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Collateral Damage: The Murder of Rachel Timmerman

On a warm summer day in 1997, two fishermen saw something floating on Oxford Lake, near Cedar Springs, Michigan. As they neared the object, they realized it was a human body. The body, which had significantly decayed, appeared to be of a young female. Her hands were handcuffed behind her back, she had duct tape over her mouth and eyes, and she was chained to a few cinder blocks. The body had been in the water quite some time but had risen to the surface after filling with gas from the natural decaying process of the human body. Who was she and how did this girl end up at the bottom of Lake Oxford?

Rachel Helena Timmerman was born April 6th, 1978. Rachel’s parents were divorced. She and her siblings were raised primarily by their father. Her parents suffered a few tragic incidents including the loss of a baby due to SIDs and the loss of their youngest child, born with special needs, in 2006. Rachel struggled a little in school and was bullied. When she was seventeen, Rachel became pregnant by a guy she had dated only briefly. While she was pregnant, she was arrested for a minor possession of marijuana charge and given probation. On June 15th, 1996, Rachel gave birth to a daughter, Shannon Dale Verhage.

In August of 1996, Rachel decided to hang out with some friends. Mikey Gabrion and Wayne Davis, acquaintances of hers. Wayne and Mikey picked her up, along with Mikey’s uncle Marvin Gabrion. The group headed to play cards and Rachel looked forward to a night out, something she hadn’t had much of since she became a mother. The four played cards and enjoyed the night, but eventually decided they needed more beer. Marvin, Mikey, Wayne, and Rachel piled into Marvin’s vehicle and headed out.

Along the way, Marvin pulled over and ordered Mikey and Wayne out of the car. He then drove Rachel to a secluded area where he attacked her. Rachel was raped, beat, Marvin bit her nose so hard it left a bleeding wound. Rachel eventually stopped fighting, out of fear that Marvin would kill her. After the attack, Marvin drove her back to her father’s house, where she was living with her infant daughter. Rachel ran inside, locked the door, and grabbed a hammer to defend herself. She told her sister what happened and that she was terrified of Marvin.

Rachel was so terrified of Marvin that she didn’t initially want to report the sexual assault to the police. Her sister convinced her to come forward so that no one else would have to go through what Rachel had gone through. Rachel went to the hospital the next morning for a sexual assault examination and told the authorities what happened. Police confirmed at least the first part of the story with Wayne Davis, who confirmed that Marvin made him get out of the vehicle. Police then went to talk to Marvin Gabrion.

Marvin Gabrion refused to cooperate with authorities or be questioned about the accusations. He did, however, fax the police his account of the night Rachel was attacked. In Marvin’s version of the story, Rachel offered to give Marvin oral sex. Marvin said that is why he kicked the other men out of the vehicle. He admitted to going to a secluded area and stated that Rachel gave him oral sex and then place the ejaculate inside of herself. Marvin then stated that Rachel begged him to have intercourse with him, but he refused. The vehicle got stuck in the mud, according to Marvin, and Rachel helped push it out. That explained why she was dirty, he said. He said that she hurt herself while pushing the car, causing the injuries noted to her face and other bruises found on her body. He said Rachel was lying because she was mad that he had rejected her.

Police did not believe Marvin Gabrion’s version of events. Wayne Davis supported Rachel’s version. The police also noted that in his version, he tried to account for any evidence that may have been collected. However, it was not a logical story. Marvin Gabrion was served in February of 1997 with an arrest warrant for the sexual assault of Rachel Timmerman. The witnesses on the warrant included Rachel Timmerman and Wayne Davis. Marvin was taken into custody but posted bond while awaiting trial. Rachel was in jail however, serving a short sentence in county jail for a probation violation.

Marvin Charles Gabrion was born October 18th, 1953. He was one of six children in a house plagued with mental illness, mental and physical abuse, poverty, substance abuse, and violence. According to his family, Marvin helped elderly family members and provided care for a family member with mental disabilities. He had very superior intelligence including in IQ of 121 (Agar, 2017). He grew up as a loner and after high school, he began a troubled adult life plagued by mental illness and drug abuse. Gabrion had been in and out of jail throughout his adult life for multiple offenses.

