Family hopes billboards generate leads in mother’s disappearance

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 31, 2013

 Billboards featuring composite sketches of two men who witnesses say they saw around JoAnn Matouk Romain the night she disappeared — Jan. 12, 2010 — have started running on local freeways. Family members are hoping the sketches and billboards generate new leads in the case of the late Grosse Pointe Woods woman.

Billboards featuring composite sketches of two men who witnesses say they saw around JoAnn Matouk Romain the night she disappeared — Jan. 12, 2010 — have started running on local freeways. Family members are hoping the sketches and billboards generate new leads in the case of the late Grosse Pointe Woods woman.

Billboard images courtesy of Michelle Romain

METRO DETROIT — The adult children of the late JoAnn Matouk Romain are hoping a new billboard campaign and tip line spark fresh leads in the case of their late mother, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances three years ago.

Although local law enforcement agencies ultimately concluded that Matouk Romain was most likely either the victim of an accident or suicide, her children are convinced that their mother was murdered, and they have spent the last three years looking for information that might identify her killer or killers. They say the devoutly Catholic Matouk Romain would have never taken her own life.

On the three-year anniversary of her disappearance Jan. 12, Matouk Romain’s children announced the start of a billboard campaign featuring their mother’s photo, composite sketches of two men witnesses said they saw around her the night she vanished, and an anonymous 800-number — (888) INVESTIGATE — that people can call to offer additional information about the mystery men or Romain’s disappearance. The first of these digital billboards, on eastbound I-696 at Van Dyke, began running Jan. 12, and was scheduled to run every other week starting in late January.

Michelle Romain, Matouk Romain’s eldest child and the major force behind this effort, said another of these digital billboards would be seen on westbound I-94 at Nine Mile starting in mid-February, and mobile billboards like the ones on buses would soon be seen traveling through the Grosse Pointes. A plane with a banner featuring the phone number flew over Lake St. Clair Jan. 12, as well.

“We’re just trying to keep this alive,” Michelle Romain said. “We’re just trying to do our best to find out who did this.”

At press time, Romain said a website dedicated to the investigation — www.888INVESTI — was slated to be operational as of the evening of Jan. 30, as well as a Facebook page dedicated to the case, called JoAnn Matouk Romain Investigation. She said they’ve gotten several calls since the billboards went up.

Matouk Romain, a 55-year-old Grosse Pointe Woods resident, vanished from the St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church grounds sometime after 7 p.m. Jan. 12, 2010. Her body was discovered March 20, 2010, by a fisherman in the Livingston Channel of the Detroit River near Amherstburg, Ontario, where it was recovered by the Canadian Coast Guard and Ontario Provincial Police. How her body got there — 80 miles from where her car was parked — and what led to her death are still a mystery.

Police later found Romain’s silver 2008 Lexus, with her purse inside, parked in the St. Paul driveway.

Two autopsies performed on Matouk Romain — one of which was commissioned by her children from the University of Michigan Hospital’s Department of Pathology — concluded that her death was most likely caused by drowning. In his opinion, forensic pathologist Dr. Daniel Spitz wrote that while she probably drowned, “At this point, the manner of death cannot be reasonably determined and thus is best certified as indeterminate. The indeterminate classification is due to the fact that the circumstances surrounding Ms. Romain’s disappearance and drowning are not completely understood and many unanswered questions remain.”

The U-M report, from forensic pathologist Dr. Jeffrey M. Jentzen, found evidence of “contusions located on (Matouk Romain’s) left upper arm,” and while he, too, concluded that “the cause of death is most likely fresh-water drowning,” he wrote that the “manner of death is undetermined.”

During an interview last year, a Grosse Pointe Farms man who asked not to be identified said he saw Matouk Romain the night she vanished. He said a car he later learned was hers was hemmed in by two other vehicles parked in the right-hand lane of Lake Shore on the lake side, one of which was a black sedan. Matouk Romain was seated on the breakwall and there were two men blocking her path back to her car, he said. As he slowed down, the witness said one of the men had his hand in his coat pocket as if he was holding a weapon, and he waved the witness to go on with the hand in his pocket.

The witness said the men he saw were a clean-shaven white male with light brown hair and light-colored eyes, about 245 pounds and 6 feet 2 inches tall, and a dark-skinned man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent with dark hair and dark eyes, roughly 185 pounds and 5 feet 9 inches tall. Both of the men looked “well-heeled,” said the witness, with long, dark, cashmere coats. Sketches of these unidentified men are now featured on the billboard.

Attorneys for Matouk Romain’s children said there were other witnesses who came forward with similar stories. Police said they followed up on these leads — and at least one has said that it would have been too dark at that time of night and that time of year for anyone to have gotten such a clear look at the men, especially from a moving car. However, Michelle Romain and her siblings, as well as investigators, have been critical of the way the case was handled by local law enforcement from Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Woods. Both departments have said they did everything they could to look into the case, and have insisted that they followed up on the leads they received.

Romain’s attorney, Jeffrey Lance Abood, said an initial police report that a set of women’s high-heeled boot prints were found in the snow leading down toward the water was later dismissed by law enforcement as not belonging to Matouk Romain, suggesting that she didn’t walk down toward the water, as originally theorized. Abood said the fresh marks on Matouk Romain’s arm found in one of the autopsies would be consistent with someone grabbing her arm prior to her death.

“From what we have found, all signs point to murder, not suicide, and I’m glad Michelle has pursued this,” he said. “We believe the truth comes out, and hopefully the truth comes out sooner rather than later. … There’s no mystery about this. The only mystery is who killed her.”

Abood said Matouk Romain’s three adult children — Michelle, Kellie and Michael Romain — are the ones who hired the legal team and investigators to look into their mother’s untimely death.

“Her children aren’t going to let this go,” he said. “They want to know what happened to their mother.”

William Randall, a retired FBI agent who now runs KKR Investigations out of Troy, said he’s interviewed a number of witnesses who claim to have seen her the night she vanished. He hopes more will come forward now.

“If anybody remembers anything (from) Jan. 12, (2010), we will be more than happy to (listen),” Randall said. “We just need a little bit more information to make a big break in this case.”

Romain said her mother’s file is currently in the hands of the Wayne County Task Force — whose members include Detroit Police, Michigan State Police and the FBI. She said they turned the information over to the task force to review about three months ago. At press time, that review was ongoing and results were not yet available.

Romain asks that anyone who has information about what happened to her mother call the 800 number or visit the website. Tipsters can remain anonymous, she said.

“We’re just reaching out and hoping people will call that tip line,” Romain said. “This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a suicide. It was homicidal.”