Red Cliff official pleads guilty in 2003 slaying of employee
Michael LaGrew had been suspected by police since Jody Ricard first went missing, but it was not until early 2020 that he finally confessed to fatally striking the Washburn woman with a jack.
DULUTH — A former vice chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has pleaded guilty to the 2003 murder of an employee he intended to fire.
Michael John LaGrew, 57, was arrested and charged in March 2020 following a nearly two-decade investigation into the bludgeoning death of 50-year-old Jody Ricard, of Washburn.
Ricard was last seen leaving reservation offices June 27, 2003. Her body was found hidden along a dead-end road 11 days later.
LaGrew was interviewed from the start, and even testified in a secret court proceeding in 2005, but it was not until years later that he admitted to investigators that he drove Ricard to the secluded area and twice struck her across the head with a trailer jack.
LaGrew entered the no-contest plea Tuesday in Bayfield County Circuit Court to a count of intentional first-degree homicide, avoiding a jury trial that had been set for March.
The conviction carries mandatory life sentence. A plea agreement will allow LaGrew to argue for supervised release after 20 years in prison, but the prosecution is not bound by that recommendation.
Judge Kelly McKnight will have the final say at sentencing Feb. 17.
"It has been 18 ½ years that Jody Ricard’s family has had to wait to hear a judge say that Mr. LaGrew is guilty," Bayfield County District Attorney Kimberly Lawton told the News Tribune. "My heart breaks for what Jody Ricard’s family has gone through and their continuing grief. The hard work of prosecution and law enforcement brought this case to justice."
According to court documents:
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. 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 a cassette tape containing an audio recording in which LaGrew was heard asking the victim to "take a ride" with him to speak about "complaints made by a co-worker." Ricard's husband told police that she had called just minutes before the meeting, saying she was going to record it because she "didn't trust him."
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 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 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 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 March 18, 2020. 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 worked as a transit supervisor for the band, in addition to serving on the tribal council. He had a past conviction in Bayfield County for misdemeanor battery and authorities said he "was known at the time of the incident to have an explosive temper and violent tendencies."