On Aug. 9, 2007, Lansing police discovered the beaten body of 46-year-old Debra Renfors in her apartment in the 1000 block of North Washington Street. Renfors was the third woman to be bludgeoned to death in the city in two weeks, and a grim reality was beginning to set in. Det. Sgt. Joey Dionise confronted Captain Ray Hall, giving voice to a fear that had been bubbling for days.
“Captain,” Dionise said, ”We have a serial killer.
Years later, Hall still remembers the “sinking feeling” that accompanied that moment.
Ten years ago this month, Lansing was in the grip of a killer who preyed on single women, using whatever was convenient to murder them, and, in some instances, sexually assaulting them. Before police caught him, he had killed five women in just over four weeks. A sixth woman would survive. Matthew Emmanuel Macon, then 27, was eventually convicted of two of the murders, and the assault of the surviving victim. When detectives got Macon in an interview room, it would take three separate sessions for him to confess to seven killings in all, dating back to 2004. In his confession, Macon ticked off the victims with a chilling indifference.
”Let’s see,” Macon said. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. There’s six people, you know, that I have murdered. I murdered them all.”
Macon’s reign of terror unnerved the city, and the ensuing case sent aftershocks that reverberate to this day. It cast suspicion on how the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office operated, with the fallout eventually resulting in the dismissal of an assistant prosecutor. It changed the way Lansing’s law enforcement, elected officials and neighborhood leaders confront crime. It resulted in freedom for a man who had been falsely convicted of murder.. And it created an enduring pain still felt by the victims’ family members.
On the 10th anniversary of the killings, retired police, who worked on the case; one of the victims’ family members, and, for the first time, Macon’s only surviving victim talked to City Pulse about what happened that frightening summer of 2007.
A fighter to the end
It all started with a phone call on July 26, 2007, two weeks before Renfors’ body was found At-Large City Councilwoman Carol Wood was sitting down with members of the Baker-Denora Neighborhood Association, including its longtime leader, Betty Draher, when Wood’s phone rang.
“It was staff at City Council,” Wood recalled, “calling me about my mother.”
Neighbors had found Wood’s mother, 76-year-old Ruth Hallman, inside her home on Lapeer Street near Martin Luther King Boulevard in the city’s Genesee Neighborhood. Initial reports were that Hallman had cut herself on her lawn mower, then fallen and hit her head.
Wood arrived at her mother’s home just as emergency first responders were loading her into an ambulance. She d said the thing that stuck out to her was the color of her mother’s blouse. It was a brownish, rusty color.
“I kept thinking, ‘I don’t remember her having that blouse, where did she get that?’” Wood said. Days later it had dawned on her: It wasn’t a new blouse, it was soaked in her mother’s blood.
That blood, police reports reveal, was spilled as the result of a beating so savage that one of Hallman’s fingers was nearly severed in the process. Despite her mortal wounds, Hallman was alive and conscious when her neighbors found her. She had crawled to her front door to let them in but had been unable to open it. Later, during her trip to Sparrow Hospital, Hallman had told paramedics to call the police but couldn’t explain why. After that, she became unable to rationally answer questions. She died two days later. Hallman, known as a fierce neighborhood advocate, had been a fighter to the end. Hall, Dionise and Lt. Noel Garcia recall sitting at Hallman’s kitchen table, being pressured to increase policing in the Genesee Neighborhood, which was then facing a drug and crime crisis.
“She cared very deeply, very genuinely for her neighbors and the city,” Hall said. “She was a no-nonsense, ‘You’re gonna do your job’. I’ve gone through a lot of lectures from Ruth. But [she] was never self-serving. It was always about others.”
Hallman didn’t hesitate to lend a lawnmower to a neighbor or offer a drink of water to a passerby. That kindness, police learned, is how her killer gained access to her home. In his confession, Macon recalled beating Hallman to death with a small hammer he had found in her home.
“I pulled the little drawer out and I seen the hammer,” Macon told detectives Vern Read and Ron Syka in his confession a month after Hallman’s death. “And she had her head down and I hit her in her head. Boom. And when I hit her in the head, she tried to cover her head up and I hit her in the side of the head, like, and it went in.”
A moment later, Macon clarified:“It went in her head and it knocked a hole in it.”
The confession was not admitted into Macon’s trial months later, so jurors never heard his detailed descriptions. Two years after his 2008 conviction, the transcript was released by Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, but was heavily redacted. The quotes from the confession came from an unredacted copy of the confession obtained by City Pulse.
