Murder and Mystery on Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is perched aesthetically in the Straits of Mackinac. The island is unique, historic, and timeless. There is a sense when stepping from the dock into the town that a switch has been flipped, and you are plunged back in time to the 19th century. Cars were outlawed in 1898. The ferries drop visitors within steps of the main street but be careful where you step because wagons and carriages take the place of cars, and they are pulled by draft horses. There are horses to rent for a ride around the island, or bicycles if you prefer. The town is arranged for the tourist trade with hotels, gift shops, restaurants, bars, and the famous Mackinac Island Fudge. It’s such a beautiful setting that the movie Somewhere in Time was filmed there, and that’s what you feel when you step off the ferry and enter the town – you feel as though you have been transported in time to a simpler, peaceful era. Thoughts of violence or murder are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind, but murder did happen there on June 24, 1960.

Frances Lacey was excited about her weekend trip to the Island, “It will be my first vacation since my husband died three years ago,” she said. Kay Sutter, Frances’ daughter, rode with her mother from Dearborn, Michigan, to Mackinaw City, where they boarded a ferry to the Island. As the ferry departed the dock, the Mackinaw Bridge filled the horizon on the port side of the vessel. It’s five-mile span connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan across the Straits of Mackinaw, and it is a beauty to behold.  Grand Hotel on the Island also provides a spectacular view with its massive white columns and six-hundred-sixty-foot porch, but the eight-mile ferry ride was soon over. The ladies disembarked and followed the dock to the main street of town.

Kay and her husband Wesley Sutter along with Frances were invited to stay at a cottage rented by Wesley’s mother near a spot on the Island called British Landing. Frances was happy to join the group but decided to stay at a hotel instead of the cottage. After leaving the dock area, the first hotel was the Chippewa, but they did not have any vacancies, so Frances crossed the street to the Murray Hotel and got a room. She left her luggage there and went on a carriage ride to British Landing with her family. They returned to town, had supper, and shopped for fudge and postcards at May’s Candy Shop. The group returned with Frances to the Murray Hotel, and Frances told them she would walk out to British Landing in the morning.

It was already warm by 9:00 in the morning on June 24, 1960. When Frances had not arrived at the cabin by 11:00, they thought maybe she had gotten lost because she was always punctual. Their schedule of activities had to get underway if they were going to be able to do everything by the time they had to board the ferry for their return trip. The family began to search for Frances. She said she would walk Lake Shore Road; some looked that way, while others walked different routes, just in case. They walked to the Murray Hotel but found she had checked out. Something was wrong, it was time to call the police.

A Michigan State Trooper got the call and rode his bike to British Landing. He had resolved many missing persons reports in the past. After getting a description of Frances, he called Myron Bloomfield, the city police chief, and asked him to check out her room at the Murray Hotel. Chief Bloomfield learned that Frances had checked out of the hotel, but hotel staff were not sure of the time she checked out because they found the key to her room on the desk, and assumed because she had paid for one night that she was checking out. The staff located her bag in the luggage area, and they figured she would be returning for it later in the day. The chief checked the luggage and saw it was fully packed, including three pounds of fudge from May’s Candy Shop. He checked her room and didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The trooper contacted Mackinaw City police on the mainland to see if her car was still at the ferry dock – it was. The police and volunteers began searching the roads and trails of the Island. At the end of the day, the police could not find Frances, and the trooper contacted his commander at the St. Ignace Post to let him know what was happening. Post Commander Sergeant George Burnette said he would send men to the Island in the morning to help with the search.

Sergeant Burnette boarded the ferry on July 25 with three other troopers. On the ferry ride to the Island, he briefed the officers that it was unlikely for someone to get lost on the Island. The Island is two and a half miles long and one and three-quarter miles wide. The Island is covered in a series of horse trails and footpaths, and a person is not far from any of them on the small Island. As soon as they arrived, the troopers and sixty-five volunteers began a full-scale search of the Island. Frances’ son-in-law, Wesley Sutter, was also searching for her. He was sure she had met with foul play, as she would have reached out to someone. Her daughter, Kay, provided a picture of Frances, and copies were made and passed along to volunteers who were searching. Police checked ferry lines, and no one remembered seeing her. By 10:00 p.m., bloodhounds had arrived on the Island. They used some of Frances Lacey’s clothing from her luggage, enabling the dogs to pick up her scent on Main Street and follow it to the west lake shore, but they lost it at the end of the boardwalk. The dogs were taken to the north end of the Island, where they picked up another scent that led them to the cabin where the family was staying. Then, the dogs lost the trail again.

