Sheriff detectives re-examining 30 year cold case involving teen’s death

July 22, 2023

Melissa Simmons

Sheriff detectives re-examining 30 year cold case involving teen’s death

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

A small tree stands alone just southeast of the Mason County Central High School entrance. A wooden plaque on that tree pays tribute to Melissa Marie Simmons, who died in late June 1993, she was presumably murdered. At the time of her death, she was 15 years old and had just completed her freshman year at MCC. She would have been 45 years old this year (her gravesite indicates she died on June 26, 1993).

In the evening of Wednesday, June 23, 1993, Melissa left her family’s house at 206 E. Broadway Ave. in Scottville, telling her father and stepmother that she was going to go to the Wesco gas station and then visit a friend for awhile. She never came home. 

Three days later, Saturday, June 26, her father and stepmother, Albert and Rosemary, reported Melissa missing to the Scottville Police Department. According to the police report, obtained by MCP through Michigan Freedom of Information Act, on Thursday, July 1, a fisherman reported he had discovered a body floating in the Pere Marquette River near the Custer Road bridge. Mason County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John Fort and Scottville Police Officer Sue Randall responded. The report then states that the body was recovered about 1/4 mile west of Indian Bridge on Reek Road in Custer Township. 

The teen’s body was found mostly unclothed with no signs of a physical struggle. Following an autopsy, the medical examiner classified her death a homicide. 

Dozens of people were interviewed by sheriff detectives following the discovery of Melissa’s body, but nobody has ever been charged. Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole, who was a road patrol deputy in 1993, said he has decided to have detectives take a new look at the 30-year-old case. 

The Pere Marquette River west of Indian Bridge in Custer Township.

“When I was elected sheriff in 2012, folks began reaching out to me and asking if we would look into this case again,” Cole said. “When you have a young person murdered in any community, it’s going to spark passion in that community. Every year we get some cold calls with someone who has some information. We have always been open to pursuing any leads that have credible information.” 

Cole said he has assigned Det. Kyle Boyd to re-examine the case. 

“Det. Boyd, like any police officer, is committed to bringing justice to victims of crimes,” Cole said. “He is in the process of readdressing all the reports, handwritten notes, and anything else associated with this case. He is scanning in all the paper documents and piecing together a timeline.” 

Cole said, unfortunately, there wasn’t much physical evidence in the case. 

“Sadly, her body was in the river for several days,” Cole said. “There is very little physical evidence, especially in the form of DNA, to go on. Most of that evidence was literally washed away.” 

Laude Hartrum, who is now chief of Pentwater Police Department, was one of the detectives at Mason County Sheriff’s Office, who investigated the case in 1993. He and Cole were hired by Sheriff Larry Stewart about the same time, in 1985, both working as marine patrol officers. Hartrum later served as undersheriff and then sheriff from 2004 to 2008. 

“In 1988, I got promoted to detective,” Hartrum said. “Most of our work back then involved sex crimes or property crimes. We hadn’t had a murder of this magnitude for several years at the sheriff’s office.” 

Hartrum and Cole are the only two remaining full time police officers who were at the sheriff’s office at the time of the murder.

Laude Hartrum

Hartrum’s assessment of the evidence was the same as Cole’s. 

“The primary complication with this case was that it had been seven days since she went into the river,” Hartrum said. “She was found in the river in a state of undress. There was no forensic evidence. No crime scene per se. The autopsy placed it by death of homicidal means, basically because the medical examiner ruled out everything else.” 

Hartrum said there was no sign of a struggle on her body. 

Immediately after the discovery of the body, detectives began investigating the case. They interviewed dozens of people, beginning with Albert and Rosemary Simmons, father and stepmother of Melissa. 

“We looked at Albert, the dad, very seriously,” Hartrum said. “But, we had nothing. No motives. No evidence.” 

Albert Simmons died at the age of 80 in 2019. Melissa’s mother, Vesta, passed away at the age of 66 in 2017. 

Both Albert and Rosemary (also called Rose) both told Scottville Police Officer Kelly Ross, when he took the initial report on June 26, 1993, that she had told them she was going to go to Wesco and then a friend’s house. They said she left the house about 9:45 p.m. She did not take her purse or an overnight bag. She never arrived at the friend’s house. 

Grave of Melissa Simmons at Pere Marquette Catholic Cemetery.

The police report stated that based on conversations with some of Melissa’s friends, it was determined that she had intended on returning home and “had no intent on being gone for a long time.” 

The report also states, “Both parents advise that this action was not like victim.” 