In late May, Rachel was released from jail and living back with her father. She was trying to get her life in order for her daughter, Shannon. Shannon was living with her paternal grandparents while Rachel was in jail, but Rachel was determined to get things back on track so she could have Shannon with her all the time. After her release, Rachel saw Marvin a few times around town. He would threaten her and generally try to scare her. He told her that he would kill her baby in front of her and then kill her. Rachel was terrified. She was set to testify against Marvin in court on June 5th, 1997.

On June 3rd, 1997, Rachel informed her father and sister that she was going out on a date. She said she had met a man named John at work. She was excited about meeting up with John. Rachel wasn’t sure how many men would want to date a nineteen-year-old single mother with an almost one year old, but John seemed up for it. In fact, he seemed excited. He urged Rachel to bring Shannon with her on their first date. He wanted to meet her daughter. Rachel got Shannon ready, hugged her dad, and left walked out the door. She got into the car with a man, presumably John, but her family did not really get a close look at him.

A few days after her date with John, Rachel had failed to return home or to Shannon’s grandparents’ home where the infant lived part of the time. Her family was growing concerned, but they soon received a letter from Rachel. Her father said the letter was certainly in her handwriting, and she often wrote letters to him. The letter said she had met the man of her dreams, a guy she called Delbert, and they were eloping. She said she would be back in Michigan in a few weeks. It was a little odd, especially since the man she left with was named John.

Two days later, the court hearing for Marvin Gabrion happened, but Rachel did not show up. Neither did the state’s other witness, Wayne Davis. The judge and prosecutor soon received handwritten letters from Rachel, confirmed to be in her handwriting, stating that she was now living in Arkansas and married to a Christian man. She said that this marriage forced her to confront the truth about the night she was with Marvin. She said she had made the whole story up because she was angry at Marvin. She admitted to placing his ejaculate from oral sex inside of herself in order to frame with for sexual assault. She said she couldn’t live with herself if an innocent man went to prison. The state dropped the charges against Marvin Gabrion. Rachel’s family received another letter, stating she was living in Arkansas and was planning to stay there with her husband, Delbert, and daughter Shannon.

On July 5th, 1997, fisherman noticed something in the water on Oxford Lake in rural Newaygo County, Michigan. As their boat got closer, they realized it was a human body. Upon finding the body, authorities realized that the skin was already sloughing off of the victim. They needed the skin from her fingers to identify her. They decided to place a trampoline mat underneath the body and elevate the body inside the mat. The trampoline strained the water, but the skin remained attached to the body. Once the medical examiner was able to carefully remove the sloughing skin from the fingers, a fingerprint was obtained. This matched to someone in the police records, nineteen-year-old Rachel Timmerman.

Police notified Rachel’s family of her death. If that wasn’t hard enough, they learned during this notification that Shannon, a one-year-old infant, was missing and last seen June 3rd with her mother. Authorities had a new sense of urgency as they tried to locate the missing child. A search of Oxford Lake and the surrounding National Forest yielded no clues as to the whereabouts of baby Shannon.

The medical examiner determined Rachel’s cause of death was drowning. Rachel had been chained and padlocked to cedar blocks with reddish paint noted on them. Her eyes and mouth were duct taped, but her nose was not. She had been in the water approximately a month, so authorities were quite sure she died on June 3rd, the day she left with Shannon for her date. Police began searching for a man named John but didn’t have much else to identify the man who had picked her up. Police suspected Marvin Gabrion, who clearly benefited from Rachel’s death, was connected to the crime. However, family members said there was no way Rachel would have gotten into the car with Marvin that day.

Police went to Marvin’s home to question him about Rachel’s murder. He was not home, but in his yard were cinder blocks with reddish paint on them, very similar to those found with Rachel’s body. This was enough for a search warrant of his home. Inside, police found a key that matched one of the padlocks found with Rachel as well as duct tape and chain similar to what had been used to bind Rachel. What they hadn’t found, however, was Marvin Gabrion.

Witnesses came forward indicating that Marvin Gabrion and another man had been seen on his boat on Oxford Lake on June 3rd, 1997. Marvin had also allegedly asked someone to store his boat at their campsite, saying his sight was too small. However, it was ample size to store the boat. The man with Marvin that day was identified as John Weeks. When police went to his home, they learned from his girlfriend that John hadn’t been in town for a while, and she hadn’t heard from him. Last she saw him was early June, when he told her he was going to Texas with Marvin Gabrion to buy drugs. He never came back from that trip. Marvin told her that he dropped John off in Arizona with friends.

