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- Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself on August 10, was accused of using his fortune, connections, and private island to prey on underage girls.
- Internet sleuths say the allegations against Epstein bear a remarkable resemblance to a 1970s case, on an island in Lake Michigan.
- The story of Francis D. Shelden and North Fox Island has been tied to a series of unsolved child murders that occurred in the Detroit suburbs more than four decades ago.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The runway still cuts across Lake Michigan’s North Fox Island, but is now faded like an old scar. The airstrip is the first thing that Francis D. Shelden built after buying his hideaway.
In 1960, the millionaire outbid the state government for the island, shaped like an upside-down teardrop, that hovers 19 miles off the coast of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. The state offered the owner, an elderly widow, about $3,500. The Detroit Free Press reported Shelden gave her $20,000.
He wanted isolation and he got it.
The 3,000-foot stretch of green was where Shelden, a former Michigan Air National Guard airman, would touch down in his private plane. It’s also where the young campers would arrive in the summer, before they were ushered into cottages concealed by beech and elm trees. Before, survivors say, they became stuck in a spider’s web of sexual abuse and child pornography.
Michigan State Police responded to Business Insider’s records request on Shelden with a statement saying that "a search of Michigan’s criminal history file has not located a criminal record that exactly matches the information that you have provided." But a review of Michigan State Police reports from the 1970s on the case of North Fox Island point to an operation built on manipulation, deception, and coercion.
The story of the financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sexually abusing and trafficking minors, erupted in the news this year, and internet sleuths say the case of Shelden and Lake Michigan’s North Fox Island bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s scandal.
Both center on allegations that secretive millionaires weaponized their philanthropic giving, cliques of connected friends, and private island paradises to prey on young victims and escape justice. Like Shelden, Epstein was a millionaire, a philanthropist, and a man with powerful friends. And neither stood trial for the crimes for which he was accused.
After accusations surfaced about goings-on at North Fox Island, Shelden disappeared.
Beginning in 2008, Epstein served 13 months of an 18-month sentence after signing a "non-prosecution agreement" related to federal criminal charges, which accusers and critics alike decried as a "sweetheart deal." This year, on August 10, while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges in a Manhattan jail, Epstein hanged himself.
Lawyers for Epstein did not return Business Insider’s request for comment on this story.
‘You really learn what silence is’
Hunter Watson Photography/Shutterstock
There are big gaps in what we know about Epstein’s early life. He grew up in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Musically inclined from a young age, he attended Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts in the summer of 1967, the Daily Beast reported. Interlochen is nestled about 15 miles southwest of Traverse City, Michigan. Epstein would go on to become one of the institution’s donors.
Epstein never earned a college degree, but he did cultivate philanthropic ties to Harvard University. The financier bounced from a teaching stint at Manhattan’s Dalton School to a gig at Bear Stearns in 1976. He formed a relationship with L Brands CEO Les Wexner, whose company owns Victoria’s Secret, among other brands. But the details about how Epstein made his fortune, which stands at $577 million, according to his final will, remain murky.
Like Epstein, Shelden was a wealthy and reclusive bachelor. But Digging up details on Shelden’s pedigree is a far simpler task. He boasted a lineage that placed him squarely in Michigan’s uppermost echelon.
Shelden was a descendant of Russell Alger, a lumber baron who served as the 20th governor of Michigan and the secretary of war under President William McKinley, and who illuminated Detroit through the city’s Edison Electric Light Co. Alger’s descendants continued to add to the family fortune, even developing Detroit’s tony Rosedale Park.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
In a 1975 Detroit Free Press profile, Shelden is described as having a hefty trust fund, a Yale degree, and a master’s in geology from Wayne State University.
He was an amateur ecologist who marveled over hemlock and shipwrecks, a philanthropist who sat on the board of the Cranbrook Institute, a museum linked to a prestigious string of prep schools. The millionaire’s name appeared in the lobby of Detroit’s historic Buhl Building, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. But Shelden said he was the kind of person who grimaced as friends hunted the herd of white-tailed deer he’d brought to his island.
