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11/26/2006

Mio crime case is 'Darker Than Night'

If I were a deer hunter, I'd beware of this review and maybe even beware this book, "Darker Than Night,” by Tom Henderson (paperback, $6.99).

A true story of a truly horrendous northern crime wouldn't be comfortable reading in a lonely deer camp, nor does it say a lot about some northern welcomes.

Maybe you remember the two hunters who disappeared near Mio while on a hunting trip in 1985. Their bodies were never found. The black Jeep Bronco they drove didn't turn up anywhere. Conflicting stories arose about their whereabouts: they'd been seen downstate; They'd taken off for Hawaii.

For 18 years, the case lay dormant except for routine checking, and then people began to talk, old gossip spread and a relentless cop got on the case.

At any time of the year, in any place, it's unsettling to imagine people so evil they laugh at the pain and then the death of another human being. Yet, these are people who lived among us — people emboldened by the fear they put into their wives, girlfriends and neighbors. These are backwoods poachers, alcoholics, drug users, car thieves, and killers who would have gotten away with their ultimate crime, the murder of two deer hunters, if it hadn't been for the courageous women who came forward and sent them to prison and for that state police cop who wouldn't let go.

The story is captured in graphic, page-turning detail in "Darker Than Night.” I knew some of the story because a friend was thinking of writing a TV script based on the events and ran it by me. But I didn't know the gory details: that the men were murdered for sport, pushed through a wood chipper, then fed to pigs.

It began in hunting season of 1985. Brian Ognjan and David Tyll from the Detroit area headed north to do some hunting — well, not so much hunting as carousing, drinking, causing trouble. Bad behavior, maybe, but not a reason for murder.

The two men never returned to their homes. By the Monday after they'd left, their families were scared. David, a family man, and Brian, engaged to be married, had never disappeared before.

The hunt for the two began where they'd last been seen, Linker's Lost Creek Lodge down the road from where the men were killed, in the woods near the intersection of Mapes Road and M-72. Stories began to surface, some from people with axes to grind, most coming in bits and pieces from people so frightened of one backwoods family they felt they would be murdered.

One woman, known for her partying and heavy drinking, was frightened almost to death of the family who slaughtered the hunters, but she knew something. When state trooper Bronco Lesneski followed up on a tip, he went to see her. After she opened the door, he asked if he could come in. Her immediate response was, "No, you're going to get me killed.”

Not deterred, Lesneski latched on to the old murder of the two hunters and used everything he knew to break people who were keeping secrets.

The story reads more like characters out of bad fiction than reality. We learn of the Duvall family of Curtisville — mainly J.R. and Coco. At trial, one of them claimed to be "a recovering amnesiac” and couldn't keep his stories straight. He also claimed he'd had a stroke and had Alzheimer's.

Another defense witness, when asked who's black Bronco he'd been seen driving at the time of the murders, claimed it belonged to his father-in-law, but maybe not a father-in-law. "I consider him as my father-in-law, but he's my ex-girlfriend's ma's boyfriend.

That's what this story is: a black comedy about ignorant and evil people whose only claim to fame was terrorizing the place where they lived, sexually abusing children, beating women, killing animals out of season, stripping a car or two, and getting away with it all — until they turned to murder for the thrill of it and ran into a certain cop named Bronco Lesneski.

Tom Henderson is a writer who covers banking, finance, accounting, venture capital and technology for Crain's Detroit Business. This is his third true crime novel.

Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli can be reached at ebuzzelli@aol.com.

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