Cold Case: The Esther Gaffney Story Part 1

“I would probably say, I know my sister would forgive you.”

What would you say to your sister’s killer?

It’s a question that may not have a good answer when the killer is still on the loose.  

In February we brought you the story of Jeanette Roberson, and the cold case task force that’s promising a fresh look into her 34-year-old murder.

Now, we’re highlighting a new case.

Charlie Tinker brings us part one of this special report Cold Case: The Esther Gaffney Story.

The response from our viewers with that last story was so overwhelming in terms of tips and new attention, we decided to dig deeper into another local murder that’s gone unsolved now for 13 years.

“Esther was a very special woman,” says Ruth Wagner-Belisle. “My sister was not ever a little old lady. She was a feisty, intelligent woman who was very much a leader.”

Eighty-year-old Esther Gaffney lived by herself in the rural community of Tustin.

“The church was basically the center of her life. She was very active in it. She played the organ, sang in the choir,” explains Ruth. “Her faith meant everything to her. She trusted God completely… God is in control. Nothing’s going to happen that isn’t going to turn out for good.”

The recent widow of a Michigan State Police detective had slowly been selling off her possessions, planning a move to nearby Cadillac.

Ruth remembers her sister as a friend and confidant, a bold woman who knew how to look out for herself.

“I was telling her about my alarm system, you know, I’ve got this now. She said, ‘let me show you my alarm system,’” says Ruth. “She had a gun there, she said that gun points toward wherever and every place where there would have been a chance for somebody to come in or any problems, she was ready. She had given away her last gun just before this happened.”

The afternoon of July 10, 2004 began like so many others.

“She left her mother in the early afternoon that day,” says Detective Sergeant John Forner, Michigan State Police Cold Case Task Force. “That daughter was the last person to see Esther alive.”

When one of Esther’s daughters returned to check on her mother two days later, she found a grizzly scene: Esther on the ground, and signs of a fire.

“We just assumed heart attack. Heart attack, dropped cigarette, fire started, all explained,” explains Ruth. “When we heard they were taking her body to Grand Rapids for autopsy, we thought, why autopsy? It was just a total shock to us. And then to find out she’d been murdered, it was just unbelievable.”

The 80-year-old had been shot to death and on the way out, her killer had set the house on fire, presumably, in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

 “There was a lot of soot damage, some heat damage to items inside the house, some things were burned,” says Detective Forner.

Jeni Lopez says, “That really bothered me, and I’m sure it bothered the family, too. To me, that speaks to a panic.”

At the time, records show investigators turned their attention to the rail trail that cut through Esther’s 80 acre property, thinking it may have given the murderer easy access to the remote home, and hoping it would now point them in the right direction.

In a case that put the community on notice, it sparked a desire for justice in local crime blogger Jeni Lopez.

We asked Jeni what it is about this case that’s fascinating to her.

“This sassy little spark plug of a woman. She reminded me a lot of my grandmother. She was just someone who could take care of herself and she was out here alone,” explains Jeni. “She didn’t have any enemies.”

It’s a fact that baffled the public. The motive was unclear, and detectives grappled with a list of potential suspects.

Vagrants, even someone her late husband may have put behind bars.

“There were some troublesome youth that were looked at either in or in nearby communities. Ultimately, nothing led to a resolution,” says Detective Forner.

But with no signs of forced entry, no evidence of a struggle and a robbery unlikely, investigators were confronted by an unthinkable possibility.

“No way she would let someone in she didn’t know. I’m sure that was the case,” says Ruth.

Detective Forner says, “Esther had three children, two daughters and a son. They were looked at by the original investigators.”

Esther’s relationship with her children alternated between nurturing and strained.

Still, no arrests and no justice for Esther Gaffney.

 “There isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t wonder what happened to their loved one,” says Detective Forner.

Ruth says, “There’s someone that’s going to slip, whether it’s bragging about something or mentioning some little detail. Someday, whoever did it is going to slip and say something that will bring about finding her killer.”

That’s what detectives are pulling for, along with any help you can give them.

If you have any information on the murder of Esther Gaffney, you’re asked to call Michigan State Police.

Don’t miss part two Wednesday on 9&10 News at 5 for a closer look at what detectives managed to pull out of that fire.