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Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski Trials: 1943 - Father Blames Mother As Surprise Witness

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The following Monday, Michalski's trial started. The state argued that she knew Lotka was going to kill the baby when she left for Portland. It also had a written statement signed by Michalski that she had tried, at Lotka's insistence, to smother the child a month before the actual murder, but became frightened and stopped when William turned blue. The alleged confession, which also contained such incriminating statements as, "I'm as much to blame as he is" and "I've gotten him into an awful mess," was submitted into evidence.

Michalski claimed that she was bullied to sign the statement and denied that she knew Lotka planned to kill William and that she ever tried to murder her son. Michalski further stated that, on the night of April 1, she and Lotka had a terrible fight during which he refused to let her take the child back to Cleveland. "If you leave with the baby, Tillie, I'll do something desperate." Furthermore, Lotka told her that he'd "rather see all three of us dead" than let the young mother take their son to her parents.

On the third day of Michalski's trial, a bombshell was dropped in court. Lotka, who said nothing at his own trial, was called by the prosecution as a rebuttal witness. The state did not expect him to talk, but Lotka now claimed that Michalski killed William and that he signed his confessions "to avert suspicion from her." As he said:

I knew I had a good military and civilian record and thought perhaps I might receive leniency. All I wanted was for Tillie to get away from here, to go home to Cleveland.

When asked why he decided to speak up, Lotka claimed that Michalski's testimony had "blackened my character" and that he owed the truth to the men at Camp White who believed in his innocence.

In his closing argument, Michalski's lawyer, Otto Frohnmayer, told the jury:

… you jurors may well criticize Tillie for abandoning her child in that cabin the night of April 1st, even though she might have had an inkling Lotka planned to smother it to death. But, that does not make her an accessory before the fact in this charge. That does not show she aided, abetted, or influenced the act.

Frohnmayer also attacked the state's theories of who actually committed the murder. (At first, the prosecution argued that Lotka committed the murder, but after his surprise testimony, the state maintained that Michalski did the deed and that the convicted killer was a credible witness.)

The jury considered the evidence for over seven and a half hours. Late Friday night, on May 28, it found Michalski "not guilty." Two days later, after a brief rest at a local hotel, Michalski left Oregon in the company of her mother and sister for her parents' home in Cleveland. And on June 4, Lotka was transported to his new residence at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Medford Mail Tribune April 2-June 6, 1943.

Working, Russell. "Alcatraz: Camp White and Jackson County in the 1940s." In Land in Common: AnIllustrated History of Jackson County, Oregon. Edited by Joy B. Dunn. Medford, Ore.: Mail Tribune, Rogue Federal Credit Union, and the Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1993.

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