By Roberta Jasina
WYANDOTTE (WWJ) Sunday, August 3, 2014, marks 25 years since Lawrence DeLisle drove the family station wagon into the Detroit River at the foot of Eureka Road.
Although DeLisle and his wife survived, their four innocent little children drowned. Divers found the kids floating inside the submerged vehicle 30 feet below the surface. Sundown. Zero visibility. Fast current. Horrible.
Reporters were standing there that night on Eureka, watching the men in boats. Watching the heroes diving. Watching the little limp bodies being brought up.
The next day we stood there again, waiting for the big old car to be dragged to the surface.
Covering the DeLisle case was one of my first major assignments at WWJ. The story sickened me. I was a brand new mom, with an eight month old son at home. I had a million disturbing questions.
I wondered what it must have been like for those kids under water. It must have been so scary careening down the street, and so dark and silent in the water.
How in God’s name could this happen?
I wondered why DeLisle didn’t scream when he surfaced. Why didn’t he try to save those kids.
Then a few days later came his “confession” and the murder charges which seemed to whip the community and the media into a frenzy.
It was a frenzy.
People wanted to know what kind of monster could do that to his own kids? Was it premeditated? Was it supposed to be a family murder-suicide. Was he insane? Was his wife in on it? Was there insurance money? People threatened to bomb the DeLisle house. They screamed obscenities at his wife. They yelled that Lawrence DeLisle should be drowned.
Every day for nearly one year, it seemed there was something new and something ugly in this real life nightmare being played out in Metro Detroit.
The car driven into the river? We learned DeLisle’s Dad had committed suicide in that vehicle about 2 years before the drownings. He’d shot himself in what reporters dubbed “The Death Car.” His bloodstains were still inside.
We learned the DeLisles were deeply in debt.
The confession? A judge eventually said, forget it, ignore it because the police didn’t play fair.
There was a lot of dirt dug up in this case. And the dirt made headlines. There was a lot of anger.
It took almost a year to get to trial. It was like being on a bad roller-coaster for months.
The actual courtroom action went quickly the following June. Eight days of testimony and arguments. The jury deliberated for nine hours.
Nearly 50 deputies were called in for the verdict, just in case of a riot.
Some reporters thought he was guilty. Others guessed he was innocent. As for me, I truly didn’t know. I’d half expected a hung jury. The defense only needed one juror to doubt and hold out.
Nothing was going to bring back those kids.
Then came the decision. Guilty of first degree murder and attempted murder. Life in prison, no parole. Period. Goodbye.
The whole case was just damn disturbing. Those gorgeous kids. The ugly Death Car. The dad who didn’t dive. The mob scenes. The yelling and swearing.
And it really bothered me that the DeLisles looked so normal. They looked average. Not evil. They seemed nice like you and me. And that scared me. And it still does.
All these years later, DeLisle says he is innocent.
And sometimes I wonder, did the jury get it right? Was it premeditated murder? Should the trial have been moved out of Detroit.
Another ride on that rotten roller coaster.
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