At first, Francis P. Sumner Sr. was a typical tenant. Eventually, he stopped paying rent for the garage space he was using in Spencer, a frustration to landlord Bob Rankfalla.
Sumner turned out to be rude and aggressive when conversations about the missing rent came to a head, Rankfalla recalled. But Rankfalla said he never expected to hear that Sumner was a person of interest in a cold case killing more than two decades old.
“I was actually shocked,” Rankfalla said. “After I thought of it, I mean, he was kind of a weirdo.”
In early June, the office of Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. announced new information in the disappearance and killing of Molly Bish, just weeks before the 21st anniversary of the then-16-year old’s abduction. Sumner — a Spencer resident who was previously convicted of aggravated rape and kidnapping in the 1980s and who died in 2016 — was called a person of interest based on new information received by investigators, though the district attorney’s office declined to say specifically what linked Sumner to Bish.
Bish’s kidnapping and killing is among the most well-known cold cases in Massachusetts. Molly, who lived in Warren, was abducted from Comins Pond in town on June 27, 2000, where she was working as a lifeguard. Her disappearance set off a massive search. Three years later, her remains were discovered a few miles from the pond.
For decades, the Bish family has become accustomed to putting out a plea in June, asking the killer to come forward. There’s also a tip line at 508-453-7575. Early, in announcing Sumner as a person of interest, urged anyone to call if they had information related to Sumner’s employment practices and personnel, associates, vehicles, travel and any known habits.
Since the district attorney’s office announced Sumner was a person of interest in the case, at least 70 tips have come into the tip line, a spokesman said in late June.
Rankfalla said he started renting the garage at 10 Olde Main St. in Spencer to Sumner sometime in the early 2000s. Sumner was a good tenant for six or seven years, according to Rankfalla, who said that rent payments became more scarce as Sumner started renting more properties in Central Massachusetts for auto work.
Authorities have said Sumner was known to operate auto repair shops in the Spencer, Leicester and Worcester areas, including Sumner’s Auto Repair. From about 2009 to 2012, Sumner operated Elite Auto at 217 Barre Paxton Road in Rutland, the town’s police department wrote in a Facebook post.
Rankfalla thought about filing to get Sumner evicted but did not. About a year after Sumner had stopped paying rent, someone had kicked in a bottom window at the garage, Rankfalla said. He went over to secure the property.
“[Sumner] happened to come in the driveway and he told me I couldn’t do that,” Rankfalla said. “He was being an a******. He said that’s my property, that’s my stuff, and he called me that afternoon and told me he was missing all kinds of stuff inside the garage and he was going to sue me.”
After that, Rankfalla went to the garage and changed the locks. He didn’t hear from Sumner again, he said.
Inside the garage after Sumner’s death, Rankfalla said he found “a bunch of junk,” including old tow trucks, old motors and transmissions and broken tools.
Among people in the auto industry around Central Massachusetts, Sumner didn’t have the best reputation. He was known as someone who would take a car in for a $500 job and then come out with a $900 bill, perhaps not even with the proper work completed, according to Rankfalla.
Gary Woodbury, a Spencer selectman, said he was working at Ragsdale Chevrolet in Spencer around 2001 when he started selling cars to Sumner.
“He was a little hot-headed at times,” Woodbury said. After Ragsdale closed, Woodbury worked for Diamond Chevrolet and sold Sumner a car, he said.
“The car needed to come in for service, he threw a fit,” Woodbury recalled.
Despite the temper, Woodbury said he was “as shocked as anybody” to see Sumner named as a person of interest in the Bish case.
“I would have never connected it,” he said. “It’s a horrible situation if that’s what happened, I can tell you that … He wasn’t a nice person. Did I ever think he would murder somebody? No. I guess you don’t think that of anybody.”
Woodbury said Sumner had a way of talking himself into business deals.
“He would tell you a story and unless you knew him, you’d believe it,” Woodbury said. “Everybody got hooked by him.”
When it came to the aggravated rape and kidnapping conviction from the ’80s, Sumner had claimed he received a settlement from the state, according to Woodbury.
“That’s what he used to tell everybody,” he said.
Rankfalla and Woodbury aren’t alone in recalling Sumner as less-than-friendly. People who lived next to Sumner remember him as a poor neighbor. He didn’t respect property boundary lines and kept a messy yard, they said.
The woman who purchased the home in which Sumner used to live, at 55 Paxton Road in Spencer, never met Sumner. The property was a mess when she moved in, she said.
Brock Morrison, who lived next door in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said he had seen people drive by and shout at Sumner while he was mowing the lawn or doing other things outside. People in town were aware of Sumner’s rape conviction, Morrison said, and made their disgust known.
Morrison said he never directly interacted with Sumner, though.
Sumner was 71 when he died at his home on May 4, 2016. An obituary recalls him as “a loving father” who “will be greatly missed.” Authorities said Sumner was active in the Central Massachusetts area from 1960 through his death.
Woodbury said there’s one thing that runs through his mind now: with Sumner being in the car industry, he wouldn’t have needed to own a white car to have access to one.
A white car plays a major role in the case investigation. Molly’s mother, Magi Bish, often dropped her daughter off at the lifeguard stand. Magi Bish remembered something from the day before her daughter’s disappearance: she saw a man smoking a cigarette while sitting in a white car when she dropped Molly off.
Magi’s description was made into a sketch, depicting a middle-aged man with a mustache and hair combed off his forehead. After Early named Sumner a person of interest, Molly’s sister, Heather Bish, described seeing the man’s picture as “jarring,” pointing out similarities to the sketch.
Sumner’s driving record indicates four speeding violations dating from 1998 to 2010. In 2013, the Spencer Police Department requested a legacy report of Sumner’s driving record from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, records show. It is unclear what cars Sumner had access to or owned during his life, and records provided to MassLive do not list any specific vehicles.
The trial for Sumner’s aggravated rape and kidnapping case happened in 1982 and he was sentenced to concurrent terms of 15 to 18 years on the rape charge and 9 to 10 years on the kidnapping charge. The speeding violation from 1998 marked on his driving record indicates that Sumner served 15 or 16 years of that sentence.
That trial was not the only court case involving Sumner. Court records show criminal and civil cases for which Sumner was a defendant or plaintiff, including small claims cases and money actions.
In a civil federal court case filed in 2000, against members of the Leicester Police Department and others, Sumner claimed he was harassed, defrauded, slandered and libeled by the defendants. The case was dismissed in 2001.
Francis P. Sumner Jr. was charged in 1998 with violating a protective order. Court records list his father as the victim. The younger Sumner was ordered to stay away from his father, and court records do not include any more information about the incident.
Sumner is not the only person of interest who has been named in connection with Bish’s disappearance and killing.
Rodney Stanger used to fish and hunt in the Warren area and lived in the Southbridge area at the time of Molly’s abduction. In 2010, Stanger was sentenced to 25 in prison for the 2008 stabbing death of his girlfriend in Florida.
Early told MassLive last month that Stanger has not been ruled out as a person of interest.
Asked if there were other people of interest in the case, Early said he could not share details because it was part of the investigation, but that his office felt “very comfortable putting Sumner’s name out.”