86-year-old given life sentence, plus 3 years, in nearly 50-year-old Door County murder case

Richard G. Pierce is escorted out of Door County Circuit Court on Friday, after he was sentenced to life in prison for the 1975 murder of his wife, Carol Jean Pierce. Richard Pierce also received a three-year sentence for moving the body after the murder.

STURGEON BAY – An 86-year-old man convicted in April of murdering his wife, who disappeared without a trace almost 47 years ago, was sentenced to life plus three years in prison Friday.

Because Richard G. Pierce was convicted of first-degree murder, the life sentence handed down by Door County Circuit Court Judge David Weber was mandatory.

Plus, Pierce was convicted for disinterment of a corpse because he moved Carol Jean’s body after murdering her. For that, he received the maximum sentence of three years, which Weber said will be served consecutive to the life sentence, as requested by Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode, rather than concurrently as requested by defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder. Pierce is created the 329 days he already spent in custody.

“The defendant took not only everything from Carol Jean, he also took from her family,” Grode said during the hearing. “The defendant’s hiding of Carol Jean’s body … took away their ability to say goodbye for 46 years.”

Pierce was arrested in October 2018 at his trailer home in Cheboygan, Michigan, in the disappearance of his wife, Carol Jean Pierce, on or about Sept. 5, 1975. At the time, Richard Pierce was stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard in Sturgeon Bay and living with Carol Jean in a trailer in the city. He was due to retire about two weeks after Carol Jean’s disappearance was reported, moving with his trailer to Michigan.

There has been no trace of Carol Jean since, nor has her body been found.

Three relatives of Carol Jean Pierce gave victim statements at the sentencing hearing: her sister, Janine Rowley; her brother, Brian Fillion, and her son, Mark Clark. All asked Weber to hand down the maximum sentence permissible.

“(Pierce) took away the chance to rekindle our sisterhood relationship,” Rowley said. “If (Pierce has) any decency, you would tell the court where the body is so Carol Jean could have a decent burial. I hope and pray you will rot in prison.”

“Mr. Pierce, you had the chance to live your life. She never had the chance,” Clark said.

Pierce was given the chance to make a statement before sentencing, as is his right, but declined. He has maintained his innocence throughout, that Carol Jean may have run away, and Zuidmulder said during the hearing that Pierce continues to maintain his innocence.

Before passing down the sentence, Weber noted that judges need to look at three facets of a case when determining the sentence: the gravity of the case; the need to protect the public; and the character and possible rehabilitation of the defendant.

Richard G. Pierce confers with his attorney, Kate Zuidmulder, during his sentencing hearing Friday in Door County Circuit Court. Pierce, 86, was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the 1975 disappearance of his wife, Carol Jean Pierce, plus three years for moving her body.

Richard G. Pierce confers with his attorney, Kate Zuidmulder, during his sentencing hearing Friday in Door County Circuit Court. Pierce, 86, was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the 1975 disappearance of his wife, Carol Jean Pierce, plus three years for moving her body.

Regarding the case, Weber cited not only the murder itself but also the effect Carol Jean’s disappearance had on her family, including the emotional and psychological trauma inflicted from the fact that her body never has been found.

“In taking another’s life, one deprives another person of the greatest gift that person can have,” Weber said. “The harm is like a ripple effect; it spreads. … In taking Carol Jean’s life, (Pierce) robbed her of the ability to reforge those relationships (with her family). … I hear the comments from the victims, and I think they’re sincere.”

During six days of testimony that began April 19, Grode presented a variety of evidence, including six places on Pierce’s property in Cheboygan where dogs trained to detect even traces of human remains by scent indicated the presence of remains during a search in 2018.

“There are some things that we don’t need to prove (to get a conviction),” Grode told the jury. “First is the precise way the defendant killed Carol Jean Pierce. What we need to prove is, he caused her death. We also don’t need to prove the time, we also don’t need to prove why.”

Zuidmulder said in her closing argument that without a body, a murder weapon or other physical evidence, the state never met its burden of proof. The defense called no witnesses during the trial.

The jury went into deliberations about 1 p.m. April 28 and came back with its guilty verdicts about the same time the next day. The disinterment charge was based on the accusation that he killed his wife in Sturgeon Bay and moved the body to Michigan without authority to do so.

Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]

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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Richard Pierce given life sentence for murdering wife in Sturgeon Bay