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Michigan investigation into missing man Eric Lee Franks continues over a decade later

The 38-year-old was last seen on March 14, 2011, by the owner of the motel where he was staying, when he paid for a week of rent.

38-year-old Eric Franks had two big dreams in life, according to his brother-in-law, Chad Baus.

“One was: He dreamed of working in Hollywood. And he actually moved out to California for a while and worked on some small sets,” Chad told Dateline. “The other one was to have a family.”

Chad is married to Eric’s younger sister, Beth. “It was just the two of them,” Chad said. Eric and Beth’s father was a minister. “They had grown up in different places,” Chad told Dateline. He said the Franks spent most of their childhood in the South. “The majority of it was in Tennessee,” he said. Chad met Beth while the Franks lived in Nashville, Tennessee in December 1995.

Eric was older than Beth by about four years. “I met Eric while I was dating his sister,” Chad said. “Their family went out to dinner and I was invited.” Chad said he doesn’t remember being too nervous, but that “there’s always the concern” of just how protective an older brother is going to be when meeting his little sister’s boyfriend for the first time.

“When I first met him, he was on the quiet side,” Chad said. “You kind of had to get to know him before he would open up and talk a lot.”

Chad married Beth two years later in December 1997. In an email, Chad told Dateline that Eric was in their wedding party, and stood with Beth.

Eric lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, for “quite some time,” according to Chad. After Eric and Beth’s father died in 2006, their mother, Jo Ann, moved to Ohio, where Beth and Chad were living. Eric eventually followed “during the 2008 downturn.”

Chad and Eric had been brothers-in-law for 14 years when Eric vanished.

Eric Lee Franks
Eric Lee FranksChad Baus

Chad, who is the family spokesperson, told Dateline he believes Eric’s dream to have a family may have, unfortunately, been connected to his disappearance. “That dream kind of wound up playing into part of what happened to him, we think.”

He told Dateline that in October 2010, Eric moved to Saginaw, Michigan after he had reconnected with an ex-girlfriend, Kendra Firmingham, on social media in May of 2010. He “figured out that she actually had his biological child and he was never aware of that before,” Chad said.

“He was in contact with the mother -- his former girlfriend,” Chad explained. “The mother was, you know, expressing that she and her husband were having, you know, things weren’t going well.”

Kendra Firmingham was married to a man named John Carnes. But Chad told Dateline that Eric soon moved to Michigan under the belief that he and Kendra “were gonna get together and be a happy little family.”

About a week after Eric arrived in Michigan, he met his daughter, Emily. “He was there for a few months and did -- did meet his daughter and did have a relationship with -- with the mother before -- before he disappeared,” Chad told Dateline.

Chad said that in the few months that Eric was living in Michigan, he would always stay in touch with his family back in Ohio. “I mean, we guys are kind of bad about checking in with our moms,” Chad said, with a laugh. “But, you know, every few weeks -- I mean, she always knew where he was. She always knew what he was doing.”

Chad told Dateline that Eric mainly “stayed in contact by phone and occasionally email.”

So when Eric went quiet for a couple of weeks in late winter of 2011, the Franks family knew something was wrong. “[Jo Ann] hadn't heard from him, she would call and leave messages,” he said. “He wouldn't call back.”

Chad explained that Eric had told his family that he was “going to be moving to a new house” with Kendra and that the “cell service wasn’t going to be great.”

So the family waited, hoping to get back in touch with Eric. “The last day that Jo Ann and another friend of Eric's heard his voice was March 10,” Chad told Dateline.

Eric Lee Franks
Eric Lee FranksChad Baus

Then, in the months following, Jo Ann received some emails from her son. “Through the summer, about once a month, she would get something that was supposedly from him,” Chad said. “Even at the time – especially looking back – she was like, ‘That just doesn’t sound like Eric.’”

Chad said that by November of 2011, Jo Ann decided to report Eric missing. “She finally decided, you know, ‘I think something’s wrong,’” Chad told Dateline. “She basically sent a message and said, ‘Unless I hear your voice, I’m going to the police.’”

She didn’t hear Eric’s voice. Jo Ann reported her only son missing to police.

Dateline spoke with Detective Sergeant Bill Arndt of the Michigan State Police about Eric’s disappearance. Detective Arndt told Dateline that Eric’s mother, Jo Ann, had called the Bridgeport Township Police Department in the area Eric had been staying, before officially reporting him missing.

“She called the Bridgeport Police Department and said, ‘Hey, you know, can somebody go check for Eric?’” Det. Arndt said. However, the detective said, there is no record of a wellness check actually taking place.

