One night. One town. One bullet. One kid.
The kid was Justin Mello, barely 16 years old, a popular soccer player at Anchor Bay High School with a melting smile, a tall, athletic frame, a freshly minted driver’s license, and a dream of buying his father’s GMC truck with the money earned working at a pizza shop.
The bullet came from a 9-millimeter handgun. It was fired just inches from Mello’s head as he knelt, execution style, in a cooler filled with dough and cheese. The bullet ripped through Mello’s skull and exited his forehead. When they found his body, he was still on his knees.
The town was New Baltimore, population 7,000, a quiet, waterfront community in Macomb County, where there hadn’t been a murder since before Justin was born.
The night was Saturday, Oct. 21.
“Before this,” sighs a lawyer in the case, “the biggest problem in New Baltimore was the fish flies.”
One night. One town. One kid. One bullet.
Follow its flight, and you witness a devastation that far exceeds its caliber, a swath that cuts a community in two. You see children weeping and parents numb with grief. You see a soccer team wearing armbands and a makeshift tombstone on a high school lawn. You see accused murderers, in chains, being cheered outside a courthouse. You see witnesses changing their stories. You see a Christmas tree in a suburban home, devoid of presents for the oldest boy. You see a father, in a hospital, as a yellow body bag is unzipped. He looks at the face that used to be so bright, used to be his son, and now is forever shattered by the hole of …
One bullet. Follow its flight. It begins with the simple pull of a trigger, late one autumn night….
This much, they all agree on:
At 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 21, Justin Mello, his friend and soccer teammate Dan Buchman, and a store manager, Jeffrey Arwada, were working the night shift at Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders on 23 Mile Road near Jefferson. There were no customers. They played the radio and sang along with it. Dan and Justin, to pass the time, threw sausage pieces at each other and laughed.
The phone rang. Justin answered, then handed the call to Jeff. Someone wanted a take-out order — but with a delayed delivery.
Don’t bring it until 10:45, the caller said.
“We’re not allowed to do that,” Jeff replied.
The caller said he knew the owner. He insisted it was OK. Bring it at 10:45.
At 10 p.m., Dan’s shift was over. He told Justin, “I’ll see you tomorrow at soccer practice.” He punched him lightly in the arm, and Justin smiled and said, “See ya.”
At 10:25 p.m., Jeff left Mancino’s with the pizza. He had difficulty with the address, which was in a mobile home park. When he finally found the number, he knocked on the door. A woman answered and looked puzzled.
“I didn’t order any pizza,” she said….
The call had been a setup.
This is what happened next:
Back at Mancino’s, someone entered through the front door, locked it, took money from the cash register, forced Justin into the cooler, shot him in the back of the head, left him there, bleeding to death, and ran out the back. Whoever it was also turned the lights off, all except for the “open” sign in the window.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Jeff returned.
He immediately sensed something was wrong. He saw the place was dark, but why was the “open” sign still on? He saw cheese unpacked on the counter. He saw crumbs that hadn’t been cleaned. He went into the cooler. There he found Justin’s body, still on its knees, bleeding in the corner. He frantically called 911.
“He’s unconscious,” Jeff said. “He’s bleeding real bad from his head….”
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Henry Mello sat in his living room and looked at his watch. He was worried. Justin was usually home by 11:30. It was now 12:15 a.m. With his wife, Denise, asleep, Henry jumped in the family van and drove to the shop. He saw police cars. He saw yellow tape.
“What do you want?” an officer barked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m looking for my son, Justin Mello.”
The officer’s expression changed. “Um …you’re going to have to go to the police station, sir.”
Henry’s heart began to race. At the station he was met by the police chief, who took him inside and said, “Mr. Mello, there’s been a robbery. There’s been a shooting. There was one person in the store and he was taken to Mt. Clemens General Hospital….”
“And he’s deceased.”
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mello:
All of us at Anchor Bay Schools are shocked and deeply saddened by the tragic death of your son, Justin. Words are totally inadequate to express our feelings, but please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you….
Leonard Woodside, Acting Superintendent
The soccer team won the game last night, 3-0! Every time someone scored we stood up and shouted. Then when the game was over, everyone ran on the field and cheered. It was so cool! They did it for you! . . .
“FOREVER FRIENDS” — Message in a heart hanging on Justin Mello’s locker
One bullet was all it took to kill Justin Mello. This, according to those who knew him, was the kind of kid we lost.
