Hope for Currier’s life fades

Searchers gather outside of the CAPDET lodge to await instructions for the day’s search. photo by Photo courtesy of David Biship.

Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment in an ongoing series entitled ‘Capac’s Unsolved Mystery’ detailing the events surrounding the disappearance of popular Capac Merchant Hale Currier on October 17, 1948 while on a hunting trip with friends in the Upper Peninsula. The first installment appeared in the October 17, 2018 issue of Tri-City Times. The final installment will appear in two weeks.

The Indian summerlike conditions continued through the weekend as the search pressed ahead. The largest showing yet, hundreds of men stayed in the woods until darkness fell.

Grudgingly, they headed home and spirits began to sink on this Monday night. In order to meet the ferries at St. Ignace on time, the State Police—with lights flashing and sirens wailing—led the exodus.

Seventy-five more men were to arrive for a three day search at dawn on Tuesday. Then another group on Friday would arrive to search throughout the weekend.

Returning to Capac, Schools’ Supt. Ralph Van Volkinburg gave a statement to the press.

“Anything could happen up there,” he told reporters. “The area is full of derelict lumberjacks, dressed similar to a conservation officer. Hale could have interrupted an illegal deer hunt, and they could have opened up on him.”

Capac football coach Charles Lincoln echoed that sentiment.

“There was no discarded clothing, no dead fires, no tracks in the snow,” Lincoln told the press. “Hale was a good woodsman and calm, and we are forced to conclude his disappearance was more than an accident.”

Before dawn on Tuesday morning, Lt. Fred Chrispell called all troopers and conservation officers to a meeting at the post. The press and all others were excluded. He wanted all officers to be made aware of where the case was headed.

Quietly they entered the meeting room. By the looks on their faces, the lieutenant concluded they were completely drained and worn out from the week-long search, and ill-prepared for week two. They had just as much information as they had a week ago to go on. Nothing, he thought.

Calling the meeting to order he asked the detective what they had on leads. A middle aged man stood up and said, “Lieutenant, the only solid lead we had was from a truck driver that saw the missing man on the trail leading to the lodge. The truck driver waved, and Mr. Currier returned the greeting. Figuring the timeline and distance from departing Mr. Waltz, it was only minutes. The driver never saw him again.”

“Anything else?” asked the lieutenant.

“Another driver said he’d seen a conservation officer on Monday, but we later determined it was one of us.”

“What about poaching,” Lt. Chrispell asked. “What did the loggers say about that?”

“Lieutenant,” the man replied, “they wouldn’t deny that it was happening, but said they didn’t know who was doing it, and they said it was not them. They were very evasive. As rugged as these loggers are, I had a feeling they were scared to talk and you can put me on record as saying this. They feared these men, and I couldn’t get any information from any of them.”

“Detective, that’s the same theory I’ve been working on, and I’ve concluded ‘off the record’ here, gentlemen, that we have a homicide here,” Lt. Chrispell said. “Yes, a cold blooded murder over venison. I want everyone in this room to note all strangers in the area. I know it’s going to be tough with the searchers here, but a murderer always returns to the scene.

“Look for searchers who don’t know anyone or ask questions that only we would know the answers to,” he continued. “And highway troopers, note license plates from out of state such as Wisconsin and Illinois. That is where the large slaughter and packing houses are. If this is a for profit operation, they are going to commingle the beef and venison immediately after it leaves the processing site.

“These people should be considered extremely dangerous,” Lt. Chrispell continued. “They have killed once and they will kill again if confronted. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. This meeting is over, go to your scheduled assignments.”

Motioning to the detective, the lieutenant said, “I want you to stay a moment,” and he closed the door.

“Detective, I want you to cover every gas station, restaurant, hardware and bar in a 30 mile radius,” Lt. Chrispell instructed. “I want to find out about strangers over the last seven years since the war started. We need to know what they purchased and any conversations they had.

“We have two men alone in the woods,” he continued, “and they both disappeared without a trace. What do the locals think? Mingle and find out from them. Every criminal has a routine. Find it and we will solve this case. Dismissed.”

