Seeking answers: Police, university struggle to understand what led to student's breakdown, double homicide
At about 9 a.m. March 2, the only thing most Central Michigan University students were concerned about was leaving for spring break.
At 9:02 a.m. a Central Alert emergency message was broadcast. “The CMU Police Department is responding to a report of shots fired near the fourth floor area of Campbell Hall, again, shots fired near the fourth floor area of Campbell Hall. Please stay clear of the area.”
A few minutes later, CMU issued a campus-wide lockdown that lasted into the early evening. For more than six hours, faculty and students were confronted with the reality that a shooting on campus had claimed two lives. From inside locked classrooms, offices and residence halls, they watched as the national conversation on guns and schools converged on Mount Pleasant.
Through social media, texts and phone calls, they reached out to loved ones. Many marked themselves as “safe” after Facebook launched its safety check for “The Shooting at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.” Parents gathered together at the Comfort Inn waiting for buses to transport their children from campus and to their waiting arms.
Students will return to CMU this week forever changed.
Administrators and police say they are still looking for the answers: Why did 19-year-old sophomore James Eric Davis Jr. walk out to the family’s car, get a handgun and return to his room to fatally shoot his father and mother?
The night before
On March 1, as some of his fellow students prepared for Friday classes, Davis Jr. was on a mission to find a police officer. When he finally found an officer working in the Towers residence complex, Davis Jr. told him someone was trying to murder him.
Police interviewed the person Davis Jr. accused of threatening him. When police viewed surveillance footage of Davis Jr. and the other student, they saw them laughing together as if they were friends.
Police concluded the person was no threat, but they were now concerned about Davis Jr.
After police told Davis Jr. they believed the person did not pose any risk to him, Davis Jr. left the police office and told the officer he was leaving the residence hall in the morning.
A few hours later, police found an agitated Davis Jr. standing in the Towers hallway with bags packed. In a March 3 press conference, CMUPD Police Chief Bill Yeagley described Davis Jr.’s speech and behavior at that time as illogical and said Davis Jr. “wasn’t making a lot of sense.” A police officer asked for Davis Jr.’s phone and used it to contact his mother, Diva Davis.
After describing her son’s erratic behavior to her, police asked Diva if she felt drugs might be the cause — she agreed that drug use could be a factor. The officer told Diva that her son would be taken to MidMichigan Medical Center for observation. Diva told police she and her husband, James Eric Davis Sr., would leave immediately to begin the nearly five-hour drive from Illinois to CMU.
What happened next is still unclear.
In a March 7 story published by The Morning Sun, it appears that after he was admitted, Davis Jr. escaped from observation. At about 3 a.m. hospital staff, Isabella County Sheriff’s deputies and Mount Pleasant police officers searched nearby neighborhoods and wooded areas for Davis Jr. He was found at 3:15 a.m. in a landscaping business parking lot and brought back to the hospital.
Information about Davis Jr.’s escape from the hospital was not included in any of the press briefings held by the university and police. Heather Smith of University Communications told The Morning Sun police didn’t have “all the details of it during media briefings Friday and Saturday.”
Hours later, Diva and James Sr. arrived in Mount Pleasant to pick up their son from the hospital and bring him back to Campbell Hall and then home. At some point, Davis Jr. left his room to go to the family’s vehicle. Yeagley said a witness recalled seeing Davis Jr. walk back into the residence hall carrying his father’s handgun. Surveillance footage also shows Davis Jr. walking back into Campbell Hall just minutes before he fatally shot his parents, Yeagley said.
Davis Jr. fled the scene on foot, heading north following the railroad tracks, where he seemed to disappear.
Searching for the suspect
For the next 15 hours, students and faculty would continually hear “regarding this morning’s incident on CMU’s campus, the suspect is still at large” on Central Alert emergency messages.
The search for Davis Jr. brought in more than 100 law enforcement officers from various agencies including CMUPD, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Isabella County Sheriff’s Department, Michigan State Police, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police, Shepherd Police Department, FBI, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the ATF.
