When the weatherman on January 9th of 1948 promised that the warm temperatures would continue, Albert Larson was glad. He was a trapper by trade and wanted to use these warm days to his advantage. His plan was to take his boat along the Kishwaukee River and set his traps. Albert got more than he bargained on that particular January day.
He was setting the traps on the south bank of the Kishwaukee River when he spotted the frozen body of a man floating face down in the water. When Albert flipped the body over, he was startled to see a bullet wound in the man’s forehead.
Albert had a pretty good idea who the dead man was. The newspapers had been filled with updates about the missing man for the past month. Albert ran to the nearby cabin in the Camp Rotary Park (the present day Rockford Rotary Forest Preserve) to seek help. He had no idea that his discovery would set in motion a mystery that has gone on for decades.
Andrew Sorenson was 57 years old in December of 1947. His family owned the Chemung Tavern in Chemung, Illinois. He was described as the perfect tavern owner, friendly and outgoing. On December 3, 1947, 21 year old Andrew Sorenson Jr. showed up at the tavern to help his father over the lunch hour. He noticed his father’s car parked in its usual spot and that the blinds in the bar had been raised. So Andrew Jr. was perplexed when he found the front door still locked. He made his way to the back door. Andrew Jr. later stated that an eerie feeling came over him as he entered the bar area. His father’s key chain hung from the key still in the lock on the front door. Andrew Jr. rushed to the cash register. His heart sank as he realized it was completely empty except for a few checks.
Andrew Jr. realized in that moment that his mother’s greatest fear had been realized. Ever since his father opened the Chemung Tavern five years before, Dagmar Sorenson had predicted that this would happen. Everyone who was close to Andrew told him that he kept too much money in the tavern. Andrew usually had $700.00 to $1,000.00 in the cash register at any time. Even the McHenry County Sheriff Fred C. Bau warned him about it.
Andrew Jr. notified the police and his family that the tavern had been robbed and his father kidnapped. The authorities told Dagmar and her children that they were sure that Andrew would be found unharmed. In those days, robbers sometimes held people hostage so they could get away. But the despair in Dagmar’s eyes told the police that she did not believe them.
Many of Sorenson’s friends filled the tavern over the next few days. They gathered there before heading out to search the roads and woods surrounding the little village. At first, it was a few people, then a few dozen. Day by day the numbers grew until over a thousand people were searching for Andrew Sorenson. The searches spread out from Chemung into several of the surrounding counties.
Two days after Andrew was reported missing in Chemung, another story was unfolding in Rockford. Police Chief Folke Bengston was walking behind the police station when he noticed a man driving past. He waved the man over and knelt down to talk to him. Bengston knew the man very well and greeted him by name. But this was not a social visit. “John, I have bad news,” Police Chief Bengston began. The man Bengston had waved over had actually been a Rockford Police officer for years. John Provancher was 32 years old in 1947 and had served under Bengston. He had worked his way up through the ranks until he gained recognition as a plain clothes detective. Provancher gained quite a reputation for being a tough investigator. Men who worked with him on the force claimed that Provancher had an uncanny ability of thinking like the criminals they were trying to catch.
These same men said that Provancher also had expensive tastes. Provancher liked nice cars, tailor made suits, and flashy jewelry. He was living beyond his means and had received several warnings about passing bad checks from his supervisors. When Provancher failed to heed these warnings, Bengston was forced to let him go from the department.
Now on this December day, Bengston was once again forced to reprimand the man. An arrest warrant had been issued by Provancher’s current employer. Provancher had been working as a liquor salesman for the past three years. A few weeks prior to December 6, 1947, the owners of the liquor company realized that Provancher had embezzled $1,000 (over $11,000 in today’s money). The company offered not to press charges if Provancher agreed to pay them back. He had given them $700.00 two days prior but had missed the deadline for the balance, so they pressed charges. Provancher accompanied Bengston inside the police headquarters.
While Provancher was being questioned about the embezzlement charge, Bengston ordered other officers to search his car. He hoped the remainder of the money would be found in the car. When they asked Provancher for his car keys, he turned over a large key ring with several keys on it. He also explained that the trunk key had been lost.
The officers searched the main part of the newer model Nash sedan that Provancher drove. They didn’t find anything in the inside of the car and decided to try the other keys on the ring to unlock the trunk. They all were surprised to find one of the keys actually fit. What they found in the trunk truly shocked them. Inside the trunk was blood and clumps of grey hair. The men hurried inside to inform the men questioning Provancher. Captain Roy W. Johnson, who knew Provancher for years, was in charge of the questioning.
The tone of the questioning changed when Johnson returned to the room after receiving the news about the results of the search. The news had reached Police Chief Bengston and he joined the men. When Johnson asked Provancher about the blood in the trunk, Provancher stated that he had killed a couple of pheasants and put them in the car to bring home. Bengston told Provancher that there were tests that could tell if the blood belonged to an animal or a human. Provancher seemed startled at first by this news. Then he changed his story about the pheasants.
Provancher claimed that he was in one of the Chicago suburbs making sales stops and had accidently hit a pedestrian. He was scared so he threw the man in the trunk of his car and left the area. When he reached a more deserted part of town, he stopped, took the man from the trunk and left him. When Johnson asked him if the man was badly hurt, Provancher stated, “I don’t know.” The men in the room had a difficult time believing the story. Provancher must have felt their disbelief because he refused to discuss the case any further.
