No answers in Niles couple's deaths a year later
Killer of Niles couple still on loose, despite many interviews
By LOU MUMFORD Tribune Staff Writer
NILES -- A year ago this Saturday, at a little after 6:30 a.m., a man parked his car on Yankee Street near Carberry Road, just outside the east Niles city limits, hiked a short distance through a wooded area, jumped a fence to the backyard of John and Carolyn Tarwacki and entered their home at 979 Carberry through the back door.
Within a matter of minutes, the Tarwackis, married just three years, were dead. The killer retraced his steps to his car and drove away, leaving unanswered two key questions: Who was he, and what was his motive?
The case has baffled investigators and frustrated family members, two of whom spoke to The Tribune last week for the first time. Sharon McKnight, the mother of 39-year-old Carolyn Tarwacki, who lived just two doors away from the couple, said she had talked to her daughter on the telephone minutes prior to the attack and there was nothing to indicate anything was amiss.
"She and I were both early risers so we'd often talk the first thing in the morning. She called me about 10 minutes after 6.
She was telling me what she was going to do with her day. It was just a normal thing," McKnight recalled. "At 6:22, she hung up. She said she had to get Kelan up, that he had to catch the bus."Kelan is Kelan McKnight, Carolyn Tarwacki's nephew, who had been living with the Tarwackis. The then-16-year-old Niles High School student boarded his bus at the customary time of 6:40 a.m., McKnight said.
The Tarwackis, both employed by the music education company Quinlan & Fabish in Stevensville, were expected at a business meeting that morning but never arrived. Notified of their absence, South Bend resident John Tarwacki Sr., the father of 42-year-old John Tarwacki, recalled that he telephoned their residence and was greeted by the answering machine. Sensing something was wrong, he jumped in his car and headed for their home.A horrible feeling
"I had this horrible feeling as I was going up to U.S. 12 on Ironwood Road. I was almost shaking when I pulled up in the driveway," he said.
He opened the front door and found his intuition was correct as he was confronted by the bodies of John and Carolyn. Thinking Kelan, too, was perhaps a victim, he quickly looked through the house before leaving and calling police.Today, both Tarwacki and McKnight say they have no idea why someone would harbor so much hatred toward the couple, who were slain in brutal fashion.
"No, I didn't know that either of them had any enemies ... (but) I think they were the kind of people that wouldn't say anything, if something was wrong," the elder Tarwacki said. "Toward the end, it seemed like they were a little more reserved ... but I don't know why."
McKnight said Carolyn had a habit of confronting her enemies, although she never let on that she had one.
"What do they say, when you're married, that you should never go to bed mad? Carolyn believed that, and she followed that same thing in all her friendships. That's just the type of person she was," she said. "John? He was real open, whenever I talked to him. He never showed there was any problem at all."
His most difficult case
Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Fabian Suarez, a 22-year veteran of the state police who has worked the last 10 years in Niles, said he has been involved in any number of homicide investigations and has never had one as difficult as the Tarwackis'. Often, interviews with family members, co-workers or friends of homicide victims will raise red flags, but none surfaced in the 311 conducted with people associated with the Tarwackis, he said.
Police also have followed up on 672 tips without identifying the killer, he said. But there has been some success, he added, pointing out that some individuals whom investigators once viewed as possible suspects have been eliminated.
Currently, he's looking at two other individuals and is gathering evidence to determine whether they, too, can be ruled out, he said.
As for the crime scene, he said, tracks in the snow allowed police to determine the killer's route. Whether John or Carolyn opened the back door to let the killer in isn't known, he said, but there was no sign of forced entry.
Suarez said two weapons were involved, one of which the killer brought to the scene and the other he obtained in the house. The weapons have never been publicly identified, nor have the specific wounds found on the victims.Initially, police said they believed the Tarwackis knew their killer, but Suarez said he can't be certain of it.
"The crime scene itself was somewhat sterile. Were there signs of a struggle? It didn't appear so," he said. "That's why I say they were definitely surprised by this person. For a double homicide, you'd expect more."
Dog found unharmed
The Tarwackis owned a 200-pound mastiff, Wrigley, who was discovered in the house and who was known to be protective of Carolyn in particular. He wasn't harmed, prompting John Tarwacki Sr. to guess the killer was somebody the Tarwackis and the dog knew. McKnight, too, said the dog's presence indicated to her the killer had been to the house before.
"He (Wrigley) always met everyone at the door," she said.Suarez said investigators went so far as to examine the dog's teeth, to determine if he may have bitten the killer. They found nothing.
"You're talking about a gigantic dog. No, it didn't really surprise me the dog was there," he said. "Some people don't have fear of animals, or the dog knew who he (the killer) was."
Suarez said an examination of the three computers in the couple's home failed to reveal a possible motive. No illegal drugs were found either, further stumping investigators.
"There really was nothing in their lifestyles that would show these were the type of people that would put themselves in a dangerous situation," he said.
A sketch police released of a "person of interest" in the wake of the slayings likely wasn't the person who killed the Tarwackis, Suarez said. The man depicted in the sketch was observed walking east on Yankee later in the morning, perhaps after the couple was slain, the detective said, but at that point, the car parked on Yankee that had been observed by two earlier passers-by was gone.Suarez said, too, that the clothing description of the man walking east differed from the clothing description provided by the two other passers-by, who had spotted a man walking west on Yankee toward the car that was still parked along the road.
"There were three individuals who saw someone in the area, and we feel very strongly that two saw our suspect,'' he said. "But it was dark, and neither got a good look at his face. One said she believed he was a white male ... and that he was 20 to 30 years old.
"He was wearing a dark hooded jacket, with the hoodie pulled over his head, and dark pants. Their (the two earlier passers-by) descriptions were spot on."
As for the car, it's been described as an early 1990s midsize four-door sedan either sky or light blue in color. It had a boxlike body style and squared off back end.
The person-of-interest in the sketch has never come forward, Suarez said. But that's only one of his frustrations, as he pointed out detectives have been stonewalled by several people they've attempted to interview. Their response, he said, has been that they "hate cops" or simply don't want to get involved.
"We've had several like that. I think that's shameful. This is a double homicide, and they have information that could help us," he said.
Asked if they could be compelled to talk to investigators, Suarez said he'll attempt to obtain subpoenas "if we get to that point."
John Tarwacki Sr. said his family is frustrated as well. He said Carolyn was John's third wife -- her marriage to John was her first -- and the two appeared happy with one another. Her work in music education put her in contact with area band directors and music students, many of whom turned out for a vigil in the wake of the slayings.
In addition to his work with Quinlan & Fabish, John Tarwacki was operations manager for Downtown South Bend, a nonprofit organization that promotes the downtown area.
At one time, he also had a carpet-cleaning business and oversaw a cleaning crew that worked at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.The couple would often go out of their way to help others, John's father said.
"They played Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at the (Niles) train depot for three years," he said.
Like Suarez, he said neither John nor Carolyn was involved in illegal drugs.
"There were no narcotics, there was no robbery. It was personal," he said.McKnight said John, a native of South Bend who served in the Navy and lived in Mississippi before moving back to the area about five years ago, had lived with her for six months prior to his marriage to Carolyn. She never saw in him anything that concerned her, she said.
"He was always a very loving son-in-law to me. ... If there were skeletons in his closet, I'm not aware of them," she said.
Both she and Tarwacki said their faith in God has enabled them to get through what McKnight called "a stressful year." McKnight said she has faith, too, in Suarez.
"He hasn't given up," she said. "Why should I?"
Staff writer Lou Mumford:email@example.com