Video: Lake Huron mystery

By Chris Hansen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/11/2006 11:40:31 AM ET 2006-10-11T15:40:31

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, 10 p.m., Chris Hansen continues his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a Michigan couple after a romantic boat trip on Lake Huron with a newly-obtained audiotape of the last phone call made from the boat and exclusive interviews with family members who have never spoken publicly before. This update, below, aired Dateline Saturday, May 13.

It’s been 9 months since a stunning former model turned successful attorney vanished along with her boyfriend on the vast waters of Lake Huron.

When we first brought you her story, her family was begging anyone who might have information to come forward.  

Now, some viewers who saw our report have come forward. And their statements may hold important new clues in this case.

What secrets lie beneath the chilly waters of this Michigan Lake?

As the Spring air melts it’s foreboding blanket of winter ice, will the lake finally reveal the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of one young attorney—and the untimely, tragic death of another?

And will new witnesses help crack the case?

Her name was Lana Stempien. An attorney for the city of Detroit, the 35-year-old former model was known for her radiant free spirit.

But early last August, the tall beauty set out on a fateful boating trip with her boyfriend, 34-year-old Chuck Rutherford.  Two days into their long planned get away on Lake Huron, the young attorneys seemingly vanished.

Lana’s boat, the “Sea’s Life,” was found abandoned, strangely adrift in the middle of the lake, its engine idling in neutral, the stereo still playing.

Detective Robin Sexton of the Michigan State police had a missing persons case on his hands—and after inspecting Lana’s boat, few clues about why the young couple had mysteriously disappeared.

Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: Was there anything on board the boat that indicated foul play?

Det. Robin Sexton: Nothing.

Hansen: Any signs of a struggle?

Sexton: Nothing.

Hansen: Obvious signs of blood?

Sexton: Nothing—money was in the wallet, clothes were lying on the deck. There was nothing unusual.

Two weeks later, Lana’s body washed ashore.

There was no sign of Chuck anywhere.

How had a romantic summer boating trip gone so tragically wrong?

Courtesy of Stempien family
Lana Stempien

Lana, the daughter of a former coast guard officer, was an accomplished, extremely safety conscious boater.

But could the young couple simply have gone for a casual dip in the lake and somehow drifted dangerously far from the boat?

It was a theory Lana’s family adamantly disputed.

Chris Crowley, Lana’s cousin: We don’t think that Lana went into the water voluntarily.

Hansen: Boat got away from them --  they drowned?

Chris Crowley, cousin: The water wasn’t that warm. The weather wasn’t that calm. And they decided to both jump off the boat and the boat got away? That just doesn’t seem to add up.

What’s more, the swim ladder on Lana’s boat was still up—not down as you’d expect it to be if someone had gone for a swim.

And, even more troubling to Lana’s family, she was found nude—wearing only a necklace, a ring, and her Omega watch.

Hansen: Did it disturb you that she was found unclothed?

Tammy, cousin: Very disturbing. Why was she naked? It just raises more questions of what happened.

Police are convinced Lana went into the lake the same way she was found two weeks later, wearing nothing but her jewelry.

Sexton:  Over that period of time, clothing wouldn’t disintegrate or wash off. Also, the clothing would’ve left marks.

Could that mean the young couple had just gone for an impromptu skinny dip?

Lana’s family dismisses that theory too—insisting Lana always removed her jewelry before swimming  -- especially that Omega watch, which was a treasured gift from an old boyfriend.

Hansen: Does it make sense to you that she would go into the water voluntarily with this prized possession?

Crowley:  Not at all, she wouldn’t do it.

Tammy: She would have put her rings through the watch clasp and put it through the steering wheel.

Hansen:  She did the same thing every time?

Tammy: Yes. So why was her jewelry still on?

Was it an accident?  Or was something more sinister involved?

Without any hard evidence, police caution that any talk of foul play is pure speculation.

But Jack Cote, a lawyer who has 25 years experience reconstructing the events surrounding the disappearance of boaters, believes Lana’s Omega watch is one of many indications that something suspect was likely involved. He volunteered his services to both Lana Stempien’s and Chuck Rutherford’s families when he first heard about the case.

Jack Cote: The possibility of foul play in my mind is at least 50-50 if not higher.

Hansen:  The autopsy showed no obvious signs of trauma. Does that rule out foul play?

