They were all so sure. The police. The prosecutors. The judge. The mourners. They were all so sure that the killers were in jail. Justice was coming. A good kid had been murdered, shot while he was on his knees in a pizza parlor refrigerator. The town cried, the school cried, the family cried.
But justice was coming. That was the message. Two young men, Jon Kaled and Frank Kuecken, had confessed to the crime. They were punks, according to their prosecutors, high school dropouts, drug users.
Now they had confessed to murder. They sat in the Macomb County Jail and awaited trial. Never mind, the authorities said, that Kaled and Kuecken later recanted their confessions, claiming police had bullied them.
They were all so sure.
Until last week, when someone else confessed to the murder.
Now the “sure” killers are free. And everyone is asking questions.
I came to the Justin Mello murder case late last year. It was a gut-wrenching story. A beloved teenager and high school athlete, Mello was killed on a Saturday night in October, when someone entered Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders, forced him into the cooler and shot him, execution style, in the back of his head.
In the town of New Baltimore, things like this don’t happen. The community rallied around the Mello family. Memorials were constructed. Special prayer sessions were held.
They all ached for closure.
They wanted the case solved.
In covering the story, it was impossible, even as a dispassionate reporter, not to sympathize with the Mello family. They had lost the most precious currency of life, a child.
So when I spoke to police who felt Kaled and Kuecken were the killers, I wanted to believe them.
And when I spoke to prosecutors, who dismissed the recanted confessions “Killers often do that,” they said I wanted to believe them, too.
When I spoke to Justin’s parents, Henry and Denise who fought back tears when they asked, “How could people cheer (Kaled and Kuecken) at the courthouse, saying ‘We know you’re innocent?'” I wanted to believe they had been wronged.
But this job is not about what you want. So I asked other questions, too. I asked why no gun, hair or fingerprints had been found. I asked why so many friends of Kaled and Kuecken claimed the two were at a party that night. I asked about two criminals named David Baumann and Dennis Bryan, who had been arrested in Kentucky after a multistate crime spree that may have included the Mello murder.
Some folks didn’t like that I sought the other side. I understand. We want our pain erased. But in the rush to repair damage, what if we do more?
It now looks as if Kaled and Kuecken are not the killers, that Baumann and Bryan murdered Mello as part of their sick, bloody spree. The natural question is: Why did Kaled and Kuecken confess? One logical answer is that they were coerced.
The police won’t say that. And Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga said: “Had Baumann not confessed, we’d still have a very good case. These two are not in the clear yet.”
Still, there is only one truth, not two. And if Baumann had kept his mouth shut, would Kaled and Kuecken be on their way to a wrongful life in prison?
When something looks like the answer and feels like the answer, when is it not the answer? When someone behaves like a punk and confesses to a murder, when is he not a murderer?
Not long ago, I interviewed a man, Chris Ochoa, who years ago had also signed a confession, under duress, to a murder he didn’t commit. He spent more than a decade in jail before DNA evidence proved what he had long claimed: It wasn’t him.
At the time of his conviction, the victim’s family felt relief. But today, that family is doubly burdened: They still mourn their child, but now feel pain for an innocent man who was robbed of his freedom.
If Kaled and Kuecken truly didn’t do it, the Mello family should be glad their sea of grief didn’t wash away two more lives. It would only make things worse. The bullet that killed Justin Mello keeps on going and going, wounding other victims. I wrote that in the original story. It seems truer today.
Mitch Albom is the author of the best seller “Tuesdays With Morrie.”