Troy axe murders

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Troy axe murders
Detroit Free Press Fri Nov 20 1964 .jpg
Photograph of murderer William Gravlin
Location2121 Garson in Troy, Michigan
Date28 September 1964; 57 years ago (1964-09-28)
Attack type
Mass murder
WeaponDouble-edged axe, hammer, shotgun
PerpetratorWilliam Gravlin

The Troy axe murders were a familicide of seven individuals in Troy, Michigan, in September 1964.

William G. Gravlin (June 4, 1934–March 1, 1994), a Royal Oak fireman, was convicted of slashing his cousin's wife in 1961 and was committed to the Pontiac State Hospital. After his release, Gravlin's wife asked for a divorce. Several days later, Gravlin killed his wife, their five-year-old daughter, and his five stepchildren. Gravlin killed six of the victims using a double-edged axe; he killed his daughter with a shotgun. He left handwritten apology notes on each of the bodies.

Gravlin confessed to the killings but was initially found incompetent to stand trial and spent three years at the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1968, after being found competent, Gravlin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.


Gravlin and Bette[edit]

William Glen Gravlin was married to Bette Bentley. Gravlin became a fireman in Royal Oak, Michigan, in June 1959. Bette had been married previously and had five children with her first husband. Gravlin and Bette had a daughter, Bette Sue, born in approximately 1959.[1]

1961 knife attack[edit]

In August 1961, Gravlin slashed his cousin's wife with a knife on a Monday afternoon. Gravlin used a knife to force the woman and her four-year-old daughter out of their house at 1058 Henrietta, Troy, Michigan. The woman screamed, and Gravlin then slashed her behind her left ear, a wound that required five stitches.[2]

Gravlin was arrested the following day walking without shoes along Rochester Road, near 17 Mile Road, in Troy. Gravlin said he had been drinking and did not recall slashing the woman. He said that he purchased the knife on the morning of the attack.[2]

The court in that case sentenced Gravlin to three years of probation and committed him to the Pontiac State Hospital for treatment.[3]

Gravlin's release[edit]

Gravlin was initially released from Pontiac State Hospital on "convalescent leave" in April 1962. Having lost his firefighter job, he went to work on an assembly line operated by Temprite Products Corp. in Birmingham, Michigan.[1] Gravlin was described by the company as "a good, steady worker."[4] After an incident in which Gravlin was drunk, his wife had him brought back to the mental hospital in February 1963. He was released again on convalescent leave in July 1963, and he was officially released in July 1964.[1]

A neighbor recalled that Gravlin drank a lot, that he would "go wild" when he was drunk, and that his wife was "scared to death" of him.[4] A week before the murders, Gravlin's wife asked for a divorce. Gravlin moved out of the house and moved in with his mother in Clawson, Michigan.[4]

The murders[edit]

On Sunday night, September 27, 1964, Gravlin, age 30 at the time, took a taxi from Clawson to a location approximately 250 yards from his family's home at 2121 Garson in Troy, Michigan. The taxi driver dropped off Gravlin at 11 p.m.[3]

In the early morning hours of Monday, September 28, 1964, Gravlin used a large, double-bladed axe and a hammer to murder his wife and five stepchildren. His daughter Bette Sue was also killed; unlike the other victims, she was killed by a shotgun blast. A pathologist placed the time of death at approximately 2 a.m.[5] The axe was found under the house with human blood and hair on the blade.[6] The blood-stained hammer was found in a bathroom.[4]

The seven victims were:[4]

  1. Bette Gravlin, age 40 – Gravlin's wife
  2. Bette Sue Gravlin, age 5 – Gravlin's daughter
  3. Ben Bentley, age 17 – Gravlin's stepson
  4. Judith Ann Bentley, age 16 – Gravlin's stepdaughter
  5. Dorrie Bentley, age 15 – Gravlin's stepdaughter
  6. Paul Bentley, age 12 – Gravlin's stepson
  7. Walter Bentley, age 10 – Gravlin's stepson