The kind who sat down next to you if you looked upset, and made a face, or cracked a joke.
The kind who, after every soccer game, went to the referees and shook their hands.
The kind who slid his palm on the chair as you were about to sit down, or who grabbed you from behind and laughed, or who raced to the most comfortable stool in science lab, said, “Ha! I got it!” then gave it to you anyhow.
The kind who banged pots and pans on New Year’s Eve, the kind who worked at the student-run candy shop and slipped his friends free taffy, the kind who, even at age 16, could be seen playing with the neighborhood children, rolling in the grass, giving them horsey rides.
Girls called him “Babe.” Or “Muffin Butt.” Guys called him “Mello Yellow.” He was working to save money for his father’s 1994 Sonoma truck, and had put away $4,000.
He was nominated for the National Honor Society.
He was a defender on the soccer team.
He was 6-feet-1.
He was dead.
“At the hospital, they took me into an emergency room,” Henry Mello, 48, says now, his expression a dull gaze. “There were four or five steel tables. I didn’t really see anything. Then the doctor walked up and there was this yellow bag laying there, and he started to unzip it. I walked over, and it was Justin….”
He stops. He inhales. He is sitting at a dining room table, near a small plate of fruit and cookies put out for a visitor. Next to him sits his wife, Denise, 44, who looks devastated even when she smiles, and their 18-year-old daughter, Leah, a college student who was sleeping in her apartment when she got the call saying her kid brother was dead.
In the adjacent den is the Mellos’ youngest child, 12-year-old Trevor, who is playing a video game near a large Christmas tree. As is often the case when a child is lost, the air in the house seems heavy, the weight of a ghost.
“He was shot in the back of his head,” Henry continues. “And the bullet came out just above his eye. It was bad. They closed up the bag. Then Denise came in….”
“He told me I shouldn’t see the body,” Denise says.
“I didn’t think she’d want to go.”
“But I felt like I had to….”
“To have them unzip this bag….”
“When I saw him, I was in shock….”
“It’s such a cold thing.”
“I couldn’t cry.”
“And I couldn’t stop.”
God picks his flowers at varying stages
Some in full bloom and some at tender ages
He loans us our friends for a year or an hour
Then thoughtfully picks the most
precious blossomed flower
…Thanks for the good times, Justin
— From a scrapbook assembled by Mello’s classmates at Anchor Bay High School
Police in New Baltimore wanted this case solved. Theirs was not a town for murders. It was a place where people fished, where they bowled, where visitors took boats out on Anchor Bay and Lake St. Clair. Bloody murders, senseless violence, a dead body in a pizza cooler — this was all so alien.
Working with outside help from county, state and federal authorities, a task force was assembled to find the killer. Initially, police were optimistic about physical evidence — blood, fingerprints, something — but one by one, the cards came up blank.
They combed rooftops and dredged a nearby pond. No gun was found.
The sent divers into Lake St. Clair. Still no gun.
Fingerprints proved inconclusive. Search warrants yielded nothing.
The pizza shop had a surveillance system, but there was no tape in the video recorder.
And their first suspect, a 28-year-old Macomb County man found hiding under a bed in Detroit, was cleared after passing a lie-detector test.
Crime scenes dry up quickly. Several days after the shooting, there was still no one in custody.
Meanwhile, the community ached for justice, even as it mourned the loss of a favorite son. Mancino’s, which remained closed, became a virtual shrine, ringed by flowers, candles, poems and stuffed animals. So did the large white anchor by the front lawn of Anchor Bay High School. It was painted with messages — God Bless, See You When We Get There — and became a gathering spot for confused and angry teens trying to make sense of, what was, for many, their first exposure to death.
The soccer team, for which Justin had been a rugged, steady defender known for seeing the field, protecting his area, and occasionally, though legally, laying into an opposing player, had a district playoff game scheduled Monday night. The coach, Bob Grammens, called a team meeting and asked the players whether they wanted to cancel.
They said no.
Instead they would dedicate the game to Justin and would win it in his memory.
Although soccer matches at Anchor Bay High usually draw about 100 people, more than 2,000 came out for this one. The players wore armbands with Justin’s No. 20. There was a moment of silence at the start, and a special memorial performance by the dance team at halftime.
