Unsolved Mysteries: Lady in the Lake

Netflix photo.

This acts as both a spoiler warning (if you haven’t seen the episode) and a trigger warning. This post covers suicide and in particular, a brief discussion about methods.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255

The latest installment in Netflix’s retread of Unsolved Mysteries is the fifth episode, “Lady in the Lake.” This particular episode focuses on JoAnn Romain’s suspected act of suicide from drowning by officials, but suspected foul play from her family. That sort of tracks with what we’ve seen in the first two episodes, “Washington Insider Murder,” and, “A Death in Oslo,” where both seem either like tragic accidents and/or acts of suicide, but family and journalists suspect something more is going on. I wasn’t as compelled by the latter arguments for the first two episodes (although I’ve warmed up to the intelligence operation/spy argument for the Oslo incident), but I’m going into this with an open mind. So, let’s see! If you can’t tell from that phrasing, I take notes in real time as I watch, so what you see below is exactly that.

One small note, too: This is the longest episode yet I believe at 48 minutes. Let’s also hope there’s some meat on this mystery bone.

This incident happened near St. Paul Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, which is a suburb bordering Detroit. In a 2016 deposition, Chief Daniel Jensen, the director of public safety with the city, talked about finding Romain’s abandoned vehicle in the church parking lot on Jan. 12, 2010. From that point, officers found butt, hand and footprints in the snow leading to the nearby waters of Lake St. Clair.

Jensen maintains that JoAnn simply walked from her car to the lake and killed herself because there were no signs of a struggle, and no signs of any tore clothing, items on the ground, scuff marks, car ransacked, blood, bullet casings, etc. etc. In essence, no evidence that a crime had occurred, he said.

Michelle Romain, and Kellie Romain, her daughters, were looking for her at the church. She also has a son, Michael, although he hasn’t been interviewed at this point in my viewing. John Matouk, JoAnn’s brother, was also there, and in a memorable quote, said that night was a “shitshow.”

I will say, so far, it is peculiar they can’t find her body. I understand we’re talking about 430 square miles and an 11 feet depth (the family keeps saying it’s a foot or two deep, but Wikipedia disagrees, at least), but no body? If she committed an act of suicide in the water, I would think they could find the body. William Robinette, director of the Midwest Technical Recovery Team, said it was the most thorough search he’s ever been a part of. Okay, where’s her body? I mean, it does connect to Lake Huron and the Detroit River, but, and I am only musing here as a non-expert, but could her body really have floated through those channels to that lake and/or river?

Again though, I have to caution, I find it distressing, and I get why it happens, when family questions what could be an act of suicide and disputes that a family member wouldn’t act that way prior to a suspected act of suicide. Folks, when someone is in that state, they aren’t going to be the person you think you know. That’s sort of the point.

“JoAnn is the one person I know who would never commit suicide,” her brother, John, says.

It’s awful and tragic, but you don’t know that. I feel confident in assuming that the families of 99.9 percent of the people who commit the act of suicide would argue the same thing. Particularly I’m struck by the “she would never leave her children.” Again, it sucks, but it’s not about the children. It’s like someone dying of cancer, and saying, “But how? They would never leave their children.”

But still, I go back to, where is the body?

A Netflix photo.

The family hired an “investigative consultant,” which gosh, sorry, I know I’m dripping with my usual cynicism, but that sounds like someone making a buck off of a desperate family. Anyhow, the guy’s name is Salvatore Rastrelli, and maybe he’s genuine, and maybe he really wants to help. I do agree with him that police get tunnel vision depending on their first impressions of a scene.

Okay, Rastrelli loses me when he reenacts how difficult it would be for JoAnn, who was reportedly wearing heels the night of her disappearance, to walk down toward the lake, especially with the snow and ice. But, what if she simply took off her heels? Granted, like with the body, where are the heels? But it seems more likely that she took them off. Or maybe she did traverse the area in heels.

The main thing “in favor” of the family’s theory of foul play is that an act of suicide by drowning is quite uncommon. Most often it’s a gun followed by drugs, exsanguination, hanging, jumping from a height, asphyxia, poisoning, and quite uncommon also, throwing oneself under a car. Drowning doesn’t tend to pop up, but it would fall in line with the gender disparity in suicide methods, i.e., women tend to choose less violent methods.