The detective left the room.

Trying to think like a criminal, the lieutenant shifted his focus onto the trails, believing that the body was not moved. Too many things can happen transporting by vehicle—mechanical issues, flat tires and random traffic stops. Car parts, and especially new tires, were still in short supply three years after the war’s end. No seasoned criminal would take such a chance.

Lt. Chrispell tried probing the trails with wooden doweling. Wouldn’t go. He tried 3/8 inch steel rods. They wouldn’t penetrate the packed soil.

Lt. Chrispell called down to Selfridge for a handheld mine sweeper. Again, problems. Recovery, not rescue. The general said he would loan him two, but the drawback was hundreds of miles of trails and even a discarded cigarette package or bottle cap would register. And if Hale’s gun, watch, or any other metal objects weren’t with the body, there would be no signal.

They focused on the freshest deer offal and the trails close by, to no avail. The weekend of October 30 and 31 brought 200 volunteers, and they extended out another mile. Nothing again.

Lt. Chrispell scheduled a briefing with the detective early Monday morning, November 1.

“What do we have,” he asked.

The lead detective stood and said, “Lieutenant, the bartender at Dollarville says a couple men would stop in about mid-afternoon and order a couple beers and talk quietly to each other. No conversation with the bartender, all discussion was single words. Even if he tried to initiate a conversation, he said he felt intimidated just being in the room with them. Also, Lieutenant, he was himself a veteran from World War I, and wondered how these two—sometimes three—men avoided the draft. His conclusion was that they possessed such a criminal history that they were unfit for service to the country.”

“Did we get a physical description, Detective?”

“No,” the Detective replied, “the man has failing eyesight and it’s dark inside that bar.”

“Anything else?” Lt. Chrispell asked.

“Over near the Soo, some farmers reported men trying to buy cattle,” the Detective replied. “They didn’t sell, but know they were black marketers, and if they did sell they wouldn’t admit it for fear of prosecution.”

“Any sightings since October 17th?” the Lieutenant asked.

“No one has seen them since that date,” the Detective said.

Visibly disgusted with the situation, the lieutenant said, “Thank you. You’re dismissed.”

Leaving the post, pushing past the reporters, the dispatcher said, “Lieutenant, Mrs. Currier

would like to speak to you. She is at the campsite.”

“Affirmative,” the lieutenant replied. “I am on my way.”

Stoically, Mrs. Currier stood at the doorway of CAPDET, fighting back tears as she greeted Lieutenant Chrispell.

“Do you have any good news, Lieutenant?”

“No, Mrs. Currier, I do not,” he replied.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she said, “Lieutenant, I cannot allow this to continue. I feel Hale is dead, and I can’t let the many good people continue to interrupt their lives for my sons and myself. Lieutenant, I’m going home to Capac.”

With tears flowing, the seasoned and time-hardened lieutenant said, “I am sorry and fully understand, Mrs. Currier.”

Opening the door with cameras flashing and reporters waiting, Mrs. Currier spoke once again. Holding back tears she said, “I’m going home to Capac on Tuesday or Wednesday. I cannot express my gratitude enough to all of you. Thank you. Thank you forever.”

She retreated back into the lodge.

***Update: Lucy Currier eventually remarried. She died in 1977. Son Phil Currier died in 2016. Son Jim and his wife Ruth live in The Villages, Florida.

The Currier store was purchased by Dr. Norbert Conrad and his wife Alberta, and was used as his office. That space is now part of Capac Hardware on Main Street.

Waltz Meats is now the Capac American Legion Hall.

The Currier home is now owned by Larry Traub. It is located at 303 N. Main Street.

This story would not have been possible without the help of the Capac Historical Society and John Gryzb, and the dozen or so senior citizens of Capac. Thank you all for showing us what Capac was like 70 years ago.

Final installment in two weeks: Modern detectives will examine the available evidence in this case and offer an analysis of Lt. Chrispell and his handling of the search.

Doug Hunter is a lifelong Capac resident, a farmer, historian and writer. His great-great grandfather, Noble Hunter, founded the Capac Journal in the late 1800s.