“She called Archbold Police Department,” Det. Arndt said. This was Jo Ann’s local police department in Archbold, Ohio. “Her official police report is November 14th, 2011.”

Detective Arndt told Dateline that for 16 months, Eric’s case passed through different departments before landing with the Michigan State Police.

Chad Baus told Dateline that the Archbold Police Department was “nothing but helpful” and “on the ball even though they were so far away from where Eric lived.” Chad said once Eric was reported in mid-November 2011, the Archbold Police jumped into action. They contacted the Saginaw Police Department, Bridgeport Township Police Department and eventually the case passed to the Buena Vista Township Police Department, where Kendra Firmingham lived, in December of 2011.

“And then,” Det. Arndt said, “it's almost two years before they ask us to help.” The detective said that the changing of hands has negatively affected Eric’s case. “It's a detriment,” he said. “We don't get involved in this case until March of 2013.” Evidence that may have been readily discoverable in 2011, he said, may have no longer been so two years later.

When investigators began looking into Eric’s case, they found that he had been staying at a place called Miller’s Motel.

They determined he was last seen on March 14, 2011, when he paid for his week’s rent.

“So Eric had been staying there a couple of months prior to him being reported missing,” Det. Arndt told Dateline. The owner of the motel, Dan Patel, was one of the last people who saw Eric.

“Eric paid him for a week's stay,” Det. Arndt said. “At that type of motel you typically pay a week in advance.”

Detective Arndt told Dateline that payment is the last paper record of Eric.

When asked if there were any security cameras at the motel, Det. Arndt replied, “No. No. There probably still isn't security footage there.”

According to Eric’s brother-in-law, Chad Baus, the motel owner, Dan Patel, noticed that Eric’s car was gone that week and that the lights were on in his room, but it didn’t look like anyone was inside.

Then, the motel owner said, he observed a woman cleaning out Eric’s room. This woman turned out to be Kendra Firmingham.

Detective Arndt confirmed that Dan Patel reported to the police that he did not see Eric cleaning out the motel room. “Dan mentions that he saw only Kendra cleaning out the motel,” Det. Arndt said. “And that Eric wasn’t there.”

This occurred about a week after the motel owner last saw Eric in person.

Detective Arndt confirmed that police asked Kendra about this at the time. “Kendra's story was that they -- she went to the motel to help Eric clean it out,” he said. He told Dateline that Kendra told officials that “Eric wanted to go to California,” so she “helped him clean” his motel room out.

Det. Arndt said that the police then checked Eric’s cell phone activity. “There’s some outgoing calls after the day he was last seen,” Det. Arndt said.

According to Chad Baus, there were many calls made from his brother-in-law’s phone in the weeks after he was last seen -- to auto repair shops, to Kendra’s phone, to a general surgeon, to salvage yards, auto parts stores, a car dealer, and a dentist’s office where both Kendra Firmingham and John Carnes were patients, but Eric was not.

Detective Arndt confirmed that officials were able to trace back a few of the calls from Eric’s phone. “The one to the auto parts or auto service station,” he said. “And there was a call to the dentist and I think there was one more that they were absolutely able to trace back that related to Kendra.”

The detective also confirmed those calls took place after Eric’s disappearance in March 2011. “But there were other calls that they weren’t able to verify who or what or where they came from,” he added.

Detective Arndt told Dateline in an email that the last outgoing from Eric’s phone was to the Saginaw County Animal Control on May 6, 2011.

“The previous investigators did a lot of work in this case,” Det. Arndt told Dateline. “Our agency put it out to Crime Stoppers.” Eric’s case was submitted to NamUs and other national missing persons websites. “They did checks for all of -- any credit cards or social security stuff that they could come up with,” he said.

In an email, Detective Arndt detailed all of the searches conducted for Eric throughout the years. He said they searched local scrap yards, canvassed the neighborhood, utilized aerial searches and sent out cadaver dogs many times.

Eric was nowhere to be found.

“They never found any property associated with Eric,” Det. Arndt said. “We’ve never found anything.” In an email to Dateline, Det. Arndt said that Kendra told investigators that Eric took his personal belongings when he left for California.

Chad Baus believes someone else was using Eric’s phone. “We have reason to think that someone had possession of his phone, because that's how those emails were still being sent,” Chad said, referring to the messages Eric’s mother had received after he was last seen. “He wasn't talking like himself and he wasn't spelling like himself and so on. So it's pretty clear to us that wasn't him.”

While Detective Arndt doesn’t remember seeing the emails personally, he noted that there would no way to verify who sent them.

Chad Baus

In September of 2012, Eric’s family put up missing posters for him and reported his car, a 2001 Chevy Malibu with Ohio plates, stolen.

