If You Only Knew by M. William Phelps is a true crime book that follows Vonlee “Nicole” Titlow and her aunt, Billie Jean Rogers, who were eventually caught for the murder of Billie’s husband, Donald Rogers, and the very twisted case that actually had part of it go to the Supreme Court.
When Vonlee “Nicole” Titlow and her aunt, Billie Jean Rogers, came home from a night of gambling in a casino near Detroit, they told police they found Billie's husband unconscious on the floor of the Rogers' mansion. Just another of his alcoholic benders, they assumed. But this time, Donald Rogers didn't wake up.
The investigation would reveal the sordid story behind the death of a self-made millionaire—including transgender adventures in Chicago and Denver, a tangled web of dueling addictions, a mind-boggling history of out-of-control spending, and how a sex change operation may have fueled a motive for murder. Renowned investigative journalist M. William Phelps exposes the riveting details behind one of the most astonishing real-life thrillers to date.
SOME THINGS IN LIFE are not what they appear to be at first glance. Take, for example, the quiet stillness of the night inside her patrol car, interrupted only by the crackling static of a police scanner every so often. It was that sound, rolling over her relaxed breathing and the occasional shuffle and leathery crunch of her well-oiled duty belt, that had misled Patrol Officer Lynn Giorgi into thinking it just might be a slow night, devoid of any major public evils.
Officer Giorgi had worked for the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, before becoming a police officer in Troy, about a 150-mile drive east, two years prior. Troy is sandwiched between slices of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. Troy is, essentially, part of the metro Detroit region, within Oakland County. A family-oriented city, one of the largest in the state, Troy bills itself as the “most dynamic and livable” metropolitan area in the Wolverine State. It’s the schools, ever yone says, that attract the yuppies and hipsters to settle down with their snobby kids and live the good life in suburbia.
As Officer Giorgi patrolled through downtown during the early-morning hours of August 12, 2000, near the halfway point of her midnight to 8:00 A.M. shift, the otherwise quiet radio in her cruiser buzzed with a voice. It was dispatch: “Man down . . . not breathing. . . .”
A second request then came in for an ambulance.
CPR run, Giorgi thought.
Some poor bastard probably had a heart attack, was fighting for his life.
Up until then, it had been an inconsequential night in Troy. Generally was.
As Giorgi hit the lights on her patrol car and took off toward 2090 Grenadier Drive, a rather swanky end of town, she expected to arrive at the scene and find a man she needed to perform first aid on. In two years with the Troy Police Department (TPD), Giorgi had answered maybe ten of these same calls.
As Giorgi pulled into the driveway at 4:25 A.M., col- league, friend and fellow officer Pete Dungjen pulled in right behind her. The single-family home, with four bedrooms and three and a half baths at about three thousand square feet, was spacious and well-kept. The area had a reputation for plotting half-million-dollar homes. Not necessarily the ultrarich, but most of the people in this neighborhood did not have to worr y about money.
Giorgi went directly into her trunk and took out the first aid CPR kit and ran toward the front door.
When she reached the stoop, the door opened. There were two females, Giorgi later said, standing in the foyer, waiting on the TPD to arrive. Both women seemed “calm,” but also in great need of someone to help the victim inside the house.
One of the women, whom Giorgi would later come to know as Billie Jean Rogers, said, “He’s in there—in the kitchen.” Billie Jean pointed the cop in the right direc- tion.
Billie Jean was the man’s wife.
Inside the kitchen, Giorgi’s training kicked into action. On the floor was a man “in his fifties,” she later guessed (he was much older), lying on his back, on the floor. There was a chair turned over on its side next to him. Without any other information, she surmised that the man had grabbed for the backrest of the chair on his way down to the floor, flipping the thing over as he hit the ground.
Donald Rogers was seventy-four years old. Billie Jean’s husband was a local business owner, who had made quite a bit of money manufacturing a line of automotive as- sembly tools. In the “car capital of the world,” Don Rogers and his business partner, Don Kather, had started the business together back in 1977. Kather actually bought Rogers out in 1990, but Rogers had still invested in the company and went into the office ever y day, helping to keep it afloat after the car industr y boom left only ashes in its wake. Kather had gotten together with Rogers on August 11, as they did daily, to meet for lunch. Rogers looked and sounded good, Kather later said. Rogers was “very frugal” with his spending habits, Kather explained. He had plenty of money, but he never went on vacations or bought luxurious items or drove glamorous cars. Same as when he went out to eat, Don Rogers chose middle-of-the-road restaurants, always for- going the four-star hot spots. He lived life simply. And yet, there was one thing Don never skimped on—something he spared no expense at and did every day: drink.
