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Chapter 7: Suspects and lies


Chapter 7: Suspects and lies


Within two days of Ricky Holland's disappearance, police had a promising suspect.

He was a 52-year-old convicted sex offender who rented a room inside his friends' apartment on Grand River, about 4 miles west of the Hollands'. Williamston police had received several calls in 2005 complaining that the man followed children on a bike, exposed himself and masturbated in public.

Police took him in for questioning on Monday, July 4. He admitted following Ricky's case, but denied having anything to do with the boy. A search of his room turned up stuffed animals, handcuffs, snapshots of children and a folder containing newspaper articles about missing kids.

He'd been convicted several times of public indecency and was a suspect in at least two molestation incidents, but he'd never been convicted of a sex-related felony. He agreed to take a polygraph, and the test showed deception.

Police put the man under surveillance and began checking his story, questioning people who knew him and tracing his movements. By the weekend, though, they were pretty sure he had nothing to do with Ricky's disappearance.

A boy on video: He's not Ricky

Pressure to find the boy was intensifying. The disappearance received front-page coverage in the Lansing State Journal and led off local television newscasts. Hundreds of volunteers, plus police, firefighters and military personnel, searched in 100-degree heat.

On Wednesday, Ingham County Sheriff's Capt. Rick Miller went to a McDonald's in Perry to check a new lead: The store's security video showed a small boy, alone, buying food. Miller asked Chief Deputy Vicki Harrison to bring the Hollands to the restaurant to see the video.

Lisa agreed to go, but Tim begged off, saying the other kids would "throw fits" if both of them were gone. Harrison said the atmosphere in the car was unexpectedly lighthearted. At M-52 and Haslett Road, Harrison pointed out where a searcher found a wrapper from a fruit snack -- possibly Ricky's. Lisa barely reacted. Later, she didn't even bother to call Tim to let him know, after she stood on a chair at the restaurant to view the video on an overhead monitor, that she was certain the boy wasn't Ricky.

A few hours later, Lisa brought her mother to the police command center on Grand River, near the Hollands' home. Betty Taylor, wearing an oxygen line, was weeping and gasping for breath. Harrison patted her arm and told her to relax before asking her to talk about Ricky.

Calling him her "sunshine boy," Taylor broke down sobbing, saying how worried she was. Police had taken a toothbrush Ricky used from her house -- did that mean they thought he was dead? Harrison assured Taylor that police didn't think Ricky was dead, but Harrison was struck by how calm and collected Lisa was in contrast to her mother.

New complaint fails to check out

Despite Ricky's strange forays into neighbors' homes and Tim's unusual explanations about his son's behavior, no one called Child Protective Services until July 7 -- almost a week after Ricky was reported missing.

The caller, a neighbor, said Ricky had gone out his bedroom window before his disappearance and entered homes to look for food. The Hollands had lived in the house for nearly three months, yet no one recalled having seen the five kids playing outside.

The complaint came at a bad time for the Hollands on two fronts: Ricky was gone and they were in the midst of trying to adopt his 19-month-old half-brother, Brett.

The next day, CPS investigator Kyron Harvell was asked to check out the complaint and coordinate with law enforcement.

Harvell requested CPS records from Jackson County and talked with Ricky's Department of Human Services foster care worker from the county, Theresa Bronsberg. She told him Ricky had a history of running away but she never suspected the Hollands of mistreating the kids. Harvell met with the Hollands and heard virtually the same story about Ricky's disappearance as police did. He saw nothing unusual about the other children, who appeared healthy and well cared for.

Detectives shift focus to Hollands

With suspicions mounting, top officials with the sheriff's department, deputies working the case, representatives of the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office and State Police met to form a task force on the morning of July 11.

They talked about the Hollands' lack of emotion and their suspicious behavior. They reviewed the tips they'd received and discussed the questioning of sex offenders. But it was clear by the end of the meeting that the prime suspects had become Ricky's parents.

Sheriff's Sgt. Roy Holliday, the lead investigator, asked two other detectives to head to the Hollands' for a more thorough search. They got there about 11 a.m. and found a truck from a company called BioClean Team parked outside.

Within minutes, the detectives were called to the mobile command center, around the corner on Grand River, where BioClean president Kameron Bradman was telling police the Hollands had hired his firm to clean up fingerprint dust.

But Bradman wanted police to know that he'd seen what looked like blood spatters on a baseboard in the hall outside the bedroom. And inside Ricky's closet, to one side, workers had found wadded-up clothing -- a boy's socks and a T-shirt that appeared to be bloodstained.

One of the workers had asked Tim about the clothing and was told: "Don't worry about those; the police already know about that. It's not a big deal." The worker put the clothing in a plastic bag and left it in the room.

When the two detectives returned to the house, Tim signed a form allowing them to search. They found the plastic bag with the socks and long-sleeve gray cotton T-shirt with the inscription: "Be kind to your sister, one day you may need her for an alibi."

The detectives took photographs and swabs of the baseboard spots and confiscated the clothing as evidence.

Tim explained a possible cause for the blood -- Ricky was prone to nosebleeds -- but said his wife would know more. Lisa told them Ricky had a nosebleed a couple of days before running away. She hadn't washed or moved the clothing because she'd been told by police not to touch anything. She also said the blood on the baseboard could have come from a nosebleed.

Later that day, BioClean workers removed the carpeting in Ricky's bedroom because the fingerprint dust wouldn't come out. A more thorough search by State Police crime scene technicians wouldn't take place for nearly two months. A sheriff's department official later said police didn't have enough evidence, pending forensic tests, to obtain a warrant for a more thorough search at this point. It took weeks to confirm that the blood on the T-shirt was Ricky's; the baseboard blood was not. A forensic expert later could not rule out that the T-shirt blood might have come from a nosebleed.

Tim Holland caught in lie

Melissa Sewell, Brett's adoption worker at Jackson County DHS, called Child Protective Services on July 13 to say Brett's adoption couldn't go through unless the Hollands were cleared in the investigation of the July 7 complaint from the neighbor. Sewell vouched for the Hollands, saying she'd worked with the family for years.

The next day, Harvell sent Sewell a letter: "A thorough investigation has been conducted with this family and there is not a preponderance of evidence that child abuse or neglect has occurred in this case."

His final report noted that the Hollands seemed to be bonded to Ricky and were emotionally torn about his disappearance. "This worker has no concerns regarding the safety of the other children," he wrote.

Brett's adoption could proceed.

At a July 21 hearing that Tim and Lisa did not attend, a Jackson County Family Court judge signed the adoption order. Detectives on the task force were appalled when they learned about it days later. Several questioned whether the DHS knew what it was doing.

A day after the adoption, State Police obtained a search warrant for the Hollands' cell and home phone records. The affidavit supporting the warrant noted that Tim claimed to have seen the 52-year-old sex offender -- the onetime suspect -- outside a McDonald's in Williamston in early April.

But police knew the man hadn't moved to the area until early May.

Tim had to be lying. What else was he lying about?

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

2007 Dec 8