Detroit Free Press

Michigan brothers convicted in '87 killing hope new testimony could set them free

by Jim Schaefer
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

Highers Brothers
Raymond, left, and Thomas Highers got life sentences, but some say they should be free.

Two Michigan brothers in prison for nearly a quarter-century hope to hear something Monday that will set them free.

A Wayne County circuit judge convicted Thomas and Raymond Highers of shotgunning Robert Karey in a drug house robbery in 1987 on Detroit's east side, and gave them each life sentences.

But now a man who says he never told police what he saw that night has come forward and is expected to testify in a hearing before Judge Lawrence Talon that Karey's killers were black. He knows this, he says, because he saw them up close.

The Highers are white.

According to a news account at the time, the killing happened during a Friday night "rush hour" at Karey's home in June 1987, with customers coming and going from the home on Minden Street near Algonac where Karey, known as Old Man Bob, ran a marijuana business.

The new witness, John Hielscher, already has signed a sworn affidavit and said in an interview that he never talked before, in part, because he didn't know anyone had ever been convicted in Karey's murder.

But thanks to a Facebook post and the persistence of an old roommate, Hielscher learned the fate of the Highers brothers. He doesn't know them, but he believes they should be free -- and he wants to help make it happen.

Lawyer fights for Michigan brothers' freedom

A Washington lawyer was trolling the Internet, looking to reconnect with friends from his old Detroit neighborhood, when his gaze froze on a Facebook post.

The Highers brothers are in prison for life.

Kevin Zieleniewski wrote to the woman who posted it.

I hope it wasn't for killing Old Man Bob.

"Yes," she replied, "for killing Old Man Bob."

That was July 2009. And because of the memory triggered by that simple exchange, Zieleniewski has since spent a lot of his own time and money pursuing a new trial for Thomas Highers, 46, and Raymond Highers, 45 -- the brothers who were convicted of first-degree murder for the June 1987 slaying of Robert Karey.

"He deserves a huge amount of credit," said Julianne Cuneo, a private detective who has worked for years on behalf of the Highers family, gathering information that might lead to a new trial for the brothers.

The next step in the long journey is scheduled to happen Monday in Detroit, when a witness who never talked to police is to appear in Wayne County Circuit Court. The witness is to testify that, based on what he saw the night the 65-year-old Karey was killed, the Highers brothers are not guilty of the murder for which they went to prison 24 years ago.

The brothers grew up in Karey's neighborhood near what was then City Airport in Detroit. They had moved Downriver months before his killing, but were admitted drug users and often returned to the east side to party with friends, according to news reports from the time.

Lawyers for the brothers are asking for their convictions to be overturned. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is opposed, and in court likely will probe the motivations of witnesses who are coming forward now, perhaps questioning their believability and poking holes in their accounts.

They will point to the evidence that helped convict the Highers brothers: that one of them was overheard talking about ripping off Karey; that a witness testified to seeing one of the brothers running from Karey's home with another man on the night of the shooting.

But lawyers for the Highers brothers hope to show that those two men running from the house were the new witness and his friend, fleeing the actual gunmen. More testimony is expected from another man who says he rode in the car to Karey's house with the new witness and his friend, waited while they went to buy dope and heard them talking about the shooting on the way home. Also, the fiancée of the new witness will say he confided his story to her years ago, and is not just now making it up.

Prosecutors wouldn't comment on the credibility of the new evidence that is to be presented Monday. Maria Miller, spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said any statements would be made in court.

Many people involved in the case have since died, including Judge Terrance Boyle, who found the brothers guilty in a non-jury trial. News accounts of the trial quoted Boyle himself afterward as saying it was a close decision.

Judge Lawrence Talon will ultimately decide.

But even reaching this point in a case judged a quarter-century ago is a remarkable feat.

"It's a phenomenal confluence of factors that had to come together to shed light on a wrongful conviction," said Valerie Newman, one of the lawyers working for the Highers brothers.

Here's how it all happened, based on interviews and court filings.

