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A Tale of 2 Men and 1 Murder Confession

Justice: Michael Ronning says a teenager was among his victims in 1983, but another man remains in prison for the crime. A detective quits the force in protest.

January 14, 2001|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — The prisoner faces a video camera, folded arms exposing a Grim Reaper tattoo. He slumps back in his chair and begins to talk, almost casually--about murder.

"I had a gun . . . ," he says, "a starter pistol."

His narrow eyes are weary, his forearm muscles twitch, his tone is matter-of-fact as he describes, in a rambling drawl, a winter day long ago.

"I rolled the window down and she come over to the passenger side."

The prisoner says he drove to a wooded area, parked his car on a dirt road and forced the girl out.

"I made her take her clothes off, and I strangled her . . . ," he says. "I hit her in the head with a rock. Then I put a piece of, I think it was like a refrigerator door, or some kind of large sheet metal . . . over her and ah, some other debris. . . . And I left."

The room is silent, finally.

The detective asking the questions is content. He has waited years for this moment. His suspicions, he believes, are confirmed.

On this April day in 1997, this man, already convicted of a murder in Arkansas, says he abducted and killed a 17-year-old girl near Battle Creek in 1983.

And yet this confession didn't end a mystery. It began one.

While the prisoner spoke, another man already was behind bars for the murder.

He still is.

*

If this were detective fiction, there might be a stubborn cop who rides a hunch, locks horns with the higher-ups and doggedly pursues the truth until justice prevails, the bad guy is behind bars and the innocent man walks free.

Real life is messier.

This story has a real detective, Dennis Mullen, big as a linebacker and headstrong as they come, who plunged into a murder mystery, clashed with prosecutors, thought he had uncovered a terrible injustice--but couldn't unlock the prison door.

This story revolves around two men.

Thomas Cress, who is mentally disabled, is the one serving a life sentence for killing 17-year-old Patricia Rosansky. He has maintained his innocence and passed a lie detector test.

Michael Ronning, the tattooed Arkansas murderer with Battle Creek roots, is the man who confessed to Mullen that he killed the girl. He, too, passed a polygraph.

As this strange case has unfolded, witnesses have recanted or been accused of railroading Cress for a $5,000 reward; a judge has reversed his own decision to allow a retrial; critical evidence that might have determined the real killer has been destroyed.

And Mullen quit police work in frustration.

Cress recently appealed for a new trial. For now, he sits in a Michigan prison that serves inmates with mental problems. He has battled depression, and he suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago.

"I have done half my life in the penitentiary for something I haven't done," the 44-year-old Cress says in an interview. "That's all I have to say."

The inmate with Coke-bottle-thick glasses and a receding hairline pauses a moment.

"I think the evidence supports the fact I'm not guilty," he adds. "You just can't tell a lie and get away with it."

*

Tom Cress lived on society's fringes.

He delivered newspapers, did carpentry, even sold neighbors discarded cereal boxes from a Kellogg's plant. He couldn't read or write and had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. He was a petty thief. And he drank a lot.

In 1983, Cress lived a few doors from Patricia Rosansky, but he says he barely knew her.

The teenager was within view of her high school, heading to class, when she disappeared in February 1983. Her partially clothed body, covered with garbage and leaves, was found two months later. Her skull was crushed. She had been sexually assaulted.

Nearly a year after the killing--but just days after a $5,000 reward was offered--witnesses came forward and said Cress bragged about committing the crime.

They testified at his 1985 trial, but there was no physical evidence--not a bloodstain, fingerprint or fiber--to implicate Cress.

These were pre-DNA days, so there were no sophisticated tests for semen recovered or four hairs that Rosansky was clutching. Both sides agreed the hairs were not from Cress.

Cress had an alibi: He was delivering papers at the time. A co-worker vouched for him.

At trial's end, Cress was convicted and sentenced to life.

By 1992 his appeals had run out.

But that same year, a stranger offered Cress new hope.

*

Michael Ronning was a killer. A jury had already concluded that.

But how was this Arkansas inmate connected to a long-ago murder hundreds of miles away and a man he says he doesn't know?

Dennis Mullen had a theory.

Having investigated about 80 homicides over three decades, Mullen always looked to the streets. "There isn't a case you couldn't solve if you talk to enough people and walk enough," he says. "I don't get frustrated easily."

But this one frustrated him.

All the walking and talking in the Rosansky case led him to one conclusion and prosecutors to another. Frustration turned to disillusionment, and this spring Mullen quit the force, convinced his name had been muddied and his efforts to discover the truth thwarted.

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