Tracks in the Snow

Date Published 11.30.11
Who killed the Tarwackis?  And did he strike again?


Michigan in February means snow, a lung-scorching shock of white weighing down trees, blanketing rooftops.  Snow is shoveled.  Snow is scraped off windshields.  Shaken from mittens.  Two winters ago, in the southwestern Michigan town of Niles, the snow helped tell a story.

Nothing else about the scene that morning added up.  When John Tarwacki, 42, and his wife of three years, Carolyn, 39, didn't appear for a meeting at Quinlan and Fabish, the music education company where they both worked, John's father was notified.  He was alarmed by news of the couple's uncharacteristic absence.  When he failed to reach them by phone, he drove immediately to their house at 979 Carberry Road, in a quiet, woodsy neighborhood east of Niles.  John's Dad had a bad feeling.  He was right.  In a few hours neighbors peeking out their windows would see an unusual, alarming image: a police K-9 team fanning out into the snowy woods behind the Tarwacki's house.

It was supposed to be an uneventful Friday, one that appeared to have begun ordinarily enough.  Carolyn, an early riser, had spoken to her mother on the phone a little after 6 a.m.  She discussed her plans for the day.  She logged onto her computer.  The morning routine was unfolding, with no hint of trouble.

But trouble came.  Investigators later concluded the killer came through the back door.  Sometime during that early, ordinary morning, someone entered the Tarwacki home and, despite the couple's 200 lb mastiff, killed the Tarwackis with two weapons, one he brought with him, and one he took from the house.  Police have declined to identify the exact weapons used in the murders.

One investigator called the scene oddly "sterile."  There was very little evidence of struggle, as if the killer had taken them by surprise,  Their dog, Wrigley (the couple loved the Chicago Cubs) was unharmed and found in a separate part of house, leading people, including some of the victims' family members, to speculate Wrigley and the couple were familiar with the killer.

But no one could figure out who would target the Tarwackis, or why.  They were low-risk victims.  Their backgrounds revealed no fractured relationships, or criminal behavior.  People spoke of them as "soul mates."  She played the euphonium.  He was a former submarine engineer in the Navy who enjoyed karaoke.  For the last several years they'd played Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the Niles Train Depot.

Carolyn and John Tarwacki

It was a generally head-scratching case, but investigators did know one thing, and for that they had the abundant snow to thank.  Tracks in the snow showed the killer's route, from nearby Yankee Street, through a wooded area, over a fence, to the Tarwacki's back door, and back again.

What the purposeful tracks told investigators is that the Tarwacki murders were likely not a random crime.  The killer ignored other houses along the route; his footsteps were deliberate.  The indentations in the snow aimed at the Tarwacki door as if it was a target.

The best clue was witness descriptions of a young man seen walking on Yankee Street that morning.  Location and timing lead investigators to believe the man the witnesses glimpsed was the Tarwacki's killer.

The suspect was described as a white male, between 20 to 30 years old, with brown hair, medium build, about 5 '10 to 6 '1; he was wearing a dark hooded jacket.  His vehicle was an early 1990s mid-sized 4 door sedan, either sky or light blue.

The Tarwacki case never generated significant heat around a specific suspect, and, apart from occasional updates in the press, went cold.

But a recent murder in Goshen, Ind., about 50 miles from Niles, caught my eye.  Both Niles and Goshen are located in what is often called the "Michiana" region, with South Bend, home of the University of Notre Dame, the central hub.

At 1:06 a.m. on Sunday, October 9, a 9-1-1 call was placed from 1736 Wildwood Court, the home of Linda and James S. Miller, a well-known and well-liked professor of biology at Goshen College.  An intruder had attacked Linda with an unknown object; when James became involved, Linda was able to break away and call police.

Neighbors reported hearing cries of "Help me!  Help me!" along with a dog barking loudly.  James Miller had stumbled outside and was found dead near his mailbox.  Linda was seriously wounded.  The intruder escaped by the time police arrived.

The motive for the break-in is unknown, though some media reports characterize it as a home invasion robbery.

Two details about the murder seemed interesting to me.  The suspect sketch and description, while admittedly fairly general, fits the Tarwacki suspect (see comparison below).

The top sketch is the Tarwacki suspect.  In the sketch he's not wearing a hood, although he was described as wearing a dark hooded jacket.  The second sketch is the Miller suspect.  He's described as a "clean cut" white male, 5 '10 to 6 feet, early to mid-20s.

Tarwacki suspect sketch

Miller suspect sketch

The second interesting detail is that the subject of music, specifically music education, arises in both cases.  The Tarwackis worked for a music education company.  Carolyn played in several different music organizations, including the Elkhart (Ind) Municipal Band.  "Her work in music education put her in contact with area band directors and music students," one quote said.

Two of the Miller's three children were not at home the night of the murder because they were at band camp.  They are members of their local high school band.

There's no indication that any of the victims knew anyone in common, but it certainly seems like a path to investigate.

Evidence against a connection would include the fact that the Miller case seems, at least superficially, more like a botched robbery.  My understanding is that Goshen is currently experiencing more crime than Niles.  John Tarwacki's father noted that while no one could find a reason the Tarwackis were targeted, the couple had been, in his opinion, "reserved near the end," suggesting that maybe they were privately dealing with something, or someone, that was troubling them.

If you have information about the Tarwacki case, call the Michigan State Police at (269)-683-4411.  For the Miller case, call the Goshen Police Dept. at (574)-533-8661.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.