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A black-caped woman with a lantern guides more than two dozen people through downtown Detroit as night falls, spinning ghoulish, grisly tales from the gritty city’s history.
The visitors, including a woman from Denver and a couple from Bay City, some 90 miles north, take the theatrical attire and tales of murder, mayhem and mystery in stride on a recent evening.
While none of the participants seemed perturbed, some Detroit residents say the tour is in poor taste. It’s been criticized as an attempt to capitalize on the crime that still plagues the Motor City, also derisively dubbed “Murder City.” Locals also say that the last thing they want is more bad publicity for a city that recently became the nation’s largest to file for bankruptcy and already draws tourists who gawk at its widespread blight.
The “Notorious 313 True Crime & Ghost Tour” routinely sells out, drawing hordes that hoof it through the city’s slowly rebounding business district. With the excursion, Detroit joins a crime-tour club: London is “on the trail” of Jack the Ripper, New Orleans shows off its haunts, and Milwaukee has Jeffrey Dahmer tours — though the last has been protested by parents of murder victims who say operators profit from a serial killer’s murderous acts.
“Not to be weird or anything, but crime makes history, and people care about history,” says Nick Avila, who came from Bay City with Susan Stankiewicz to take the tour.
Tour operator and guide Karin Risko, who plans to hold the final walk of the season Wednesday, aims to minimize exploitation of the macabre by avoiding stories ripped from recent headlines. Her tales range from the 1700s to the mid-1990s.
The first stop is down the street on what Risko calls a “creepy corner.” Enthusiasts claim there’s a high level of paranormal activity, including ghost sightings.
The spot was once home to the Wayne County Morgue, where there were allegations of unauthorized medical experiments on corpses, organ harvesting and body dismemberment in the 1970s. A murder occurred in 1994 across the street at a hotel, where authorities say Lowell Amos poisoned his wife, Roberta, with cocaine. And a fire in 1886 at the D.M. Ferry & Co. seed warehouse claimed the life of a firefighter, who fell 90 feet off a ladder.
“A lot of people have seen an apparition of a fireman,” Risko says. “He looks human-like until he goes to turn around and there’s not a face.”
The $25 tour includes the site of an 1895 explosion and fire that destroyed the former Detroit Journal building and killed dozens of people. The group also stops at the Buhl Building, where in 1982 Eve August was fatally shot in a law office where she worked as an intern. An insurance salesman named Robert Harrington killed her and injured dozens of others with gunfire or the fire he set with gasoline.
Jamie Grossman, who lives in suburban Royal Oak, loves what he’s learning. An unabashed Detroit fan, he says “every town and every city has their ups and downs” — and ghost stories help bring history to life.
Still, Risko’s crime tour isn’t for everybody. She’s been criticized in local media and on social networking sites for cashing in on Detroit’s reputation. One critic is Julie Johnston, a Dearborn resident who went to school in Detroit and often visits the city.
“When are we going to get to the point where we (stop being) the butt of the joke and we’re not a target?” says Johnston, who hasn’t taken the tour but says she had a visceral reaction when she learned about it. “I think it’s capitalizing on other people’s demise.”
Tourist Catherine Wylie, a Denver resident visiting her mother in Michigan, sees it differently.
“If people are doing a tour down here, then it’s obviously not so dangerous,” she says.
Risko says the city’s persistent violent crime problems have been good for her business, but she says that she takes the critics’ concerns seriously.
“Communities and cities much smaller than Detroit all over the country do some sort of a ghost or true-crime tour,” she says. “Detroit has a wonderful history, just like everyone else. For the longest time, we haven’t been telling it.”
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