A year after the murder of anti-abortion activist Jim Pouillon, Mary Jo Pouillon of Owosso still misses her father everyday. But it’s a feeling the 27-year-old can temper knowing her father’s cause has reached more people through his death than in life.
“He always told me that he hoped that when he died that it was out on the corner doing work that God has called him to do. And that’s exactly what happened,” Mary Jo Pouillon said. “And so many more people heard about his story and his activism and his cause because of his death. And he would have loved that.”
Tragedy struck on the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, when Jim Pouillon was gunned down by a man in a white Ford pickup truck as he protested across the street from Owosso High School with a graphic anti-abortion sign.
Later identified as Harlan Drake of Owosso, the killer then went to Fuoss Gravel Pit in Owosso Township, and shot and killed owner Mike Fuoss. After traveling back to his home on Shiawassee Street, Drake was arrested by police, confessed to the two killings and was eventually jailed on murder charges.
A family memorial service with a cremation for Pouillon followed, and family and friends also packed Nelson-House Funeral Home to attend Fuoss’s funeral.
Following her father’s death, Mary Jo Pouillon said she received hundreds of cards mailed from all over the United States and the world. Pro-life activists also have held demonstrations in Jim Pouillon’s honor, she added.
Mary Jo Pouillon was only 5 years old in 1988 when her father became an activist after hearing pro-life advocates over the radio invite others to rally in Atlanta. And for more than 20 years, Jim Pouillon protested around the area — outside schools, Owosso City Hall, the library and Owosso High School’s Willman Field.
“He was just called to do it,” she said.
Growing up, Mary Jo Pouillon said she supported her father’s cause and participated in protests with him. She said she had no problem with her father protesting near Owosso High School while she was a student there, and she recalls their two-week family vacations filled with attending Operation Rescue rallies.
“I supported my dad 100 percent, and he knew it.” Mary Jo Pouillon said. “I thank God that I was blessed to have such a godly example in my life. God told him to do something, and he did it no matter what society threw at him.”
As a parent, Jim Pouillon was a generous, devoted father who went to great lengths to attend many of her track meets and volleyball games, Mary Jo Pouillon said.
And, every day, he made sure to give his daughter a kiss before she headed out the door, she added.
“No matter what anyone else says about him, he was good man to me,” Mary Jo Pouillon said. “He wouldn’t let me leave the house without saying ‘I love you’ and giving me a kiss good-bye. He always said, ‘You never know when its going to be the last time.’”
Less than a week after the murders, more than 250 people flocked to Willman Field for a public memorial celebrating the life and activism of the “sign man.” Family, friends and other activists, gathered at the event which featured prayers, songs and a message by Pastor David Knox of Abba’s House Christian Fellowship, the church Pouillon attended.
Even then, Mary Jo Pouillon said she harbored no ill will toward Drake.
“He needs Jesus just like I do,” she said.
After receiving treatment at the State Department of Mental Health, Drake was found competent to stand trial in late October 2009. He eventually stood trial in March and confessed to both killings. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, one count of illegal firearm and one count of intent to commit a felony with a firearm.
On April 22, Drake was sentenced in 35th Circuit Court by Judge Gerald Lostracco to life in prison without parole for the murders of Pouillon and Fuoss.
In his eight years at the Owosso Police Department, Public Safety Director Mike Compeau said it was the first time he dealt with such a case in Owosso. And to his knowledge, Compeau said it was the first time the Owosso community had to deal with a double murder case of this magnitude.
“That’s the first time we’ve had anything of that nature happen,” Compeau said. “I’ve been a police officer now for 36 years, and, not to say that it hasn’t happened at other places, but it’s the first time I’ve experienced, in my career, a protester being shot — especially protesting at a high school.”
Compeau said he was proud of the way his department handled the tragic situation the day of the murders. Owosso police took control of the scene, made an arrest and got a confession, Compeau said. He added, OPD also worked well with the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office and the Shiawassee County Prosecutor’s office.
“I think they handled this case flawlessly,” Compeau said. “Sometimes you wonder how your department is going to operate under the most stressful situations. And I think I found out that day that our people were well-trained and well-prepared.”
No changes to the police department’s procedures were made following the double murder, Compeau said.
Owosso Superintendent Chris Hammill, who officially began his position with the district the day after the murders, also said his staff and students handled the tragic situation very well.
“It was a tragedy. And while it did happen across the street from our high school, our staff responded really flawlessly from a protocol standpoint,” Hammill said. He added everyone from administrators to bus drivers helped enforce the safety measures.
Aside from updating some of the school district’s protocols for communication and working with the OPD and Sheriff’s Department to review their roles during a crisis situation, none of the district’s emergency protocols were changed, Hammill said.
He added, while the murders greatly impacted the Owosso community, it only took a month for school days to return to “business as usual.”
“Kids are resilient. I don’t think we give children enough credit for their resiliency,” Hammill said. “The kids were well taken care of, well supported. And we were able to get back to a normal school routine very, very quickly as a result of the teamwork and community support.”