Water patrol, road patrol, educator, lawyer; Frank Niehaus is a 'man for all seasons' combining several careers

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By Frank Weir

Legal News

A man for all seasons? Washtenaw's own Frank Niehaus fills that bill. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" also comes to mind.

Why all the literary references and alliterations you ask? Because Niehaus has strolled down many a path in his 70 years.

Known as one of the proud Washtenaw County "Puddle Police," or maritime patrol officers, for the last 31 years, Niehaus also is a licensed attorney, since 1991.

And let us not forget his 25 years as a social studies teacher at Woodhaven High School, primarily teaching economics. Niehaus also worked as a road patrol officer for Green Oaks Township.

And you aren't likely to forget one more unusual "Frank Fact."

He lives at 1307 Roosevelt, in Ypsilanti: the house in which John Norman Collins murdered Karen Sue Beineman in 1969, the crime for which Collins was sent to prison for life, although he was suspected of several more "Michigan Murders" as the string of coed killings between 1967 and 1969 in Washtenaw County came to be known.

Niehaus admits its a strange coincidence for a guy who always wanted to be involved in law enforcement to end up owning a home where an infamous crime was committed.

Adding to the irony, another lawman lived in the home at the time of the killing, Niehaus remembers.

"The house was owned by a state trooper named David Leik who was Collins' uncle," Niehaus said. "Leik and his family were up north and they had asked Collins to water their flowers and take care of their dog."

As it turned out, Collins had picked up Beineman while riding his motorcycle, brought her to the home, and testimony revealed he murdered her in the basement of the home.

"When Leik returned, he noticed that Collins had done some painting in the basement," Niehaus said, "and he thought that was odd."

The community was on fire with fear over the series of murdered coeds at that time and, even though he was his uncle, Leik became suspicious of his nephew.

Niehaus said that Leik noticed some suspicious stains in the basement and arranged for forensics investigators. The stains turned out to be paint although in the process of examining the basement, Niehaus said investigators found hair clippings from haircuts given to the Leik children that matched clippings found on Beineman's underwear.

"At the time we made an offer on the home, myself and my family were living in Florida and we were not familiar with John Norman Collins," Niehaus said.

Niehaus had moved to Ypsilanti to work at yet another professional job, assistant director of the Michigan Consumer Education Center, located at that time at Eastern Michigan University.

"Someone in my office heard the address of the house I was so excited about buying and filled me in. I asked the realtor why he hadn't told me and he said he hadn't made the connection or he would have.

"I could have gotten out of the purchase I'm sure but it didn't matter really to my wife and I although we told the realtor we would have to let our children know before finalizing the purchase. Our kids said it wasn't a problem with them either. We've lived there since then, which was 1973."

Niehaus noted the infamy of the Michigan Murders has died down considerably but there was a time when he would see a documentary on television and suddenly, his house would pop up on the screen.

"And occasionally, I would be out mowing my lawn and a car load of folks would drive by slowly, the driver pointing, and passengers craning their necks."

Although Niehaus has much to talk about, career-wise, he prefers law enforcement and his maritime duties.

The James Stewart movie, "The FBI Story," caught Niehaus' interest as a teen and he began reading up on the FBI and Secret Service. And although he actually had an interview for the FBI, a hiring freeze stopped his efforts.

And when the freeze was lifted, the agency had instituted an age limit for applicants of 35 yeas of age, which ended Niehaus' hopes.

Niehaus began with the maritime patrol as a reserve officer in 1979 and was accepted. Soon after, Sheriff Tom Minick offered to sponsor Niehaus at the police academy and Niehaus became a full-fledged sheriff's deputy.

The marine patrol focuses on three area lakes Niehaus said including Ford Lake, Half Moon Lake, and Portage Lake. The patrol operates under the Marine Safety Act.

"We deal with the operation of watercraft, as well as the equipment that must be on board at all times according to the statue," he said.

"On the road, officers have to have probable cause to stop you but on the water, I can pull over anyone I want to check to see if their safety equipment and paperwork is in order."

He notes that many boaters are unaware of statutory requirements so he switches back into teacher mode. He also is a certified instructor for boating safety classes.

"I admit that I'm often viewed as ruining someone's boating fun. I tend to be a bit more lenient if their registration paperwork isn't right but I'll crack down and write a ticket over safety gear.

"No one will drown over improper paperwork but if fire extinguishers and life preservers aren't right, you can have a life-threatening situation."

And, like cops on the road, Niehaus does not appreciate a bad attitude from a stopped boater.

"Recently, I saw a guy on a jet ski at Baseline and Portage lakes. My partner and I could clearly see that the guy was not using a lanyard, which attaches to your wrist and shuts off the craft if the operator falls into the water.

"We pull him over and the guy has his 5-year-old son with him on his lap. The operator tells me he lost the lanyard and was forced to use duct tape to deactivate the kill switch just so he could get back to where he launched."

Niehaus knew the story was phony and the jet ski owner hadn't bothered using the required lanyard and must have launched with the kill switch already duct-tape doctored.

"That just got to me especially since he had his 5 year old with him. The jet ski would have gone in circles if they went off it and could have caused a terrible injury to him or his son or probably both of them."

And a terrible accident is something Niehaus does not want to see but has, all too often.

At Half Moon Lake, at its roped swimming area, a 23-year-old young mother began swimming outside of the roped area several years ago. A boater did not see her and she was horribly injured and killed outright by the boat's prop.

Another incident in Barton Pond several years ago has stuck with Niehaus too. A father and his two sons were out fishing in a shallow-draft boat.

The father struggled with getting the engine to start and each time he pulled the rope, more water came into the boat.

Suddenly, the boat flipped over. The father was picked up by another boater and the six year old swam to shore but the eight year old immediately sank in the water and died.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the boy would have easily survived if he was wearing a life preserver. But he wasn't. I never want to see a young child on the water not wearing a life preserver. I see that, and I see a terrible tragedy about to happen that is completely unnecessary."

Niehaus has seen "a lot of awful things" both on the water and as a road patrol officer but he takes it in stride as a professional and knows he has a job to do.

And that's why he enjoys his role as a safety educator and when necessary, an enforcer. He loves having the opportunity to prevent someone dying or being grievously injured.

He notes that, when on the water, he is typically involved in 20-30 boater contacts during his shift. This can involve questions asked by boaters, stops for safety checks, or arrests for drunken operation.

"There are two violations you don't want to get as a boater: reckless operation and drunkenness. Other things are petty involving the issuance of a ticket but you go to jail for those two," he said.

And Niehaus notes that society as a whole seems to be driving, boating--and drinking--at ever faster speeds with more people involved too.

"A friend of mine and I recently went to German Park in Ann Arbor for the annual festivities and we could not believe how many younger people were drinking pretty heavily. My friend said he just could not understand it.

"I always tried to tell my students that alcohol can be very dangerous, it's a poison. And law enforcement officers see the terrible, and unnecessary, consequences of excessive drinking on every shift."

Niehaus has had a few opportunities to combine all his different job roles and his favorite involved one of his high school students.

"I had a student who came to me and said he had gotten a traffic ticket. He told me the circumstances and I thought the ticket was sort of foolish. I didn't think he had deserved getting it. So I went to court with him and I was talking with the prosecutor and told him I was a cop, as well as a teacher and lawyer and I thought the ticket was pretty 'Mickey Mouse.' We got to talking and the prosecutor agreed to just drop the ticket altogether.

"I want to tell you, that kid thought I walked on water after that," Niehaus said, laughing at his own sense of irony at being both a road and maritime officer, and a lawyer and teacher.

Published: Thu, Sep 15, 2011

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