BENZONIA — Investigators hope autopsies will reveal what exactly happened to Joe Miller and Rene Hoxie-Papineau.
The pair — 48 and 62, respectively — died Sunday afternoon after veering off U.S. 31 during a motorcycle ride with friends.
“They were out for a short ride and were gonna go back to a friend’s house for a barbecue,” said Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel, whose deputies were among the first to respond to the scene around 1:35 p.m. “We don’t know exactly what happened — just that the end result is tragic.”
Beulah resident Miller, with Hoxie-Papineau as his passenger, rode along U.S. 31 in Joyfield Township flanked by several other riders, Schendel said.
They crashed just south of Demerly Road.
The warm, sunny afternoon had offered a Labor Day weekend reprieve — Miller worked as a Grand Traverse County dispatcher and Hoxie-Papineau was an evidence technician with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office.
Other riders told deputies they were caught by surprise when Miller suddenly veered left and crossed the centerline. Two cars passing by narrowly avoided the bike, Schendel said.
Miller managed to pull back into his lane and fellow riders moved out of the way before he veered farther, Schendel said, past the white line to “hit the rocks” of an embankment and crash.
The impact threw Miller from the motorcycle. He died at the scene.
Hoxie-Papineau succumbed to injuries several hours later at Munson Medical Center.
Judy Cannehl Remment came upon the aftermath, which closed the roadway and drew crews of responders, about an hour later. She’d been driving back to Frankfort from Manistee alongside her son.
“We both kind of crossed ourselves and hoped nobody was hurt,” she said. “We had no idea what had happened.”
Both were wearing helmets, and investigators don’t believe speeding, drugs or alcohol were factors — friends and acquaintances commented on social media that Miller didn’t drink. The stretch of road the pair crashed along runs straight, with no curves or difficult-to-navigate areas.
Schendel wasn’t sure of Miller’s skill level on a bike.
Autopsy results should come in this week, Schendel said, and reveal whether a medical episode caused the crash.
Michigan State Police Lt. Travis House said MSP reconstructionists responded and compiled a report on the crash, which could shed further light on what happened. That shouldn’t be back for a couple weeks yet, he said.
“We’re just speculating,” Schendel said. “Nobody can say why they went across the centerline.”
He knew both well — Hoxie-Papineau, of Traverse City, grew up in Benzie County and Miller once worked as a Benzie dispatcher.
Miller’s brother works as a Benzie County deputy.
Miller and Hoxie-Papineau are mourned by family and friends, as well as officers and investigators in several local departments, and condolences have since flooded the Facebook page of Grand Traverse 911.
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley and several other department officials did not immediately return calls Tuesday afternoon.