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Deadly Desperation: The Murder of Donald Rogers


On August 12th, 2000, Bille Jean Rogers of Troy, Michigan, called 911 after returning home from the casino to find her husband, Donald Rogers, deceased. Donald Rogers was seventy-four years old and was found on the kitchen floor passed out. Don had a history of alcohol abuse and a blood alcohol level of 0.40% at the time of his death. There were no signs of foul play, so the death was determined to be caused by alcohol poisoning with contributing chronic alcoholic liver cirrhosis. That may have been the end of this story, but someone came forward to cast doubt on everything police thought they knew.


Billie Jean Rogers was born in Tennessee in a family of poverty. She left when she was barely an adult and proclaimed she would return a millionaire. Her younger sister became a mother at age seventeen when she gave birth to Vonlee Titlow on July 12th, 1967. Vonlee liked to do hair and makeup, and as a young child became rather talented at it. When she was in her early adult years, she moved to Nashville and lived the life of a party girl. Vonlee was a blonde bombshell and garnered a lot of attention wherever she went. She eventually moved to Chicago where she had a luxurious lifestyle primarily financed by men.

When Vonlee and her aunt Billie Jean were both in Tennessee visiting family, they grew very close and found friendship in one another. Billie Jean had made good on her promise to return wealthy. She had married a millionaire, Donald Rogers, and was now living in Troy, Michigan. Upon flying back to Michigan, Billie Jean asked Vonlee to drive her car back to Michigan and stay with her. Vonlee accepted.

Vonlee and Billie Jean remained very close, going to casinos several nights per week. Vonlee remained a party girl, living off her aunt and uncle’s fortune. Donald Rogers was in his seventies and had owned tool and dye shops, making a nice fortune for himself. He was the father of four children and grandfather to seven. Donald often drank alcohol and preferred to stay at home and drink while his wife and niece were out on the town. Billie Jean shared with her niece that she was lonely, a void Vonlee filled for her aunt.

On August 12th, 2000, Vonlee and Billie Jean returned from a night out and found Don lying on the kitchen floor. The death was determined to be related to alcoholism and acute alcohol poisoning, with a blood alcohol level of 0.40%. Donald Rogers was cremated and his widow, Billie Jean, inherited his estate. Vonlee received large sums of money from her aunt after her uncle’s death.


Vonlee felt very comfortable with her most recent boyfriend, Danny Chahine. She was so comfortable that she confessed a few things to Danny days after her uncle’s death. Danny Chahine told police that Vonlee confided in him that she was transgender. Vonlee was born Harry Vonlee Titlow but had been living as a female since she was a teenager. If this wasn’t shocking enough, Vonlee told Danny she was riddled with guilt because she helped her aunt kill her uncle Don. She told her shocked boyfriend that her aunt agreed to finance her gender reassignment surgery if she helped kill Don Rogers.

When Danny first brought this to police, they were a little skeptical. The medical examiner report showed acute alcohol intoxication and cirrhosis of the liver as the cause of death. Danny was obviously angry that the woman he was dating was a biological male. Did he have a motive to lie? Danny agreed to wear a wire and talk to Vonlee about the crime. Vonlee told Danny, on tape, that her and her aunt had found Don unconscious on the floor that night. She said she helped Billie pour alcohol down Don’s throat. She then said that Billie Jean smothered him with a pillow, at which point she left the room.

Billie Jean Rogers and Vonlee Titlow were arrested and charged with murder. Vonlee claimed that Billie Jean was the primary person responsible for Don’s death and that she was not an active participant. Records showed that following the death of Don, Billie Jean bought Vonlee a $30,000 car and nearly $100,000 to cover the cost of gender reassignment surgery. Vonlee had already spent thousands of dollars on a breast augmentation and hormones over the last several years. The surgery was the final thing Vonlee needed to live as a woman.

When investigators went back to look at the medical examiner’s report, they did note marks around the mouth of Don Rogers consistent with someone putting a pillow over his face. Since the body was cremated, it was not possible to run any more testing. Police also examined photos of the scene and noted Don’s legs were crossed, something that was unlikely if he had passed out drunk on the floor. A plastic cup was found near the body, but no spilled alcohol to indicate Don had been holding the cup.

The prosecution didn’t have very much evidence in this case, particularly against Billie Jean. Billie claimed that Vonlee tells wild stories and made the whole thing up. The prosecution believed Billie Jean was the mastermind and manipulated Vonlee in to participating in the crime. Billie Jean owed more than $40,000 in gambling debts. Don had allegedly refused to pay for his wife’s gambling debts, giving her motive for murder. Without any other evidence, prosecutors needed Vonlee to testify against her aunt.

