Friday, September 21, 2012

Christmas Morning Murderer Gets Off Easy

I'm planning a trip home to Kalamazoo soon and I'm wondering how I'll fit everything in. The truthful answer? I won't. Besides visiting with family and attending my college reunion I have a long list of genealogy tasks I would be thrilled to complete. If I have time I would like to photograph some of my ancestor's homes. I definitely plan to look up some old chancery court cases, among other things, at the WMU Archives. But at the top of my list is a trip to the 9th circuit court clerk's office. I want to understand exactly why a self-confessed murderer got away with only a few years in the Ionia prison for the criminally insane.

Every time I think about this case it makes me furious. Let me provide you with some background so you too can get upset about something that has nothing to do with this year's presidential election. Back in December 1941, my grandmother's sister, Mildred, took her two children and left her boyfriend of many years. [1] I don't know what the last straw was for Mildred, but it may have been when Joseph Salpatrick fractured her ribs. [1] Little did Mildred realize that this step she took to start a new chapter in her life would end in her murder just weeks later on Christmas morning.

To summarize, Joe and Mildred met during the mid 1930s. Mildred was coming out of a failed marriage with two young children to support. Joe was a boxer with a history of causing trouble. At sixteen he was sent to the Industrial School for Boys. [2] In 1928, then eighteen, he stole a car and was placed on probation. [3,4] About a year later he stole a bike and rather than enter the court solemnly, he sauntered in, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. [3,5] The judge summarily revoked his probation and sentenced him to a year at the Michigan Reformatory, a prison for youthful felons. The court submitted a statement to the Reformatory that related Joe smoking a cigarette in the court room and stated that he possessed a “lawless, indifferent, irresponsible disposition and temperament.” [3,5]

Joe and Mildred lived together for an unknown period of time in the early 1940s while Mildred's children lived with some cousins at least for a while. Although I don't have independent verification, it seems Mildred was a victim of domestic violence. Mildred's sister reported that Joe “had beaten [Mildred] and just recently fractured her ribs.” [1] In any case, by December 1941 Mildred left Joe and moved in with her sister. After Pearl Harbor was attacked Joe repeatedly came to the house begging Mildred to marry him so he could receive a coveted dependency deferment. Mildred refused. [1]

Photograph of Mildred, probably taken in the early 1930s.  From the author's collection.  All rights reserved.
Late on Christmas Eve, Joe got drunk, borrowed a shotgun and drove across town to Mildred's sister's home. [1] While Joe was binging on alcohol, Mildred, her sister and their children sang Christmas carols around the piano. [6] After the kids were in bed, the women began decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping presents for their little ones. They may have been discussing their hopes for a happier 1942. Mildred's sister looked up and saw Joe's face peering in the window. Moment's later gunshots exploded into the room. Mildred was struck squarely in the heart. She died almost instantly. She was twenty-nine. The children woke up and called out to ask if Santa had come. Mildred's sister, most certainly spattered with blood, had to collect herself to get the children back into bed. Then she faced the task of cleaning up and finishing preparations for Christmas morning. “I will try to have Christmas for the children, even if there can be no Christmas for my sister and me,” she told the police officers. [1] How she found the strength to tell Mildred's children their mother was never coming back, I'll never know.

After killing his sweetheart, Joe scrambled away in the dark, unable to find his car. He was eventually found cowering under a bed in a relative's home. “I guess you don't know what it is to be in love,” he told police. [1]

Joe's first attorney filed a claim of insanity in his defense. [7,8] Subsequently, three state psychiatrists declared Joe sane at the time of Mildred's murder. [8] Jury selection was slated to begin on March 9, 1942, but a storm kept some prospective jurors away. [9,10] Apparently realizing that their only son was really going on trial Joe's parents hired a new lawyer in a last attempt to save him from a prison sentence. The next morning Bernard Moser entered the courtroom and filed a petition asking Judge Weimer, ironically, the same judge who sentenced Salpatrick to the Reformatory back in 1929, to unilaterally declare Joe sane. The public hearing of the petition was set for that afternoon. [9]

The reason for filing the petition was clear. It was obvious to Moser that a jury would not be convinced Salpatrick was insane. In addition to the statements of three state psychiatrists, the emotional testimony of Mildred's sister would be particularly damning and could easily turn the jury against Salpatrick. At the hearing, Joe's family asserted that he was insane. In addition, the defense presented two doctors and another man (who, shall we say, had a vendetta of sorts against someone in my family) who presumably also testified that Joe had been acting crazily. [9] I wonder if the judge was aware that this man was probably not the best witness as he had only just been released from prison after serving eighteen months.

The judge was evidently swayed by the defense's case and remanded Joe to the sheriff for removal to the Ionia hospital for the criminally insane. [11] By 1948, after serving only six years, Joe reappeared in the Kalamazoo city directory, apparently “restored to sanity.” The rest of his life was unremarkable. As far as I can tell he never married and seems to have worked as a general laborer. My grandmother became livid every time she saw Joe around Kalamazoo, knowing that he was free and her sister was dead. Joe Salpatrick died in 1977 and is buried in the same Catholic cemetery where Mildred lies. [12]

So, that's the story. I don't know what I might find in the court records, but because it never went to trial there probably won't be much. I'm particularly hoping to find the statements of the psychiatrists who examined Salpatrick and any notes from the hearing. I'm sure whatever I find will just make me madder, but I feel compelled to look. I just sent my request to the court clerk's office so they have time to pull the records from storage before I arrive in town. Now I wait.

To read about what I found in the court file see Christmas Morning Murderer, Part 2.

  1. Kalamazoo Gazette, 12-25-1941, p1, col3.
  2. Convict Record for Michigan Reformatory (previous incarceration information). Record Group 64-53. Held at the Archives of Michigan. Lansing, MI.
  3. Kalamazoo Gazette, 12-29-1929.
  4. People v. Joe Salpatrick, Kalamazoo County Circuit Court, Case No. S-10428, records held by the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.
  5. People v. Joe Salpatrick, Kalamazoo County Circuit Court, Case No. not recorded on copies in my possession, records held by the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.
  6. Interview with one of the children, name withheld.
  7. Kalamazoo Gazette, 2-28-1942.
  8. Ross Coller file (on Mildred). Held at the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections. Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, MI.
  9. Kalamazoo Gazette, 3-10-1942.
  10. Criminal Court Docket. 9th Circuit Court clerk's office. Kalamazoo, MI.
  11. Kalamazoo Gazette, 3-18-1942.
  12. Joseph Salpatrick obituary, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kalamazoo Gazette 09-02-1977 Sect. B, p10, col4.

For more information on what you might find about your relatives see my post on the Ross Coller files.

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