Late morning, Aug. 24, 1991, a Saturday. Ron Schroeder sits before a mirror in the back room of the Ground Round Grill and Bar on Brown Deer Road. A light coating of baby oil glistens on his face as he scoops white greasepaint from a jar.
Carefully, expertly, Schroeder paints a wide, exaggerated smile around his mouth, stretching from chin to cheekbones. High on his forehead he paints two arching eyebrows. With a greasepaint crayon, he outlines the smile and eyebrows in red, and with eyelash glue affixes a red rubber nose to his real one. Then the final touch Ð a wig of dangling red curls and a cone-shaped hat on top.
Schroeder flashes a big, showy grin at the mirror, then steps into the Ground Round’s dining room to greet an audience of jittery grade-schoolers, moms and dads. Silly the Clown comes to life.
Meanwhile, across town at the Briarwick Pool Apartments in Greenfield, Schroeder’s wife Christine is in a panic. Something is not right with the couple’s 7-week-old daughter, Catie. She won’t eat or sleep and doesn’t respond to her mom’s voice. The child stares blankly, her eyes not tracking as her mother’s hand passes before her.
Christine Schroeder wants to take her daughter to the hospital; she has full medical coverage. But Ron had told her no. The baby just had a cold or flu and would be fine.
Christine abides by Ron’s order. She’s used to his iron-fisted control. And his anger. Soon after they began living together, he began to call her fat and ugly, she later told police. She dropped to 95 pounds. He would punch her on the side of the head and kick her in the legs, places where bruises wouldn’t be noticed. And one day, when she was seven months pregnant with Catie, he flew into a rage, attacking her, dragging her into the living room and throwing her onto a couch.
Now she was just too afraid to cross him.
Ron spent most of that Saturday at the Ground Round tickling funny bones. Silly the Clown performed often, playing restaurants and private parties, the Milwaukee County Zoo and Circus Parade. Silly talked in a squeaky falsetto, almost like a girl. He was known for his balloon sculptures and his “invisible dog” routine, where he’d hold a stiff-but-empty collar and leash in front of him, walking a dog no one could see.
“The audiences loved him,” says Terese Hall, acting director of the West Allis-based International Clown Hall of Fame. Hall has known Silly since he started out.
Silly’s standing was also high with his fellow clowns. “I can’t say enough good things about him,” says Hall. “He was always courteous. He was always funny.”
But as he performed for the children on that August afternoon in 1991, his own child was in peril. By the next day, Schroeder would be standing numb with his wife at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin as their child was pronounced dead. An autopsy found four of the baby’s ribs had been fractured, and her stomach, chin and left ear had been bruised. Contusions to her brain had caused hemorrhaging days earlier, and her retinas had detached, causing “blood behind the eyes.”
The injuries, concluded the autopsy report, were consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office. While never charged with killing his daughter, it was Ron Schroeder who would be blamed Ð by the doctors who treated the baby, and eventually by his wife.
Schroeder declined to be interviewed for this article, responding only in writing to questions. He denies harming the baby or Christine, and denies all accusations of abusive treatment of other women and children. But through court documents, medical records and dozens of police reports, along with numerous interviews by Milwaukee Magazine of those who knew Ron, a vivid portrait emerges.
Behind the greasepaint, another personality resided, not the smiling red-haired clown with the squeaky voice, not the happy entertainer who would do magic and card tricks and dress up as Santa Claus or a leprechaun, but a vengeful, controlling dominator who, in the coming years, would be accused of brutally beating his second wife and live-in girlfriends. Who would be suspected of physically abusing another daughter and a son. Who one day would be found guilty of battering and sexually assaulting a girlfriend and taking nude photos of her as she slept. And who, after performing for a thousand children over the years, would be sent away to prison and listed for the rest of his life on the state’s Sex Offender Registry, drawing the curtain forever on Schroeder’s sunny alter ego.
Police Sgt. Mike Brunner stands beside a conference table in the Greenfield police station. Laid out on the table are a couple dozen notebooks and three-ring binders, some 5 inches thick Ð the investigation of the death of Catherine Marie Schroeder, known as Catie.
Brunner is an unassuming man, son of a Janesville police chief. After nearly two decades with the department, he’s now a desk sergeant, not the young patrolman he was when Catie Schroeder died.
“It was our only open homicide at the time,” he remembers. It made a strong impression with Brunner and others familiar with the investigation, taking on almost epic proportions over the years. Dating back 17 years, the case is still unsolved.
