Door County jury finds Richard Pierce guilty of 1975 murder of wife Carol Jean

Richard Pierce flashes a peace sign at our camera in court, his only expression after being...
Richard Pierce flashes a peace sign at our camera in court, his only expression after being convicted of his wife's 1975 murder
Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 6:26 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 29, 2022 at 4:43 PM CDT
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DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A jury has found an 86-year-old man guilty of the 1975 murder of his wife in Door County.

Richard Pierce was convicted Friday of killing Carol Jean Pierce and disposing of her body. Carol Jean Pierce hasn’t been seen since September 5, 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 was filed 82 days later.

After about 10 hours of deliberation Thursday and Friday, a jury returned a verdict of guilty on counts of 1st Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead. Pierce was remanded into custody awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for Aug. 5 at 2:30 p.m.

The jury handed down the sentence just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon, 24 hours after jurors were given the case, and after about 9 ½ hours of deliberations.

As the judge read the verdict before announcing it to the courtroom, Pierce showed no emotion at the defense table. Even upon hearing the words “Guilty,” he still showed little expression. The only time we saw any is when he appeared to look right at our camera and flashed a “V” sign as he was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

Under judge’s orders, we didn’t record Carol Jean’s family as they heard the judge read the verdict but we can say they shared many hugs and tears with each other, and with investigators and prosecutors, after waiting decades to hear those words.

“Finally I can say that we got some justice for Carol,” her brother, Brian Fillion, told us outside the court.

Her brother and sister thanked the jury and told us the word on the court building, “Justice,” was finally happening.

“It turned out so good,” the victim’s sister, Jan Rowley said, crying. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s just... wish she was here.”

Crying harder she continued, “I know that’ll never happen, so I guess we just look at pictures.”

“It was just -- “ Fillion stopped and sighed -- “a sense of relief. I never thought, never thought this day would be here and yet we kept getting closer to it and closer to it. I just had to sit and hang on.”

The siblings clung to hope for decades, and Friday they clung to Carol Jean’s picture, feeling a rush of emotions after hearing the verdict.

“This is all we have left of her. May she rest in peace wherever she is,” Rowley said tearfully.

It was a more difficult case not only because the murder happened nearly a half-century ago and memories fade but because Carol Jean Pierce’s body was never found. Prosecutors presented six days of testimony and evidence. The defense declined to call any witnesses. Pierce, who’s maintained his innocence, did not take the stand.

“This is one hell of a team in Door County,” Fillion said.

Outside court he showed us an aged softball glove. “This was my sister’s glove,” he explained. “My sister used to play softball with this.”

He’s had her glove for 60 years, always wanting to give it back to her. It sat in the courtroom every day as the jury listened to the case.

“When we first talked to the investigative team in Michigan where I lived, I put that on the table and I said this is why we’re all here I hope.”

Now he’s holding on to it, and for the first time in nearly 47 years feeling relief as he does.

“I wish I could hug her,” he said. “I wish I could say goodbye.”

Article continues below the video

Sarah Thomsen describes what it was like in court when Richard Pierce was found guilty of the cold case murder

CLICK HERE for Action 2 News’ extensive coverage of the entire Pierce trial.

THE CASE AGAINST RICHARD PIERCE

Investigators searched Pierce’s Michigan home in 2008. Prosecutors believe Carol Jean’s body was hidden in the Michigan home for years until Richard Pierce removed it.

On Sept. 21, 2018, the Wisconsin Cold Case Review Team looked at the cold 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 then spent weeks searching Richard Pierce’s property in Michigan, looking for possible evidence related to Carol Jean’s disappearance. Her remains were never located. However, testimony at trial from a human remains dog handler indicated six times to the presence of human remains.

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.”

Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges took the stand last 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 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 a crawlspace below the home in 2018 and 10 years later in 2018.

Deputy 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.

Dog handler Alyssa Palmer testified about the search of Richard Pierce’s Michigan home in 2018. K9 Hela, a human remains detection dog, was used in the search.

Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode: “And on October 12, 2018, did Hela indicate to the presence of human remains in the defendant’s residence?”

Palmer: “Yes.”

Grode: “In how many locations?”

Palmer: “I believe there were six.”

In their closing argument, the prosecution told the jury that they know Carol Jean is dead and denied the theory that she took off and started a new life without telling anyone. Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode said there’s no record of Carol Jean existing anywhere in nearly 47 years. Communication ended abruptly 17,000 days ago.

“We all leave a digital footprint. You can’t hide, especially in a post-9/11 world,” Grode said.

Prosecutors allege Pierce concealed them on his property in Michigan. Grode reminded the jury of testimony from handlers of human remains dogs. During a search of Pierce’s Michigan home in 2018, a dog indicated six different times for human remains, particularly in one area that appeared to investigators as having been excavated.

“She indicated, I would submit, to a large source of human remains,” Grode said.

Despite a search warrant and eventual deconstruction of Pierce’s home, no human remains were recovered. Grode argued, “There’s no dispute. Carol Jean Pierce’s body has never been found, but that fact alone should not result in the defendant not being convicted of this crime.”

Grode discussed letters Carol Jean sent to her mother prove she had no plan of leaving. The letters indicate Carol Jean was making plans to move to Michigan with Richard and was excited about it.

“It’s beyond a reasonable doubt, at this point. I saw that given everything we’ve already discussed at this point. We know Carol Jean’s dead. We know there was violence in the Pierce home. She disappeared suddenly. She left all kinds of personal things that can’t explain why she wouldn’t take them,” Grode says.

The prosecution said Grode would benefit from his wife’s death, getting her property, including a home and truck, and could move on with a new girlfriend.

“The defendant was the last person to see her alive, and he gave multiple stories about what happened to her,” the assistant D.A. said.

Defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder argued that without a body, the jury could not convict her client.

“You cannot find my client guilty of these crimes,” Zuidmulder said. “There literally is no body. And there literally is no proof of human remains.”

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