The Babysitter Killer

A sweet old man left his heart -- and a trail of terror -- in Detroit.

Ted Lamborgine Oakland County child killings
It was perhaps the most boring stakeout ever, like trailing Mr. Rogers.

Ted Lamborgine's days started at sunrise with a cup of coffee at McDonald's. Then he was off for a few laps around Parmatown Mall with the power-walking geriatrics. But mostly he just stayed home at his Parma Heights apartment. Sometimes at night, he might head down the street to the Olive Garden. All-you-can-eat soup and salad was as exciting as Ted's life got.

On Sunday mornings, he climbed into his shiny Ford pickup to catch the Word at a Baptist church in Brook Park. He carried the Bible everywhere, had the thing highlighted like a college textbook. Before he retired from the Ford plant down the road, he even carried it to work.

"He's your typical grandpa," says Parma Heights Police Sergeant Wayne Mockler. "You wouldn't look twice."

But if Michigan police were correct, he was also a serial killer.

The newspaper photos are yellowed now. Bright faces of children. Police in wide-brimmed hats bowing their heads along freeways. That grimy suspect sketch.

For 30 years, the Oakland County child killings have remained one of Michigan's most heinous unsolved crimes, fodder for Geraldo and E! True Hollywood Story, and the bane of two generations of detectives. Because somewhere out there, on some grainy TV in middle America, they knew he was watching. And he would look like any other elderly man eating dinner at the table next to you.

But everyone leaves traces. Hidden somewhere was a key that would unmask him.

On an August afternoon in 2005, Ted left his apartment in his pickup. Mockler followed, put on his flashers, and walked up to the driver's window. "There are some officers from Michigan who want to talk to you," he said politely.

Ted seemed to take a second to think, then replied calmly, "I knew my past would catch up to me."

When Ruth Stebbins called Ferndale police on February 15, 1976, to report her 12-year-old son Mark missing, chances are the cops took her for an overly worried mother.

After all, bad things didn't happen in Oakland County, which envelops the suburbs of Detroit. People left their doors unlocked. Kids walked to school, played in the streets, explored like frontiersmen in the woods behind their homes. Ferndale, as the name implies, was a town of Little Leaguers, pancake breakfasts, and the music of ice cream trucks.

Still, Ruth was worried. Mark had called that afternoon from the American Legion Hall to say he was coming home to watch a movie. That was hours ago. Now it was dark and bitter cold outside.

Mark's description went out to police radios -- just under five feet tall, with a head of soft, red-blond hair and blue eyes.

Four days later, the little boy turned up in a pile of weeds near a shopping center. He'd been smothered. Tears on his anus showed he'd been raped. The horror movie had begun.

The scariest thing was that Mark appeared to have been selected at random. No clues, no witnesses, no suspects. Police beat their heads against the wall and waited. But the next 10 months proved eerily calm.

Then three nights before Christmas, the monster came back out to hunt.

Biscuits -- that's why 12-year-old Jill Robinson and her mother were screaming at each other. Mom wanted Jill to make them for dinner. Jill wanted Mom to shut up. Fed up, Mom uttered the two words she'd wish forever she could take back: "Get out!"

So Jill did. She threw her hairbrush, a blanket, makeup, and some underwear in a knapsack. She put on her wool cap and parka to keep warm. Then she climbed on her bicycle and started pedaling down her street in Royal Oak, a suburb just north of Ferndale, disappearing into the darkness.

On Christmas, Jill wasn't there to open her presents. A day later, a driver spotted a body in a ditch along I-75.

The top of Jill's skull had been blown off by a point-blank shotgun blast. Passing drivers could see a circle of red around the wound like a crimson halo in the snow. She'd been killed just hours before being found, shot right there like a wounded deer.

Once again the killer left no trace. Cops weren't even sure the two murders were related. Mark Stebbins had been kept like a sex slave and then snuffed to cover the rapist's tracks. Jill Robinson, on the other hand, showed no signs of having been sexually abused. But she'd been kept alive for days, fed and washed like a Christmas goose being readied for slaughter.

It was that image that had Tom Ascroft downing sleeping pills every night. His stepdaughter, Kristine Mihelich, a fifth-grader with shiny brown bangs, had fallen off the Earth on a clear January afternoon in the suburb of Berkley, just a week after Jill's body was found. She'd told her mother she was just walking to 7-Eleven.