Catie was born on July 3, 1991, five weeks premature. Two and a half weeks after her birth, she was hospitalized with respiratory complications. Not soon after, Christine noticed bruise marks on the infant’s stomach while changing her diaper. “Where did these bruises come from?” Christine asked Ron and his mother, Delphine Schroeder, who was visiting at the time. Ron theorized he had inadvertently bruised the child with his large belt buckle. But his explanation didn’t wash with Christine and Delphine, who later told investigators they never saw him wearing the big buckle.
More bruises were discovered by Christine’s mother. While babysitting, Pat Boeckeler discovered a black-and-blue mark on Catie’s buttocks. And later, just a day before Catie’s death, yet another bruise on her face.
Christine thought Ron must have fallen asleep with Catie in his arms and accidentally squeezed her too tight. She rarely criticized Ron, fearing him more and more, as she would tell investigators years later.
The two had met at a picnic at the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1987. She was attending UW-Whitewater at the time, while he was at UW-Milwaukee. Both dropped out during their first year and moved into an efficiency at First and Layton on Milwaukee’s South Side.
Ron worked for a job agency, placing temporary workers. To pick up extra cash, he came up with a clown act, taking lessons from a local clown group. He performed at Goldmann’s Department Store and the Milwaukee Country Club and sometimes dressed as the Easter Bunny or Santa. In the early days, Christine went along as Mrs. Claus, painting the faces of the smiling children.
Ron was handsome and charming, the kind of person who could strike up a conversation with a total stranger. “When you first meet him, you think he’s the nicest guy in the world,” says Al Boeckeler, Christine’s father. “But when the relationship gets more in depth, his true nature starts coming out. He’s very complex … in my estimation, he’s a very sick individual.”
The domestic violence started early, say Christine’s parents. Their daughter would wear turtlenecks and long sleeves to conceal the bruises, and make up bogus excuses, saying she’d walked into a wall or fallen off a bike. One day she went shopping for a wedding dress, meeting her mother at Mayfair Mall. The right side of Christine’s face was badly cut and swollen, says her mother. Her right eye was blackened, and when she spoke, cuts were visible inside her lip and mouth.
The couple was married in May 1991. Ron was 21, Christine was 22 and seven months pregnant.
The day before Catie died, Christine picked up Ron from his clown show at the Ground Round. Catie whimpered in her car seat. Her breathing was labored. Ron nevertheless went ahead with plans to watch a baseball game with a few friends.
After he left, Christine changed Catie’s diaper. As she lifted Catie’s leg and buttocks, the baby cried out in pain.
Ron arrived home at about 11 p.m. Christine washed out baby bottles in the kitchen sink while Ron tried to feed Catie. He then handed his daughter to Christine. She tried to burp the baby and saw she wasn’t breathing.
Ron dialed 911, then blew a single breath into Catie’s mouth. The baby vomited and started breathing in short, shallow breaths, but stopped again. “I can’t find her heartbeat!” Christine screamed as she held the girl.
Ron called 911 a second time. An ambulance was dispatched. But the baby was comatose when the paramedics wheeled her into Children’s Hospital. Catherine Marie Schroeder was removed from life support at the consent of her parents. She was pronounced dead at 5:55 p.m., Aug. 25, 1991.
Right away, doctors were suspicious. Dr. Carl Weigle, who pronounced the child dead, told Ron and Christine their daughter’s trauma was the result of “a violent shaking.” When he confronted them, they both looked “like frightened children,” Weigle told a Greenfield police detective.
Dr. John Sty, head of radiology at the time, showed X-rays to police that revealed brain swelling and fresh blood between the infant’s brain and cranium, along with four fractured ribs. “The only way that this child died was through Shaken Baby Syndrome,” Sty told a detective. “Somebody had to do this.”
And in a follow-up report, Dr. Jordan Greenbaum, an emergency room physician and child advocacy representative at Children’s, concluded Catie’s injuries weren’t accidental. “There is ample evidence that Catherine not only died of physical abuse, but was battered on at least one, likely multiple, occasions,” she wrote.
Yet the weeks-long police investigation went nowhere. Ron and Christine each had hired separate lawyers and refused to talk. Citing insufficient evidence, the Milwaukee County district attorney decided not to issue charges. The case went cold, and the short life of Catie Schroeder gradually slipped into memory, a family tragedy, shocking and unexplained.
