Preliminary exam held in Colon murder case
CENTREVILLE — Following two days of hearings this week, the case of a Colon man’s death could come down to whether there is enough evidence to send the case to Circuit Court for trial.
Preliminary examination hearings were held Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Joseph County 3B District Court in the case of the 2019 death of 55-year-old Todd Schwartz of Colon.
The defendant, 20-year-old Ethan Dingman of Colon, is facing an open murder charge in Schwartz’s death, which occurred in a garage behind Illusions Hair Care on South Blackstone Avenue in Colon on Nov. 21, 2019. If convicted, Dingman could face up to life in prison. A preliminary hearing in the case occurred in December 2019, where Dingman was ordered to undergo a competency exam to potentially stand trial.
District Court Judge Jeffrey Middleton, who presided over the hearings, said Tuesday Dingman recently was deemed competent to go to the preliminary examination, with a final competency hearing, according to court records, having been held April 30.
Tuesday’s hearing saw testimony from several witnesses surrounding the initial investigation of the death, including police and the medical examiner. During the hearing, Middleton raised questions about how police handled initial questioning of Dingman on the day Schwartz’s body was discovered, the admissibility of Dingman’s statements made to police, and questions about some of the evidence presented by visiting prosecutor Amy Sheppard from the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s Office.
In Wednesday’s continuation hearing, Middleton gave the prosecution a week to prepare an expert witness on DNA reports, as Middleton had concerns about “unknown contributors”.
The first testimony of Tuesday’s three-and-a-half-hour hearing came from forensic pathologist Joyce deJong, the medical examiner at Western Michigan University’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, who handled the autopsy for Schwartz’s body. deJong testified on the autopsy and cause of death for Schwartz, saying it was from strangulation and blunt force and in her opinion the death was a homicide.
Officers from Michigan State Police, Colon Police and the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s office also testified. One of the two officers on the scene, MSP Trooper Elizabeth Bourgeois testified that she was dispatched and was the first police officer to make contact with Dingman, who had called 911. She told him to wait by Colon Police Chief Mark Brinkert’s patrol car while she went to assist Brinkert, the only other officer on scene at the time. Bill Wiese, Dingman’s attorney, pressed Bourgeois on whether or not Dingman was under arrest, but she said she asked him to wait at the patrol car, and that Dingman would’ve been free to leave although she did not tell Dingman such.
Brinkert was next to testify. He testified that when he approached Dingman at his patrol car after Bourgeois told him Dingman was there, he said Dingman was “difficult to communicate with” and that he sometimes had to repeat himself. Brinkert said because it was raining, he had Dingman sit in the front seat of his patrol car, and that later he asked Dingman to sit in the back seat of the car while Brinkert went back to the scene to take pictures, locking the police car. Brinkert said Dingman was not under arrest at the time, and said Dingman would’ve been free to leave if he had asked, but “we didn’t cross that path.”
Brinkert said Dingman was eventually transferred by him to the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department for a “voluntary statement,” and that during the whole time Dingman’s demeanor didn’t change, but later said Dingman kept making “random, nonsensical statements.” He also testified briefly on the scene of the crime.
Wiese asked Brinkert during cross-examination what happened after Brinkert’s initial conversations with Dingman. Brinkert told Wiese that he told Bourgeois “I got the suspect, I’m not 110 percent sure.” Wiese asked if, when Brinkert went back to his car after taking pictures at the scene, he read Dingman his Miranda rights, and Brinkert said he didn’t, nor did he say Dingman was free to leave. Wieseasked why Brinkert felt a need to continue his conversation with Dingman, with Brinkert saying he “was trying to find out why he was there.” After a brief pause after Wiese brought up the question, Brinkert said Dingman would not have been in custody at that point, however, he backtracked when pressed by Wiese on why he paused.
“At the time, I was still conducting an investigation; I was interviewing Ethan. Yes, he was in custody because he was in the backseat of my car. Had he protested, we would’ve dealt with it at that time,” Brinkert said.
Brinkert told Wiese that he later went back to talk with Dingman and said Miranda rights were not read again, and that he did not get his “explicit consent to discuss anything,” per Wiese’s questioning. At this point, Wiese asked Brinkert if Dingman said at the time of that interview that he “didn’t have anything to do with this,” which Wiese said he did.