As students and residents took shelter in their homes off-campus, SWAT teams searched door-to-door, checking to make sure Davis Jr. wasn’t holding anyone hostage. Garages, sheds and parking lots were throughly inspected as officers set up a perimeter, monitoring north of campus, near Mill Pond Park. Police recovered various articles of clothing Davis left along the railroad tracks.
CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other national media outlets followed the manhunt for Davis Jr. As the eyes of the nation watched the search continue that afternoon, CMU began to dismiss students and faculty who were on lockdown. They were then escorted from buildings by police officers to a shuttle that would bring them to their parents at Comfort Inn.
The decision to wait until Friday to pick up his daughter, Kayla Konen, seemed like a terrible mistake to Dan Konen, of Shelby Township. As soon as he knew about the shooting, he made immediate plans to travel to CMU. The drive was tense and was “a lot faster” that day.
“We had that storm last night so I decided to put it off,” Konen said. “I was supposed to come later tonight, but when we heard the news we jumped in the car.”
Students ended their long, stressful Friday by reuniting with family members and, finally, leaving for spring break.
As they left town, the search for Davis Jr. continued as the sun set and the temperature began to drop.
The tip that led to the capture
As darkness overtook Mount Pleasant, people were faced with the grim reality that a murder suspect was still at large. Police urged community members to stay inside and avoid their cars, sheds and garages — Davis Jr. could be hiding anywhere.
Just after midnight, an employee of Great Lakes Central Railroad spotted a person on the side of the tracks who looked “suspicious.” Railroad President Chris Bagwell told Flint’s ABC12 the company notified employees traveling through Mount Pleasant that “you’re going to be working in an area where a presumed killer is lurking.”
The employee, believing the person he saw could be Davis Jr., contacted police.
Within minutes, police were on the scene. Yeagley said no questions were asked of Davis Jr. other than if he was ok. He was taken to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia.
“The danger our community has experienced in the last 24 hours or so is now over,” Yeagley told members of the press gathered together during a press conference March 3. The briefing also featured comments from CMU President George Ross, Mount Pleasant Mayor Allison Quast-Lents and Mount Pleasant Department of Public Safety Director Paul Lauria.
Yeagley updated reporters on what happened the night before the shooting and in the 15 hours that led to Davis Jr.’s capture.
During the press conference, Ross announced CMU would redouble its efforts to make the campus safe. He also said the university would provide additional counseling resources for students after spring break.
“We’re not done yet,” Ross said. “There were thousands of people on our campus (March 2). They are going to remember this for the rest of their lives.”
An anxious and restless Davis was arraigned March 6 in Isabella County Trial Court. From his hospital bed at McLaren Central Michigan, he was charged via video with two counts of homicide-open murder and one felony weapons charge for possession of a weapon to commit murder.
Davis Jr., distraught and frequently touching his mustache, did not enter a plea. Judge Paul H. Chamberlain also lowered Davis Jr.’s bond from $3 million to $1.25 million.
On March 7, Davis Jr. was transferred to the Isabella County Jail. His next court appearance is March 16.
In a statement released on March 3, Ross talked to students and staff about the importance of coming together.
“We talk often about One CMU. Yesterday, we lived it,” he wrote. “Each of you, in your own way, upheld and expanded the strong sense of community that makes Central Michigan University and Mount Pleasant so special. The support we have shared with each other since yesterday morning will be just as important in the days, weeks and months ahead.
“Together, we will begin to heal.”
Support and prayers are what the grieving Davis family is seeking. Their healing process began with a public viewing for Davis Sr. and Diva at Johnson Funeral Home in Chicago. A wake and funeral services took place March 10 at Broadview Missionary Baptist Church in Broadview, Illinois.
Their oldest son, Russell, and only daughter, Alexis, face not only the loss of their parents but also the uncertain future of their brother.
“The coming days will be hard... but continue to pray for us,” Russell wrote in a Facebook post. “To the media and opinionated people: Please don’t make a villain of my brother... that is NOT who he is. Despite the circumstances, he also lost a mother and father... and I LOVE him."