A potential target
Hall said when detectives and crime scene experts examined Hallman’s home, they noticed similarities between Hallman’s death and the 2004 deaths of Barbara Jean Tuttle and Carolyn Kronenberg. Tuttle, 45, had been found sodomized and beaten to death — a week after being raped — in an apartment on North Washington. Lansing Community College Professor Carolyn Kronenberg, 60, was discovered in a classroom in the downtown campus. She, too, had been beaten, and an electronic device had been inserted into her vagina. Tuttle’s murder remained unsolved, but prosecutors convicted homeless student Claude McCollum for Kronenberg’s murder and sent him to prison for life.
Hall said that even with the similarities, police didn’t have evidence to link the three cases, with Kronenberg’s case considered solved. The early theory behind Hallman’s attack was that she had been targeted as a result of her fierce neighborhood activism, which had pitted her against neighborhood drug dealers. Some of those dealers had found themselves in jail as a result of her efforts.Hall recalled “a shopping list of individuals” who were potential suspects.
“Typically in an investigation, those with motives are limited to one or two individuals,” Hall said “We like those cases. We can narrow the focus and hold accountable the individual relatively quickly, because of the social network.”
Media and neighbors in the Genesee Neighborhood immediately focused on revenge as the motive, and police also bought into the story. Hours after Hallman was found, detectives interviewed a confidential informant who told them that five drug dealers in the area may have been involved in her beating death. In the police report, the informant was alleged to have said that the “old white lady had seen something she should not have seen,” so they had “made an example” out of her. Police already had arrest warrants for the men related to their drug dealing activities, so detectives took the informant to the apartment that was being used in the dealers’ operation. The informant was directed to call the police when the suspected men were there. The informant called about 11 p.m.
At 1 a.m., armed with arrest warrants, officers from the city’s Special Tactics and Rescue Team, or START, raided the apartment, arresting four of the five men on drug charges. Detectives interviewed them, but they denied any involvement in Hallman’s attack.. The other man also tracked down that night in a westside hotel, but that arrest led to similar dead ends. By that time, Hallman was no longer an assault victim — she was dead, and her case was now a homicide investigation.
Even as detectives realized they’d followed the wrong lead, the community was meeting with law enforcement, demanding action. On Aug. 5, Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley and political leaders, including Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, hosted a community conversation at the Black Child and Family Institute building on Butler Boulevard. Chad Rathbun, then 22, had been living in Hallman’s neighborhood for two months. He left the meeting early, according to a report in the Lansing State Journal, saying the event was “just a song and dance.” He talked of trying to go for a walk and being harassed by drug dealers, noting that the dealers were so persistent that his housemate actually paid one to leave him alone.
While Bernero and Alley said they were working on a plan to fight crime, they were vague in their ideas and promises. The only concrete offer was to install cameras in high-traffic areas. It was an expensive proposition — $350,000 for just a dozen cameras, and the timing was bad. The city’s budget was full of holes, its overall income was declining, and crime problems were running rampant in other Lansing neighborhoods.
“We began knocking on doors and checking on people,” Draher said. “It was important.”
Nancy Parsons Mahlow, a longtime Eastside Neighborhood Organization member and leader, said that same active response blossomed in the many neighborhoods that made up her organization.
“We took the initiative that, ‘OK, we’re going to check on our seniors a little bit more than what we used to do,’” Mahlow said.
Both Draher and Mahlow said they were angry that Hallman may have been targeted for her work. Mahlow said she even faced pressure at home from her husband, who encouraged her to back away from her neighborhood work.She said it felt like the criminals were trying to take away the neighborhood groups that had been forged over decades of struggle, but she was determined to not give up.
Mahlow told her husband, “I won’t let them do this.”
In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, just days after Hallman’s funeral, the body of 36-year-old Deborah Kaye Cooke was found in Hunter Park on the city’s east side. She too had been brutally beaten. She was half nude and a stick had been inserted into her vagina. She had had a history of prostitution. Again, there were similarities. She was single, she was beaten, and she had been sexually assaulted with a foreign object placed inside her. But Cooke was younger than the other victims, so police missed the connection. After his arrest, Macon had cleared up that discrepancy when he talked to detectives. Cooke, he told them, was a “crackhead” and a crackhead had testified against one of his brothers, Melvin Eugene Hobbs, which had landed him in prison.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” he told the detectives.
Ironically, when on trial, Macon’s attorney tried to convince the jury Hobbs was responsible for the murder of one the victims and the assault of another.
Macon said he met Cooke at the Marathon Gas Station on Kalamazoo Street and had immediately formulated a plan to lure her to her death. He said he offered her money for sex, but she wanted more than he was willing to pay, so he walked away. Cooke followed him until he agreed to pay her what she wanted: $20.
