Lana Stempien had it all. Blonde and beautiful, the 35-year-old former model had realized her lifelong dream—to become a lawyer. The life of every party, she was employed by the City of Detroit Law Department and living the good life in the summer of 2005, along with her 34-year-old attorney boyfriend, Charles "Chuck" Rutherford (couple pictured below).
Lana was the pride of her family, the first to go through law school. Rutherford, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor who'd recently begun his own practice, was the son of a wealthy, prominent attorney. Despite any differences, their relationship seemed perfect, on the surface, at least. They were young, attractive, and on the road to success. They shared a modest home in Grosse Pointe Farms Michigan, a chichi Detroit suburb, where affluence is the norm and violent crime is rare. Yet no one really knows what happens with any couple behind closed doors. Later, Lana and Chuck's pairing would appear to have been anything but perfect. And to this day, their fates remain shrouded in conjecture.
From the start, I had an exceptional interest in this case. A friend of mine lived next door to the couple and knew them on a casual but friendly basis. My previous employment with the Wayne County Prosecutor's office began shortly after Chuck Rutherford left that office, so many of my former colleagues knew and worked with him.
At the heart of the matter is the mystery of what happened to the couple three years ago today, on August 11, 2005.
The previous day, August 10, Chuck and Lana left her parents' house in Belle River Canada, across the river from Detroit. Lana was at the helm of her 27-foot boat, Sea's Life.
They were headed to Mackinac Island, a vacation paradise located just east of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas. Although the journey to Mackinac was an ambitious undertaking, Lana's father, a former Coast Guard officer, was not overly concerned with the couple's plans. He knew his daughter to be an experienced and extremely safety-conscious boater.
The boat followed the eastern coast of the Michigan shoreline that first day, making its way up Lake Huron as far as Oscoda. That night, Lana and Chuck docked at a marina and shared dinner and cocktails with a couple they'd met. Afterward, they returned to the boat where they spent the night.
The next morning, Chuck and Lana put the boat in gear and left the marina. A little after noon, they stopped for gas at Presque Isle State Harbor, a few hours from their planned destination. Both Lana and Chuck were seen wearing sweatshirts to ward off the coolness of the day. Once they were back en route, at approximately 1:30 p.m., Lana spoke by cell phone to a favorite aunt. In her statement to police, Lana's aunt recalled that her niece gave no indication that anything might be amiss.
A Frightening Observation
The next morning when the couple didn't arrive as scheduled on Mackinac Island, Lana's parents reported them missing. A few hours later, nearly 24 hours after Lana and Chuck were last seen, a couple out boating discovered Sea's Life adrift in the turbulent Lake Huron waters. The boat was near Marquette Island, ten miles from Lana and Chuck's planned Mackinac Island destination.
When the Coast Guard arrived, they found the boat abandoned with the engine idling. The radio was tuned to a Christian station, not the missing couple's usual musical fare.
There were other unusual things that puzzled authorities. For instance, Lana's torn running shoe was discovered on the deck. Embedded in its sole, as if implanted with great force, was a knob from the boat's GPS system. And that wasn't all. The Coast Guard also found the boat's swim ladder in a pulled-up position, which seemed to contradict the likelihood that an impulsive swim had turned into a tragic accident. The previous day's cool air and water temperatures also made investigators question that theory.
Two other issues were of interest to police investigating the bizarre circumstances. First: the couple who notified authorities of the abandoned boat described blue bumpers, the sort used when boats hook together, floating on a line off the boat's back. The Sea's Life was not known to have had such equipment aboard, and when the Coast Guard arrived the bumpers were nowhere to be found. Second: it appeared that the boat's GPS system was activated around 1:20 a.m. on August 12, many hours after the couple was scheduled to arrive at Mackinac Island.
Where were Lana and Chuck?The first part of that question was answered two weeks after the couple disappeared, on August 23, 2005, when Lana's body washed ashore north of Hammond Bay, miles from where the boat was found. She was nude, wearing only a gold chain necklace and her treasured Omega watch. Close friends and family say that Lana never swam with the expensive watch, which was only water resistant, not waterproof.
An autopsy showed a negligible amount of alcohol in Lana's system. An unusual finding was an elevated level of carbon monoxide in her blood. The medical examiner's determination was that Lana's death had been caused by drowning.
Many Unanswered Questions
As the police investigation progressed, many questions remained unanswered. Where was Charles Rutherford? If Lana's body had washed up, why hadn't his? What was the significance of the blue bumpers? Had another boat hooked up to hers? If so, was that the source of the elevated level of carbon monoxide in Lana's blood?
The police had other questions as well. Why was the GPS knob embedded in Lana's shoe? Did her body enter the water nude or were her clothes washed away in the water? Did one person fall into the water accidentally and the other jump in to save the first? And why was the GPS turned on at 1:30 a.m. on August 12th? None of it made sense.
Meanwhile, relations between Lana's and Chuck's families became increasingly strained, as members of her family wondered if Chuck (pictured right) could be alive and responsible for their loved one's death. At the root were reports from friends who described the couple's relationship not at all as idyllic as it appeared from the outside. One even said Lana had once commented that if anything happened to her, Chuck should be the suspect.
After a news story aired on the couple's disappearance, more reports of trouble between Lana and Chuck surfaced when someone came forward saying he'd witnessed a physical altercation between Lana and Chuck outside of a Detroit bar. A segment about the case on Dateline further fueled speculation that Chuck could be alive and on the run.
Yet there were other indications that suggested such reasoning could be wrong. For instance, from the time of his disappearance, Chuck's credit cards and bank accounts remained unused. His parents filed a petition, and on August 3, 2006, a week short of the one-year anniversary of his disappearance, a Circuit Court Judge declared Charles Rutherford legally dead.
Only recently have discoveries washed up on the rocky Lake Huron shoreline that may finally end at least some of the speculation.
Secrets of the Deep
If that torso belongs to another missing person, perhaps still another body part found less than two weeks ago will be identified as Chuck's—a foot that belongs to a man Rutherford's age.
Yet even DNA will not answer a number of other questions revolving around this case, including what happened to or between Rutherford and Lana Stempien on that fateful day three years ago today.
Those are secrets that Lake Huron may never reveal.
But Lana's family isn't giving up. "I'm gonna find out the truth," her father told Dateline. "And believe me, trust me—I'm gonna do it." For the past few years, the family's search has continued unabated, as has their faith that someday they will know what happened to their daughter. In the Detroit Free Press just yesterday, this memorial appeared:
Our Loving Daughter and Sister LANA ANN STEMPIEN September 22, 1969 - August 11, 2005 It's three years tomorrow Lana, we will forever keep praying and searching for the answer. Love, Mom, Dad and Lori
Statements made in this post are my own and not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.Tweet