Leads sought in 1979 death

GLADSTONE – The U.S. Air Force has renewed its interest in the Investigation into the death of a young airman whose charred body was found in a burned camp in Rapid River nearly 35 years ago.

Airman 1st Class James E. Malenfant, 20, of Rapid River, was home on leave when he was reported missing in October 1979. Air Force special agents are joining local officials in the renewed search for answers to questions surrounding his death.

“Our ultimate goal is to find out what happened to him,” said an Air Force special agent who is among a team investigating the cold case. “We owe it to the community and the family to find answers.”

The agent, who asked to be anonymous, and two other Air Force special agents met with local officials and the media at the U.S. Forest Service office in Gladstone on Tuesday.

Following Malenfant’s death in 1979, the Air Force Office of Special Investigators opened a case file in a joint investigation with local officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan State Police Post in Gladstone. The case files were closed in 1980, concluding the death as accidental.

The Forest Service reinitiated its investigation into Malenfant’s death in 2008 and reopened the case again this year with the renewed cooperation of local police and the military.

“We were asked to provide assistance and we still have a vested interest because Jimmy was in the Air Force,” noted the military special agent.

According to the Air Force representatives, Malenfant had been in the military for three years and was a ground radio maintenance technician. He was home on leave from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska when he was reported missing in Delta County.

Mike Evans, the special agent with the U.S. Forest Service who has been heading the local investigation, said the Air Force was asked to help with the cold case in an effort to gain more evidence into Malenfant’s death.

“We’re encouraged that the U.S. Air Force has taken this on and made it a priority,” commented Evans. “Every little piece of information that comes in gets us a little bit closer.”

During the past 35 years, information has been gained in the case with the most recent leads being “pretty good,” he said. Recent tips have lead investigators to believe there are people in the community who know how Malenfant died or who may have been present when he died.

Malenfant was hitchhiking and was dropped off in the Haymeadow Creek area on Oct. 28, 1979. He had just been released from jail on a drunken driving charge.

It is unknown what happened to Malenfant from that morning until Oct. 30 when his body was found in a burned down camp near Haymeadow Creek. Weeks later, personal items belonging to Malenfant were found hidden in the Hiawatha National Forest several miles from the camp.

Malenfant had no connection to the burned camp but his belongings were located near a camp he was familiar with, noted Evans on Tuesday.

“He knew this area very well. He and his best friend would fish Haymeadow Creek,” said Evans.

In addition to the Forest Service and the Air Force, the Michigan State Police Post in Gladstone is also involved in the renewed investigation.

Jeremy Hauswirth, recently-appointed detective sergeant at the post, encourages anyone with anything about the case to come forward, even if they have already been interviewed by police in the past.

“We are certainly willing to work with anyone that has information,” said Hauswirth, noting there may be legal concerns preventing people from cooperating with officials who may be able to address these issues.

“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the courageous thing to do, and it’s the humane thing to do. Jimmy’s family and the community have suffered long enough from this,” said Hauswirth.

“It’s truly shameful that someone would withhold information that could bring closure for this veteran and his family. Those who have information know who they are,” he added.

Investigators indicate that in the case of accidental death, criminal charges would likely not be pursued regarding Malenfant’s death. Individuals are encouraged to come forward to discuss the situation, through their attorneys, if necessary, added Evans.

Anyone with information about Malenfant is asked to contact Gladstone State Police Post at (906) 428-4411 or the Air Force investigating team at (937)-414-7622.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, jlancour@dailypress.net