Officials executed many searches for Eric’s car, too. “The detectives -- they did everything they could think of. They went to local scrap yards looking for that car, thinking maybe somebody demolished that car,” Det. Arndt said. “Did some searches right away, some cadaver dogs searches right away.”

Detective Arndt said the cadaver dogs were used at both Miller’s Motel and at the property where Kendra Firmingham and John Carnes lived. “They searched that house. They did quite a bit of work,” he said. But again, nothing was found.

Chad told Dateline that Eric’s motel room was searched, too. “They've done a limited amount of checking or processing on that room years and years later,” Chad told Dateline. “But those hotel rooms get painted and repainted and cleaned and re-cleaned so many times.”

Chad said that “there was no evidence of anything” happening to Eric in that motel room. Detective Arndt confirmed investigators were not able to recover any evidence at the motel and recalled that the motel owner had just changed the carpeting at the motel.

At one point, Det. Arndt told Dateline, an eyewitness came forward and said that they saw John Carnes threaten Eric’s life outside the motel. “That gentleman was interviewed,” he said. “He said that's what happened -- that John was threatening Eric during an argument or something.”

Detective Arndt said they asked Carnes about this interaction but noted that Carnes “won’t say anything at all” to officials.

Detective Arndt said authorities have Eric’s dental records on file, just in case. “They ended up getting some dental records,” he said. “In case, you know, there was another missing person nationally that wound up missing that couldn't be identified.”

The detective confirmed foul play is suspected in Eric’s disappearance and that the Michigan State Police consider Kendra Firmingham and John Carnes persons of interest in the case. However, he noted, there has never been enough evidence to make an arrest. “It's all circumstantial,” he said. “There's no good evidence.”

Detective Arndt told Dateline that officials “confronted” Kendra many times, but nothing ever came of those interviews. “Polygraphs were never taken,” the detective said, adding, “they were offered, of course.”

According to Det. Arndt, in either 2014 or 2015, the Michigan State Police presented Eric’s case to the prosecutor and suggested charges. “There just wasn’t enough evidence,” he said.

In 2016, Kendra Firmingham died, reportedly of cancer. Dateline has been unable to reach Kendra’s husband, John Carnes, for comment.

In an email to Dateline, Detective Arndt confirmed that Kendra Firmingham was directly asked if she killed Eric. The detective said that her statement in response was, “‘Oh, god no.’” He also confirmed that Kendra continued to “deny any involvement with Eric’s disappearance."

According to Det. Arndt, Kendra’s husband, John Carnes, was also asked if he had anything to do with Eric’s disappearance, murder, or to help dispose of his body. The detective said, “Carnes categorically denied any involvement in the case at all.”

Dateline also reached out to Kendra and Eric’s daughter, Emily, who is now an adult, but did not receive a response. Detective Arndt told Dateline that Emily was interviewed by police. “Didn’t have much to say, but she was interviewed,” he told Dateline. “She didn’t know much.”

Chad Baus told Dateline the same thing about his niece. “They did speak to her when she was a minor and, you know, she was home with her parents, she claimed to not know anything,” Chad said. “She did admit to having met Eric, having done -- having done things with Eric. They went roller skating, I remember. They went to a mall -- bowling, I think.”

Eric Lee Franks
Eric Lee FranksChad Baus

Eric’s case slowly grew cold. The family held out hope that maybe if they found Eric’s car -- which actually belonged to his mother, Jo Ann -- that they’d find Eric. “The car was also nowhere to be found,” he said. “Part of the way they were hoping they would be able to track Eric down was to be able to put a watch out for the car.”

Chad said because the car was titled to Jo Ann, “there was no way for him to legally sell the car because he didn’t have a title” and that there was “no way for him to renew the plates when the time came,” because the car wasn’t registered to him.

“The police had always told us, ‘The car is going to turn up. The car's gonna turn up. That's how we're gonna find out, you know, where Eric is,’” Chad told Dateline.

Nine years after Eric disappeared, the car did turn up. “We never could find his car, until 2020,” Det. Arndt told Dateline. “In 2020, the family got information from an internet sleuth that there was a hit on the car -- on Eric's car,” the detective said. “What happened was the vehicle was parked in a garage in Saginaw. The owner died and they sold the house -- or, you know, the car, the house -- the contents at auction.”

The person who bought the car at auction took it to be inspected. “When he did that, it hit on CARFAX,” Det. Arndt said, referring to the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN.)

Chad told Dateline this story, as well. He said a criminal justice student named Miranda Bofman in California had seen a story about Eric’s disappearance on a TV show. “She was aware because of her criminal justice studies, that you can put a VIN in on CARFAX,” and get email alerts any time a record pops up on that vehicle,” Chad said.

