Did I Stumble Into a Pictured Rocks Whodunit in 2006? Reflecting Upon Deaths at Pictured Rocks (MI)

It seems the third person in 15 years has lost their life at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – Dominic Rotondi, 21, of Lincoln Park, MI. Various news reports say he died Saturday, July 24 after falling 100 feet into Lake Superior – after having crossed an area that had been fenced off. The key words I’m seeing in various reports about him being in the fenced area state he did so “for reasons unknown.” The dead guy can’t explain why he decided to cross a fence that had been placed for a good reason.

A shot from 2019, the cliffs at Pictured Rocks.

Let’s rewind a bit to the summer of 2018 when a 32-year-old California woman named Tu Thanh Nguyen was hiking solo along the park’s North Country Trail. News reports stated that she had most likely died while taking a selfie at the top of a 200 foot cliff.

Key words from one of the MLive news reports:

She had been standing there taking pictures of herself when she fell off the edge

Was Rotondi doing the same? I’m willing to bet money that he was also attempting to take a selfie – showing off to his friends and attempting to prove to the social media world how bad-ass he was. If he wasn’t taking a selfie, maybe one of his friends was taking a photo of him – we’ll see what future reports have to say.

Let’s rewind about 40 years or so to 1981 – when my mother, grandmother, 12-year-old brother and 9-year-old me visited this place. Things were different back then – there weren’t as many caution signs, as many fenced off areas, and as much concern for erosion, as evidenced by this photo (take note of how uncomfortable I look in it):

Visitors can’t just walk out onto the cliffs now – unless they make a great effort to do so!

Back to the subject of deaths at Pictured Rocks – Nguyen and Rotondi weren’t the first people to die from falls there. The first person was 43-year-old Juanita Richardson of McBain, MI – who died there in 2006 while on a “second honeymoon” with her husband Thomas. He was convicted of killing her in 2008 and was sentenced to life in prison. And to this day I’m still haunted by conversations I overheard in a bar by people who might have witnessed the events leading up to this death.

Me near a decrepit car along the North Country Trail at Pictured Rocks (2006).

My husband and I happened to be backpacking at Pictured Rocks in July of 2006 when we unwittingly stumbled into a heavily brewing (in a bar – see what I did there?) news story – and a possible “whodunit!” We’d finished a two-night backpacking trip along the coast and were having a well-earned whitefish dinner accompanied by cold beer at a Grand Marais restaurant called The Dunes Saloon, aka Lake Superior Brewing Company. A little bit about Grand Marais (population estimate 1,300 people) – it’s a sleepy coastal town on Lake Superior, roughly west of Sault Ste Marie, northwest of Tahquamenon Falls.

Though it gets its share of tourists in the summer – and even winter (mainly snowmobilers), it’s not a typical tourist town. There are no chain restaurants, but what it lacks in that regard it more than makes up for in terms of its glorious sandy beaches.

Vacation picture from 2015 – beach in Grand Marais

To say it’s remote is an understatement. It’s not a city you’re likely to just “pass through” on any U.P. road trip. It’s about 25 miles or so north of M-28, a popular east-west route. When you’re taking 77 north to get there, it’s relatively boring – but so, so exciting when you start to see a glimpse of Gitche Gumee (old Native word for Lake Superior which you might have learned from that one Gordon Lightfoot song about the shipwreck).

A Whodunit – at pictured Rocks?

So we were sitting there in the Dunes Saloon in July, 2006 enjoying our deep fried goodness – which always seemed to hit the spot after a couple of days of eating rehydrated backpacking meals! Seriously, you should try it sometime, but I digress! And we overhear some people at a table near us in the restaurant talking about having possibly been witnesses to an incident leading up to Richardson’s death. At the time we didn’t even know about what had happened – we were there in early July, 2006, and her death happened on June 22. We hadn’t read or heard anything about this death prior to our trip, so when we just barely heard the whispers of the people in the restaurant about this, well – it was news to us! We really didn’t hear much – but it sounded like the people overheard an argument between the Richardsons before it happened. As I said, we had only just learned of this incident, we made no contact with the people whom were talking about it – and I can only wonder if these people wound up speaking to investigators. Little matter now that Mr. Richardson is behind bars, right? Still, it’s just one of those things that makes ya wonder…

As for this most recent death, I’ll be watching news reports to see what else gets uncovered – why did this Rotondi guy decide to go behind the fence? Sure, some people are daredevils and disregard safety barriers all of the time! Just last fall, my husband and I were at Orchard Beach State Park and there were quite a lot of people going behind an erosion fence to descend a rocky cliff- I decided I was going to just stay in the cabin we’d rented while all of this was going on so as not to be a witness if something bad happened! Thankfully nothing happened.

But how long until something tragic happens along the lovely cliffs of Pictured Rocks again?

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