Nearly three years passed, and Ron and Christine had another daughter. The childbirth was exceptionally short, and the baby was born at the couple’s home. Minutes after the delivery, an ambulance took Christine and the baby to the hospital. The Greenfield paramedics recognized the Schroeders’ name and, as a precaution, alerted social services. In an exam, a public health nurse asked Christine if she had other children. Christine said her first child had died of SIDS. But after checking with the coroner, the nurse found the death had been ruled a homicide.
In an unprecedented move under a controversial new state law, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Foley ordered the newborn removed from the Schroeders’ home, even though there was no evidence of abuse or neglect. So 21 days after her birth, the baby was placed in the custody of Christine’s parents, where she stayed until she was 5 and reunited with her mother.
“It was such a relief,” says Al Boeckeler. “We were very fearful the same thing would happen to our second granddaughter that happened to our first.”
Silly the Clown went on performing, twisting colorful balloons into funny-shaped animals at neighborhood grocery stores and walking his invisible dog in Fourth of July parades, his big red clown shoes slapping the pavement. Meanwhile, the marriage of Ron and Christine slowly fell apart. On a winter day in late 1995, Ron flew into a jealous rage and kicked Christine in the ribs, she told police. Two days later, she moved out and filed for divorce.
It was 1998, seven years after Catie Schroeder’s death. Greenfield Police officer Mike Brunner still could not let go of the case. Promoted to detective, he attended a conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome. There, he met the keynote speaker, Michael Vendola, a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Brunner told him the sad story of Catie Schroeder, and the two agreed they would reopen the case. “He was convinced and I was convinced we could finally bring charges against Schroeder,” Brunner says.
They started by reinterviewing witnesses, and Christine Schroeder made a startling admission: When Catie was born, Ron used to give her what Christine called “rolling kisses.” Almost every day, he would press his lips tightly against Catie’s, then move his head rapidly from side to side, whipping Catie’s delicate head left to right, either unaware or unconcerned of the infant’s fragility. He would repeat the motion 10 to 20 times.
Though she didn’t tell doctors at the time, Christine said she was sure these rolling kisses caused brain injury to Catie. Unexplained, though, were the infant’s broken ribs.
Brunner and Vendola hired an out-of-state medical expert to examine the evidence. They brought in an investigator from the attorney general’s office. They narrowed down the timeline when Catie’s injuries occurred. Still, there was no smoking gun. And again, the DA concluded the case was too thin. “They wouldn’t go forward with it,” says a disappointed Brunner.
Michael Vendola died in 2001 and again the case went cold. Brunner was left with a cache of useless evidence. Included is a haunting videotape of Catie, the only video made of the girl. No longer than a minute, it shows Ron and Christine stopping into a neighborhood video store, where a promotional video coincidentally was being shot. In the video, Ron places Catie’s infant seat at his feet as he stands at the counter. Although awake, she appears listless, her eyes staring into oblivion.
As the couple waits, Ron suddenly lifts his right foot and puts the sole of his sneaker an inch from the baby’s face, as if about to squash her. Someone laughs nervously in the background, and a male acquaintance says: “You’re so morbid. How’d you like it if I stepped all over you?”
Ron says nothing. But the store clerk starts singing an old pop song: “These boots are made for walkin’. And that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you…” Ron grins sheepishly over his shoulder into the camera.
The video is labeled 8-24-91, the day before Catie died.
If the baby’s death haunted Ron, he did a good job of masking his feelings. He was heading for divorce and looking for romance on the rebound.
One night at a dance club in Greenfield called Liquid Sweets, Schroeder met Brenda Kowalczyk. She was 23, a hair stylist and a fashion model on the side, and Ron was 26. “He smiled, came over and gave me some balloons,” Brenda would recall. “He seemed very flashy and wanted the attention of everyone in the room; I wasn’t interested in someone like that.”
But a few weeks later, she saw him again at the club, performing card tricks at the bar and dressed to kill. What the heck, Brenda figured, and she gave him her phone number.
As soon as they started dating, Ron gave Brenda a pager. It seemed a thoughtful gesture, an endearing act. But gradually, Brenda saw it was Ron’s way of controlling her. “I was expected to return his calls on command,” she’d later tell police. “If I was busy or couldn’t get to a phone right away, he would get angry.”
At Ron’s home one day, she noticed a photograph of two children, one of them an infant. “I didn’t know who was in the baby picture.” When Brenda asked about the baby, he said she had died of SIDS. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Ron’s control tightened. “To show me I was fat, he would pinch my stomach and boobs until they were bruised,” she said. “I became so skinny … a size 3 was loose.” He talked her into quitting her modeling job, telling her it was bad for someone who wanted a serious relationship. “He also said I didn’t need to dress up or wear makeup, that all I needed to wear were jogging pants and sweats.”
