Sunday, March 8, 2015
Thirty years too late......
"I'm told it was a product of wanting to get a private room," stated public defender Maizi Pusich.
On the evening of Feb 24 1976, Michelle Michelle, 19, a local student and UNR nursing student was enjoying life while she was headed to meet her dad at a local bowling alley in Reno NV. It was around 8 pm when her yellow VW broke down on Evans Ave. She got out and crossed the road to call her mother from a pay phone in front of the AG building on campus to let her know that she hadn't made it to meet her dad and needed a ride.
Her mother got there in about 10 minutes but Michelle was not there so her mother called Michelle's best friend Kathy. Kathy asked if the car was locked and if the tape deck was still in and her mother stated that it was unlocked but the deck was still there. Kathy told her to call the police because there had to be something wrong. The police and Michelle's parents spent the next two hours knocking on doors in the area in an attempt to find michelle with no luck.
Michelle was found at 10:30 pm that night when an elderly couple who lived near by opened their garage door. They found Michelle lying dead on the dirt floor inside and the police were called to the scene. While a team of police worked the crime scene, others went door to door to spread the word that a young woman had been killed as well as question students as to whether they had seen Michelle or anyone suspicious hanging around.
The details of Michelle's murder began to emerge within a few days of her being found. Her hands had been tied and her throat had been slit but the baffling part was where she had been for almost two hours. The police stated that it appeared that she had been killed very close to 10:30 pm and it did not seem that she had been held in the garage for that long. There were few clues in the garage such as only two sets of shoe prints, Michelle's and another which matched a very common type of mens shoe, a cigarette butt and matches that they believe had been lit to find the twine used to tie her hands.
The people in Reno were even more on edge because only four days before Michelle was murdered, Peggy davis had been found stabbed to death in her apartment. There was a definite fear that there now might be a serial killer in their midst. Investigators could find no links between the two murders because Peggy had been killed by Morey Kaplan in a conspiracy with two others. Kaplan, a topless night club owner had taken out an insurance policy on Davis, his employee and girlfriend at the time. The case of Michelle Mitchell ended up going cold for three years.
On Feb 24 1979, three years to the date of Michelle's murder, Reno police got a call from the police in Louisiana regarding their case. They told the Reno police that they had gotten a tip from a nurse in a local mental hospital that she had a patient that claimed to have killed a woman named Michelle in Reno some time back. That patient was Cathy Woods who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic at age 13 and had been hospitalized three times in the last 6 months. Woods had been living in Reno in 1976 and managing a topless bar just one block from the one that Peggy Davis had worked at.
The police from Reno headed out to the Louisiana State University Medical Center to interview Woods and she confessed to killing Michelle. Woods quickly recanted that confession but she was put on trial and convicted of the murder in 1980. That conviction was overturned though because of an issue with one witness who was linked to the Davis murder. She was faced a new trial and her defense team felt that she was innocent but knew that they faced an uphill battle in proving it.
Lee Hotchkin, her lawyer, knew that he could not put Woods on stand to testify because her mannerisms would not be viewed favorably by a jury even though they were most likely due to her schizophrenia. The prosecution would have a very easy time making her look like an evil person in comparison to Michelle, the young co-ed. Woods was the former manager of a strip club as well as a very mannish lesbian at a time when it was still a felony to engage in homosexual acts in Nevada.
The prosecution also pressed the idea that since Woods often wore men's clothing, she could have been the male witnesses had seen running from the area that evening. Woods had a breast reduction but her plastic surgeon testified that it would have been very difficult for her to have convincingly looked like a man before the surgery. The other glaring problem was the fact that the set of shoe prints that went into the garage and out again were made from a man's loafer that was a couple of sizes larger than Woods's foot.
Hotchkin also had to prove that the prosecution motive in this trial was presented as Wood's choosing to kill Michelle after she rejected Woods's sexual advances. He also had to overcome the recanted confession that had been presented. Woods did know some of the details of the crime and she also had some incorrect as well as adding delusional details such as working for the FBI and that her mother was trying to poison her. Hotchkin contended that the details she did know could have easily bee gotten from the news media coverage at the time of the crime. Both judges had allowed the confession to be used in the trial even though it had not been recorded, had not been given her rights and she probably did not understand them because she was in a mental institution.
Woods was convicted a second time in 1985 and since there could be no errors found with the trial, her appeal was denied. It would be 28 years before DNA testing had advanced to the importance that it has now. In 2010 while Woods was incarcerated in Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center in N Las Vegas NV, a fellow inmate filed a motion to have the evidence in her case sent for DNA testing. There was enough DNA on the evidence saved from trial that they had a match but not to Woods. The DNA matched a male who was linked to the murders of five girls in the Redwood City CA area. Those murders were known as the Gypsy Hill Murders and the only thing they had found in common with the murdered women was that they looked similar.
A motion for a new trial was filed on May 14 2014 based on the new DNA evidence. It has been stated that Woods may well have confessed to the crime all those years ago because she had wanted a private room in the hospital and she had been told that she could not have one because she was not dangerous enough to warrant it. It was in Sept 2014 that the Reno police named a person of interest for the murder of Michelle as well as the five women in the Gypsy Hill Murders. The courts had also set July 13 2015 as the date for Woods new trial. She was released from prison and was going home with her brother to California to wait for her new trail in 2015. The prosecutors announced on March 6 2015 that they would be dropping the charges against Woods and there would be no new trial.
Court documents state the DNA found on the cigarette butt near Michelle's body matches the DNA of Rodney Halbower, 66, who was serving 30 years in Oregon for attempted murder. They also had evidence that linked him with some of the women who were considered victims in the Gypsy Hill Murders. On Jan 22 2015, Halbower was arraigned in San Mateo County CA on two counts of special circumstances murder in the deaths of Paula Baxter, 17 and Veronica Cascio, 18 years old, He had finally entered the national system when he gave a DNA sample before he was transferred from a Nevada prison in 2013 to the one in Oregon.
Halbower grew up in Muskegon Heights MI and has been described by former friends and family members as a bully and has always been in trouble with the law. Muskegon County Court records show that from 1966 to 1979, he had committed crimes from breaking and entering to larceny as well as escaping from the jail there in 1966. At some point in early 1976 he ended up in the San Francisco Bay area where the five women comprising the Gypsy Hill Murders were found dead and he was believed to have left the area after the fifth.
He then ended up in jail in Reno in 1976 after he was convicted of the 1975 rape of a blackjack dealer. That crime was committed only a few blocks from where Michelle had been found dead. In 1986 he escaped the maximum security prison and ran to Oregon where he committed numerous other crimes which he was in jail for there. It was while he was being transferred to Oregon from Nevada to serve his time that he had to submit the DNA test that would link him to at least three murders.
Halbower has not been charged with Michelle's death yet and either of the murders he is charged with now leave him facing life in prison. At 66 years old it is very likely that he will not only die in prison but there may be a deal made with him to try and solve all the cases he has been linked to just to save court time and money. The most important things now seem to be closure and his punishment for the murders he is accused of.