A man serving life in prison for murdering a woman in Kalkaska almost 20 years ago will again seek to prove his innocence. DNA from the crime scene just recently pointed to another suspect and the new development gives people hope that this gruesome case can finally be closed, but it’s also re-opening some old wounds.
Seventeen years ago, Geraldine Montgomery was raped and stuffed into the trunk of her own car. Montgomery, a widow and teacher’s aide at Kalkaska Middle School, was asphyxiated as the car idled in her closed garage.
Late last year, two DNA samples found on her clothes and body were matched to a suspect through a nationwide database. The victim’s daughter, Patty Cox, says she did not anticipate what the news would do to her.
“You put this way in the back of your mind and now it’s all brought forward again and you’re going through all this stuff with the awful last minutes of my mother’s life,” says Cox.
And there’s another development that she’s not at all happy about. A team of lawyers in Ann Arbor and Chicago is using the DNA evidence in hopes of exonerating Jamie Lee Peterson, who was convicted in 1998 on the theory that there were two killers, though none of his DNA was found at the scene.
Patty Cox is a retired teacher and Peterson was once her student. She insists he should remain in prison.
“I was at that trial for every single day for five weeks and now I’ve got my notes that I’ve gone back over and there’s no question in my mind but that he was involved,” she says.
Joshua Tepfer, one of the lawyers working to overturn Peterson’s conviction, disagrees.
“People who rape and murder someone leave DNA – leave physical evidence of their presence," says Tepfer. "We’ve now tested pretty much everything that could conceivably be tested and there’s not a trace of Jamie Lee Peterson there.”
He and other lawyers plan to file a motion Thursday seeking a new trial for Peterson, who was 23 when Montgomery was murdered.
He was jailed in the days following the murder for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. He bragged to a cellmate that he was the one who committed the murder, the town’s highest-profile case in years. He repeated his confession during a lengthy interrogation with police.
He later recanted and pleaded not guilty. During the trial, Peterson’s lawyer argued the defendant had limited mental capacity, that he gave incorrect answers to police questioning about the events of the murder, and that he was coached to give the correct answers.
Defense lawyers also questioned the jury’s guilty verdict, believing it may have been the result of pressure in the community to pin the crime on someone.
Karen Sedgwick, the jury foreman, claimed several years after the trial that she was pressured by other jurors to convict Peterson. She signed a sworn statement to that effect.
“I always felt guilty that he did not have a just trial," she says now. "From the very beginning, everybody had him convicted before the trial even started. Everybody in that room knew Mrs. Montgomery.”
Peterson’s lawyer tried to have the verdict overturned on appeal, but failed.
The thing that bothered many people, whether they believed Peterson or not, was the still unmatched DNA, which meant there was still a killer on the loose. Police and prosecutors refused to have the DNA from the crime scene put on a national database.
Then, last year, the case caught the attention of attorneys specializing in overturning convictions through DNA. Joshua Tepfer teaches at Northwestern Law and is a director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. He can't understand why anyone would have not want the DNA available for a match.
"That's what was different and mind-blowing in this case," says Tepfer. "Why law enforcement wasn't interested in finding that out for 15 years, I don't know the answer to and I don't think there is a good answer."
The prosecutor at the time, Brian Donnelly, died in 2012. The current prosecutor in Kalkaska County agreed to have the DNA put in the database, and before long, they got a hit on the DNA profile of Joshua Ryan.
Ryan is a Flint-area native who was staying in a house near Geraldine Montgomery’s at the time of the murder. He is now jailed, awaiting a preliminary hearing in March.
Ryan was picked up and questioned in the early days of the investigation. He submitted to a DNA swab, but that sample was never sent to a lab for a profile. Instead, he was freed after two lie-detector tests. The first was inconclusive and the second one he passed.
The head of the investigation is now retired and did not return phone calls seeking comment. However, police have said they checked out more than 100 potential suspects, and did not have the funds to have all the DNA processed.
Jamie Lee Peterson’s parents still live in Kalkaska. With the new developments, they are optimistic that he’ll eventually be freed, but they’re bracing for a long fight.
His mother Becky Peterson mainly keeps in touch with him by mail.
“We haven’t seen him in probably two or three years," she says. "We have an old car that doesn’t run that good, plus I’ve been very sick in the last few years.”
Her son spends about 23 hours a day in his cell, where he’s in protective custody because of a gambling debt with other inmates, she says. He spends one hour a day in the exercise yard.
Peterson knows her son has had his problems with the law, but is certain he’s not a killer. He has completed his sentence for statutory rape and is now living out life without parole for the Montgomery case.
Becky Peterson, who has to take an oxygen tank wherever she goes, says she has one wish.
“I want to see him again before I pass - before I die,” she says.
The victim's family and local police are strongly opposed to Peterson being freed and at this point, it looks like Kalkaska is in for two more trials before this case is closed.