Brenda became pregnant a few months after they started dating, and the couple moved to Muskego. The subject of Catie came up again one day, and Ron told her his daughter had not died of SIDS. Actually, his ex-wife was to blame, he said. Brenda was puzzled. Why had he lied? “He got mad and threw a power drill across the room at me. I ducked down on the side of the bed. When I got up to leave, he threw me onto the bed. … He tried to push me down the stairs … and pushed my face against the wall.”
Brenda packed up and moved in with her mother in West Allis. She reported the attack to police, but they did not arrest him. Ron called her every day, begging her to come home and threatening her if she didn’t. She filed a harassment complaint, trying to get him to stop. But Brenda was four months pregnant and afraid of raising a child on her own. With a measure of desperation, she went back to Ron.
The couple’s child, a boy, was born in April 1997. At Ron’s insistence, they told the hospital nurse it was the first baby for both of them. The child was a difficult baby, and was hospitalized two or three times. His incessant crying began to get on Ron’s nerves, Brenda would tell police. “He would call him a ‘sissy boy,’ ‘girly baby,’ ‘little fag boy’ or ‘my little girl.’ ”
The baby was a month old when caseworkers from Waukesha and West Allis contacted Brenda to tell her Ron had been a suspect in the investigation of his first child’s death. If this was a warning for her to get out, Brenda didn’t see it. “I was so scared I didn’t know what to believe,” she said later. “I was very naive and gullible when I met Ron.”
Still, she kept a wary eye on Ron and their son. ” tried my hardest to be with [the baby] all the time because I was worried.”
One day, after moving into a home in Waukesha, she recalled, the baby became fussy. Ron sat at the computer in the living room, and Brenda went to the kitchen to make a bottle. Suddenly the baby began to scream. She rushed into the family room and found Ron standing over the baby holding a bloody burp cloth to the boy’ mouth.
“What the hell are you doing to my baby?” she yelled. Trying to free herself of Ron’s control, she and her son spent the nights sleeping at her mother’s, and she signed up for paralegal classes.
The last straw came on Nov. 21, 1998. Ron had a gig as Silly the Clown. Hurrying to get ready, he asked Brenda to pack up his costume and makeup. When he got to his clown party, he called her, screaming that she had forgotten to pack the glue for his red rubber nose.
She was gone before he got home.
“My grandson almost died,” says Brenda’s mother, Karen Gotz. “For the first four months of his life, he didn’t grow, couldn’t breathe, didn’t eat. The hospital didn’t know why. But as soon as we got him out of that house, he was fine.” Today, her grandson is healthy and thriving, she says. And he knows all about his father.
“Ron has multiple personalities,” Gotz says, “and I’ve seen them all Ð from the nicest guy in the world to the meanest guy in the world.”
All through school, Ron was a near-perfect student. He minded the nuns at St. Matthew’s grade school near his South Side home, and got A’s and B’s at Pulaski High School. He was president of the school’s marketing club and as a senior was voted “Best Dressed” and “Most Handsome.”
“My son was outgoing when he was a child,” says his mother, Delphine Schroeder. “He was a joker. He loved life.”
Delphine divorced Ron’s father when he was a baby. She supported Ron and his older brother with a monthly welfare check and by selling empty cans. “Ron was a wonderful child,” she says. In his senior year of high school, he got a part-time job at a bank. “He wanted to become an attorney.”
Her first son, Ralph, was another story, Delphine says. Two years older than his brother, he had a pock-marked face and lacked Ron’s good looks. Ralph often got into fights at school. At his cap-and-gown rehearsal, he showed up drunk.
As an adult, Ralph was in and out of prison Ð convicted of theft, forgery and two charges of battery. In 1990, he was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide for robbing and beating an elderly man to death with a group of other men. Now doing time in the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution in Plymouth for beating up his girlfriend, he is scheduled for release in May.
Whatever their differences, both Ron and Ralph carried a deep-rooted anger into adulthood, and hid secrets about their past. Both claimed their mother had abused them. According to statements given to police by a former girlfriend of Ralph’s, he said Delphine tied the boys to their beds and chairs and hit them with a belt.
Delphine Schroeder denies this: “I was not abusive to my children. God strike me dead if I’m lying. It never happened. Never. I loved them. I still love them.”
Their father, Ralph Rucktashel (who died in 2005), was the abuser, she says. He was an alcoholic, Delphine adds, a mean drunk. Once, he threw her out of a moving car. “He just opened the door and pushed me out. I was all bruised and everything.”