Cote: No. Because you can have an absence of trauma and still drown

Hansen:  Pushed overboard?

Cote: Yes.

Frustrated, Lana’s family amassed a pile of troubling clues.

There was Lana’s torn running shoe, found on board her boat with a knob from a piece of equipment on the boat strangely wedged in the sole.

Tammy: That was very odd. The Coast Guard told us that the only way that the knob could have been embedded in her shoe was with force.

Hansen:  Does that indicate to you that there was some sort of struggle on board this boat?

Tammy: That there was something… out of the ordinary. Something happened.

There were indications another boat may have been tied up to Lana’s boat, and disturbing hints that long after anyone last heard from Lana or Chuck, the boat’s tracking device was tampered with   --  with someone even going to the trouble of actually erasing information from the GPS’s memory.

Cote: Somebody who didn’t want anybody to know where that boat had been.

But who would do that - and why?

Andrew Jarvis, a colleague of Lana’s, who is now acting as her family’s attorney, says it is just one of many lingering questions that still surround Lana’s death.

And perhaps the most puzzling: after 9 months, why is there is still no sign of Chuck?

Cote: I would have expected his body to have surfaced at about the same time, and in the same general vicinity as Lana’s.

Hansen: Do you see it as at all strange that Lana’s body is found 2 weeks after the incident, yet all these months later we still haven’t found Chuck’s body?

Sexton: Not in the slightest. It is not unheard of for bodies to enter the water and never be recovered.

But for Lana’s family, Chuck remains the most haunting, missing piece of this unresolved puzzle.

Tammy: Is he still underwater? I don’t know. Is he somewhere else?  I don’t know.

Chuck is the son of a prominent, Michigan lawyer, and his family has called suggestions that because he’s still missing, he was somehow involved in Lana’s death, unfair and extremely painful.

One thing that has emerged in the investigation is that the couple’s relationship seemed to be in trouble.

Though it may prove to have absolutely no connection to Lana’s death, attorney Andrew Jarvis believes it could be significant.

He’s taken sworn statements from Lana’s friends describing outbursts of anger and jealousy by Chuck in the months before the couple disappeared - including one drunken incident at this bar in downtown Detroit.

Lana and Chuck were hanging out there one night with another couple.  They say Chuck had too much to drink and became belligerent. When Lana told him to straighten up because he was embarrassing everyone, Chuck started swearing loudly and calling Lana names. They say Chuck’s verbal abuse was so out of hand that at one point one of them had to stand between the couple to separate them. And then, two Detroit police officers who were in the bar having dinner actually had to forcibly escort Chuck outside.

According to Lana’s friends, that kind of behavior had frightened Lana.

And, shortly before she vanished, Jarvis says several witnesses heard Lana talk openly about her fears after they’d all watched a television story about the murder of Laci Peterson.

Andrew Jarvis:  That prompted Lana to say to these two individuals “If anything happens to me, if anything suspicious happens to me or I disappear, Chuck would be a person of interest.” She was fearful of her safety from Chuck.

And now there are new witnesses—including one man who has a story that Lana’s family believes validates her concerns about Chuck.

Last June, Reggie Grimmett saw something on a Detroit street that disturbed him—and now he’s one of several new witnesses who may hold important new clues to solving the mysterious disappearance of Lana Stempien.

Grimmett says he was driving past a restaurant when he saw a man aggressively beating a woman.

Reggie Grimmett, witness: This big man got her right above the elbow, and he was hitting her. He was trying to force her into the vehicle as he was hitting her.

In a sworn statement, Grimmett describes how after the woman escaped, the man chased after her  -- driving recklessly and erratically, continuing his chase even after he’d slammed into another car and an airbag had deployed in his face.

Grimmett: I was shocked you know. I rolled right up beside him and he was fighting the airbag continuously. And then he went into traffic the wrong way.

Video: Valid concerns about Chuck?

Grimmett contacted police after recognizing the couple he’d seen arguing as Lana Stempien and Chuck Rutherford  -- the two young Detroit attorneys who vanished on a boating trip in August. 

Grimmett: I was at home. And just watching the news and I looked, I said “Oh no. That’s that young lady Lana.”

Grimmett told police that he was deeply troubled by Chuck’s behavior.

Grimmett: How could you lose control and be beating people in broad daylight? He was a very angry man. You know? Hitting a woman.

