Suspect pleads guilty in Dowagiac murder case

CASSOPOLIS — A man involved in a Dowagiac home invasion turned murder earlier this year has pleaded guilty.

Justin Carlton pleaded guilty Monday to second degree murder for the 9 mm Luger slaying of Dowagiac resident Michael Collins.

The charges stem from a home invasion that occurred on Jan. 17. The home invasion escalated, resulting in the murder of Collins.

Prior to the incident, Carlton, 41, of Kalamazoo, had been convicted of three prior offenses, including an assault by strangulation in 2014.

The guilty plea requires the defendant to serve a minimum of 43 years in prison. Under Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing statutes, felony defendants do not receive good time or disciplinary credits.  Accordingly, Carlton will not be eligible for parole until he has served the actual minimum of 43 years in prison.

At the plea, Carlton acknowledged going armed on the night of the murder with the Luger to 700 Louise Ave. in Dowagiac in the accompaniment of co-defendant Jay Penar. Carlton indicated that he and Penar then entered Collins’ home with masks on. Upon entry, the homeowner, Collins, resisted and was immediately shot by Carlton.

Carlton told the court that after shooting Collins, items were taken from the victim’s Dowagiac home and transported by him and Penar to Kalamazoo where the bulk of the items were unloaded at a drug house.

All other charges in case, including conspiracy to commit robbery, armed robbery and unlawful firearm possession, were dismissed as part of the plea agreement, along with a separate file charging Carlton with possession of a weapon in the Cass County Jail and resisting law enforcement officers on March 8.

Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz credited the Dowagiac Police Department, along with important assistance from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, the St. Joe County, Michigan Sheriff’s Office, the Kalamazoo Police Department and other law enforcement agencies for their extremely focused and professional investigation.

In particular, Fitz noted that their timely actions resulted in the prompt detection of two masked suspects who might have otherwise avoided detection for many days, weeks or even months.

Michael Collins was 40 years old at the time of his death. He is survived by two adult sons.

Sentencing on Carlton’s second degree murder conviction is set in front of Judge Mark Herman of the 43rd Circuit Court at 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 18.

Carlton’s co-defendant Penar, 39, of White Pigeon, is set for a pretrial conference next week. Penar faces 11 felony charges including open murder and armed robbery in connection with Collins’ death.

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