Long before the days of procedural dramas like CSI and its many spin-offs, a seasoned crime scene technician in Detroit, MI, found herself in the middle of a strange case involving planted clues, unscrupulous cops, and pet hair analysis. This technician, Mary Jarrett Jackson, spoke out about inconsistent evidence from an incident involving a well-known officer named Raymond Peterson. In the face of threats against her, Jackson persisted, uncovering one of the most egregious cover-ups in modern history.
This was in 1973, a time in Detroit's history when the city was in the midst of extreme economic and race-based conflict. Segregated and crime-ridden, Detroit was further tainted by shady government officials, including police officers. As one of the few black women working for the Detroit Police Department, Jackson felt it was her duty to take a stand. "If the hurdle is there, you go over it, under it, around it, or through it," she said. "Whatever it takes."
Driving home after an all-night shift on the morning of March 9, 1973, white Detroit police officer Raymond Peterson was rear-ended on the city's West Fisher Freeway. The man who hit him was a 24-year-old black Detroiter named Robert Hoyt. According to 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."
Peterson's partner, Gary Prochorow, was also on Fisher Freeway when the incident occurred, and he saw Hoyt's vehicle hit Peterson's unmarked car. Peterson later claimed he heard shots fired after the rear-end collision. As Peterson told investigators, "I supposed that it was the Black Panther Party and they were on the warpath."
In reality, Hoyt, an auto worker, was on his way home from a night shift.
Prochorow, who had just finished eating breakfast with his partner Peterson at a diner, claimed the collision seemed intentional from his perspective. He yelled at Hoyt to pull over; then, while moving, he fired into Hoyt's vehicle, hitting him in the wrist. Hoyt, who did not realize they were police officers, fled off an exit ramp while Peterson and Prochorow pursued him.
Just past the exit ramp, Hoyt stopped his vehicle. According to Peterson, "Hoyt bails out of the truck and starts toward me. And I could not see his hand, his right hand." At this point, Peterson claimed he felt justified to act in self-defense. "My reaction was instinctive, sharp like a scalpel," Peterson later recalled. "Boom. He went down." Hoyt did not survive.
In Peterson's own words, "[Hoyt] bounced off the truck and went down" after Peterson shot him. By the time Peterson and Prochorow reported the incident, they both insisted Hoyt pulled a knife on them. Peterson had a 6-inch slash from a knife on his coat, and a blade was found in Hoyt's possession.
Peterson and Prochorow both stressed how threatened they felt by Hoyt, who, in addition to having the knife, was driving in excess of 100 miles per hour.
Peterson became a Detroit police officer in 1961 at 25. After a decade of high rates of violence, drug use, racialized rioting, and white flight, the Detroit Police Department established a new program in January 1971, in order to, in its words, "tackle" the crime problem. This program was known as STRESS, an acronym for Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets.
The point of STRESS was to implant undercover officers in high-crime areas. Once these decoys were approached by someone attempting to rob or harm them, they would retaliate and apprehend the perpetrators. As more and more men were dying as a result of encounters with STRESS officers, the program became highly controversial and scrutinized by the public.
Peterson joined STRESS soon after it started. By May 1971, Peterson was promoted to STRESS chief officer. He developed a reputation as "Mr. STRESS" due to his attitudes about those involved in criminal activity. "You've got people out there who need help, but I don't know if all the psychiatrists in the world could help them," Peterson told the Detroit Free Press.