Grim Paradise: The Cold Case Search for the Mackinac Island Killer by Rod Sadler

Review by Victor R. Volkman

Book cover titled "grim paradise: the cold case search for the mackinac island killer" by rod sadler. features a picturesque view of mackinac island with overlay text and a vintage postcard design.This installment marks the 5th anniversary of my term at the helm of Superior Reads for Marquette Monthly. I am particularly thankful for the breadth and scope of U.P. literature that it has introduced me to. As a reader of this column, I hope it has helped widen your horizons in some small way. I open this way because “Grim Paradise: The Cold Case Search for the Mackinac Island Killer” by Rod Sadler is the first true crime book I ever read, let alone reviewed.

Often referred to as the jewel of the Great Lakes, The Detroit News says Mackinac Island sees more than 1 million visitors per year. This is a staggering number and in practice amounts to 5,000 to 10,000 visitors per day depending on the exact day of the season. The Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau reports that the Grand Hotel has an annual revenue of $311 million with 875 employees. The point of these statistics is that anything that threatens such an important revenue source is going to be the #1 priority for law enforcement. Inasmuch as Mackinac Island is a state park, the overarching law enforcement branch will always be the Michigan State Police (MSP). Can you imagine how much money could be lost if the island is perceived as anything but 100% safe for families? Would parents still allow busloads of kids to be sent over with a smattering of chaperones? The gravity of the offense cannot be exaggerated.

Sadler’s book thus chronicles the efforts of the MSP from 1960 onwards to solve the murder of Frances Lacey. This is basically a ride-along type journey as we are introduced to the many detectives who will become involved in a manhunt that spans statewide from Marquette south to Detroit and Battle Creek. Along the way, airplanes will be used to shuttle investigators around the state and passenger rail traffic, which was still abundant, will be examined in an effort to find the perpetrator. On Sunday July 24th, 1960 Lacey was murdered just a few yards from the ring road which circles the island somewhere between the Grand Hotel and British Landing. However, her body would not be discovered for another 72 hours as a massive team of police and local volunteers scoured the island looking for any trace of her whereabouts.

Rod Sadler is a seasoned law enforcement veteran with three decades of experience in mid-Michigan. This very much informs the narrative which is almost entirely a “just the facts ma’am” type approach. He takes you almost hour-by-hour through the few days of the investigation and then follows the investigation of dozens of the more than 300 tips sent in by the public. Where the names of private individuals are not part of the public record, Sadler changes the names to protect the innocent. Although the focus is on 1960, as a cold case it is revisited again and again in the ensuing six decades. He is the author of several Michigan true crime books including “A Slayer Waits: The true story of a Michigan double murder” and “To Hell I Must Go: The True Story of Michigan’s own Lizzie Borden”.  Mrs. Lacey was staying at the Murray hotel in 1960. Sixteen years later, serial killer Don Miller spent the summer on the Island working at the Murray. Three months after he left the Island, he began his eighteen-month killing spree, as detailed in Sadler’s “Killing Women”.

Mrs. Lacey had been twice divorced and was a widow in her mid-50s when she was murdered. She had accompanied her family up from Dearborn, Michigan for a weeklong getaway on the island. Lacey was well off, having a personal fortune worth $500,000 in today’s money, but her adult children and son-in-law were quickly ruled out. Any investigator will tell you the trifecta of “Means, Motive, and Opportunity” makes a case. Lacey was struck from behind with a blunt object, manually strangled, and then finally died being strangled by her own panties.

As you might well conclude, the state of forensic evidence in 1960 had not advanced much beyond the fingerprinting stage including latent prints. For lack of prints, much of the forensic analysis was based on the idea that some piece of the perpetrator’s head or pubic hair must have transferred to the victim. Hair samples were collected from many possible male suspects who could not be ruled out by alibi. This type of test was useful for ruling out a suspect but could not be conclusive in a positive sense. DNA testing did not come into use until the late 1980s. By the time the technology had come into common use, what little physical evidence remained had been lost or destroyed.

Of course, there is no way to lockdown an island with 15,000 people on it like you would in a cozy British country house murder mystery. Exacerbating this was that the time period of the disappearance and murder was in the middle of the Chicago-to-Mackinac race which meant an even bigger pool of transients. Unfortunately, the investigation of boat crews for suspects was not begun until much later on.  The local law enforcement team consisted of three Island-based police and three state troopers. They were quickly supplemented from the St. Ignace post and others were seconded to the team which grew to 19 investigators at its peak.

Nevertheless, Sadler’s book investigates in detail many violent and psychotic offenders who were swept up, interviewed, and finally exonerated or left with no conclusive details. Of particular interest was an oddly similar case at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois where three young women had been tied up and brutally beaten to death in March 1960. Chester Weger, the perpetrator was exonerated only because he had been released from an Illinois jail on July 24th and reported for work on time on July 25th. Still, Sadler cannot shake the idea that a serial killer may have been involved and a final chapter on serial killer Jerald Winegart raises disturbing questions about how the case might have been resolved with long-term evidence retention.

Throughout the book, the reader will learn how hard a real-life detective has to work and how many dozens of dead ends they will hit along the way. There’s much, much more to “Grim Paradise” than I can cover in this review. Having stayed on Mackinac Island several times, beginning with my honeymoon in 1990, I was fascinated by the level of detail and familiar hotels, bars, and other establishments that are still around. Whether you are a fan of Mackinac Island in particular or cold-case crimes, there is a treasure trove of historical detail to enjoy in Rod Sadler’s “Grim Paradise”.  Sadler sincerely hopes that this work may jog the memory of a reader and provide a missing puzzle piece for this nearly forgotten but heartless crime.


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