• Crime In The Mitten

Episode #10 - Burned Bodies in Manistique

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Burned Bodies in Manistique

Hey there true crime lovers! It's Alia back with yet another Michigan true crime case, you won't believe it happened, but it did. But before I start with a case, it's still February so we have two more self care tips for you. We're all clearly into true crime, but like Shelby said last week, we always need a break from it. Especially the ones who have podcasts and are constantly researching, on top of listening to and watching other stories. I love listening to podcasts that have absolutely nothing to do with true crime, I have a whole weekly lineup of shows. Monday I listen to Whoreible Decisions, Tuesday is Gettin' Grown with Jade and Keia, Wednesday is The Friend Zone. Thursday used to be The Read came out, but they switched to Tuesday, I try to still listen on Thursday, so I still have something to listen to that day. Then on Friday I listen to the patreon episode of Jade and XD, so Saturday I can listen to the actual episode on my way here to record.

Now on to this week's case. Manistique, Michigan is a small town in the Upper Peninsula, it's a little over three miles big in Schoolcraft County. Kenneth Brunke was divorced loner and had a history of depression and suicidal threats. The 46-year-old lived alone in a large, tri-level home on rural Kendall Road in Manistique after moving from Illinois in 2011. He worked for the Schoolcraft Road Commission. His job was basically to go around inspecting roads. Majority of this money came from selling cocaine and morphine. He was the town distributor, he didn’t sell to the users, he was the big guy who sold to the street dealers. His nickname was Spark, which is pretty fitting. Spark is originally from Illinois, but moved to Manistique after getting a drop there. Gary Cordell, 47, was his friend, neighbor, and employee who sold for him. He had recently gotten out of prison in 2011 after serving a 10 year sentence for burglary and met Spark soon after in 2014. Cordell lived with his 28 year old girlfriend, Marietta Carlson. She began doing heroin in highschool.

In February of 2015, Brunke heard about a pretty young lady, Heather Aldrich in the town who’s heavy on drugs, and was a customer of Cordell. Heather was 25, with five children who she didn't have custody of, and a GED. Drugs completely messed up her life. Heather was arrested in a drug and prostitution sting. Cordell introduced Brunke and Aldrich, he wanted to be with her. He let her stay with him because she was living in her car or selling herself for money for a motel room, and gave her free drugs. He really wanted to be with her, but she wasn't really feeling the relationship thing. Cordell warned Brunke not to let Ardrich into his house, she was just going to use him. She didn't really stay there, but she was in and out. When she'd leave for days he would get upset. She'd stay with her mother, Kellie Roll, from time to time in Germfask Township as well. Her mother said she would stay with her for a while for a break and home cooked meal, then disappear again. She knew her daughter was a drug addict and was going to do her thing. Aldrich posted on Facebook a lot about wanting to get her life together and change for the better. She wanted to see her kids again.

Cordell really didn't want Brunke to keep Aldrich in his house, but he really liked her and wanted to be here. In March of 2015, she posted that she was in a relationship. Cordell showed Brunke the post, of course he wasn't happy about it at all. In April, Heather Aldrich said she walked into Brunke's home and he had a gun to his head, then he pointed at her and she took off. Even after that, she wanted the free drugs, so she continued to go back.

On April 14th, he gave her a lot of cocaine. She took it to River Road with another guy and used up all the cocaine. On the super secluded rocky road, Brunke saw them while he was out driving in his work truck. He had a job basically just inspecting the roads, all through it was such a secluded, rural road near the woods, but was still part of his job to check out. The guy in the car with Heather said he saw them and what they were doing, gave them a look, but kept going. He definitely was not happy about it.

Aldrich went back to Brunke's house the next day on the 15th, while he was at work. She went to his large hidden stash of cocaine in a PVC pipe buried in his backyard along with what Brunke said was about $2000 in quarters that he had saved up over years. The pipe was poorly hidden underneath some pine needles. She drove back out to the spot on River Road with two friends, and used up the drugs. A few hours later Brunke texted her saying "there is free morphine on my computer desk, come by and get it." A friend of hers said that it sounded as if he was trying to bait her in.

