December 2, 2011 — Trentadue lives on

I’ve just come back from the Federal Appeals Court in Cincinnati.  The matter at hand?  A last appeal in the lawsuit initiated by Jim and Glenna Chandler against the former Wackenhut.  …Well, a next-to-last-appeal…if this fails there is the possibility for a request for reconsideration.

It was Wackenhut guards who in early 1979 raped and otherwise tortured the Chandlers’ daughter before those guards murdered her by strangulation.  Five of the guards are in prison for life along with a non-Wackenhut coworker–Janet’s roommate and purported friend, Laurie Ann Swank.  (Swank has been identified as the person who started the whole awful conspiacy–and they did conspire to abduct, torture and murder her.)

The Chandlers didn’t file suit in a Michigan circuit court and went instead to a Federal District Court because the Michigan Supreme Court–in a split decision–ruled in Trentadue v Buckler Automatic Lawn Sprinkler Company. that such lawsuits were precluded; the case was too old.   Trentadue involved the rape and murder of Maragret Eby in 1986 at her home in Flint.  The case was unsolved until 2002:

…when deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) evidence established that Jeffrey Gorton, an employee of his parents’ corporation, the Buckler Automatic Lawn Sprinkler Company (Buckler), which serviced the sprinkler system on the grounds, had committed the crime.  Gorton pleaded no contest when charged with the murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment for Eby’s rape-murder.

Eby’s daughter, Dayle Trentadue, sued the corporation.  The trial court found for Trentadue and the Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.  But when the matter wound up at the Michigan Supreme Court, then-Chief Justice Clifford Taylor led the majority (although Justice Maura Corrigan wrote the opinion), in effect abandoning the common law discovery provision that made sense: when you find out who did it, you could initiate suit.  Nope. The new law would follow a state provision that would allow a three-year maximum to bring a claim.  The majority at the court read the law in conflict with the common law provision for discovery and the court made its ruling for the three-year provision…what is called a tolling period. That means that even if you didn’t know who had raped and killed your mother or your daughter,  you needed to initiate suit within that tolling period.  Well, certainly, the Chandlers had not done that by 1983, so the new interpretation in 2007–the same year Janet Chandler’s killers finally faced justice–barred them from seeking to hold Wackenhut in some way responsible for their daughter’s death.  Hence the move to a Federal District Court where there was the possibility of an appeal to a broader reading of the statutes and an approach to the matter on the grounds that Wackenhut fraudulently concealed matters in its own self interest.  If guilty of that, the corporation might have actively worked against solving the case.

The effort was shot down by Federal District Judge Janet Neff in Grand Rapids.  In doing so, the Chandlers’ attorney, Robert Gaecke, contended that Neff was making a finding of fact (that’s the job of a jury, he contend) and he appealed.

At bout the same time, there was another case that came before the Michigan Supreme Court–Connie Colaianni v Stuart Frankel Development Corporation, Inc.–and there was the possibility that the state high court might have overturned the Trentadue decision (Justice Diane Hathaway’s election to the court in 2008 [replacing Taylor] meant that the balance of the court had been altered.)  It’s of some interest that one of the amicus briefs filed in the case was from the Michigan Maufacturers Association.  John Engler, the former governor who appointed so many of the Justices of the Michigan Court, heads the National Manufacturers Association.  The oral arguments had been heard and the decision was probably ready when the parties announced they had settled.  The challenge to Trentadue evaporated.  Perhaps the insurance company that was behind Frankel saw the handwriting on the wall and decided the more expeditious course would be to settle.

But back to the Federal Appeals Court.

Gaecke had to craft an argument that made several fine distinctions.  He is relying on the court’s interpretation of Michigan Fradulent Concealment Statue, MCL 600.5855,

To the casual observer, this might seem the splitting of hairs…looking at one statute or another.  To those involved and interested, it was the matter of finding the right way to put the matter before a jury, the only way Wackenhut could face the possibility that it bore some responsibility in the matter.  The Chandlers and I sat and heard the arguments…they ran on for far more than the allotted 15 minutes.  Judges Martha Craig Daughtrey, R. Guy Cole, Jr., and John M. Rogers poked and prodded the issue.  They displayed knowledge of the case, asking questions based on the brief before them.  Whatever their findings, they were certainly paying attention.

And now we wait.  If they deny, it’s pretty much all over except of the pro-forma request for reconsideration.  If they find for the Chandlers, the case takes on new life.

For those of you who do not know and who may wonder, my interest in all tis stems from having made a film about Janet’s murder.  That happened in the winter of 2004.  At the time I was teaching at Hope College and I invited students in a documentary class I was teaching to walk with me as I made a film.  They were excited about the possibility but took a pause when they found out the topic.  Then there was a little hesitation…but just a little.  A few wanted to check with their parents.  In the end all of them were on board, and they worked mightily researching, helping with shoots–carrying and setting up lights and cameras, scanning photographs, digitizing audio, preparing name bars, researching, researching, researching.  These students were the best of the best and they gave everything they had to telling this story.  And mind you, all this was in addition to the three films they were each making that semester!  At any rate, the film premiered and people started talking…talking enough so that the State Police and the Holland City Police joined in a cold case team.  It took 18 months of nonstop effort, but the team cracked the case.  Eventually, it all wound up on Dateline.  You can read more about it here.

I came to know the Chandlers well and to love them and to want the best for you.  They have had a measure of justice in the criminal courts, but there is no doubt in their minds that Wackenhut  (now G4S) bears some responsibility in the recruitment, hiring and training of its guards, their actions in this situation, and a possible coverup after the fact.  we hope a jury will have an opportunity to decide whether or not that is truly so.



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