Jerry Davich: What happened to Mike Bickel?
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org September 16, 2012 8:48PM
Mike Bickel of Crown Point in a 2010 family photo. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media ptmet
Updated: October 18, 2012 6:07AM
On March 9, Mike Bickel walked into Lake Michigan and never returned.
The 55-year-old divorced father left two suicide notes, one of them telling his best friend that he planned to swim from the Portage Lakefront Park to Navy Pier in Chicago. Bickel knew full well he couldn’t do that, though.
“Call the police,” he wrote to Jeff Powers of DeMotte.
That’s exactly what happened, and it’s been a mystery ever since about Bickel’s whereabouts or the motive for taking his own life.
“Honestly, after being married to him for 33 years, and together for 35, unfortunately my gut tells me he is in the lake,” said his ex-wife, Debbie Bickel. “However, I’m not so sure it was totally of his free will.”
The Crown Point couple divorced last November, and he was in a romantic relationship with another woman, living in Portage.
“When I saw him on Sunday, March 4, he looked awful and seemed very depressed. He told me he wasn’t happy in the relationship that he left me for,” Debbie told me.
“Just because we divorced didn’t mean that the 35 years of love I have for him just went away. He’s the love of my life.”
Debbie alleges some kind of foul play may have led to Mike’s disappearance, as well as shoddy police work that day and immediately afterward.
“There was such a short search for him — only three to four hours — and what seems to be a lack of a thorough investigation,” she claims.
Portage Police Sgt. Keith Hughes said this case is still open, an investigation continues, and the department’s detective bureau will follow up on any new leads.
“Our department conducted an extensive search on foot, on water and in the air looking for Mr. Bickel,” said Hughes of the search aided by several other agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and Lake County Sheriff’s Police helicopter.
“After several hours of looking, the search was called off. The weather conditions that day were brutal. It was very cold and windy. Lake Michigan was also very rough, making it difficult to search the waters,” Hughes said.
Also that day, “The officers looked through the entire apartment and did not see any evidence of foul play,” he added.
Since that day, detectives have spoken with Mike’s family, friends and attorney. And no activity has been located on Mike’s cell phone or credit cards.
“Everything thus far points to a suicide with the steps he took leading up to the day he disappeared. He left two suicide notes and met with his attorney to draw up a will,” Hughes concluded.
I’ve had enough’
One of the suicide notes stated, “Jeff, sorry I lied to you about this. I needed to make sure they found me. I’m sorry to put you in this spot. I’ve decided I’ve had enough.”
The note said he would park his vehicle in the Riverwalk’s circle parking lot, but it was later found by police in the lower lot, unlocked with keys in it.
“It then said he left his will and a $1,000 for any expenses that Jeff might have,” Debbie said. “Then it looked like he was going to write more but he didn’t finish it.”
Mike thanked Jeff for being such a good friend, and Mike said he didn’t deserve all the good friends and good fortune he had in his life.
He finished the note by writing, “I love you Deb & Rachel. You WILL get through this. SORRY, Mike.” (Rachel is the couple’s daughter.)
Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris told me he has not yet made a ruling on the case because Mike’s remains have not been found, assuming he is indeed dead.
“There are a lot of possibilities why the body hasn’t washed up to shore yet, but the chances of the remains surfacing at some point are very good,” Harris said. “The location that Mr. Bickel chose to follow out his intentions has a plethora of large rocks that the body may have been lodged under.”
Last week, six months to the day after Mike disappeared, Debbie again contacted the Portage police with questions. She has since been invited back to discuss the case again.
“We still do not understand why there have never been divers put in the water,” she told police. “Is his life not worth the time or effort the way others are? “Some things just don’t seem right to us and we wonder if they were investigated.”
Debbie is now working on arranging for a dive team to search the lake for Mike’s body. It is obviously closure she is seeking, and rightfully so. But even if his body is found, questions will keep floating around her, buoyed by rumors, suspicions and decades of their love affair.
“Just a ton of unanswered questions, and I feel like Portage (police) just made a conclusion that he ran off,” she noted.
She also has such questions for Mike’s girlfriend (and possible fiancée), Shannon Wilhelm, whom police have already talked with, but I was unable to locate her. (She is welcome to contact me to add her insights.)
Until Mike’s body emerges, or he miraculously appears, alive, he has a file on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System website, NamUs.org. His case number is 14541.
“Meanwhile, all of us who love him so deeply, including our daughter, who is getting married next July, continue to hurt so deeply inside every day,” Debbie said. “My heart is just breaking into pieces.”
If you have a tip, insight or memory to share with Mike’s family, feel free to contact me.
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