Sisters Express Misgivings About DA's Handling of Molly Bish Case; A Key Alibi Is Questioned

Lori Lamothe

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Original police sketch of the man Magi Bish saw in the Comins Pond parking lot.(Massachusetts State Police)

According to Heather Bish, her family has learned from the DA that POI Francis Sumner's DNA is Not a Match in her sister's death.

In early July, Sumner's half-sister filed a FOIA with the DA's office to obtain DNA results, which she believed he had received.

Sumner won a new trial for his rape conviction in 1990 after he claimed he was set up because of police involvement in an auto insurance "conspiracy" in which he was involved.

Sumner threatened to file a lawsuit after police tried to connect him with Bish's case in 2003. He voluntarily submitted DNA at that time.

According to Bish, Molly's boss was spotted at a local hardware store buying rope and duct tape the morning of her disappearance.

A year ago, Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early, Jr. named Francis P. Sumner a Person of Interest in the murder of a lifeguard who disappeared from her shift at Comins Pond on June 27, 2000. Despite launching the largest investigation in Massachusetts history, the murder of Molly Bish remains unsolved more than two decades later.

Sumner, an auto mechanic from central Massachusetts, lived in the area from 1960 onward and died in 2016. Yesterday Molly's sister Heather announced that Early's office had informed her his DNA was not a match.

In a recent interview, Heather told me she had never heard Sumner's name come up in more than 20 years of seeking justice for her sister. She later confirmed the DNA results in a TikTok post and spoke of broadening the search:

“The tests that we have been waiting on for the last year have come back not as a match for Frank Sumner,” Heather stated. “It’s really disappointing. I am not sure what the state police have on Frank Sumner, but I am not going to ask specifically for information on him anymore. I am going to open up the investigation again to everyone that we’ve looked at.”

When Early named Sumner as a POI last June, he emphasized his long criminal record and mistakenly told The Boston Herald the woman Sumner was sent to prison for raping was 16 at the time of the incident. In fact, she was 21.

The victim was 16 at the time of the rape,” the same age Molly was when she vanished from Comins Pond in Warren in June of 2000, Early said. “She was someone he invited into the house to clean the apartment.”

Sumner submitted DNA in 2003

Early also did not mention that Sumner had voluntarily submitted DNA to the District Attorney's office in 2003, not long after Molly's remains were discovered on Whiskey Hill in Palmer, just a few miles from where she disappeared in Warren.

In addition, Sumner fought a years-long legal battle to overturn his 1981 rape conviction and was granted a new trial--though the conviction was ultimately upheld. In May 1990, The Worcester Telegram reported:

Superior Court Judge Mel L. Greenberg this week ordered that Sumner, formerly of Auburn, be given a new trial under criminal procedures that allow judges to order new trials 'at any time, if it appears justice may not have been done'. . . Sumner has maintained his innocence throughout numerous post- conviction appeals and hearings, and claimed repeatedly that he was "framed" in a conspiracy to cover up involvement of Auburn and Worcester police in a automobile-insurance-fraud scheme in which he was also a participant. "

According to Sumner's half-sister "Jackie," who does not want her full name revealed, her brother told her in 2003 that he had nothing to do with Molly's death. She said "Frank" was so incensed by the claim he drove to former District Attorney John Conte's office to try to discuss it with him in person. He was not able to meet with Conte that day but threatened to sue him for "defamation of character" if he did not desist.

Jackie, a recent widow whose son worked for the Department of Corrections, was so certain her brother was not involved in Molly's death that on July 1 she filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Early's office. The FOIA letter, which I have obtained a copy of, requested that the DA release all records pertaining to the DNA sample she provided to the Massachusetts State Police in 2020.

In our interview, Jackie stated she believed naming her half-brother as a Person of Interest was a political ploy:

"Frank was nowhere near this girl. This is a joke."

Distrust and a lack of information

Heather Bish has also lost faith in the DA's office. After years of work for The Molly Bish Foundation she has reached a point of frustration and wants to find out if it's possible to move the investigation to Hampden County, which has jurisdiction over Molly's skeletal remains.

Not only has Heather worked tirelessly on familial DNA legislation, she wrote the bill herself. Yet despite her efforts she doesn't feel Early's office has been as forthcoming as it could be.

I can't be polite enough. I can't give them help enough to make them treat me with respect. The lack of information and distrust is impacting my life in a negative way. All I've got left is my truth and my story."