By October of 1997, Marvin Gabrion was wanted for failure to appear on a drunk driving charge in Michigan. He was a wanted man. The FBI received a tip that Marvin Gabrion was picking up social security checks regularly from a post office in Sherman, New York. The social security checks were written to a man named Robert Allen, who detectives soon learned had been missing since 1995. His social security checks, however, continued to be cashed. The FBI did a stake out at the post office, waiting for Gabrion. Marvin came to pick up a check and was taken into federal custody.

At first, Marvin was only charged with social security fraud. He went to trial for that charge in July of 1998. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in federal prison. Meanwhile, police continued to look for witnesses such as Wayne Davis and John Meeks but were unable to locate them. They build a strong case before officially charging Marvin Gabrion with the first-degree murder of Rachel Timmerman in June of 1999. The State of Michigan, however, was not trying Gabrion. Oxford Lake, or at least the portion of it where Rachel’s body was found, is part of the Manistee National Forest, therefore under federal jurisdiction. The United States of America was trying Marvin Gabrion and seeking the death penalty.

Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1846, making it the first English-speaking jurisdiction to do so. This trial would be a landmark case because if is the first case to seek the death penalty for a crime committed in a non-death penalty state since the federal government reinstated capital punishment in 1988. Gabrion’s attorneys, however, argued that part of the lake is private property, and the prosecution could not prove the murder occurred on federal property.

The murder trial for Marvin Gabrion began in 2002. During the trial, Marvin’s behavior was disruptive and erratic. At one point, he punched his own defense attorney in the face during open court. Many believe this was purposeful in order to create doubt about his mental health. That being said, seven psychologists found him competent to stand trial. Prior to the closure of the trial, prosecutors offered Gabrion a deal at Rachel’s family’s insistence: They would not seek the death penalty if Marvin would tell them what happened to baby Shannon. Marvin declined the deal. Marvin was found guilty of first-degree murder.

At the sentencing portion of his trial, the defense team pointed to a history of abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, and multiple head injuries as mitigating factors. The aggravating factors, however, were strong. Marvin was accused of sexual assault of Rachel nearly a year before the murder, was already in prison for social security fraud, and had a criminal history a mile long. The mitigating evidence was not enough to outweigh the brutality of the crime. Marvin Gabrion was sentenced to death. He is the first person sentenced to death in the State of Michigan since 1937.

Shannon Verhage is considered a missing person to this day, over twenty-five years after she disappeared. It has been theorized that Marvin may have sold the baby, but law enforcement officers and detectives who worked this case believe that Shannon is likely deceased. They believe that Marvin convinced his friend John Meeks to ask Rachel out and insisted she bring her baby. It is believed that Marvin used baby Shannon in order to convince Rachel to write the letters that were sent later to her family and the court. Detectives believe that he then killed Shannon in front of Rachel just to torture her. Rachel was then thrown in the lake, while still alive, and left to drown. Marvin surely thought the cinder blocks would be enough to weigh Rachel’s body down, but the gases of decomposition overpowered the weights.

In 2002, the body of Wayne Davis was found in Twinwood Lake, inside the same national forest that Rachel was found. Police knew Gabrion had attempted to pawn Wayne’s stereo in 1997, shortly after he disappeared, but had no other conclusive evidence to tie him to Wayne Davis’s death. He has never been charged.

John Weeks, the man Marvin convinced to lure Rachel out of the house with her baby, has never been found. He is a missing person to this day. Robert Allen, whose social security checks Gabrion was cashing for two years after he had disappeared, has never been found either. Marvin is suspected to have killed Rachel, Shannon, Wayne, John, and Robert. Likely, he killed even more. Each of his victims were just collateral damage as he tried to cover his tracks and stay out of prison for his crimes. Marvin Gabrion remains on federal death row as of 2022.




REFERENCES

Singhania, L. (1999). Longtime suspect indicted in death of teen mom. The South Bend Tribune. 30 Jun 1999

Prichard, J. (2002). Murder trial begins for man victim accused of rape. The Lima News. 10 Feb 2002

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