Slaying of girl in 1973 remains unsolved mystery

Girl’s brothers still hope for a break in the case that can bring them some closure

By Cole Waterman

BAY CITY (AP) — On a rainy November morning nearly four decades ago, 13-year-old Jan Marie Rohrer left her Bay City home on a three-block walk to school.

She never arrived.

The remains of the blonde-haired eighth grader were found in Saginaw County’s Crow Island State Game Area a year later. She had been fatally shot.

No one has ever been charged with a crime in connection with Jan’s death.

But as the 39th anniversary of her 1973 disappearance looms, her family members haven’t forgotten. Her brothers, Thomas K. Rohrer and William A. Rohrer III, still look for answers and hope for a break in the case that can bring them some closure.

“I’ve been hopeful for almost 39 years that somebody, somewhere will come forward,” said Thomas Rohrer, the eldest of Jan’s two older brothers. “We know there has to be somebody out there who knows the true story and is willing to testify.”

Rohrer keeps a binder of documents and a box of news reports related to his sister’s unsolved case. It’s grown thick in the decades he’s taken to compile the information, and it tells the story of his sister’s last days.

Jan was last seen alive the morning of Nov. 26, 1973, just four days after Thanksgiving. Wearing a blue parka, a beige turtleneck sweater and blue jeans, she left her home at 1309 Fremont Ave., headed to MacGregor Intermediate School, 1012 Fremont Ave. The school is an elementary today.

When Jan didn’t come home from school that afternoon, her mother, Rita Rohrer, reported her as missing. School staff said Jan had not come to school that day.

Police initially treated the case as that of a runaway teen, said Thomas Rohrer, who now resides in Gratiot County and is the director of the Great Lakes Institute for Sustainable Systems at Central Michigan University.

“There was no evidence of any crime having been committed — nobody saw her pushed into a car or taken away kicking and screaming,” Rohrer said. “They were telling her most of these missing person cases resolve themselves after a day or two.”

The rumor mill among Jan’s friends and acquaintances churned out speculation and gossip — that she had run off with her boyfriend, that she was living in Cleveland or that she was staying at her family’s cabin in West Branch. The false leads and the lacking proof that a crime had been committed resulted in police not mounting an intense search for as long as a week after Jan disappeared,
Rohrer said.

But Rita Rohrer never believed her daughter, a well-adjusted young woman, simply ran away, Thomas Rohrer said.

“My mother was frantic; she never suspected anything else but foul play,” Rohrer recalled. “My sister was a good kid. She was very well-behaved, she had not had any arguments with my mother. She had a safe, secure family life and was an excellent student.”

Jan also left $7 in cash at home the day of her disappearance, taking with her only enough money to buy a hot lunch at school.

Rita Rohrer, neighbors and friends organized a search effort, going door-to-door and developing lists of Jan’s acquaintances. The Michigan State Police joined in the investigation and flew a helicopter over Bay City’s South End looking for the teen, to no avail.

After nearly a year of silence and uncertainty, the mystery of Jan’s disappearance came to a sudden end. Hunters found the girl’s skeleton in a ditch on the north end of the Crow Island Game Area in Zilwaukee Township on Nov. 7, 1974. She had been shot, then bludgeoned, according to police.

At the time of her disappearance, Jan was living alone with her mother at the Fremont address. Her father had died of a heart attack two years before. Her eldest brother, Thomas, was attending graduate classes in Virginia and their other brother, 19-year-old William, was away at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

William Rohrer learned of his little sister’s disappearance via a phone call from his mother. He was initially in disbelief at the news, then devastated.

“This is the kind of thing that you read of in the news; it doesn’t really happen to you,” said William Rohrer, who now works for Automotive Components Holding and lives in Ann Arbor.

“After a while, (I was) sort of shocked and worried, but naively optimistic. I was away at U of M much of the time, but received several calls from people claiming to know where Jan was. I made
several trips to Bay City, Flint and some other pretty dicey locales after calls saying Jan would be at a particular place,” he recalled. “I am still somewhat shocked by how cruel people can be — sending us running all over, sometimes into places one would ordinarily not go, giving us false hope that we may find Jan.”

Thomas Rohrer did not find out of the turmoil back home until several days later, when his aunt called him.

“My mother’s sister called me and said, ‘We have a problem — Jan’s missing,’” Rohrer recalled.

Thomas Rohrer last saw his sister the week before her disappearance, when he returned home for Thanksgiving on Nov. 22, 1973. Despite the nine-year gap in their ages, the two were very close, Rohrer said.

“We laughed and talked a lot,” he recalled. “While I was home I asked her about school. Y’know, as the older brother I told her, ‘I hope you’re doing well in school and studying hard and helping your mom out’ and all that kind of stuff. She was happy and seemed to have no trouble. She showed me some art she worked on in school which she was very proud of.”

William Rohrer, likewise, had a close relationship with Jan.

“We were pretty close considering we were six years apart - typical big brother / little sister, lots of help with homework, teasing, et cetera,” he said. “Our father had passed a couple years previous, so Tom and I were the male models for Jan.”

Unable to leave Virginia, Thomas Rohrer stayed in contact with his family for updates, speaking with them on the phone nearly every day, he said.

In the summer of 1974, Thomas Rohrer visited his hometown and helped in his brother’s investigative efforts in their neighborhood. What they discovered only troubled them more.

“The South End, as I came to find out, had quite a criminal element — motorcycle gangs and drug culture and stuff like that,” Rohrer said.

“I went back to school that fall and it was like, ‘Well, she’s gone. Maybe she’ll contact us someday and we hope she’s safe wherever she is.’ Y’know, the usual hope you have in cases like this. Until these hunters found her remains the next November.”


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