Revisiting a shocking murder case: Discovery Channel plans episode on 2003 Dover motel teen killing

A Discovery Channel crew interviews retired Delaware State Police homicide detective William “Billy” Porter last month in Dover. Submitted photo/Porter family

DOVER — It would be a nearly unbelievable tale if not so tragically true.

The unfortunate twists and turns involving a high profile Dover murder 17 years ago has drawn unexpected interest from afar.

This fall, the Discovery Channel plans to revisit the death of 16-year-old Kimberly Holton at a motel next to U.S. 13 in an “American Detective” episode.

Condensing all the dramatic, traumatic details into a 60-minute show may prove quite challenging.

Michael E. Keyser

In a nutshell — the teen was with two young men she knew when fatally suffocated inside a Dover Budget Inn room on Sept. 30, 2003.

Her body was later dropped from a small chartered plane into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape May, N.J., detectives determined.

Michael E. Keyser, 23 at the time, was convicted of first-degree murder just over a year later, and co-suspect Jacob L. Jones, 20, committed suicide at his home before ever being charged.

Keyser had tried unsuccessfully to kill himself while being held without bail at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center shortly after his arrest, police said.

Kimberly Holton

Ever on the lookout for a compelling crime story, Discovery Channel saw an opportunity to present the details to a national audience.

The network contacted Delaware State Police to gauge interest in publicizing the case; the agency called now-retired trooper William “Billy” Porter, who was a lead investigator along with fellow detective James P. “Pete” Fraley.

Initially apprehensive about joining the production, Mr. Porter said he’d “forgotten about the case” with a mindset that “it’s best not to look back on one like that.”

Since leaving DSP in 2016 after a 26 year-plus stint, Mr. Porter, 56, was mostly enjoying family time in Harrington and frequent camping trips.

Retired Delaware State Police homicide unit detective William “Billy” Porter is part of an upcoming Discovery Channel episode covering a 2003 murder in Dover. Delaware State News/Craig Anderson

“I was caught off guard for sure,” Mr. Porter said. “I was surprised that anyone would be interested in something that happened so long ago.

“The more I thought about it, though, I realized that so many people had worked hard on the case and it turned out in a good way.

“With the way the world is today I thought that this could shine a positive light on law enforcement, especially the Delaware State Police, for a job well done.”

The interview begins

So on Jan. 29, Mr. Porter sat down for a three-hour interview with a four-member Discovery Channel crew at the Delaware Agriculture Museum in Dover. The location was chosen for its quiet and rustic setting, he said.

The start of 100-some questions began almost immediately with the crew’s explanation that “We want to do this unscripted.”

The interviewer “definitely had her stuff together” while pushing the ex-trooper for his remembrances. He’d reviewed the case file beforehand, but nearly two decades had passed.

Some troopers arrived for support and Mr. Porter (with an ever so slight smile and wince) described the overall stress that day as “worse than (being on the stand) in court.”

Mr. Porter had just joined the homicide unit when Ms. Holton died, and it was his first ever case. A hundred or so would follow over the next 13 years, but none ever as complex.

Investigating the tragic circumstances — Ms. Holton was a Dover High junior when she died — proved to be personally challenging at the time.

“There was a lot of emotion involved in the case, but in the end it was satisfying to know that we got the right people, put the right person in prison,” he said. “In the end a lot of hard work paid off.”

Investigators Mr. Fraley and Mr. Porter knew each other from their days at Lake Forest High in Felton. They combined efforts with New Jersey State Police (also to be featured on the TV episode) to make the case.

“They were all extremely great to work with,” Mr. Porter said.

A jury of seven women and five men deliberated for 6 1/2 hours over two days before convicting Michael E. Keyser on a first-degree murder charge on Nov. 16, 2004. At the time of conviction a jury heard testimony on whether Keyser should spend life in prison with no hope of parole or execution by lethal injection. He’s now incarcerated within the Delaware Department of Correction system. Delaware State News file image

Chain in the water

The initial investigation spanned five weeks as detectives searched for clues, developed evidence and conducted interviews.

According to Delaware State News reporting at the time, police said Ms. Holton was lured to the motel at around 1:15 a.m. — the same day she was reported missing from her Dover Air Park neighborhood residence.

