BLISSFIELD, Mich. — After almost four decades without a homicide investigation, residents of the small town of Blissfield on Saturday were reeling from the news that two sisters had been shot to death.
Neighbors and friends identified the victims as Amy Merrill, 33, and her younger sister Lisa Gritzmaker, 24. Authorities, who would not divulge details about the victims, say two women were fatally shot at Ms. Merrill's home at 304 N. Lane St. shortly after 11:40 p.m. Friday.
The women's deaths bring the total number of homicides in the metro Toledo area to 26 for the year.
A third victim, reported by authorities to be the mother of the sisters, is hospitalized but is expected to survive.
"This doesn't happen in Blissfield," Shelby Piotter-Anderson, a lifetime Blissfield resident and friend of both victims, said. "I'm still kind of in shock. We've had car break-ins and other stupid little things, but I would never have expected this."
Michigan State Police are looking for Thomas Jack Fritz, 38, of Sylvania, for questioning in the double homicide. State Police Lt. Kevin Marc said police were searching for the suspect late Saturday.
"I just know we're trying to track down all the leads, speak to family and friends, and find him," Lieutenant Marc said.
Police said Fritz is a white male with brown hair and blue eyes, about 5 foot, 9 inches, and 186 pounds. On Saturday, he was reported to be driving a burgundy or maroon 2002 four-door Honda, with Ohio registration.
Police said they believe Fritz might have fled into Ohio from Michigan and was armed and dangerous. Residents who believe they see the suspect are asked to contact police immediately and not approach him.
Anyone with information should call Michigan State Police at 517-241-8000.
Linda Butler, a neighbor of Ms. Merrill's, said she attended the annual Blissfield River Raisin Festival Friday to view its fireworks show. Ms. Butler said she did not notice anything abnormal when she walked home from the show and passed the home where the shootings occurred on the corner of North Lane and Grant streets at about 10:45 p.m.
"There wasn't anything going on that would have made me pay attention," Ms. Butler said. "I heard nothing and really saw nothing until the ambulance came."
According to Ms. Butler, two ambulances showed up to the residence about midnight. The vehicles were followed by people rushing in and out of the house and the arrival of an medical helicopter.
Ms. Butler said she believes the women's mother, Robin McCowan, called 911 from the crime scene. Ms. McCowan was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Toledo. Toledo hospitals contacted late Saturday said they had no information on a patient by that name.
The suspect was described as the estranged boyfriend of Ms. Merrill. Ms. Butler said the pair had moved into the North Lane home sometime after Christmas this past winter and lived there together with three children.
"They pretty much kept to themselves, and you never really saw them out," said Ms. Butler, who had never met the victims. "There were never problems or disturbances. This was a total shock to even hear of such a thing."
Ms. Piotter-Anderson said the two older boys were Ms. Merrill's sons from a previous marriage and the youngest was the son of Ms. Merrill and Fritz.
Ms. Piotter-Anderson, whose son plays baseball with Ms. Merrill's middle child, said Ms. Merrill had kicked the suspect out of their home about two weeks ago. Ms. Piotter-Anderson had not seen Mr. Fritz since then until she saw him and his youngest son at the River Raisin Festival at about 8 p.m. Friday.
"I met him once when he came to a baseball game with Amy," said Ms. Piotter-Anderson, who has known both victims since their school days. "I would never have guessed something like this of him."
Blissfield Police Chief Jane Kelley said the children are staying with family members and were not home at the time of the shooting.
The younger victim had children as well, Ms. Piotter-Anderson said. Ms. Gritzmaker and her husband Jacob have two daughters, and Ms. Gritzmaker was seven months pregnant at the time of her death, Ms. Piotter-Anderson said. It was unclear whether the fetus survived.
Blissfield resident Alex Karl, a close friend of Ms. Gritzmaker and her husband, Jacob, said he had a quick succession of thoughts when he first heard the shocking news.
"My first thought was that I knew she was pregnant and then my thoughts immediately went to Jake, wondering if he was OK," Mr. Karl said. "Then I broke down, I mean I've known them both since they were little."
Mr. Karl, who served as head of the grounds at the River Raisin Festival, said the five-day fair seemed less celebratory on Saturday.
"The tone has seemed to bend down a little bit from all the locals who knew them," he said. "But it's business as usual, and we're still up and running."
When reached late Saturday, Lieutenant Marc would not release details of the status of the investigation into Fritz's whereabouts.
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Fritz served a prison sentence from May, 2007, to April, 2008, for a felony charge of sexual battery, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Web site.
Homicide investigations in the village have been few and far between. Chief Kelley said she never has handled a homicide case in the village of 3,340.
Former Blissfield Police Chief Arthur "Butch" Gunter, who retired in 2002, told The Blade at the time of his retirement that in his 35 years policing Blissfield, he had never investigated a homicide.
The most recent homicide case in Blissfield in The Blade's archives was in 1975, when the body of an Adrian woman, Arleen Ruth Salcedo, was found in a field just south of Blissfield with a cord around her neck.
Police also investigated the shooting death of Blissfield resident Alfred Florez in 1974, according to Blade archives.
According to Blade archives, Michigan State Police in 1952 investigated the death of Blissfield resident Marian Atkin, who authorities believe was shot by Lawerence Mygatt who then turned his gun on himself.
Ms. Butler, a former Blissfield schoolteacher who has lived in the village since 1985, said she cannot recall any homicides or similar crimes in the village.
"It's just such a shock, such a shock," she said. "This is exceptional. I thought we lived in quiet little Blissfield."
Contact Mel Flanagan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6087.