Bartley James Dobben

Bartley James Dobben

by Chilling Crimes January 08, 2021

"There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to accept what is true."

-Soren Kierkegaard

It was the 26th of November 1987. Thanksgiving Day. Twenty seven year old Bartley James Dobben was on the way to his parent's house for dinner with his wife, Susan Dobben, and two young sons, two year old Bartley Joel Dobben and fifteen month old Peter David Dobben. Susan was pregnant with their third son. 

Bartley and Susan lived on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the United States. They had been having difficulties in their marriage as of late and Bartley had filed for divorce but before Thanksgiving Day, they reconciled and both wanted to try to make their marriage work.

Bartley James Dobben

The Dobben Family

That day, Thanksgiving Day, Bartley left the house with his wife and two boys before 4pm to go to his parent's house for dinner. On the way there, he stopped off at the Cannon of Muskegon Foundry at Cannon-Muskegon Corp. on Lincoln Street in Norton Shores where he worked so that he could collect his Bible from his locker.  Many young men from the town worked in the Foundry for most of their lives and Bartley was no different.

He got a job there as a janitor when he left school and was still working there nine years later. But during those nine years, Bartley had been promoted and worked as the Foundry ladle operator. He operated the huge vessel that purified and treated 10,000 pounds of molten iron. That molten iron then produced various alloys. When Bartley arrived at work that day, around 4pm, he went inside with the two boys to show them where he worked. Susan waited in the car. 

The plant was closed for the holiday but there was a security guard working that day and Bartley spoke to him on his way in.

Bartley James Dobben

Bartley was inside the plant for around ten minutes. When he left the plant, the security guard observed that he was alone.

Bartley walked up to the security guard and said:

"My kids are in the furnace."

The security guard asked him if they had fallen in, but Bartley said:

"No I put them in and lit it."

Susan wanted to know where the boys were. None of it made sense. They were only inside for a few minutes. What happened to them? 

Police discovered that Bartley put the two little boys, Bartley Joel and Peter David, inside the transfer ladle that he operated at the plant. The ladle was suspended by cables and when he put them inside he also got in and "played with them like they were in the sandbox and told them that the slag was just like dirt." He then got out of the ladle himself and for some inexplicable reason, at that point he placed the lid on top of the ladle with the boys still inside, lit the torch on the burners, and walked off. The children died of asphyxiation. The Coroner said that they suffocated in the heat that climbed to 1,300 degrees.

Bartley was arrested and charged with murder. Police discovered that he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia prior to that Thanksgiving Day and was hospitalized for two months in 1985. The Court ordered that he be committed to the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ypsilanti so that he could be evaluated for competency to stand Trial. That took place over a two week period in December 1987. Dr Moses L. Everett, Ph.D., a certified forensic examine carried out the assessment and concluded that he "did not meet the statutory criteria for incompetency to stand Trial." His recommendation to the Court was that Bartley should be "adjudicated as competent to stand Trial."

After that date and while awaiting Trial, Bartley's condition deteriorated and he was again evaluated for competency to stand Trial. Dr Harley V. Stock, Ph.D., the associate director of the evaluation unit at the center, assessed Bartley and recommended that Bartley be adjudicated incompetent to stand Trial but also stated that, with medication, he should be able to regain competency. That took place in April 1988. A few months later, in July, he was assessed for a third time. It was recommended that he be adjudicated competent to stand Trial. Due to the fact Bartley had been found mentally competent, incompetent and then competent again, it took two years for the Trial to begin. 

Bartley James Dobben

Bartley James Dobben

The facts of what took place on that Thanksgiving Day were not in dispute at Bartley's Trial. It was not a case where the Prosecution had to prove that Bartley killed his sons. He killed them. The issue that had to be determined was in relation to his mental state when he killed the boys. The principal focus of the dispute was whether he was not guilty by reason of insanity, or guilty but mentally ill. Was Bartley legally insane or mentally ill when he killed the two boys? 

At his Trial, it was imperative that the Court and Jury heard about Bartley's life and the years that led up to that Thanksgiving Day. This was vital to try to ascertain what his mental health was like on the day that Bartley Joel and Peter David were killed. 

The Court heard from the Prosecution that Bartley was under pressure at that time. He had a new home, a wife, two young boys and a third on the way. His life began to unravel in late 1985, some two years before that harrowing day. 

The Court heard that in September 1985, there were signs that Bartley's mental health was deteriorating. Bartley took his family on a 80 mph drive down twisting roads “because he felt God told him that our baby was in danger.” The police were called. Bartley went to a psychiatric unit and was prescribed psychotropic drugs and ordered to take them. Even though Bartley returned to work, his colleagues recalled that he was not as energetic as he once was and was quieter. Colleagues knew he spent time in the psychiatric unit and stuck “Kick Me, I’m Crazy” signs on his back.

In the eight months before that Thanksgiving Day, things had further spiraled out of control for Bartley. His marriage was in trouble. 