Sturgis Police Department Detective David Males, who assisted with the Sheriff’s Department’s interview of Dingman, testified he was there for the entire interview along with Det. Sgt. Chad Spence. Males said the interview was recorded, and that at the start of the interview, Dingman was not read his Miranda rights because, from what he had understood from Brinkert, Dingman was a witness giving a voluntary statement. However, Males later said he was told there were unknown “technical issues” with the audio of the interview discovered when Spence went to burn the video onto a DVD.
Wiese asked Males if Dingman was placed under arrest immediately after the interview, and Males said he wasn’t. He said after talking with then-St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough, Males said McDonough told him there was “enough probable cause” to place Dingman under arrest. His arrest happened an estimated five minutes after the conclusion of the interview. At that point, Males said, Dingman was read his Miranda rights.
Males said he told Dingman he could help him contact his lawyer during the interview, with Dingman offering verbal consent to just find the lawyer’s phone number. He also testified to the emptying of Dingman’s pockets before the interview, where a banana and a pair of glasses were found, saying it was standard procedure. Wiese pressed further on why there was a search done when Dingman was only there to give a voluntary statement, asking Males to justify why he assumed from Brinkert’s statement that Dingman was there to give a voluntary statement as a witness, but asked Dingman to empty his pockets because, Wiese said, Males “[doesn’t] make assumptions.”
“Because no one told me they searched his person, or if he had any weapons on him, and I did not see anyone check him for weapons,” Males said. He added he did not ask Brinkert if that had been done.
Following testimony, Sheppard moved to bind the case over to Circuit Court because of the evidence presented. Middleton questioned the DNA test results, saying he had trouble cross-referencing each of the references in the DNA, and questioned Sheppard’s representation of the clothing recovered being “covered” with blood, saying he didn’t see it in the pictures.
Wiese moved that the court not consider any of Dingman’s provided statements from his interactions with Brinkert through the interview Dingman had at the Sheriff’s Department, asking Middleton to find a Miranda violation “at every step of the way.” He added that the record was “painfully lacking” when it came to probable cause and said Dingman was only “someone who found a body and called 911,” saying the case should not be bound to Circuit Court.
Sheppard rebutted that investigators have the ability to “conduct an investigatory interrogation” short of a “custodial interrogation” when it came to Dingman’s statements to police when his Miranda rights were not read. She also said the evidence, where Schwartz’s blood was found on Dingman’s shoes and shirt and that Schwartz’s blood was found on the glasses recovered, point to probable cause in the purpose of a preliminary examination.
Middleton said he had hoped to see footprint matching evidence, and addressed his concerns about Dingman’s “voluntary” statements and the lack of the interview video from the Sheriff’s Department. He said there were a “lot of unknowns” with the case.
“The prosecutor’s case rests on the fact that the defendant said ‘I didn’t do anything, I didn’t touch the body, I didn’t want to get blood all over,’ so I want to look at the forensic report more carefully,” Middleton said, mentioning the DNA report where there were multiple “unknown contributors” on the shoes, pants and shirt of Dingman.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Middleton reiterated his concerns about the DNA report, and said he would grant one week to produce any other evidence they have before he makes a ruling, and Sheppard said she would be willing to produce experts in the areas of DNA results, as well as other evidence to add.
Middleton also indicated, in regards to the “custodial interrogation” issue, that once Dingman was placed in the back seat of Brinkert’s car, he “was in custody.”
“He was put in officer Brinkert’s car, he was put in the back of Deputy Bingaman’s car, he was locked in both times, he was put in the backseat of [Brinkert’s] car and driven to the jail in Centreville, he certainly was in custody at the time he was in Centreville,” Middleton said.
He said he was leaning that the early statements to Brinkert were admissible, but that the line got “grayer and grayer” until he was in custody. He also said everything Dingman said to Males would be inadmissible, but there wasn’t “terribly damning evidence any more than what he said to Brinkert.”
Middleton also expressed his concern that Dingman has been in custody for over 580 days, and scheduled the hearing for Tuesday, June 8.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or email@example.com.