Man who died in a Macomb Community College vent was hiding, police say

Days after finding his decomposing body in the ventilation system of a Macomb Community College building in Clinton Township, it is unclear why Jason Thompson had been there, if he was mentally ill and whether he could have been saved.

"There’s been a lot of inquiries and questions and speculation," Macomb College Police Chief William Leavens told reporters Thursday, adding the investigation was at "a point where we could share a lot more information."

The macabre case garnered national attention, upset students and raised questions from reporters about why — if Thompson was last seen in late October and family reported him missing on Nov. 1 — it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that his body was found.

The Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, located in Clinton Township.
The Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, located in Clinton Township.

The police chief, who held a news conference at the college’s south campus, said the evidence suggests Thompson’s death was an accident and he likely perished, suffocating alone, before authorities even were aware he was missing.

Leavens expressed condolences to the Thompson’s family, who have set up a GoFundMe account to help defray funeral expenses and support Thompson's young children, Killian and Kiara.

The gofundme message noted Thompson was loved by and will be missed.

As of early Friday morning, it had raised more than $4,000.

He sent text messages

As detectives try to piece together what happened, Leavens said he’s never seen a case quite like this one. It appears from the information investigators have gathered so far, including text messages, that Thompson was hiding.

Thompson told his family, the police chief said, he was running from authorities, had gotten onto a roof at the college, and may be in the ventilation system.

"There are indications in the investigation through family that he suffered some mental health concerns and issues," Leavens said, although detectives did not find confirmation other than "what was learned through the family." Leavens also said he did not know why Thompson went to the college.

Thompson did have felony warrants for his arrest, although it did not appear that any police agencies were actively looking for him, Leavens said. The chief did not identify what the charges were — or which agencies had issued them.

In addition, Leavens said he has only seen some of the text messages Thompson purportedly sent to loved ones, probably while he was at the college. In those, the chief said, Thompson asked to be picked up but did not indicate he was in distress.

More: Foul smell leads to dead man in ventilation system at Macomb Center for the Performing Arts

Leavens said police are seeking to do a forensic search of Thompson’s phone, which could uncover more messages, or records of phone calls, and offer context to what they already know.

Detectives also are waiting for the medical examiner’s toxicology report, which, Leavens said, could give them a better idea if Thompson was taking any drugs that might have affected his judgment or made him paranoid.

Inching into the ducts

According to police, Thompson surreptitiously climbed onto the roof of the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 25 or 26. He lifted a wire screen that covered an entrance into the ventilation system and squeezed into it.

Thompson made his way deep and deeper into the ducts — perhaps 20 to 30 feet, the exact distance authorities did not say — until he became stuck, headfirst and upside down. Unable to turn around, or move his arms or legs.

He was alone, in a space too small to breathe, and his only hope of rescue was his mobile phone.

But, Leavens said, the phone was at just 4% power — and soon became useless.

Family reported Thompson missing on Nov. 1 to Sterling Heights.

Nearly a week later, on Nov. 7, Sterling Heights police contacted the Macomb College police and asked to check whether Thompson was on the roof of the performing arts center or if there was evidence that he had entered the ventilation openings.

Leavens said an officer and a college staffer went on the roof but saw nothing — and smelled nothing. But, he added, they also were not expecting Thompson to still be hiding there, especially since nearly two weeks had passed.

They were looking for clues as to where he might have gone next.

A 2nd and 3rd search

On Nov. 17, more than a week later, Sterling Heights police asked campus police to check again, this time by reviewing any video recordings around the center and its roof on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26 to see where Thompson was visible.

Police found none.

Sunday, as Thompson's decomposing body began releasing an awful odor, police began a third search. Leaven said they finally found the body with help from Michigan State Police and X-ray equipment.

Leavens said there is no evidence anyone was with Thompson. He didn’t bring any supplies like food or water. And once in the ducts, he kept moving ahead, breaking through barriers, until he came to a vertical drop.

No one, Leavens said, could have survived "in that position for long."

The college added it has hired a company to clean and sanitize the ducts.

It also noted it sent a letter to inform students about what unfolded on campus.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Man who died in a Macomb Community College vent was hiding, police say