Attorneys turn up heat on cold case

Investigators looking into disappearance, death of JoAnn Matouk Romain say evidence points to murder

By: K. Michelle Moran | Online Only | Published January 16, 2012

 Attorney Issa Haddad stands next to Michelle Romain Jan. 12 on the banks of Lake St. Clair, where Romain’s late mother, JoAnn Matouk Romain, was last seen alive two years ago.

Attorney Issa Haddad stands next to Michelle Romain Jan. 12 on the banks of Lake St. Clair, where Romain’s late mother, JoAnn Matouk Romain, was last seen alive two years ago.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

January 2010 was a far cry from January 2012, especially along the shores of Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Farms. Ice and snow covered the ground, and frigid winds whipped across the water.

But while the weather this year might be milder by comparison, there remains a distinct chill in the air thanks not to Mother Nature, but to mankind: Was this place of such scenic beauty the site of a very ugly murder?

That’s what some relatives of JoAnn Matouk Romain believe. The Grosse Pointe Woods woman was last seen alive on the evening of Jan. 12, 2010, at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church in the Farms, and later on the shore of Lake St. Clair, directly across from the church. Police and emergency divers searched the icy waters for days but were unable to find her. Her body was eventually discovered 80 miles away on 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. Romain was 55 years old at the time of her death.

An investigation by the Grosse Pointe Woods Public Safety Department, with assistance from the Farms Public Safety Department, led to the belief that Romain most likely took her own life. But Romain’s adult children and others who knew her say the devout Catholic never would have done that, and they have spent the last two years paying a legal team and investigators to uncover what they believe was really a murder.

Family members, lawyers and a witness who said he saw two unidentified men with Romain on the shore the night she died gathered at the place where she vanished on Jan. 12 — the two-year anniversary of her disappearance — to discuss new evidence they say points to foul play.

The witness — a Grosse Pointe Farms man who asked not to be identified because he fears for his safety — said he saw Romain the night she vanished. The witness said he was driving north on Lake Shore when he slowed down because there were three cars parked in the right-hand lane, on the lake side. A car he later learned was Romain’s was hemmed in by two other vehicles, one of which was a black sedan. Romain was seated on the breakwall and there were two men blocking her path back to her car, he said.

“That’s what raised a red flag to me,” the man said. “Michigan, January (is) not good weather, and no one in their right mind would be near the breakwall.”

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. He said he was also able to get a partial license plate number for one of the vehicles.

After he learned that Romain was missing, the witness said he filed a statement about what he saw that night with the Farms Public Safety Department. He said he gave a verbal statement Jan. 18 and filed a written statement Jan. 19, 2010. He said police in the Farms and Woods never followed up with him.

“It’s been two years today, and I’ve never heard back from them,” the man said from the driveway of St. Paul’s.

The attorneys said this witness is one of several with similar stories who weren’t contacted by police even after they filed statements. The man who said he saw Romain and the two strangers on the Lake St. Clair shore the night she disappeared said he was one of several cars that passed by.

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

“The police investigation ended right here,” attorney Issa Haddad said as he stood on the Lake St. Clair shore. He’s sharply critical of local law enforcement, especially in the Farms, who he accused of failing to follow up on leads.

Police officials in the Farms and Woods have insisted they did everything they could to resolve this case.

Haddad said they filed suits against the Farms and Woods in Ingham County Court alleging that the cities failed to disclose all of the case documentation after the attorneys filed Freedom of Information requests with the cities — a charge officials with the Farms and Woods have denied. He said the Farms settled its case but the Woods case is still pending, with a trial slated at press time to begin in mid-summer.

There are a number of reasons the family doesn’t believe their mother took her own life. Attorney Jeffrey Lance Abood said Romain “was upbeat,” with the settlement of a civil lawsuit in her favor that had earned her “a considerable amount.” Michelle Romain, her oldest daughter, said in the weeks before her disappearance, her mother said she believed she was being followed, although she didn’t know why or by whom. Michelle Romain said her mother had seen at least a couple of different cars with different people who seemed to be tracking her. Given that her mother had a fairly simple routine that included going to church, a part-time job and the grocery store, her daughter said it wouldn’t have been hard for someone to discern her mother’s habits and schedule.

If Romain were murdered, the big question is, why? Those who know her say she was a kind, loving homemaker. She had no criminal history or criminal ties, Haddad noted.

Michelle Romain fought back tears as she expressed her family’s resolve to continue the investigation until they find out what really happened.

“It’s difficult, but this keeps us going,” she said. “Justice will be served at some time.”

Haddad said they intend to ask the Michigan State Police to look into the case.

“This is a case that needs to be investigated,” he said.

Attorneys say about 10 witnesses have come forward, some of whom told them they saw Romain that night on Lake Shore. Because they fear what might happen to them, the witnesses have been reluctant to be identified, Haddad said, but they are willing to testify in court.

Lawyers believe there may still be people out there who can shed light on what happened to Romain. Anyone wishing to schedule a confidential interview can contact Jeffrey Lance Abood at (248) 433-1200 or jeff@aboodlaw.com.