That said, when access to water is readily available (access in general is a key pillar of a suicide attempt), the odds go up, and here in this area of Michigan, there was ready access to a body of water.

The timeline for JoAnn is that she drops Michael off at home around 6 p.m., goes and gets gas at 6:25 p.m., and then there’s a prayer service at the church at 7:05, but supposedly according to a witness, she left at 7:15 p.m.

Another private investigator, retired FBI agent, William Randall, was also hired by the daughters. He encouraged the retrieval of cell phone records, and that indicated she may have been talking to a security company because Randall believes she believes she was being followed. Along with that, Randall talked to her co-workers who told him that in January of 2010, JoAnn was “receiving more calls than usual.” In addition, that someone had followed JoAnn to the post office and her phone was being tapped.

All of that amounts to both loose evidence (from eyewitnesses, no less), and more evidence of someone in the run-up to a suicide, in my opinion.

Ah, well. This is what happens when you take notes in real time as you watch the show, like I am. The body was indeed found about 70 days after JoAnn went missing at Boblo Island by two fisherman, which on the other side of the border, so, in Canada. That’s a 35-mile drift from the church/lake to the island. That means the body did empty (for lack of a better word) into the Detroit River and wind its way down to the Boblo Island.

I’m already feeling bad for the family, and I’m feeling even worse for the family when I see they’ve hired a third investigator, Scott Lewis, to give “fresh eyes” to the case after JoAnn’s body was found. How much money has the daughter, Michelle, paid to these three private investigators over the years? To be fair, Lewis claims that if upon reviewing the case, it turned out to be a suicide in his eyes, he’d be done, I don’t want to argue that he’s acting in bad faith (for profit), but gah. It’s rough. She’s willing to pay him! His inclination and bias would be thinking it’s a murder, no? Just as the police can get tunnel vision, couldn’t a private investigator literally being paid with the bias in mind of the person paying him?

Again, folks, Lewis asks, “Who fills their gas tank on the way to commit [the act] of suicide?”

You can’t apply what seems like normal logic to those who may commit an act of suicide.

Jeffrey Jentzen, professor of forensic pathology at the University of Michigan, said the cause of death was drowning, albeit it’s not “definitive” due to the stage of composition the body was in. That said, I suppose if you’re looking at suicide or murder, being ruled a drowning doesn’t … well, rule, either of those out. Adding to the mystery here is that she had bruising on her upper arm, but that could either be from someone obviously holding her to kill her, or coincidental bruising.

I’m going to repeat: I feel so bad for the family. Add on to the fact that they fingered their dad as a suspect. What if she did commit suicide, but you’ve spent the last 10 years thinking she was killed by your dad? I mean, to even think of your dad in that way to “put him on the list.”

I mean, goodness. Michelle even put John Matouk, that’s the brother of JoAnn, on the “list” because of his business dealings. This is a woman in distress, who can’t understand why her mother would kill herself. I feel so bad for this family.

Michelle’s number one suspect was Tim Matouk, a cousin who was also a police officer. Honestly, I just find it gross to wildly point fingers at people. Family members, too, no less. On top of that, the daughters even sued the city for conspiracy to cover up her murder. Come on. The lawsuit and appeal were (rightly) dismissed by the courts. Heck, even the private investigators don’t think any of these “suspects” were actual suspects.

I hate being critical. I’m very, very easy to please when it comes to TV and film, but this season of Unsolved Mysteries is largely disappointing so far. Most of the episodes haven’t felt like actual mysteries, and I’m particularly dismayed about the way the act of suicide is misunderstood.

I feel sorry for the family. I’ll say that again.

What do you think about this episode?

A Netflix photo.

One thought

  1. I haven’t seen the episode so my only real disagreement is about people not killing themselves because of their children. I think that happens. It happened with me. I was on the precipice of suicide many times but I couldn’t do it to my children. I didn’t want to leave them with that legacy. Not saying having children prevents suicide, it doesn’t, but it can play a role i think.

    Liked by 1 person

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