OSCODA - The Oscoda Township Police Department has made an arrest in the suspected 1980 murder of a 21-year-old black woman.
Cherita Thomas vanished one night in 1980 and, although her body has never been found, authorities say they have no doubt she met with foul play.
And, based on location, timing, an alleged racial prejudice, a score of allegedly conflicting statements, and other circumstantial evidence, OTPD officers arrested the man who has been their primary suspect for at least 11 years, reported Det/Sgt. Allan MacGregor.
Jimmie Allen Nelson, 52, was taken into custody on Dec. 28 at his son's AuSable Township residence — the same house in which Nelson resided at the time Cherita Thomas went missing.
He was arraigned the same day by Judge Allen C. Yenior in 81st District Court on an open murder charge.
Nelson, who now lives in Houston, Texas, had been staying with his son since an earlier arrest on other charges related to the Thomas investigation.
The details of both the disappearance and reasons for charging Nelson are contained in the eight-page statement which MacGregor gave to the court as probable cause for the warrant.
According to the detective, Thomas was last seen on Aug. 3, 1980.
That afternoon, she and Nelson's sister-in-law, Patricia Call, dropped Call's two children and Thomas's four-year-old daughter at the home of another of Nelson's in-laws, located in the same AuSable subdivision in which Nelson was also living.
Call and Thomas next stopped at the nearby Hilltop Bar, then drove to Mikado to watch ball games, ending up at the Mikado Tavern.
At some point in the evening, Thomas borrowed Call's brown AMC Matador and left to retrieve the children from the baby-sitter's. Thomas told Call she wanted to be home before her fiancee returned from work. She promised to leave the car at Call's house, which was next door to her own.
En route, the car broke down near the intersection of US-23 and River Road in Oscoda. Four men stopped to help, later telling police they used duct tape to plug a radiator leak, then refilled the radiator with water. As they were working on the car, one of the men said a passing motorist in a blue truck made an obscene gesture.
The car apparently broke down again on Sunset Street within blocks of the baby-sitter's home. Neighbors told police there was steam coming from the radiator and that they saw a blue Ford pickup pulled up next to it. One of the neighbors also claimed to have seen two people depart in the truck.
The brown car was abandoned. Inside it were Thomas's cigarettes, her house keys and a note containing the baby-sitter's address. The keys to the car were missing.
When Patricia Call returned home at 2:30 a.m. to find her car was not in her driveway, she called her sister and learned that the children were never picked up. She went next door and told Thomas's fiancee.
The fiancee immediately went looking for Thomas. The baby-sitter's husband and Jimmie Nelson were allegedly enlisted to help and drove around looking for Thomas without success.
Nelson, who owned a 1976 blue Ford pickup at the time, did not use it in the search and allegedly sold it shortly after Thomas disappeared. Police have not been able to locate the vehicle. MacGregor says it was likely crushed and recycled some time after it was sold.
Nelson was questioned early on in the investigation, partly because he was a Hilltop regular and also because fingers were pointed in his direction.
As early as a week after the disappearance, the OTPD was contacted by a woman who contended Nelson had a propensity for violence and had sexually molested her.
This woman and others also alleged Nelson to be a racist. Call contended that Nelson criticized her for associating with Thomas and allowing her in Call's house.
But then the investigators received information which led them in a different direction which — 13 years later — was conclusively proven to have been the wrong one, according to MacGregor.
In 1980, MacGregor was a young patrolman. His primary role in the investigation was to run down leads for the department detective.
By the time the most promising of these was conclusively disproved in 1993, MacGregor was the OTPD detective.
He said he went back to square one and scrutinized all the information which had been collected since Thomas disappeared. "One name kept popping up — that of Jimmie Nelson."
After re-interviewing Nelson, MacGregor said experience and gut instinct told him that Nelson knew more than he was admitting.
The FBI, which had become involved during the hunt for the former suspect, assumed a key role in the investigation based on suspicions that Thomas's disappearance may have been a hate crime.
FBI agents repeatedly interviewed Nelson, both in Michigan and also in Houston, Texas where Nelson moved in the mid 1990s.
A Michigan State Police investigator also interviewed Nelson.
Between 1980 and 2003, Nelson was interviewed by police at least a half-dozen times. Two of the interviews were conducted under oath, compelled by an investigative subpoenas issued by Iosco County Prosecutor Gary Rapp.
Nelson allegedly made many conflicting statements over the years. There were contradictions about his whereabouts on the night in question, MacGregor stated. He allegedly gave different versions of his contact with Thomas on the date she went missing; his truck; his hunting camp; the area in which he was working as a logger; and his acquaintance with Thomas.
Several of the statements were tape recorded. Some were dictated to a court reporter.
Each time Nelson gave a new statement, the detective and FBI agents would compare it to the earlier ones, highlighting conflicting information and checking out any new information which Nelson provided, MacGregor said.
In one interview, the murder suspect denied knowing Thomas at all. In another he allegedly admitted that he gave her a ride to several area locations on the night she disappeared, advised MacGregor.
In some instances, citizens called police to allege Nelson had contacted them in an effort to get them to back up false statements he allegedly gave to authorities. For example, a bartender said Nelson tried to convince her his truck was red, not blue.
Nelson also suggested a scenario by which his fingerprints could have gotten on the car Thomas was driving during a phone conversation with a sister-in-law — which she taped for authorities. (MacGregor say investigators let Nelson believe they had found his fingerprints on the car but that, in truth, they had not.)
In an effort to make his case, the detective also cites a number of other tips gleaned over the years, including information that Nelson had suddenly abandoned his productive deer hunting camp near Grass Lake Road and Old US-23 after Thomas vanished.
It was to this area that authorities brought a cadaver dog and his handler in an search for Thomas's remains in 2001 and 2002. Several human bones and other items were found, all of which turned out to have been planted by the dog handler, who was subsequently convicted on federal charges and is now in prison.
MacGregor said he sees the murder warrant as the first step in the final phase of this 24½-year investigation.
"This was never a cold case. For all these years, we've worked to provide Cherita's family with closure," MacGregor said. "We have a victim who has a family who doesn't know where she is."
The detective says Thomas's mother, sisters, her fiancee, and her daughter, now 28 years old, all live in downstate Michigan. The family has been notified an arrest has been made.
Nelson is being held in the Iosco County Jail without bail pending resolution of the case.
He is also facing related charges of obstruction of justice and lying to law enforcement officials. Nelson was arrested on these counts in April. The interstate truck driver has been free on a tether since shortly after the arrest, on the provision he could not leave the state.
Nelson's attorney, Neil Rockind, did not respond to a request for comment.