Each of the bodies was covered with a blanket.[4] Three of the victims (Judith Ann, Dorrie and Walter) were found in the living room. The bodies of his wife and two of his step-children (Ben and Paul) were found in bedrooms.[4] His daughter Bette Sue was found in the bathroom with a Bible; the bathtub was half full of water "stained deep red with blood."[7]

Gravlin left notes of apology, written on torn scraps of paper towel, on each of the bodies. To his five-year old daughter, Gravlin wrote, "Susie, I love you with all my heart."[3] The note to his wife was partly illegible, but read in part, "Bette, I loved you and Susie most of all and I can't change it. But if I could, you know the answer. Please forgive me and let me just be you..."[3] According to an Associated Press account, the notes read, "I love you, I'm sorry, it couldn't be helped."[8]

Immediate aftermath and arrest[edit]

After the murders, Gravlin walked to a gas station located half a mile from the home at the corner of 15 Mile Road and John R. An attendant at the station, Robert Herston, testified that Gravlin arrived at the gas station at 6:30 a.m., used a telephone, and drank between four and six bottles of Coca Cola.[3]

At approximately 8 a.m., Gravlin then took a taxi back to Clawson.[3] He tried to kill himself, initially by taking sleeping pills and whiskey. When that failed, he purchased tile and bathroom cleaner with the intention of drinking it but, unable to do so, poured the corrosive liquid on himself, causing chemical burns to his chest. Later in the day, a motorist, Earl Stone of Hazel Park, saw Gravlin walking down the street and stopped to see if he needed help. Gravlin told the man he had killed his family and asked the man to call the police. Madison Heights police officer, Ronald F. Pearce, responded, saw Gravlin walking down a dirt road and asked Gravlin what happened. Gravlin told Pearce he had killed his family and asked to go to the police station.[3]

When police then responded to the home, the bloody crime scene and odors were shocking. Troy Police Chief Forrest O. Fisher testified he had never seen such a crime scene.[3] Dr. Richard E. Olson, the chief pathologist who examined the bodies at the scene, said, "It exceeded anything I have ever seen except in warfare."[5]

Legal proceedings[edit]

Pretrial developments[edit]

At his immediate arraignment on September 28, at the Troy Municipal Court, Gravlin pleaded guilty. Notwithstanding Gravlin's desire to plead guilty, the judge, Charles H. Losey, entered a plea of not guilty.[4]

At a competency hearing held in October 1964, the Court heard testimony from Dr. Abraham Tauber who had first examined Gravlin in 1961. Tauber testified that Gravlin suffered from schizophrenia and was not fully able to assist in his defense. According to Tauber, Gravlin talked about his deceased family members "in the present tense" and had previously attempted suicide by drinking a solvent. A second psychiatrist, Dr. George S. Evseeff, testified that, despite suffering from what appeared to be a psychotic character disorder, Gravlin was able to assist his attorney.[9] Oakland Circuit Judge James Thorburn ruled on October 29 that Gravlin was competent to stand trial.[10] However, at the request of Gravlin's attorney, he was transferred to Washtenaw County Jail to be examined further by two University of Michigan psychiatrists.[11]

On November 19, 1964, the Gravlin home was badly damaged in an arson fire. Oil was poured on the living room floor, and the fire damaged both the living room and one of the bedrooms.[12]

In early January 1965, Gravlin again attempted suicide by rubbing his wrists across a broken window. Gravlin admitted to the suicide attempt which he attributed to harassment by other inmates.[13]

On January 14, 1965, after reviewing the report of a second psychiatric commission finding Gravlin was not competent to stand trial, Judge Thornburn ordered Gravlin committed to the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.[14]

In November 1967, A. A. Birzagalis, the medical superintendent at Ionia State Hospital reported to the court that Gravlin was then capable of understanding the charges.[15] After hearing testimony from psychiatrists, Judge Thorburn ruled in December 1967 that Gravlin was competent to stand trial.[16]


