Who killed Michigan angler 'from the dark shadows' at North Dakota rest stop in 1981?
On Oct. 1, 1981, the body of 68-year-old Clifton Wendell Marsh, of Hope, Michigan, was found at a rest area on Highway 2 east of Devils Lake.
DEVILS LAKE — Robert Marsh says when his father was murdered, a responding officer told him that 90% of cases similar to that of his father’s are solved. To date, the identity of Clifton Wendell Marsh’s killer remains a mystery.
On Oct. 1, 1981, the body of 68-year-old Clifton Wendell Marsh, of Hope, Michigan, was found at a rest area on Highway 2 east of Devils Lake. Marsh, who was robbed and shot twice in the head, had left his home in Michigan on Sept. 29 for Fort St. James, British Columbia, on a fishing trip. He was traveling in his pickup truck with a camper on top and boat, and had made the trip many times in his life.
More than 40 years later, Robert Marsh, of Hope, Michigan, the youngest of Clifton Wendell Marsh’s four children, is not hopeful that answers will be found.
“I was quite hopeful that they would find out, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “Now they never will.”
Everything Robert Marsh knows about his father’s murder, he learned soon after it happened.
“They had several times through the ensuing months, where I’d get a call and they’d tell me that they had some sort of lead, but none of the leads panned out.”
Investigators told Robert Marsh that Clifton Wendell Marsh likely arrived at the rest area near Devils Lake in the early evening, prepared some food and went to bed. Around midnight, he got out of his truck, and investigators think it was around that time that he was killed.
Clifton Wendell Marsh was shot twice in the head with a .25-caliber pistol — a gun that was typically carried by women, said Robert Marsh. Near his truck, there were three cartridges from the pistol and blood on the ground. Robert Marsh said the murderer drug Clifton Wendell Marsh’s body around the passenger side of the truck, and tried to put him into his camper, but was seemingly unsuccessful. Then, the murderer dragged the body through the rest stop, to the edge of a pond.
Around noon on Oct. 1, a family stopped at the rest stop to eat, and their teenage daughter discovered the body of Clifton Wendell Marsh at the pond.
A couple of things stick out in Robert Marsh’s mind about the scene of his father’s murder. First, was that the hood of Clifton Wendell Marsh’s truck was up and the dipstick was on the ground, as if he was checking the oil. Second, the front tire on the driver’s side of the truck was flat. The tires on the truck were relatively new, and the stem of the valve on the tire was twisted as if somebody had let the air out.
Robert Marsh said his father was picky about finding a level space to park when sleeping in his camper, but is unsure how the one deflated tire fits into the story.
“Part of the speculation is somebody close to midnight there may have let the air out of the tire, and maybe that’s what got him up earlier than you would think he normally would,” said Robert Marsh.
According to Robert Marsh, his father had little money, maybe $70 or $80, in his wallet when he was robbed and killed. He had about $700 in his camper, but that remained untouched. A .44-caliber rifle was stolen from the camper. Robert Marsh said investigators alerted area stores to keep an eye out for individuals buying that type of cartridge, but nothing ever turned up.
Rob Thomas, Clifton Wendell Marsh’s grandson and Robert Marsh’s nephew, has been tracking family genealogy since the mid-1990s, and says his grandfather’s murder is one of the biggest mysteries in his family. He continues to look for answers.
“The mystery is still unsolved and I like closure — that’s what drives me, especially in family history stuff,” he said.
Thomas was in college when his grandfather was killed, and said the violent event was strange for his whole family.
“This wasn’t a car accident where you get T-boned at an intersection, this was intentional. That was tough,” he said. “Then the unknown and the ongoing unknown.”
The principal investigator for the case was Merle Henke, a North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation special investigator. Thomas said the case was one one he continued to revisit until his retirement. Hanke died in July 2021.
Thomas is hopeful the mystery of his grandfather’s death can still be solved, but not necessarily to bring anybody to justice.
“When I was in college, and years past that, I was into justice — how about this person pays for what they’ve done, you know, there needs to be some consequences,” he said. “That’s really not a factor in my mind or heart, I just more want to understand and know.”
In the years following Clifton Wendell Marsh’s murder, Robert Marsh and his brother took a trip to Fort St. James, British Columbia, where his father fished. By chance, they met one of the men Clifton Wendell Marsh fished with, and he showed them the cabin their father had stayed in and the spots he fished the many times he had made the trip.
Earlier in his life, said Robert Marsh, his father had been concerned about safety from strangers while traveling, but near the end of his life, said that most people he met on the road had been friendly.
“It is ironic that he lost his life to some person that stalked him from the dark shadows,” he said.