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Testimony underway in Door County cold case murder trial

The prosecution and defense delivered their opening statements Tuesday.
Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 5:39 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 19, 2022 at 12:16 PM CDT
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DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Testimony is underway in the jury trial of a man charged with murder in the 1975 disappearance his wife in Door County.

Richard Pierce, 86, is charged with 1st-Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead for the death of Carol Jean Pierce. Carol Jean has never been located.

The prosecution and defense delivered their opening statements Tuesday.

“I’m going to come back up here, and I’m going to explain how all the witnesses you’ve heard, how they all put the puzzle together. And once that is done, ladies and gentlemen, you will see as well that on September 5th, 1975, Richard Gale Pierce, the defendant, this man, murdered his wife,” said Nick Grode, Door County Assistant District Attorney.

Defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder said, “My client sits before you presumed innocent. He will continue to be presumed innocent, he has from the start, even though the state has come up with at times, I would say, speculative, other times I would say fanciful renditions of event. And he will remain presumed innocent.”

A juror was dismissed Tuesday due to medical reasons. Now, a jury of five women and 9 men will hear the case. Two of those jurors are alternates. Jurors will not be sequestered.

Carol Jean Pierce hasn’t been seen since September of 1975.

Police say Richard Pierce moved to Cheboygan, Mich., and had a new girlfriend shortly after Carol Jean’s disappearance. A missing persons report for Carol Jean wasn’t filed for 82 days.

On Sept. 21, 2018, the Wisconsin Cold Case Review Team looked at the case and concluded there was enough to show Richard Pierce was set to gain from Carol Jean’s disappearance.

Investigators from Sturgeon Bay and Michigan spent weeks searching Richard Pierce’s property in Michigan, looking for possible evidence related to the Carol Jean’s disappearance.

“You’ll hear how when investigators went to the house in 2018, there was a crawl space in the northern part of his home. There was an opening in this crawl space and in 2008, that opening was filled with material, dirt, rocks and earth. And you’ll hear that when investigators went back in 2018, a significant amount of this material had been removed. and now there’s a hole in the concrete. and you’ll hear at that time that investigators deployed what’s known as an HRD dog, a human remain detection dog, kind of like a drug dog, except this dog is trained to detect one thing and one thing only: and that’s the odor of a dead human body,” Grode told the jury.

He continued, “They can detect it even after that body has been removed and a significant amount of time after it’s been removed. You’ll hear that that dog was run through the defendant’s residence and that dog indicated not once, not twice, not three times, but six times the odor of a dead body in the defendant’s house.”

The defense told the jury they don’t believe the prosecution will be able to put together the puzzle of Carol Jean’s disappearance.

“I believe that you are going to need that information. You’re going to need to know if, in fact, Carol Jean is deceased,” says Zuidmulder. “I think you’re going to need to know how she became deceased and while we have some dates the state believes, as they term it, this murder occurred, we have no idea. There is no factual basis for that. There are no witnesses that saw anything. There is nothing to indicate, but more importantly, they will not be able to show you any of that information. They won’t be able to prove conclusively with physical evidence that Carol Jean Pierce is deceased. They won’t be able to tell you how that might have happened. The cause of death, they won’t be able to tie a weapon to my client or anyone else. In fact it could be, literally anyone.”

Zuidmulder said no physical evidence of human remains was found at Pierce’s property. The say Carol Jean had a history of disappearing and starting a new life.

“There’s nothing to prove, and you will hear the evidence come in that there was a dog sniff at my client’s residence, but guess what, zero physical evidence of human remains was found. Zero,” says Zuidmulder.

Prosecutors put Carol Jean’s brother, Brian Fillion, on the stand. Fillion testified for hours about his sister’s communication with family and devotion to her husband. He told jurors he has not heard from his sister in 46 years.

Fillion recalled speaking to Pierce after Carol Jean’s disappearance.

“We stood up and I looked him square in the eye and I said Gale, can you explain anything to me about Carol’s disa--Do you know anything about Carol’s disappearance? We were looking straight in the eye. We were maybe three feet apart. And I looked at him, and I said that, and he looked at me and then he turned his head away,” Fillion said. “I saw him turn back but the color of his face... it didn’t go red. But it changed from pasty white to pinkish. He had this kind of sheepish look on his face. In a totality his answer to my question was... ‘no’.”

Fillion called his sister his hero.

Toward the end of cross examination, after hours on the stand, Fillion was asked if he thought he was biased.

“A bias? Yeah, my sister’s been gone for over 17 thousand days. Yeah, I have a bias.”

Pierce’s trial has been delayed several times since he was charged in 2018. Action 2 news first told you in April of 2021 that the trial was delayed a full year because of COVID-19. The trial was delayed again after the death of one of Pierce’s attorneys.

A criminal complaint states Richard Pierce had “gained numerous things based on Carol Jean’s disappearance, which included a pension unencumbered by a wife; most of the important belongings of their marriage; land and a home in Michigan; a new girlfriend weeks after Carol Jean’s disappearance, as well as the benefit of Carol Jean’s silence.”

Jurors will return for day two of testimony at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The trial is scheduled through May 13.

Richard Pierce, 86, is charged with 1st-Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead for the death of Carol Jean Pierce. Carol Jean has never been located.

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