EPISODE ONE: STOP THE ROBBERIES, ENJOY SAFE STREETS
RAYMOND PETERSON: If you don’t want to listen to this story, go ahead, go get your gun, get your knife, get whatever you think you can use, and get your ass out on the street and try your best luck. And see what you come up against. And you won’t like it.
MARC SMERLING: It's May 3, 1971 in the Cass Corridor, a tough neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. A white guy, looking down on his luck, shuffles along the sidewalk...
PETERSON: I think I kind of acted like I was unfamiliar with Detroit or something.
MARC: A young black man approaches...
PETERSON: I never did see a gun or knife or anything, but he made an impression on my left side which made me think he may have had a weapon and he was getting my wallet out.
MARC: This guy getting robbed… His name is Raymond Peterson. And it’s his job to get robbed, because Raymond Peterson is an undercover cop.
PETERSON: Then he took off and I began to fire my gun.
PETERSON: ...and hit him in the right shoulder. I knew I hit him.
MARC: The wounded man tries to run away, only to be caught by Peterson’s partner. Peterson says the man then tries to grab his partner’s gun.
PETERSON: I knew I had one bullet left. And I shot him again. And he was, Mama, mama, mama, blah blah. Fuck you, nigger…
MARC: This man’s name was Dallas Collins. And he wouldn’t be the last person shot by Raymond Peterson.
PETERSON: I didn’t ponder on any of it. And that includes the last one I smoked.
MARC: You’re listening to Crimetown. Produced in partnership with Gimlet Media. I’m Marc Smerling. Each season, we explore crime and corruption in a different city. For season two, we’re heading to Detroit. And we’ll be getting a little hosting help... so you’ll be hearing some new voices...
DREW NELLES: We'll take you from the streets of Dexter-Linwood to the halls of power and everywhere in between. But we’re going to start back in the seventies, with Raymond Peterson… and the woman who made it her mission to bring him down.
MARY JARRETT-JACKSON: I don’t half-step nothing, when I tell you I’m going to get you... take it to the bank.
DREW: I’m Drew Nelles. Welcome to Crimetown.
DREW: What was River Rouge like back then, when you were growing up?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Well, it was racially divided…
DREW: This is Mary Jarrett Jackson. She grew up in River Rouge, a segregated suburb of Detroit.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I knew that I couldn't do certain things, like be a part of the swim class. I became a cheerleader, but we couldn't ride on the bus like the white cheerleaders because we might contaminate the football players.
DREW: The local movie theater was segregated too. Black people had to sit upstairs. Or at least...that’s what the theater tried to tell Mary.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I said I’m not going upstairs today. So we went downstairs. And they kept coming to ask us to go upstairs, where blacks were supposed to sit. I said I’m not going upstairs. You know, I just sat there. What you going to do to me? If you hit me, I’m gonna hit you back. So after that we didn't go upstairs anymore.
DREW: How old were you?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh, about 12. And I just wouldn't take it but so long.
DREW: After high school, Mary went to Howard University.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I wanted to be a doctor, a pediatrician. I wanted to take care of children.
DREW: But when it came time to apply for medical school, reality set in. This was the fifties, and for a young black woman, getting into medical school was almost impossible.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I went back to talk to my counselor at Howard, and he said well, you could be a lab technician.
DREW: Mary's father was a cop back home, and he told Mary that the Detroit police department needed technicians in their crime lab.
JARRETT-JACKSON: When I went for an application for the crime lab, the two white officers behind the desk just started laughing. He said they didn't have any blacks and they didn't have any women. And you fill both of those qualifications. They finally got themselves together enough to tell me, but even if you wanted to join, you have become a policeman first.
I took the application for the policeman never thinking I'd ever fill it out. Never.
DREW: But you did.
JARRETT-JACKSON: But I did. My dad always said, you do whatever you have to do if it’s something you want. He said, if the hurdle is there, you go over it, under it, around it, or through it, whatever it takes.
JARRETT-JACKSON: So that’s how I did it.
DREW: In 1958, Mary became one of Detroit’s first black female police officers. She was a cop during the ‘67 riots. She lived through the beginnings of white flight...and watched as the city fell into decline. By 1971, crime rates in Detroit were skyrocketing. So, the police commissioner put together a new undercover unit known by the acronym S-T-R-E-S-S... STRESS.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: In Detroit, police added a STRESS unit. Men who act as decoys in high crime areas. STRESS stands for “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets.” They’re an undercover unit that could not be filmed…
ARCHIVAL NEWS: Since May, the STRESS unit has killed ten people, nine of them black, shot as they tried to rob police decoys in the streets.
DREW: Had you heard of the STRESS unit?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh yes.
DREW: How did you first hear about it?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Well, sometimes some of the STRESS officers would come up and be talking to the white officers in in the lab.