"He comes across as sort of an eccentric, a nature lover," Nina Innsted, a true-crime podcaster, told Business Insider. Her series "Don’t Talk to Strangers" is a deep dive into Michigan’s unsolved Oakland County child killings, which took place in 1976 and 1977 in the suburbs to the northwest of Detroit. Four children were snatched off the street and held up to 19 days before being murdered, police say. Innsted dedicated an episode of her podcast to Shelden and his operation on North Fox Island.
In the 1975 Detroit Free Press profile, Shelden spoke about the work it took to develop North Fox Island — chopping wood, shoveling gravel, mowing the airstrip, and keeping up the miles of dirt trails. Epstein’s high-flying Palm Beach lifestyle and his two private Caribbean islands (Little St. James, nicknamed "Pedophile Island" by locals, and the neighboring Great St. James) point to a flashier approach to spending.
But both men appeared to revel in the solitude. "On a calm day, you really learn what silence is," Shelden told the Detroit Free Press. "And at night, darkness."
‘At home in those dark places’
Shelden may have preferred the seclusion of the island, but he certainly wasn’t always alone. Launching officially about 1975, Brother Paul’s Nature Camp was the millionaire’s charitable program that brought children to the island in the summer. "The premise of the organization was to give disadvantaged boys experience camping out in nature," Innsted said.
Former Detroit News journalist Marney Rich Keenan has investigated the North Fox Island ring and the Oakland County Child Killings since 2009. Her upcoming book, "The Snow Killings," delves into both cases. Keenan told Business Insider that Brother Paul’s promised to provide kids with "remedial tutoring, counseling, temporary lodging, boarding retreats, and emergency care for runaways." But the stated mission apparently concealed the camp’s real purpose.
Innsted said that Gerald Richards, a Catholic school gym teacher and aspiring politician who moonlighted as a magician, was tasked with luring children, including some of his own students, to the camp. Richards pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and he testified about his role in Michigan’s pedophile community at a congressional hearing on child abuse.
But before his arrest on July 23, 1976, police records say that the former gym teacher managed to call and warn his friend Shelden, who promptly disappeared.
Richards was sentenced up to 20 years in prison, on September 13, 1976, according to a Michigan State Police report.
Richards persuaded families to send their boys to Brother Paul’s with the promise of a summer spent hiking, swimming, and learning about nature with other kids. "What family wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?" Innsted said.
Brother Paul’s was a front. Richards told police that the organization had been set up to victimize children and dodge taxes, according to a 1977 hearing.
Shelden and Richards weren’t the only two men involved in the alleged conspiracy, either. Dyer Grossman, a wealthy science teacher who taught at the Harvey School, near Katonah, New York, and "Adam Starchild," the alias of convicted fraudster, offshore-accounts expert, and former Boy Scout assistant scoutmaster Malcolm McConahy, were also accused of helping Shelden set up a number of shell companies, including the phony Church of the New Revelation and the oceanic educational group Ocean Living Institute, according to a 1976 Michigan State Police report.
Bloomberg reported that Epstein’s past is littered with shell companies, through which he held assets such as his plane, his mansion, and his private island. And, on the matter of ocean conservancy, the millionaire’s close associate Ghislaine Maxwell operated an oceanic conservancy group called the TerraMar Project.
J. Reuben Appelman’s book "The Kill Jar" is the product of 10 years of investigation into the Oakland County child killings. His work also delves into the North Fox Island ring. Appelman said that Shelden served as a sort of "executive" of child pornography in the Detroit area in the ’60s and ’70s.
"There are very dark rooms in the homes of the uber-rich," Appelman told Business Insider. "There are dark corners in their minds. The Sheldens of the world are at home in those dark places. They don’t think the way we think. It’s true that money and power corrupt, but it’s also true that the already corrupt gain money and power with much more ease than people who have consciences."