Bish hopes to put that truth in writing. She has been working on her sister's case since the day Molly disappeared and is currently putting together a book.

During our interview, she stressed that she continues to look at all suspects. When asked about Molly's boss Ed Fett, she said the former parks commissioner has always been high up on her list, in part because his name has been mentioned frequently in reports over the years. Fett allegedly failed a polygraph but he was in good company: 10 other people failed as well.

According to most accounts of the June 27 timeline, a parent alerted Fett that Molly was not at work after swim lessons finished. When he arrived at the beach at approximately 11 a.m. --an hour after Molly's shift began and 40 minutes after Sandra Woodworth showed up with her kids--he searched through her things and used her police radio to contact headquarters. He allegedly believed she had gone off with friends, despite her shoes being neatly placed in front of her chair. At approximately 11:44 a.m. he allegedly contacted police via the police radio.

Conflicting stories

According to other accounts, Fett may have told police Molly's brother John was supposed to be working as lifeguard that morning when he first contacted them at 11 a.m. John, Jr. trained Molly for the first six days so Fett may have been confused. It was Molly's eighth day on the job but only her second on duty alone.

While Fett told The Boston Globe that police had cleared him because of his alibi, a witness I interviewed a few weeks ago called the parks commissioner's alibi into question. According to the witness, Fett was not painting the fence until 11 a.m. at Cutter Park with the community service kids as he told The Globe in 2003.

Instead, Fett was allegedly waiting at the park with paint and brushes ready. Fett then left the painters at approximately 9:15-9:20 a.m. He did not reappear at the park until approximately 12:30 p.m., at which point he took the workers to lunch at a local restaurant. During this time, when Molly was still missing, Fett was "casually eating" at Mona's Pizza with Warren Police Chief Ronald Syriac.

The fire department takes action

Heather confirmed that her mother did not find out Molly was missing until about 1 p.m., three hours after Molly's shift began. She explained that it was the Warren Fire Department - not the police - who initiated a search of the pond because they were becoming "increasingly concerned" Molly had drowned.

According to Heather, it was not a normal day in Warren because her sister's friend had been struck by a car the night before and the small police staff was focused on investigating the accident. When they learned about Molly's absence, they initially didn't pay it much heed and thought she might have left the beach to hang out with friends.

"[The Warren Police Department] don't think this is serious." Meanwhile, people who worked for the town fire department were "getting heated," she added. "They knew our family. They knew Molly wouldn't just take off."

According to Heather, her brother John had run into Fett earlier that morning at a local hardware store at approximately 9:30 a.m.

This correlates with the statement of the witness I interviewed. Google Maps calculates that it takes approximately 6-7 minutes to drive from Cutter Park to the hardware store in West Brookfield where they crossed paths. By these calculations, if Fett left the park at approximately 9:20 a.m. he would most likely have arrived there at approximately 9:30 a.m.

If the witness's statement is accurate, Fett was not seen at Cutter Park again until 12:30 p.m. As stated above, Fett arrived at the beach at 11 a.m. According to this possible new timeline, Fett's whereabouts between approximately 9:45 a.m.-11 a.m. are allegedly unknown. This version of events would explain why Fett did not mention that Molly was missing when he ran into John. She was not due at work for at least another 15 minutes.

Heather also mentioned it was her understanding that Fett was allegedly buying "rope and duct tape" that morning at the store.

Because the timeline for Molly's abduction was extremely tight, Bish said she has not ruled anyone out, including previous POI's Rodney Stanger and Gerald Battistoni. She also noted Molly's killer could be someone whose name has never come up in connection with the case.

"It was a narrow time window," she said. "[Her killer] wouldn't have time to drive far."

Bish also stated she had always been skeptical of the police's theory that Molly went off with friends. Not only would Molly not have left her shoes behind, but she never would have left her beeper in her backpack. In the pre-cellphone era, beepers were teenagers' way of keeping in touch and Molly never went anywhere without hers.

"That's the first thing I said to police. 'Her shoes are there.' And she didn't have her beeper."

She and her mother immediately began checking with Molly's friends, which had not yet been done.

She also noted the police dogs followed her sister's trail from the beach up a hilly trail to a nearby cemetery. Why would Molly have gone up such a steep, rocky incline without shoes? How did her killer get her to his car at the end of the trail? Did he have a weapon? Did he know her? Did he fake an injury?