The next day, June 26th, passed without finding Frances, and more police became involved in the search. Lieutenant Bob Bilgen, Post Commander at Marquette, was sent to the Island along with Detective Anthony Spratto. Spratto gained notoriety as one of the lead detectives in the 1952 murder investigation of army veteran Coleman Peterson. Peterson shot and killed former MSP Trooper Mike Chenoweth, the owner of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan. A book written about the killing was made into a movie: Anatomy of a Murder.

Detective Spratto began his investigation with an interview of Kay Sutter. She related personal details about her mother; Frances was very loving, independent, and punctual. If her mother died, she and her brother William would inherit some apartment buildings, stocks, bonds, and bank accounts worth about twenty-five thousand dollars. Kay had placed a call to her brother on Sunday night when the all-day search had not found their mother. William and his wife, Valory, left right away for the Island. Kay said her mother’s black purse had a cream-colored interior and bamboo handles. It should have her checkbook, passport, Social Security card, pills, and wallet. Frances wore glasses, and she had a diamond ring and a wristwatch. She smoked one-and-a-half packs of L&M cigarettes each day, and she would take an occasional alcoholic drink.

Back at the Murray Hotel, another trooper obtained a list of the guests who stayed on the second floor near room twenty-six, where Frances had stayed. None of them were available to interview because they had already left the Island. He was able to interview some of the staff. The morning clerk remembered checking Frances in, and Thomas Murray recalled that she had left at least three times before 10:00 p.m. and left her key at the desk each time she had left. After the third time, she told Murray she probably wouldn’t bother him anymore. The lobby was closed at 1:00 a.m., and the day clerk found the key to room twenty-six lying on the desk and Mrs. Lacey’s luggage in the lobby sometime after 10:30 a.m.

The next day, July 27th, a pilot from the Michigan State Police flew a state police plane along the Island’s shoreline, searching for any sign of Frances. Spratto met with the Coast Guard and joined them in a search of the coastline around the Island by boat. Still, there was no trace of Frances Lacey. A dive team from MSP in Marquette was searching the water around the Island. Swift, dangerous currents in the Straits made recovering a body very difficult. Police were beginning to believe that Frances Lacey could have fallen into Lake Huron and drowned.

On the day Frances Lacey disappeared, a couple from Flint took a ferry to the Island, and the first thing they did was rent a tandem bicycle. The time on the rental ticket was 9:30 a.m. They followed the Lake Huron shoreline and went up Lake Shore Road toward British Landing. The man noticed two cobblestone pillars framing a large iron gate with a sign that said Private Property. Just past the gate, he saw a purse lying off the pavement to their right. They stopped and heard a noise in the woods as they picked it up. It sounded like a large animal lumbering through the woods. The purse was black with a bamboo handle. Inside, there were papers with a name on them. They put the purse in the basket and continued their bike ride. They checked at the Chippewa Hotel back in town because there was a brochure from there in the purse. There was no one registered at the Chippewa by that name. They decided they would not spend the rest of their day looking for the owner, so the couple took the purse back to Flint and would contact the lady when they got back home and make arrangements to get the purse to her. Back home they read newspaper stories of a missing Dearborn woman on Mackinac Island, and they immediately contacted the police.

Bob Bilgen was familiar with the description of where the couple found the purse. Bilgen and Spratto headed for the gate on Lake Shore Road. They began slowly looking around the side of the roadway where the informants said they found the purse, then slowly enlarged their search. A putrid odor permeated the entire area. Spratto found several small pieces of something – broken pieces of a denture plate. It looked like a carriage wheel had run over it. The officers climbed the gate to search the area on the other side. They found an overturned rotting rowboat, picked up the edge to see what was under it, and found a pair of women’s dress shoes. One of the men on the search team noticed two small trees that the wind had blown over, and he noticed something dark on the ground next to the trees. As he got closer, he saw that what he was looking at was human hair. Four days after her disappearance, Frances Lacey had been found.

The short-sleeved white blouse she was wearing was pulled up above her shoulder blades, and her dark green skirt was pulled up to her hipline. Her plastic-rimmed eyeglasses were lying two inches from her upper left arm. Bob Bilgen ordered one of the troops back to town to find a photographer and notify the coroner. Spratto and others carefully looked for any more obvious evidence. They knew the MSP would send trained specialists in evidence collection to comb over the entire area.

On June 28th Dr. Edgar Kivela, a forensic scientist for the Michigan State Police, headed for Mackinac Island with two other detectives to help get the investigation into the murder underway. The team got there the following day at 2:00 a.m. They waited until daylight and began the search, working from the outside of the crime scene, starting with the small pieces of broken denture. By 6:00 a.m., they had slowly moved beyond the overturned rowboat and black shoes to the body. Looking closely, it was clear to Dr. Kivela how Frances Lacey was killed. Her white panties were knotted around her neck. Kivela removed a hair from the front of her slip near her breasts. Investigators discovered two hairs at the base of one of the pillars near the gate.