According to Appelman, the North Fox Island operation functioned essentially as a subscription service centered on the production of child pornography and the sexual abuse of boys ages 7 to 16. In exchange for their contributions, the camp’s "sponsors" could receive pornography that police said was produced on the island, or even visit the island themselves, according to reports.
Business Insider reviewed a Michigan State Police file dated December 17, 1976, in which one underage victim accused Shelden of molesting him multiple times over the course of a weekend trip to the island. The victim said he fought off Shelden during an attempted rape.
According to Appelman, Brother Paul’s wasn’t Shelden’s only vehicle for gaining access to kids. The millionaire was said to bring young boys to the island in the wintertime and take children along for hunting trips, skiing jaunts in Aspen, and beach parties at the Sheldens’ Antigua estate.
The camp also proved to be a financial boon for Shelden, who had complained to the Detroit Free Press in 1975 that his ownership of North Fox Island ensured he’d always be "crucified" come tax season.
After his arrest, Richards alleged that the camp used its phony philanthropic mission to serve as a "tax dodge," the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported in 1977. Some 300 "sponsors" donated to Shelden’s charity, receiving child pornography in exchange for their tax-deductible contributions, Appelman writes in his book. Particularly wealthy or connected individuals could visit the islands to abuse the boys themselves.
The 1977 congressional hearings on the sexual exploitation of children extensively cite reporting from Marilyn Wright, a journalist with the Record-Eagle who covered the North Fox Island scheme. She reported that Shelden’s camp wasn’t unique.
The Michigan millionaire was also listed as a "sponsor" for the "Boys Farm" in Winchester, Tennessee, run by Claudius Vermilye, an Episcopalian priest also known as "Father Bud." It was broken up after police filed charges of molestation and pornography against Vermilye.
And, according to the Record-Eagle, Michigan police also uncovered a letter from Grossman outlining how individuals could set up "lucrative" organizations similar to Brother Paul’s in different states.
Epstein also made his mark as a philanthropist, donating to causes that boosted "innovation in science and education," according to the website for his namesake foundation. His contributions earned him access to Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.
While headlines about Epstein have dominated media coverage this year, the crimes against children reported to have taken place on North Fox Island didn’t much influence the national discourse. "Most Americans were in denial," Keenan told Business Insider. "Who would believe the abhorrent reality that children were being sexually abused for profit on such a mass scale?"
‘The Snow Murders’
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The legacy of the North Fox Island pornography ring has attracted more scrutiny in recent years, given its connection to the Oakland County child killings. These four murders are also collectively known as the Michigan "Snow Murders" and the work of the "Babysitter Killer."
Mark Stebbins was the first canonical victim. The 12-year-old, who aspired to be a Marine, disappeared after leaving a pool tournament at the American Legion Hall in Ferndale, Michigan, on February 15, 1976. His body was found in a parking lot four days later.
Jill Robinson, also 12, held a deep-rooted fear of being shot. She disappeared after leaving her home on the night of December 22, 1976, according to the Detroit Free Press. Her body was found December 26 near Interstate 75. Robinson had been shot in the face.
Kristine Mihelich was a 10-year-old Girl Scout who never returned from a trip to purchase a magazine at a 7-Eleven on January 2, 1977. She was kept alive for 19 days before being smothered and left in a snow bank near a rural road, the Detroit Free Press reported.
On March 22, 1977, 11-year-old Timothy King disappeared after borrowing change for candy from his older sister, who now runs a blog about the investigation into the Oakland County child killings. In a letter to her son’s abductors, King’s mother, Marian, pleaded for her son’s safe release, promising to buy him his "favorite Kentucky Fried Chicken" on his return home. An autopsy confirmed King had eaten chicken before his murder, according to a 1977 article from the Battle Creek Enquirer.
Books, news reports, and podcasts alike have made the connection between North Fox Island and the murders in Oakland, including Innsted’s "Don’t Talk to Strangers," Appelman’s "The Kill Jar," Local 4 WDIV Detroit’s "Shattered" podcast, and "Portraits in the Snow: The Oakland County Child Killings" by M.F. Cribari.