Hartrum said another mystery was that some witnesses said that Melissa had kept a diary, but a diary was never found. 

The police report also states that Melissa’s father or stepmother told detectives that neither realized Melissa was gone until the next day when “Rose brought to his attention a housecoat and purse belonging to the victim was still on the steps. These items should have been there Thursday and Friday and were not noticed by the Simmons(es) until Friday.” 

The report also states that one person interviewed (who’s name was redacted) told detectives that Melissa and her father had gotten into an argument the day she was last seen.

Melissa Simmons was born on Dec. 26, 1977 in Wichita, Kan., the daughter of Albert Simmons (May 22, 1938-Feb. 13, 2019) and Vesta (Simon) Simmons (Oct. 9, 1950-March 19, 2017). She grew up in Wichita and moved to Scottville in June 1988 with her father, Albert, and stepmother, Rose (Jan. 27, 1945 – Feb. 9, 2021). As a summer job, Melissa worked at Blue Lake Resort in Sheridan Township and was also a babysitter.

Melissa had one sister, a brother, a stepsister and a stepbrother. She and her parents and stepmother are buried at Pere Marquette Catholic Cemetery in Pere Marquette Township.

A timeline in the initial police report was as follows: 

June 23, 1993

  • 7:45 p.m.: Melissa was dropped off at her home by (redacted). 
  • 9:30 p.m.: Melissa is seen by Rose and Al Simmons leaving their home. Melissa reportedly tells them that she is going to Wesco and then to (redacted) at (redacted). 
  • 9:45 p.m.: Melissa is seen at the Wesco station by (redacted), a cashier. (Redacted) reports that Melissa was looking for a party and that she was in the company of two blond girls (identity unknown). 
  • 10:10 p.m.: Melissa is seen at the Wesco by (redacted) and (redacted) reports that he spoke with Melissa and that she was last seen walking east toward Broadway St. 
  • 10 to 11 p.m.: Melissa is reportedly seen at Spartan West Bowling Lanes by (redacted). Melissa was not seen after 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. 

June 26, 1993

  • 12 a.m. (midnight): Al Simmons reports Melissa missing to Officer Kelly Ross (Scottville Police Department). 

July 1, 1993

  • 12:30 p.m.: (Redacted) finds Melissa snagged on a log in the Pere Marquette River, approximately 3/4 mile west of the Indian Bridge. 
  • 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Department dive team and investigators searched the area surrounding Indian Bridge. No further evidence was located. 

Indian River Bridge sign.

The Mason County Sheriff’s Office requested a criminal profile be compiled by the Michigan State Police. 

“They (the state police profilers) believe that the suspect killer is a white male 18 to 22 years old. The killer is known to Melissa and someone who she would feel comfortable with. The killer is probably {sic} unorganized and works in a trade. The killer may have trouble keeping jobs. 

“A written report has not been received from the state police. The report will give at least two different profiles based on the circumstances of Melissa’s death. Due to the fact that the manner of death is not known the profiles will be based on assumptions.”

Hartrum said the Melissa Simmons case changed the way the sheriff’s office investigates crimes. 

“I think the biggest thing that happened as a result of Melissa’s case was that it was a turning point for the how things are done at the sheriff’s office,” Hartrum said. “This case was initially reported as a runaway. Today, there would be a big push right from the beginning, to investigate this case, even if reported as a runaway. The ‘Baby Kate’ case is a good example. Right from the beginning, the sheriff’s office began a major investigation, which included collaboration with multiple agencies.”

Even with those processes in place, however, the Simmons case may have still come to a stand still, Hartrum said. 

“If this case occurred now, we would have the advantage of surveillance cameras at businesses and even households,” Hartrum said. “There is also now a major footprint on social media. But, the fact that the body was in a river with flowing water, still would have meant the lack of physical evidence, even by today’s standards.” 

Det. Kyle Boyd

Hartrum and Cole both admit that it is rare that the person responsible for the crime has remained silent for three decades. 

“Many of the people of interest have either passed away or moved to other parts of the country,” Cole said. “We certainly would like to bring justice for Melissa and peace to her family and friends.”

Hartrum said detectives were never able to find a motive. 

“There were all kinds of theories of a motive, but without having anything definitive about how and why she was killed, it was hard to pinpoint one person. It was a very frustrating case and continues to be frustrating, especially when the anniversary of the case comes up, particularly anniversaries such as this one, 30 years. I just don’t know if it will ever get solved.” 

Anyone with information about the Melissa Simmons case should contact the Mason County Sheriff’s Office through Mason-Oceana 911, 231-869-5858. 

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