Cooke’s body was found leaning against a tree, about 50 yards from Hunter Park’s public pool, which was empty and undergoing renovations that summer. Joan Nelson, executive director of the nearby Allen Neighborhood Center, said in an interview with the Lansing State Journal at the time that Hunter Park “was a different place” at night, a haven for prostitution and drug deals. She noted the neighborhood was working to change the atmosphere in the park, having recently added a hoophouse to grow vegetables and a paved walking path. The murder, she said, “may prod us to move a little faster.” Nelson declined to be interviewed for this report.
‘Serial killers are rare’
The body of Renfors was found just two days later. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death. But it was where she was killed that triggered Dionise to declare the city was dealing with a serial killer. It was the same location where Tuttle had been raped and beaten to death nearly three years before. Her murder was unsolved, as was the sexual assault she suffered the week before her death. Hall said other detectives also started noting the similarities, but he was still skeptical.
“Serial killers are very rare, fortunately,”.
Hall said. “[But] certainly the strength of that possibility became apparent with Renfors.”
Wood, an avid police scanner listener, heard the traffic about the Renfors discovery and rushed to North Washington from her city hall office.
“I had been racking my brain, because [investigators] kept asking me if I had seen anything or anyone suspicious,” she said. “I was feeling guilty that I might know something. I needed to know if this was connected to my mom’s case.” When she arrived, Wood said was informed by an officer that there was no connection to the Hallman case, which she said relieved some of her guilt But even as she was being told there was no connection, detectives were telling each other there was one indeed. Hall ordered detectives to put together a war room, and he leaned on law enforcement partners, including the Michigan State Police and the FBI, to assist. A task force was born.
With four dead women on their hands, detectives began the slow, meticulous process of looking back at earlier attacks that may not have been fatal. Their research uncovered a string of unsolved sexual assaults of older women on the city’s west side in 2003. These women had also been beaten and raped, but it was the eerily similar methodology of the attack that interested the investigators. The victims reported that their attacker had initially come to their door offering to do yard work, then gained access to the home after asking for a glass of water or the use of their phone.
“That’s when the red flags came up,” Hall said. “And we knew somebody was out there doing this. I remember [thinking] ‘this could get ugly if we don’t stop this now.’” As part of the task force, detectives were each interviewed by criminal profiling experts from the Michigan State Police.
Those experts specialized in serial criminal behavior. They consumed mass quantities of documents, police reports, tips, and interviews with law enforcement. They were building a specific mental composite of the killer — what made him tick and, more important, how to get him talking if they did capture him. For two weeks, police cobbled together information, followed leads and kept their noses to the ground, but with the killer apparently lying low — no new attacks were reported — police were no closer to identifying a suspect.
“You just hoped nothing else happened,” said Dionise. “That’s what you were hoping for.”
Sandra Eichorn was a fan of NASCAR racing and playing Keno at Harry’s Place, a popular bar on the city’s west side. The 64-year-old General Motors retiree was renting a house on the 1800 block of Genesee Drive, just around the corner from the bar. On Aug. 27, she was found stabbed to death in her home. Testimony at Macon’s trial trial showed she’d been stabbed 36 times by a knife from her own kitchen. One of the wounds went through a rib and severed a major artery. She had some wounds consistent with being beaten as well. The murder site was less than a mile from where Hallman had been killed.
But this time the killer left a clue: sitting in a bowl of spaghetti that Eichorn had been eating was a business card to a computer repair place on Saginaw Street.
Macon said in his confession that he offered Eichorn the card, pretending it was his own as a way to contact him if she or her friends knew of yard work he could do. When she reached for it, he grabbed her and dragged her inside her home. During the trial, then Ingham County Assistant Prosecutor Katherine Emerson told the jury in closing remarks the card was Macon’s way of signing his crime. “She had a plate of spaghetti out,” Emerson said, and he put the card “where no one would put anything. No one puts a business card or any other item on their fork on their food.”
In an interview with the company’s owner, detectives learned that a black male had been to the shop a week earlier asking to have “the password unlocked/changed” on a laptop. He got the latptop from a friend, he told the store owner. The owner said the man was suspicious, and after initially refusing to leave his name, eventually did. He also gave his phone number and address. The man was Matthew Macon.
That was a name law enforcement was familiar with: Macon was on parole for theft and breaking and entering in 2000. He’d also been convicted, at age 14, of sexually assaulting a girl and putting a stick in her vagina. An Ingham County Juvenile Court referee noted when he was 16 and undergoing sex offender treatment that he would require lifelong monitoring.
