A former vice chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa confessed this week to killing a tribal employee he intended to fire in 2003, according to a criminal complaint.
Michael John LaGrew, 55, was charged Thursday with first-degree intentional homicide in the bludgeoning death of 50-year-old Jody Ricard of Washburn, Wisconsin. LaGrew is expected to make an initial appearance Friday in Bayfield County Circuit Court.
The complaint states that Ricard left reservation offices with LaGrew after he asked to meet with her June 27, 2003. Her body was found hidden along a dead-end road 11 days later.
According to the complaint, Ricard called her husband just minutes before the meeting, saying she was going to record it because she "didn't trust him." Investigators recovered a cassette tape in which LaGrew was heard asking the victim to "take a ride" with him.
LaGrew was interviewed at the time, and even testified in a secret court proceeding in 2005. But authorities said they had not been able to conclusively piece together Ricard's final moments until recently.
In an interview Wednesday, LaGrew allegedly admitted to driving Ricard to the dead-end road about 2.5 miles from her office, where a verbal dispute ensued. It was at that spot, the complaint states, where he struck her twice across the head with a trailer jack.
According to the complaint:
Ricard was to meet with LaGrew in her office at the reservation's Even Start building, which housed family and child services, at 3 p.m. on the day of her death. When she failed to return home that night, Ricard's husband contacted authorities.
As police searched the building that evening, they encountered LaGrew and his wife in the parking lot. LaGrew said he had last seen Ricard in her office around 3:45 p.m., but did not mention meeting with her.
Police found the victim's purse and other belongings in the office, along with the audio tape that confirmed that LaGrew had asked her to come with him "because he needed to speak to her about complaints made by a co-worker." Surveillance video from the nearby casino showed a light-colored pickup truck pulling up to the Even Start building around 3:10 p.m., leaving minutes later. The same vehicle could be seen driving by again about 40 minutes later.
In an interview July 1, LaGrew acknowledged that he had met with Ricard at approximately 3 p.m. the day of her disappearance. He said she was standing in the parking lot as their meeting ended and he left.
Several area searches were conducted before Ricard's body was found under a discarded Christmas tree and brush near Bradum Road, off state Highway 13, on July 8, 2003. An autopsy revealed that Ricard died from two blunt-force strikes to the head from an unknown object.
As the investigation continued, LaGrew appeared at a John Doe hearing on May 5, 2005. That is a secret judicial proceeding in Wisconsin that allows a prosecutor to compel testimony and evidence to investigate crimes and determine if charges are warranted.
In his testimony, LaGrew said he met with Ricard from approximately 3:05-3:35 p.m. on the day of her death, again claiming she was standing outside the building as he left. He confirmed driving a tan-colored pickup truck.
With charges not filed for nearly 17 years, tips continued to come in over the years and were pursued by Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Gerald Katchka and Red Cliff Police Chief Kyle Cadotte. Further investigation helped rule out other potential suspects and clarify when Ricard was last seen alive.
LaGrew agreed to give a new statement to Katchka and Cadotte on Wednesday. In the course of a three-hour interview, he again denied leaving the Even Start building with Ricard. But when confronted with the audio tape, he acknowledged it was his voice and "agreed that the evidence supported a conclusion that he was the person who left with the victim."
As LaGrew prepared to leave, the investigators placed him under arrest. He allegedly stated: "Yeah, you got me," and, "I did it." He then waived his Miranda rights and agreed to give a full account.
In the statement, LaGrew told police he and Ricard got in his truck and drove to Bradum Road. He said he was going to fire her and that she threatened to hire an attorney. They started yelling and Ricard put her hands up to either block or push him away.
LaGrew allegedly admitted to reaching into the truck and grabbing the trailer jack, which he used to strike Ricard on the head. He acknowledged hitting her a second time while she was on the ground and then dragging her body into the woods.
LaGrew had a past conviction in Bayfield County for misdemeanor battery and the complaint states that he "was known at the time of the incident to have an explosive temper and violent tendencies."
In addition to serving on the tribal council, LaGrew has worked as a transit supervisor for the Red Cliff Band, which offered its "deepest sympathies to the Ricard family."
"The tribe is grateful to the hard work of all law enforcement involved in this case, including the Red Cliff Police Department, Bayfield County Sheriff's Department, Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation and the Bayfield County District Attorney," a statement read.
This story was updated at 5:31 p.m. March 19 with additional details from the criminal complaint. It was originally posted at 2:21 p.m. March 19.