"The condition of our world is not the way our Lord intended it to be. If you see something, please say something. Also another important lesson from the loss of Chelsea: don't leave your friends alone. If you go somewhere, anywhere, as a group, please leave with that same group."
Leanndra Bruck, Chelsea’s mother
It was the 25th of October 2014. A Saturday. Twenty two year old Chelsea Bruck was heading to a Halloween party that night. Chelsea lived in Maybee, Michigan, United States. She was the youngest of five children but was the only one of her siblings still living at home. Chelsea worked at Olga’s Kitchen at the Mall of Monroe and was planning to attend Monroe Community College to pursue a culinary degree.
That night, the 25th of October, Chelsea made plans to go to Big Mike’s,Michael Williams, annual Halloween party in Frenchtown Township, Michigan with a few friends. A few of Chelsea's colleagues from Olga’s Kitchen were also heading to the party. They were all looking forward to it. Big Mike’s parties were always big, fun and memorable. His Halloween parties took place on his mother’s farm, in one of the fields and often attracted hundreds of people.
Chelsea and one of her friends, Rebecca Becky Brinson, decided to go to the party dressed as villains from the movie Batman. Chelsea chose the character Poison Ivy. She made her own costume using a green leotard. She stitched leaves and flowers on to the leotard and wore that with black leggings and flat shoes. Chelsea found a dark purple wig to wear and carried a wine bottle that she labeled "Poison" to represent the bottle of poison her character would have had to complete the look.
Chelsea Bruck in her Poison Ivy Halloween costume
Chelsea's friend,Laura Taylor, gave Chelsea a ride to the party. She brought an overnight bag with her as she planned to stay over at her friend’s house and left her bag in Laura’s car. They got to the party around 10pm and it looked as fun as they thought it would be. There were two large tents on the property that had been set up for the party and around 600 people were there.
Shortly after they arrived, Chelsea struck the bridge of her nose when she walked into a wooden structure accidentally and wanted to leave the party but her friends persuaded her to stay. Laura decided to leave the party around 1am and as she couldn’t find Chelsea when she was leaving, she gave Chelsea’s bag, purse and phone to Becky. But, Becky couldn’t find Chelsea either when she was leaving the party so she took her phone and bag with her when she left. Becky left a message the next day at Chelsea's house to let her know that she had her phone and she could collect it that day. Later that evening, the evening of the 26th of October, Chelsea's sister contacted Becky via Facebook and told her that Chelsea had not come home the night before. Becky thought she must have stayed with a friend, as that had been the initial plan anyway. The next day however, the 27th of October, nobody had heard from Chelsea and her family reported her missing to the police.
Police discovered that the party started at noon and went on until 6am the next morning and a number of people saw Chelsea at the party between 1am and 3am. She approached multiple people to ask them if she could use their cellphones. She was upset and crying and was trying to get a ride home with her friends. Gavin Hulet let her use his phone at 1am, she told him that her friends had left the party and she was crying at that point. Sometime between 2am and 3am, Alexandria Fraunhoffer also let Chelsea use her phone to try to find a ride home from the party. Chelsea's friend, Penny Renee Watkins, was at the party with Chelsea that night and she told police that she received a call from Chelsea from an unknown number at 2.30am asking for a ride home. Penny told police that at that time, she was already at home and was in no condition to drive. Chelsea was last seen with an unknown man in the parking lot outside one of the party tents at 3am.
The investigation into Chelsea's disappearance wasn't a straightforward one. The area where she was last seen, the site of the party, revealed no clues or evidence as to what happened. To further complicate the matter, a large number of people had attended the party and many didn't even know who some of the people were and they were dressed in costumes which made it more difficult to identify them. Police spoke to Big Mike. He told them that he knew most of the people at the party but he did not know Chelsea and had no idea when she left the party or where she went afterwards.
Chelsea's family took matters into their own hands. They investigated different areas in Michigan and put fliers up everywhere they could. There was even an offer of a reward for information. But despite their best efforts, nothing of value was uncovered.
It wasn't until almost five months after Chelsea was last seen that police got a break in the case. On the 22nd of March 2015, a woman called Sheryl Retzlaff found a woman’s shoe near a ditch while cleaning her yard. She owned three and a half acres of partly wooded property that was located approximately 2.3 miles from the Halloween party’s location. The shoe was confirmed as Chelsea's shoe.
Almost a week after the discovery of the shoe was made, Chelsea’s leotard and wig were found in an abandoned building by the railroad tracks at 26361 Peters Road, Flat Rock, Michigan by Eric Kassab. Police obtained a DNA profile from skin cells and blood found on the leotard.
On the 24th of April 2015, John Marcon found Chelsea’s remains. He was working on his 13 acres of undeveloped land in Ash Township, Monroe County, Michigan. His land was around seven miles from Sheryl's property.
Police found a match to the DNA found on Chelsea's leotard. It was a match to twenty eight year old Daniel Clay. Police had access to his DNA as he had submitted it when he had been arrested for a larceny charge but that charge was dismissed. A change in the law in 2015 meant that law enforcement could collect DNA from suspects in felonies. Prior to the change they needed to be convicted first. Daniel Clay was a name that had not appeared before in the police investigation into Chelsea's disappearance.
He was questioned by police and initially and repeatedly told police that he had never seen Chelsea, didn't see her the night of the 25th of October and didn't know who she was. But he did admit that he was at the same Halloween party. His story changed a number of times. At one point, he said that he did see her but didn't talk to her and later said that he spoke to her but only briefly. When police told him they found his DNA on her leotard, he then said that they had a consensual sexual encounter.