But no body had been found. Ascroft knew that, somewhere, his baby was crying, wondering if Mommy and Daddy were ever going to find her.

"You don't want to think of what could be happening," he says. "I still don't."

Four-year-old Erica watched her big sister's face on the television as her sobbing grandmother dripped tears. She watched her dad rush out of the house with his pistol to search for Kristine.

Days turned into weeks. Neighbors in Berkley went door to door, raising money for a reward. Kristine's parents held news conferences. Her face plastered light posts and front pages. But no one dared say what they were all thinking -- this was a murder investigation, and the cops were just waiting for a body.

Then, on the morning of January 21, 1977, after 19 days of agony, the wait was over. Ascroft got a call at work from a TV reporter. Cameras were set up on a rural road. There was a hand sticking out of the snow.

That night Ascroft drove through a blizzard to the state police outpost in Pontiac. His little girl was lying on a metal table, still covered in snow. Her body was so frozen that doctors couldn't perform an autopsy until she thawed. Ascroft ran to the bathroom and broke down.

"It was one of those moments where you want to hold somebody, but you can't," he says. "I couldn't touch her. I could only look at her."

Now there was no doubt: This was a serial killer. Cops from all over Michigan descended on the suburbs of Oakland County to set up a dragnet.

Playgrounds emptied. Doors locked. Panic settled in. Kathryn Wargo remembers ushering her three young kids to and from school, forbidding them to play in the street. People were "worried, scared -- not knowing if it was going to be one of their kids, one of ours," she says. "[The killer] could have been your neighbor. We didn't know."

But neither watchful parents nor an army of Michigan's finest could stop it from happening again.

On the evening of March 16, 1977, Timothy King borrowed 30 cents from his big sister and ran three blocks to the corner pharmacy to buy some candy. When Birmingham police got the frantic call that night that he hadn't come home, they started mobilizing. By the next day, some 100 cops had spread out to search for the little boy. Maybe he could be the one they saved.

Tim's father, Barry, appeared on television, begging through tears for his son's release. Mother Marion wrote a letter to The Detroit News, saying she wanted Tim home so she could serve him his favorite dinner: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fueling their hope -- and misery -- was the fact that Tim hadn't been found. That meant he was likely still alive.

By this time the murderer was being called the "Babysitter Killer" because of his penchant for keeping victims bathed, fed, and living -- at least temporarily.

The call came on day six of the search. The son of a bitch had raped Tim like a blowup doll. When he had finished, he'd suffocated Tim, holding him down as the boy kicked and screamed and finally went limp. Then he drove down a gravel road and dumped the boy in a ditch like an empty fast-food bag. Tim's body was still warm.

It was the Babysitter all right. Tim's body was spotless. His fingernails had even been scrubbed, and an autopsy showed he'd eaten his favorite meal: chicken.

It was as if the killer was taunting the cops, daring them to catch him. But he'd screwed up this time. A witness had seen the 11-year-old boy in the drugstore parking lot, talking to an older man driving an AMC Gremlin with white striping. It was the first real clue. Paranoia spread like wildfire.

"If you even looked weird or just a little goofy, and you drove a car that looked like that one, the cops were on you," says Tino Gross, a teenager at the time. "They wanted this guy bad."

Police hoped the killer might show up at Tim's funeral in some sort of sick act of voyeurism, so they camped in the balcony of the chapel and enlisted ushers to scan the pews for anyone matching the police sketch. Tim's body lay in a little white coffin adorned with his bat and ball. In the front pew sat the boys from his hockey team, all dressed in their red jackets. Suddenly the police thought they spotted him. But when the cops took a closer look, they realized it was the town's mayor. They were chasing a ghost.

And then the killings stopped.

Slowly, kids reemerged from their homes. Playgrounds filled up. For everyone but those four poor families, a sense of safety returned.

Around the same time, a stranger turned up in Cleveland.

Reverend Mike Hubers says he saw the Lord in Ted's heart.

It was 1981, and Hubers was fresh out of seminary, working as the assistant pastor at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland. Ted had recently transferred from Detroit to the Ford plant in Brook Park. He had no family, no friends -- only God.