“There was every kind of kid in the crowd,” recalls Don Dziuk, an assistant coach. “I mean, kids who would never come to sports events were there. So were their parents, their grandparents. We won the game and people were running onto the field. The whole night, looking back, was surreal.”
And then came the cold daylight.
Justin’s body was on view Tuesday and Wednesday. The crowds at the funeral home were so enormous, people had to wait in line to get in. Many of the mourners didn’t even know Justin. But this is the kind of town he lived in, the kind where murder is foreign and unfathomable, and grieving is a communal emotion.
At one point, with the hallways packed, Leah, Justin’s older sister, entered a sitting room stuffed with crying teenagers. She edged to the front and said, “I want you to tell me about my brother.”
And one by one, each kid stood up and said something. Some told stories. Some read poems. One teenager after another, talking about a dead boy’s practical jokes, about his comforting ways, about his eyes and his smile. It was as if they had lost a healer, and were now trying to heal themselves.
The funeral itself was almost too much to bear. Henry stood and read a “letter” from Justin in heaven.
How ya doin? Do you see it? I know you do…. Our whole community is in such pain right now….
Please apologize to everyone at the soccer game for me…. I started to cry. I had no idea that would cause the rain to come. I know the guys on the team didn’t mind, but I’m sorry I got the fans all wet….
Please take this strength and use it to heal our family …use it to heal our community…. Seek out those people that are hurting. Tell them to cry, to kick things…. Then, when they are done, tell them to remember me for all of the kind and good things they are saying about me….
I love you, Dad. Keep the faith.
One bullet. One kid. One town. One grave.
“Someday you will be caught and you will pay for what you did” — A sign hung on Mancino’s the week after the murder
Not everyone in New Baltimore is on the soccer team or in the National Honor Society. Follow that bullet now, as it rivets through a fraternity of underachievers, kids for whom pot, beer, an odd job and the occasional party are enough.
Three young men, Jonathan Kaled, 18, Frank Kuecken, 19, and Matthew Daniels, 16, seem to fit the profile. Kaled, who recently dropped out of Anchor Bay High, had a rap sheet of minor offenses, including drug possession and breaking into a Jeep. Daniels also had dropped out of Anchor Bay High, and had several minor scrapes with the law. Kuecken, who dropped out of Hazel Park High in 1999, had been working as a pressman at a tool company.
All three youths, who had known each other and worked together as stock boys in a market — until Kaled was caught stealing beer in a trash can — had been at a bonfire party in nearby New Haven the night of the murder. The party was reportedly rife with marijuana and alcohol.
Still, all three, Kaled, Kuecken and Daniels, began the morning of Oct. 26 — Justin’s funeral day — as free men.
Before the next sunrise, they were being held for murder.
According to State Police Lt. Charles Schumacher, who works with COMET, a multi-jurisdictional task force, police were following tips from former Mancino’s employees. One of them, Schumacher says, claimed he overheard Kaled talking about what an easy robbery Mancino’s would make. After more questioning and more witnesses, the trio was taken in for questioning.
All three were read their Miranda rights. Each was interrogated separately. Only Daniels had a parent with him, his mother. The questioning began between 8 and 9 at night.
By the wee hours Friday morning, police had two signed confessions.
Kaled confessed to shooting Justin Mello, claiming that it was an accident, that he went into Mancino’s alone, that he intended only to rob the place, that the gun went off as he was backing up.
Kuecken confessed to driving the getaway truck and offered two versions in two separate interviews, both implicating Kaled in the shooting.
Daniels confessed nothing, although Kaled and Kuecken said he supplied the gun and later got rid of it.
When news leaked that the police had three young men in custody, a wave of relief went through New Baltimore, followed by ripples of anger that the guilty parties could be homegrown.
Kids wrote messages to Justin, saying, “They got the guys who did it.” Others wrote letters to the Mello family, wishing speedy justice. The newspapers reported that the suspected killers had confessed.
For a brief moment, the bullet seemed to have come to rest.
Then the families of the charged teens hired lawyers.
And a few days later, everything changed.
“My own mother called me up and said, ‘How much are they paying you?’ She said, ‘I am willing to go in my bank account and pay you the same amount of money NOT to take this case.’ ”
— James Howarth, attorney for an accused killer
Jonathan Kaled has a pudgy build and wears his hair short. A few nights after confessing to murder, he sat in a cell at the Macomb County Jail and told James Howarth a different story.