Billie Jean was quite the polar opposite when it came to spending money—most of which was her husband’s. “Well, if she saw something she liked,” her daughter later said, “she would just buy it.” Billie Jean had no real “concept of money,” the daughter added. “She saw money as fun . . . that was what it was for, in her mind.” More than that, Billie Jean was a “ver y poor money manager.”
Billie Jean had lived both sides of the coin: In Ten- nessee, where she grew up with seven siblings, she was “dirt poor.” There was not even running water in the house; she literally lived hand to mouth; hand-me-downs and handouts were a way of life.
As Officer Giorgi prepared to work on Don Rogers, Billie Jean Rogers, Don’s wife for a second time—they had married once, divorced and then remarried—stood over her, explaining what she thought had happened.
“He’s been drinking—he has a problem with alco- hol,” Billie Jean said. “He’s a chronic alcoholic.” Then, oddly enough, Billie Jean added, “He suffers from rectal bleeds.”
Apparently, the drinking had gotten so out of hand, she was saying, Don often bled from his rectum, all over the place.
Giorgi noticed that Don Rogers had very slight bruis- ing on his face and one small abrasion on his upper lip. But one would expect some mild scuffs and scrapes on a guy who had supposedly passed out drunk and fallen on the floor. Suffice it to say, he probably fell into that chair, which was on its side lying next to him, and had probably made a habit of falling down and into things if, in fact, he drank as much as his wife claimed.
Giorgi had to move the chair so she could kneel next to Don and begin to work on him.
Acclimating himself to the situation, trying to figure out the best way to help Don Rogers, Officer Pete Dungjen walked up and knelt on one knee next to Giorgi. By now, Billie Jean was a bit antsier, but not at all frantic or exceedingly concerned, both officers noticed.
From the way she acted, this fall seemed to be perhaps a common thing around the house: Don tying one on and passing out on the floor.
Dungjen touched Don Rogers.
“He’s cold,” Dungjen said to Giorgi. “Rigidity has set in.”
Giorgi didn’t have to check for a pulse. She knew. Don Rogers wasn’t passed out this time.
He was dead.
THE OTHER FEMALE STANDING next to Billie Jean Rogers as law enforcement backup was called in to deter- mine what happened to Don Rogers, and if the scene warranted further investigation, was Vonlee Nicole Titlow. Born in Maryville, Tennessee, a Deep South town at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Vonlee had lived in Nashville and in Denver. Vonlee even had a pent- house in Chicago at one time. Vonlee’s aunt Billie Jean, her mother’s sister, had invited Vonlee to stay with her and Don in Troy, and Vonlee had been living at the house for the past few months. While the age difference spanned decades, Billie Jean and Vonlee shared a common love of going out and partying at the local casi- nos in Detroit. Whereas Billie Jean was more focused on gambling, Vonlee was a nightlife gal, dancing and drink- ing, working the rooms. She’d been an exotic dancer and had run an escort service in Denver and Chicago, making upward of—Vonlee later claimed—twenty thou- sand dollars a week. Back then, Vonlee added, she was dating a few different men at the same time.
“I took care of them,” she claimed. Meaning, she paid for their lifestyle and living accommodations. “It was kind of like a power thing. Kind of fun . . . you know, I loved those guys.”
Moving to Chicago from Denver in 1999, Vonlee was effectively running from the escort lifestyle in Denver, while still dabbling in it to make some money in Chicago. But she wanted the simple life now. From the early 1990s until that move to Chicago, Vonlee had been running from herself, essentially. She’d gotten caught up in a life of booze, men, clubs, cars, clothes. Material things. By the time she made it to Chicago, Vonlee had a life wait- ing for her, if she wanted it. A man she had been dating signed over the deed to a house she could live in, rent- free. All she had to do was be there for him when he needed her. The man wanted to take care of Vonlee. “A lot of men did this throughout the years,” Vonlee told me later. However, as Vonlee thought about it, she was nobody’s possession—nobody’s “thing” to have when he wanted. Whereas it might have been something she went for during her younger years, not anymore. Vonlee was now in her thirties. She needed to focus on herself and what she wanted.
“It’s on the counter,” she said one night when that man came home.
“The deed. I signed it back over to you—I’m going home to Tennessee.”
By now, Vonlee had been to rehab, a familiar face in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings around Chicago. She wanted out of the big city, away from that fast-paced nightlife she had taken part in through much of her twenties. Back in Tennessee, she took a job at the local Waffle House and went back to living with her grand- mother Annis Lee, the woman who had raised her.
“I was giving her twenty or thirty dollars a day for rent,” Vonlee said.
