Wrong man jailed for child porn in Mich.

Billy Dean Rowe (Photo courtesy WOOD-TV/Media General)

ALBION, Mich. (WOOD) — Billy Dean Rowe, who lives near Albion, is a meat cutter by trade and a married father of four who spent three nights in jail for child porn — a crime he didn’t commit.

“I was in the cell,” Rowe, 50, told Target 8. “I just laid in the bed all the time. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do nothing. I just did a lot of praying.”

Billy Joe Rowe, 41, of Clio, who police say confessed to the child porn, never was charged and — because of mistakes made by Michigan State Police — never will be.

“I didn’t know nothing about it,” Billy Joe Rowe, 41, said when asked if he knew about the false arrest of the other Rowe.

Billy Dean Rowe’s mug shot. (Photo courtesy WOOD-TV/Media General)
Billy Dean Rowe’s mug shot. (Photo courtesy WOOD-TV/Media General)

So how is it that Michigan State Police confused two men with different middle names, who live 120 miles from each other and who are 9 years apart in age?

“It was crazy,” the falsely arrested Rowe said. “There was no way I would do something like that.”

Billy Dean Rowe and his wife have sued the state police. The state admitted making mistakes but claimed governmental immunity and asked the state Court of Appeals to dismiss the suit. The court denied that request earlier this month, sending the case back to Calhoun County Circuit Court.

“It was their own fault. They should pay the penalty, not me,” Rowe said.

The case started in March 2005, when state police Trooper Dennis Milburn of the Flint Post seized a computer from Billy Joe Rowe’s brother in Mount Morris, near Flint, according to reports obtained by Target 8. The brother told him that Rowe had downloaded child porn.

The trooper questioned Billy Joe Rowe, who, according to reports, admitted to it.

“Rowe stated at that time he did search for child pornography on the Internet and the images on the hard drive were his,” the police report states.

But Trooper Milburn’s original police report misidentified the suspect as Billy Dean Rowe, the innocent man.

He is 5-foot-4 and weighs 185 lbs. Billy Joe Rowe, the man who police say admitted to the crime, is 6-foot-1 and weighs 200 lbs.

For nearly six years, nothing happened. It’s not clear why, but perhaps because the original detective retired in 2007.

The computer sat at the state police Computer Crimes Unit in Lansing without being forensically examined. A note in the file in 2007 shows state police couldn’t find the search warrant or consent form to search it. By 2008, records show, state police were considering destroying the evidence after a review of the complaint showed issues over “burden of proof.”

Then in March 2011, MSP Detective Sgt. Ronald Ainslie picked up the case, pushing for charges just weeks before the six-year statute of limitations would expire, reports show.

The MSP lab finally examined the computer and found “numerous” images of child porn.

Nine days later, on March 11, 2011, the wrong Billy Rowe was at his home in Homer, getting ready for his job as a meat cutter at Meijer in Jackson.

“They just showed up to my door and they asked me if i was Billy Rowe and I said yes,” he said.

He said the trooper had an 8-by-10 photograph of him, which he believes he’d gotten from AAA, of which Rowe was a member.

“He said, ‘Well, we have a warrant for your arrest out of Flint,’ and I says, ‘Out of Flint? I’ve never been to Flint.’ … I asked him what it was for and they told me they couldn’t say. When I said, ‘Why am I going to Flint?’ he says, ‘You’ll find out when you get there.’”

The man who had never been in trouble before spent all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday locked up at the Calhoun County Jail.

“The guys in the jail asked me what I was in there for. I said I had no idea,” he said. “I was looking at going to prison. All it took was for me to walk in front of the judge and say you’re guilty and I’m done.”

At 1 a.m. Monday, March 14, 2011 — exactly six years after the alleged crime was originally discovered — a trooper drove Rowe 110 miles to the MSP Flint Post, where he was locked up in a holding cell. Rowe said his hands were cuffed behind his back.

“They put me in a jail cell with a drunk, and handcuff me to the wall and left me sit there for like five hours,” he said.

That, he said, is when he learned he was being charged with possession of child porn — a felony with a penalty of up to four years in prison. He said he tried to convince state police they had the wrong guy.

“They asked me, ‘Did you have an apartment with your mother in Flint?’ I said, ‘No, my mother’s dead, and she’d been dead a year before that even happened.”’

“Rowe stated he didn’t know why he was being held and that he had never even been in Flint,” Sgt. Ainslie wrote in his report. “I advised Rowe that he was being held for Child Pornography from the 2005 incident in Mount Morris. Rowe stated he had never heard of Mount Morris and had no idea what I was talking about.”

“I became a bit concerned,” Ainslie wrote.

Sgt. Ainslie took Billy Dean Rowe’s photograph to the mom and brother of Billy Joe Rowe in Mount Morris. They told him he had the wrong man.

Billy Joe Rowe, who police say admitted to having child porn, at his home in Clio. (Photo courtesy WOOD-TV/Media General)
Billy Joe Rowe, who police say admitted to having child porn, at his home in Clio. (Photo courtesy WOOD-TV/Media General)

A judge immediately set Billy Dean Rowe free. Rowe said he lost his job, though Meijer later re-instated him.

“They said, ‘Oops, We got the wrong guy,’ and that was it; no apology, no nothing,” Rowe said.

Prosecutors refused to sign a warrant against the real suspect because the statute of limitations had expired, records show.

It wasn’t difficult to find the real suspect. Target 8 had to knock on only one door in Clio.

Billy Joe Rowe, who has no criminal record, denied downloading child porn.

“I never admitted to nothing,” he said.

State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner acknowledged the original report misidentified the suspect, though she said it’s not clear how that happened. She wouldn’t say why state police waited six years to examine the computer, though she called it “atypical.”

She said Ainslie, the sergeant who got the warrant to arrest Billy Dean Rowe, retired in 2013.

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