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First week of testimony in 1975 Door County murder case ends

Jurors heard about a crawl space in Richard Pierce's Michigan home and human remains-detecting dogs
Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 6:49 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 22, 2022 at 5:57 PM CDT
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DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Testimony in a cold case murder trial in Door County wrapped up for the week with details of the years-long search for Carol Jean Pierce. Richard Pierce, now 86, is standing trial in Door County on charges of 1st Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead for the death of his wife. Pierce has maintained his innocence.

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.

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.

Jurors received science lessons Friday, including learning how dogs are trained to detect human remains.

On Friday, a deputy with the Cheboygan County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan took the stand to talk about a search of Pierce’s Michigan home. Investigators searched Pierce’s Michigan home in 2008. They searched a crawlspace below the home at that time and 10 years later in 2018.

Prosecutors believe Carol Jean’s body was hidden in the Michigan home for years until Richard Pierce removed it.

Ronald Fenlon testified that there was a cut in the concrete in 2008 filled with dirt and rock and earth. During the search in 2018, the cut was there but it was no longer filled in.

“While videotaping, I was able to observe a void that went back underneath the cement floor of the crawl space,” Fenlon testified.

Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode: “There have been some pretty significant stones that had been removed?”

Fenlon: “Yes.”

Grode: “How big would you say those stones were? Softball? Bowling ball?”

Fenlon: “The biggest one there is about the size of a bowling ball. Rest are softball sizes.”

Fenlon said there was nothing to suggest water moved those stones.

The defense questioned if the crawl space was disturbed during construction or to access the water line that is there. She got no confirmation from the witness.

The attorney then asked questions about how difficult it would be for someone to get into that small area, so Fenlon demonstrated by sitting on the edge of a counter and hopping down.

Later, the jury heard detailed testimony from Carren Gummin, a former police officer and owner of Canine Search Solutions. She’s spent much of her career training human remains detection (HRD) dogs. During opening statements, prosecutors told jurors a trained dog signaled human remains in Pierce’s home six times.

“A human remains detection dog is trained to only identify and give its trained final response to the odor of human remains,” Gummin said, “not animal remains of any sort.” Gummin carefully explained that all human remains smell the same but unlike anything else, including animals.

She said dogs can detect the odor of a human body for a long time, more than 100 years.

Grode asked, “Now what if that body has been removed? The remains have been removed? Are dogs still able to detect that odor?”

“Yes,” Gummin answered.

On cross-examination, the defense suggested the dog used in the search lacked proper training.

“She only trained Heela 11 times in 11 months, based on your previous testimony,” attorney Kate Zuidmulder said, “and what you believe is best practices for training, wouldn’t you agree that Alyssa’s training of Heela in the preceding 11 months before this search was extremely deficient?”

“’Extremely deficient’ is harsh -- but it’s not optimal, that is correct,” Gummin replied.

Zuidmulder also made the jury aware of what dogs cannot do.

“Would you agree that an indication of human remains from a detection dog... that can’t tell you whose human remains they are unless we have a body or some other?”

“That’s correct. We’re generic human cadaver odor,” Gummin said.

Testimony ended Friday afternoon after some debate over evidence that might be used for the next witness The judge is not scheduled to hold court on Mondays for this trial, so it will resume on Tuesday.

Article continues below the video

Sarah Thomsen talks about the fourth day of testimony, including searches of the Pierce home in 2008 and 2018 and what to expect in the second week of the trial

BACKGROUND

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. Her remains were not located.

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.”

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.”

DAY 3 COVERAGE: https://www.wbay.com/2022/04/21/more-witnesses-take-stand-thursday-door-county-murder-trial/

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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