Researching in Battle Creek For My Next Book

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My daughter Victoria and I scheduled our trip to Battle Creek some time ago to do research on our upcoming book Unsolved Battle Creek.  This book is about the unsolved murder of Maggie Hume in August of 1982.  Just finding a gap in our calendars was challenging given our hectic real-life-day-jobs.  On top of this I am working on wrapping up a military history book, Neverwars, which has been eating into my time.  As such, we planned to go up the first full week in January and made the necessary arrangements with the City Clerk’s office to get access to the case files. Getting the access required filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which generally is easy to do, but requires some coordination to execute.

We drove up on Sunday, January 5, with ample warnings of something called a Polar Vortex.  They didn’t even give the storm a cool name like Superstorm Xena.  Instead they just called it a Polar Vortex.  I kept thinking, “Well how bad can that be?  If it was a real storm, it would have a cool name and music theme on the news.”  The turnpike was empty most of the trip – apparently other people heeded the warning (or were just plain smarter than us.)  Around Toledo the snow started.  No problem – it was just snow.  Well, within ten miles the turnpike had become a single lane.  THAT was a problem.  No sweat thought; I had been raised in Michigan, snow driving is something you don’t forget…it’s like that ugly tattoo that you despise but can’t get removed.  Pop the SUV into four-wheel-drive, slow the hell down, and be smart.

For the record – I think I was the only one that played the “smart” card.

We had semi-trailers and cars winging past us, only to end up in the ditch a few a few miles down the road.  In fact, we saw a lot of skidded and snowbound vehicles.  I stayed calm and patient – things I generally suck at.  We got to I-69 and added a near white-out condition to the terror of semi’s winging past us in lanes that didn’t exist.  I thought, “Good, I was feeling unchallenged.” (I lied to myself).  By the time we got to I-94 the one-lane of road was a road in name only – it was really just a series of wheel ruts rapidly filling with snow.  When I exited onto Michigan Ave I told Victoria, “I know the sign says stop – but we’re not doing that.  Isaac Newton is driving.  Make sure I’m clear with oncoming traffic.”  Oncoming traffic – that was a joke.  The only people other than us that were crazy enough to be driving were those heading to Firekeepers to make a frigid offering to the Indians.

We made it to my mother’s home just in time for the temperatures to plummet to historic lows.  I’m not just talking cold  here, -15 below with 34 mph winds which made it something like -486 below zero windchill (my math may be off, I’m a Harper Creek graduate…)

We had two days of city hall and the library being closed we finally got in to review the case files.  I know a lot of you want tantalizing details about what we found.  Sorry folks, not yet.  That’s why we are putting them in the book.  We read, photocopied, and transcribed roughly a thousand pages of material on the case.  I sat back and watched the chilling and somewhat disturbing Michael Ronning video recorded sessions with police – taking copious notes.   It was a complete immersion in the research.  Victoria and I all day nudged each other with comments like, “You’re not going to believe this!”  Even now, we are both still digesting what we found, comparing notes, etc.  The more you review the information, the more of a story it tells.

As such, we’ve been talking almost every day about the details.  With a project like this, there is a lot of raw material you have to sift through, and then organize, so that it is readable.  I will say this, the Battle Creek Police and the Prosecutor’s Office has this material well organized compared to some of the case files I’ve worked with.  Police and interviewees hand-written notes, typed notes, transcript of interviews, tip sheets, etc. are full of great details in some cases. But there’s a reason that true crime authors don’t just reproduce the investigator’s reports.  To the untrained eye, they don’t tell the story of what happened.  They are a jumble of information that has to be structured before writing can even take place.  For some people I think it would be overwhelming.  We have our work cut out for us, turning the material into a comprehensive story.  And it is a story that must be told.  If ever a case screamed for justice, it is this one.

We also spent some time pulling information at Willard Library (once they thawed out) – culling newspaper interviews and accounts, going through yearbooks, etc.

I can honestly say that this case – and in turn this book, is going to be something extraordinary.  This is not just about a vibrant young woman being murdered.  There are a lot of twists and turns – enough to make for a good John Grisham novel.  There are possible cover-ups, confessions, etc.  It is like a mental rollercoaster of sorts at this stage.  A lot of fine officers in the Battle Creek Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office have gone down the paths we were researching.  Reading their notes, you get a feeling for these men. I hope we do them some degree of respect when the book is published.

To be honest, it was odd seeing the names of people I went to high school with associated with the crimes/murders related to this case.  I actually broke out my 1980 yearbook yesterday to review faces with names. Boy do I miss the hair I used to have…and the waistline.

One of the last places Maggie went to in public was the Ritzee in Urbandale.  My mother went with Victoria and I to visit it for lunch.  Not only was it great to have a Ritzee hamburger again – it helped us really get into the local culture. We drove to some of the key sites to get a feeling for the distances and geography.  We wanted to see the sites that factored into all of this – driving the streets, etc.

The next step for us is to contact some of the key people tied to the crime(s).  We generally do this via snail mail at first. When practical, it’s nice to give people a heads-up that the book is coming out – but on a case like this getting to everyone is nearly impossible.   I’m sure some folks will not want to talk to us, that’s understandable.  Others will have memory issues – and I’m confident we can move past those during interviews.  Many people think that the writing is the hard part of doing a book like this.  It’s not.  The hard part is the research – and accurately describing a person we never met – in this case Miss Hume.  We want her to have a voice in this.  She was not a statistic.  She deserves to be remembered for something more than being a victim.  She was a person.  We don’t want to lose sight of this when writing the book.

We have already had a number of people contact us to volunteer information – and we will be responding to you shortly now that we know more of the pertinent points and details of the case.  Victoria and I have been impressed with how people have reached out so far.  It is clear to the two of us that Maggie Hume was well known and respected in Battle Creek.  We’ve also learned just how close and supportive the St. Phil community is too.  She touched a lot of people from what we are hearing.  I only hope we do her justice with this book.

I am also pleased to say that we’ve had a tip come in already – just as a result of us posting blog entries.  As always, these get passed on to the appropriate authorities.  We’re writers – not law enforcement.  This case is still very much open and active.  If you have information pertinent to the case you are welcome to contact us or but we encourage you to contact the Battle Creek Police Department.

If you are interested in this case as we continue to do research, please feel free to follow this blog and/or follow Victoria Hester or me on Facebook.  If you want to contact me directly, please use my email bpardoe870@aol.com.

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