Was justice served? The case of Timothy Wiltsey
Timothy William Witlsey was born on August 6, 1985 to Michelle Lodzinski and George Wiltsey. Wiltsey saw his son when he was a baby, but never after that, leaving 18-year-old Michelle to raise him as single mother.
Saturday, May 25, 1991 was right in the middle of Memorial Day weekend that year. 23-year-old Michelle decided to take now 5-year-old Timothy to the South Amboy Elks carnival in Sayreville, New Jersey, about five miles from their home in South Amboy. Earlier that day, a neighbor had spotted Timothy running up and down the street. It would be the last confirmed sighting of him.
According to Michelle, Timothy was standing in line for a ride and wanted a soda. She got out of line to buy him one, claiming he was only eight feet away from her. When she got back to the line, Timothy was gone.
Michelle’s niece Jennifer Blair and one of Jennifer’s friends soon met up with Michelle at the carnival. When they got there, Jennifer said she saw her aunt Michelle just standing there. When she asked where Timothy was, Michelle said he’d been missing for fifteen minutes — that she’d just turned around and he was gone.
After Timothy’s disappearance, the carnival was shut down in an attempt to find him. Investigators searched for him until 2:00 the next morning. The search resumed a few hours later at 5:30 am, searching the entire park where the carnival was located and two ponds. It was called off at noon when investigators concluded Timothy was not in the area. His disappearance would lead to a nationwide manhunt and his case appearing on America’s Most Wanted and milk cartons.
When his son went missing, George Wiltsey hadn’t seen him in years and lived in Iowa, quite a ways away from Timothy’s home in New Jersey. He was ruled out fairly quickly.
But Michelle Lodzinski was considered a suspect from the beginning of the investigation. The day after Timothy was last seen, she was interviewed by police and gave them the story about him being gone when she came back from buying a soda. A few days later, on June 7, she was interviewed again and this time gave a different story.
According to this story, Michelle had run into a woman named Ellen at the carnival, along with two men and a child. She claimed to know Ellen from her previous job at a bank, where Ellen would come in to cash her welfare checks. Michelle asked Ellen to keep an eye on Timothy while she got out of line to buy him a soda. When she came back, Ellen, the two men, the child and Timothy were all gone. Fred Bruno, who was Michelle’s boyfriend at the time, told police the same day that she’d given him a similar story. This time, however, she’d told him a woman pulled a knife on her and abducted Timothy while she was on her way back to her car to get more money for rides.
On June 13, Michelle gave yet another, slightly different version of events. Now she claimed Ellen and the two men approached her after she went to get a drink and pulled a knife on her. Other versions of her story had Timothy being taken by two men or abducted at knifepoint by a woman in a red car. After this story, Michelle said she originally hadn’t told the truth because she was afraid Timothy’s captors would hurt him if she did.
And there was another problem with every version of Michelle’s story: There was no proof Timothy was ever at the carnival in the first place. Carnival workers and a few people who’d been in the park that day told police they saw a boy who resembled Timothy, but these sightings have never been confirmed. No witnesses reported seeing either Timothy or Michelle there that day. And there was no evidence of or witnesses to Timothy’s alleged abduction. Police also found no evidence that a woman named Ellen had cashed her welfare checks at the bank where Michelle was formerly employed.
The following month — June 1991 — police searched Michelle’s financial records to see if she’d had any financial gain after her son’s disappearance, possibly from selling him. Nothing was found. Her car, apartment and garbage were searched — but, again, these searches led to nothing.
In October 1991, a man bird watching in a marshy area of the Raritan Center in Edison, New Jersey found a child’s size 13 ninja turtle sneaker. This sneaker matched the description of the shoes Timothy was wearing when he disappeared. In April 1992, the area was searched again by investigators. The matching sneaker, a pillowcase, a blanket, some clothes, a balloon, and eleven bones — including a skull — were all found. The skull was identified via dental records as belonging to Timothy Wiltsey. Eleven months after going missing, his partial remains had been found.
Michelle Lodzinski had worked in a building at the Raritan Center from September 1988 to March 1989. The building was less than half a mile from where Timothy’s remains were found, and a former co-worker said she used to take walks about the area on her lunch break. This was presumably said to imply that she knew the area well. Michelle never told police she’d worked there.
Timothy’s death was ruled a homicide, the but medical examiner couldn’t determine his cause of death. A forensic examination of his remains revealed no evidence of trauma.
Michelle Lodzinski later moved from New Jersey to Minnesota, and then to Florida. She later began work as a paralegal and had two more sons, Daniel and Benjamin. Michelle told her sons that they had a brother named Timmy who died, and they played with toys that used to belong to him.
