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Friends of Richard Pierce, Carol Jean testify on Day 3 of murder trial

Witnesses' memories are being tested in a murder case dating back to 1973
Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 6:10 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 21, 2022 at 5:38 PM CDT
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DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Witnesses’ memories are being tested as they take the witness stand to answer questions in a nearly 50-year-old missing persons case in Door County.

Testimony continued for a third day Thursday in the Richard Pierce cold case murder trial. Pierce, now 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.

We’re hearing from several people who knew both Richard and Carol Jean and either served with him in the Coast Guard or had husbands who served with him at the time Carol Jean disappeared. The witnesses are being asked specific questions about conversations and what they saw or didn’t see back in 1975.

Not surprisingly, some told the jurors they don’t remember everything but said there are some things they simple cannot forget.

Action 2 News will livestream the trial on our website and the WBAY Facebook page. NOTE: We will cut away upon judge’s orders and when the jury is told to leave the room.

“We were drinking coffee, and she reached into the refrigerator and she looked at me, and out of the clear blue sky, she just said, my husband told me he’s going to kill me someday,” Mary Ann LaViolette said. “I didn’t know what to believe. I just looked at her and I was young then. I didn’t know what to believe.”

LaViolette took the stand Thursday. She was married to a man in the Coast Guard who served the same time as Richard Pierce. Mary Ann remembered a conversation she had with Carol Jean.

LaViolette remembered Carol Jean saying she was afraid of her husband.

“She said it a couple of other times that she was afraid of Mr. Pierce,” LaViolette said.

“I remember her telling me that she was afraid of Mr. Pierce and she also, that day with the refrigerator looked at me and said that her husband was going to kill her someday,” LaViolette said.

She admitted her memory is fuzzy about some things from 47 years ago. The defense asked Mary Ann about the strength of her memory.

“I’ll tell you this, I remember her telling me about that. There’s no doubt about it,” she said under cross-examination.

“But you didn’t say that in 1975?” the defense attorney asked.

“Well I can’t remember everything, can I?”

When prosecutors asked her again about the specific memory, LaViolette’s testimony was the same. “When someone tells you something like that, that’s something that’s embedded in your head and you never forget.”

Bette Lane, whose husband was in the Coast Guard, remembered all the women got together to form a Coast Guard Wives Club. She testified she and Carol Jean were planning a lunch date but it never happened because Carol Jean disappeared. “My husband walked in the house and said Mr. Pierce’s old lady left,” she recalled.

She remembers her husband going to the Pierce home for Richard’s retirement party a few weeks after Carol Jean was missing -- but Carol Jean’s purse and some of her prized possessions were still there. Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode asked, “And when you went there, did you observe any of Carol Jean’s items still in the residence?”

Bette: “Yes, from walking in I would stay she was still there. In fact it even kind of felt like that. I felt like she was going to jump out and say, ‘Surprise, I’m back,’ because everything looked like it had before.”

Thursday afternoon, testimony turned back to the investigation with a Sturgeon Bay police detective who worked this case for the last 18 years on the stand. Tom Baudhuin told jurors he doesn’t believe Carol Jean had intentions of leaving abruptly on her own because she paid a year’s worth of insurance premiums only weeks before she disappeared.

He also provided an alibi for another Coast Guard member who lived in the Pierces’ neighborhood. Other witnesses have testified Carol Jean was afraid of that man.

Assistant D.A. Grode: “So based on your review of his personnel record, do you know where Mr. Carne could have been?”

“He was at Barbers Point, Hawaii,” the detective testified.

During cross-examination, the defense raised questions about Carol Jean’s prior two marriages, saying she was called abusive and hung out around other men at bars.

“That defendant has called plaintiff vile, obscene and vulgar names without cause, that she did not regularly get his meals and neglected him by being gone for long periods of time without any explanation as to her whereabouts,” defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder said in court.

Former Sturgeon Bay Police Chief Arleigh Porter and Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges took the stand Wednesday. He testified about searches of records that show no trace of Carol Jean.

“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.”

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

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 Carol Jean’s disappearance.

Regarding Pierce’s property, Yerges testified 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-invasive manner, examine as best we could.”

DAY 2 COVERAGE: https://www.wbay.com/2022/04/20/testimony-continues-wednesday-door-county-cold-case-trial/

DAY 1 COVERAGE: https://www.wbay.com/2022/04/19/opening-statements-tuesday-door-county-cold-case-murder-trial/

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