Investigators have identified a convicted rapist who died five years ago as a person of interest in the 2000 murder of Molly Bish, a 16-year-old whose disappearance from her lifeguard post drew national attention, and are seeking the public’s help in closing the case.
Francis “Frank” P. Sumner Sr., who was convicted in 1982 of aggravated rape and kidnapping, emerged as a subject of the investigation after authorities recently received new information in the case, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said Thursday. His office declined to elaborate.
Bish disappeared on the morning of June 27, 2000, after her mother dropped her off at Comins Pond in Warren, where she worked as a lifeguard. Despite a massive, weekslong search, her remains were not located until nearly three years later, when a blue bathing suit similar to the one she was wearing was found in the woods in nearby Palmer, prosecutors said.
Searchers then found several bones that DNA analysis identified as Bish’s. She was buried that August on what would have been her 20th birthday.
Bish’s sister, Heather Bish, said in an interview Wednesday that someone had reached out to the family and investigators several years ago with a tip about Sumner, who fit the description of a suspicious man her mother saw in a white sedan near Molly’s lifeguard post the day before the teenager disappeared.
“I think there’s a lot of significant ties to Frank,” she said. She added: “We’re really hopeful that the State Police detectives and the district attorney are going to get the pieces to the puzzle that we’ve been waiting for. I think we’re very close right now.”
Her family is experiencing a rush of emotions in the wake of Early’s announcement, but “I think what we mostly feel is just this gratitude. We’ve just been so fortunate that people have come forward with information over the years,” she said.
For Heather Bish, who was 23 when her sister disappeared, closing the case will end a consuming quest.
“I can’t imagine what my life would be like without hunting a murderer. I’ve spent half my life doing so,” she said. “I can’t wait to just be a teacher. That’s what I was supposed to do.”
Sumner was born in 1945 and lived in Central Massachusetts from 1960 until his death in 2016, operating auto repair shops in the Leicester, Spencer, and Worcester areas, according to prosecutors. Investigators are seeking tips on Sumner’s habits, work life, associates, vehicles, and travel.
On Oct. 20, 1981, Sumner hired a 21-year-old woman to clean an apartment he was trying to lease and then brutally attacked her, court records show. As the woman prepared to leave after cleaning the unit, Sumner blocked her path “and locked three locks on the door,” records show. He attempted to kiss the woman, but she pushed him away.
As they struggled, Sumner told the woman, “Just give it to me and I won’t hurt you.” Later he said, “Give it to me or I’ll kill you,” according to court documents.
Sumner began choking the woman, who wept and screamed for help as she gasped for air.
Sumner then removed the woman’s clothing, pulled her by the arm into the bedroom, and raped her, records show. Sumner eventually allowed the woman to leave the apartment. She spoke with her boyfriend and his mother and then called Worcester police, documents show.
Sumner was convicted in 1982 of aggravated rape and kidnapping and given concurrent sentences of 15 to 18 years on the rape charge and nine to 10 years on the kidnapping charge, according to court records.
He was released from prison on March 31, 1998, a Department of Correction spokesman said.
In 2010, he was charged with threatening to commit murder, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported. In that incident, Sumner allegedly threatened a man who was protesting outside Sumner’s auto repair shop because he was dissatisfied with the service he received.
Now, authorities and the Bish family are hoping someone can provide the final puzzle piece that will connect him to Molly Bish’s death.
“We’re looking for anyone with information about Frank Sumner to come forward, even if it seems like the smallest detail,” Heather Bish said. “Those pieces add up together, and they paint a larger picture.”