Man who raped his 2 stepdaughters on prison visits was accidentally released twice, then murdered by another victim’s brother

News & Politics

A horrendous story of child rape was closed after a decades-long mystery when police concluded that a convicted child rapist had been murdered by the brother of one his victims.

Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Winstrom outlined the details of the murder of Tommie Lee Hill, who died after escaping police twice, at a media briefing on Monday at the Grand Rapids police headquarters.

‘If it wasn’t 12-year-old Erma being a brave, amazing 12-year-old, there’s an excellent chance we could be talking double or triple the number of victims.’

Hill raped numerous children in the 1960s, according to U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force Officer Joe Garrett.

He was sentenced to prison in Terra Haute, Indiana, but that didn’t stop his heinous child abuse because his wife would bring his stepdaughters to visit in him in prison, and he would rape them both in the prison yard in 1976 and 1977.

Hill was convicted of the horrendous crimes after his stepdaughter Erma Shaw testified against him at the age of 12 years in 1978. She said he had raped her and impregnated her. Although Hill was convicted on Jan. 31, 1979, he was able to escape captivity and flee from justice.

“He said he was thirsty and went into the women’s bathroom and then from there escaped authorities during sentencing. He had a getaway car and was gone for the foreseeable future,” Garrett explained.

Law enforcement officials had one more opportunity to capture Hill when he was picked up in Mississippi. A paperwork error in that incident allowed him to escape for a second time.

Hill had been on the run from justice for decades.

The mystery solved

In 2017, nearly four decades later, Hill’s case was transferred from the FBI to the U.S. Marshall Service, where GRPD Officer Garrett renewed the search for the monster.

Garrett said that he used Shaw’s genealogy report in order to investigate Hill’s whereabouts. A genealogy tip led him to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he knocked on door looking for information with the aid of social media and facial recognition technology.

Finally, a tip led them to man who had committed several rapes.

“We finally met one contact that gave us a timeline. This gentleman had changed his name to Abdualla Muhammad. He was a serial rapist,” Garrett said.

He was able to obtain a photograph of Muhammad and showed them to Shaw, who confirmed that he was the same man who had raped her.

Garrett said Hill had been dead for three decades after being killed by a family member of one of his victims.

“He was shot in the back of the head, Dec. 4, 1983, by a man named Vernon Phipps after he touched Vernon’s sister,” he explained. “So he got his own level of street justice it seems.”

Hill had been fingerprinted the day after his death, but Garrett said that no record of the fingerprints populated.

Despite the bizarre labyrinthine detour to justice, Garrett said that Hill could have committed far more heinous crimes had it not been for the bravery of a 12-year-old girl.

“If it wasn’t 12-year-old Erma being a brave, amazing 12-year-old, there’s an excellent chance we could be talking double or triple the number of victims,” Winstrom said.

‘I consider that to be very prophetic.’

Shaw also spoke at the media briefing with Garrett and Winstrom.

“The fact that Tommie had gotten away for so many years, on my heart, I knew that if he was still alive, he would still be victimizing children,” she said.

She went on to say that she had written a book about the incident to let people know there was a cash reward of $7k for anyone with information about Hill. And in that book she made a prescient observation about what eventually led police to find his new identity.

“What is so unique is on page 75, I said ‘He can change his name, but what he can’t change his DNA.’ And what if he left the evidence many years ago before technology was created that would lead to the capture or the right information about his death?” she asked rhetorically.

“So, I consider that to be very prophetic for me to have written that in 2018 as that was definitely part of the catalyst of why we are here today,” Shaw concluded.

Shaw was asked what she would have said to Hill if she had the chance.

“When I was a child, I was weak,” she said. “You were able to take advantage of me. But I’m no longer a victim here. I am triumphant because I’ve overcome this. In many ways, my test, and that’s what you put me through, is my testimony.”

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