DREW: What would they say?
JARRETT-JACKSON: How many niggers did you kill today?
DREW: How did you feel when you heard that?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh… not good.
DREW: And the STRESS officer Mary heard the most about was Raymond Peterson, the undercover cop from the top of the show. He even had a nickname: Mr. STRESS.
JARRETT-JACKSON: Nobody was killing black men like Peterson was. In my mind, I said, the next time I get anything from Ray Peterson of a shooting, I am going to see what I can do.
PETERSON: STRESS 1, my car, my crew, the best in the fucking city. If that fucker pulled out a gun or a knife or anything else, you were the first one that was gonna get any of it.
DREW: Filmmaker David Van Wie spoke to Raymond Peterson for his documentary, "Detroit Under STRESS."
PETERSON: We had the bad guys running scared. Which is just where the fuck we wanted them.
DREW: To lure criminals, STRESS officers used disguises... they dressed up like drunks, hippies... even little old ladies. As for Peterson, he would wander through the city’s neighborhoods, looking lost, hoping to get robbed. But more and more, the people who tried to rob him ended up dead. According to the Detroit Free Press, by 1973, Peterson had been involved in eight fatal police shootings. All the shootings were of black men. And Peterson became notorious. He says that he and another STRESS officer started receiving death threats...
PETERSON: The Black Panther Party called the department. They said they were going to follow Dick and I home from work and kill us on the way hom
DREW: And then came March 9th, 1973, a night that would put Raymond Peterson on a collision course with lab technician Mary Jarrett Jackson. Just before dawn, Peterson says he asked his partner to follow him home after patrol. They drove west on the Fisher Freeway.
PETERSON: ...all of a sudden somebody runs into the right rear side of my car, I almost lost control!
DREW: In the other car was Robert Hoyt, a 24-year-old black man.
PETERSON: I’m fighting for control of the car and this Robert Hoyt takes off with his pickup truck and starts to leave the scene.
DREW: Peterson and his partner forced Hoyt’s car onto an off-ramp.
PETERSON: I heard a gunshot and I supposed that it was the Black Panther Party and they were on the warpath. I didn’t know who fired what...
DREW: The gun was actually fired by Peterson's partner. The bullet tore through Robert Hoyt's wrist.
PETERSON: Hoyt bails out of the truck and starts toward me. And I could not see his hand, his right hand. I plug him, I fucking killed him right just like that. He bounced off the truck and went down.
JARRETT-JACKSON: They gave me the report that Peterson made of the incident.
DREW: Crime lab technician Mary Jarrett Jackson.
DREW: And what was Peterson saying had happened with Mr. Hoyt?
JARRETT-JACKSON: They were driving down the Fisher freeway and he kept cutting them off and that's when this alleged assault occurred.
DREW: And Peterson was saying that Hoyt came at him with a knife, right?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Assaulted him with a knife, stabbed at him with a knife. And he shot and killed him. And this young man was going to work. In his own car. So -- that could have been my boy…
DREW: Mary had her doubts about Peterson’s story. And she was determined to find out what really happened...
JARRETT-JACKSON: When I got that knife I got up said let me go home tonight. Let me just think this though and the next day I went to talk it over with my dad. He said, well you know what you have to do.
DREW: That’s... after the break.
DREW: Before the break, crime lab technician Mary Jarrett Jackson had been assigned an important case. STRESS officer Raymond Peterson had shot and killed Robert Hoyt during a traffic altercation. Peterson claimed that Hoyt had attacked him with a knife.
So Mary took a look at the knife.
DREW: Are you looking at it under a microscope?
JARRETT-JACKSON: -- under a microscope I found five different colors of human hair, paint chips, and 43 different fibers.
DREW: Mary wanted to see if what she found on the knife matched what she found in Robert Hoyt's jacket pockets...
JARRETT-JACKSON: Mr. Hoyt was a nibbler. He had peanut shells, salt granules, pretzel pieces, potato chips particles, candy...
JARRETT-JACKSON: The content of the, the knife that Mr. Hoyt was alleged to have attacked Officer Peterson with didn't match the contents of the pockets of Mr. Hoyt's clothes.
DREW: So, Mary took a look at what was in Raymond Peterson's jacket pockets...
JARRETT-JACKSON: Well, he had the unburned gunpowder, five different kinds of hair, 13 paint chips, 43 fibers, that was a wealth of information...
DREW: Was it obvious that the materials on the knife matched some of the materials in Ray Peterson’s pockets?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh yeah.
DREW: Mary now knew that the knife was Peterson’s. But she still needed to prove that the gunpowder, paint chips, and other materials found on the knife couldn't have come from someone else. So, she took another look through her microscope….