Ted devoted himself to the church. He read the Bible as literally as an instruction manual. When the chapel needed new paint, Ted was right there with a brush and a roller. He endeared himself to Hubers and his wife, and the three would often eat together at an Italian restaurant.

"He loved to laugh. He just had a great spirit about him," says Hubers. "There's so many things that trouble people's lives that you have to deal with all the time. And yet Ted was just a kind of a guy you could always relax around . . . He was a good man."

Yet something seemed to trouble Ted's heart. He moved from apartment to apartment like a man trying to escape creditors. Sometimes he'd stay for only a few months. Once he moved from an apartment in one tower of a complex to an identical apartment in another tower, for no apparent reason.

Even when he was in one place, he couldn't sit still. A neighbor who lived next to Ted in an Olmsted Township trailer park says he constantly moved his furnishings around. And he never once used his kitchen, eating out every day, even for breakfast.

Ted tried the stable life. He bought a little lemon-colored home in Slavic Village that had a tiny patch of front yard. His elderly mother and his sister even drove down from Detroit to see the place on a rare visit.

Ted became friendly with the couple next door, stopping over at times for coffee or apple pie. But for the most part he kept to himself. "He'd come home and say hi and go in the house, and that was it," recalls neighbor Jerry Primer.

Yet even a lawn the size of a doormat proved too much for Ted. A maple tree in a neighbor's yard was giving him trouble.

In the fall, the wind would blow seedlings like helicopters all over Ted's yard. And every day he'd be out there with a rake, doing battle with Mother Nature. He wasn't good with living things. His houseplants were fake and meticulously dusted. The tree, on the other hand, was a bothersome complication. After five years, he told his neighbors he was finished.

"He said he didn't want the job of taking care of a home," says Jerry Primer's wife, Pat. "He didn't want the responsibility."

Just like that, Ted sold the house, gave away all his furniture, and shrank his life back down to an apartment in Brook Park, closer to Ford.

Work was the one steady thing in Ted's life. With no family, and living on a college student's budget, he'd saved enough money to retire -- but he kept going, taking on as much overtime as he could.

To co-workers, Ted was invisible, as quiet and expressionless as one of the machines.

Cindy Jackson tried for years to break through. She was Ted's partner, moving scrap metal in five-ton loads. Ted was a lost soul, Jackson thought. She wondered who or what had hurt him. "I didn't know what his thing was, whether a woman had jilted him or something," says Jackson.

Cindy opened her life to Ted. She'd once loved a man, but he died and left her alone. She split her time between working and caring for her mother, who was bedridden with cancer. She wondered if she'd ever meet another man.

Cindy told Ted all of this as they washed down sandwiches with hot coffee in the control room, or gabbed over their two-way radios. She'd talk about her weird fascination with serial killers or the time a man tried to kidnap her at knifepoint from a bar. Ted just listened.

Then there was the day no factory worker ever forgets: the "near-miss." Ted was standing on the floor when a bucket of scrap opened up, dumping its load with a deafening crash just feet away. Had he been standing a few steps in the other direction, they would have needed a paint scraper to clean him off the floor. The accident spooked Ted so much, he asked for a transfer to sweeper duty. "I'm getting off this job," he told Cindy.

Perhaps Ted was scared that his near-miss had just been the Lord's bad aim.

It was January in San Diego. But on this day in 2005, in a little room inside the U.S. probation office, things were heating up.

Sergeant Cory Williams of the Livonia, Michigan police department had arrived to add a big notch to his belt. He'd cracked a 16-year-old robbery-homicide case that left a Detroit cab-company owner dead. Some mope in prison had finally decided to rat. Now Williams was staring into the face of the killer: a former smuggler of illegal aliens named Richard Lawson, alias "Coyote Negro."

But in the course of his investigation, Williams had turned up another interesting tidbit about Lawson -- a statement he'd given to Pennsylvania cops in 1989 after being arrested on another robbery. What he'd said hadn't made any sense to the guys out there, but to Williams, it jumped off the page: "I know who did the Michigan Snow Killings."

It'd be in Lawson's best interest, Williams told him, if he started talking -- and quick.

