Janette Roberson of Reed City, Michigan, loved working in the pet department of Gambles– a hardware and appliance store that housed a small pet section in its basement.
By January of 1983, the 27-year-old had been employed there for approximately seven months and genuinely enjoyed it. So, when she reported for work on Wednesday, January 19, Janette had no reason to believe she would never make it out alive.
Gambles was located in a Reed City strip mall– a tiny city home to a population of only about 2,200 people. Inside, the pet department occupied half of the shop’s basement; meanwhile, the remaining space was used for storage.
Janette was used to working alone down there– only seeing her coworkers if they walked downstairs to grab items from the storage room.
But, at about 4:00 p.m. that day, one employee went to make a routine trip to the storage room and discovered a horrific sight. They found Janette lying on the floor– only partially clothed and covered in blood.
It was immediately apparent that the 27-year-old was dead, and the employee ran back upstairs to contact the police.
By the time the first police officers arrived on the scene, customers were still shopping upstairs in the hardware store– with no idea that a brutal crime had just taken place downstairs.
But, within about an hour, Gambles was flooded with investigators from the Reed City Police Department, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, and the Michigan State Police.
As technicians began to process evidence at the crime scene, one detective– Sergeant James Southworth from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office– worked on interviewing employees and customers at nearby businesses.
After asking community members if they had seen anyone suspicious, though, no one had any information.
Janette was pronounced dead shortly after the county coroner arrived on the scene. Her body was also removed and transported to the Bloch Memorial Medical Center in Grand Rapids for an autopsy.
There, the medical examiner concluded that Janette had likely died at approximately 3:00 p.m.– just one hour before a coworker discovered her body. The 27-year-old had been assaulted, stabbed, and suffered blunt force trauma to her forehead.
Just a few years prior, in 1980, Janette and her husband, Alvin, had moved to Reed City with their two children. Her mother, Marion Fisher, and her younger sister, Lana, also lived in the area.
Upon hearing the tragic news, the 27-year-old’s loved ones were horrified and could not comprehend the fact that Janette was murdered in a busy downtown store in the middle of the afternoon.
Investigators then learned that Janette and Alvin’s marriage had hit a rough patch. In fact, they also heard rumors that the couple had been considering getting a divorce.
So, Alvin quickly became a potential suspect in the case. But, according to Janette’s sister, Lana, there was no way Alvin could have been involved.
“He was devastated,” Lana said, “He couldn’t have had anything to do with it.”
Eventually, authorities came to agree with Lana and eliminated Alvin as a suspect.
Instead, they turned their attention to the employees and customers who had shopped at Gambles on the afternoon of Janette’s murder. Through reviewing sales receipts, investigators were able to identify nearly all of the store’s patrons.
They also followed up with and tracked down every single customer believed to have been in the store around the time the 27-year-old was murdered.
Well, except for one man thought to be in his early twenties, who was about five foot nine, weighed approximately 170 pounds, and had sandy brown hair.
Authorities released three different sketches of this man, each corresponding to descriptions provided by three witnesses. But, in spite of various public appeals regarding his identity, the man has never been identified.
What also puzzled investigators was the motive behind the crime. According to her coworkers, Janette was an outgoing and friendly young woman who did not appear to have problems with anyone.
So, the fact that such a heinous crime was committed against the young woman put people on edge. And as time passed with no arrests, community members only became more unsettled.
By the second week of the investigation, Sergeant George Pratt with the Michigan State Police revealed that they had not nailed down a motive or a prime suspect. He also issued pleas for help from the public, urging anyone with information to contact the police.
This caused tips from as far as Lakeview, Michigan, to flood police headquarters. Unfortunately, though, none of these clues ever led to a breakthrough in the case.
Reed City was known to be a very safe city. In fact, the region had not witnessed a murder in nearly eight years prior to Janette’s killing.
According to Lana, that’s why her sister was not worried about working in the basement of Gambles alone. Still, Lana claimed to have reservations about the job.
“I questioned Janette about working there by herself. It was dark, silent, very conducive to someone robbing her,” Lana recalled.
“But she didn’t seem worried. She was happy to be down there. She said it was quiet and peaceful.”
Left with no leads, a $2,000 reward was eventually offered for any information that led to the arrest and conviction of Janette’s murderer. This fund was made possible by the Reed City Chamber of Commerce, as well as other local businesses and residents.
Then, a few weeks later, the reward offering grew to $7,000 following additional donations. And the growing fund did attract dozens more tips, but no information led to the case being closed.
Eventually, Janette’s case also stopped getting coverage in the media. At the same time, community members stopped submitting tips, and her case ultimately went cold.
So, almost 30 years after the brutal murder. Sgt. George Pratt revealed that authorities were never able to identify a prime suspect.
“We are working on things at this time to try and formulate some type of suspect, but we have not succeeded up to this point… on occasion, we do get a tip,” Sgt. Pratt said.
Although, according to former Reed City Police Chief Phil Rathbun and Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. John Forner, the crime seemed personal.
“There was some kind of hostility, in my opinion. It was not just passion… someone was mad at her,” Rathbun explained.
Yet, despite the fact that the weapons used in the murder were never publicly shared, detectives determined that the murderer had used various objects found in the store’s basement. This seems to suggest that the murder was not planned.
Still, Forner claimed to believe that Janette likely knew her killer.
“I don’t believe it’s a stranger that happened to walk through town that day. The injuries to her suggested there was a fit of rage during this incident,” he admitted.
For Lana, though, this was an incomprehensible pill to swallow. She called Janette the “quintessential homemaker” who took care of the kids and her house to perfection.
Due to this, Lana began to wonder if someone had been preying on her sister from afar.
“I believe someone was infatuated with Janette; had a crush on her. My sister was friendly and naive… whoever did this could have gone there to make a move, and she rejected this person,” Lana revealed.
The 27-year-old had also reportedly received a few obscene phone calls in the weeks leading up to her murder. It remains unconfirmed who placed those calls, though.
In 2017, a cold case task force was formed by the Michigan State Police– meaning that Janette’s case received a fresh look. Investigators also resubmitted numerous pieces of evidence for advanced forensic testing.
Although, none of these efforts have led to any developments in the case.
Regardless, Janette’s loved ones have continued holding onto hope that justice will be served. Every single year, on the anniversary of the 27-year-old’s murder, they host a “Justice for Janette” walk– marching through Reed City to remind community members that her case remains unsolved.
A Facebook page was also created to raise awareness about Janette’s case in the community.
If you have any information regarding Janette Roberson’s case, you are urged to contact the Michigan State Police at (989) 773-5951 or the Reed City Police Department at (231) 832-3743.