Judge grants order; declares missing boater dead

This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the unexplained incident that sparked the search for two missing boaters, Lana Stempien and Charles Rutherford, Jr. Both Stempien and Rutherford were lawyers in the Detroit area. The case is perhaps the most prominent mystery that has come from the depths of Lake Huron in recent time. Although Stempien?s body was found in 2005, Rutherford?s has never surfaced. On Thursday, Probate Judge Kenneth Radzibon granted the petition for Rutherford?s parents to establish his death.

?IT APPEARS clear to the court?that Charles Rutherford, Jr. is deceased as a victim of a boating or swimming accident,? said Radzibon. ?There are questions?but the court is satisfied that (Rutherford) has not had any contact with loved ones.? Radzibon declared August 11, 2005 as the date of death for Rutherford, and the cause of death to be listed as a boating or swimming accident in the waters of Lake Huron. Although the death certificate has been signed, the facts outlining the deaths of Rutherford and Stempien are still unknown. According to the original incident report from August 13, 2005, the coast guard recovered the vessel ?Sea?s Life? near Marquette Island, which is off the coast of the Upper Peninsula, on August 12, 2005. The boat had been reported overdue from its destination at Mackinaw Island, and was spotted by the freighter Saginaw at approximately 10:10 a.m. Det./Sgt. Robin Sexton of the Michigan State Police told the court Thursday he personally examined the boat, which belonged to the Stempien family. He testified he retrieved items from the boat to establish a timeline, and that there were no signs of foul play. ?There was nothing in disarray on the boat, other than normal living,? said Sexton.

IN SEXTON?S original report, he stated the knob of the GPS (global positioning system) was ?embedded thread first? into a woman?s tennis shoe found on the boat. It was also reported that a mooring line was attached to the back of the boat. In his testimony Thursday, Sexton said the 20-foot line could have been a swim line. He also testified that all possessions belonging to Stempien and Rutherford were found on the boat. Due to weather, the interior of the boat was wet, and made the possibility of fingerprinting impossible. The boat was found in neutral, and the engine was operating. Sexton said the FM radio was on, while VHF was off. A camera was found on board, and Sexton said the pictures on the camera taken with the camera were prior to August 11, 2005. Radzibon asked Sexton if he believed Rutherford to be deceased, and Sexton said he did. ?I believe so; there is no indication that he is alive,? said Sexton. ?Based on the circumstances, I believe he?s deceased.? Sexton said the search for both Rutherford and Stempien had been extensive immediately following the recovery of the boat. He stated divers had gone out to search three or four times. ?We did scheduled and unscheduled air searches,? said Sexton. ?We searched by boat; the initial search began at the first coordinates taken off the GPS.?

TWO WEEKS after the search began, the naked body of Stempien was found on the shore of Hammond Bay. An autopsy performed in Grand Rapids stated Stempien died of accidental drowning. Sexton testified approximately 50 percent of bodies are recovered from the waters of Lake Huron near the Straits area. He said there were numerous factors on how or if a body will rise to the surface. According to Sexton, the last contact from either Rutherford or Stempien came from a cell phone call at 2 p.m. on August 11, 2005. ?We can show by cell phone records when their phones were last used,? said Sexton. ?We were then able to determine about when the vessel started floating. We reviewed all cell phone records, GPS data, and financial records.? Patricia Rutherford, the mother of Charles Rutherford, Jr., took the stand and testified that she had not seen or heard from her son since his disappearance. She said she used to speak with her son daily, because his law office was located near her home. When Radzibon asked if she believed her son to be deceased, she answered ?unfortunately, yes.? Charles Rutherford, Sr. also took the stand and testified Thursday, at times becoming emotional. He said the last time he spoke with his son was sometime during the week prior to August 11. Mr. Rutherford said he had ?many opportunities to review? his son?s financial records, tax returns, and legal cases.

?WE MAINTAINED his law practice for three months after he went missing,? said Rutherford. ?There has been no activity in his financial accounts, and his clients have since picked up their files.? Mr. Rutherford said he believed his son to be deceased. He mentioned that his son?s client list had been turned over to the Michigan State Police. Radzibon asked Sexton if the client list had been reviewed, and whether clients of Rutherford had been called and interviewed. Sexton said clients had not been contacted, although two were interviewed because Rutherford had contact with them shortly before going missing. The case of Stempien and Rutherford has drawn state and national attention, with camera crews from Channel 7 of Detroit and Dateline NBC filming Thursday?s outcome.

Leads have come in from all areas of the country, from Massachusetts to California. People believe they have dreamed about the disappearance, or they believe they have seen Rutherford in random locations. It is a mystery that is shrouded with unanswered questions, although one fact can easily be proven — the disappearance and death of Rutherford and Stempien has changed the two family?s involved forever.

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