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Murder City Shakedown

Local author/filmmaker researches unsolved murders in Detroit


In the mid-'70s a manhunt was under way for a killer known as the Oakland County Child Killer: Four kidnap-murders of Detroit, Mich.-area children were attributed to the killer, and he or she was suspected of another five. Local filmmaker/actor/author J. Reuben Appelman was 7 years old and growing up in Detroit at the time. Walking home alone one day, he was nearly enticed into a stranger's car. Almost 30 years later, he remembered the incident and began to connect the pieces.

For five years, Appelman has been researching the unsolved OCCK murders--and working on a book: Murder City Shakedown. As "creative non-fiction" it is the story of the victims, the investigation and the city of Detroit. Appelman has traveled back to his hometown, pored over tens of thousands of documents and photos, and interviewed members of the original police task force. He has also spoken with family members of the victims of the killer, sometimes referred to as "The Babysitter" because the children were fed and bathed before they were sexually assaulted, asphyxiated or shot.

Appelman's motive for chronicling this cold case is not simply to expose what he calls gross incompetence and a "criminal investigation hushed up for political reasons." Nor is it to name the killer. Murder City Shakedown aims to accomplish both but at the heart lies a family man who has had his own experiences with violence and for a long time been upset at the thought of "four kids, 4,000 kids or 4 million kids" suffering the ravages of abuse. Also a poet, Appelman's creative writing often explores "the fragility and vulnerability" of children.

"In a way, I'm obsessed with the story a little more than most people," Appelman said. "But I have been hearing from people in Detroit ... they've been touched by these crimes. Not only am I trying to obsessively solve the case, but as a piece of literature, I think it's important because it has become a story of how people live with the insinuation of violence into their lives."

New DNA evidence has recently been discovered--or uncovered--in the murders, and Appelman said that he's still about nine months ahead of the Detroit-area media and he wants to maintain that lead. Regardless of who gets to the finish line first, Appelman believes this will be a win for Detroit, "something the city needs." And by bringing all of the information he has to light and finding justice for the OCCK victims, everyone touched by these crimes may also be afforded a small victory.