Man accused of murdering 81-year-old, burning her body in 2011 faces judge

Image 1 of 5

Almost seven years since an elderly Southfield woman was found murdered in her burning car, her accused killer is facing a judge.

Helen Gale was found burned beyond recognition in November 2011 in Highland Park. For seven years, the murder of the 81-year-old went unsolved.

That changed in mid-May when police arrested her former neighbor, Darrin Keener, in Ohio.  Back in 2011, police were called to a car fire in the alley behind the 100 block of Buena Vista early that morning of Nov. 26.

After extinguishing the blaze, firefighters found a body in the vehicle. The car was registered to the 81-year-old woman from Southfield and her body was identified via dental records. 

The investigation revealed that the fire was intentionally set and the death was classified as a homicide. 

At her Southfield home, there were signs of a struggle and items were missing, including her ID, wallet and purse. That was a gift from her daughter, Nancy - a high-end handbag designer whose clients include the rich and famous.

"It was a yellow box-shaped purse - it was a gift I had made for her - it was called 'The Helen,'" Nancy testified on Tuesday.

It was a blue bag with a piece of paper attached that investigators say they found in the alley with Helen's burning car. 

Keener's attorney challenges investigators to tie that bag to the crime

"No. At the time I collected it, I collected it as part of a fire scene investigation," Highland Park Fire Investigator Nathan Erwin said.

Keener was arrested years ago for her murder and was a suspect in her death for years. But police never had enough evidence for charges - until now.

Nancy Gale says she spent years waiting for justice for her mother. She finally hired private investigator Scott Lewis, a former FOX 2 investigative reporter. Once he started asking questions, the family says it seems police got serious about the case.

Cold case investigators with the Oakland County Sheriff's Department began working on the case in 2017 and in May the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Keener at his home in Toledo.

A woman who knew Keener from his stint at a rehab facility for crack cocaine addiction testified that Keener called her 16 times the night Gale went missing from her home. She said they spoke for almost an hour and he also left her a voicemail.

"He said 'I did something bad, something really bad'," Lisa Thompson said. "My stomach just kind of flopped and I went, 'Oh my gosh, what's going on?'"

it's all testimony that's left Helen’s daughter Nancy hoping there will finally be justice for her mother.

"It's been so long and you find ways to sort of compartmentalize," Gale said. "It's just surreal is the only word because we're still hopeful that this goes the way we want it to go."