Prosecutors introduce blood, surveillance evidence in Samantha Woll murder trial

Prosecutors have called numerous witnesses in the case so far, including lead investigators, cell data and forensic experts, and some of Woll’s friends, neighbors and ex-partners.

A screenshot of surveillance video shows the suspect, believed to be Michael Jackson-Bolanos, at the intersection of Macomb and Chrysler around 4:23 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2023.

A screenshot of surveillance video shows the suspect, believed to be Michael Jackson-Bolanos, at the intersection of Macomb and Chrysler around 4:23 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2023.

The third week of trial for the man accused of killing Detroit synagogue leader Samantha Woll wrapped up on Thursday, following lengthy testimony from multiple forensic experts and law enforcement officials.

Michael Jackson-Bolanos, 29, of Detroit, has been charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, home invasion and lying to police officers in relation to Woll’s fatal stabbing outside her Lafayette Park home last fall.

Prosecutors have called numerous witnesses throughout the trial, including lead investigators in the case, cellular data and forensic analysts, friends and neighbors of Woll, and two of her ex-partners — both of whom were reportedly ruled out as suspects by police.

On Thursday, Three forensic scientists from the Michigan State Police forensic lab testified about DNA and blood evidence recovered from both Woll’s home and the home where Jackson-Bolanos resided at the time.

Toni Grusser, an expert in bodily fluid identification with MSP’s forensic lab, said during her testimony a black North Face jacket found in the suspect’s home tested positive for the “possible presence” of blood, noting that the stain was not visible to the naked eye and had to be chemical tested to confirm its presence.

A gray backpack found cut in half in the suspect’s vehicle also showed “very strong support” of having Woll’s DNA profile, according to testimony from Michigan State Police DNA analyst Erica Anderson.

Building a case for conviction

The blood evidence is a key part of the prosecutor’s case, along with surveillance video and cell tower data that place the suspect in the area around 4:20 a.m. — the time investigators believe the crime occurred — and show him wearing what investigators believe to be a black North Face jacket.

Surveillance video captured around 3:24 a.m. at East Jefferson Avenue and McDougall Street also showed the suspect wearing what appears to be a black surgical glove, and surveillance captured at 4:24 a.m. appeared to show the suspect walking near the Hollywood Casino at Greektown wearing a gray backpack.

Samantha Woll, president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, was found dead outside her Detroit home on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.
Samantha Woll, president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, was found dead outside her Detroit home on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

Woll, 40, had attended a friend’s wedding the night before her death, and surveillance records from ADT indicated she returned home around 12:30 a.m. The ADT records also showed the front door of Woll’s home was left open around 1 a.m., with motion sensors triggered in the living room at 1:24 a.m. and 4:20 a.m.

The last outgoing text from Woll’s phone was a single heart emoji sent to an individual named David Wolkinson at 1:02 a.m., according to testimony from Detroit Police Detective Sarah Markel, and Woll’s phone was last unlocked at 1:29 a.m.

It’s unclear whether Wolkinson will testify in the case.

A gruesome scene

Woll’s body was found by a neighbor on the sidewalk outside her home on Joliet Place around 6 a.m., with a trail of blood leading from her body to her front door.

On the first day of trial, Detroit Police Sgt. Daron Zhou testified to their being a “significant amount of blood that was inside the hallway leading into the unit,” along with a considerable amount of blood throughout the home — including in the living room and stairwell leading to the basement. During the preliminary exam, Zhou testified to there likely being a struggle during the attack, with a bowl of fruit from the dining room table knocked to the floor and some pillows and blankets on the floor in the living room that were soaked in blood. Her phone was located under the living room couch.

Woll was stabbed eight times in total — three times in the head and five times in the neck and back — according to the medical examiner’s report.

Defense attorney Brian Brown said the complete lack of DNA evidence placing his client at the scene and the small amount of blood evidence alleged to be found on the North Face jacket and backpack is more consistent with his client encountering Woll’s body on the sidewalk than him committing the murder, especially considering the amount of blood found inside the home.

A potential for reasonable doubt

Woll’s ex-partner, Jeffrey Herbstman, gave testimony that the couple dated for a year before she broke up with him in July 2023.

He was the first person arrested by Detroit police as a person of interest in the case after placing a 911 call on Nov. 7 during an apparent mental breakdown, stating that he “may be a danger to others.”

Herbstman told responding officers that he was afraid he may have killed his girlfriend but couldn’t remember doing it, adding that he had “the motive and the opportunity, and I may be trying to outsmart people.”

During his testimony, Herbstman told the jury that he suffers from depression and had been instructed by his psychiatrist at the time to double the dose of a medication he had been prescribed to treat it, which he believes contributed to his “psychotic break.”

“I began to believe that I, that I was responsible for her death, that I had somehow killed her and didn’t remember doing it,” Herbstman told Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Elsey. “And I couldn’t shake that feeling, and it was disturbing to the extreme.”

Herbstman — who later recanted his confession and was released without charges three days after his arrest — testified that he stopped taking the drug immediately after the incident and has not had any similar issues since.

Defense attorney Brown pointed out while cross-examining Detroit Police Sgt. Lance Sullivan on Wednesday that an unknown individual had been captured on surveillance video running by the parking lot near Woll’s apartment complex around 1:24 a.m.

A neighbor of Woll’s also testified to letting his dog out around 1:24 a.m. and hearing what sounded like a woman speaking or shouting into a megaphone, which he considered unusual at the time but not alarming.

Sullivan said that while investigators found the surveillance clip of an individual running from the direction of the scene to be noteworthy, no other surveillance of the individual was recovered to confirm the subject’s identity.

Brown has yet to call any defense witnesses in the case as prosecutors continue to lay out their case.

A community in mourning

Woll led the Isaac Agree Downtown Detroit Synagogue since 2022 and was considered by many to be a pillar of metro Detroit’s Jewish community.

Sherri Berger, one of Woll’s long-time friends, testified to Woll being “eternally optimistic,” adding that “her enthusiasm was really infectious and contagious. She was just vibrant, and always wanting to help people and kind of share her love with others.”

In her eulogy for Woll at the funeral Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue Rabbi Ariana Silverman spoke of her strong work ethic, caring nature and ability to connect people.

“Because of her passion and joy and love and wisdom and willingness to listen, Sam had a uniquely special personal relationship with countless people, often across lines of faith or politics or the many things that could divide us,” she said. “So many people think of her as someone with whom they had a particularly close or important relationship, and each of them is right.”

Berger and other friends of Woll testified that she would regularly leave her door unlocked at night.

The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

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  • Jenny Sherman
    Jenny Sherman is 101.9 WDET's Digital Editor. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from Michigan State University and has worked for more than a decade as a reporter and editor for various media outlets throughout metro Detroit.