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15-year-old Lake Huron boating incident remains a mystery

Courtesy Photo Charles Rutherford, left, and Lana Ann Stempien in an undated photo.

On Aug. 10, 2005, Grosse Pointe Farms residents Lana Ann Stempien and Charles (Chuck) Rutherford departed Belle River, Ontario on a 27-foot, inboard motor Wellcraft cabin cruiser. They were bound for Mackinac Island.

Lana’s boat was known as Sea’s Life.

Lana and Chuck have been an item for over three years. In their second-year relationship they moved in together. Both were attorneys. Lana with the City of Detroit and Chuck in a criminal law practice.

They were both known for frequenting downtown Detroit’s taverns and restaurants, as well as social scenes.

Lana, the daughter of a U.S. Coast Guard officer, was known as an experienced and excellent Great Lakes boater. She was 35 years old and he was 34. She was a former professional model..

This 27-foot Wellcraft is the boat that Lana Stempien and Charles "Chuck" Rutherford were last seen piloting. The craft was found miles off course, adrift with the engine running and in neutral, with no one on board. John L. Russell/special to The Detroit News

Records indicated that, for the foreseeable future, the Lake Huron surface weather was not going to present any major problems during the couple’s trip north.

Their first on-route stop was Oscoda, where the moored overnight, meeting and spending the evening with another boating couple. The next morning, Aug. 11, they headed back onto Lake Huron.

Later on Aug. 11, they arrived at Presque Isle Harbor, where they topped off the boat’s fuel. According to harbor personnel, they had cordial conversations with Lana and Chuck. At 12:30 p.m., they headed back onto Lake Huron.

As they headed to Mackinac Island, the lake was getting slightly more challenging, with larger waves. The skies and temperatures were still reasonable.

On route, Lana’s cellular telephone records revealed she called an aunt, who later stated the conversation was pleasant and she didn’t detect any problems. Lana also reached out to a former boyfriend on the East Coast about attending a wedding without Chuck.

It was also stated by a family friend that, while headed north, Chuck attempted to call his brother, John.

They planned to arrive on Mackinac Island the later part of Aug. 11.

When arrival didn’t occur, the family became worried and reached out to the authorities and the Coast Guard.

Another pleasure craft, also on northern Lake Huron, saw the Sea’s Life bobbing in the waves. The captain of that 50-plus-foot boat stated he didn’t see any occupants and there was a line off the stern which had blue boat bumpers. Records indicated the Sea’s Life only had white bumpers.

In addition, personnel aboard the Great Lakes freighter Saginaw believe they also saw Stempien’s bobbing boat.

On Aug. 12, Coast Guard located the Sea’s Life near Marquette Island, hailed it, and then boarded an empty 27-foot Wellcraft.

Upon inspecting the boat, the forward top deck hatch was fully open, the engine was running and in neutral, the radio was tuned to a Christian radio station (not the type of broadcasting Lana and Chuck would listen to), it appeared all personal affects and valuables were not disturbed, Lana’s tennis shoe was on deck with an embedded global positioning system (GPS) operating knob, the camera was located, an empty liquor bottle was in a waste can, the 20- foot line was off the stern, the stern swim ladder was up, and no blue bumpers were in sight.

The Coast Guard towed the boat to St. Ignace. A report was filed and they turned over the Sea’s Life to the local Michigan State Police post, where police who began an investigation led by Detective Sgt. Robin Sexton.

Stempien and Rutherford family members were contacted.

Numerous photos were taken and any distinguishable exterior or interior finger, hand, or foot prints were unable to be detected because of the high moisture level. The GPS was analyzed and the guidance system appeared to be turned off, then on, and it was self-recording over and over prior data.

Inside and outside of the MSP investigation, unsubstantiated rumors and stories were abound. Those included, but not limited to:

∫ Chuck was seen in Boston, Mass, the Canadian Maritimes, and Rogers City.

∫ Two on-shore parties believe they saw the Sea’s Life with another boat speeding away.

∫ A history of public arguments between Chuck and Lana. He was known as a jealous individual of Lana.

∫ The previously mentioned blue bumpers

∫ A rift between Lana and Chuck’s families, a dissatisfied client or convicted individual seeking revenge.

∫ Lana once said to a friend, “If anything happens to me, Chuck should be a person of interest.”

Eleven days later, Lana’s unclothed body was found on the sandy and rocky shores of Presque Isle County’s Hammond Bay. She was wearing a necklace, ring, and watch. There were no indications any clothing was washed off. Stempien’s family later stated she would never go swimming with those items on, but, rather, would attach those items to the boat’s steering wheel.

The post-mortem indicated she had high levels of carbon monoxide in her system. No drug nor alcohol levels were detected. In addition, the medical examiner did not detect any foul play and declared her death an accidental drowning.

In the summer of 2006, at the request was made by Chuck’s parents to have the court declare him legally dead. On Aug. 3, 2006 in Presque Isle Probate Court presided by Judge Kenneth A. Radzibon (now that county’s prosecuting attorney), a hearing was conducted. Present were Chuck’s parents, Charles Sr. and Patricia Ann, their attorney, Chuck’s brother, John, and Sexton, of the MSP.

The Stempien family was not in attendance. The hearing lasted over 75 minutes and, at the conclusion, judge Radzibon declared Chuck legally dead

So what occurred on Aug. 11, 2005?

The scenarios and theories are many:

∫ Chuck, too perished, perhaps in a rescue attempt.

∫ It was a terrible accident, in which they were both swimming and the boat drifted away from them. However, the swim ladder was in the up position, and Lana was wearing her jewelry.

∫ The Sea’s Life might have been hit by a very large, rouge wave and they tumbled overboard

∫ A crime of passion between Lana and Chuck — perhaps triggered by her telephone call of that day with a former boyfriend or similar relationship topic.

∫ The Sea’s Life was boarded by another party — hence the mystery of the blue bumpers. Or, the theory of a professional “hit” previously mentioned by a disgruntled client or convicted individual

∫ Or, perhaps, Chuck is indeed alive and, on the run.

Detective Sgt. Gary Demers, of the St. Ignace Michigan State Police post, was a trooper originally assigned to this case with Sexton. Now, as the lead investigator, he revealed the case is inactive.

“The case will never be closed until there is some final resolution,” he said. “Any information received that can be supported by some form of evidence will be investigated.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident and attorney representing the Stempien family, Andrew Jarvis, frequently looks at the accumulated document boxes of the Stempien-Rutherford case.

It offers a number of unanswered concerns and remains a mystery he and many others would like to solve.

Jeffrey D. Brasie is a retired health care CEO and frequently writes historic feature stories and columns. He is a former Alpena resident and resides in suburban Detroit. This feature story is based upon print and electronic press accounts, interaction with Michigan State Police and U.S. Coast Guard, as well as court documents and related conversations.

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