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Trial testimony continues in 1975 Door County murder

Testimony continued Wednesday in the trial for a man charged with murdering his wife in 1975.
Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 5:50 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 20, 2022 at 4:14 PM CDT
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DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Testimony continued Wednesday in the trial for a man charged with murdering his wife in 1975.

Richard Pierce, 86, is standing trial in Door County on charges of 1st Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead for the death of Carol Jean Pierce. Carol Jean has never been located.

Former Sturgeon Bay Police Chief Arleigh Porter took the stand Wednesday. Porter was a detective when he started on the Carol Jean investigation in 1981. He was 24 when he first interviewed Richard Pierce in 1982.

“I believe it was Monday, September 9th, he and Carol Jean had coffee in the morning, and Richard had to report to work at the Coast Guard and it was rifle range duty that day and he worked and returned home late in the afternoon and Carol Jean was not there,” Porter remembered.

Porter subpoenaed documents in 1987 that show ownership for Pierce’s truck was transferred to Richard.

“June 23, 1977 is the date the title was transferred from Carol Jean to Richard. Carol Jean’s signature is on it and notarized. That’s two years after she disappeared,” Porter said.

Porter testified that Pierce’s story changed.

“There were two separate explanations,” Porter testified. “One, he had no idea why she would just sign off on the title. The second one was that she had planned on leaving him.”

Pierce told police he had phone records showing he looked for his wife and called Green Bay hospitals to see if she was there. When asked to turn the records over, Pierce told police they were missing. Also, phone books from that time did not list numbers for the Green Bay hospitals.

Police received tips about unidentified human remains, but none of them turned out to be Carol Jean.

ADA Nick Grode: “Did you ever receive any information that Carol Jean had a driver’s license in another state?”

Porter: “None whatsoever.”

Grode: “Did you ever receive any information of anything on Carol Jean or anybody finding her?”

Porter: “No one found her, no.”

Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges took the stand to testify about his work with the investigation. Yerges says he requested information from credit bureaus to run reports on if Carol Jean Pierce was still alive. Yerges says there was no credit history for Carol Jean. He also requested a search of Interpol records, and Carol Jean did not show up there.

Searches were done through the National Crime Information Center and centers that mine data. That data includes social security numbers, driver’s licenses, banking, insurance, police and employment records.

“In checking all of those records, Carol Jean Pierce does not exist in society,” Yerges said. “Carol Jean Pierce does not exist in society. She’s dead. She’s gone. She does not exist.”

On April 1, 2022, investigators got a hit about a Carol Pierce in Montana. Yerges says they checked it out, but it wasn’t Carol Jean. The defense questioned why Yerges, who is sure Carol Jean is dead, would investigate the tip.

“We immediately knew, but in abundance of caution made sure that individual had no aliases,” Yerges said. “The Montana one had a different SSN and other identifiers. Had those officers make sure it wasn’t her.”

Defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder: “Why would you do an investigation into that information if you don’t believe that Carol Jean Pierce may still be alive?”

Yerges: “I do not believe Carol Jean Pierce is alive. When I receive information, I have a duty and obligation to verify that information, and that’s what I do through my duties, my role. I’m sworn. I took an oath to fulfill my duties and obligations. I take those very seriously, and that’s what I do.”

Regarding Pierce’s property, Yerges said the crawlspace area looked different in 2018 than in 2008.

“There was debris that had been removed. There was a bigger hole in that area,” Yerges said. “We requested for cadaver dogs to search that area as well as another company that did ground penetrating radar so we could try to, in a least evasive manner, examine as best we could.”

Porter and Yergis, plus witnesses including a state intelligence investigator, insurance investigator and postal inspector spent hours on the stand. They answered questions about decades of searches for Carol Jean, including DOT, bank, insurance and property records.

Special Agent Todd Heinz with the National Insurance Crime Bureau said there were no insurance claims on Carol Jean.

United States Postal Inspector Matthew Schmitz searched for change of address information for Carol Jean under her name or aliases.

Kelly Wentzel with the Wisconsin Fusion Center searched for driver’s licenses.

Toward the end of day two, retired Coast Guard Captain Bob Desh was briefly questioned about an alleged suicide attempt made by Carol Jean. Desh served on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite with Pierce. Details are still limited on the matter.

The prosecution and defense delivered their opening statements Tuesday. That was followed by testimony by Carol Jean’s brother, Brian Fillion. 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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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,” said ADA Grode.

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 attorney 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.”

Action 2 News plans to livestream the trial on our website and Facebook page. NOTE: We will cut away from streaming upon judge’s orders. We will also have to stop streaming during breaks.

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