In January 1968, Gravlin's attorneys waived his right to jury trial and the matter was set for a bench trial before Judge Thorburn.[17] The trial occurred at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan, and lasted more than three weeks. The trial was limited to the death of Gravlin's 16-year-old stepdaughter Judith Ann Bentley.[18] Dr. William Gordon, a Detroit psychiatrist, offered his opinion that Gravlin knew the difference between right and wrong, wanted to kill, and did what he wanted.[19] Judge Thornburn ruled that, while the slayings were "a product of defendant's mental disease," he was legally sane and knew the difference between right and wrong at the time.[18]

Gravlin was sentenced by Judge Thornburn in April 1968 to mandatory life in prison.[20]


Gravlin appealed on the ground that the sentencing judge should have given him credit for the time spent in custody. In March 1974, the Michigan Court of Appeal ruled that a mental hospital is a place of confinement and that Gravlin was entitled to credit against his sentence for the three years spent in the mental hospital.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Troy Ax Slayer Had Just Left Mental Hospital". Detroit Free Press. October 1, 1964. p. 3 – via
  2. ^ a b "Troy Woman Slashed; Police Arrest Fireman" (PDF). The Birmingham Eccentric. August 31, 1961. p. 3A.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Dave Philpo (November 12, 1964). "Gravlin Bound Over to Court" (PDF). The Birmingham Eccentric. p. 1.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Dad Slays 7, Writes 'I'm Sorry'". Detroit Free Press. September 30, 1964. pp. 1, 3 – via
  5. ^ a b Dave Philp (October 22, 1964). "Gravlin Unmoved as Story Unfolds" (PDF). The Birmingham Eccentric. p. 1A.
  6. ^ Dave Philp (October 22, 1964). "Gravlin Unmoved as Story Unfolds" (PDF). The Birmingham Eccentric. p. 5A.
  7. ^ "Slays 7". Petoskey News-Review. September 30, 1964. p. 16 – via
  8. ^ "Mom, 6 Kids Found Slain! Cops Find Love Notes on Bodies". The Herald-Press. Associated Press. September 29, 1964. p. 1 – via
  9. ^ Dave Philpo (November 5, 1964). "Gravlin Ruled Sane, Faces More Tests" (PDF). The Birmingham Eccentric. pp. 1A, 4A.
  10. ^ "Alleged Slayer of Seven Adjudged Sane, Faces Trial". Port Huron Times Herald. October 30, 1964. p. 3 – via
  11. ^ "Gravlin Tests Set on Sanity". Detroit Free Press. November 2, 1964. p. 12 – via
  12. ^ "Fire Hits Home of Ax Slayer: Arson Blamed". Detroit Free Press. November 20, 1964. p. 2A – via
  13. ^ Phil Corner (January 7, 1965). "Suspect in 7 Killings Faces 2nd Sanity Test: Tried Suicide, Gravlin Says". Detroit Free Press. p. 3.
  14. ^ "Order Gravlin to Ionia State Mental Hospital: Family Killer Excused From Standing Trial". The Ludington Daily News. Associated Press. January 15, 1965. p. 1 – via
  15. ^ "Suspected Slayer to Face Trial". The Herald-Palladium. November 8, 1967. p. 39 – via
  16. ^ "Ax Slayer of Eight Is Sane". Port Huron Times Herald. December 30, 1967. p. 5 – via
  17. ^ "Ax Murder Trial Set for Feb. 13". Escanaba Daily Press. January 18, 1968. p. 4 – via
  18. ^ a b "Judge Says Slayer of Seven Did Know He Was Wrong". The Herald-Palladium. Associated Press. March 22, 1968. p. 18 – via
  19. ^ "Believes Man Is Ready to Stand Trial". The Herald-Palladium. Associated Press. March 15, 1968. p. 7 – via
  20. ^ "Slayer of 7 Given Life". The Battle Creek Enquirer. Associated Press. April 14, 1968. p. III-7 – via
  21. ^ People v. Gravlin. Michigan Court of Appeals. March 29, 1974.