She thinks her husband abused her sons when they stayed with him on weekends. “Ronnie would cry and wet the bed right after visitations,” she says. “Ronnie would bite his nails until they bled.”
As an adult, Ron was subject to tantrums. Once, while driving with his first wife Christine, another driver cut him off. Ron went ballistic. At a red light, he pulled up next to the vehicle, reached for a hammer in his back seat, and began banging on the other car from his open window.
On another day, he chased a 9-year-old boy who had thrown chunks of ice at his car, caught up with him, and sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. Ron was arrested and spent eight days in the House of Corrections for misdemeanor battery.
Just weeks before his wedding and two months before the birth of Catie, Ron left several ranting messages on his mother’s voice mail, lashing out at her for mistreating him and his brother:
“No matter what you ever, ever, ever say or do, as much as you’ll never, ever, ever apologize for hitting us in the face with belt buckles and pulling our frickin’ hair out of our heads Ð I got a bald spot because you ripped the hair out of my head Ð I will never, ever forgive you,” he said. “And I will never love you. … Just remember what comes around goes around…”
It was a new century, and Ron was coming up in the world. He had found a job in banking as a mortgage loan officer with Countrywide Home Loans. He rode a Harley, collected a few antiques and bought a house in the ‘burbs, a two-story home on a quiet street in Brookfield, shaded by locust and maple trees, with a patio in back.
And Ron had a new wife. In June 2002, he married 24-year-old Nichole Chaffee; she was eight years younger than him. Their first child was a girl, and another followed two years later. Nichole remained a stay-at-home mom.
Ron was the life of the party at company meetings, colleagues say. He would do magic tricks, impressing his co-workers by dragging his feet along the carpet and illuminating a light bulb in his hand. “It was great to work with a guy like Ron,” says a former co-worker. “People liked him. He was a clown, for God’s sake.”
Ron’s salary jumped from under $30,000 a year in 2002 to $120,000 in 2004, according to child support records. But the suburban life was far from idyllic. Again, a pattern developed, eerily similar to the past.
In January 2005, Brookfield police were called to investigate “suspicious injuries” to the youngest daughter, then 8 weeks old. An officer found Ron in his bathroom, holding the child. She seemed to be choking on her own blood. The officer cleared the child’s airway and an ambulance took her to Children’s Hospital. Doctors examined her and discovered bruises on her abdomen and chest, along with several fractured ribs Ð some already healing. Her right leg was fractured in two places, likely caused by “twisting or jerking” it “with excessive force,” according to doctors.
Nichole told investigators she wasn’t aware of the broken bones. She claimed that doctors had found her daughter had a blood deficiency that could cause an unusual bone disorder, possibly weakening the baby’s bones.
But following an exam, Greenbaum, the child advocate at Children’s, informed police the injuries were not accidental. ÒI believe to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that this infant has been physically abused,’ her report stated.
Ten days later, the girl was removed from the Schroeders’ home and placed temporarily with Nichole’s parents. Both daughters went into foster care, and the following summer Nichole moved in with her parents and filed for divorce. She eventually was given custody of the daughters.
After the discovery of her own daughter’s injuries, Nichole began to see disturbing coincidences in Ron’s three families. “There are multiple children that may have been hurt by Ron,” she later told Brookfield police.
The coincidences were obvious to Greenbaum. She listed them in a March 8, 2005 report: abdominal and facial bruising; choking episodes involving blood and associated with apnea; multiple healing rib fractures; similar ages of the injured children; and finally, “highly suspicious events, injuries occurring while in the care of the father.”
Again, conclusive proof eluded investigators, as it had eluded police who had investigated the death of Schroeder’s daughter Catie. No charges were filed. “Two parents had access to the child,” says Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, who was an assistant DA at the time. “We did not have then, and still do not have to this day, the ability to say who did it.”
As in past relationships, says Schimel, Ron had been “very controlling” in his marriage with Nichole. “When Nichole wouldn’t cooperate, it left us with nothing to go on.”
The case was shelved.
There are several types of clowns Ð the tramp, the hobo, character clowns, rodeo clowns. Many perform in a style known as an “Auguste” clown Ð a clumsy fool in mismatched clothes and white face, wearing a red wig, a bulbous nose and an upturned smile.
Batman’s nemesis The Joker was an Auguste clown. So was Pennywise, the character in Stephen King’s horror novel It . And John Wayne Gacy, the notorious Chicago serial killer who showed up at block parties as Pogo the Clown.
