Chapter 13: The star witness

Date: 2007-12-15
Source: freep.com

Chapter 13: The star witness

BY JACK KRESNAK • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • December 15, 2007

Though Tim Holland had led police to Ricky's body and confessed that he helped cover up his son's killing at the hands of his wife, the criminal case against them was weak.

The Hollands' statements couldn't be used against one another. Doctors found fractures, apparently inflicted around the time of death, on Ricky's right collarbone, left nasal opening and left upper jaw. They ruled his death a homicide, but they couldn't say what caused it.

"We were ... really in a kind of a bad way," Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said later. "We had a body, but we didn't even have a case. We had her saying he did it and him saying she did it. We knew the kid was murdered, but we didn't even know the mechanism of death. All we had were bones."

Ricky's death also had become a hot potato for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was running for re-election. Many people were enraged after it was reported that Child Protective Services had ignored the abuse of Ricky's younger brother. The truth was that the evidence of abuse was ambiguous and prosecutors for months had blocked CPS from filing a petition to remove Tim and Lisa Holland's remaining four children.

Conflicting stories

When the Hollands finally were charged with murder and child abuse on Feb. 7, 2006, police testified there had been a long history of mental and physical abuse of Ricky, including food deprivation and repeated instances of humiliation.

The preliminary examination lasted 14 days in March and April but yielded few concrete answers. More than a dozen witnesses related disjointed pieces of Ricky Holland's short, strange life. Most confusing were the conflicting stories of the witnesses from Jackson County -- teachers, school bus drivers, a nurse, a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist.

Ricky was normal and bright. No, he was hyperactive, violent and possibly bipolar. Ricky said he was abused. No, he said he wasn't abused.

The Hollands were bound over for trial anyway.

'I'll tell you everything'

For months, Tim Holland sat in a jail cell alone, racked with guilt and regret. He'd lost a good job in military intelligence. He'd lost his wife and the family he'd always wanted. He was ashamed he'd done nothing to stop the abuse of Ricky or halt the new cycle of abuse of Trevor. Now he wanted to tell the truth, plead guilty and accept his punishment.

"I'll tell you everything. ... I don't want this to happen again. I should've stopped it back then, but I couldn't," Tim told detectives on Sept. 3, 2006.

Out came an even more bizarre tale, beginning the afternoon of July 1, 2005 -- the day before Tim called 911 to falsely report that Ricky had run away.

In this version, Tim admitted he did not see Lisa hit Ricky with a hammer, as he had previously told police, but he said Lisa told him that she had used the hammer on Ricky about a week before he died, because Ricky had made her angry.

'He's not breathing'

The tale Tim told police on Sept. 3 was shocking. The night Ricky died, Tim said, Ricky was acting like a zombie -- "like he was when he was on those pills."

While Tim stayed with the kids, he said Lisa went to a KFC in Okemos about 5 p.m. As the family gathered around the table, Tim prepared Ricky's plate with his son's favorites -- chicken wings and mashed potatoes.

Lisa reached over and took everything off the plate, saying, "He's not eating until he eats the coleslaw."

Ricky, who hated coleslaw, slumped in his chair, staring into space. Cradled in his hands was a large green tumbler of liquid poured by Lisa. Tim said it was filled with something else that would make Ricky gag: cold tomato soup.

Ricky stared at whatever was placed in front of him.

"The only way I can categorize it is a thousand-yard stare," Tim said. "Once he sat down, he didn't move."

After dinner, sometime before 7 p.m., Tim put Ricky to bed. He didn't want Ricky to be up later because "I didn't want to get Lisa pissed off and have her go off at him." He said Ricky told him he was cold, so he covered him with a brown blanket and kissed his forehead.

When Tim returned to the living room, Lisa said she wanted a treat. Tim drove to a gas station, where he bought "bug juice for the kids, rock-n-rye for her, Milk Duds for her because she wanted something sweet, and I get RC Cola and I think I bought myself some Dots and maybe a can of Skoal chewing tobacco."

When he got back home, Lisa was agitated. Tim asked her why, but she wouldn't answer and suggested they head to bed. On the way, Tim noticed a light in Ricky's room. He told Lisa he was going to check on Ricky, but "she says, 'No, no, he's fine. You don't need to.' "

Tim said he went anyway. He went closer and found that Ricky wasn't breathing and red vomit was dripping from his mouth, covering his shirt.

"He had this look of, I want to say, terror in his face," Tim said. He shook the boy, asking, " 'Are you OK? Are you OK?'

"He's not breathing and I look back and there's Lisa standing in the hallway screaming at me, 'I didn't mean to do it! I didn't mean to do it!' and I said, 'Do what?' "

He said Lisa ran off and he went after her.

"Get his body out of the house," she yelled. "Get it out of Ingham County."

'I did nothing to stop it'

Tim said he drove to the Dansville State Game Area, walked into the marsh and "just kind of pushed" the body into the water. It was so dark, he couldn't tell whether it floated or sank.

The next morning, the day started like nothing had happened. Lisa was up early and left to take her mother shopping. Tim got their baby daughter dressed and was about to prepare breakfast for the kids when his mother called.

He said he panicked and took the phone into Ricky's bedroom, pretending to put his mother on the phone to wake Ricky and then pretending that Ricky had run away. After calling 911, he staged the scene in Ricky's bedroom and panicked again when he went to open the window.

"I couldn't get the window open. I couldn't get the screen to go back," he said. Lisa must have lied about Ricky's previously running away through that window, he thought.

"How am I going to explain this to everybody? How am I going to explain that my son is ... is ... is dead? You know, it's ... I did nothing to stop it. Nothing."

Tim said he and Lisa were afraid to take lie detector tests. Tim figured their story would fall apart. "I wanted to tell everybody the truth back then, but I still loved her," Tim said. "I still wanted to protect her and my kids, so I made a bad choice and I'm going to pay for that choice."

Tim talked about how Lisa had hurt Ricky over the years, including stuffing a sock in his mouth and then duct-taping it shut. Once, Tim came home and found Ricky's mouth gagged and his head duct-taped to the refrigerator.

In Jackson, Tim said, Lisa would lock Ricky in the basement even though he was terrified of the bugs and cobwebs and darkness. Lisa's explanation: "He got on my nerves."

Tim said Ricky always was hungry because Lisa denied him food. She "had just an immense hatred for Ricky." He was unsure why he still had feelings for his wife.

"I would consider her a cross between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler."

Jailhouse note convinces jury

On Sept. 5, 2006, Tim, then 37, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aiding and abetting first-degree child abuse. It was a turning point in the case against his 33-year-old wife. He was the star witness against her, testifying for three days that October. But as horrifying as his account was, it wasn't what sealed the conviction.

Of 312 items entered into evidence during a trial with 55 witnesses, the one thing that convinced jurors of Lisa's guilt was a handwritten note she'd passed to another jail inmate.

"I think it's too late now, but I have to tell someone," the note read. "It was an accident. I didn't mean to."

Two jailhouse snitches testified that Lisa admitted to them that she'd hit Ricky with a hammer. "I asked, 'Did he die right away?' " one said. "She shook her head no. I asked, 'Did he suffer?' And she shook her head yes."

At 10:45 a.m. Oct. 27, the jury foreman announced the verdicts. Lisa, who had been smiling pleasantly moments earlier, trembled and her face reddened. She was handcuffed and led away but quickly brought back when the judge realized she hadn't told Lisa her sentencing date.

Lisa, who had seemed stoic and self-assured from the start, was crying quietly.

Contact JACK KRESNAK at 313-223-4544 or jkresnak@freepress.com.

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