Michigan man charged in wife’s 1975 killing, based mostly on circumstantial evidence
MADISON, Wis. — Prosecutors charged a Michigan man Thursday with killing his wife 43 years ago in Wisconsin based largely on witnesses saying he seemed unhappy in their marriage, her comments to neighbors that she thought he was going to kill her and other discrepancies in his story.
Law enforcement agents from Wisconsin and Michigan arrested Richard Gale Pierce, 82, Thursday in his hometown of Cheboygan, Michigan. He faces one count of first-degree murder and one count of disinterment of the dead in connection with the death of his wife Carol Jean Pierce.
He is being held at Cheboygan County Jail pending his return to Wisconsin. It’s unclear if Pierce has an attorney to speak on his behalf.
Carol Jean Pierce was 35 when she disappeared from the couple’s trailer home in Sturgeon Bay in September 1975. Her body has never been found.
Richard Pierce previously claimed that she walked out on him. But cold case detectives with the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators allege in a criminal complaint that Pierce had the opportunity and motivation to kill her.
The 20-page complaint offers mostly circumstantial evidence, recounting witness interviews collected over four decades that paint a picture of an abusive marriage.
According to the complaint, the couple got married in September 1966. Pierce was a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, assigned to the cutter Mesquite. The ship was based in Sturgeon Bay when Carol Jean disappeared.
Acquaintances told detectives the couple argued often. A woman who lived next door to the couple when they were stationed in New Jersey told investigators that Carol Jean had told her Pierce had beat her the night before and her face was badly bruised.
Another neighbor reported that Carol Jean told her at least three times she thought Pierce was going to kill her and she wanted to go somewhere no one would find her.
Pierce’s former shipmates told authorities that Carol Jean didn’t trust Pierce and she had a personality that would probably “drive a guy like Pierce nuts.” One shipmate recalled how the ship captain’s wife had died from a fall down stairs and how Pierce had commented “that was a pretty good deal. (The captain) got rid of his wife.”
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one witness told investigators that when Pierce disagreed with being told how to position furniture, Pierce commented: “That’s why I got rid of my wife.”
After Carol Jean disappeared, a neighbor visited the couple’s trailer home to see how Pierce was doing. She noticed Carol Jean’s purse on the kitchen counter and her entire record collection, as well as her cat and make-up, were still in the home.
The complaint said that Pierce told then-Sturgeon Bay Police Chief Michael Nordin in 1982 that Carol Jean had made off with $1,000 cash that Pierce had hidden in a standard-size envelope – even though $1,000 wouldn’t have fit in such an envelope, the chief wrote.
Pierce also claimed during that interview that he had used the Sturgeon Bay phone book to call Green Bay hospitals looking for Carol Jean. The phone book didn’t list any Green Bay hospitals, the chief noted.
The cold case detectives conclude that Carol Jean’s death meant a number of gains for Pierce, including a pension unencumbered by marriage, most of the couple’s important belongings, sole possession of the couple’s retirement land in Michigan and a new girlfriend.
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