'As if it was yesterday'

That Facebook posting in summer 2009 jogged Zieleniewski's memory. He'd once been to Karey's home on Minden Street in the 1980s, as lots of young people had. They came from Detroit's east side, from the Grosse Pointes and from other eastern suburbs for the marijuana Karey had been selling out his back door for about 10 years. Most of the customers knew Karey as simply Old Man Bob.

Zieleniewski knew that Karey had been shot to death in a robbery at the house on June 26, 1987. But he didn't give it much thought at the time.

In 1993, Zieleniewski was a student at the University of Detroit Law School, rooming with an acquaintance named John Hielscher in Grosse Pointe Park. One night, Hielscher told him a story about being at Karey's house the night of the shooting, that he had even heard a gunshot.

Zieleniewski listened as Hielscher recounted going to the house with four other new graduates of Grosse Pointe North High School. They had been at a graduation party. It was near dusk when Hielscher and a friend approached the back door where Old Man Bob always did business.

As Karey came to the door, Hielscher said, four or five young black men hopped over a fence from an alley behind the house. One carried a long gun, another a pistol. Hielscher said the man with the handgun came close and pointed the gun at him and his friend.

"I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was almost up to my head," Hielscher said in a recent interview. The gunman said, "Get the f--- out of here." he recalled.

Hielscher said he and his friend took off, running around the corner of the house toward the car where their other friends waited.

"I heard a gun go off," he said. "Once I got in that car, we got the hell out of there."

Could Thomas Culberson -- a witness who, during the trial, identified one of the Highers brothers and another man running from the home -- actually have seen the two frightened teens?

Culberson, now living in Biloxi, Miss., said Friday he stands by his testimony.

"I remember it like it was yesterday because it was the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life," Culberson said.The man Hielscher says accompanied him to the backyard that night was contacted by lawyers for the Highers brothers but has declined to be involved. Another man who said he was in the waiting car is scheduled to testify.

Hielscher was deeply frightened. He decided to keep quiet, afraid of someone coming after him. He tried to block out the memory and said he never heard that anyone went to jail for the killing.

That is, until Zieleniewski called in 2009.

That summer, the lawyer stared at his computer screen, mulling that post: The Highers brothers are in prison for life. He said he thought right away something was wrong. He didn't know the Highers brothers, but knew of them, and he knew they were white.

Zieleniewski said he immediately recalled Hielscher telling him the story of the armed black men who hopped the fence at Old Man Bob's and ran him off just before the gunshot.

How could the Highers brothers be in prison if what Hielscher had told him was true? He looked up the brothers' mug shots on the Internet, confirmed they were in prison for life, and found himself deeply troubled.

Praying for the day

Zieleniewski said he had a hard time sleeping, knowing of a possible grave injustice. He finally decided the thing to do was find Hielscher, whom he hadn't heard from in years, and tell him what he'd learned.

When they reconnected, Hielscher said he didn't want to come forward. He was nervous he'd get in trouble for not telling the police sooner. He said he couldn't identify anyone he'd seen. But Hielscher's fiancée, Colleen Ciurlik, was persuasive. "I worked on John for three days," she has since said, telling him, "If there was ever anything you did wrong in your life, what a wonderful feeling it would be that you could actually help free two innocent people."

It took two meetings. Zieleniewski said he flew to Detroit on his own dime on successive weekends. They met with a lawyer, and Hielscher finally agreed to sign a sworn affidavit and testify.

In the meantime, Zieleniewski said he had to meet the brothers face to face. He went to see them in prison.

Thomas Highers, who wears a tattoo on his back that says "persecuted -- guilty until proven innocent," was first. "He was emotional," Zieleniewski said. "He just put his head down and said, 'Thank God, we've been praying for this day.' "

Zieleniewski said he has no motivation for his actions other than to see justice done.

He said he did not know the Highers brothers before meeting them, but once he realized that he was a link to information that could clear them, he could not rest until he made it known.

"I don't know what else to say," he said. "I couldn't sleep."

And if his efforts fail to convince the judge?

"I'm not the one who's going to suffer anything," Zieleniewski said. "It's Tommy and Ray and their family. What it would do to me is nothing compared to what it would do to them."

Contact Jim Schaefer: 313-223-4542 or Staff writer Joe Swickard contributed to this report.

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