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Suit: Mich. police conspired to cover-up woman's 2010 murder

JoAnn Matouk Romain, in image from website created by her family 888investigate.org

GROSSE POINTE WOODS, Mich. - The family of JoAnn Matouk Romain, who died in 2010 in what police say was a suicide, has filed a lawsuit alleging that the 55-year-old Michigan woman was murdered and that two local police departments conspired to cover it up.

The lawsuit filed last week in Detroit federal court alleges Romain told her daughter, Michelle Romain, weeks before her death that if she were to go missing, Michelle should tell authorities to look into a police officer for the City of Harper Woods - who is only referred to as as "suspect one" in the suit.

Michelle Romain claims that she told authorities investigating her mother's disappearance and death about "suspect one" but they dismissed it and didn't look into it further.

JoAnn Romain went missing on January 12, 2010. Her body was found two months later by fishermen in Amherstburg, Ontario, which is about 30 miles southwest of where she disappeared in Grosse Pointe.

Police classified the 55-year-old's death as suicide by drowning, but her family believes she was killed after an evening church service in Grosse Pointe Farms. They say investigators failed to interview witnesses, fabricated documents and lied to protect fellow officers.

"I definitely feel that there is a threat to my life and those around me," Michelle Romain, 31, told CBS Detroit. "Obviously my mom was murdered, so there's no reason why they wouldn't come after myself or somebody close to me."

The lawsuit filed June 10 by Michelle Romain along with other family members, on behalf of her mother's estate, names several defendants, including the cities of Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Farms, both cities' police departments and multiple police lieutenants and officers. It accuses authorities of spoiling evidence, conspiring to cover up what happened and violating the family's civil rights. It seeks $100 million.

Spokespersons for the Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Woods police departments declined to comment to CBS News' Crimesider about the lawsuit on Tuesday.

Michelle Romain told CBS Detroit that after four long years, she's ready for police to be held accountable for what she believes is an intentionally botched investigation.

"Some of the suspects that were supposed to be looked into were not, and that is because there is a connection with the police and the suspects involved with my mother's disappearance. There are a couple suspects and yes, they are police officers," she said. "The most important fact is that they did not complete a thorough investigation. They continue to say that they have and that's something that I've continued to fight with and struggle with because there are so many things that weren't done that should have been done."

Michelle Romain says police justified their finding that her mother committed suicide by referencing a tip that they received that JoAnn Romain was paranoid, depressed and suicidal. Michelle Romain says that this tip was never substantiated by any of her mother's medical records and social tendencies - and moreover, she says the tip was later confirmed by phone records to have been made by "suspect one," reports CBS Detroit.

The lawsuit references that finding and also points to a private autopsy commissioned by JoAnn Romain's family by the head of forensic pathology at the University of Michigan Hospital, Jeffrey Jentzen. Jentzen's report indicated that when Romain died she had contusions on her upper left arm where she carried her purse, suggesting a struggle, further bolstered by the fact that her brand new purse was found with a portion near the handle visibly torn, according to the suit.

An initial autopsy conducted by an Ontario coroner reportedly found nothing strange about Romain's body or her clothing.

The family's lawsuit also claims that police ignored statements from multiple witnesses who reported seeing a suspicious vehicle, as well as two suspicious men standing by the seawall near the church the night the 55-year-old Romain disappeared.

"This has nothing to do with money. This has everything to do with justice," Michelle Romain told CBS Detroit of the $100 million legal filing. "We know that when you put a big number like that, there is no way they will be able to settle. We're looking for people to be held accountable and we would like this to go in front of a judge and a jury and have those people held accountable for what has happened here."

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    Stephanie Slifer covers crime and justice for CBSNews.com.

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