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$100M Lawsuit Claims Detroit-Area Police Departments Intentionally Covered Up Murder

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GROSSE POINTE WOODS (WWJ) - A $100 million lawsuit has been filed in federal court, alleging two local police departments intentionally covered up a murder investigation to protect their own.

JoAnn Matouk-Romain went missing from Grosse Pointe Farms in January 2012. Her body was found two months later by fishermen in Amherstburg, Ontario.

Police classified Matouk-Romain’s death as suicide by drowning, but her daughter, Michelle Romain, said investigators failed to interview witnesses, fabricated documents and lied to protect fellow officers. Now, Romain said she feels like her life is in danger.

“I definitely feel that there is a threat to my life and those around me,” Romain told WWJ’s Charlie Langton. “Obviously my mom was murdered, so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t come after myself or somebody close to me.”

Romain filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of her mother’s estate against several defendants, including the cities of Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Farms, both cities’ police departments and multiple lieutenants and officers.

Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Woods police departments have yet to respond to the $100 million lawsuit.

Click here to read the complaint (.pdf format)

Romain said after four long years, she’s ready for police to be held accountable for what she believes is a botched investigation.

“Some of the suspects that were supposed to be looked in to were not, and that is because there is a connection with the police and the suspects involved with my mother’s disappearance. There are a couple suspects and yes, they are police officers,” she said. “The most important fact is that they did not complete a thorough investigation. They continue to say that they have and that’s something that I’ve continued to fight with and struggle with because there are so many things that weren’t done that should have been done.”

Veteran investigator Scott Lewis, agrees elements of the investigation just don’t add up, telling CBS Detroit “I think the evidence in this case points to murder.”

Romain said her ordeal began when police officers knocked on the door of her Grosse Pointe Woods home at 9:25 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010. The officers asked Romain if her mother was missing, saying that her car had been found in the parking lot of Saint Paul Catholic Church on Lakeshore Drive, just across the street from Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Farms. By then, it had been about two hours since anyone had last seen Matouk-Romain at the end of church service.

After making numerous, desperate attempts to reach her mother by phone, Romain and her siblings drove to the church around 10 p.m., where she found her mother’s Lexus had been taped off with police tape and officers were attempting to enter the vehicle. There were also divers in the water across the street and a helicopter circling above with a spotlight searching the water.

When she asked why the police were looking in the water, Romain was told there were footprints, on dry pavement, leading from her mother’s vehicle down the church driveway, across the street and down into the lake.

Romain thought it was strange police immediately turned their focus to the water and said she pleaded with officers to bring their K-9 units to the scene to track her mother, but was advised by the police that dogs cannot detect scent in the cold — which she claims was a lie.

After divers spent several hours searching the area of the lake where the police asserted Matouk-Romain had entered the water, the search was called off.

On Jan. 14, two days after Matouk-Romain went missing, the Grosse Pointe Farms police department turned the investigation over to the Grosse Pointe Woods police department. That same day, Romain and her sister met with two officers and told them about an incident they allege took place several weeks earlier.

“She just had a suspicion that she was being followed around, that someone was trying to get her routine,” Romain said.

The women said they told police they were sitting on a couch at their mom’s house when the phone rang. Matouk-Romain spoke with an individual, referred to as “suspect one” in the lawsuit, for some time when she suddenly turned white and hung up the phone. Romain said that was the first time her mom mentioned she might be in danger.

“Before this happened to her, before she had disappeared, she had told us that she thought she was being followed and if anything happened to her, to make sure that we followed through. She had even given us specific names of individuals to look at,” she said.

But Romain said police dismissed her allegations without so much as interviewing “suspect one,” who she says was a Harper Woods police officer at the time.

Days turned to weeks as Romain and her family waited for answers. On March 20, 2010, Matouk-Romain’s body was discovered by two fishermen along the Detroit River in Amherstburg, Ontario, about 30 miles downstream from where she disappeared.

Even though Grosse Pointe Farms police closed their investigation when they handed it off to Grosse Pointe Woods police, Romain said two of their officers “rushed over to Canada” and falsely informed them that her mother was “extremely paranoid, suffered from severe mental health issues” and that “no foul play was suspected.” Her death was ruled a suicide.

