David Schock turns his camera on unsolved West Michigan murders, bringing new information to light in hope of finding justice for the victims and their families.
By Tim McAllister
Photography by Johnny Quirin
It doesn’t look like the home of a man with such a gruesome obsession.
The main floor is brightly lit, with shining wood floors, a grand piano, tastefully framed artwork and impressive books under glass. A friendly little dog nudges one’s shin, begging to be petted. Across the large, open room, the Grand River is visible, sparkling in the moonlight beyond several large windows. There is no hint of evil, rage, secrets, death. Nothing screams “Murder most foul!”
Until you enter the basement.
As David Schock leads the way down the stairs into his inner sanctum, the eyes have to adjust. The basement is dark, like a dank cave or a morgue. A state-of-the-art computer sits on a small desk, the screensaver casting a small amount of wobbly light. Various awards and diplomas are framed on the wall.
This is where Schock creates his “cold case” murder films — three full-length endeavors so far, including one just completed in December — that focus on unsolved West Michigan murder cases.
Schock’s most notorious film is his first: 2004’s “Who Killed Janet Chandler?” which led to the solving of a 25-year-old murder case.
“I had a group of students at the Holland cop shop,” the former Hope College associate professor of communications said. The journalism class was at the police department to learn how to develop and maintain relationships with local law enforcement.
“As usual, I was running my mouth, and when we got done, we were talking with Capt. Bob DeVries, who was the public information officer. He said he was retiring. And my question to him was, ‘You’ve been doing this for 30 years, what was the one that got away?’
“Without hesitation, he said, ‘Janet Chandler. That’s the one that keeps us all awake at night. … How did she die? Who killed her?’ And I said, ‘Janet who?’ I had no idea who she was, no idea at all. But when he gave her name to me, the only way I’ve been able to put it that makes sense is, he inscribed her name on my heart. He handed it over to me, I felt.”
This led Schock to embark on a new direction in both his filmmaking and his teaching career.
“When fall rolled around, I was teaching a documentary class for the first time. I told my students, ‘You’re going to make three documentaries for me. In addition to those three, would you like to walk with me as I make a film?’”
Incidentally, Schock did not go to film school, and thus he is a rarity in his industry: an entirely self-taught filmmaker. “Nope, no film school,” he said. “I’m just a rural Michigan guy who makes films.”
Like the students who helped make the film, Janet Chandler attended Hope College. A deeply religious young woman, Chandler was a gifted singer and came from a close-knit family. At the time of her death on Jan. 31, 1979, Chandler was working the nightshift as a front desk clerk at the Blue Mill Inn in Holland. Her body was found near South Haven early the next morning.
Her murder remained unsolved for 25 years. It wasn’t until Schock’s film was completed and shown on PBS in 2004 that people started coming forward, and the case was finally solved.
In his basement office, the filmmaker does research on Michigan cold cases. So far, he has completed three full-length films.
“In all, there were probably 12 to 15 men who raped Janet,” he said. “There are five men in prison now, four of them for life.”
Glenna Chandler, Janet’s mother, was pleased by Schock’s film about the case.
“(He) and the kids put every effort into that movie,” Chandler said. “Without him, I don’t think it would’ve been solved, because that brought it to the forefront.”
Simply put, a “cold case” murder is an unsolved murder. Somebody has been killed, and there are no known suspects. Sometimes even the victim’s identity isn’t known.
“You have about a 50/50 chance of getting away with murder in Michigan,” Schock said, referring to the state’s 52 percent clearance rate on murder cases in 2010. In the United States, 62 percent of murders have been solved, according to the most current FBI statistics available, from 2009.
“Cases grow cold because there’s no new information,” Schock said. “The police are only able to work with the cooperation they’re given.”
Schock has a website (www.delayedjustice.com) devoted to cold case murders in Michigan. On the website are the stories behind all of his films — DVDs of which are available — as well as a “We Remember” page with details about 104 more unsolved Michigan murders.
Schock’s time spent hunting down murderers has lent him a rather cautious attitude toward strangers. For example, when he received a telephone call during the interview, he clearly and deliberately told the caller who was in his house twice during the conversation. But Schock doesn’t come off as a suspicious or a frightening man. He has a warm, friendly, open demeanor, and he speaks intelligently and articulately on a range of subjects.
In addition to Schock’s career as a filmmaker, he is an author, has worked as a newspaper reporter, is a self-described “semi-professional” musician (he composed and performed the scores to several of his films and has recorded a few jazz CDs), and until recently, was an associate professor at Hope College.
