Metro Detroit native pens book on unsolved Oakland County Child Killer case

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published January 10, 2018

 “The Dark Gray Blanket,” written by former Northville resident Howard Burns weaves together the truth and a tall tale, focusing on a fictional detective, Frank Pellegrini, who is investigating the murders of multiple children in the winters of 1976 and 1977.

“The Dark Gray Blanket,” written by former Northville resident Howard Burns weaves together the truth and a tall tale, focusing on a fictional detective, Frank Pellegrini, who is investigating the murders of multiple children in the winters of 1976 and 1977.

Photo provided by Howard Burns

METRO DETROIT — Under cover of snowfall and darkness, the Oakland County Child Killer wreaked havoc on the metro Detroit area during the winters of 1976 and 1977. 

And although it’s been 40 years since the killer kidnapped and killed four local children, authorities are still trying to find the culprit. 

From Feb. 15, 1976, to March 16, 1977, four children  — two boys and two girls — were kidnapped and killed. Their bodies were reportedly left neatly on display on snowbanks in Southfield, Troy, Franklin and Livonia. 

Several suspects have been identified by the Michigan State Police through the course of the investigation, but none have been convicted of the crimes. The killer or killers remain at large. 

Former Northville resident Howard Burns remembers the winters of ’76 and ’77 well. 

Now living in north-central Arkansas, Burns said he was working for Ford in downtown Detroit during the time of the killings, after being transferred from Pittsburgh. 

“My boss said, ‘Howard, look out the window. What do you see?’ I said, ‘Nothing but gray,’” Burns recalled. “He said, ‘Around here in the wintertime, an evil hand pulls a dark gray blanket over the city.’”

Called “The Dark Gray Blanket,” Burns’ novel weaves together the truth and a tall tale, focusing on a fictional detective, Frank Pellegrini, who is investigating the murders. 

Burns said he was deeply disturbed by the killings. He had two daughters, ages 10 and 12 at the time, and the victims found slain by the killer were between the ages of 10 and 12. 

Police have confirmed four deaths related to the Oakland County Child Killer. In 1976, Mark Stebbins, 12, of Ferndale, was murdered along with Jill Robinson, 12, of Royal Oak. The following year, Kristine Mihelich, 10, of Berkley, was killed. Timothy King, 11, of Birmingham, was also killed that year.

“He or she was referred to as the Babysitter Killer,” Burns said. “In the last case, the mother went on TV and read a letter on the news that was appealing to the killer. She said to just return her son and we will forget about it. (She said) ‘We’re going to feed you your favorite meal of Oreos, chocolate milk and Kentucky Fried Chicken,’ and after they found the victim and did the autopsy, he had his favorite meal in his stomach.”

The killer would also bathe his victims, wash their hair and meticulously clean under their fingernails, Burns said, which gave him the name of the Babysitter Killer. 

The Oakland County Child Killer has also reportedly been connected to other killings in the area, and in 1977, the Michigan State Police formed a task force of law enforcement officials dedicated solely to the investigation. 

In 1978, the task force reportedly disbanded as the killings appeared to cease. The case was reopened in 2012 to investigate possible DNA evidence. 

Police reportedly put together a profile of the killer based on witnesses’ descriptions of the man last seen talking to victim Timothy King the night he disappeared. 

The man was described as a white man with a dark complexion, around 25-35 years old. He had shaggy hair and sideburns, and was allegedly driving a blue AMC Gremlin with a white side stripe. 

Due to the nature and timeline of the killings, police reportedly believed that the killer had a job that allowed him some freedom, and may have been someone that a child might trust, like a police officer, a clergyman or a doctor. 

The suspect is also believed to have been familiar with the area and had the ability to keep children for long periods of time without raising suspicion. 

Lt. Mike Shaw, public information officer for the Michigan State Police, said police are still trying to crack the case.

“The task force is still operating, and the case file is still active,” Shaw said in an email. “There are detectives assigned to the investigation that follow up on every tip or new lead that comes in.”

Burns and his family lived less than 3 miles from where the last victim, King, was found in Livonia. 

Because of this, Burns said, he and his wife were highly concerned about the safety of their children, especially because they walked to school. 

“We had to get up early to drive downtown to work, and because we were so close to the school they did not have a school bus service, so (the kids) had to walk to school, and part of the walk was through 1/4 mile of wooded area,” Burns said. “We had to sit them down and say, ‘Look, if someone pulls up or if someone comes by, we don’t care if it’s a neighbor, we don’t care if it’s your grandfather, a doctor, a schoolteacher. If it’s not me, run to the nearest door and scream for help.’”

Grappling with the idea that someone could harm his children and was killing local children took a toll on Burns emotionally, he said. 

“It was so emotionally traumatic that when I retired, it just kept burning at me, and I said I just need to write about this. Not for any particular reason, just to get it out of my system,” he said. 

To learn more about “The Dark Gray Blanket” or to purchase the book, go to thedarkgrayblanket.com.