Eric's 2001 Chevrolet Malibu
Eric's 2001 Chevrolet MalibuChad Baus

In the fall of 2020, about three years after she input the VIN on CARFAX, Miranda got a notification. “She gets a notification on August 31st of 2020, that the car had been given an oil change,” Chad said. “She didn’t even remember -- like, ‘What car is this?’ And she was racking her brain trying to remember.”

Chad said Miranda finally put two and two together and reached out to Eric’s family in Ohio. In a message to Dateline, Miranda said, “I’m thrilled to hear Eric’s case is receiving renewed attention. I hope this article encourages anyone who may have information to come forward. It’s been 11 years and it’s time for Eric to finally come home, and for his family to get the answers and justice they deserve.”

Chad and his wife, Beth, just happened to be in Michigan on vacation when Jo Ann called to tell them the news. “We were like, ‘Well, we can stop at that place,’” Chad said. “And I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is probably, you know, a typo or something.’”

It wasn’t a typo.

When Chad and Beth got to where the car was worked on and explained why they were there, an employee told them that they remembered the car. “So they got permission to tell us, you know, the owner of the car, which turned out to be another car dealer,” Chad said.

Chad and Beth raced over to the dealership. “I was expecting the car was going to be sitting out on the -- on the parking lot, you know? Something like -- for sale,” Chad said.

He said they explained the story again, this time to the owner of the dealership. “And so I'm like, ‘Is the car still here?’ And he said ‘Yes, sitting in the next room over,’” Chad told Dateline. “We get up and walk around the corner and there’s Eric's car.”

Chad, who is a car salesman himself, said the car looked just like the day he sold it to Jo Ann. “I mean, it’s sitting there all cleaned up and shiny and like a time machine,” Chad said.

Chad said the owner of the car dealership had bought Eric’s car from an estate sale. “The estate was that of a man named Gerald Rutledge,” Chad said. “Gerald was a person who was basically an invalid -- couldn’t leave his house.”

Detective Arndt confirmed this information, as well, and believes that the car being in Rutledge’s garage was not incidental. “It was not totally random,” he said. “It was a connection to Kendra.”

Chad told Dateline that before Gerald Rutledge died, Kendra had been his caregiver. “The car had been hidden in his garage and he couldn't go out to see it,” Chad said. “He probably wasn't even aware it was there, but it had been there all those years just sitting in the garage.”

Chad said they called the police with the news. “As soon as we identified the car, we immediately called the Michigan State Police and talked to the detective that was in charge of Eric's case at thetime,” Chad told Dateline. “He dropped everything and came out and, you know, they took possession of the vehicle and processed it.”

Detective Arndt confirmed the Michigan State Police processed Eric’s car. “The new owner was super-cooperative. We ended up towing that car down to the lab and having it processed for any evidence,” Det. Arndt told Dateline. “The only thing that came out of that was there was a spot of blood on the driver's seat.”

When the blood was tested, the results came back as belonging to Eric. “It wasn't very large. It was just a speck of blood -- but it did come back to Eric,” Det. Arndt said.

The detective told Dateline that officials did another search after the car was found. “We went back to where the car was actually parked -- the garage where the car was parked,” he said. What they found was a “fresh spot of concrete” in the driveway or in the garage. “So our investigators dug that, dug the cement out with an excavator and did a cadaver dog search.”

But they didn’t find anything there, either. “They searched the whole [property] and nothing was found,” Det. Arndt said.

In an email, Det. Arndt said that there was another set of cadaver dog searches in 2022 of both an abandoned house in Saginaw and the area around Miller’s Motel in Bridgeport Township. Again, nothing of note was found.

Detective Arndt said that, at this point, one of three things is needed to close the case: Find Eric, find additional evidence, or have someone come forward with information. “It will always be open,” Det. Arndt said. “It's just a cold case.”

Eric Lee Franks
Eric Lee FranksChad Baus

“We have zero reason to think that Eric is still living,” Chad Baus said of his brother-in-law’s fate. “He never in his life had been out of touch with his family,” Chad Baus said.

Eric’s mother, Jo Ann, runs the Facebook page “Find Eric Lee Franks” to share news and updates about her son. Eric would be 50 years old today. He was 6’1” tall, 175 lbs., with brown eyes. His hair was black at the time of his disappearance.

Detective Arndt told Dateline in an email that the Michigan State Police just began a Cold Case Investigation team and that “at some point this case will be re-examined for further leads and investigation.”

Anyone with information should call the Michigan State Police at 810-733-9380 or the Missing Persons Unit at 855-642-4847.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information about the investigation into Eric Franks’s disappearance.