In 1995, Michelle pled guilty in 1995 to making false statements to the FBI after saying she’d been kidnapped the year before. She was sentenced to three years probation. In 1997, she was sentenced to three more years probation after stealing a laptop from her employer. Because she was already on probation at the time from her false kidnapping sentence and had committed a crime by stealing the laptop, she spent 24 hours in jail for violating her original probation.
Around 2014 — one source said 2011 — investigators began looking into Timothy’s case again. This time, they turned their attention specifically to the blanket that had been found near his body. At the time, Michelle had told police she didn’t recognize the blanket and there were no forensic links between her and the blanket. But Michelle’s niece Jennifer — who was estranged from her aunt by this point — identified the blanket as one she’d seen in Michelle and Timothy’s house while babysitting Timothy.
On August 6, 2014 — what would have been Timothy’s 29th birthday — Michelle Lodzinski was arrested and charged with murder in her son’s death. She was sent to prison in Florida and held on $2 million bail.
Her trial began in March 2016 in New Jersey. She pled not guilty.
Prosecutors said Michelle killed Timothy because he was a burden and was getting in the way of the single, carefree life she wanted to life. They claimed Timothy was killed sometime after the last sighting of him at 11 am on May 25, and that his body was then wrapped in the blanket and taken to the swamp. The details of Michelle’s false kidnapping claim were not presented to the jury.
On May 18, 2016, Michelle Lodzinski was found guilty of murder. She was later sentenced to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
After several failed attempts at appeals over the years, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear Michelle’s case in February 2020. On December 28, 2021, they overturned her conviction.
According to the law, in order to find homicide it had to be proven that Michelle purposefully or knowingly caused Timothy’s death, Four justices didn’t agree that her case met this standard. According to their ruling:
“The Court finds that a rational jury considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the State could conclude that Lodzinski did not take Timothy to the carnival and that she had some involvement in his disappearance, death, and burial. But only the purposeful or knowing causing of death constitutes murder, and the prosecution offered no direct or inferential evidence that Lodzinski purposely or knowingly caused Timothy’s death.”
Michelle was released from prison later that day and was expected to return to Florida. She can’t be retried for Timothy’s murder.
So what happened here? Was Michelle Lodzinksi’s release a miscarriage of justice, or was there really not enough evidence to convict her? Let’s take a look at what people are saying.
Many people discussing this case online believe Michelle really is guilty. They cite her numerous lies to police, including the lie by omission about working at the Raritan Center, close to where Timothy’s remains were found. There was also the fake kidnapping claim a few years later that got her probation, and the fact that nobody could prove she and Timothy were even at the carnival. There was also the fact that a blanket that reportedly came from Timothy’s home was found close to his remains. Timothy disappeared at the end of May, and it was hot outside — hot enough to make it unlikely he’d be carrying around a hot blanket. Is this evidence that the blanket was used to wrap up his remains?
Others are skeptical and cite a lack of evidence as the reason why the overturning of the conviction may have been correct. There was no physical or forensic evidence ever found linking Michelle to Timothy’s death; the case was largely, if not entirely, circumstantial. Some pointed out that the blanket may not have even belonged to Timothy; after all, blue blankets for children aren’t exactly rare, and some believe Jennifer’s ID of the blanket could have been incorrect. According to detractors, it’s also possible that Timothy’s death was actually accidental, even though it was ruled a homicide. Remember, there was no evidence of trauma to Timothy’s remains, and his cause of death couldn’t be determined. There also doesn’t seem to be any readily available evidence that Michelle resented being a parent or wanted Timothy out of the way (although it could have been brought up at trial).
Still, when discussing the lack of forensic evidence, at least one online speculator noted that most cases don’t have a ‘smoking gun’ and we shouldn’t necessarily expect them. Is the circumstantial evidence enough to rule Michelle guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? It seems nobody can really agree on this.
There’s one more thing I want to bring up. In my research, a lot of journalists and investigators noted that Michelle didn’t show the emotion or reactions they expected a grieving mother to show. She was reported to have gone on vacation to the Bahamas right after Timothy’s disappearance and apparently didn’t appear very sad or emotional in public. However, others pointed out that everyone grieves in different ways and just because you don’t outwardly see signs of grief or sadness doesn’t mean they’re not there.
So there are obviously a lot of opinions here on both sides of the argument. This case reminds me of Caylee Anthony in a lot of ways. Both cases involved young, single mothers. In both cases, the mother was caught in numerous lies after her child went missing. Partial, skeletal remains were found of both children, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine their causes of death. And both mothers were ultimately not held legally responsible for their childrens’ deaths, though they both spent time in jail over them. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure what happened to Timothy Wiltsey in May of 1991.