Detectives developed a list of all outgoing Island employees from the two primary ferries. They also went to each business on the Island to get the names of the owners and the names of all the employees. They rode a bicycle from where the couple had rented theirs and took the route to where the purse was found. Leaving at 9:30, the trooper got there at 10:30. This means that the couple could have been only a few yards away when Mrs. Lacey’s murderer concealed her body under a blanket of brush. Kivela told detectives to get a hair sample from each suspect they interviewed to compare to the hair taken from Frances’ body.

According to the Autopsy Report of Frances Lacey, her body was in a state of moderate post-mortem decomposition. Her skin had already started to deteriorate around her facial features and ears. There was bruising evident on the left side of her chin and a small laceration on the right side of her chin, and there was a deep, jagged laceration on the upper left side of her head behind the temple region. Her right shin was scraped from her ankle to her knee with moderate hemorrhaging, and the doctor noted they were caused before her death. She still wore a diamond ring on her left hand, but the investigators reported the absence of a watch on either of her wrists. There was obvious bruising on her neck. The bruising was at fingertip intervals. There was a knotted garment around the neck. The bruising on her neck extended entirely from the back of her neck to the front of her trachea and matched the width of the ligature. The killer first used his hands and then strangled Frances with her own panties. Vaginal swabs were taken and sent to Little Traverse Hospital. The stomach contents were examined – cantaloupe, pancakes, and bacon were consumed less than two hours before her death. The report from the hospital confirmed the presence of sperm.

The discovery of Frances Lacey’s body and confirmation that she had been murdered made both year-round residents and tourists anxious. Newspapers statewide fueled the anxiety. The police began interviewing suspects and following up on clues. By August 1, seven or eight suspects had been questioned and released. While the MSP was tracking down who killed Frances Lacey, yachts continued to sail to and from the Island while ferries dropped off an endless stream of tourists every half hour or so. Four days elapsed before Frances’ body was found. How many people left the island during that time? On August 10, Frances’ billfold was turned into the police by the Grand Hotel Gardner. He found the billfold in a clump of shrubbery near a path. It contained her driver’s license, vehicle registration, and birth certificate, but there was no money.

In 1960, forensic scientists used fingerprints in investigations, and Dr. Kivela compared hair samples from the victim and hairs found on the victim to potential suspects. DNA comparisons were unknown at the time. Dr. Kivela compared hair characteristics, such as ethnicity, the area of the body from which the hairs came, and color and growth phase. He would then determine whether a hair could be excluded as coming from a known sample. Hair samples were taken from suspects and compared to the hair found on Frances’ slip and at the gate.

Using the evidence they could compile, police interviewed suspect after suspect and then had to release them due to lack of enough evidence to charge them with anything. They contacted all the restaurants serving breakfast and narrowed down where Frances had eaten breakfast, but no one there remembered her. The police followed up on thousands of tips as they investigated the murder. They interviewed nearly all the staff on the island and ferry employees. They checked backgrounds of suspects; they compared the details of the Lacey case to other murder cases nearby and around the country. As years passed fewer and fewer leads developed. The investigation of Frances Lacey’s death was eventually moved to the cold case files.

The case would be re-investigated by different Cold Case units over the years. In June of 2010, Detective Sergeant Richard Rule received a tip that caused him to take another look at the evidence collected in 1960, but then found he could not retrieve all the evidence. It appeared the evidence in Frances Lacey’s murder was either lost, misplaced, or destroyed. DNA evidence in 2010 may have solved the crime, but what had happened to the evidence? She could have been killed by a serial murderer, or it could have been a sex crime – or a crime of convenience, no one knows. What we do know is that with the evidence missing the case will never be solved. Who killed Frances Lacey?

Herald-Palladium. Benton Harbor, Mi. Search For Suit Jacket of Widow. July 30, 1960.
Indianapolis Star. Suspects Freed in Strangling of Wealthy Widow. July 30, 1960.
Lansing State Journal. Lansing, Michigan. Mackinac Slaying Is Unsolved. July 30, 1960.
Petoskey News-Review. Police Admit Dead End, May Release Suspect. July 30, 1960.
Sadler, Rod. Grim Paradise: The Cold Case Search for the Mackinac Island Killer. Wild Blue Press. Denver, Colorado 2023
Sault Star. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Police Continue Nation-wide Hunt For Murderer of Mackinac Widow. July 21,1962.

About Valerie Winans
We like to camp because it’s easy to take our best friend with us. When we were hired as campground hosts in Denali National Park and Preserve Remington Beagle was only about a year old. Since that first trip up the Alaska Highway we have been in love with not only all things Alaska, but also the adventure in getting there each time with our truck and trailer.