Recalling the tragic shooting of Paul Butterfield.

September 9, 2014
1st Lt. Jeffrey White of Michigan State Police Hart Post speaks during a brief ceremony at Pere Marquette Fire Dept. commemorating Trooper Butterfield.

1st Lt. Jeffrey White of Michigan State Police Hart Post speaks during a brief ceremony at Pere Marquette Fire Dept. commemorating Trooper Butterfield.

Shooting of MSP trooper occurred one year ago today.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief. 

Editor’s note: This story is a first person account of the tragic death of Michigan State Police Trooper Paul Butterfield and the events that followed. Many aspects of this story contain my personal opinion and observations. 

One year ago today Michigan State Police Trooper Paul Butterfield was murdered on the side of a northern Mason County road. I have spent the last 24 hours contemplating how I was going to write this story. A general rule in journalism is to write your article with the assumption that the reader is not familiar with the subject at hand.

However, each time I write about this tragic event, I find it more and more difficult to recap the events of that horrible day and the days and months to follow. It’s also a general rule in journalism for the reporter to be an objective bystander who does not get involved in the story. I’m most likely breaking both those rules, among others in this article.

Monday, September 9, 2013. It was a day pretty much like today. Sunny skies. Temperatures in the mid-70s. The hustle and bustle of summer had ended with Labor Day weekend just over a week previous and life in Mason County was settling into its early fall rituals. The kids had just been back to school for a few days. The Scottville Harvest Festival, early that year, was just a week away.

I was at the Ludington City Council’s regular monthly meeting which started at 6:30 p.m. I can’t tell you anything that would have been significant about the agenda that night. My only memories of that meeting were when Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett got up halfway through the public comment section of the meeting, probably about 6:35. I made a mental note that it was unusual for Chief Barnett to get up and leave during a meeting. A few minutes later he returned — I didn’t really think much about it.

Then, just another minute later, I received a Facebook message from a reader who lives on North Custer Road in Free Soil Township. She asked me if I had heard about the cop who had been shot in her neighborhood.

I remember just kind of staring at that message for about 30 seconds. I didn’t really know how to respond. I get messages a lot from people who have heard something from somebody who heard something. I typically monitor the fire/EMS emergency channels, but my monitor was shut down during the meeting.

She said she was in Ludington but knew it happened out in her neighborhood.

Trooper Paul Butterfield

Trooper Paul Butterfield

Once the initial disbelief was over, I packed up my gear and started to head out the door. At that moment, Chief Barnett got up again and walked out. We met at the door to the council chambers. Ludington Fire Chief Jerry Funk always sits in the back of the room. He got up and walked us out the door. “What’s going on?” he asked. “There’s been a police shooting. That’s all I know,” I said, making eye contact with Chief Barnett, who nodded in agreement. I headed for my car. I sat down and wrote a post for the MCP social networking sites stating that a police officer had been shot. No other details at this time.

My journalism career began over 25 years ago. I also spent 15 years as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. While time never changes, the perception of time seems to change depending on the circumstances. The drive from the corner of Harrison and Foster streets to the corner of Custer and Beyer roads seemed to take an hour. Yet I cannot tell you anything about that drive.

I was the first reporter to arrive at the staging area. The shooting had occurred a mile up the road just north of Townline Road, just inside of Free Soil Township. Fountain Fire Dept., which responded as medical first responders, had the road blocked.

I take pride in the fact that we are the most technologically advanced medium in the area and that I am able to operate and update Mason County Press and its affiliate sites from anywhere at anytime. On this night, the investment of technology paid off. I was able to immediately access the Internet with my mobile hot spot and iPad and I started posting what I knew. I posted some pictures of the firefighters blocking the road and of the constant stream of police cars. Cars from Mason County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police, Ludington Police Department, Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources.

I soon found out that the victim was a state police trooper. A fact that I had erroneously reported previously as a sheriff’s deputy (based on information that I had received earlier from a source).

I can’t say for sure, but it was at least 20 minutes before any other media representative arrived. Like the police, the media kept arriving.

I learned a hard lesson in website maintenance that night. About an hour into posting, crashed. It had been hit by so many viewers that the server couldn’t handle it. I was on the phone with my server company in California. They were very helpful but the site was definitely getting hit. I resorted to keeping the public informed via Facebook and Twitter (the next day I immediately made arrangements to switch to a more exclusive server with much more space).

In the two to three hour period that it took for the Grand Rapids TV stations and to travel up to Mason County, their reporters were using MCP as their reference. I was later told by a veteran reporter that he had never seen social media used to cover breaking news to the extent we utilized it. It wasn’t all about me, though. It was about our readers engaging in the conversation. Many people expressed disbelief. Many anger and hate. Others expressed fear of a killer on the loose. Some even offered help in locating the murderer, asking for better descriptions of the vehicles.

This is no reflection off of local command, because the incident was primarily out of their hands, but I feel the MSP fell short in communicating those concerns to the public. It failed to provide timely information to the local media, and therefore to the public, that at the minimum relieved concerns and fears.

