Judge rules 'not enough evidence' for murder charge
CENTREVILLE — After 595 days in custody, the man accused of a Colon man’s death is free.
20-year-old Ethan Dingman, accused in the death of 55-year-old Todd Schwartz in November 2019 behind Illusions Hair Care in Colon, is now free after no probable cause was found to send the case to trial.
Schwartz was found dead Nov. 21, 2019 in a garage behind the salon, with the cause of death determined to be blunt force trauma and strangulation.
St. Joseph County 3B District Court Judge Jeffrey Middleton ruled during a continued preliminary examination Tuesday that probable cause “did not exist” in the case against Dingman, who was charged with open murder, and that the evidence presented was insufficient to bind the case over to Circuit Court.
Although Dingman was released, Middleton said he “didn’t take it lightly,” adding that because it did not go to trial, he wasn’t put in jeopardy, so if probable cause was developed by the prosecution in the future, Dingman could be re-arrested. The prosecution also has the opportunity to appeal the ruling, although it’s unknown if there will be an appeal.
Tuesday’s continuation hearing saw testimony from two employees at the Michigan State Police Crime Lab, Paul Donald and Michelle Schmitt, as well as the introduction of an MSP laboratory report describing the scene of the crime and the forensic investigation, a report Middleton had not seen up to this point, and a brief testimony from Colon Police Chief Mark Brinkert.
Both Donald and Schmitt testified about the processes of collecting samples and DNA analysis respectively. Donald testified on collecting samples at the crime scene in the garage and the bathroom of the gas station next door where Dingman allegedly went to after discovering the body, where the possibility of a presence of blood was found, but further testing showed a negative result for blood.
Donald also spoke about a “blood-soaked” sweatshirt whose color Donald said couldn’t be made out, as well as a gray t-shirt. However Middleton noted during testimony there was no evidence of a “blood-soaked sweatshirt” and that there was “some discrepancy” between a previous testimony and the lab report. Donald said no swabs were taken from the sweatshirt, because it was “completely in blood,” and that it was “the victim’s sweatshirt,” so he didn’t see a need.
Brinkert testified to his response to the scene and what he observed. He described the two-story unattached garage where the body was discovered, however he could not recall whether there were any other doors or windows open in the garage, except for the walk-in door he entered from, the only way he described as a way to gain entry that day.
Brinkert also described how Schwartz’s body was positioned, and noted that there was a “towel” underneath his head and partial footprints in blood on the right side of the body near the head. He also observed a pool of blood in the garage, and guessed it was four to five inches wide “at the most.” Wiese pressed Brinkert on if he actually took measurements, with Brinkert responding that he didn’t take measurements and is basing his testimony on a visual.
During final arguments, Sheppard once again argued for the case to be bound over based on the testimony and evidence presented Tuesday and during last week’s proceedings, as well as the injuries sustained and the manner of death. However, Wiese, argued that there was “absolutely nothing” to connect Dingman to Schwartz’s death in the record, saying all he did was find the body, go to the gas station and stay at the scene of the crime. He also argued the testimony presented Tuesday didn’t add anything with regards to probable cause, and that the investigative report had nothing “indicative” of Dingman doing anything.
“There is absolutely nothing that would link Mr. Dingman to having committed this offense. He found the body, went to the Shell station, called 911, stayed on scene.”
Sheppard, in her rebuttal, said Wiese’s argument ignored the glasses Dingman had with him, and that the DNA on the shoes put Dingman in the place the crime occurred. She also said the items seized from Dingman were seized via a search warrant.
Middleton, in his comments before the ruling, did say the glasses were the “most compelling piece of evidence,” but later went through the timeline of events both in the case and the day of the investigation and arrest. He noted everything Dingman said to the officers at the Sheriff’s Department was inadmissible, but that they weren’t “rising and falling” on the Miranda rights issue, because none of the statements were being considered in the case. Middleton then talked about how he didn’t know about the crime scene, as there was no probable cause affidavit or bond sheet, simply “charged on a short form open murder complaint.”
“I had the thought if the prosecutor had submitted for an arrest warrant, at the time they made the arrest, there wouldn’t have been enough probable cause to arrest,” Middleton said. “We certainly didn’t have any of the DNA evidence you have here, so you take that out and you’ve got nothing. You’ve got a dead body and a young man who called it in. I don’t believe there was probable cause at the time to make an arrest, but he got arrested.”
Middleton continued with his explanation of the timeline with Dingman’s arrest “on the word of the prosecuting attorney with a non-recorded, non-Mirandized statement,” and then the various hearings, including his bond denial on Nov. 22, 2019, a preliminary exam on Dec. 10, 2019 where a competency exam was ordered, and the subsequent competency hearings leading up to his competency in April 2021. In August 2020, Middleton said, Dingman was finally admitted to the forensic center for mental health treatment, and in October, Sheppard took over the case after the 2020 primary election for the prosecutor position.
Middleton then recounted the timeline of the day of the arrest, from the initial call, the first police encounter with Dingman, Brinkert’s interview with Dingman and the subsequent transfers in the police vehicles, the non-recorded interview at the Sheriff’s Department, and then the evidence transfer to the MSP lab. After, he talked about the timeline of the investigation and read out the investigation report, some of which he said was based on “hearsay.” However, he said he couldn’t tell whether Schwartz was moved to the garage from another location, and that they didn’t know how an injury to the chest happened.
As for Dingman’s statements, Middleton openly wondered why no one asked him “what were you doing at 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning in the dark in Todd Schwartz’s garage? How did you come to find him in there? What were you doing?” and a bevy of other related questions, but recognized that the defendant at the time was “difficult to communicate with.”
In the end, Middleton said he was “struggling” with this case from the start but ultimately didn’t believe there was enough to bind the case over.
“I’ve been looking for the ‘there’ that’s there. There may be a lot of other evidence that’s available, but as I indicated, I’m only to consider the evidence that’s admitted in the preliminary examination,” Middleton said. “Both Mr. Wiese and the prosecutor said it doesn’t matter, at least for bind-over purposes, whether there’s other sources of DNA in these samples. It doesn’t matter whether the defendant’s footprints match or don’t match the bloody footprints on the floor. All I do know is that the defendant called it in, denied he did it, denied he went in the building, and has trace amounts of the decedent’s blood on him, and I don’t believe that’s enough to bind the case over on this charge of open murder.”
After his ruling, Middleton said he “didn’t take this lightly,” mentioning his giving the prosecutor another week to present evidence, and strongly suggested Dingman to go to Community Mental Health for treatment. Dingman gave a thumbs-up on camera to the suggestion.
Middleton encouraged investigators to continue investigating if probable cause can be developed.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.