It wasn’t just Macon who was known to law enforcement — there was his brother, Hobbs, as well as another brother, James Henry Macon Jr., who had been involved with the courts. Their father also had a brutal history of violence, according to Ingham County Court Records. In March 1984, the boy’s mother, Earlene Macon, sought a restraining order against the elder James Macon. out of fear that he would beat her. In October of that year, Macon Sr. was living with his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend when she accused him of beating her with a baseball bat for refusing to prostitute herself. She alleged he had a knife and intended to murder her during the incident as well. However, in January 1985, she recanted that testimony and the charges were dismissed. Eleven years later, he was convicted of felonious assault for pulling a gun on the woman’s brother.
While conducting surveillance of Hallman’s home on Aug. 14, about two weeks after her death, LPD officer Larry Klaus saw a black man, who he estimated to be in his mid-50s, walking by the home.
“I observed him to be looking north towards [Hallman’s house] and he began to erupt in laughter,” Klaus wrote in a report. That man was identified as the father, James Macon.
The hunt was on.
Cheyenne the hero
Linda Jackson was the daughter of a Methodist minister. She grew up in Lansing and ran off to California during a self-declared “hippie phase,” but she returned to be near family, particularly her father. She landed a job at Michigan State University, and she said she paid attention as the number of women brutally murdered began to add up that summer.
“That seemed like a thing, right?” Jackson said, as she recalls reading about Hallman’s murder nearly a decade later. “ As the summer wore on … it started to get scary.”
Her fear, however, did not stop her from trying to help Matthew Macon when he came to her backdoor on Aug. 28, 2007, asking for handyman work. She’d given odd jobs to people before, but she always told them she would have to go to the store to get cash. She wanted to be clear, there was no money in her home “to stop them from robbing me.” Macon, however, was giving her clues that this was a dangerous situation. As he stood at her back door, Jackson remembers he turned away to look up the street at least twice. She also recalls noticing that his jaw was tight. She said she told him that she didn’t have any work for him, but that she would pass his information on to her friends in case they were looking for help. As she got a pad of paper and pen, she warned him not to come in because she had a dog “that wouldn’t like him.” He waited outside, and when she returned, he gave her a name, an address and a phone number. He told her his name was Chilly Smith. She didn’t trust him, but she said she didn’t feel threatened — she could, after all, hear the neighborhood kids playing and her neighbors doing yard work nearby. So Jackson let her guard down, and in an instant, everything changed.
“When I turned around to go put the pad back on the counter, that’s when he came in,” she said. Macon grabbed a beer bottle and proceeded to beat her with it, and Jackson began screaming. Those screams woke up her dog, Cheyenne, who had been asleep upstairs.
“At first I didn’t think she was going to come,” Jackson recalled. “And then she came flying down — growling barking and snapping, lunging.”
Macon, terrified of the dog, took off running, and Jackson immediately called 911.
When “at least 10 police cars” arrived shortly afterward, Jackson began to believe this had not been a run-of-the-mill robbery attempt. Her suspicion that was confirmed when, while at the hospital, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero showed up.
“I thought, is that the mayor?” she said.
“And it was. He kept saying they were going to get the guy.”
Connecting the dots
A search of databases of known aliases revealed Macon used Chilly as a street name, tying Macon to the attack on Jackson.The address he provided was a place he had formerly lived; the phone number was bogus.
The task force had their chief suspect.
They found a work address for Macon in Holt, so about 40 officers from various departments, including the FBI, were dispatched to the location. But Macon never showed up. Hall then called for a grid search of the city.
With assistance from area agencies and the task force members, officers spread out across Metro Lansing looking for Macon. Garcia and Hall were in a vehicle together, coordinating the manhunt when Read’s voice rattled across the radio. He had found an individual who matched Macon’s description in Lansing Township.
Garcia and Hall were in the area but got lost en route. Read lost sight of Macon.For a minute, it seemed the suspect had slipped away, but then Hall and Garcia spotted him. They stopped their vehicle, jumped out and pounced on Macon.
“I didn’t want to give him a chance to run,” said Garcia.
“And he would have,” said Hall. “ This was a guy that if he got away, you knew he was going to kill again.”
Garcia cuffed Macon, and by then backup officers arrived, flooding the corner with flashing red and blue.
“You don’t forget things like this. When they put the handcuffs on him, he looked up,” Dionise said. “He didn’t say much, but he just, it was like relief on his face.”
Garcia’s recollection of that moment differs.
Garcia said his eyes “[looked like] I was looking into nothing. It looked like this guy was just evil.”