Life was simple. She was around family. The smell of that Tennessee air. There was nothing like it. The down-home, simple folks she interacted with every day. The sheer snail’s pace of life itself. She’d take her nephews fishing. Go for drives in the countr y to see friends. Attend barbeques the relatives spent all day preparing. Enjoy Sunday dinners after church services.
“I was extremely happy,” Vonlee recalled. But then something happened.
“Aunt Billie Jean shows up. . . .”
Vonlee was actually working when Billie Jean walked into the restaurant, sat down and called her over. Vonlee hadn’t seen her in over a decade. She’d spoken to her, but that was it. Now Billie Jean sat in front of her during the spring, early summer of 2000, surprising Vonlee with the visit, making a proposition Vonlee had a hard time turning her back on.
As Vonlee approached the table, shocked to see her aunt there all the way from Troy, Vonlee noticed she was laughing.
“A waitress,” her aunt said in a mocking tone, talking down to Vonlee. “You’re a waitress in this dive? I cannot believe you took to waiting on tables, Vonlee.”
Vonlee wanted to curl up in a ball right there. She felt belittled and a total failure.
“Sit down,” Billie Jean said. It sounded as though she had an offer to make.
“What are you doing here?” Vonlee asked. She was looking back toward the kitchen and register. She didn’t want her boss to see her sitting in a booth with a customer.
“Look, honey, you don’t have any drinking problem. What are you running from?” Vonlee and Billie Jean, living somewhat close to each other in the upper Mid- west, had communicated, and Billie Jean knew about Vonlee’s journey into recovery. In some ways, there was a bit of envy on her part. She valued Vonlee’s no-holds- bar attitude, not giving two shakes about what people said or thought about her. The older woman wanted to be her own person, same as Vonlee. She knew the more she hung around Vonlee, the more of a free spirit she would become.
As for Vonlee, she certainly had the pizazz, flare and fortitude, along with the clichéd sassy Southern charm, of a luxurious, expensive call girl. She looked the part with her long, muscular, yet feminine, legs, bleached- blond hair, down to her shoulders, and curvaceous, fem- inine figure. And if you asked Vonlee, she had no trouble taking on clients when her girls couldn’t handle the influx of calls or the specialized requests from such a high-powered clientele.
But that was another time, another life. She was back home now in Tennessee and pretty content living a simple life.
During those preceding months leading up to the early morning Don Rogers was found dead inside the kitchen of his home, however, Vonlee was deter- mined to spend her free time seeing old friends and spending time with her rather large family. Chicago and the escort business were rather old and worn. And Billie Jean, who claimed she was back to visit family, insisted that Vonlee come back to Michigan at once with her and live inside the home she shared with Don. The aunt told Vonlee that a restaurant, waiting tables, was not the place she wanted to see her niece. It was degrading.
Vonlee considered the question: Should I go back? It isn’t Chicago; it’s Troy, Michigan. What kind of trouble is in Troy?
“You don’t have no dranking problem, Vonlee,” Billie Jean said. She was leaning over the table, almost whispering. “You just need to buy bigger bottles and drank it slow all day long.” The aunt laughed.
Vonlee considered the idea: Maybe I don’t.
“Let’s you and me get out of here,” Billie Jean said. “I got money.”
Harrah’s, she suggested.
July Fourth weekend was a day away. “In North Carolina?” Vonlee asked. “Yes.”
Vonlee took off her apron, tossed it into the kitchen and headed out the door. She would pack something while Billie Jean waited in the car and, like Thelma and Louise, she and Billie Jean would head out to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina, to party it up for the weekend. Any sobriety Vonlee had earned, she had just given away.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that would change Vonlee’s life forever.
Copyright © 2016 M. William Phelps.
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New York Times bestselling investigative journalist and serial crime expert M. William Phelps is the author of thirty nonfiction books. Winner of the 2013 Excellence in Journalism Award, with over one million books in print, Phelps has appeared on nearly 100 television shows, including CBS's Early Show, ABC's Good Morning America, NBC's Today Show, The View, and many others. Phelps also created, produced and starred in the series Dark Minds; and is one of the stars of Deadly Women and Oxygen's Snapped. Radio America calls him “the nation's leading authority on the mind of the female murderer.”
Profiled in such noted publications as Writer's Digest, Connecticut Magazine, NY Daily News, NY Post, Newsday, Suspense Magazine, and the Hartford Courant, Phelps also consulted on the first season of the Showtime cable television series Dexter; he has written for Connecticut Magazine, Huffington Post, the Providence Journal, and other major publications. Touched by tragedy himself, due to the unsolved murder of his sister-in-law, Phelps is able to enter the hearts and minds of his subjects like no one else. He lives in a small Connecticut farming community and can be reached at his author website, www.mwilliamphelps.com.