Cold Case: The Janette Roberson Story Part 2

*This is part one of a two-part special report. To read part one, click here.

A horrific crime with a slew of unanswered questions.

The murder remains unsolved, 34 years later.

After part one of our story on Janette Roberson aired Monday night one of our viewers sent in a tip.

As old as it is, this is still a case that affects people in the Reed City area.

Now, we take a look at the explosion of new technology that’s changing how these cases are solved and the cold case detectives reviving the investigation in part two of our special report, Cold Case: The Janette Roberson Story.

“Growing up, we were told that she was beaten in the face with concrete and killed. Years later, decided it was time to look into it more, find out what really happened. I started asking more questions,” says Elena Cavender.

But answers continue to elude Elena.

Family rarely discussed the aunt she never knew, Janette, or the person who got away with taking her life.

“You start looking at everybody. When you walk down the street you’re looking at people wondering if it could be that person,” explains Elena.

Janette’s childhood friend Carrie Hudson says, “How anybody could do this to her is absolutely unreal to me. When I realized how brutal it was, then I wanted answers.”

Janette’s brutal end came in the basement of what is today Reed City Hardware, back in 1983.

The murderer walked up the stairs and into the open. Still no witnesses, no concrete leads and not a single suspect. 

Family and friends organized a walk for Janette, trying to get tips.

“It’s ironic that 30 years later, we’re seeing more happening in this case in the last four years than we have ever. I think we’re doing something right, trying to bring attention to it. I think there’s a bigger need to see this solved now,” explains Carrie.

Now, a potential breakthrough in the 34-year-old murder. A state police cold case task force is promising a fresh look to figure out who killed Janette. 

“We want to provide some type of closure or justice for the victim and their family, but also the community,” says Detective Sergeant John Forner, Michigan State Police.

Detectives are putting together binders full of background and ordering evidence collected at the time be resubmitted for new testing.

“From items of clothing to items that may have been left behind by the person responsible,” says Forner. “Are there advancements in forensics that could help us on these old cases? Is there evidence that has never been submitted to the lab before?”

Connie Swander, director of the Michigan State Police Forensic Laboratory in Grayling, adds, “Just because the evidence is old doesn’t mean it’s not useful anymore.”

We were given unprecedented access to the Michigan State Police Forensic Laboratory in Grayling for a look at the state-of-the-art technology that’s solving other cases across the country. 

“The forensic science of 1983 is going to be totally different. It is completely now and the speed at which it’s growing, it just keeps changing,” says Swander.

One of the latest developments involves a simple swab test and what’s known as contact DNA. 

“If someone were to grab onto that person and hang on to them, they tried to pull away or something and slid across it, there’s a possibility that DNA cells from their hand could be left on the clothing. That wasn’t even heard of, maybe even thought of, back in 1983,” explains Swander.

More hope in an explosion of new capabilities in testing for trace evidence like hair, fibers, reliable DNA, pulling a suspect’s finger print from virtually thin air, even the shoes that person may have been wearing.

This technology could point the finger at a potential suspect and shine a light on the dusty, decades old mystery.

“What keeps everybody here and really involved is solving these crimes,” says Swander. “When you find that one little thing, we’re all just looking for that one little thing that might just make or break this case.”

There are still problems. In the wrong conditions, crucial DNA could break down, the evidence may never link police to a suspect.

“It weighs on you that you can’t solve every case,” says Forner. “It brings a sense of urgency to us as far as being diligent in these cases.”

Hoping for tips from the public, a deathbed confession or even a simple change of heart.

“The passage of time can both help you and hurt you, for obvious reasons. People’s memories fade as the years pass but, also as the years pass, allegiances can change,” explains Forner.

Elena is now four years older than her aunt Janette ever lived to be.

She tells us the detectives and the science make her an optimist for a chance at closure and justice.

“We’ll find you. We’ll find you and we’ll get you,” says Elena.  

Carrie adds “You need to pay for what you did. You need to pay for what you did to this woman.”