They told Macon he was being arrested on a parole violation warrant. As Lansing’s only known serial killer sat in handcuffs on the street, taking in the spectacle of law enforcement arrayed before him, he had one question: “All this for a warrant?”
The final victim
With Macon in custody, all three LPD officials said there were hugs, high fives and tears among enforcement officers.
“We were all emotionally drained,” Garcia said. “We were all emotionally tied to Ruth and the other victims and [their] families It wasn’t just the end of a day of police work —it was [the relief that] we finally got this guy.”
Hall went to Wood’s home to inform her that they had Macon in custody. He brought with him a framed tribute as a present for Wood. It was a dedication to her mother’s support for law enforcement. It was signed by the entire task force. That tribute hangs in Wood’s office on the 10th floor of City Hall.
“It felt right to go back to Carol and give this to her,” Hall said. “And talk about hugs. I don’t think she let me go for a while. But it wasn’t me she was hugging, it was all all the officers that were there.”
But the next afternoon, on Aug. 29, elation gave way to dread: Another victim was found by a Realtor showing an empty home on Hickory Street, just blocks from where Jackson had been attacked. The woman was identified as Louise Delgado-Yates, and she’d been sexually assaulted and beaten with the top of a toilet tank. She was still alive when she was found, but succumbed to her injuries on the way to the hospital.
Despite knowing they had their killer in custody, police couldn’t release any information on Macon yet. He still hadn’t confessed, and this new victim could complicate the whole case — Macon had been in custody since the night before. Police needed to delay releasing information on Delgado-Yates until the medical examiner could give them a timeframe of when the assaults happened. To divert the media from the new assault, Hall came up with a plan: “I asked the detectives to give me the name of [Jackson’s] dog” in the Jackson attack. “And a picture of the dog. And let’s talk about the dog protecting its owner,” Hall said. “We needed a few more hours to put this case together. I had a high degree of likelihood that this was the suspect, that he was in custody, and that the community was safe. But it wasn’t 100 percent.”
Detectives went and got pictures of Cheyenne and returned to Hall’s office.
“And they said yep, the dog’s name’s Hitler,” Hall recalled. “And they, in that moment of time, they thought that was funny. And I noticed that there was grins on their face. For all summer the only emotion was focus.”
The detectives laughed and shared the dog’s real name and Hall’s plan worked.
As law enforcement was dealing with the Hickory Street crime scene, Lansing City Council Committee on Public Safety approved spending $350,000 on cameras for high crime areas in the city. Hall said the cameras have been invaluable resources in fighting crime, a sentiment echoed by Alley and current Chief Michael Yankowski.
Hall now serves as the police chief for the University of Michigan-Flint campus. He said his department is assisted by hundreds of cameras, which has “opened his eyes to the possibility of technology” in fighting crime. Lansing continues to operate with the same number of cameras as approved by the council a decade ago.
Macon’s confession led to the release of Claude McCollum, a homeless student who had been wrongfully convicted of killing Kronenberg in 2004. He sued LCC police and county officials and ended up with a $2 million settlement. An investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office discovered video evidence that cleared McCollum had not been turned over to defense. Dunnings fired the lead prosecutor, but the incident created a crack in his veneer as a tough-as-nails, unassailable prosecutor.
During the confession, Macon told detectives that he had met McCollum and was relieved that the other man had been convicted of his crime. Macon went on trial in May 2008, facing two charges of first degree murder for the killings of Eichorn and Dalgado-Yates, as well as one count each of torture, because, home invasion and assault with intent to murder in Jackson’s case. His defense counsel, Michael O’Briant of Okemos, challenged the prosecution’s case, but rested without presenting a single witness. After only two hours of deliberation, Macon was convicted on all counts. In June 2008 he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Macon currently resides at the St. Louis Correctional Facility near Alma. declined an interview request through a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman.
Despite promising to charge Macon in the other murders he confessed to, Dunnings announced he would not seek further charges when Macon lost his appeals in 2010. Dunnings argued it was too costly and that Macon would make a “mockery” of the justice system by representing himself and harassing survivors, only to “end up in a prison cell” at the end of the proceedings. Dunnings resigned last year after being charged with numerous charges related to paying women for sex.
Without a trial to provide closure, Wood has struggled for the last decade to understand why her mother, her best friend, was brutally murdered. But nearing the 10th anniversary of Macon’s capture, the Councilwoman thinks she finally has an answer.
“It came to me in the middle of the night, whether McCollum would have been released if my mother hadn’t been murdered,” Wood said. “I felt like I found an answer. She wouldn’t have wanted to see somebody put away for something he hadn’t done. Is that the answer to all answers? No. But at least it’s giving me a little bit of solace.”