But mention these names to performing clowns and their happy smiles turn downward. It’s characters like these, they say, who have made some people hate clowns.
Add Silly the Clown to the list.
“I don’t know what person he is anymore,” grieves Art Petri, Jolly the Clown, the 82-year-old dean of Milwaukee clowns who helped Schroeder get his start. “You’d have to ask the doctors why he’s done what he’s done.”
The “executive office” of the International Clown Hall of Fame is a single room on the fifth floor of the Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center at State Fair Park. On the walls hang portraits of clowns of all kinds: from Poodles Haniford to Ernest Borgnine.
Director Teresa Hall sits behind her desk, surrounded by surplus memorabilia, more than would ever fit in the hall’s first-floor museum. Her eyes sparkle and her grin is contagious. It’s easy to picture her round face in white greasepaint.
Hall first painted her face in white when she was a little girl. “From that first time, I knew who I was,” she laughs. “Once you put on that face, there’s excitement, you get the giggles. It’s a feeling you can’t replace.”
Hall has performed for 40-plus years, mostly as Tickles the Clown. She has her last performance all planned out. Funeral invitations will be sent to all her clown friends. On her headstone will be the epigraph “Born to Perform,” and etched into the granite will be a photo of her in white face, a blue wig on her head.
Hall’s eyes turn watery when talk turns to Ron Schroeder. “Everyone who has dealt with him as a clown is in shock,” she says. “I hope people stop and think all clowns aren’t like that.”
Until the headlines revealed the darker side of Schroeder, Silly was beloved by his fellow clowns. “He did an excellent job on balloons,” marvels June Burton, aka Sweetheart the Clown, who occasionally used to book acts for Schroeder.
Silly was also adored by customers. “You did the “Mr. Silly, the Magician” act for our twin sons today for their sixth birthday and what a show!” raved parents from Cudahy in an e-mail posted on his Web site. A Brookfield couple wrote: ÒSilly, you are the kindest clown/person we know and are honored to be your friend.”
Schroeder also impressed professional colleagues. Karin Kotar, a real estate agent in Muskego, had used Schroeder as a loan officer for six years. “He was my primary guy,” she says. “When all this happened with Ron Ð are you kidding? I had I donÕt know how many calls from customers who believed he was outstanding.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Crocker Stephenson also was taken by Schroeder’s winsome personality. In February 2005, Stephenson began his short profile of the man by noting he didn’t usually like clowns. “Schroeder, I like,” he allowed. “Smart, well-spoken and sincere. … Were you to meet him in a normal business or social occasion, you might never suspect that Schroeder is also: A professional clown.”
Stephenson’s profile included not a word about the allegations of abuse. Hours after the newspaper issue hit the street, his former girlfriend Brenda and the family of ex-wife Christine contacted the paper to complain. A week later, Stephenson wrote a news story as an attempt to set the record straight, revealing that Schroeder was a suspect in the homicide of his infant daughter.
Stephenson’s follow-up was factual, detached. But in later comments to an investigator, he admitted he’d lost sleep at night, knowing he’d promoted Schroeder as an entertainer of children.
“Ron was a con artist, and a good one,” says Marian Hansen, Starlite the Clown, a 30-year veteran. “He had a certain way of talking and was gorgeous in a suit and tie. I swear to God you’d think he was a millionaire.”
Hansen says she worked with Schroeder for 20 years but was clueless about his personal life. “Everybody has a secret life, everybody’s got a closet, and people sometimes have a few different personalities,” says Hansen. “He had a hidden one which no one knew about.”
Beneath the painted-on smiles and effervescent performances of Silly the Clown were darker emotions. Maybe the shows were penance for Schroeder, acts of atonement for moments of madness that erupted into brutality. Could the magic tricks and animal balloons make up for his cruelty? Could the laughter of the children in the crowd somehow assuage his guilt over the homicide of his daughter? Could the mask of Silly heal the inner wounds from his own nightmarish childhood?
Cassandra was still a teenager when she began seeing Schroeder in 2006. At 19, she was almost 18 years younger than Ron Ð and just four and a half years older than his daughter Catie would have been, had she lived.
The control and manipulation started right away. A couple months into the relationship, Ron told Cassandra he’d gained access to her personal e-mail and cell phone accounts. Without her permission, he’d read her e-mails and text messages. He saw she had e-mailed an ex-boyfriend, and was not happy about it at all.
“I’m the smartest man you will ever meet,” he warned. “I can find out anything I want about you. I could ruin your entire life.”
