Murdered woman left in torched car was mother of 2

An undated courtesy photo of Lori Vargas.

WRIGHT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Authorities say a man killed his girlfriend in their Grand Rapids home, then drove to Ottawa County, where he left her body in a car on the side of the highway and set the vehicle on fire.

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office said the victim is a 37-year-old woman who was killed in Grand Rapids. Family members on Monday identified her to 24 Hour News 8 as Lori Vargas, a mother of two.

An undated courtesy photo of Lori Vargas.
An undated courtesy photo of Lori Vargas.

A passerby called 911 after discovering the car fire around 2:30 a.m. on eastbound I-96 near 24th Avenue in Wright Township, near Coopersville. When firefighters arrived on scene, the car was still burning and there was a fuel fire on the ground. They discovered Vargas’ body in the car.

Investigators originally thought she had died in a car fire following a crash. However, shortly after the fire, investigators stopped a 45-year-old Grand Rapids man walking along Ironwood Drive near 8th Avenue. He was taken into custody in connection with the crime.

Grand Rapids police said the man confessed to Ottawa County detectives that he got into an argument with the victim at his home at 1106 Emerald Ave. NE in Grand Rapids. Officers say he killed her then drove her body out to I-96 where he staged the car fire.

Mugshot of Donald Alexander Spice (Kent County Jail)
Mug shot of Donald Alexander Spice (Kent County Jail)

Through Kent County Jail records and a source, 24 Hour News 8 has identified the suspect as 45-year-old Donald Alexander Spice. He remains in jail without bond, awaiting arraignment.

Spice and Vargas had been a couple for about two years and had been living together at the home on Emerald for about a year, 24 Hour News 8 was told.

“It’s shocking because she was a very, very nice person,” Deborah Fires, one of Spice and Vargas’ neighbors, said. “Very considerate and caring.”

Family members of both agreed the couple had money problems and that they argued often.

Spice’s mother, Janet May, said she last spoke to her son on Sunday around 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m., hours before investigators say the murder was committed. She said she typically spends time with her son and Vargas on Sunday afternoon, but that when she called her son around noon, he told her not to come over.

“He said that Lori was trying to find a place to live. He had said that she could even stay in the spare bedroom that he had,” she told 24 Hour News 8 over the phone on Monday.

Spice's home on Emerald Avenue NE in Grand Rapids.
Spice’s home on Emerald Avenue NE in Grand Rapids.

May said that Vargas and her son were in the process of breaking up. A big problem, she said, was the way Vargas dealt with money.

“They planned on getting married in June, but financially she didn’t handle money well and he was trying to get her to handle money better,” May said.

Vargas’ family placed at least part of the blame for the money troubles on Spice, saying he has a gambling problem.

Regardless of whether that’s true, his mother said she doesn’t believe that he would ever be violent.

“I can’t even imagine a reason why he would do this at all,” May said. “I mean, they were breaking up, but it was- I know she didn’t want to break up, but I can’t see him doing this to break up with her. I mean, his life was together. He bought a house.”

Spice has a criminal record. According to state records obtained by 24 Hour News 8, he was released from prison after serving time for multiple break-ins.

Vargas’ family members were too emotional to speak on camera Monday, but her aunt said she was relieved to learn that Spice had confessed and heartbroken that Vargas’ children will have to grow up without her.

The Grand Rapids Police Department’s Major Case Team has taken over the investigation.  Anyone with additional information in this case is asked to call Grand Rapids Police at (616) 456-3604 or Silent Observer at (616) 774-2345.

One lane of eastbound I-96 between Marne and Coopersville was closed until 10 a.m. Monday as part of the investigation. The lane closure caused backups between 48th and 68th Avenue for hours. The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department told 24 Hour News 8 there were several other crashes in the area Monday morning.

This is the second case in less than a week where a woman was murdered on Grand Rapids’ northeast side. However, police said the Emerald Avenue murder is not related to the shooting death of 31-year-old Melissa Moore. 

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