Aldrich panicked about stealing the drugs so while coming down from her high, she hid her car at a nearby casino. She just knew that Brunke was looking for her. She called her sister, Carrie Nelson, who was 31, and Nelson's boyfriend, Jody Hutchinson, who was 42, and they all eventually met up in Germfask, at Aldrich's mother's house. "She told me she'd taken the drugs, and I said, 'Give them back," Kellie Roll said, thinking back on the conversation she had with Heather, "But she was scared." On April 16, she woke that morning and found that the temptation of free morphine was too great. Before she got a ride from her sister and her boyfriend to Brunke's house for the free drugs, Aldrich posted on her Facebook Page a song about the struggles of addiction. "The needle in my arm, The thoughts in my head, What's the matter anyway, By morning I'll be dead." Who knew that this song would become real?

On April 17, the very next afternoon, a couple and their two young sons were driving on River Road near where Aldrich and her friends had been, and saw an SUV stopped in the middle of the road. As they got closer, they could tell that it had been burned. The family got out for an even closer look. They looked into the windows and saw what looked to be two smoldering bodies in the back seat. They ran back to their car and the terrified father called 911. Police arrived and were able to determine that there were three bodies in the Oldsmobile Bravado. There were two in the back seat and one in the cargo area. The fire was so bad that it melted the tires completely off. The charred bodies were still warm and smoking. The victims were identified as Heather Aldrich, her sister Carrie Nelson, and Nelson's boyfriend, Jody Hutchinson. Because the bodies were so badly burned, the medical examiner could not determine the cause of death.

Within days of the bodies being discovered, a witness told police she had been with Garry Cordell, Brunke's drug salesman and neighbor, when he threw items belonging to the victims in the Manistique River. Cordell and his girlfriend Marietta Carlson were arrested a few days later and both gave detailed confessions. They two admitted to the killings and implicating Brunke, saying he helped strangle and smother the victims in his own home. They wanted to punish Aldrich for stealing the cocaine. Her sister and sister's boyfriend had been killed because they were the ones who had given Aldrich a ride to Brunke's house and witnesses what they did to her.

Carlson first said that Brunke had strangled Aldrich in his bedroom, while she held down her legs to keep her from kicking and flailing. She later changed her story and said that Cordell strangled Aldrich because Brunke told him because he couldn't do it himself, but wanted her dead. She said that Brunke was killing the other two, who he had tied up in the basement.

Cordell told police that Brunke admitted killing Nelson in the basement, strangling her as she was tied to a pole. He said that he was upstairs at the time, but that Brunke provided specific details of his own murderous activity in the basement. Brunke told Cordell that it took less than two minutes to kill Carrie Nelson, Cordell told police. A few days later, Brunke was arrested in Illinois where he had fled after the killings. While he was in Illinois, investigators said, Brunke replaced the four tires on his car, worried police might match the tires to the ruts found near the smoking SUV. In the beginning, the three defendants didn't have the same stories of what happened that night. They did all agree that Brunke lured Aldrich to his house by telling her he'd give her free drugs.

While in custody, Brunke was interviewed only once by police before he hired an attorney.

He admitted that he was angry at Aldrich for seeing another man. "I was upset," he told investigators, "I didn't sleep that night. Someone that I cared about, you know, basically stabbing me." All three suspects were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to murder, and kidnapping since the victims had been held against their will in Brunke's home. Be denied that anybody had been harmed in his house, and insisted that he had nothing to do with the killings. "All I know is when those people left my house, they were vertical, they were fine."

Grieving family members braced for a trial. Carrie Nelson had two young sons. Heather, in addition to her five children, had a mother, step father, and a brother, Zach. Jody Hutchinson had 5 children, two grandchildren, a mother and four siblings. They were all confident that the numerous statements made by the defendants would ensure convictions, but they would be deeply disappointed.

Marietta Carlson had been in the Schoolcraft County jail for 47 days, while awaiting trial on three counts in the murders, when she woke up June 16 complaining of stomach pain. After a jail nurse examined her, she was taken to Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital. Doctors thought she had gallbladder problems, but as her condition got worse, they prepared to send her by helicopter to a hospital in Marquette. She never got on the helicopter and passed away the next day. During the autopsy it was discovered that she had an inflamed heart, possibly because of 10 years of drug abuse.

Her statements to police about what happened in Brunke's house the night of April 16 had been crucial to the prosecutor's case, but they couldn't be used in court because they were not under oath, and she could not be cross examined. That left the prosecutor with just two defendants, but still enough evidence to proceed to trial. The two were held in two different jails, Cordell in Schoolcraft County Jail, and Brunke in Chippewa County jail. Both men began to explore insanity defenses and after their attorneys filed motions, they were ordered to psychological exams at the state's Forensic Center. Both men ended up there on September 11th. It's unclear from records whether their paths crossed while there.

