‘A burden lifted off this whole community:’ Break in Battaglia case brings far-reaching closure

Posted at 9:25 PM, Dec 19, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-19 23:52:31-05

BELDING, Mich. -- 24 years later, one of the biggest questions in one of West Michigan's most prominent unsolved cold cases is now answered, as police revealed Friday who they believe killed Joel Battaglia.

Aurelius Marshall, 56, was arraigned in Grand Rapids District Court Friday for felony murder and open murder in the death of Battaglia, who was beaten and to left to die on an Eastown Grand Rapids sidewalk in the early morning hours of June 11, 1990.

At a press conference held Friday morning by Grand Rapids Police and Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth, both of Battaglia's parents, Jerry and Gail, were also in attendance. With more than two decades passing since the murder, they spoke with reporters afterward about their relief in knowing their son's alleged killer had been caught.

"We know that they did everything they could and we are just so deeply grateful for the outcome, that finally after all this time there’s some resolution," they told reporters.

But beyond Joel's immediate family, with police now declaring  this case solved, the impact of Friday's announcement is something putting an entire community at peace.

“I said, it’s finally solved... it was just, I had tears in my eyes, it was just surreal,” said Debora Howard, who grew up with Battaglia in the Belding-Grattan area and went to school with him.

"I actually believed they were never going to find the people who did it.”

Howard said Battaglia was her first boyfriend back in the seventh grade when the two attended middle school together in Belding. They remained friends until graduation when Howard moved out of state at the age of 18.

“He just had a personality that just warmed your heart, he was always smiling, always fun, just made you always feel good," she said.

Browsing through her Facebook feed Thursday night is when Howard said she first learned of the break in the case. The news of arrests bringing back painful memories of how she felt upon first learning of Battaglia's brutal murder more than two decades ago.

"I had to keep reading that article over and over again, and I was thinking 'am I reading this wrong, did they really catch the people?'” Howard said.

“To think about him being beaten by somebody, going in such a cruel manner, it’s horrifying.”

Howard said the arrests in the case bring a level of comfort to the community that's been missing since Joel's death.

"It’s like a burden lifted off this whole community because they finally found out who did this," she said.

“That hole, that emptiness is finally filled, that’s one story we can finally close the book to.”

The timing of all of this perhaps coincidental, with a break finally coming after the case received renewed interest and attention this past summer following the release of local filmmaker David Schock's documentary 'Death of a Phoenix: The Eastown Murder of Joel Battaglia.'

“What could be worse than to have an innocent victim," said Schock, who was in attendance at Friday's press conference.

“The slaughter of innocents, there’s nothing more against the grain of fairness and decency than that."

Schock, who runs the website, said he set out to make the film nearly one year ago after reaching out to Battaglia's parents.

“Profound gratitude, joy, that’s what was on my heart and realizing how much this meant to the Battaglia's," he said.

"They have been true in their belief that this case would be solved and it would be solved by the Grand Rapids police and they and they were absolutely vindicated in that belief.”

Police said Friday it appears robbery was at least part of the motive behind the 1990 beating death. While investigators are still choosing to keep most of the specifics of the investigation close to the belt, they did reveal Friday that Marhsall had been a person of interesting in case since nearly the very beginning.

Marhsall is due back in court for a preliminary exam on Jan. 2.