posted April 27, 2005

Documentary Examines Unsolved Murder

An unsolved area homicide in which even the identity of the victim is a mystery is explored in documentary prepared by a Hope College class.

The documentary is screening Thursday and Friday, May 5 and 6, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Knickerbocker Theatre, located in downtown Holland at 86 E. 8th St. The public is invited, and admission is free.

Spring, 2002, and the blueberry fields of West Michigan are readying for another year's crop from the nation's leading state. Blueberry plantation owner Gordon DeVries turns from the country dirt road into the two-track that leads to one of his fields, located between Holland and Grand Haven. As he passes a scrub-growth woods he sees something he doesn't quite take in. Only when he returns does his brain confirm what his eyes have told him: it is the badly burned body of a man in a footlocker. Around the body the trees and undergrowth are scorched. Gord has just discovered Jack in the Box, a case that remains unsolved.

At the heart of the matter is the identity of the victim: he is still unknown. This is the story Dr. David Schock and his students in a Hope College documentary course set out to tell in conjunction with the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office. With the cooperation of Sheriff Gary Rosema and his office, the film makers had the chance to tour the site where the body was burned, look over all the evidence in the case, and see the crime-scene photographs and video. They also talked with the officers involved with the case and even the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Steven Cohle of Spectrum Health's Blodgett Campus.

"There was no question off limits in our pursuit of this story," said Schock, an associate professor of communication. "There was no question that wasn't answered. In my career relating stories I've never encountered this level of access; it's unprecedented. But the sheriff's goal is very clear: to identify the victim. He was willing to take some risks to do that. We are extremely grateful to have had this opportunity."

The result is a documentary - "Jack in the Box"--that's about 50 minutes long and chronicles almost every step of the investigation. It's also extremely graphic, according to Schock.

"You don't want to watch this if you have a sensitive stomach. Certainly this is not appropriate for young viewers, but it's likely not appropriate for some adult viewers, too," said Schock, noting that the worst of it is the charred body of the victim. "People see stuff like this every week on 'CSI' or 'Law and Order'... but this is real."

Schock's students worked along with him and videographer Phil Blauw. "They worked on their own projects and undertook this as a class exercise," Schock said. "Each student was responsible for three other pieces, too, so this is pretty much their fourth documentary from the fall session. That's a fairly heavy load."

The students included senior Tessa Beukema of Chicago, Ill.; junior Jeremy Cox of Grosse Pointe Farms; special student Erin Briggs of Holland; senior Lacey Gaubatz of Canton; senior Kate Grambau of Kalamazoo; junior Amber Hauptman of Troup, Texas' junior Emma Irvine of Rochester, N.Y.; junior Mark Johnson of Marne; senior Tamika Lee of Nunica; senior Stephanie Ross of Schiller Park, Ill.; and junior Adam Witt of Kansas City, Mo.

This is not the first time one of Schock's documentary classes has dealt with murder. Last year he, Blauw, and his students produced "Who Killed Janet Chandler?," an 84-minute piece that not only showed at the Knickerbocker but also appeared on WGVU three times during the year. "That's not going to happen with this piece, but we hope we are able to convince one of the commercial television operations in Grand Rapids to carry this," Schock said.

The Chandler piece may have played a role in the Michigan State Police and the Holland Police Department assigning a Cold Case Team to renew the investigation into the 26-year-old unsolved homicide. "That was probably the hardest documentary I've ever faced," Schock said. "We talked with her family, with the original investigators...anybody we could find who knew anything."

"This case is different," Schock said. "We don't have the same attachment, but this man - whoever he is - matters; we just don't know his story and that helps us to form deeper relationships... the living with the dead. This is a contact we share. We also share the sheriff's goal of finding out just who Jack really is."

In addition to the murder video, several student pieces will show shortly after the first presentation each night, probably starting about 8 p.m. On tap so far for Thursday, May 5, are "Forslund Family: Timeless Furniture," by Mark Johnson, and "A Lesson in Theology," by Adam Witt. On Friday, May 6, the segments will be "War and Hope: The Army Specialized Training Program," by Tessa Beukema, and "Duty in Vietnam," by Emma Irvine. Interestingly, the subject of "Duty in Vietnam" is Jim Brack, the Ottawa County forensic detective featured in the "Jack in the Box" story.