That failure would continue into the next day when the MSP held its official press conference in Rockford, over 100 miles away from the scene of the crime, an effort to cater to the Grand Rapids media rather than the local media. Most people in Mason, Lake and Manistee counties have limited or no access to Grand Rapids TV stations.

Hours went by. At some point I decided to go home and grab something to eat. I remember coming home, kissing my wife and our then-3-month-old daughter. I then headed back out. I needed to be a more aggressive reporter and find out more of the story. We were the first to cover the story and needed to stay on top of it.

I was eventually given access closer to the crime scene, at the corner of Custer and Townline roads. There, I found out about the heroic efforts of Fountain Fire Department medical first responders, such as Chief Roger Berndt, Lt. Shirley Chancellor and Lt. Barry Ruger (my apologies to anyone else who was there).

The state police released the name, 42-year-old Paul Butterfield. I know the majority of the local police officers in our county, but I had never formally met Paul.

I heard the story about how Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole sat in the back of the ambulance, holding his friend’s hand, while he struggled for his life, unable to respond.

I also heard how the suspects were captured during a shootout at the Dublin General Store in southwestern Manistee County.

We would soon learn the name of the shooter, Eric John Knysz, a 19-year-old kid from Irons who had spent much of his teen years in and out of trouble. We also would learn that Eric’s passenger was his 6-month pregnant wife, Sarah. Rumors immediately started spreading about how Eric had shot Trooper Butterfield over the fact that he didn’t want to go back to jail because he was on a suspended license and that his license would be changed to restricted the next day. Those rumors were actually true.

Later, information was released that Eric had come back from selling guns to a guy in Hamlin Township. He had made contact with the guy on social media and the guns were stolen from his dad’s house.

Paul Butterfield was a veteran of the U.S. Army. He and his fiancé, Jennifer Sielski, were planning their wedding. They lived in Grant Township, just a few miles from Paul’s former partner, recently retired state police trooper Dale Goodrich.

Dale is family. As a journalist you have to tell the story and I knew Dale was the person to talk to. I also knew that he and his wife, Suzie, had been on an Alaskan cruise. I called him the next morning, 9 a.m. He and Suzie were in Washington on their return from vacation. It was 6 a.m. there, but he had been up.

Dale and Paul served together as the state police Hart post contingency to Mason County, working out of the Pere Marquette Township fire station. They were beyond work partners, they were close friends. Dale told me about the quality of a person Paul was. He handled the interview with his 20-plus years of experience of dealing with tragedy. Dale knew that the public needed to know Paul’s story and that the people responsible for his death needed to be punished.

The role of the journalist is to tell a story in an objective fashion. I feel strongly about this. It is my code. I take pride in the fact that I am complimented frequently by readers who feel we tell a story fairly. I also believe strongly in the fact that we live in the world’s greatest democracy and that we have the best justice system in the world. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best. And, as a believer in this country and its system, I believe that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

As the next several months unfolded, I vowed to cover the story. Remaining objective in this case was difficult. I think there were few people who did not believe Eric Knysz was the murderer. Sitting through the 9 day trial against him, I believe Eric himself would not have denied his guilt had he been directly asked. Why he allowed the trial to go on, instead of accepting the prosecutor’s plea of guilty as charged, is beyond my capability of understanding. We are all guaranteed a right to our day in court and to a fair and speedy trial. But, reasonable doubt was something the defense was clearly unable to prove in this case.

Backing up, I do have to say that I was rarely ever so proud of our community than on the day of Trooper Butterfield’s funeral. My day began at the Mason County Sheriff’s Office where a good majority of the office personnel and spouses gathered to be part of a motorcade that would travel from Amber Township up to Manistee High School.

Sheriff Cole rallied his troops. The short, impromptu ceremony at the sheriff’s office started with prayer from Pastor Henrik Lidman, department chaplain. Cole then, in his charismatic way, talked about how proud he was of his fellow deputies and officers. At the Home Depot parking lot, dozens of other emergency vehicles met up with the local group. I drove ahead of them, spending the next 20-some miles in a mixture of tears and smiles as I witnessed people standing along U.S. 10 and U.S. 31 waving flags in honor of Paul Butterfield and all who serve our community.

I stopped at the Sable River hill just north of Free Soil to photograph the motorcade. Again, it was moving. Can’t really describe it any other way. I then followed the motorcade to Manistee High School. I spent some time photographing the events leading up to the funeral but actually didn’t go into the funeral itself. I had reached a point of needing to emotionally separate myself.

Here we one year later. It is just absolutely amazing how one stupid, knee-jerk reaction from an angry young man can impact so many so quickly. Our community still mourns. A dedicated state trooper and all-around good man is dead. The murderer is dead, killing himself in a cowardly act less than a week in prison. Trooper Butterfied’s fiancé lives every day of her life knowing her knight in shining armor will never return. Sarah Knysz, sits in prison, her child being raised by a family member (another tragedy, for the child should have been given up for adoption, allowed to have a life free of the legacy of his father and his paternal grandfather who also was sentenced to prison for murder when Sarah was an infant).

Tammi Spofford, mother of Eric Knysz, also sits in prison for her role of helping her son.

And, our community still mourns.

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