After decades of searching, police discover the murder of a child molester

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – Investigators have discovered what happened to a man who was mistakenly released from prison after raping several children in the Grand Rapids area and elsewhere in the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

“When Irma (Shaw) was 12 years old, she was the victim of a sex crime in 1978. A heinous crime,” Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said during a press conference Monday afternoon.

A file posting image of Tommie Lee Hill, AKA Abdula Muhammad. (via Silent Observer)A file posting image of Tommie Lee Hill, AKA Abdula Muhammad. (via Silent Observer)

A file posting image of Tommie Lee Hill, AKA Abdulla Muhammad. (via Silent Observer)

GRPD Officer Joe Garrett, assigned to the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, said Tommie Lee Hill began raping children in the 1960s and spent time in prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

While he was in prison in 1976 and 1977, his wife brought his stepdaughters to visit and he had sex with them in the prison yard, the GRPD said.

In 1978, he raped Shaw in Grand Rapids. When he was convicted in that case in 1979, he escaped police custody.

“He said he was thirsty and went to the ladies’ room and then fled from there to escape authorities during the sentencing. He had a getaway car and disappeared for the foreseeable future,” Garrett said.

Hill was later arrested in Mississippi and sentenced to another prison term in Terre Haute, but Garrett said there was a paperwork error and Hill was released.

The authorities have been looking for him ever since.

In 2017, Shaw’s case was handed over to Garrett by the FBI.

“We ran a story and got a tip – Silent observer Tip – at this point, but not much help,” Garrett said.

For the past seven years, Shaw has worked with Garrett to find Hill. Garrett said they finally got lucky when a genealogical lead led them to Pittsburgh, where they’ve been knocking on doors.

“We finally met a contact who gave us a timeline. This gentleman had changed his name to Abdualla Muhammad. He was a serial rapist,” Garrett said, adding that Hill had multiple identities, including four Social Security numbers.

That led them to the Pittsburgh Police Department on April 23. Garrett said they found pictures of Muhammad. Garrett showed Shaw the photos and she confirmed that this was the man.

“He was shot in the back of the head on December 4, 1983, by a man named Vernon Phipps after he touched Vernon’s sister,” Garrett said.

Garrett said his fingerprints were taken on December 5, 1983, but no record was found.

Erma Major speaks to reporters at Grand Rapids Police Headquarters on June 10, 2024.Erma Major speaks to reporters at Grand Rapids Police Headquarters on June 10, 2024.

Erma Major Shaw speaks to reporters at Grand Rapids Police Headquarters on June 10, 2024.

Shaw attended the press conference along with Garrett and Winstrom.

“The fact that Tommie had gotten away with it for so many years touched me deeply. I knew that if he were alive, he would still be bullying children. And because of social media, I thought I would create and write my own book (titled “Truth Tella $7,000 REWARD”),” Shaw said.

She thought the $7,000 reward would be an incentive for anyone who knew where Hill was, dead or alive, to contact police.

“The unique thing is that I wrote on page 75, ‘He can change his name, but not his DNA.’ And what if he had left the evidence many years ago before the technology was developed that would have led to his arrest or the correct information about his death? I think it’s very prophetic that I wrote that in 2018, because that was definitely part of the catalyst for why we’re here today…” Shaw said.

“…It may have taken us 46 years to really find out where he was, but justice was done and in many ways he has himself to blame,” she said.

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