A Cold Case: Lake Huron Boating Mystery

Troubling questions remain five years after a local couple vanished from their boat on Lake Huron

Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Robin Sexton slipped into retirement in St. Ignace in early June, leaving unsolved one of the Great Lakes’ most baffling mysteries: the boating tragedy five years ago on Lake Huron involving a glamorous Grosse Pointe Farms couple — lawyers Chuck Rutherford and Lana Stempien.

On a summer-vacation boating trip to Mackinac Island in August 2005, the couple disappeared overnight. The empty 27-foot Wellcraft cabin cruiser, Sea’s Life, was found significantly off course, tossing about in rough water, with no one on board, the motor idling in neutral, and the radio playing.

Nearly two weeks later, Stempien’s nude body washed up in Hammond Bay, seven miles from where her vessel was found. Rutherford remains missing — vanished without a trace.

Despite national attention and much speculation and innuendo about the fate of the lawyers, the case is now relegated to the Michigan State Police (MSP) missing-persons files. Sexton has had the case since 2005, and with his retirement after 34 years with the MSP, it will be reassigned to another trooper.

“It’s an inactive complaint, which means it’s not being worked, but is not closed,” says Sexton, who spoke with Hour Detroit by telephone on his last day on the job. “It’s still active in the computer index of missing persons.”

Sexton says the case is at a standstill, with no tips or credible information to investigate. “There’s nothing going on,” Sexton says. “I got one tip at least a year ago that [Rutherford] might have been seen in Miami, Fla., but you can’t follow up on something like that.”

The couple’s fateful trip began on Aug. 10, when they sailed from a dock at Stempien’s parents’ cottage on Belle River, in Ontario, Canada, and headed north, planning to hug the Lake Huron shoreline, before crossing the Straits of Mackinac to the island. Stempien was an expert and experienced boater, trained by her father, a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer.

The unmarried couple, who lived together, were last seen at 12:45 p.m. the next day, motoring into brisk winds after gassing up at a dock on Presque Isle. An hour later, Stempien called her parents to report that they were near Rogers City, and expected to be docking at Mackinac Island in two hours. She promised to call back when they arrived.

Her parents never heard from her again, and Sea’s Life never made it to Mackinac Island. At 9:10 the next morning, the Stempien family contacted authorities and the Coast Guard put out an alert.

Later that morning, a boater spotted Sea’s Life tossing violently in rough waters southeast of Marquette Island. When the Coast Guard boarded the vessel, the anchor was up and a 20-foot line was floating in the water tied to the back of the boat.

There were no signs of a struggle or foul play. The couple’s clothes, cell phones, and wallets were intact on board, along with money and personal items. A widespread search by U.S and Canadian authorities proved fruitless. The Stempien family also searched the lake relentlessly by boat and airplane and found nothing.

When Stempien’s body was found, she still had on her thin gold chain, a $1,500 non-waterproof Omega watch, and a ring. An autopsy concluded that she had drowned. There was also carbon monoxide in her system, which could have come from the boat’s exhaust.
Rutherford’s parents successfully petitioned a court to declare him dead several years ago. Sexton testified that he believed Rutherford was dead. Half of the drowning victims in Lake Huron’s deep, cold waters are never found, Sexton said.

Yet, haunting questions remain. How did Stempien get into the choppy 65-degree water? The swim ladder on the back of the boat was not lowered. As an experienced and cautious sailor, she would never have jumped into the water for a frigid nighttime swim without first anchoring the boat and cutting the engine.

She was wearing her prized watch, which she knew was not waterproof and for which she had recently paid $300 to have cleaned. Stempien reportedly always followed a fastidious routine of sliding her jewelry onto her watchband and clasping the watch to the steering wheel before swimming.

Then there’s the question of a knob used to fasten the boat’s GPS unit to the instrument panel. It was found embedded in the sole of her torn running shoe.

The GPS unit adds even more to the mystery. Investigators found it had been turned on at 1:22 a.m., the morning the boat was found. At that time, the device placed the boat 10 miles out in Lake Huron off Nine Mile Point, some 12 miles from where it was found eight hours later.

An experienced Great Lakes boater who initially spotted Sea’s Life and reported its location to the Coast Guard also reported seeing two blue rubber boat bumpers tied to the line that was trailing the boat, suggesting that another vessel might have tied up to Lana’s craft. Sea’s Life was equipped with white bumpers. The blue bumpers were not on the line when the Coast Guard arrived.

Sexton, a just-the-facts kind of cop in the mold of TV’s Sgt. Joe Friday, has refused to speculate on the case or waver from his conclusion that none of these loose ends add up to foul play.

Meanwhile, the wait to see if Rutherford’s body surfaces continues. Sexton says Rutherford’s DNA (supplied by his family) is in the MSP computer index and will continue to be checked against all unidentified remains found in the lake.

“There has been nothing even close so far; nothing has turned up,” Sexton says.

Like other Great Lakes mysteries, this one might never be fully explained.