Three weeks later, Cordell suddenly changed his story. During the fifth confession to police, he now said Brunke was not in the house at the time of the killings, and that he and Carlson had committed the murders. He said the two women arrived at the house, looking for morphine, so he forced the two women into the basement at gunpoint as Hutchinson waited outside in the car. He tied up the women, then invited Hutchinson inside. In the basement, Hutchinson pulled a small knife so Cordell disarmed him, then tied him up. "Jody was the first person to die," Cordell said in his written statement, dated Sept. 29. "I placed a bag over his head and duct taped it around his neck at which time he told me he couldn't breathe, and I said, 'no kidding, dummy." He said he strangled Nelson next and Carlson choked Aldrich to death. Brunke arrived home from work a short time later, Cordell said. "Once talking to me and finding out that I killed all three of them and that we need to get rid of them, he is really mad at me…" Cordell said in his statement.

He said he was upset with Heather Aldrich Aldrich stealing the cocaine from his friend, Brunke. He assumed that all three victims were working with undercover drug enforcement officers, a claim that law enforcement said was not even true. Cordell continued to tell that the three of them loaded up the bodies into Jody Hutchinson's SUV, then Brunke drove it into the forest, with Carlson and Cordell following in Brunke's car. Once far enough off the main roads, they stopped and doused the SUV with gasoline. He claimed that Brunke threw a flare into the car "and it exploded into flames."

Timothy Noble was 39, straight out of law school. Months after graduation he was appointed as the Schoolcraft County prosecutor and was later elected unopposed to a four-year term. Noble had never tried a murder before this one. Rather than calling for help, he opted out to do it all on his own even though he didn't really know what he was doing. He called victims' families together in early October to tell them he didn't think he could make the murder charges stick against Brunke without Marietta Carlson's statements, especially with Cordell's new confession. He told them that the murder charges against Brunke were being dropped and he was going to be allowed to plead to obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer These are all minor convictions could have him out of prison in no more than five years. In exchange, he was going to testify against Cordell. "We were all crying. There was all that evidence. It just didn’t make sense" Kellie Roll said during the interview. A lot of the people, including the victims' families, believe Cordell took the fall for Brunke either in exchange for money or Brunke promised to take care of Cordell's elderly mother once he was released from prison in a few years.

On October 19th, soon before Brunke was brought into court to testify against Cordell at Cordell's preliminary exam, the prosecutor heard from a source that Brunke owed Cordell $6,500. When Brunke took the stand Noble asked him about it. Brunke seemed caught off guard by the question, then admitted he owed Cordell the money, but never really said why. He just said that Cordell had done some landscaping and other small things around the house for him that he owed him for. That didn’t really make sense seeing that Brunke's rural home sits on a big unkempt lot with zero signs of landscaping. It also didn’t make much sense because many witnesses told police that Cordell was unemployed and he often owed money to Brunke who was an employed homeowner. It was never the other way around like that had claimed. Cordell would not let his lawyer cross examine Brunke, he basically told him to sit down and not to worry about it. Everyone knew it didn’t sound right, but it was what Cardell wanted. Brunke’s story was simply that he came home to the dead bodies and Cordell had a gun, telling them that he needed to help him get rid of them quickly because he was threatening him.

The debt had been paid by the time Cordell was back in court three weeks later to officially plead guilty to the three murders. When the prosecutor in court asked whether Brunke still owed him money, Cordell said "not anymore.” The prosecutor asked. "What did Mr. Brunke owe you money for?" Cordell responded, "I don't think that's any of your business. One man shall die so that the other may live." On February 18, 2016 Kenneth Brunke was sentenced to 40-60 months in prison, but had already served 299, so he was really only serving about three years total.

November 14, 2016 was the sentencing date for 47 year old Garry Cordell. He was given three sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He had pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and one count of felony murder for the deaths of Jody Hutchinson, Carrie Nelson, and Heather Aldrich in April. Judge William Carmody said while he doesn’t normally support the death sentence, if this case were in another state, he might. In May of 2017, since Kenneth Brunke could not be held on murder charges, they went back to try to get him on drug chargers of delivery of cocaine and conspiracy. The 47 year old was sentenced to 18-30 years by Judge William Carmody.

Heather Aldrich Carrie Nelson Jody Hutchinson

Garry Cordell Kenneth Brunke


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