Murder trial begins against suspect accused of killing Detroit Jewish leader Samantha Woll

Margo Woll closed her eyes as a Wayne County circuit judge read aloud the murder charges against the man accused of stabbing her daughter, Samantha Woll, to death.

By her side was her husband, Douglas Woll, who couldn't look at the blood-filled images displayed in court of his daughter's apartment the night she was killed.

Opening statements began on Tuesday afternoon in the trial against Michael Jackson-Bolanos, 28, charged in the slaying of the prominent Jewish leader and political activist.

Jackson-Bolanos is accused of fatally stabbing Woll eight times around her face and neck during an Oct. 21, 2023, home invasion in Detroit's Lafayette Park neighborhood, just east of downtown. The suspect's attorney, Brian Brown, said his client was in the area, but that there's no evidence that links him to the physical crime scene.

Michael Jackson-Bolanos looks back from the defense table as family and friends of Samantha Woll enter the courtroom of Judge Margaret Van Houten at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Jackson-Bolanos is on trial accused of stabbing and killing Jewish leader and Democrat activist Samantha Woll on Oct. 21, 2023.
Michael Jackson-Bolanos looks back from the defense table as family and friends of Samantha Woll enter the courtroom of Judge Margaret Van Houten at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Jackson-Bolanos is on trial accused of stabbing and killing Jewish leader and Democrat activist Samantha Woll on Oct. 21, 2023.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Elsey described the killing in his opening statement as a crime of opportunity: Jackson-Bolanos was captured on video fumbling with cars in Samantha Woll's neighborhood the night she was killed. Her door was open.

Elsey said that Jackson-Bolanos entered Woll's home so he could steal from her.

"The most important thing that he ended up taking that night was the life of the woman, a woman named Samantha Woll," Elsey said to the jury.

"And on the very last night of her life, a night when someone was lurking in her neighborhood, she left her front door open. She gave (Jackson-Bolanos) an opportunity to take from her. And that mistake turned out to be tragic."

Jackson-Bolanos is charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, home invasion and lying to police.

Elsey pointed to blood that matched Woll's found on Jackson-Bolanos' jacket and backpack, and surveillance video and cellphone tower data that show Jackson-Bolanos in the area of Woll’s home when her security system’s motion sensor last registered movement at 4:20 a.m.

Two hours later, a neighbor found Woll dead outside of her home. Inside, police observed a bloody scene and signs of a struggle.

Brown described the killing as a "crime of passion" that could not have been committed by his client during the timeline the prosecution presented.

He suggested his client was at the wrong place at the wrong time. While casting doubt on the prosecution's timeline, he also pointed to other potential suspects, like Woll's ex-boyfriend who Elsey admitted was taken into custody after allegedly admitting to the crime during a panic attack.

Judge Margaret Van Houten listens to Brian Brown, the defense attorney for Michael Jackson-Bolanos talk to the jury during opening statements in her courtroom at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Jackson-Bolanos is on trial accused of stabbing and killing Jewish leader and Democrat activist Samantha Woll on Oct. 21, 2023.

"We want you to use your logic and reasoning skills to realize that the time frame that they say this happened in is virtually impossible," Brown said to the jury.

Elsey said that the ex-boyfriend's admission was false. He was never charged and later released. Elsey said the day after his release was reported, Jackson-Bolanos allegedly searched on the internet how to leave town.

Woll was president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, founded the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Detroit, and had worked for high-profile Democrats including Attorney General Dana Nessel and Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin.

Woll had attended a wedding the night before she was killed. Her mysterious death left Detroit area Jewish and interfaith communities shocked and in search of answers for weeks before Jackson-Bolanos was charged.

Over a dozen of Woll's loved ones were present for opening statements. It appeared that no family members or loved ones were there for Jackson-Bolanos.

Critical evidence previewed

Elsey gave the jury a preview of the evidence they will be presented during what he said would be a lengthy trial, evidence that includes DNA testing, cellphone data, and surveillance video footage from dozens of locations.

Critical to the prosecution's case is Woll's blood found on Jackson-Bolanos' jacket and backpack. Jackson-Bolanos allegedly spoke to his girlfriend over the phone while in jail; his girlfriend told him she had washed the jacket, Elsey said in court. He had also searched on the internet for what black lights can detect, which is the technology forensics use to see blood not visible to the naked eye, according to Elsey.

The prosecution's case also includes footage of the suspect from over a dozen locations the morning Woll was killed, across a timeline Elsey said mirrors his cellphone location data and motion sensor alerts from Woll's home security system.

But Brown argued that there’s no evidence showing he was ever inside Woll’s home. There was not enough time, he said, for Jackson-Bolanos to stab Woll eight times and struggle with her before reappearing on surveillance footage a half-mile away. Brown also noted that while the crime scene was bloody, the figure shown in video footage does not appear to be covered in blood.

During a preliminary examination in January, Elsey had showed footage of Jackson-Bolanos walking from his girlfriend's Midtown apartment to Woll's neighborhood and back. He was shown dressed in all black, at times wearing surgical gloves and a mask, and attempting to open doors of vehicles, sometimes taking items out of vehicles.

Elsey showed stills of a handful of these videos to the jury during his opening statement.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Elsey shows a picture that allegedly shows a backpack that belonged to Michael Jackson-Bolanos and a still from a video that allegedly shows him as well during opening statements in the murder trial of Jackson-Bolanos at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Jackson-Bolanos is on trial accused of stabbing and killing Jewish leader and Democrat activist on Oct. 21, 2023.

Elsey told the jury that Woll’s security system showed motion in her living room at 4:20, where she was believed to be sleeping with her front door open before she was stabbed. They said cellphone tower data and security footage showed Jackson-Bolanos in the area of her home between 3:50 a.m. and 4:20 a.m.

Authorities were unable to track Jackson-Bolanos by video from 4 a.m. to 4:20 a.m. but say his cellphone data located him in Woll's neighborhood.

At 4:24 a.m., Elsey said the suspect is seen on video walking across the Macomb Street bridge over I-375, near Woll’s home on Joliet, back toward downtown.

Andrea Sahouri covers criminal justice for the Detroit Free Press. She can be contacted at 313-264-0442 or asahouri@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Trial begins against man accused of killing Detroit Jewish leader Samantha Woll

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