It was a brutally cold evening on January 12, 2010, when JoAnn Matouk Romain left St. Paul’s Catholic Church in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms after an evening prayer service. What happened next remains shrouded in mystery. According to authorities, Romain took her own life that night, in a manner that defies easy understanding. However, Romain's children are convinced that she was murdered.
The haunting case of JoAnn Romain was recently featured on a powerful new episode of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries: Volume 2. The episode dives deep into Romain’s mystifying demise, seeking to understand what truly happened that cold night in January. New to Unsolved Mysteries? We highly encourage you to check out the iconic series and its many must-see investigations into bizarre disappearances, chilling events, and haunting encounters with the other side. For all those who've binged every episode of the latest season and can’t get this particular mystery out of your mind, we've got everything you need to know about the Romain case and more.
JoAnn Romain: The Official Story
According to the police version of events, JoAnn Romain committed suicide on the night of January 12, 2010. After attending evening service at St. Paul’s, police believe Romain abandoned her car—along with her purse and cash—in the church driveway. She then crossed Lakeshore Drive, a four-lane roadway that hugs the western shore of Lake St. Clair, traversed a snowy embankment, worked her way down two seawalls, and plunged into the lake’s icy waters to take her own life.
However, in the days and weeks that followed, JoAnn's whereabouts were unknown. Indeed, for over two months, no one knew what had become of the 55-year-old mother of three. Romain's children described their missing mother as a “devout” Catholic who attended church several times a week. “We’re talking about a woman who went to church and cooked,” Michelle Romain, JoAnn’s oldest daughter, told local news outlet Fox 2 Detroit, “that’s all she did.”
It was seventy long days later, and more than thirty miles to the south, before the body of JoAnn Romain was finally found. On March 20, the first warm day of spring, two fishermen spotted the body just off Boblo Island in the Detroit River. While authorities determined that she drowned, there was no water in her lungs, making Romain’s death a rare case of “dry drowning”—an instance where breathing in water causes your airways to spasm and close up, thus making it difficult to breathe. Webmd reports that dry drowning accounts for 1-2% of all drowning cases.
JoAnn Romain’s children refused to accept the official story that their mother had thrown herself into Lake St. Clair to take her own life. “If you’re a devout Catholic,” Michelle says on the Unsolved Mysteries episode, “suicide is against all beliefs.”
Then what really happened to JoAnn Romain that January night? How did Romain’s body end up some thirty miles away, appearing more than two months after the night of her disappearance? In particular, Romain’s children want answers to these questions, and are dedicated to finding the truth. Throughout the episode of Unsolved Mysteries, Romain’s surviving family members ask questions and present key evidence that they believe prove their mother was murdered—and that the local police helped to cover up the crime in order to protect the killer.
Suicide or Murder? Some Details Don't Add Up
On the night of her disappearance, JoAnn Romain filled her car up with gas on her way to church. This is a question Michelle returns to again and again: Why would her mother fill up her car if she knew she was going to take her own life? Though there was no sign of a struggle in the car or near the water, JoAnn Romain’s purse was torn. Two months later, when Romain's body was found, there were bruises on the upper arm as though the purse had been roughly pulled away from her.
The police department's determination that JoAnn Romain had committed suicide was based heavily upon a set of foot, hand, and “butt prints” found in the snow leading down to the icy lake. However, no footprint experts examined the prints at the time, and others have since claimed that the impressions look like they were made by a shoe larger than the size-five, high-heeled boots that JoAnn Romain was wearing on the night of her disappearance.
What’s more, a forensics expert concluded that no wind, waves, or current in that part of the lake could have carried JoAnn Romain’s body some thirty miles downriver. Nor was there a visible break in the ice on the partially frozen lake when the police arrived on the scene.
Perhaps most damning of all, witnesses later indicated that Romain’s car had been moved from its spot sometime between when Romain left church that night and when police later discovered the abandoned vehicle. “It was like someone moved the car and put it close to the very same spot,” JoAnn’s brother recalled, “although not exactly the same spot.”
Troubling Details Leading to the Night of the Disappearance
Witnesses placed JoAnn Romain leaving church at 7:15 that night. At 7:20 PM, another witness reported hearing the car alarm of JoAnn Romain’s Lexus going off for about 15 seconds. One of the last people to leave the church at around 7:35 PM said that the driveway where the Lexus had been parked was empty. Hours later when the police arrived on scene, the vehicle was back in the spot where it was originally parked—the purse in the passenger seat, with JoAnn Romain nowhere to be found.