The Andrew Sorenson case was foremost in everyone’s mind at the time so the questioning turned toward that case quickly. Johnson asked Provancher if he knew the missing man. Provancher admitted that Sorenson bought liquor for his tavern from him. In fact, Provacnher knew the entire Sorenson family.
Captain Johnson also knew something else about Provancher. The two men considered each other friends and Provancer had approached Johnson about borrowing a .38 caliber gun for target practice. He borrowed it December 1st and returned it late in the day on December 4th, the same day that Sorenson had gone missing.
It was at this time that Johnson decided to take himself off Provancher’s embezzlement case. He left the interrogation room saddened by the thoughts that kept running through his mind. Johnson contacted the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the information that had been gathered up to that point..
Sheriff Fred Bau told Johnson that he had statements from two men who had stopped by the Chemug Tavern shortly after 9:00 a.m. to cash a check. One man entered the building while the other waited in the car. The man that entered said that Andrew (or Andy as his customers called him) was in the bar with another man. He didn’t really get a good look at the other guy. When Andy opened the register the man noticed that there was a lot of money in the cash drawrer. Andy chuckled when he called his attention to it. Andy stated that the day before had been a good day. The man took his money and left. The man that stayed outside noticed that the car in the parking lot was a very nice, newer Nash sedan. The man noticed it because most folks in Chemung did not drive cars that nice. As Johnson hung up the phone, he was very concerned for the man that he considered his friend.
The rest of 1947 was spent looking for clues in the Sorenson disappearance. Huge groups of volunteers gathered every day before spreading out to search for the missing man. Hope faded quickly that Andy would be found alive. The family was so desperate for information that they even consulted local psychics. The psychics all said the same thing; that Andy was dead and he would be found in water somewhere southeast of Chemung. Later, some found the accuracy of the psychic’s visions to be quite chilling.
During this same time, Provancher was in and out of jail on the embezzlement charge. Detectives searched his house for more clues in the Sorenson disappearance. They reportedly found a brand new snow shovel and more importantly, .38 caliber bullets. The papers did not explain why the snow shovel was of interest but it played up the fact that the bullets had been found in a baby carriage that was stored in the garage. Provancher had a 16 month old daughter at the time. It seemed a strange place to keep the bullets.
When Andrew’s body was pulled from the Kishwaukee River, the police and family hoped that it would provide more clues for them to go on. In reality, it created more questions. The one good thing about the discovery was that the family no longer had to live with the uncertainty of whether Andrew was alive or dead.
Andrew’s autopsy was conducted by Dr. Matthews. His death was caused by three bullet wounds to the head. Though the kidnapping and robbery had taken place in Chemung which was located in McHenry County, the jurisdiction was transferred to Winnebago County. Authorities theorized that Andrew could have been put in the river anywhere, even a smaller stream that was a tributary of the Kishwaukee River. The only thing they knew for sure, was that Andrew Sorenson was dead by the time his body was brought from the river.
Albert Larson was given a reward for finding the body. At first, he declined the money, but Andrew Jr. told him that the family believed that Larson was chosen by God to relieve the family’s pain. Andrew Jr. was quoted in all the newspapers when he stated, “Justice will come to my dad’s murderer.” The family was grateful that they could lay Andrew to rest in the little Jerome Cemetery on the outskirts of Harvard, Illinois.
The case against Provancher was further substantiated when fibers that were found in the trunk were linked to the pants Sorenson was wearing when his body was pulled from the river. This case happened long before DNA testing of course, so the only evidence was that the blood in the trunk of Provancher’s car matched Andrew Sorenson’s blood type.
Though the evidence and Provancher’s statements should have led to a simple verdict in this case, that is not the way it happened. Provancher was found guilty by a jury of his peers. On April 24, 1948, the six women and 6 men jury declared the guilty verdict to a very stunned Provancher. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Circuit Judge William Dusher.
But Provancher maintained his innocence and fought the verdict from the Circuit Courts all the way to the Supreme Court. His wife, Elizabeth was his biggest advocate. She began to study ballistics in order to fully understand the evidence against her husband. She must have been an impressive woman because Provancher’s lawyer won a hearing for her to present what she had learned about ballistics to a judge. Elizabeth claimed that the gun Provancher had borrowed was a .38 caliber and the wounds in Sorenson were too small for that caliber of gun.
John Provancer was granted parole in December of 1956, having served 8 ½ years of his 25 year sentence. Though many saw this as a travesty of justice, there were also those who believed that Provancher was innocent. Provancher turned his life around and from all accounts contributed much to his community in Hinsdale, Illinois. He died at the age of 94.
In a tragic side note to this story, Andrew’s beloved son, Andrew Sorenson Jr. was killed in a freak accident while serving in the Navy on January 24, 1961. He and the other four men on board were killed when their P2V Neptune Patrol bomber crashed during a training exercise. Andrew was survived by a wife and three sons.
Unfortunately, this case left too many questions for anyone to know what really happened to Andrew Sorenson on that December day so long ago.
Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events