When questioned about Fett's behavior toward Molly overall, Heather stated she had been told that Molly's boss brought her a few candy bars while she was working. He also gave her various catalogues with bathing suits that were not specifically geared toward lifeguards. Molly's parents brought her suit on their own and did not order one from the "magazines" or the "J.C. Penney" catalogue Fett brought her.

Fett could not be reached for comment but he has repeatedly said police cleared him of any involvement. According to The Boston Globe in 2003:

Ed Fett, the former parks commissioner who was painting the fence with Tatro and his son that morning, also voluntarily gave DNA to investigators last week.
''I guess they just want to build a large database,'' Fett said yesterday. ''I was treated like a suspect back then. They checked out my story and found that I had an alibi.''

A painful time for both families

While some cheered Early's office for moving the case forward by naming Sumner as a POI, for Frank's half-sister it was the beginning of a painful time for her family. Over the past year she has found garbage strewn across her lawn and passersby have hurled objects at her car. Other family members, including grandchildren and great grandchildren, have had to endure the stigma of being linked to New England's most famous cold case:

If I have to go the ethics commission, I will do that," she said. "What evidence does he have?"

During our interview, Jackie broke down in tears. She was adamant that she wants justice for the Bishes—but she believes time, money and resources continue to be wasted on investigating her half-brother. She admits, however, that he was far from squeaky clean:

We had a bad boy in our family. There's no getting away from it. But he's not a pedophile and he's never been up for murder. Frank made his own life--he liked big money and he liked things in a hurry."

While Jackie said she had no relationship with her stepbrother because of his criminal activities, she laid out a number of reasons he was probably not connected with the case:

1. There is no evidence Sumner was a pedophile.

Despite Early's mistake about Sumner's rape victim's age, Frank was not interested in young girls and has no record of crimes connected with underage girls. He went to prison for raping a 21-year-old, a woman five years older than Molly was when she disappeared.

Jackie said her half-brother was involved with many women but that she never saw him with anyone underage. She emphasized that she does not excuse Frank's crimes, but wants his name cleared in connection with the Bish case.

2. Sumner knew his rape victim over a two-year-period but there is no evidence he knew Molly or had even met her.

According to Jackie's account, Sumner knew the woman he raped for two years before the offense occurred in 1981 and she had visited Sumner's garage on previous occasions. He was never accused or convicted of another rape, either of an adult or a minor. Both crimes were completely different, she said.

3. He smoked cigars, not cigarettes.

While Sumner has been depicted in the media as a cigarette smoker, he only smoked cigars. The photo being circulated in the media was taken while he was in prison, where cigars were not available. When asked if Jackie had ever seen her brother smoke a cigarette outside of prison, her response was immediate:

“Never,” she said.

This detail is relevant because one of police sketches shows a suspicious "man in a white car" smoking a cigarette. Magi Bish spotted him at the beach parking lot on June 26 and worked with famous police artist Jeanne Boylan to create a portrait 9 months after the abduction occurred.

Boylan's sketch has been the focus of speculation about the crime for two decades. Many people believe the man in the white car killed Molly and police POIs have all resembled Boylan's sketch.

4. Sumner was never accused of murder.

Despite a long record, Sumner's crimes did not include murder, attempted murder or, in Jackie's view, any crime that paralleled Molly's abduction.

5. He never hunted or fished in Warren.

Jackie stressed that her half-brother did not hunt or fish at all, never mind in Warren or Palmer. He did not know Comins Pond or Whiskey Hill whatsoever. She said he worked primarily in the Worcester area, though his business did occasionally take him to Warren.

6. His hair did not resemble the police sketch closely.

Sumner's half-sister said that her brother dyed his hair jet black during the time Molly was taken. Molly's mother described the man she spotted in the parking lot as having salt-and-pepper hair but Sumner would not tolerate a single strand of gray.

7. There is no DNA connection.

At the time of our interview, Jackie felt certain this would eventually come out. Earlier this week, it did.

Although the DA's office has had Sumner's DNA for 18 years, Jackie agreed to provide the Massachusetts State Police with a familial sample in 2020. Despite assurances that she would receive results in a timely manner, she did not hear until this week that the DNA she voluntarily provided was not a match.

In previous interviews, Early has said the Massachusetts State Police received numerous leads about Sumner:

The information we have that led us to this point we think is very solid but we still have to keep going on the matter.”

If you have any information about Molly's case, please call the anonymous tip line at 508-753-7575.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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