GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A family is hoping the Kent Metro Cold Case Team can help bring them closure in the shooting death of a mother who was shot and killed in Grand Rapids 22 years ago.
Kathleen Vanslyke, 45, was shot outside of Silver Derby Bar at the intersection of Burton Street and Eastern Avenue SE on a July afternoon in 1993.
She went there to pick up her husband. He worked at Butternut Bread, which has since shut down, and would frequently walk to the Silver Derby to socialize with co-workers and friends after work.
It was July 23, 1993, around 3:30 p.m., when Vanslyke was shot at point-blank range while waiting for her husband in her car outside.
“It’s been a long time. I want to find out who did it and make them serve their time,” said James Vanslyke, Kathleen's youngest son.
Kathleen’s husband died of a heart attack 13 months after she was killed. James says his mother took such good care of his father that him that his father didn’t know how to take care of himself, or he just didn’t care anymore because of the heartbreak he'd suffered after losing his wife. They had known each other since they each were 13 years old, James said.
James recalls the phone call the family received the day of the deadly shooting when they learned Kathleen was in the hospital. They though at first there had been some kind of car accident.
After Kathleen was shot, her car went into reverse, accelerated and crashed into a nearby building. Police believe the movement of the car reflected a final attempt by Vanslyke to escape some kind of dangerous situation.
James’ father didn’t know what happened when he came out of the bar and found a crowd gathered near the crashed car. James said his father had to unlock the doors to get to her, she had the windows rolled up, and the doors all locked.
At the hospital, the family was told Kathleen had been shot at close range and both lungs had collapsed. James said he couldn’t believe it. He said she was a great mom who stayed home to raise the children.
“You never expect anything like that, you know?” said James. “It was just devastating, she was the best mom,” said James.
James says he's carried a sense of guilt since the deadly shooting. His mother had called him earlier that same day to go pick up his father from the bar. Kathleen was putting the finishing touches on James’ wedding cake for his reception the next day and wanted to finish it instead of making the trip. James didn't make the trip because he had to work. So, Kathleen went instead.
"I wish, if I had the opportunity again, I would have went to pick him up."
Just as the family seeks closure, investigators want that closure for them. “They’ve lived so long without answers and justice, and they deserve this,” said Det. Sgt. Sally Wolter of the Kent Metro Cold Case Team.
The Kent Metro Cold Case Team is working with Grand Rapids Police and Silent Observer to find the killer. With advancements in DNA testing, they believe they have a chance at solving this case.
James theorizes his mother's death may have been the result of an armed robbery gone horribly wrong. He told Fox 17 News that his father always had a nice car, a 1989 Mercury Marquee, and he thinks someone might have thought Kathleen had some money they could steal.
James’ biggest frustration is that, in all this time, no one has come forward. He notes that nearby roads were extremely busy when the mid-afternoon shooting happened.
“I remember reading in one of the newspapers that there was some people who were afraid for their own safety, so they didn’t want to talk to the police," said James. "If it was their mother, how would you feel?”
James hadn’t heard much about his mother’s case for years. He said he was always hopeful but never held his breath that the case would finally be solved.
“It’s terrible, if you have your mother still, you should cherish that woman,” said James.
James isn’t the only sibling still hurting. FOX 17 talked to Kathleen’s daughter, Katherine Wolf, in 2002.
“It’s frustrating day in and day out to know that there’s still somebody out there and they’re walking free, and they should pay for what they’ve done,” said Wolfe in 2002.
The Kent Metro Cold Case Team is hoping a billboard placed in the area where the deadly shooting happened will get people talking and generate tips.
“We need the public, and we need them to talk about this. Somebody knows something,” said Sgt. Wolter. "This is a well-traveled area with pedestrian and vehicle traffic. It’s hard to believe nobody saw something."
Another hurdle for cold case detectives: Some of the witnesses in the case aren’t alive anymore.
“Kathleen’s husband is no longer here, so we have challenges like that, because then we can only relate to police reports," said Wolter.
There are surveillance images from the parking lot showing a man in the area around the time of the killing, and now DNA testing can be used. Police didn’t have the DNA capabilities in 1993 as they have at their fingertips today.
“What may have yielded negative results back in the day might be positive because of the advancements," said Wolter.
Kathleen’s murder was the 17th homicide of the year in Grand Rapids in 1993.
If you know anything about this case, contact Silent Observer at 616-774-2345.
The Kent Metro Cold Case Team is also monitoring a community Facebook page that has details of the case.