A former Division II college football star who disappeared in the Michigan wilderness during an impromptu late-evening fishing trip had a number of alcoholic drinks on the day he died and told relatives in two final frantic phone calls that he believed he was being followed, according to police reports.
Jennifer Finnerty told investigators that it wasn’t the first time her husband, Cullen Finnerty, had a ”paranoid” episode. Eighteen months earlier, she said, he drove 150 miles to Grand Rapids from Detroit because he feared the FBI was following him.
Finnerty’s final days are detailed in police reports released to The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
What the 116 pages don’t reveal, however, is the answer that still haunts his family: What killed the record-setting Grand Valley State signal-caller, one of the winningest quarterbacks in college football history, during an ill-fated trip with his in-laws over Memorial Day weekend?
The autopsy, conducted in Grand Rapids the morning after Finnerty’s body was found in the woods 65 miles north, found a ”slightly enlarged heart and slightly cloudy lungs,” but ”no trauma to the body at all,” according to a report prepared by a Lake County sheriff’s deputy.
Undersheriff Dennis Robinson said this week his department still is awaiting toxicology results from the Kent County medical examiner’s office. Asked about the toxicology report, Kent County ME’s spokeswoman Carmen Perez referred calls to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, where the autopsy was conducted. Messages left there were not returned.
Finnerty’s father, Tim, said he is frustrated by not knowing what ended his son’s life and with the steady flow of questions on the subject from reporters.
”He died more than two months ago. They still don’t know why he died, (and) it’s constantly in our face,” Tim Finnerty said. ”Everybody wants to know. It’s a very sensitive family matter.”
Tim Finnerty was among those who raced to rural Webber Township after his son went missing the night of Sunday, May 26.
In the two brief phone conversations with family members, Cullen Finnerty sounded disoriented and complained of being tailed.
”I think a couple of guys are following me,” Finnerty told his brother-in-law, Matt Brink, in a phone conversation Brink recounted for investigators. Finnerty also told Brink that things were ”getting a little rough.”
Jennifer Finnerty told police her husband called her around the same time.
Cullen Finnerty called out, ”Hey, are you there?” three times, she said. He said he was talking to ”that guy” and believed someone was 20 feet behind him.
She heard rustling noises on the other end of the line and asked her husband what he was doing. Finnerty told his wife that he was taking off his clothes. She told him to stay put, and the call was disconnected.
Jennifer Finnerty said she then sent her husband a text message that instructed him not to move, because her brother and father were coming to pick him up.
It wasn’t the first time Cullen Finnerty had a ”paranoid” episode, his wife told investigators.
Instead of driving home from Detroit a year-and-a-half earlier, he took off for Grand Rapids in western Michigan due to fears the FBI would follow him, she said. According to Jennifer Finnerty, her husband remained in a state of panic for four to five days.
Cullen Finnerty had a past addiction to painkillers, said his wife, who believed a pill he was given by an acquaintance may have caused the paranoia that spurred his trip to Grand Rapids.
He had not taken any drugs since spending time in a rehabilitation center more than a year earlier, and Jennifer Finnerty told police she could not imagine him going down that road again.
On the day of his disappearance, Cullen Finnerty awoke at 6 a.m., only three hours after going to bed, Jennifer Finnerty told investigators from the sheriff’s office and the state police two days later.
Her husband, Jennifer Finnerty said, went fishing and fed the couple’s 3-month-old before she woke up at 9 a.m. He had some mixed drinks and beer throughout the day before heading in to take a nap at 5 p.m.
He emerged two hours later and had a cup of coffee but skipped dinner. Jennifer Finnerty remembered telling her husband that his eyes looked ”beady.”
By 8 p.m., Cullen Finnerty announced he wanted to go fishing one last time before the trip ended.
”The next thing he knew, Cullen was dressed in his new fishing equipment,” sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Ron Brown wrote, recounting his conversation with Matt Brink.
Soon, Finnerty, his brother-in-law and father-in-law were on their way. The Brinks dropped off Finnerty around 8:30 p.m. and watched as he boarded a small personal inflatable pontoon boat and floated down stream.
The plan was for the Brinks to pick up Finnerty in about 30 minutes, but as it turned out, it was the last time they would see him alive.
In the months leading up to his disappearance, Jennifer Finnerty said life was very good for the family.
Cullen had just been given a promotion at work, where he sold medical devices, and he was thrilled to have become a father a second time.
Asked why he could have gone missing, Jennifer Finnerty told police that lack of sleep and alcohol consumption might have affected him.
The morning after his disappearance, the immediate family and sheriff’s office was aided by an army of volunteers intent on doing whatever was necessary to locate the well-loved Finnerty.
Dozens of current and former Grand Valley State players, coaches and staff hopped on a bus and headed north to do their part. Once there, they braved rain, mud and mosquitoes in search of Finnerty, 30, who had meant so much to the Allendale school.
Any hopes they had of a happy ending, however, were dashed when search Team 19 discovered the remains of the 6-foot-3, 230-pound ex-athlete in the late evening hours of Tuesday, May 28, within a mile of where he had disappeared.
Grand Valley coach Matt Mitchell was among those looking for Finnerty. He said at the time that the discovery ”crushed” him, a sentiment shared by many about the death of a man who led the Lakers to more than 50 victories and three Division II national titles, the last in 2006.
Finnerty briefly was a member of the Baltimore Ravens and later the Denver Broncos but never took a snap in a regular season game.
A Grand Valley State helmet and jersey were laid on Finnerty’s casket during his funeral service in June.