Suspect in 1975 Sturgeon Bay murder held without bail

Published: Oct. 11, 2018 at 11:10 AM CDT
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A man arrested in connection to the 1975 murder of his wife who disappeared from Sturgeon Bay is being held without bail in Michigan.

Eighty-two-year old Richard Gale Pierce appeared before a judge Friday in Cheboygan County, Mich. Pierce is fighting his extradition to Door County where he's charged with First Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead. The judge in Michigan set an Oct. 25 court date for arguments regarding extradition.

On Thursday morning, Pierce was taken into custody at his home in Cheboygan for the murder of Carol Jean Pierce. Carol Jean and Richard were living in Sturgeon Bay when she disappeared in 1975.

Agents from Wisconsin's Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, Sturgeon Bay Police officers, Michigan State Police and the Cheboygan County Sheriff's Office continue to search Richard Pierce's property in Michigan.

The property was previously searched in 2008, according to Sturgeon Bay Capt. Dan Brinkman.

Brinkman, when asked if police believe Carol Jean Pierce's body is on the property, said that would be an accurate statement.

"The information I have at this time, yes, that's probably a true statement. Accurate," Brinkman said. He cited the search warrant conducted in 2008, but did not elaborate.

Carol Jean Pierce went missing on Sept. 5, 1975. A criminal complaint filed Thursday 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."

The complaint states that Richard Pierce claimed that he arrived home the afternoon of Carol Jean's disappearance to find her missing from their mobile home on Elm Street in Sturgeon Bay. Carol Jean Pierce's remains were never found. She was 35 at the time she went missing.

"Forty-three years later we're looking for the same thing we were looking for 10 years ago--the body of Carol Jean Pierce," Brinkman says.

Not long after the disappearance, Pierce left Sturgeon Bay for his hometown of Cheboygan, Mich. That's where he's been living since the murder of Carol Jean.

He filed a missing persons report for Carol Jean 82 days after she went missing.

Investigators discovered that Carol Jean had signed off on titles to their pick-up truck and mobile home prior to her disappearance.

Carol Jean and Richard were planning on moving to Richard's hometown of Cheboygan, Mich. They were set to move to a property referred to as Cordwood Point. Carol Jean sold her car so the couple would have money for the move.

In the months after Carol Jean went missing, Richard Pierce took out a loan for a trencher-bulldozer type vehicle and a trailer.

In January 1977, Richard Pierce closed the joint bank account he shared with Carol Jean. On Nov. 22, 1977, his divorce from Carol Jean was finalized. Richard Pierce was awarded ownership of the Cordwood Point property in Michigan.

The couple had taken out a $25,000 life insurance policy prior to Carol Jean's disappearance. It included an insurance provision that transferred Carol Jean's rights to life insurance, endowment or annuity upon the life of Richard to be payable to Richard or a beneficiary of his choosing. The policy, however, was never collected on and never paid.

In letters Carol Jean wrote to her mother before her disappearance, she said Richard placed some of her most valuable possessions in a safe deposit box in Cheboygan. The letter said the box contained deeds, titles and receipts, as well as a wedding ring from her ex-husband worth about $1,200. Records show Richard made several trips to the safe deposit box in the lead up to Carol Jean's disappearance and after.

Pierce told friends that Carol Jean took off with $20,000 of the couple's savings.

Richard Pierce remarried in 1978.

The complaint details a history of physical abuse in which Carol Jean was seen with bruises. At one point, Carol Jean told one of her neighbors she believed Richard was going to kill her.

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. Charges were filed on Oct. 11.

Brinkman says Richard Pierce has always been a suspect. He thanked local and state investigators and prosecutors for pushing forward and making an arrest.

"We have a different District Attorney's Office in 2018 and also different faces in the Attorney General's Office in the state of Wisconsin, who have agreed to look at this with us and work with us on this," Brinkman said.

“Three generations of law enforcement have worked to close this case,” said Attorney General Brad Schimel. “Today, we were able to make major progress in finding the answer to Carol Jean’s disappearance. Though many of Carol Jean’s family and friends are no longer alive, justice must still be provided for the late Carol Jean and those loved ones who still wonder what happened so many years ago.”

Arrest in 1975 murder

Sturgeon Bay Police discuss the arrest of a man in a 1975 murder.

Posted by WBAY TV-2 on Thursday, October 11, 2018