KALKASKA — Jason Anthony Ryan lived as a free man for 17 years after a heinous Kalkaska County crime.
Ryan’s days of freedom ended Monday after authorities said new DNA tests link him with the 1996 murder of Geraldine Montgomery, 68, who died of asphyxiation after at least one attacker raped her, stuffed her into the trunk of her car and left the vehicle running.
Another man, Jamie Lee Peterson, then 23, was convicted of the crime, but authorities suspected at least one other perpetrator remained free.
“DNA does not lie,” said Kalkaska County Prosecutor Mike Perreault at Ryan’s arraignment in 87th District Court on Tuesday.
Ryan, 35, of Davison, faces two counts of homicide — one open murder and one felony murder — and one count of first-degree criminal sexual assault. He pleaded not guilty and remains lodged in Kalkaska County jail on a $2 million bond.
Ryan’s arrest brings peace of mind to Montgomery’s family and Kalkaska community members, who for years lived in fear knowing at least one suspect was at large.
“I’m satisfied. What more can you ask for?” said Montgomery’s daughter, Patty Cox.
“You can sleep easier and not be afraid to open the door after dark, after years of wondering where the rapist was,” said Ann Kirtley, who was Montgomery’s friend.
Michigan State Police detectives reopened the case in May. Lt. John Card of the Houghton Lake Post said detectives identified Ryan as a “person of interest” and he voluntarily gave up a DNA sample, which matched genetic material found at the scene.
Authorities released few details about Ryan’s life. Michigan Secretary of State records state Ryan lived in Davison since 2009 and do not list a past Kalkaska address.
Card said Ryan lived in Davison with a woman and declined to comment on Ryan’s potential criminal record. He said Ryan’s connection to Peterson remains “unknown,” but maintains the new evidence doesn’t affect the 1998 trial.
“There’s no evidence to suggest Peterson is innocent. Mr. Peterson had his trial and we have known for the entire time there were multiple suspects,” Card said.
But Peterson’s defense attorney Robert Carey believes the new evidence raises questions over Peterson’s conviction on first-degree murder and five other charges. Peterson was sentenced to life in prison and remains in Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee.
“I’ve always believed, based on the evidence, that he is actually innocent,” Carey said.
Carey stayed in touch with the Peterson family and helped connect them with the Innocence Project, an organization that attempts to exonerate convicted criminals through DNA testing. Carey said Peterson had brain damage prior to the incident and wrongly confessed to the slaying.
“He also had a fantasy life, a very vivid imagination. And what he did was he gave at least seven different confessions claiming that he did it,” Carey said. “Of course, the law enforcement spoon-fed it to him in the questions, asking leading questions, and Jamie quickly adopted it.”
David Moran, the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School and who represents Peterson, said the new DNA evidence exonerates the imprisoned man.
The case revolved around Peterson’s confessions to sexual acts, but none of his DNA was found at the crime scene.
“That means all his confessions are false,” said Moran.
Card acknowledged no DNA evidence linked Peterson to the crime “at this point.”
“That doesn’t mean there could be something tested or retested,” Card said.
A preliminary hearing is schedule for Dec. 13 at 1:30 p.m.