Crystal Lake Deaths

This February file photo shows snowmobile tracks left by two Benzie County men who died after their snowmobile crashed through the ice on Crystal Lake.

Editor's Note: Newsmakers '09 explores the stories that made headlines in northwestern Michigan in 2009. Past articles in this series can be read online at

FRANKFORT -- A thin layer of ice has accumulated over Crystal Lake.

Meanwhile, snowmobile season is in full swing and many Frankfort residents are testing their sleds on local trails.

Many of them recall the tragic February accident that shocked the small community in Benzie County.

Ronald Wilkins, 57, of Frankfort, and Ellwood Holmquist, 54, of Benzonia, died Feb. 13 when their snowmobile crashed through the ice on the west end of Crystal Lake.

"I think people are going to be more cautious when going out onto the ice," said Sue McNeal, owner of Bayview Party Store in Frankfort. "I don't think people have forgotten it. Everything is still so fresh in our minds."

Benzie Sheriff Rory Heckman knew both men, and ran onto the ice to assist crews as they pulled Wilkins and Holmquist from the frigid water.

"It's left some lifelong impressions on quite a few people," he said. "It's one of those things that sticks in your memory bank. Everyone still sheds a tear."

Wilkins and Holmquist fell through the ice as they prepared to guide friends onto the lake for a fishing outing. The men left their friends from Illinois near shore and hopped on a snowmobile to ferry gear to a fishing spot near Crystal Lake Yacht Club. There the ice gave way.

A recent thaw and rain showers weakened the ice, leaving it vulnerable, said Mark Ketz, a Benzie County sheriff's deputy and volunteer firefighter from Frankfort.

"There were spots where it'd seem firm and others that were real spongy," said Ketz, who was first on the scene. "It went from 10 inches to two inches. It'd feel like my foot almost fell through."

Holmquist was pulled out first, but Wilkins was at the bottom of the lake, forcing crews to attach a grappling hook to his clothing, Ketz said.

"Everything that shouldn't have happened, happened," he said.

Benzie's medical examiner determined Wilkins drowned and Holmquist suffered a heart attack induced by the frigid water.

It's going on a year since their death, but McNeal said she still hears locals talk about their fishing prowess and love of the outdoors.

"In a small community, everybody knows everybody," she said.

Ted Bruce shared fishing stories with Holmquist just an hour before the accident.

"We're almost a year away from that tragic day ... it will never leave their mind," said Bruce, Holmquist's boss for more than 10 years at Timberline Shell in Benzonia. "Two great outdoorsman that would do anything for anybody."

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