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Retired U.S. Coast Guard Crewman Gets Life For Missing Wife's 1975 Murder

Authorities believe Richard Pierce, 86, had several motives to get rid of his wife, Carol Jean, nearly half a century ago — including money and their bad relationship. Carol Jean's body was never found, but police believe Pierce buried her on his property before ultimately moving her remains.

By Jax Miller
A police handout of Carol Pierce

A Wisconsin man will spend the rest of his life behind bars for the 1975 murder of his wife, whose body has never been found.

Richard Pierce, 86, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, Carol Jean Pierce, 35, who vanished from the couple’s Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, home nearly half a century ago, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He received an additional three years for disinterment of a corpse, to be served consecutively with his life sentence.

A 2018 criminal complaint reviewed by Oxygen.com states Pierce was the last known person to see his wife alive and he only reported her missing three months after her disappearance at the insistence of his mother-in-law.

Several of Carol Jean’s family members, including her sister, Jean Rowley, spoke at Friday’s hearing in the Door County courthouse, according to ABC Green Bay affiliate WBAY.

“Richard Pierce is a heartless, cold, lying monster, and now he’s a murderer,” said Rowley. “I hope and pray that he will rot in prison.”

Rowley also claimed Pierce would tell the court where her sister’s body was “if [he had] any decency,” according to the Press-Gazette.

Investigators believe Pierce concealed his wife’s remains on his Cheboygan, Michigan property for decades but eventually moved it. Carol Jean’s body was never found.

Pierce has maintained his innocence since his 2018 arrest, claiming that Carol Jean ran off with another man.

Mark Clark, Carol Jean’s son from a previous marriage, disagreed, as he said in his victim impact statement.

“She would have never run away or done this disappearing act or sacrificed her own family on her own,” said Clark. “This was out of her character. She was a fighter. Mr. Pierce murdered her."

Court records show the couple married in September 1966 and frequently moved around the country due to Pierce being in the U.S. Coast Guard. The Pierces settled into a mobile home at the Sunrise Shores trailer park in 1973 after Pierce was assigned to duty on a ship — the USCGC Mesquite — in Sturgeon Bay, on the northwest side of Lake Michigan.

Numerous witnesses would later tell authorities the pair got into frequent “heated arguments” over the course of their relationship. Former neighbors also reported several instances when they saw Carol Jean with “shiners” — black eyes — and other bruising, which they believed resulted from physical assaults, according to the criminal complaint.

Another neighbor told investigators Carol Jean feared for her life and allegedly stated of her husband, “I think he’s going to kill me,” according to court documents.

Carol Jean vanished on or about Sept. 5, 1975, according to local news outlets. The criminal complaint states Pierce that was on assignment with the Mesquite, docked in Chicago, but permitted leave that day. Pierce returned to the ship the next day, telling other servicemen that Carol Jean had “taken off.”

Sturgeon Bay and Chicago are about 250 miles apart by car.

“The defendant informed [witness] that Carol Jean had taken all of their money out of their savings account,” according to the complaint. “[Witness] recalled that the defendant told him Carol Jean had taken approximately $20,000 out of their savings.”

Witnesses visiting the couple’s Sturgeon Bay trailer after her disappearance noticed that Carol Jean’s valuables — including her purse, makeup, extensive record collection and pet cat — had been left behind.

Two weeks after Carol Jean’s disappearance, Pierce proceeded with his pre-planned retirement from the Coast Guard. On Sept. 22, 1975 — just three days after his retirement party — Pierce moved the couple’s trailer to Cheboygan, Michigan, which the couple had allegedly planned to do together before Carol Jean vanished.

Pierce met his Rose Marlene Box in October 1975, one month after Carol Jean’s disappearance; she became Pierce’s third wife in 1978. Pierce reportedly gave her the same story as he had his colleagues: That Carol Jean had simply left him.

Pierce ultimately reported Carol Jean missing on Nov. 29, 1975 in response to her mother's demands.

There has never been any activity under Carol Jean's identity since her disappearance, though investigators failed to fully investigate the case until the 1980s.

In 2016, officials with the Sturgeon Bay Police Department implored the attorney general to take a fresh look into Carol Jean’s case, according to the Gazette

Pierce was arrested at his Cheboygan, Michigan, home in 2018. Investigators alleged he “had motive and opportunity to end [Carol Jean’s] life” and “benefitted from her demise in numerous ways,” according to the Wisconsin Attorney General. Officials said reasons included a pension, valuables, the home and the Michigan property. They also cited Pierce’s new girlfriend, “as well as the benefit of Carol Jean’s silence” as possible motives behind Carol Jean’s murder.

In subsequent searches on Pierce’s Michigan property in 2018, cadaver dogs alerted authorities six times, a dog handler testified during the trial. Prosecutors noted significant amounts of dirt taken from Pierce’s crawlspace, though Carol Jean’s body was never recovered.

“Three generations of law enforcement have worked to close this case,” Attorney General Brad Schimel said in 2018. “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.”

When a Door County jury found Pierce guilty in April, Richard Pierce responded by flashing a peace sign to reporters, according to NBC Eau Claire affiliate WEAU.

He declined to make a statement at Friday’s hearing.