Gayle Barrus killer finally identified 33 years after suspect killed by officer in 1988

April 02, 2022

Gayle Barrus was last sighted October 9, 1988. The 30-year-old, mother-of-three was last seen leaving Speeds Coffee Shop on 1425 West Michigan Avenue, Battle Creek, Michigan between 3am and 4am in the company of a man with dark hair. Witnesses say Barrus was arguing with the man while another male was standing near the scene. Gayle Barrus was born in San Antonio, Texas but grew up in Battle Creek after moving there as a child. Despite her training as a nursing assistant, Barrus had been working two jobs at local bars in the area, namely the Redwood inn, Augusta, and The Keg in Battle Creek. Worryingly, after October 9, she neglected to turn up to either of her jobs. It was completely out of character for her not to show up to work and totally out of the question that she would fail to contact her family, especially her children whom she worked hard to support.

Just over two weeks later, on October 25, Gayle’s partially decomposed body was discovered by hunters on River Road in Emmett Township, around five miles from the coffee shop where she was last seen. Autopsy would reveal that she had been raped and stabbed to death. She left behind three children, aged 10, 12 and 13.

Roger Plato, who was 24 years old at the time, quickly became a person of interest in the case. When detectives attempted to question him in the parking lot of a grocery store in Bellevue regarding a previous sexual assault, he reportedly became aggressive and a scuffle with the police ensued. The altercation ended in the death of the suspect when Plato was shot dead by Detective Al Tolf. Tolf shot Plato in the back of the head as he fled the scene. The suspect got around 20ft away before he was fatally shot.

An Obituary for a Mr. Roger A Plato published October 25, 1988 in the Battle Creek Enquirer, describes Plato as a 24-year-old, self-employed roofing contractor born in December 1963, who had recently moved to the area after spending the previous 15 years in Houston. The bulletin details that Plato was engaged to be married to a woman named Vonda Dice and was survived by his parents, grandmother and four brothers.

Plato had been released from prison on July 5 that same year for theft. Upon release he was said to show remorse for the crime and told his family that he wanted to turn his life around. Plato's fiancé, Vonda Dice, told the Battle Creek Enquirer in 1988 that she didn't believe Plato raped Gayle Barrus- “I don’t believe he raped that woman. He had respect for women. To him, rape was totally disgusting, I think the police totally got the wrong person” she said.

Plato’s family maintained his innocence, despite evidence of a connection to another rape and robbery found in Plato’s bedroom. A damning clue linking Plato to another sexual assault was discovered in the middle of his bedroom floor- a bank slip from an ATM machine with account numbers matching that of the victim. His family desperately argued that he was not responsible for the crime, however, they could not come up with a plausible alternative explanation as to why such evidence would be in Plato’s possession.

With their primary suspect dead and cremated, investigators turned to Plato’s friends, specifically a man named Richard Compton. Compton remained tight-lipped when questioned about the murder of Gayle Barrus, offering no information, and refusing to comply with police.

Although police were unable to name Barrus’ killer, the case was reluctantly closed and remained unsolved for decades, until it was reopened for investigation again in 2018.

Richard Compton had since died of cirrhosis of the liver and related complications. He was homeless at the time of his death and his body was buried in a cemetery in Texas. The body was exhumed to take samples with the hope that modern DNA analysis could shed some light on the case and bring closure to the victim’s family. Test samples from Richard Compton matched hairs that had been found on Gayle Barrus’ body. This new connection showed that Compton may have been present at the time of the sexual assault, but police were still not able to definitively answer which of the two men were responsible for Barrus’ rape and murder.

A stroke of luck and coincidence turned up an invaluable sample when an officer doing a routine evidence audit at the Calhoun County sheriffs office discovered an old glass veil of blood belonging to Roger Plato. The sample had been taken in relation to a prior sexual assault and remained in evidence for over three decades. The blood sample was tested against DNA found on the victim and proved to be a match. Investigators could now definitively identify Plato as the perpetrator.  

One of Gayle Barrus' children, her son, James, was just 13 years old when his mother was murdered. For years he had been investigating and  fighting to find out the identity of his mother's killer and finally, in 2021, 33 years after her death, he knows. James Barrus admitted in a Facebook post about the update that he had not been the easiest person to deal with over the years when it came to investigators working the case, but he extended his gratitude to Sgt. Marshall of the Michigan State Police who was finally able to confirm that Plato was responsible for his mother’s death.

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