Howarth, a veteran attorney, had been through this before. He had no desire to take on a small town, a police force or Schumacher, a man he says he knows and respects. “I told the family before I went to see Jonathan that this was not a case I wanted unless I was completely convinced he didn’t do it.”
By the time he left the jail, Howarth was convinced.
Kaled — whom Howarth describes as “a highly susceptible 18-year-old who does not hold up well to pressure” — said his confession was coerced. He said he only signed it to stop the incessant questioning.
The truth, Kaled said, is that he was nowhere near Mancino’s.
The truth, Kaled said, is that he was at the bonfire party all night.
The truth, Kaled said, is that he was innocent.
Howarth listened, and his mind was made up.
Kaled — like Kuecken — would plead not guilty.
“If there was something to back up the piece of paper my client signed — one scrap of evidence, a gun, a fingerprint, a fiber, anything! — then I would be highly concerned that I was representing a guilty person rather than an innocent one,” Howarth says. “But the fact is, he’s an 18-year-old who probably has attention deficit disorder. They question him from 8:30 at night to 1:30 in the morning. He’s questioned by highly skilled officers, then gets ‘softened up’ by local guys — the classic good cop, bad cop thing.
“The local guys say, ‘We know you. We know your family. We think this is terrible, but those guys are coming back for more questions. Maybe it’s not as bad as they say. Maybe you went into that pizza place just to rob it and you accidentally shot the kid.’ . . .
“And all of a sudden, that’s what my client says.”
The accusations are vehemently denied by Schumacher and Robert Merrelli, a Macomb County assistant prosecutor. Both say the interrogations were legitimate.
“I was there, overseeing it,” Schumacher says. “And everything was done by the book.”
Adds Merrelli: “Both of these suspects gave details only the people who committed the crime could have known.”
Still, Howarth and Paul Stablein, the lawyer who represents Kuecken, not only plan to, in effect, put the police on trial, they also will try to raise reasonable doubt with several other factors, including:
*A group of party-goers from the bonfire that night, who plan to testify that all three men were there at the time of the killing.
*The disturbing fact that in late November, two former employees of the New Baltimore Mancino’s, Dennis Bryan, 20, and David Baumann, 19, were arrested in Kentucky after a holding up a Super 8 motel as part of a multi-state crime spree. Police found a collection of guns in their possession. (None matched the Mello killing.) More disturbingly, in their crime spree, the two allegedly murdered a Subway sandwich shop employee in St. Augustine, Fla. He was killed in almost identical fashion as Mello: shot in a cooler, execution style. And police found a map in the suspects’ possession that had several red marks on it, including one on Detroit.
FBI agents already have questioned the two men about the Mello murder. Both denied involvement, even though Bryan admitted guilt in the other crimes.
Says Schumacher: “We were looking for those two even before we found (Kaled and Kuecken). The fact is, there is nothing to suggest they were in Michigan at the time of the murder. We had an FBI guy talk to Bryan in Kentucky, and Bryan told him, ‘Look, I admitted to all the other stuff. If I did the one in Michigan, why wouldn’t I tell you?’ ”
For Howarth — whose client, like Kuecken, is facing murder charges and up to life in prison when the trial starts next month — that is not good enough.
“You have to wonder about the gusto with which they went after those men in Kentucky,” Howarth says, “especially when they think they’ve got their killer in jail already.”
“These witnesses, like Kaled, Kuecken and Daniels, are members of a subculture of miscreants whose lives revolve around the sale and use of illegal drugs.”– Judge Paul Cassidy, after a preliminary hearing
“I’m looking forward to his friends getting their day in court and being released. I’m not running away from my home. My son is innocent.” — Matthew Daniels’ mother, Dianne Czeiszperger, after charges against her son were dropped
A 9mm bullet is smaller than a pinky fingernail, about the size of a pencil eraser. Yet the tiny bullet from Oct. 21, whose shell ripped through Justin’s head, hit the cooler floor and came to rest in a wad of pizza cheese, continues to rip through New Baltimore as if freshly fired.
For the first preliminary hearing at 42nd District Court, Kaled, Kuecken and Daniels were led out in chains and bulletproof vests. They were greeted by cheers of “We love you!” and “We’re with you!” from supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
Some of the chanting came from the trio’s teenaged friends — what Judge Cassidy referred to as the “subculture of miscreants” — and caused many in the community to shudder, including Justin’s parents, Henry and Denise, who witnessed the display on their way into the courthouse.
