Convicted Rapist Named Person of Interest in Unsolved 2000 Murder of Mass. Teenager Molly Bish
Investigators are seeking information about Francis "Frank" Sumner, Sr., a deceased registered sex offender who is now a "person of interest and suspect" in Molly's murder, DA Joseph Early says
For years, the Bish family has longed to find out who lured 16-year-old Molly Bish from her lifeguard post on the muggy summer morning of June 27, 2000.
Now the family is closer to getting the answers they've been seeking since Molly vanished from Comins Pond in Warren, Mass. — and since her body was found in 2003 on nearby Whisky Hill.
On Thursday, the Worcester County District Attorney's Office announced that a local named Francis "Frank" P. Sumner Sr. has been named as a person of interest in Molly's murder.
Sumner died in 2016, but that isn't stopping investigators from following up on the possibility that he is the one who took Molly's life.
"We got a tip on this," Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr., tells PEOPLE. "We investigated the tip. The guy lived in the area."
Sumner was also a convicted sex offender.
"He had an extensive record, a 25-page record," he says. "He did time for aggravated rape and kidnapping.
"He was out of jail when this occurred," says Early. "He ran auto repair shops in the Central Massachusetts area in the towns surrounding Warren in the Spencer, Leicester and Worcester areas. And we have growing confidence in the tip because a number of facts that have been corroborated to a continuing investigation have come through."
All Early would disclose about the tip is that it came in "recently."
"We've been working on it over the last several months," he says.
The day before Molly vanished, her mother saw a man sitting in a white car smoking a cigarette with his left hand, which is reflected in a composite sketch she had made.
Like the man in the car, Sumner "was a left-handed smoker," says Early.
That doesn't mean he is definitely the killer, says Early.
"We haven't ruled anyone out," he says.
Early says he considers Sumner "a person of interest and a suspect."
Police have looked at other persons of interest over the years, including Gerald Battistoni.
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"But we still want the public's help," he says. "No bit of information should be overlooked, no matter how small."
Investigators are seeking tips from the public looking specifically for information about Sumner's employment practices and personnel, associates, vehicles, travel and known habits, the district attorney says in a release.
For the Bish family, the announcement came with a mix of emotions.
"I would like to express my gratitude, first, to everyone who shared Molly's story, supported us, provided tips and information, and especially to the MA State Police and district attorneys who have given 2000% effort towards this case and its resolution," Heather Bish tells PEOPLE.
"My family was shaken to learn of Frank Sumner and the atrocities he has committed against women," she says. "We have worked in Molly's love to provide advocacy to victims and safety to children in our communities, and today we feel that love coming back to us from our community."
While investigators chase down information about Sumner, the Bish family is waiting for definitive answers.
"Knowing who did this to Molly has always been important to us," Heather told CBS 4 Boston.
It's "been our objective and our goal to get this person off the street, so of course we are grateful and relieved that that is possible, but we are scared. We are scared to know what happened to Molly.
"Just reading about what he has done to other women and that potentiality of what he could have done to Molly is frightening and it makes sort of the nightmares become real so it's bittersweet. It brings us back to that day."
She added: "I don't know that we'll know exactly what happened to Molly, but if we know the person who did it, that's good enough for me."
Anyone with information on Sumner or any additional information on the Molly Bish case is asked to call the district attorney's anonymous tip line at 508-453-7575.