JARRETT-JACKSON: I see an animal hair that’s unusual. I knew it was a cat hair. It was a brown hair—shades of brown and cream. Siamese cat, that's a fine hair. Common cat hair still would have been evidence, but it wasn't as significant to me as a Siamese cat. It was so fine.
DREW: Mary wanted to search Raymond Peterson’s house. And that's when someone showed up in the crime lab… someone Mary had actually never met before: Raymond Peterson.
JARRETT-JACKSON: He knew we were getting a search warrant and he came up there to argue with me.
DREW: What exactly did he say to you?
JARRETT-JACKSON: He said, Well I understand you're getting a search warrant to go in my house. What are you searching for? I said I'm searching for anything in the house that I have found in your clothing or anything else that I can connect to you with this knife and the other trace evidence I found in your pocket. You know he's just cursing and being profane. And the officers in the lab said just get on out of here.
JARRETT-JACKSON: The white officers were calling me and they were threatening me
DREW: And what would they say?
JARRETT-JACKSON: You better not find anything that would be associated with Raymond Peterson. And I’d just hang up.
DREW: Did you believe that your life was in danger?
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh I did. Yeah I did. I even feared for my children.
DREW: But not all the cops in the Detroit Police Department were trying to protect Raymond Peterson.
JARRETT-JACKSON: A detail of black officers would come and see me into the lab in the morning. And then see me home in the evening, check my car for any bombs, and then see me home at night.
DREW: A few weeks after the killing of Robert Hoyt, police cars pulled up to Raymond Peterson’s house.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I was in the car with an officer from the lab and a photographer. Miss Peterson came out, I guess she was Miss Peterson. A lady came out and a couple of the children, She was holding the door for them, and the cat came out…
JARRETT-JACKSON: Siamese cat.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I don't like cats. I don't. I can’t stand for them to be near me, but I was so happy to see this cat, I just wanted to hug him. I could kiss you. I know I don't like you but I just could kiss you because you now tell me that what I said was true.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: Patrolman Raymond Peterson, accused of second degree murder, is so charged because of the excellent work by some of his colleagues here in the scientific laboratory. The knife that Peterson says the civilian brandished at him was tested. Several cat hairs were found embedded in the knife. Cat hairs and other particles were found in Patrolman Peterson’s coat pocket.
DREW: Raymond Peterson was charged with murder. A lot of Detroiters thought that the problem was STRESS itself. But the Police Superintendent disagreed.
ARCHIVAL POLICE SUPERINTENDENT BERTONI: This is an accusation against an officer who was off duty. You don't stop the police department because an officer is charged with a crime. I don’t think it will have any impact at all, any more impact than if an attorney was accused of wrongdoing would you suspend the legal profession? Or if a doctor was accused of wrongdoing would you do away with doctors?
DREW: Here’s Raymond Peterson talking to a TV reporter at the time.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: Last week when we talked to you, you said you’d had a lot of support from the other fellas in STRESS. Could you elaborate?
ARCHIVAL PETERSON: Well, it’s times like this when you really find out who your friends are… and the guys and the bosses from STRESS and a few command officers that I value as my greatest friends have been with me through the whole thing, and I’m sure they’ll continue to be. And I can’t say how much I appreciate their assistance and help.
NORMAN LIPPITT: I begged Ray Peterson to plead guilty. They offered him a manslaughter. I begged him. I said this is a tough case, Ray. He wouldn't do it.
DREW: This is Peterson’s lawyer, Norman Lippitt.
LIPPITT: And now I've got a real problem. How am I going to beat a case where he a) lied to the homicide bureau in the first place, and b) he threw down the knife? I mean, it was clear and unequivocal. And the first thing I had to do was send him to a shrink, a psychiatrist. The doctor developed the theory that he lied because he was suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, and that he had been involved in all these previous shootings that it had affected him somehow, some way.
DREW: When pretrial hearings began, the star witness for the prosecution was Mary Jarrett Jackson.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I knew that no matter what any attorney asked me I would have an answer about the content of the knife.
JARRETT-JACKSON: Listen I worked at the thing three months first of all do paint a thin layer of chromatography on the paint. 13 different kinds…
LIPPITT: She testified on direct examination that she did her microscopic examination. She took the knife, put it under a microscope, and found the cat hair.
JARRETT-JACKSON: ...hairs, blood type the hairs…
DREW: Then...it was Peterson’s lawyer, Norman Lippitt’s, turn to question Mary.
LIPPITT: What's Lippitt going to do with Mary Jarrett? You know what I did? Sergeant Jarrett, how are you today? I'm fine, Mr Lippitt. How are you? I said, I am just fine. Turned around and walked back to my chair and sat down. The judge looks at me, the prosecutor looks at me. What are you doing? I'm completed my examination, your honor.