Even after Daniel claimed they had a consensual sexual encounter, his story changed again. He first said that he had sex with her once in the backseat of his vehicle but then she got out of the car and they went their separate ways. But, after further questioning, he gave a more detailed account of what he said took place.
According to Daniel, he saw Chelsea walking along the road carrying her wig after he left the party. She was intoxicated and he offered her a ride home. She accepted the offer of a ride home. He said that they drove down the road a bit and then stopped at the side of the road and had sex. He told police that during sex, Chelsea began biting him and smacking him and yelled at him to choke her. He agreed. After 20-30 seconds, she went limp and stopped moving. He told police that he attempted CPR but it didn't help. He was panicked so drove around for a while until he found a spot and he hid her body in a wooded area. He said that he did not mean to kill her.
Daniel was charged with felony murder and concealing the death of an individual.
It was the Prosecution's case that Daniel killed Chelsea and hid her body. It was their case that some aspect of Daniel's account may be true. Chelsea may have accepted a ride home that night. She was wearing her Halloween costume, had no phone and her friends had left so she may have accepted the offer of a ride. But it was their case that she didn't agree to anything else.
The Court heard from the Medical Examiner. Despite Daniel's account of what happened to Chelsea, the Medical Examiner determined Chelsea died of blunt force head injuries, not asphyxiation. She testified that Chelsea's body was too decomposed to find evidence of strangulation. She told the Court that it takes about two and a half minutes of sustained pressure to choke someone to death and not the 20-30 seconds that Daniel claimed he had his hands around Chelsea's neck for.
The Medical Examiner was asked whether Chelsea’s jaw could have been fractured from a fall. She testified that the area where the fracture occurred was “a rather protected part of the jaw, so it would be very difficult in a fall to strike that area and cause both of those fractures.” She testified that she believed that the cause of Chelsea’s death was blunt force trauma to the face because it was her opinion that the fractures themselves would have been severe enough to cause death.
The Court heard that the straps of Chelsea’s leotard were twisted and pulled apart and the crotch area was ripped open and there was blood on the inside of her costume.
The Court heard from Jessica Evay Pribyl. Jessica worked with Chelsea and knew Daniel. She had a six year old child with him. She said that she did not recall him saying anything about Chelsea after her disappearance. When he was arrested, he called her twice from the police station and left voicemails for her as she did not answer as she was at work. She testified that Daniel said that he was “extremely sorry," "that he f***** up big time" and was going to be "gone for a really long time."
Michael Roehrig, of the Monroe County Prosecutor's Office, told the Jury:
”A fair examination of the facts of the evidence proves the defendant murdered Chelsea, not by some erotic asphyxia, by multiple blunt force traumas to her face."
The Prosecution urged the Jury to focus on three things and those three things would show that Chelsea's death was not the result of an accident:
1. The blunt force trauma to Chelsea's face
2. The blood on the inside of Chelsea's costume
3. The torn straps and crotch on Chelsea's costume
It was the Defense's case that Daniel killed Chelsea but it was an accident. It was their case that during the course of consensual sexual intercourse, consensual erotic asphyxia, a process of choking during sexual intercourse which involves cutting off oxygen to heighten sexual pleasure, took place and that resulted in Chelsea’s accidental death.
Daniel testified and told the Court that the fractures found on Chelsea's face were caused as he dropped her body multiple times when he was looking for a place to hide her body and a log fell on her body when she was on the ground. It was the Defense's case that Daniel didn't cause the severe damage to Chelsea's facial bones. His lawyer, Russell Smith, told the Jury:
"Clay doesn't know how Chelsea's injuries were sustained. They could have occurred three hours after death."
Daniel testified that he was so intoxicated that night that he experienced periods of blacking out and could not recall the events entirely.
The Court heard from Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Megan Moore. She was asked about the possibility that the fractures on Chelsea's face were caused by her body being dropped. She described Daniel's account as being “somewhat of a stretch.” She testified that if the body were dropped from his height, the jawbone could have been fractured, but she would have expected injury to the bridge of the nose as well, because it was a protruding structure. She disagreed that dropping the body or a log falling on the body caused the orbital fractures.
The Defense called their own expert, Dr. Daniel Spitz, to testify. He agreed with the Defense that Daniel’s dropping of the body and the log rolling over it were possible explanations for Chelsea’s fractures. That being said, he agreed that the manner of death was homicide.
Daniel admitted he hid Chelsea's body after he panicked when he realized she was no longer breathing. His lawyer Russell told the Jury:
"It was not Clay's intention to kill Chelsea. He tried resuscitation techniques. What motive did Clay have to kill Chelsea? There was no motive."
The Defense told the Jury he was guilty of manslaughter but not guilty of felony murder as he didn’t intend to kill her.
The Jury deliberated for three hours and found him guilty of felony murder and concealing the death of an individual.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the felony murder conviction and to 40 to 60 months’ imprisonment on the concealment conviction.
Daniel apologized in Court but the Judge, Monroe Circuit Judge Daniel S. White, did not believe he was sincere:
"I spent 10 days in trial with Mr. Clay and I listened to countless hours of him changing his story every times the every time the detectives questioned him or brought up something new. It was very clear to me, Mr. Clay, you are a liar, a rapist and a killer."
After his conviction, Daniel was found guilty in a separate case of sexual assault against another woman that took place in 2016 and before he was charged in relation to Chelsea's death. He was sentenced to 40 to 75 years in prison.
In that case, he entered an apartment in Monroe, Michigan and sexually assaulted a woman. In that case, the Judge said:
“This was a brutal rape. It was degrading; it was dehumanizing. Mr. Clay you're just an opportunist and a predator. You're a liar and now you're a serial rapist.”
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