Innsted and Appelman agree that Shelden is an unlikely suspect in the last three murders, because he was reportedly already on the run and out of Michigan when they occurred. But one of the men said to be a North Fox Island "subscriber" didn’t have that kind of alibi.
Christopher Busch, a convicted sex offender, has become a looming figure in many theories about the killings. Like Shelden, Busch had connections. He was the youngest son of H. Lee Busch, whose obituary lists him as having worked as the executive financial director for General Motors for four decades, in Europe and the US.
In a March 12, 1977, article about the North Fox Island pornography ring, the Record-Eagle reported that Flint police had "confiscated eight rolls of film" from Busch. Keenan said that Busch’s name also appeared on a ledger of North Fox Island clients.
"There is little doubt that Busch and Shelden knew each other," Keenan told Business Insider. "There were no computers back then, and the pedophiles had to contact each other at parties and through their newsletters. Shelden taught at Wayne State for a time and Busch took classes there. They were both part of Big Brothers."
Busch and his friend Gregory Greene were questioned by police about the murders. Busch was released despite failing a polygraph, according to Investigation Discovery’s documentary "Children of the Snow." His suspicious death, in November 1978, was ruled a suicide. Police said they did not regard him as a suspect by 2010.
But it’s been speculated that, given how long the victims were held captive, more than one perpetrator was involved in the abductions and killings. And reports about Shelden’s operation certainly signal the presence of a highly organized network of pedophiles in Michigan at the time.
Flight from justice
Robert VAN DER HILST/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The North Fox Island ring crumbled in 1976, after Richards was arrested on molestation charges on July 23, 1976. Police began circling shortly after that, pushing the former gym teacher to turn on Shelden. One police report written after the initial arrest said that Richards "obviously idolizes" the millionaire. Within days, however, Richards turned on Shelden, whom he said he met through "Better Life Monthly," a pedophiliac porn magazine.
A police report from July 29, 1976, said that Richards confessed to agreeing to destroy the collection of child pornography in Shelden’s office to save his "parents and relatives any embarrassment."
Business Insider reviewed an arrest warrant for Shelden from December 20, 1976. Police also issued a search warrant for Shelden’s Ann Arbor house. The millionaire was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Shelden is believed to have fled Michigan in his private Piper PA-34 Seneca, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. A Michigan State Police file from December 7, 1976, said that the millionaire’s plane was missing from its Ann Arbor hanger and that the fugitive used to fly himself to places like the Caribbean as well as to "his winter home in Aspen." Grossman also eluded authorities.
Epstein’s private plane — a Boeing 727 jet nicknamed the "Lolita Express" — also held great significance in relation to the sex-trafficking charges filed against the financier. The aircraft may have been used to transport underage girls he is accused of abusing. The revelation that authorities discovered a phony Saudi Arabian passport among Epstein’s possessions also prompted speculation that the financier would attempt to go on the lam.
Epstein’s suicide has stirred up anger and calls to action on the part of his accusers, sparked a scramble for his $577 million estate that will likely stretch on for years, and inspired a tangle of conspiracy theories about his life and death.
In Shelden’s case, the millionaire’s fugitive status wasn’t enough to bar him from his assets. Before fleeing the country, Shelden set up a $2 million revocable trust in the Virgin Islands on September 18, 1976. He retained access to the money through Starchild, before they had a financial falling out.
Shelden himself was never extradited and is believed to have died in Amsterdam on September 5, 1996, according to a Michigan State Police report from 1997. The report notes that the warrant for Shelden was canceled as the "suspect is deceased and cannot be prosecuted but was obviously involved."
"The Frank Sheldens of the world are predictable," Appelman said. "What’s surprising is that we don’t acknowledge that. We act surprised, but it’s predictable when you have so much money and so much access. So much power over individuals."
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