And Andrew Jarvis, the attorney for Lana Stempien’s family, believes Grimmett’s storysubstantiates the concerns Lana shared with her friends about Chuck shortly before she disappeared.

Andrew Jarvis, Stempien family friend and attorney: I think it validates what Lana was saying to her friends in August. That she was fearful of her safety from Chuck.

Jarvis also believes Grimmett’s story adds weight to the possibility that some kind of heated domestic dispute on board “Sea’s Life” preceded Lana’s death.

As Dateline first reported, the very last call Lana made from her boat, at 1:59 p.m. on August 11th was a one minute message for a male friend—a man friends say Chuck had been jealous of in the past.

Andre Jarvis: I always thought that that last phone call was a catalyst to something happening on the boat… something happened shortly after 2 o’clock on Thursday August the 11th.

Did Chuck overhear Lana leaving the message for that other man and angrily confront her? 

Hansen:  27 foot boat, close quarters. You have to wonder if she’s calling another man, does he overhear this? Is there some sort of disagreement? That leads to an accident or a tragedy?

Det. Robin Sexton: I don’t know.

Hansen:  Is that an important piece of evidence in this case?

Sexton: We’re still looking at it.

Like so many other things in this baffling case, Detective Sexton says without any evidence, the possibility that a phone message caused an ugly argument is pure speculation.

Sexton: Whether it happened or not, I don’t know. But how would you prove that?

But, another new tip could back up the theory that whatever went wrong, it happened right after Lana made that last call.

Two sisters, who asked us not to use their names out of concern for their safety, sent an e-mail to through the Dateline Web site after seeing our story in January, and were later interviewed by the police.

They describe a white boat they saw on August 11th, hovering dangerously close to some rocks in this bay.

Sister 1:  We thought it was really strange, because it was too close to the rocks.  You never see a boat that close—

And when they realized nobody was controlling the phantom vessel, they were even more concerned.

Sister 2: Kinda eerie. It was an eerie feeling, yes. It was moving erratically. To me, it didn’t seem like anybody was driving the boat.

The sisters, who are now certain the boat they saw was Lana’s, told police they spotted it shortly before 3 p.m. on August 11th—which is right after Lana placed that call to the other man. 

Jarvis: You put one and one together -  and you know there was a phone call made, and you know the boat was seen drifting near shore again. My opinion is that that phone call was a catalyst to something happening on that boat.

But if the boat was abandoned when the sisters saw it drifting near those rocks—where was Chuck?

The sisters say they noticed something else that afternoon:  a second boat, speeding away in the distance.

Sister 1: It was going pretty fast. It looked like he was leaving the harbor going towards across the lake.

Could that second boat be a critical missing piece of the puzzle that might explain what went so tragically wrong on this lake? Who was on board?  Did they see something? Were they involved?

Jarvis: It could mean something, or it could be another witness. But we’re trying to track down who that boat is.

The Michigan State Police say the sisters’ information gives them a much better sense of exactly where “Sea’s Life” traveled that day—and now their divers are preparing to once again search the bay.

Jarvis: This new information will allow the experts to re-plot a potential search area based on where the boat was seen near the shore and where Lana’s body was recovered.

But nine long months later, what, if anything, will the police divers find?

Is it possible missing clues still lie beneath these chilly waters? 

Will they finally answer the haunting question of whether the disappearance of Lana Stempien and Chuck Rutherford was just a tragic accident—or something much more sinister?

Two families desperately await the answer.

Will another body be found, allowing Chuck’s family to finally put all the painful speculation to rest?

Will Lana’s family finally find out exactly what went wrong on this lake?  They say it’s the only thing that will ever give them peace, the only thing that will allow them to finally let go and say goodbye to their beloved, vivacious Lana.

Tammy: We won’t stop. That was our drive in the very beginning.  We can’t believe she’s missing.  What can we do to bring her back?  And now our quest is why did this happen, how did this happen?

Hansen: Is it possible that we’ll just never know?

Tammy:  It is.  But I don’t think we’ll ever stop.  I think I’ll die trying if I don’t have an answer.

The family of Lana Stempien is still convinced that someone may have seen something else that could solve the mystery of her death and help find her boyfriend Chuck Rutherford.
Phone number: (906) 643-7582 or (800)793-1883
Web site:
stempienrutherford.com

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