HART, Mich. (WOOD) - Joyce Coulier's mom first saw the crime-scene photographs early this year in the courtroom -- her daughter's badly decomposed body in a hastily dug, three-inch deep grave.
They were photographs taken 13 years ago, behind a home where Coulier had been staying with her abusive
husband, Mark Coulier.
"I seen my daughter," Joanne Douglas said. "There was nothing there. It was horrible. It was a sight that
you see on a scary movie."
But was it murder?
There was not enough evidence for a murder case, according to the county prosecutor, who refused to press
charges, not convinced the 30-year-old woman was even murdered.
"I never thought there was really any evidence that pointed to Mark Coulier, except who else but him? And to
me, that's not evidence," then-Prosecutor Terry Shaw recently told Target 8.
That did not matter.
Joyce Coulier's husband was going to trial for murder anyway, and the state Attorney General's Office was
taking him there.
That led Oceana County, one of the state's poorest counties, to hire a second attorney and a former FBI
agent as a private investigator to help with the defense.
Both are big names in West Michigan legal circles.
John Smietanka, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, was the state's Lawyer of the
Year in 2006 after freeing Larry Souter, a Newaygo County man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1992.
Former FBI agent Eugene Debbaudt made headlines when he solved the 1993 cold-case murder of Cascade Township millioniaire Robert Fryling.
Their help came at a high price for Oceana County at $52,000, some of which was transferred from the county's rainy day fund, according to records obtained by Target 8.
Debbaudt, who spent parts of two years on the case, said he found plenty of mistakes with the investigation: A lost tooth; fingernails and hair that went untested.
"It was obvious to me there were numerous opportunities presented to the investigators that were not
pursued," Debbaudt told Target 8.
Joyce Coulier fit right in with some of the other characters in this plot. She was on parole for two
home invasions. Her four kids were all taken away.
YEARS OF ABUSE
But, according to testimony, Joyce Coulier was the victim of years of abuse by her husband. He had also spent time in jail for burglary, domestic violence, assault and drunk driving.
"My daughter was no worse than anybody else," Douglas said. "She had a horrible life, a horrible husband, he
Mark Coulier had threatened to kill his wife and bury her in a shallow grave, Douglas said.
"Me and Mr. Coulier have had a few confrontations over beating my daughter, and I've seen some of the end
results," said Joyce Coulier's father, Cecil "Roger" Douglas.
Joyce Coulier disappeared the day after her 30th birthday on July 30, 2000. No one reported her missing, but police figured that was because she had already absconded from parole and her family didn't want to get her in trouble.
However, her family was out looking for her.
A month after she disappeared, her body was found in a shallow grave, about 30 to 40 yards from the home in
Hart where she'd been staying.
"She laid out here for a whole month," Douglas said.
Joyce Coulier's death became Hart Police Officer Bill Cummins' life, who worked full-time with Michigan State Police for a year.
Their focus turned to Mark Coulier, who kept changing his story, Cummins said.
"Typically the truth doesn't change," Cummins said. "It's been my experience."
The theory: Mark Coulier killed his wife early in the morning on July 30, 2000 after a long night of drinking, then quickly buried her out back.
But an autopsy ruled homicide by unknown means with no sign of obvious injury. The prosecutor said he wondered if it could have been an accident.
"You couldn't rule out choking to death," Shaw said.
He envisioned a rush to bury her by unsavory characters who didn't want to face the questions that would
"I could see a panic. I could see it either way, and that's the problem," Shaw said.
A NEW DIRECTION
Six years later, at the request of the state police, the local prosecutor asked the state Attorney General
to take a look at the case.
"I don't see anything here, you go for it, because I'm not charging it," Shaw recalled saying.
Then-Attorney General Mike Cox, whose cold-case team had broken some big cases in Michigan, took the case in 2006.
Cummins, the original detective on the case, returned from retirement to work with state police. But, he said, they found nothing new.
"Pretty much the same evidence," Cummins said.
Despite that, the attorney general charged Mark Coulier with murder in 2009, a charge later dismissed by Circuit Judge Terrence Thomas for what he called a lack of evidence. That judge's decision was overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which found enough circumstantial evidence to require trial.
In 2011, Attorney General Bill Schuette's office re-filed the charges.
That's what led Oceana County to hire the former U.S. Attorney and FBI agent, a defendant's dream team.
would turn down that kind of help?" said public defender Timothy Hayes, the lead defense attorney in
Debbaudt, the former FBI agent, said he found many flaws.
MUSHROOMS, FINGERNAILS AND A TOOTH
The first flaw was that the partially digested mushrooms found in Joyce Coulier's stomach, raising
questions about the state's timeline, were never investigated, Debbaudt said.
