. Some days, Ronning would rush home and tell her to pack up, and by night they'd be living in a new state. California. Florida. Michigan. Arkansas. They were always on the move.

She recalled that on the night of the Hume murder, Ronning wore a pair of moccasins, Mullen said; she later identified them in a Sears catalog. They had a crisscross sole pattern--matching the shoe print on an air-conditioning unit below the balcony to Hume's apartment.

But Mullen didn't have enough to make a case.

In time, his attention turned to two other murders in the area: Karry Evans and Patricia Rosansky, both 17, abducted within weeks of each other on their way to school, their bodies found in the woods.

Mullen didn't see a coincidence but a pattern.

And he knew someone was in prison for killing Rosansky.

What if it was the wrong man?

"That," he thought, "would be a horrendous thing."

*

In January 1992, Mullen visited Ronning again in Arkansas.

Afterward, he wrote in a report that Ronning had implicated himself in as many as six murders and "could clear the man that was in prison on the Rosansky murder."

At the time, Mullen and Newman say, Jon Sahli, then prosecutor in Michigan's Calhoun County, knew Ronning might have killed Rosansky.

No, Sahli says, he knew only of a possible Ronning link to the Hume case.

Exactly who knew what was more than academic.

In May 1992, Sahli signed a routine State Police request seeking permission to destroy all evidence in the Cress case. Police said Cress' appeals had been exhausted and they needed storage space.

The evidence included hair and semen samples that had never been tested for DNA. But advances in science had since made that possible.

That summer, Mullen says, Sahli said nothing about the destruction order as talks proceeded in which Ronning's name was tied to Rosansky's murder.

It turned out that even then, the evidence still could have been tested; it wasn't burned until that fall.

This year, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, supporting a DNA evidence preservation bill, condemned Sahli's decision in congressional testimony, calling it "an egregious violation of fundamental fairness."

Sahli maintains he did nothing wrong. If police had told him about Rosansky early on, he says, "I would not have had the evidence destroyed."

As years passed, Mullen grew more frustrated.

Once he and Newman visited Cress in prison and told him a bogus story: They were profiling killers, they said, and had some questions. Maybe, Mullen thought, he would confess.

"I'd like to help you guys, but I didn't do it," Cress replied, according to Mullen.

Years later, Cress passed a lie detector test when denying he killed Rosansky.

In 1996, Ronning returned to Battle Creek for questioning about the Michigan murders. He was given a polygraph.

When asked if three was the number of people he had killed in Michigan--no names were mentioned--he answered yes.

The examiner's conclusion: Ronning was telling the truth.

*

Ronning's videotaped confession to the Evans, Hume and Rosansky murders came the following spring.

Accurate in some details, he was mistaken in others.

Ronning indicated there was no struggle with Rosansky, when there was a fierce fight, says Nancy Mullett, an assistant prosecutor.

He didn't know the crime scene when taken there, changed his mind on what he did with the clothes and didn't mention the body was in a ravine near the Kalamazoo River, even though he had grown up in the area, she adds.

Ronning had hoped to work out a deal with prosecutors: He would plead guilty to any murders he had committed in Michigan. In exchange, he would serve a life sentence there so he could be near his family.

But that possibility faded amid prosecutors' questions about his credibility.

Mullett believes Ronning got information from news and police reports and some inadvertently from Mullen, who she believes rushed to judgment.

But why would someone falsely confess to murder?

"To keep the focus on him," Mullett speculates. " . . . To be considered notorious."

Others see legitimate reasons for Ronning's inconsistencies: He was high on drugs at the time of Rosansky's murder, 14 years had elapsed, and a rural road where the body was found had been developed with shops and a church.

What does Ronning say?

"I was honest and forthright in the statements I made," he says in a telephone interview from prison in Arkansas. "What about the details that I got right?"

The confession did give Cress a new chance for freedom.

A new lawyer, David Nickola, became convinced his client was innocent. "He's a perfect patsy because of his simplistic ways," he says.

In arguing for a second trial, Nickola cited Ronning's confession and an interview Mullen conducted with an original prosecution witness. She told the detective Cress never talked to her about killing anyone and believed her sister implicated him for the reward.

Later, this witness would claim Mullen had pressured her to recant.

A man also testified that a second prosecution witness--who later committed suicide--told him he and the two women falsely accused Cress.

In December 1997, Calhoun County Circuit Judge Allen Garbrecht ordered a new trial.

Prosecutors appealed, challenging details of Ronning's statements, raising questions about Rosansky's injuries and presenting family members who said Ronning told them he never killed anyone in Michigan.

Ronning's response: "I freely admit I lied to family members, to friends, to other people."

Fifteen months after his first ruling, Judge Garbrecht reversed himself: No new trial. What the judge found most compelling was Ronning's inability to find where the body had been found.

Ronning, the judge said, was a "false confessor."

*

Michael Ronning is willing to take another lie detector test.

"I feel for this guy that's in prison," Ronning says. "But I didn't put him there. The legal system put him there. . . . I have done my best to bring closure to everyone involved in this."

Are these the words of a serial killer or a manipulative liar capable of hoodwinking seasoned cops and a string of lawyers?

And is Thomas Cress a murderer, or a victim of a system that refuses to admit it made a mistake?

Awaiting a decision on his request for a new trial, Cress says he tries not to think too much about the outside world because it makes him too depressed and he could end up back in the prison hospital.

"I can't get my hopes up, because if you do and it's a big letdown, then you might do something stupid," he says.

"I used to be angry, but I stopped that because it was getting me in trouble. I can't afford to be angry at nothing."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°