On the night of April 28, 2007, Cassandra returned with Ron to his Brookfield home. Once again single, Ron had a male roommate who was watching a movie in the living room with a friend. Ron and Cassandra went upstairs to Ron’s bedroom.
“Why were you acting so rude and stupid tonight?” he snapped as they got ready for bed. Suddenly he pushed her onto the floor and pounced on her. She struggled and he jammed his fingers deep into her nostrils until her nose bled.
Schroeder’s roommate heard the commotion and hurried upstairs. Cassandra was hysterical, her face covered in blood.
“What did you do to her?” the roommate yelled at Ron. “This time you went too far.”
“It’s OK,” Ron said, and went to bed.
The next morning, before dawn, Cassandra walked into the Brookfield Police Department and filed a complaint of battery. Police arrested Schroeder at his home, and as they questioned him about blood stains found on his floor, he explained that he frequently had nose bleeds. To demonstrate, he furiously began to pick his nose until the officers ordered him to stop. He was booked and released.
Three days later, police returned to Schroeder’s house with a search warrant and confiscated his computer hard drives. They wanted to investigate Cassandra’s claim that Schroeder had illegally hacked into her e-mail.
The following day, Cassandra went to the police station again. To investigators she told another story: A couple months earlier, she and Ron had been drinking at the Water Street bar Scooters. Cassandra had five or six JŠgermeister and Cokes. It was lights out by the time she got back to Ron’s place.
“The next morning, [Ron] was joking about taking pictures of me naked when I was passed out,” she told police. “I thought he was kidding.” But he wasn’t. He showed her several digital photos of her naked in bed. She told him not to show them to anyone.
On Schroeder’s impounded computer drives, police found the photos Cassandra had seen Ð and others she hadn’t: an additional 27 photographs of Cassandra lying nude in his bed, including 11 photos of a male hand touching and inserting his fingers into her vagina and rectum.
She broke into tears. “I feel violated,” she told police, “and feel like Ron took advantage of me.”
Also on Schroeder’s computers, investigators found 160 photos of what they determined was child pornography.
Schroeder was arrested again on the morning of May 4, 2007. He was charged with two felony counts of second-degree sexual assault, 27 felony counts of making a visual representation of nudity without consent and one count of battery-domestic abuse.
Schroeder went to trial in March 2008. In court, he was dressed in a fine-fitting suit. Sitting in the courtroom gallery were Cassandra, Nichole, Christine and her parents, and the family of Brenda. Ron stared straight ahead, sometimes consulting with his attorney, never looking back. But as he sat before the court Ð on trial before his ex-relatives and ex-lovers and mothers of his abused children Ð it must have seemed as if his past had caught up with him.
Schroeder’s attorney, Donna Kuchler, claimed the photographs of Cassandra were made while she was awake, arguing that they were private moments between two consenting adults.
But the photographs tell a different story, countered the prosecutor, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, who had first run into Schroeder in the 2005 child abuse investigation. In a series of photos stamped with digital dates and times, Schimel pointed out that Cassandra never moves her left hand from under her knee. She appears to be passed out. “There is not one intimate moment here,” he said.
The jury deliberated for just three hours before finding Schroeder guilty of all charges. Schimel hadn’t included the child pornography possession in the trial, deciding his case wasn’t strong enough. But in sentencing arguments, Schimel read the pornography charges into the court record. He also cited the past allegations of child abuse.
“The mothers of all three children that had various types of injuries all took a long time before they could make statements regarding what happened,” Schimel said at sentencing. “They just weren’t ready to put this together in their mind. There have been slowly more and more revelations. We don’t believe we’ve heard the last of it.”
Indeed, before the sentencing, Schroeder’s second wife, Nichole, had come forward by writing a letter to the judge. She accused Ron of harming her daughter and urged the judge to put him in prison “to keep others safe from his violent, manipulative nature.”
Christine, Schroeder’s first wife, also wrote the judge. “I feel you need to know what a danger he is to women and children. … When I found out the details about [Cassandra] I literally thought to myself, same story, just a different girl…”
And for the first time, Christine declared publicly that her 7-week-old daughter had died at Schroeder’s hands. “He tried to blame Catie’s death on both me and his mother, but ultimately I knew he was the one that caused her death. He even apologized to me shortly after her death for what he had done to her.”
These pleadings went unheeded. Circuit Court Judge Mac Davis decided the past incidents of abuse were “a step removed” from the case at trial.
