TRAVERSE CITY — The story of four dead children, child pornography films made on North Fox Island and a millionaire who fled the country as an FBI investigation was closing in on him has by now become legendary.
The mystery that has swirled around the children murdered in Oakland County, the island and its one-time owner Francis Shelden is the subject of "Children of the Snow," a two-part documentary that premiered this week on the Investigation Discovery channel.
The film uses DNA testing not available in the 1970s to make a connection between Shelden and the unsolved Oakland County Child Killer slayings that took place in 1976-1977.
Joan Kalchik Ten-Brock of Leelanau Township hasn't yet watched the documentary. She was interviewed last year about her strange encounter with Shelden on North Fox Island, located off the northwest coast of Leelanau County.
Ten-Brock's late husband, Ron Kalchik, owned an excavating company in Leelanau and was hired by Shelden to clear an airstrip on the island. Ten-Brock, her sister, brother-in-law and Kalchik later took a boat out to the island.
"Frank was just leaving with his airplane and saw the boat and turned around and came back," Ten-Brock said.
Shelden escorted them to his cabin and asked them to wait so he could give them a tour of the island. They were there for more than an hour.
"He didn't come back and didn't come back and we wondered what was going on," Ten-Brock said. "We didn't think anything of it until it all came out later. I have a feeling he was clearing things out."
"Children of the Snow" follows writer J. Rueben Appelman, who as a young boy was nearly abducted by a man he believes was the Oakland County Child Killer. Appelman became obsessed with the cold case in 2005 and later teamed up with Detective Cory Williams to attempt to solve it.
Appelman and Williams believe the killer may have been interviewed during the original investigation, but was protected by his wealth and status. A connection between the child killer and Shelden's pornography ring was established when, during the investigation, one boy told his parents about what actually went on during his visits to the Fox Island boys camp.
Shelden was a land developer, oil consultant, market investor and author who never married. He was the sole owner of North Fox Island. The island is now owned by the state of Michigan and is part of the Beaver Island State Wildlife Research Area.
The pedophile ring included well-to-do businessmen, politicians and other rich and powerful men who would take children to the island to have sex with them and make films that were distributed around the world, as the story goes.
Shelden and others were able to attract children through his Brother Paul's Children's Mission and a supposed nature camp for underprivileged children on the island.
Many people saw him as a generous benefactor who took youths on hunting trips to the island, skiing trips in Aspen and beach parties at his family's estate in the Caribbean. He also set up trust funds so they could go to college.
Ten-Brock said it makes sense now that the remote island could be used in such a way, but back then she wasn't so sure.
"I had a hard time believing it," she said. "He seemed very nice. I was just shocked."
Search warrants and an arrest warrant for criminal sexual conduct were issued for Shelden in 1976, but Shelden had already cleared out his Ann Arbor home and his cabin on North Fox, apparently prompted by the arrest of an associate, Gerald S. Richards, on criminal sexual conduct charges.
Shelden fled to the Netherlands, which at the time rarely extradited those wanted for crimes in the United States. He was reported dead in 1996, but some think he may have established a new identity and continues to operate as a pedophile. He would be 80 or 81 today.
For many people, the story is not so much a mystery as a frustration that Shelden and whoever killed the Oakland children were never made to pay for their dark sins, especially the victims' families.
Kathleen Firestone got interested in the story while researching the Fox islands for a book she was writing.
Nearing the end of her research, Firestone wrote a letter to Shelden in the Netherlands asking him about the deer population on the island and if he knew about any shipwrecks in the area.
"He didn't want to talk about the alleged crimes," Firestone said.
Shelden answered her questions, but also wrote her that he had no takers for memberships he was selling to a resort he planned to build on the island.
Soon after Shelden's letter arrived, Firestone was visited by the FBI, who wanted to know how she knew him and why he was writing to her.
The North Fox story has been written about extensively, but it was Record-Eagle reporter Marilyn Wright who took the assignment when a tip was called in to the newspaper. Some of her work is highlighted in "Children of the Snow."
Wright, who has since died, was relentless in her pursuit of the details. So much so that then Gov. William G. Milliken sat at Wright's desk to sign into law a bill prohibiting using children in pornography. Milliken credited Wright with calling the attention of public officials and the public at large to the problem of child pornography.
It was the first time a bill had ever been signed in a newsroom.
Firestone, who hadn't yet seen the second part of the documentary when interviewed for this story, said she is still not positive there is a connection between North Fox and the Oakland child killings.
"I really feel for the families and I have all along," she said. "I hope they can find some resolution. It's hard, especially after all these years."
Tune in for part two of the documentary "Children of the Snow" that will be shown at 9 p.m. Tuesday on the Investigation Discovery channel.