A Michigan Prison Drowning & Death in Two Parts

The River Taketh and The Ice Giveth Up

Part 1 of 2

As expected, the ice gave up his body in that crease of time between late winter and early spring.

The winter Lake Michigan furies pile ice against the shore in a cold claw grasping grip; the winds shift the frozen mass grinding everything to fine sand. Wave driven pressure ridges of dirt scarred ice draw the foolhardy like a polar magnet until a crevice grabs and transforms them into submarine slabs of meat to be found during the spring thaws. The open water beyond the ice-band is warmer than the covering air and releases gelid spectral clouds of moisture that rise and drift inland falling as snow. This snow machine starts in late November and continues to dump on a twenty-mile-wide swath of littoral until it is so continuously cold that the coastal ice extends far across the lake. When the water becomes as cold as the air the snow stops and a frigid peace descends. It’s a landscape that cashiers life: at least once a winter season some fool ventures out to the siren song of frozen waste and drowns. After an initial failed frantic search there’s no hurry to retrieve the body; the ice will keep it in dandy condition ’til spring.

The body was months putrescent yet barely recognizable since Lake Michigan is fresh water; the prisoner’s number still legible on remnants of clothing plastered to his corpse.

By the time Warden Biggie Biggins arrived they had the body bagged and on a stretcher. A Muskegon County cop unzipped the black body bag and Warden Biggy Biggins held the prisoners mug shot near his bloated face and the cop said, “Close enough, he’s yours.”

So now Warden Biggins could notify the family that we finally found their errant son who was on a minimum-security work crew from Warden Biggins’ prison when he decided late last Fall to take a swim in the still warm Muskegon River. Did he drown? Did he escape? Was there foul play? It’s what called “closure”, as if going to prison wasn’t closure enough. Now the family is free to grieve or sue the state for whatever reason and likely will win because our brilliant Director took cell phones away from work crew supervisors as a cost control measure, and replaced them with two-way radios operationally not worth their weight in plastic. That meant the supervisor, himself a non-swimmer, unable to contact help, likely watched the flailing prisoner dissolve in the river current. The supervisor said they finished cleaning trash from a section of river and kicked back; some decided to swim and all of a sudden, this guy is out there hollering. Damn he disappeared fast. They questioned the other prisoners on the crew and they all said their buddy was a short-timer looking forward to release. Did he have enemies? Naw, just an average dude.

When you drown in a river you become a yo-yo: First you float, then the air seeps from your lungs and you slowly drop to the bottom; as bacteria consume your organs, gas is produced and trapped in your tissues and up you go again. Your trapped gas escapes through worm holes eaten into your flesh and you sink, only to rise again when more gas is produced.

The river bounced the body under the Muskegon causeway and past the old power plant squatting among black coal piles; once in Muskegon Lake it paralleled Ruddiman Drive, past the Bear Lake channel where the Bear Lake Tavern serves a decent burger, and was eventually swept by the U.S. Silversides WWII submarine and museum, through the Muskegon Channel and deposited in the grey winter waste of Lake Michigan. A fair amount of travel for a dead guy.

A kid playing on the ice caught his foot in a crevasse and when his buddy helped him pull it out they exposed a slab of frozen hair; they got somebody’s attention and the cops were called.

Warden Biggy Biggins told the cop he would notify next of kin but the cop said the police would handle that; she then handed him a card with the address and phone number of the Muskegon County Medical Examiner. “We’ll tell them to call there to arrange for pick up,” she said and closed the body bag.

Cold sun broke the clouds dappling the dirt speckled ice and a breeze caught a ghost wave and heaved the ice like some living thing deeply breathing, but it was dead. It all was dead.

When a prisoner dies, Warden Biggins has the convict’s cell secured and searched. The missing prisoner was Robbie Townsel, 188909. There wasn’t much in his cell: a few letters; state issue clothing; and some plastic tableware pilfered from the dining hall. Staff took the letters to the Warden’s office along with Townsel’s records office file.

Townsel was what they call a whittle-dick: Bullshit B&E felonies not bad enough to get him real time; in and out and in again, with a low enough assault risk to land him in minimum security — -probably the one thing in his worthless life his family could consider an achievement. His visiting record was blank except a couple of visits from local religious volunteers.

Warden Biggy Biggins called several of the religious volunteers to see if they had any information on Townsel’s recent state of mind: depression, anxiousness, that sort of thing, and was told by some he was his normal upbeat self. One volunteer said he did not feel comfortable talking about a prisoner he was providing pastoral care.

“Why not?” said Warden Biggins

“I consider pastoral care akin to psychological confidentiality.”

“Look,” said Warden Biggy Biggins, “there are two kinds of wardens, those who are not religious and use volunteers to keep prisoners more manageable, and those who are religious and think you’re doing the Lord’s work and also use you to manage prisoners. I’m the former kind, so if you refuse to give me information about a prisoner I think is important to the security of this facility, as far as I’m concerned there is no reason for you to come in. Consider your volunteer status cancelled.”

Warden Biggins then called the family contact number in Townsel’s file, hoping his parents, Lester and Dorothy Townsel, still lived in the same place. A cigarette scared woman’s voice, phlegm raspy and deep, answered.


“Is this Mrs. Townsel. May I speak to mister or missus Townsel?”

“Who wants to know?”

Warden Biggy Biggins explained who he was and that he had some of Townsel’s belongings and would mail them to her. There was muffled voices and a man identified himself as Robbie’s dad took the phone and said he’d call the warden back. Warden Biggins said there was no need. There was nothing left to do but mail his meager property. Mr. Townsel said he’d call back.

The Medical Examiner’s report ruled out foul play.



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