Vonlee Titlow was offered a plea deal in exchange for testifying against her aunt. They offered to drop the first-degree murder charges and convict her of manslaughter instead. She would have to serve 7-15 years for her part in the crime. Vonlee accepted the deal, but before sentencing had a change of heart. A sherriff’s deputy urged her not to plead guilty to a crime if she did not believe that she committed the crime. Then Frederick Toca Jr. came to visit her in jail. Toca, an attorney, told Vonlee he would help her in exchange for some jewelry and the media rights to her case. He told Vonlee he would make her a star. Vonlee accepted and withdrew her guilty plea.

Toca attempted to negotiate for a lesser sentence in exchange for Vonlee’s testimony. The prosecution refused agree to a five-year sentence, so Toca advised her to take the case to trial. Billie Jean Rogers went to trial first, but Vonlee refused to testify against her aunt. Billie used her husband’s fortune to finance her defense and bail but declined to assist her niece. With little other evidence, the defense for Billie contended that Don died of alcohol poisoning and Billie was innocent of all charges. Billie Jean was acquitted on all charges.

Vonlee went to trial next. Testimony from Danny and the recording of her confession proved to be strong evidence. Vonlee was now represented by a court appointed defense attorney as Frederick Toca had withdrawn from the case following Billie Jean’s acquittal. The new attorney attempted to get another plea deal for Vonlee, but with Billie’s trial over and double jeopardy attached, Vonlee had nothing to offer the prosecution. She was convicted of second-degree murder, the lesser charge, and sentenced to twenty to forty years in prison.

Vonlee was biologically a male, so she was sent to a male prison. A family member pointed out in the Snapped episode on this case, that Vonlee looked like an attractive female and was confined to a male prison, which was likely hell for her. She was denied her female hormones and gained a lot of weight. Due to the lack of hormones, Vonlee’s breasts began to bleed, and she eventually required a double mastectomy. The prison system denied her a reconstructive surgery.

Vonlee unsuccessfully sued Franklin Toca Jr. and filed appeals related to ineffective assistance of counsel. Vonlee claimed that Toca gave her bad advice and did not explain to her that she would serve much more time if she was found guilty. She also claimed that he had a conflict of interest as he was planning to write a book about the crime. The appeals process went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that federal courts must give credit to the state court’s factual findings as long as it was reasonable. The appeals process contended that Toca tried to negotiate a plea for Vonlee, so he did not provide ineffective assistance. Her appeals were all denied.

Vonlee was eventually transferred to a prison that had experience with transgender prisoners. On July 13th, 2021, nearly twenty-one years after the murder of Donald Rogers, Vonlee Titlow was paroled from the Michigan prison system. She is currently on supervised parole and residing in Tennessee with her family.



Vonlee was born a male, but according to her mother was clearly a female from a very young age. Her mother accepted her as a female, but many men did not upon finding out her biological identity. Vonlee was desperate to transition to a female, wanting nothing more than to live as the woman she was on the inside. This desperation led to her assist her aunt in a senseless crime. She was then taken advantage of by an attorney out for fame and suffered as a result of a prison system not designed for the transgender population. Many believe Billie Jean took advantage of her niece’s desperation to fulfill her own selfish desires.

While Billie Jean is widely believed to be the mastermind, she was acquitted on all charges. Her defense, financed by her victim’s estate, proclaimed her innocence, and Vonlee refused to testify against her. There just wasn’t enough evidence. Billie Jean died shortly after her acquittal of cancer. Billie was desperate to erase her gambling debts and continue her lavish lifestyle. Vonlee was desperate to complete her transition. This is a story of deadly desperation.


References

Michigan Department of Corrections (2022) Vonlee Nicole Titlow. Offender Tracking Information System (OTIS) - Offender Profile (state.mi.us)

A Gender Variance Who’s Who (2017) Nicole Vonlee Titlow (1967-) convicted of murder. A Gender Variance Who's Who: Nicole Vonlee Titlow (1967 - ) convicted of murder (zagria.blogspot.com)

Detroit Free Press (2004) Transsexual convict sues her attorney. 15 Oct 2004

Associated Press (2001) Man’s body position key factor in murder case. 17 Mar 2001

Detroit Free Press (2001) Obituary: Rogers. 15 Aug 2000

Ballou, B. (2001) Suspect fights murder charge. Detroit Free Press. 18 Jan 2001

Ballou, B. (2001) Evidence lacking in Troy slaying. 16 Mar 2001

Wikipedia (n.d.) Burt V. Titlow. Burt v. Titlow - Wikipedia

Michigan V. Titlow (2003) People of the State of Michigan V. Vonlee Nicole Titlow. PEOPLE OF MI V VONLEE NICOLE TITLOW :: 2003 :: Michigan Court of Appeals - Unpublished Opinions Decisions :: Michigan Case Law :: Michigan Law :: US Law :: Justia

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