“I did not retire, I assure you,” Schock said. “I gave my department chairwoman a choice: I could either stay or go. She said it wasn’t that simple. I told her it was. Either she wanted me there or she didn’t, and if she didn’t, why would I stay some place I wasn’t wanted? She said she didn’t, so I chose to leave — to not seek a renewal of my contract. And folks at the college may not have taken well to the idea that, ‘Dr. Schock, the police were here to visit you again.’”
David Schock talks to a Holland woman about the Chandler case he helped solve.
Unsolved murders aren’t Schock’s only cinematic subjects. He has made more than 50 films on topics ranging from online bullying to “Star By Star,” an entertaining documentary about Naomi Long Madgett, the poet laureate of Detroit. That film won the outstanding documentary award from the Historical Society of Michigan. However, it is his cold case murder films for which he is best known and that have most impacted the West Michigan community.
“So much that passes for film nowadays is so bad,” Schock said, “but I enjoy this kind of stuff. It’s terribly compelling.”
Captain Jeffrey Hertel, a 20-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department, has been commander of the Investigative Division since 2003. Hertel finds Schock’s films helpful to the department’s investigations.
“His films highlight cases that we feel comfortable giving him to do,” Hertel said. “He presents the information we want presented, but with much more detail.”
Hertel’s implication that the GRPD assigns cases to Schock isn’t entirely accurate, however. Instead, when Schock contacts the GRPD for information about an unsolved murder, Hertel decides on a case-by-case basis whether or not he’ll share that information with Schock.
“After all traditional means of investigation are exhausted and the case has sat open with no development for a long time, we may give Schock the case,” Hertel said. “We give him very few guidelines, and he doesn’t ever step on our toes.”
According to Hertel, when starting one of his investigations, Schock travels from his Ottawa County home to the GRPD building downtown. He is given access to a small conference room and all of the material related to the case he’s pursuing. He is then allowed to make scans of all the documents and information he thinks he might need, and uses the computer files to aid in his cinematic investigation.
One of the “very few guidelines” Hertel alluded to is a code of silence about what he calls “hidden case facts.”
“Everything is case-dependent,” Hertel said, “but sometimes we have hidden case facts that, if given out, could make it more difficult to prosecute. I trust Schock not to use those in his movies. I trust him.”
Obviously, the police spend the majority of their time investigating the most recent crimes. Cold cases, however, are never actually allowed to go cold. They are currently handled by a multi-agency task force, the Kent Metro Cold Case Team. There are two GRPD detectives on permanent assignment there, as well as two sheriffs and a State Police sergeant. The KMCCT is based out of the Kent County Sheriff’s office at 701 Ball St. in Grand Rapids.
“The county police chiefs devised this team for two reasons,” Hertel said. “One, the cases often cross jurisdictions. And two, it can help to get new eyes on the cases.”
In addition to this countywide team, each year Hertel assigns two detectives from the GRPD Major Case Unit to concentrate on cold cases, isolating them from current cases for a two-week period. “We’ve had a lot of success with that,” he said.
Schock is appreciative of his special access and doesn’t have any illusions about his place in the law enforcement community. “I am not a cop and I don’t want to be,” Schock said. “All I am is a storyteller.”
Schock’s most recent project, “Into the Dark,” is a film about the unsolved 1989 murder of 18-year-old Shannon Siders, a Newaygo resident. “She was a typical kid, close with her family, especially her cousin and her dad. She was a girl trying to find herself, ” Schock said.
Siders was hanging out with friends one July evening when she vanished. In the autumn of that year, a hunter discovered her corpse five miles away from where she was last seen. The autopsy revealed that Siders had been brutally assaulted. The small town of Newaygo has been swirling with rumors about the killing ever since. “Somebody definitely knows what happened,” Schock said.
Newaygo’s police chief, Patrick Hedlund, says during an interview in the film that there are several individuals being investigated in connection with Siders’ murder. To date, however, nobody has been charged with the crime.
Schock premiered “Into the Dark” in December at Newaygo High School, where Siders had been a student.
“It was standing room only,” Schock said. “In the audience were the cops, the whole cold case team, the family members — some of whom drove over eight hours to be there — friends, people from the community, but also the suspects and the suspects’ families. What was it like in that room? You could cut it with a knife. Chief Hedlund said we set that city on its ear. The cops were writing tips as fast as they could hear them.”
Even when there is a prosecution in a murder case, Schock is skeptical about it bringing the victim’s family peace of mind.
“There is no such thing as closure in these cases,” Schock said. “You might get some answers, but there is no way to make it just. I do the best I can to create as much justice as possible.”
In the end, Schock’s main focus is the victim’s family.
“My loyalty is to the families, not the police,” Schock said. “The most important thing is Shannon Siders, not the making of the film about her murder. Her life matters most, not her death.”GR
Freelance writer Tim McAllister is a recent graduate of Western Michigan University.