A story said police believed the girl thought the men could help her with trouble at home. Mr. Jones was dating Ms. Holton’s foster stepsister.

According to a DSP news release:

“Detectives believe Jones and Keyser murdered Holton because Holton and her foster stepsister strongly disliked each other, and that the foster stepsister did not like her being around.”

Following the death, police said, Ms. Holton’s body was wrapped in a blanket before being moved into the trunk of Mr. Jones’ car. The chartered flight lifted off later in the day, according to authorities.

The badly decomposed corpse was seen floating by fishermen in a private boat more than a week after the incident in Dover. The discovery was made 3.9 miles off the coast of Cape May.

The body had chains wrapped around the legs and the New Jersey medical examiner’s office listed the cause of death as “homicidal violence.”

The teen was identified through fingerprints, and New Jersey State Police contacted First State law enforcement about the discovery.

The chains proved crucial to investigation, since they were found to be the grade and type that manufacturers sold to Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores.

Detectives spent hours reviewing surveillance videos at the Dover Lowe’s store, which was next to the motel where Ms. Holton had died. Finally, two men were seen buying 15 feet of chain (weighing 11 pounds), five locks and two cinder blocks.

Delaware State Police said this surveillance video image published Oct. 17, 2003 was a key in solving the murder of Kimberly Holton. File photo/Delaware State News

Three still images of the men were released to the media for publication, and one of them — who police said was not involved in the murder — recognized himself in the Oct. 17 edition of the Delaware State News and contacted authorities.

“He saw it when he went to work, then called Dover Police,” Sgt. Fraley said at the time. “We went and got him immediately. The clouds began to clear in the case.”

The man knew the person he was with at Lowe’s as “Jake” and police said a cell phone caller ID check identified Mr. Jones.

After an interview with Mr. Jones, police said Keyser was identified as a person of interest as well.

On Sept. 19, police had arrested a 65-year-old Camden man that Ms. Holton had been staying with, but determined he was not involved.

Persons of interest

Evidence pointed to Mr. Jones, a 2001 Polytech High graduate and sophomore aviation student at Delaware State University, who supposedly spent $88 to fly a small charter plane to dump the body, investigators said. Sgt. Fraley described him as an accomplished pilot with a 4.0 grade-point average at the time.

At trial, police testified that Mr. Jones chartered a plane from the Dover Air Force Base Aero Club, which he piloted toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr. Porter said the plane’s transponder was turned off at the time, but a civilian radar expert was able to track the majority of the plane’s airborne travel.

The radar information was taken from a station in Gibbsboro, N.J.

Using overlay maps shown on a television monitor through Power Point, the expert — employed by the U.S. Air Force Radar Evaluation Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in Utah — told the jury that the plane was detected taking off from Dover at 11:48 p.m. on Sept. 30.

The plane landed at Delaware Air Park in Cheswold after a six-minute flight, the expert said, and then headed south toward Cape May, N.J. After being lost on radar, the aircraft reappeared and was seen traveling over the city and then toward the water, according to testimony.

“We see here that the plane makes a sharp right turn and then makes two 360-degree (circles) before it pulls out and heads west over the ocean,” the expert explained.

While investigators did not prove whether or not pilot Jones was alone at the time, according to a DSN story, they theorized that the plane slowed “down to 30-40 mph, banked into the turns and either rolled or pushed Ms. Holton’s chained and weighted body out the door.”

Radar indicated that the plane returned over the Delaware Bay before landing in Cheswold. The aircraft departed five minutes later and then arrived at Dover at 1:39 a.m. on Oct. 1, the expert said.

Deputy Attorneys General Robert J. O’Neill and Marie Graham prosecuted Keyser’s case, with attorneys Beth Deborah Savitz and Joseph A. Gabay representing the defendant.

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for 6 1/2 hours over two days before convicting Keyser (a 1999 Polytech High graduate) on a first-degree murder charge on Nov. 16, 2004.

At the time of conviction a jury heard testimony on whether Keyser should spend life in prison with no hope of parole or execution by lethal injection. He’s now incarcerated within the Delaware Department of Correction system.