“It made me mad,” Henry says, back in the family dining room. “First of all, why are these kids not in school? Did their parents sign off notes that say, ‘OK, you can go cheer for your friend?’ ”
Adds Denise: “I’m just appalled that anyone can do this to a family. They have no idea how many lives it affects. And it’s forever. It’s forever….
“I believe when they went in with a gun, they knew they were going to kill somebody…. The moral decline of all this …I don’t know, it seems like anything goes. It doesn’t matter what you do, because your parents are always there to pull you out. You get parents who don’t use court-appointed lawyers; they hire lawyers to get their kids a lesser sentence.
“A lesser sentence? I mean, you’ve got a confession.”
She shakes her head and looks down. And in that gush of emotion, she has crystallized the rumblings in her community.
On the one hand, there is no gun, no fingerprints, no hairs, no bloody clothes or previous convictions of violent crime. All the police have is two confessions by two high school dropouts currently sitting in Macomb County Jail. The charges against Daniels were dismissed — although Judge Cassidy firmly said he thought Daniels was guilty — because Daniels never confessed, and, under law, Kaled and Kuecken cannot be forced to incriminate him.
On the other hand, these are signed confessions. And, what’s more, Schumacher says Kaled told police that he took Justin’s wallet before shooting him. He described the contents of that wallet — $40, a driver’s license, two photos — even though the wallet had never even found. When police called the Mello family, they verified the wallet’s contents. How would Kaled know that if he wasn’t there?
Schumacher also has a witness who identified Kuecken’s Ford truck as being in front of Mancino’s at the time of the murder.
As to the witnesses who will claim Kaled and Kuecken were at the party all night? Well. There seems to be dispute over how many actually will testify. Schumacher says many of them have changed their stories more than once.
Then again, so have some of the witnesses who originally told police that Kaled, Kuecken and Daniels might be guilty. One such witness, Joe Gosselin, first told police he overheard a robbery plot, then recanted the story when asked to write it down. He now says he was harassed.
“I can’t believe that,” Schumacher says. “I shook his hand and told him he was an honest man. Next thing you know, he’s taking it all back….”
And on it goes, a bullet that won’t stop hitting the walls.
Fly, fly little wing
Fly where only the angels sing
Fly away the time is right
Go now, find the light
Anchor Bay Varsity Dance Team
Had Justin Mello not been at Mancino’s that night, he would have played in that district soccer playoff game. He would have worn his No. 20 uniform. He would have come home afterward and relived the game with his parents. And he would have bugged his father about that GMC truck.
“He used to check the Blue Book prices,” Henry says, “and he’d say, ‘Dad, it’s coming down….’
“Sometimes, when I’m driving my truck now, I think, ‘Justin should be doing this.’ If it needs a new battery, ‘Justin should be buying it.’ If it needs gas, ‘Justin should be filling it up.’ This truck is supposed to be his….”
He shakes his head.
“It’s supposed to be his….”
What is supposed to be. That is the true victim in New Baltimore. Small towns are supposed to be safe. Parents are supposed to be able to leave 16-year-olds on their own, without worrying about them dying. Schools are supposed to be for learning, not memorial services. Children are supposed to outlive their parents.
What is supposed to be . . .
Dan Buchman, the other Mancino’s worker, was the last good friend to see Justin alive. He thinks a lot about that night, what might have been if he stayed, why Justin, not him. He thinks about when he told his buddy, “See you at soccer practice tomorrow,” and he rabbit-punched his arm and Justin smiled and said, “See ya.”
“That’s the thing I miss the most,” Buchman says now, his voice a scratchy mix of adolescent tones, “his big smile, you know? The way you’d go to school in the morning and you’d feel a hit on your shoulder and you’d turn around and there he was.”
And now, nothing. They turn around and all they see is an empty locker, an empty chair, an empty soccer jersey, an empty bed. In the end, this is not about Kaled and Kuecken, or the two guys in Kentucky, or the way police interrogate, or “a subculture of miscreants.”
It’s about the loss of an innocent, and the innocence lost.
One night. One kid. One town shattered. The heartache, the horror, that one little bullet can do.
The Anchor Bay Community Foundation is accepting donations in Justin Mello’s name to provide scholarships for teens in the area. Call the foundation, in care of Citizens State Bank, at 810-725-2291 during business hours. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).