Lawson's story began in the 1970s in Detroit's Cass Corridor, a six-block section of dope dealers, hookers, bars, and poverty. Big families had moved from the South to work the auto plants. Hundreds of kids ran wild in the streets. It was a pedophile's paradise.

Lawson and his four buddies, one of whom he'd later identify for Williams as "Ted Orr," had a good thing going, as long as everyone played by the rules. Those poor kids from the neighborhood had nothing. So the men put money in their pockets and food in their bellies. In some cases the men even helped the mothers out, taking care of those gas bills to get families through the cold northern winters.

But they were also businessmen. They wanted something in return.

Back at their homes, in motel rooms, and in the greasy basement of a neighborhood bike shop, the men used the boys -- some as young as nine -- to enact their darkest fantasies.

They tried not to be too rough. After all, they wanted the boys to come back the next time they cruised up with a crisp 10-spot. And so the boys came back, some of them for years. Sometimes, though, Ted got a little carried away.

Back then, he wore a luxurious pompadour wig made of real human hair. On special occasions he'd bring kids from the hood up to mossy suburbs like Royal Oak for "parties" at other pedophiles' homes. Police suspect there may have been hundreds of men involved, networking like members of a book club. The parties were potluck orgies: Everyone brought a kid to share, and things were known to get wild. Kids were sodomized, photographed, then thrown in a bathtub and hosed off.

Then there was the time Ted scared even Lawson. They were at the apartment of Bob Moore, owner of the bike shop, when Ted whipped out a photo album Moore kept of their little sweethearts. Ted pointed to one picture of a little boy with a wing-cut and a cute, dimpled chin. The kid wasn't one of the Cass hood-rats the men usually settled for. This was a kid from the other side of 8 Mile Road, the dividing line between the dust and crumble of the city and the bird's nest of suburbs in northern Detroit. This kid was clean and had nice clothes. "Looks like the King boy, doesn't it?" Ted had said, winking. Lawson never forgot the moment.

Police hadn't seriously considered the possibility of multiple killers. "The original theories were always a single adult male, professional, 25 to 35, and could have been a priest or a policeman 'cause he'd lure them to the car," says Sergeant Williams.

But after hearing Lawson's story, investigators suspected that Ted, Bob Moore, and maybe others worked as a pack, watching each other's backs, making sure no kid wiggled free or screamed for help -- the perfect kidnapping and killing machine.

Williams left San Diego on a mission: Find Ted Orr and Bob Moore.

Bob Moore would be easy. Karma had already found him. In 1996, he went into cardiac arrest in his home. His pit bulls devoured his carcass before the body was discovered.

Ted Orr, meanwhile, was another story. The best Lawson could remember was that his real name started with "Lam." On a hunch, Williams dug up the old tip file from the '70s. And there he was, lost among the hundreds of dead leads: Ted Lamborgine.

Williams enlisted the help of Parma Heights cops to trail him for a few weeks, feel him out before confronting him. When they were ready, Mockler would do a simple traffic stop on Ted and ask him to come to the station, where Williams would be waiting.

Taking Ted into custody was surprisingly easy. He acted like a man with no secrets.

But the biggest surprise came in the interrogation room. Lawson was telling the truth, Ted said. He had been a pedophile. But he was no killer, he told Williams. On that point, he even agreed to take a polygraph in Michigan.

Williams held his breath. In the past 30 years, he'd seen cops come close to catching the Babysitter before, only to find out they were chasing their own tails. Once, detectives even dug up a dead man after relatives discovered a crucifix necklace etched with the name Kristine in his belongings. They checked his bones against a hair found on Timothy King's body, but it didn't match. Nothing told Williams this would be any different.

Until they got the polygraph results back. Ted bombed the test so badly that Williams was stunned.

"It was very conclusive," he says.

Still, police couldn't arrest Ted based purely on the lie detector. They let Ted return to Cleveland.

Yet home wasn't the same safe place anymore. The polygraph results had been leaked to Detroit TV stations. As Ted was leaving work late one January night in 2006, a camera crew was waiting for him. A reporter followed Ted as he walked to his truck, stuck a microphone in his face, and asked why he'd failed the polygraph. Had he killed those poor children?