Romain said the tip that her mother was paranoid, depressed and suicidal was never substantiated by police with any of her medical records or social tendencies. She said the tip was later discovered and confirmed by phone records to have been made by none other than “suspect one.”

An Ontario coroner performed an autopsy and found nothing strange about Matouk-Romain’s body or her clothing. But Romain wasn’t satisfied — she hired her own team to investigate her mother’s death, believing the police were involved in a murder cover-up.

A private autopsy performed by the head of forensic pathology of the University of Michigan Hospital, Jeffrey Jentzen, conflicted with the Ontario coroner’s report. Jentzen’s report indicated that Matouk-Romain had contusions on her upper left arm where she carried her purse, suggesting a struggle further bolstered by the fact that her brand new purse was found with a portion near the handle visibly torn, according to the complaint.

Jentzen’s report also indicated that Matouk-Romain’s high-heel shoes were brand new with “absolutely not a single scuff mark.” It’s something that Romain says haunts her.

“The police indicated she had walked into that water, out a few miles to be able to drown herself, and she would have had to walk over boulders and rocks to be able to do such a thing. Yet there was not one single scuff mark on her shoes, which indicates she was carried to the water and did not go in and walk out on her own,” she said.

“We’ve gone over this with many water experts. If she went in the water at the location they’re alleging, there was a foot of water with zero current, and the only way that she would have been able to get to where she was found, in Amherstburg, Ontario down through the Detroit River, is she would have had to been dumped by Alter Road or further down into Detroit to be able to get where she was found,” Romain continued.

Upset with how the investigation was handled, Matouk-Romain’s family refused to believe the devout Catholic would commit suicide.

“At the end of the day, you try to rationalize irrational situations, an irrational act, and it’s very hard to do so. We’ve always believed it to come down to either revenge or a vendetta,” Romain said.

Through several Freedom of Information Act requests, private investigators allegedly uncovered evidence that further convinced Romain that her mother had been murdered.

One thing was especially startling to Romain: She says the license plate on her mother’s vehicle wasn’t run through the statewide system until after 10 p.m., more than 30 minutes after police appeared at her home. Additionally, the Lexus was registered to Romain and Kathy Matouk, which made the private investigators wonder how police even knew whose vehicle it was, according to the complaint, let alone linking it to Matouk-Romain.

Among the most perplexing of their discoveries, Romain said, the private investigators determined there were no footprints in the church’s driveway or street nearby — the exact reason why police believed her mother had entered the lake. Photographs taken that evening show that the pavement was completely dry, the complaint states. The photographs also show that the only footprints found that night were in the snow, and they did not appear to be that of a woman with small feet, wearing high-heels, according to the lawsuit, but rather of a much larger size shoe, possibly an athletic or business attire shoe.

Romain’s investigators also found, the lawsuit states, that police gave the U.S. Coast Guard inaccurate information in order to have them launch a search into the lake. According to the complaint, police told the Coast Guard that Matouk-Romain was reported missing at 5 p.m., even though a missing persons report was never filed. Matouk-Romain was actually with her family at court proceedings at 5 p.m. where she was the plaintiff in a black mold case, Romain said.

And yet another red flag: Romain’s investigators discovered that police ignored a statement made by a key witness, Mary-Louise Orsini, who was the last person to leave the church the night Matouk-Romain disappeared. The complaint states that Orsini left the church at approximately 7:45 p.m. is certain that Matouk-Romain’s vehicle was not in the driveway of the church where the vehicle was parked when the police found it. On her way out of the parking lot, Orsini allegedly drove through the exact spot Matouk-Romain’s vehicle was later found by police, according to the lawsuit.

Romain claims police also ignored statements from multiple witnesses who reported seeing a suspicious vehicle, as well as two suspicious men standing by the seawall near the church the night Matouk-Romain disappeared. Multiple witnesses also reported hearing the panic alarm on Matouk-Romain’s vehicle go off for approximately 10 seconds around 7:20 p.m. that night. Those reports were also ignored by police, the lawsuit states.

“This has nothing to do with money. This has everything to do with justice,” she said. “We know that when you put a big number like that, there is no way they will be able to settle. We’re looking for people to be held accountable and we would like this to go in front of a judge and a jury and have those people held accountable for what has happened here.”

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