http://www.livingstondaily.com/article/200...EWS01/906120301Task force taking on cold case
By Lisa Roose-Church • DAILY PRESS & ARGUS • June 12, 2009
A new task force is hoping they can solve a nearly 20-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of a substitute teacher from Okemos who was last seen talking to a man along Interstate 96 in western Livingston County.
The team — comprised of three retired law enforcement officers who represent 110 years of experience — began work this week by reviewing the case file of Paige Marie Renkoski, who was 30 when she vanished from Livingston County virtually without a trace on May 24, 1990.
"You wonder, 'Did I miss something? Could I have done more?' It's always in the back of your mind," Sheriff Bob Bezotte said. "You're always hoping you can solve it."
The team is comprised of retired Westland Police Chief Michael Frayer, retired Mackinac Island Police Chief William Lenaghan and retired Westland Police Officer Joseph Morrow — who all agree they offer fresh pairs of eyes to study the foundation developed by initial investigators. They hope to find the one clue that leads to an arrest.
"Everyone has friends here and there, and you might be able to pull something (investigators) weren't able to before," Lenaghan said. "Everyone makes their best effort, but sometimes it doesn't come together."
Renkoski's mother, Ardis Renkoski, has said in the past that she doesn't speculate about what happened to her daughter. Today, she said the task force was too new for her to comment.
"She lives with it each and every day," Bezotte said. "To see what they go through is heart-wrenching. I can't imagine losing a loved one and not knowing what happened to her.
"It would be nice to solve the case, but it's just as important to the family to know what happened and get closure. We haven't even found Paige yet," he added.
Experts on coping with grief say "closure" isn't the same thing as getting over or recovering from a loss.
"Grief never really gets behind us," said David Kessler, who co-authored "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss" with renowned psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeh Kubler-Ross.
"It stays alongside us," he added.
Kessler said for some people "stuck in a death," finding a missing loved one can help them to begin to focus on their loved one's whole life rather than the tragic death.
A passing motorist first saw Renkoski talking to a man standing between her car and a maroon minivan at about 3:30 p.m. May 24, 1990, on the shoulder of westbound I-96, about a quarter-mile east of the Fowlerville exit.
That motorist became concerned when he saw the woman's 1986 silver Oldsmobile Cutlass running with no one inside at about 7:30 p.m. on his return trip. That's when police were called.
Investigators found the car unlocked, with the engine running and the headlights on. Her shoes, purse, a cup of beer and an open bottle of beer were still inside the car.
There was no mechanical problem or damage to the car or its tires.
There was no sign of a struggle.
"She was right at the exit," Bezotte said. "It boggles the mind why she stopped."
Witnesses who underwent cognitive recall sessions with a State Police psychologist have placed Renkoski standing along the freeway talking to either one or two men.
Renkoski also was seen gesturing with her hands in the air as she spoke to a man, and the man putting his hand on her shoulder.
What happened next, however, remains unknown.
Throughout the years, authorities have compared DNA samples related to the Renkoski case whenever a convicted serial killer is connected to the area.
Investigators also have brought in everyone from psychologists to a psychic from Pennsylvania in the hopes of getting clues to the woman's disappearance.
Their investigation developed two possible suspects — both from the Detroit area. A 17-year-old juvenile reportedly failed a lie detector test about Renkoski.
Meanwhile, a man imprisoned in 2002 who bragged about his involvement in the case eventually was crossed off the suspect list after a lie detector test and other evidence convinced police he had nothing to do with Renkoski's disappearance.
The first task force
In 1999, two State Police detectives and three county sheriff's detectives comprised a "New Hope" task force to look at the cold case.
They investigated two theories — whether Renkoski disappeared on her own or whether she was abducted.
"The end result is we believe she was abducted," Bezotte said.
That task force announced in May 2001 that they had a suspect whom they said was "connected" to the maroon minivan. The suspect was identified after new technology allowed authorities to cross-reference more than 1,000 tips in the case, and uncover leads which had seemed unrelated.
Yet, no lead has led to the answer that would solve the case.
Bezotte is hoping to procure a grant to fund the new cold case squad. His department sought a grant in conjunction with Washtenaw County in 2008, but was denied.
Success is possible
The new task force team members admit their success in solving the case will be a hard road.
"Witnesses may not be alive anymore. Evidence will be hard to find. Witnesses may have gotten married or changed their names or moved away," Frayer said.
Yet, success can be found if investigators find that one clue or piece of information that completes the puzzle.
That is what happened in 2006 when local authorities solved the cold case of Sunoco clerk Jessica Fear, who was found stabbed to death Sept. 9, 2003, at the Fowlerville business.
Leonard James Westervelt of Lansing subsequently pleaded guilty to Fear's murder and was sentenced to 28-70 years in prison.
Cold case teams are solving mysteries nationwide and prosecutors are getting convictions in the cases.
Veteran Detective Stephanie Lazarus, 49, was charged with murder Monday in Las Vegas in the slaying of her ex-boyfriend's wife in 1986 — a crime that went unsolved for more than two decades as she rose through the Los Angeles Police Department ranks, according to media reports.
She was identified as a suspect through a recent DNA match of saliva taken from bite marks on Sherri Rasmussen's body, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck told media.
Bezotte is hoping for a similar resolution for the Renkoski family.
"I really believe, even with (the case) as old as it is, there are people out there who know what happened," he said. "I believe the case is solvable."