Ted was speechless, dazed, jiggling the door handle of a car before realizing it wasn't his. He uttered only one word to the reporter: "scared."

When he finally reached the safety of his Ford, he slumped behind the wheel, sitting there for almost five minutes before finally driving off. Soon after, he walked into work and announced his retirement.

Even church, once such a warm place -- pine ceilings, worn red Bibles, and the most beautiful organ music -- was poisoned. Ted's pastor had been questioned by Michigan cops.

Ted disappeared from the pews. "I can't face those people," he told Parma Heights Detective Steve Scharschmidt.

Scharschmidt and his partner, Sergeant Mockler, took to stopping by Ted's apartment unannounced, with the kind of care they'd show if they were checking on an old lady. Ted would open the door in his bathrobe and boxers, invite the men in like sons, and offer to take them out for dinner. They would sit around a pot of coffee and talk about sports, politics, or their favorite restaurants. "He is genuinely a nice guy," says Mockler.

While the cops in Michigan were busy tracking down Ted's victims -- one broken, drug-addicted life after another -- Mockler and Scharschmidt were supposed to coax a murder confession.

In between the guy talk, they'd remind him of the kids from Cass, show him names of the children he'd raped to jog his memory. Ted didn't need a refresher. He remembered every little detail -- nicknames, what he'd made them do -- as if he'd been replaying it in his mind ever since.

Sometimes he'd seem close to cracking. Then the cops could almost see the wheels reverse in his head. They worried he might decide to take his secret to an early grave. One day close to Christmas 2006, Scharschmidt asked Ted if he'd thought about ending it all. Sure, Ted replied. "I just don't have the guts."

Nearly a year later, Michigan police were finished waiting. They decided to go with Plan B. Ted was getting off an RTA bus downtown when Mockler and Scharschmidt pulled up. They weren't here to chitchat this time. Ted was under arrest for raping eight children. But they didn't even bother cuffing the old man.

"Maybe God has a plan," Ted said from the back of the squad car.

Judgment day.

After sitting in the Wayne County jail for 135 days, prisoner Ted Lamborgine, a quiet old pedophile in green prison fatigues and jar-bottom glasses, is led in handcuffs to greet a throng of cameramen, reporters, and policemen in the courtroom of Judge Annette Berry.

Justice at today's sentencing for the rapes of those eight children won't be as poetic as it was for Bob Moore. But one look at the meek, slouching man standing here suggests that his new friends in the Michigan correctional system will be drooling just like those pit bulls.

Ted isn't here on murder charges, but he might as well be. He turned down Prosecutor Kym Worthy's offer to take another polygraph in regard to the killings in exchange for a maximum 15-year sentence on the rapes. Instead, Ted pleaded guilty to all the sex charges, guaranteeing multiple life sentences. Not exactly the actions of a man wrongly accused.

"Guess what they do to people like you in prison?" Judge Berry says, glaring down at him from the bench. She lets the question hang there for a few seconds, as the crowd waits to see Ted's Adam's apple bounce. But not a silver hair on his body moves.

Judge Berry motions to two haggard-looking men. They're Ted's victims, the traces that he left behind.

The dirty basements and crusty motel rooms where Ted heaved his body upon them are now empty lots covered in weeds and broken glass. But the memory of what the man in the bad wig did to them is as fresh as the recollection of his stink on their clothes.

One man with a broom mustache and a flannel jacket rolls his wheelchair to the front of the courtroom. His foot is bent at a 90-degree angle from being hit by a bus. He's been to prison and had a long relationship with the needle.

The man isn't here to recount gory details. He's had every night of his life to think about that. He's not much of a public speaker anyway. Instead, he simply pulls his arm out of his jacket and holds it up for the court. The man's biceps are as shriveled as a piece of beef jerky, pickled by heroin. "Give him what they can give him," the man mumbles. "I can't do nothin' about it."

In a moment, Judge Berry will render her sentence: three life terms. But first the prosecutor reads a chilling letter from another victim. The writer was nine years old when Ted kept him captive at a home somewhere, forcing him to have sex. Afterward, Ted would feed him, just as he had those four murdered children. Now the man wonders why he was let go.

"I know the monster that is hiding inside you," he writes to Ted. "I have seen him myself."

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