Davis sentenced Schroeder to six years in prison and 12 years of extended supervision, and minimized the sexual assault, calling the offense “a very low level of seriousness.” Cassandra, he said, “was a young woman looking for fun … she was not a nun.”
The judge went on to describe Ron and Cassandra’s sexual relationship. “For him to touch her genitals in this way was a regular or normal or common kind of behavior.” The 11 photos of Ron touching and penetrating her while she slept were not “highly explicit,” Davis said. “Not particularly humiliating…”
Cassandra was upset by the judge’s comments. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but it seemed like I was on trial, too,” she says in an interview. “And Ron was let off the hook.”
Schimel had recommended 12 years in prison for Schroeder. With a sentence of just six, “I felt like we were getting Al Capone for tax evasion,” Schimel says.
“It should’ve been a longer sentence,” agrees Brunner, the officer who had tracked Schroeder on and off for 17 years. “Justice hasn’t been served. He’ll be a young man yet when he comes out.”
Ron Schroeder today sends letters to his mother from Wisconsin’s Redgranite Correctional Institution. He tells her he has a good job working in the prison laundry, and has gotten his weight down to 185 pounds jogging on the outdoor track.
Schroeder is appealing his conviction. If that fails, he will be released from prison on Oct. 25, 2013. Meanwhile, he is taking online classes through the University of Wisconsin at Platteville and hopes to get a degree before he’s out. To pay for the classes, he applied for financial aid. In filling out the application, he asked for his mother’s Social Security number.
She won’t give him it. “I don’t know a lot of things about him,” Delphine Schroeder says.
Over the years, she has lost trust in her son. She became afraid of him after witnessing his violent outbursts. When he attacked his pregnant wife in 1991, Delphine says, she was in the room.
“He threw her down on the couch and grabbed her and held her mouth shut,” she says. “I told him, “Ronnie, please, you’re gonna kill the baby.” I begged him, “Get off, get off!” And I told him, “This is what your father did to me.” Ronnie had this awful devil face. I was afraid “cuz I could see his father in him.”
What comes around goes around. When Delphine was pregnant with Ron, her husband knocked her down and beat her. “He hit me in the stomach,” she says. “I was bleeding, I was hemorrhaging. And he was laughing.” She points to her head. “I think it was mental. I mean, who would do this in their right mind?”
She was seven months pregnant Ð the same as Ron’s wife Christine when he attacked her in their apartment.
Delphine lives alone in a tiny clapboard house in Bay View with two caged birds and two dogs, one of them Ron’s dachshund/terrier mix. Her living room looks like a rummage sale waiting to happen. Heaped on the carpet, forming narrow walking aisles from front door to kitchen, are crates and cardboard boxes, table lamps and paperback books, throw pillows and dinner plates.
Stacked in a pile are the remnants of her son’s former life: a small mountain of things she saved from his Brookfield house when he went to prison: a stereo, a set of kitchen chairs, some tools.
But missing are the oversized shoes, the greasepaint, the rubber nose and the red curly wig of Silly the Clown. The happy half of Ron Schroeder is no more.
“I threw it all away,” his mother says, with a wave of a hand. “I figured he can’t use it anymore so why hold on to it?”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine.
A Defense From Prison
Ron Schroeder declined an interview but offered to write answers to questions. He denied any responsibility for the death of his daughter Catie, saying he and his wife made all scheduled doctor appointments. “Our pediatrician not once raised a concern of abuse,” he wrote.
He also denied causing any injuries to his first wife Christine, his former girlfriend Brenda and second wife Nichole. “(Nichole) not once claimed I physically abused her, even after we broke up,” wrote Schroeder. When asked if he had caused any injuries to his daughter by Nichole, he said, “Absolutely not.”
All the accusations against him “have been made by vindictive former wives and girlfriends, are unsupported by facts, and are a misrepresentation of my character. One ought to consider the source of such preposterous allegations. They should be immediately discredited. Anyone who’s been divorced should understand that.”
Since he is appealing his conviction for sexual assault, battery and making a visual representation of nudity without consent, he cannot discuss the details, Schroeder wrote. Yet he claimed the case was driven by an overzealous police detective “who’s been on a crusade to ruin my life.” Of the victim, “my most recent girlfriend, Cassandra,” he says she testified in court “until pretty much right at the end she felt [we] had a good relationship.”
Schroeder noted that he had performed as Silly the Clown since 1989 “for thousands of families and children” and “not a single parent or person stepped up to complain of any degree of misconduct or deviant or misappropriate behavior on my part.”