LIPPITT: What was I going to say? What was I going to do? When you can't you can't win, you keep your mouth shut.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I knew... that I had done it well.
DREW: In his closing arguments, the prosecutor reminded the jury that Peterson had gunned down an unarmed man after a fender-bender, then planted a knife on him to cover it up. Defense attorney Norman Lippitt told the jury... all that was true...but it didn’t matter. Because of Peterson’s PTSD, as well as the threats to his life, the shooting was justifiable self-defense.
The almost entirely white jury came back after just four hours.
PETERSON: They tried me for second degree murder. And the jury said not guilty.
PETERSON: Mary Jarrett, she found in the well of the knife a fucking cat hair. I had two Siamese cats.
PETERSON: I assumed he had a gun or a knife or something. But look, no fucking gun, no knife, no nothing. Uh oh. Well, I pulled out a knife and give it to him.
DREW: Even though he was acquitted, Peterson was fired from the police force. He stayed in the Detroit area and found work as a truck driver.
PETERSON: There was a woman that lived in government apartments, we call ‘em projects, kitty corner from us. She had a son and a daughter. She was probably maybe 10, 12 years old. We began to get acquainted...
DREW: It turns out… the daughter had already heard about Mr Stress.
PETERSON: She says, “My mother told me not to talk to you because you shoot black people.” And I—it was kind of a shock coming from a kid. // But I told her something like, “Well, I’m a policeman and I work in Detroit and there’s a lot of bad people in Detroit,” and I says, “Sometimes we have to shoot ‘Em.”
DREW: That's the story Raymond Peterson told himself about being a cop in Detroit. In his interview for “Detroit Under STRESS,” he’s 81 years old… bald and skeletal… chain-smoking. He would die eight months later.
As for Mary Jarrett Jackson...she went on to become the first black female deputy police chief of any major department in the country.
DREW: What do you think of STRESS today?
JARRETT-JACKSON: I don't think it made the streets any safer. It took the lives of a lot of young men. It was just a time that they could murder somebody and get away with it. What's good about that? How did it make streets safer?
DREW: Do you still think about him? Peterson?
JARRETT-JACKSON: No. No wouldn't waste my time. You think about people you love. I want to love everybody but it's very hard for me to love Ray Peterson.
JARRETT-JACKSON: But at least we got him off the street.
JARRETT-JACKSON: I saved somebody's life. Some young black man that didn't even know he was going to be on the radar.
DREW: Next time on Crimetown...after two teenagers are killed, public opposition to STRESS grows...and a new political voice makes a promise.
COLEMAN YOUNG: The police department needs to be reorganized and made more responsive to the citizens. I’ll eliminate STRESS as one of my first moves.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: The interview with Raymond Peterson in this episode appears courtesy of David Van Wie's documentary “Detroit Under STRESS.” To learn more about David's film and find out how to watch it, visit detroitunderstress.com.
This season of Crimetown is streaming exclusively on Spotify. If you want to hear the next episode right now… head over to spotify.com/crimetown or the Spotify app and subscribe.
Crimetown is Marc Smerling and me, Zac Stuart-Pontier.
It’s produced by Soraya Shockley, John White, Rob Szypko, and Samantha Lee.
The senior producer is Drew Nelles.
Editing by Marc Smerling and me.
Editing help from Alex Blumberg, Caitlin Kenney, Emanuele Berry, Danielle Elliot, and Austin Mitchell.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Sam Bair.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music by John Kusiak, and additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit music this week is “I Won’t Love You or Leave You,” performed by Steve Mencha and David Ruffin, written and produced by Detroit Soul Ambassador Melvin Davis.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Archival footage courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
We’ve got a great website with bonus content for each episode like photos, videos, and newspaper clippings, as well as a full list of credits and a transcript. Check it out at crimetownshow.com.
To learn more about STRESS, check out Mark Binelli’s piece “The Fire Last Time” in the New Republic.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaeffer, Mary Schroeder, Mary Wallace, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Melissa Samson, the Detroit Historical Society, Sheila Cockrel, Erin Henneghan, Kaitlin Roberts, Heather Ann Thompson, Courtney Brown Jr., and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit is an amazing place, and we’re honored to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather. He doesn’t half-step nothing. If he tells you he’s gonna get you, take it to the bank.
DREW: Do you remember Coleman’s nickname for you?
JARRETT-JACKSON: I don’t know that he had a nickname for…
DREW: I read in the paper that he called you Catwoman.
JARRETT-JACKSON: Oh yes that’s right, yeah he did. I didn’t remember that. He was talking to somebody about the case.
DREW: The Peterson case.
JARRETT-JACKSON: Yeah and they said he called me Catwoman and I said I don’t like cats, I don’t know why he did that.