"If she died during that timeline that the state said, she would have consumed those mushrooms sometime
between midnight and 2 a.m. on July 30th," he said. "There was no investigation conducted to determine if she
consumed mushrooms. Nobody was questioned about that."
Then, there was the tooth and fingernails, including a fake nail, found under her body , and hair found on
Hayes, the defense attorney, said nobody checked to see if the fingernails belonged to the victim, or if,
perhaps, they belonged to somebody who helped drag her body.
An autopsy showed Joyce Coulier had not recently lost any teeth, but the tooth was never tested, Hayes said.
That's because it was lost. Police said they sent it to the medical examiner, but the medical examiner said
he never saw it, Hayes said.
"How do you explain to the jury you collected a tooth that could have linked somebody to the crime and you
lose it?" Debbaudt said. "How do you explain having pubic hair in the victim's underwear and not even checking it out?"
A key witness, Durward Wilson, testified that Mark Coulier told him he wanted to kill his wife and that he had
given her a "bear hug" to keep her quiet and, perhaps, that's how he did it. He said Mark Coulier told him that
on July 30, 2000, just hours after Coulier was believed to have killed his wife.
Shaw had discounted his story, saying it was unclear when Coulier would have said that.
"Whatever he had to offer, I recall that there was probably more to lose by offering because he was
inconsistent on the days," Shaw said.
Not only that, but Debbaudt said he found 10 witnesses who said Mark Coulier was at a family function, not with Wilson, that day.
"I am absolutely convinced he was not with Mr. Wilson," Debbaudt said.
Wilson told Target 8 that police "totally messed it up."
"They had tunnel vision, looked at him (Coulier), nobody else," Wilson said.
Even juror Mary Kish questioned the investigation.
"How everything was looked into, what they tested, what they didn't test," Kish said. "It just seems like there wasn't a deep enough investigation."
Cummins, the original investigator, said the testing was up to the state police.
"Why they weren't tested, I can't answer for those scientists that were in charge of that part of the
investigation," Cummins said.
Cummins said he trusts the people who worked on that end of the investigation.
"In their opinion, for whatever that reason was, those things weren't tested," Cummins said. "It would have been nice knowing the defense wanted to hang their hat on that as part of the defense."
In a written statement, Michigan State Police spokeswoman Tiffany Brown defended the agency's investigation.
"The Michigan State Police conducted a complete and thorough investigation, which was turned over to the
Attorney General's Office," she wrote. "The judge made a legal determination in this case and it would be
inappropriate for us to comment any further."
A FINAL VERDICT
During the fifth day of trial, after the prosecution had rested its case and before the defense even began,
Judge Thomas made a rare call -- that the jury would not get to decide the fate of Mark Coulier.
In a directed verdict, the judge found him not guilty, saying he still saw no evidence. The game was
over at half-time. The jury was sent home.
"We were all disappointed," Kish said. "We wanted to see it go, we wanted to see it go all the way. We were anxious to hear his side."
Up to that point, despite the flaws, she was leaning toward a verdict -- guilty of murder.
"I think we could have convicted him," Kish said. "I think he should have been convicted. There was a lot of
domestic violence involved in this case. It was pretty bad."
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a statement to Target 8 on Tuesday, saying the state had "overwhelming evidence" in the case.
"The jury had a right to deliberate and make their own conclusions about the compelling evidence in this case," spokeswoman Joy Yearout wrote. "We spoke with several jurors, and they indicated they were leaning toward conviction."
"We believe then as we do now, that this should case should have gone to the jury. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed that a trial was warranted, ruling there is ‘significant circumstantial evidence that the defendant committed the murder.'"
"We are disappointed that Joyce Coulier's family and friends did not see the justice they deserved."
- Among the "laundry list of compelling evidence," Yearout wrote:
- The husband's history of violence and death threats against his wife;
- Testimony by his son who said he heard his father confess to pushing her down stairs and
- putting a sock in her mouth the night of the murder;
"It would have been a dereliction of duty for our office to ignore this overwhelming evidence and turn our back on Joyce and her family, who deserve justice," Yearout wrote.
Mark Coulier still lives in Hesperia. He maintains his innocence and said police cost him his family.
"People told them some messed up stories, and they went with what they said, instead of listening to the
stories that would have helped me," he told Target 8.
The original detective said the case is closed. He believes the killer walked.
So does Joyce's family.
"There's just too many open ends here," Cecil Douglas said. "And this judge, he didn't want to hear
the end of this, so he just closed the doors on it there. There was no justice here."
Two other people, who were inside the residence at the time, escaped safely.
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