Legal fight over what happened to late Woods woman to continue

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 3, 2018

GROSSE POINTE FARMS/GROSSE POINTE WOODS — More than eight years after her mysterious disappearance, the children of Grosse Pointe Woods mother JoAnn Matouk Romain are still looking for answers about what happened to her.

Matouk Romain, who was 55 when she vanished, was last seen on the bitterly cold night of Jan. 12, 2010, at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church, on Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms, across from Lake St. Clair. Whether she walked into the lake of her own volition, accidentally slipped and fell, or was kidnapped by an unknown assailant and later dumped in the water is still a question mark. All anyone really knows for certain is that on March 20, 2010, her body was discovered in the water, 80 miles away from the church, by a fisherman in the Livingston Channel of the Detroit River near Amherstburg, Ontario.

The Canadian Coast Guard and the Ontario Provincial Police recovered her body. Matouk Romain’s three adult children are convinced that their mother was murdered and local police conspired with the killer or killers to cover it up. Local police — in particular, the public safety departments of Grosse Pointe Farms and Woods, which both handled the investigation — have always insisted that’s not the case; they believe Matouk Romain was either a victim of suicide or a tragic accident.

Since Matouk Romain’s untimely death, her children — led by her oldest, Michelle Romain — have fought to uncover what happened to their mother. They’ve hired lawyers and private investigators to dig into the case, and have pursued legal action against the police.

On March 7, Judge Linda V. Parker of the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, granted motions for summary judgment in favor of Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, individually named officers with both departments, and Timothy Matouk, a first cousin of JoAnn Matouk Romain. In the case of Matouk, the judge’s decision declares that “all claims against him are dismissed with prejudice,” but the “wrongful death claim against this defendant, only, is dismissed without prejudice.”

Despite ruling in favor of the cities and Matouk, Michelle Romain and her attorneys point to statements made by Parker in her ruling that they say show the court suspects something foul was afoot in Matouk Romain’s death. Romain and her brother and sister are vowing to continue their legal battle.

“This court acknowledges that there are disputed facts in this matter that are very disturbing and to this day remain unresolved,” Parker wrote, adding that the court “finds the plaintiff’s pursuit of this lawsuit meritorious and is therefore denying Defendants’ requests for attorneys’ fees and costs.”

Romain said the U.S. Coast Guard was called in to conduct a water search around 9:30 p.m. the night her mother went missing, although police didn’t knock on Romain’s door until about 10:30 p.m., meaning that they wouldn’t have known her mother was missing until that time. She has also said that her mother was driving Romain’s car that night, so a check of the license plate of the vehicle parked in the St. Paul driveway would have shown Romain’s name, not her mother’s name, yet police asked about Matouk Romain when they saw the car.

“It doesn’t add up,” Romain said.

The timeline, statements from some witnesses and physical evidence are among the many areas that have been the subject of dispute between Matouk Romain’s children and law enforcement officials over the last eight years.

Romain and her legal team feel that Parker’s ruling was less a decision against them than a ruling based on a legal technicality of sorts. She said the judge’s ruling shows that there “was prior knowledge that the police knew my mom was going to disappear, but there was no direct evidence that they told the killer.” Romain said the judge’s opinion suggests that the police would have needed to conspire with the killer prior to the killing, not just agree to cover it up after the fact.

That wasn’t how attorneys for the police interpreted Parker’s ruling. George M. DeGrood III was the attorney who represented Grosse Pointe Farms and its officers, while the Woods was represented by attorney G. Gus Morris.

Following Parker’s decision, the attorneys issued a statement that reads, in part: “Several autopsies confirmed that the cause of (Matouk Romain’s) death was freshwater drowning and the manner of death undeterminable, with the report prepared by the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office stating that ‘the lack of significant injuries make homicide less likely.’ Judge Parker ruled that the Romain estate presented ‘absolutely no evidence’ other than ‘pure speculation’ that Ms. Romain was murdered and that (Grosse Pointe Farms and Woods) police officials encouraged others to harm Ms. Romain and conspired to prevent discovery of her killer(s).”

The statement also notes that there has been “no formal declaration as to the manner” of Matouk Romain’s death, so the “case file remains open.”

Aside from the statement issued by the Farms’ and Woods’ attorneys, “There will be no other comment on it,” Farms Public Safety Director Daniel Jensen said of the case. However, Jensen did say, “Everything was dismissed (by the judge) with prejudice, which means (the lawsuit) can’t be re-filed.”

However, in past years, when police did offer comment on the case, they always insisted that they acted thoroughly and properly in their investigation, and had no involvement in Matouk Romain’s death.

Romain believes her mother’s cousin, Timothy Matouk was “absolutely” behind what she says was her mother’s murder. Matouk was a member of the Harper Woods Police Department in 2010 and is now an investigator for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. Matouk has never been accused or charged by police of any involvement in his cousin’s death.

“We do not comment on litigation,” Audrey J. Forbush, the attorney representing Timothy Matouk, said in an email.

Romain said “there was some bad blood in the family at the time” between her mother and Matouk, and said her mother had an unsettling conversation with Matouk only about six to eight weeks before she disappeared.

“I don’t know what he said to her,” Romain said. “I’ll never know.”

While her mother didn’t reveal what was communicated in that phone conversation, Romain said her mother did tell her that if anything happened to her, the family should look at Tim Matouk.

But even if Matouk Romain was murdered, the lingering question seems to be why at least two separate public safety departments and more than a dozen officers named in the lawsuit would have orchestrated a cover-up, risking not only their careers and reputations, but also their lives, because involvement in such a cover-up would likely land them in prison.

“I don’t know,” said Solomon Radner, one of the attorneys representing Romain and her siblings, adding that he doesn’t want to speculate on a possible motive. “(But) there certainly is evidence that there was not only a cover-up, but a cover-up that began before (Matouk Romain) was missing.”

Radner said they filed a notice of appeal with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals March 20.

“My attorneys feel confident in an appeal,” Romain said. “They feel the evidence we have should not protect (the police), and we will prevail.”

Radner seemed to echo that sentiment.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed, but the judge certainly found some very disturbing questions of fact and found, in her opinion, that there exists a question of fact as to whether or not police began a cover-up before they even knew JoAnn was missing,” he said. “Police cover-up cases are very tricky. There’s a lot of law; there’s a lot of moving parts.”