Romain’s cell phone was missing from her car and it wasn’t found on her body. The independent investigator hired by her family found that her cell phone records showed that she had attempted to contact a private security company in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. “She was acting very troubled, not herself, very scared,” her brother says on the episode, referring to Romain's behavior in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. “She wouldn’t tell me what she was concerned about, and she always told me everything.”
Convinced that their mother was the victim of foul play, JoAnn Romain’s children have continued to pursue leads in the case, hiring private investigators and even a psychic. They’ve brought lawsuits against two municipalities, more than a dozen police officers—including the chief of police in Grosse Pointe Farms—and JoAnn’s estranged cousin, who they believe may have had something to do with JoAnn's death.
More than a decade after JoAnn Romain’s tragic end, the case remains as haunting as ever. Yet JoAnn’s children are convinced that they’re close to the truth, especially as more light is shined on the case. As Michelle Romain told the Free Press, “Justice will prevail.”
What Are Viewers Saying?
Fans of Unsolved Mysteries have their own theories and questions about what happened to JoAnn Romain, and they’ve been sharing their thoughts on social media and Reddit.
In referring to JoAnn Romain's demise, Twitter user @anita3gb says: "This definitely was not suicide. I really hope they get the truth behind her death."
This definitely was not suicide. I really hope they get the truth behind her death.— Anita (@anita3gb) October 22, 2020
Twitter user @AlbaMar13380985 suggests "a more sophisticated look at [JoAnn's] phone activity is needed" and that "surely there were some cameras in the area that might've picked up something?"
In addition, no information on street/surveillance cameras was provided. Surely there were some cameras in the area that might've picked up something?— Alba (@AlbaMar13380985) October 22, 2020
Twitter user @SugarGliderDude put it simply:
someone got away with murder— Sugar Glider Dude (@SugarGliderDude) October 22, 2020
The "Lady in the Lake" [ed: the name of the Unsolved Mysteries episode that examines the Romain case] actually made me think of the Smiley Face murders...if you are familiar with the Smiley Face murders you'll know that it was men found in bodies of water but they were made to look like they went in at a certain location but really were determined to have been dumped at a completely different location...idk just struck a similar chord for me.
Meanwhile, on Reddit, user Mando1990 suggests: "This one is for sure a murder by the family. There's a lot of infighting and money disputes." Reddit user espoma casts suspicion on the police and their investigation, saying: "I feel like the cops are covering something up. There were blatant indicators that it wasn’t a suicide..." The user goes on to suggest that the culprit "was someone with a connection to the cops."
Reddit user remedeej acknowledges that the death of JoAnn Romain is a "weird case", then goes on to raise concerns about Romain's heartbreaking manner of death:
"The way they say she died and to not even question it is so crazy. She walked all the way into deep frozen water with her four-inch heels on to kill herself by drowning? ...She must have been really depressed to submit herself to such a horrible, slow death."
The user also found it hard to believe that Romain didn't leave behind a goodbye message for the children "she clearly adored." The user concludes their post by theorizing that Romain's death may have been a tragic mishap:
"Like maybe it was accident where she died trying to help someone or lost something in the water but that’s just me trying to think of something else. Murder can not be ruled out, it’s crazy it was ruled suicide straight away.
I just feel so much pain for the family, I hope they get answers."
What Other Cases Are Covered on the Latest Season of Unsolved Mysteries?
The disappearance and death of JoAnn Romain is just one of the many haunting enigmas tackled in Unsolved Mysteries: Volume 2. Other episodes feature a haunting locked-room mystery in a glamorous Oslo hotel that may involve international spy organizations, the ghosts of tsunami victims in the Tohoko region of Japan, and the bizarre events surrounding the death of a defense department expert, whose body was found in a Delaware landfill.
Unsolved Mysteries has always been about the search for the truth. In each episode, the series seeks to find solace for the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. Cases like JoAnn Romain’s do not deserve answers—they demand answers. Do you know something? Maybe YOU can help solve a mystery. Don’t forget to watch Unsolved Mysteries: Volume 2, only on Netflix!
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