Bartley was paranoid and believed Susan was having an affair. He was described as being "insanely jealous." Bartley believed that Susan was using body language to send signals to other men. When he discovered she was pregnant, he was not sure if he was the father. At one point, he thought she was having an affair with a member of the band Kiss. Bartley wasn't just paranoid about Susan, he thought that the registration numbers on trucks were telephone numbers and would often stop at phone booths to call the numbers. He believed that his family were in danger and that laser beams were being pointed into the house to try to harm Bartley Joel.

But it was when he stopped taking his medication that things went even further downhill. He stopped taking the medication after he joined a fundamentalist sect in early 1987 and was consumed with fanatical religious beliefs. He anointed the baby's  bedroom with olive oil and read scriptures over and over. The Church he joined was led by a man called Rood Vaughan. Rood was referred to as a "crazy preacher."

Rood Vaughn

Rood Vaughan

The week before that Thanksgiving Day, Bartley was stressed and could not sleep. On Thanksgiving morning, he went to the home of one of his colleagues, Arthur Szot. It was just after midnight and Bartley wanted to talk about religion and read scriptures. He was there until 4am. The Court heard that Bartley was convinced that the judgment day was coming. He believed that his children would die because God would kill Jezebel's children. He believed that children who were missing were being burned at the Foundry.

It was the Prosecution's case that by that day, that Thanksgiving Day, Bartley wanted his children dead so that he could get back at his wife Susan. While he may have been mentally ill, they argued that he knew what he was doing that day and the consequences of same. To argue this point, Dr Halpern testified on behalf of the Prosecution. 

The Court allowed both the Defense and the Prosecution to each obtain two expert witnesses. The Prosecution arranged for Bartley to be seen by Dr Abraham Halpern, M.D., of Port Chester, New York before the Trial began. He reviewed his prior medical and psychological records, police reports, reports compiled by the center regarding his competency, and the criminal responsibility report prepared by his experts, Drs. Stock and Blunt. And that same expert testified at Bartley's Trial. 

He believed that Bartley was mentally ill but did not believe he "lacked capacity, let alone substantial capacity, either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law." 

The Defense sought to prevent him testifying because his opinion was based in part on the evaluations for competency performed by the center's staff.

Susan Dobben

Susan Dobben

It was the Defense's case that Bartley should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. 

Prior to the Trial, Bartley's lawyers filed a notice of insanity defense. The Court ordered Bartley to undergo examination for criminal responsibility. Dr. Stock, who had previously evaluated him for competency, and Lynn Blunt, M.D., the Clinical Director of the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, conducted the evaluation and determined that he was mentally ill at the time of the killings and "because of that mental illness, he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and conform his conduct to the requirements of law." That was in stark contrast to the Prosecution's expert. 

Bartley's mother, Marialyce Dobben, testified at the Trial. She said that Bartley was doing well when he was on his medication but when he became involved with the Emmanuel Fellowship and Rood Vaughan, he became obsessed with religion. The Court heard that Rood allegedly urged Bartley not to take his medication. When Bartley did not take his medication, he became obsessively religious. Bartley's colleagues testified that Bartley was a religious fanatic and carried his Bible with him at work. Bartley's family also said his fanatical religious rantings had caused issues at family gatherings. Many of them had stopped contacting him in the months before that Thanksgiving.

Bartley's brother told the Court that it was Rood that put the idea of "soul-cleansing by fire" into Bartley's head. The Court heard that Rood led Bartley to believe that his marriage was adulterous and they referred to Susan as Jezebel.

The Trial took nine days and the Jury found Bartley guilty of two counts of first-degree murder but mentally ill. They rejected the Defense's argument that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to life without parole. He was required to receive treatment for his illness while incarcerated. Had Bartley been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been required to spend a minimum of 60 days in the state's Center for Forensic Psychiatry and until psychiatrists determined that he no longer suffered from mental illness.

James Bartley Dobben

Bartley James Dobben

The Defense Appealed the conviction. One of their arguments was based on the fact that they objected at the Trial and sought to prevent the Prosecution's expert from testifying because his opinion was based in part on the evaluations for competency performed by the center's staff. On Appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Defense that that testimony should have been excluded from the Trial. They reversed it and the guilty convictions were set aside. That decision of the Appeals Court was in turn further appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. 

That decision of the Appeals Court was reversed by the Supreme Court on the basis that: 

A person qualified to testify as an independent expert may, consistent with the Mental Health Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Michigan Rules of Evidence, rely on historical data, including information and opinions contained in prior competency evaluations, when forming an opinion regarding a defendant's criminal responsibility. Sections 1028(3) and 20a do not limit the information an independent expert may use as the basis of an opinion regarding criminal responsibility.

The Supreme Court reinstated the convictions of guilty but mentally ill. The two first-degree murder convictions were upheld as a result and the sentence of life without parole was upheld. 

After Bartley killed the two little boys, Bartley Joel and Peter David, Susan forgave Bartley and wanted him to be released and she wanted to remain living with him as his wife. She said:

 ″This was not the Bart I knew. He wasn’t taking his medicine. That was it. That was it. We may end up having to move away from here, but I want him home. With me.One of my friends told me if I stopped the divorce, I’d have the whole community against me. But I couldn’t live with myself if I did. People who knew him before will understand.″

Bartley was not released. He remains incarcerated.  

Chilling Crimes
Chilling Crimes


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