A DNA test proved Steven Avery innocent of a 1985 crime. Now it points to him as a fiend who savagely raped and murdered Teresa Halbach. Why would he do it?
Illustration by Mark Graham / ILoveDust
This article appears in the May 2006 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Manitowoc County is a flat and fertile dairy land a half-hour south of Green Bay, where the horizon is broken only by grain silos and cell phone towers. A large sign along a lonely stretch of State Highway 147 points the way to Avery Auto Salvage. Down the cracked blacktop of Avery Road and past a gravel quarry, there is a ragged cluster of trailer homes and outbuildings, which for decades have served as the offices, garages and living quarters for the Avery family.
At first, the junkyard is hidden from view. But just beyond the main office, the terrain suddenly falls away. Spread out below, packed inside a maze of rutted roads known as “the pit,” are thousands of autos, a boneyard of rusting wrecks that are picked over for salvage.
At the southeast end sits a mechanical car crusher, which provides the final rite for vehicles that have outlived their usefulness. To the north, just off the Avery land, is another encampment – two house trailers, a detached garage and a dirt hollow used for bonfires.
There in the hollow was where investigators discovered the charred remains of a human body. And not far from the car crusher, a blood-spattered SUV was found, half-camouflaged at the edge of the salvage pit.
Since this discovery, the Avery salvage yard has come to represent a place of savage violence. It is a place of suffering, a Wisconsin gethsemane where, in the final hours of young woman’s life, reason and compassion gave way to a brutality unlike any other seen in this state for some time.
The forecast on November 5 called for thunderstorms east of Lake Winnebago, where dozens of volunteers gathered to search for Teresa Marie Halbach. Throughout the gray morning, a stream of cars rolled into the driveway to her clapboard farmhouse near the tiny town of St. John in Calumet County. Inside, friends, neighbors and total strangers jammed the rooms, plotting search routes and then grabbing missing-person flyers with a description of Teresa’s car and a photo of her smiling face.
Pam Sturm and her daughter, Nicole, made their way to the kitchen. Laid out across the table was an assortment of Map Quest printouts, taped together to form a giant detailed map of the surrounding counties. Sturm, a former private investigator in Green Bay, is a second cousin of Teresa’s father. She was desperate to find out what had happened to Teresa since she went missing five days earlier.
One by one, with stacks of flyers on their dashboards, the volunteers set out, checking empty buildings, parking lots and drainage ditches from St. John to Manitowoc to Green Bay.
“I would like to go where Teresa was last,” said Sturm. “And that’s Avery Auto Salvage.”
Sturm knew that Teresa had an appointment with Steven Avery on Halloween day to photograph a car for Auto Trader magazine. She also knew that Avery had acquired something of a celebrity status in Wisconsin as a convicted rapist who had been exonerated in 2003 after spending 18 years in prison.
At 9:50 a.m., Pam and Nicole pulled into the dirt driveway of Avery Auto Salvage. A German shepherd yanked at the end of a chain as they pushed open the door of the business office. But no one was there. Back outside, in the driveway, two men stood talking.
“Are you an Avery?” Pam called out, and Earl Avery nodded. With his older brother, Chuck, Earl had taken over their father’s long-time business. On that day, Earl was the only Avery on the grounds. His parents and brothers had gone to their cabin in Crivitz, 100 miles north.
“Would it be okay if my daughter and I searched the salvage yard for Teresa Halbach’s vehicle?” asked Pam. “It would relieve her parents’ minds if we could determine if the car is on the property or not.”
Earl said it was okay. “I know how it feels,” he told her. “We lost a nephew, and I know how his parents felt.”
Pam and Nicole Sturm headed toward the southeast corner of the property, checking every car and truck. Barely a half-hour later, Pam spotted a dark-green Toyota RAV4 along the edge of the pit. Tree branches covered its front end. A sheet of plywood and a rusty car hood leaned against its side. The license plates had been stripped off.
“Nicole, come here,” Pam called to her daughter. “Look at this vehicle. This has got to be Teresa’s. It’s camouflaged, even.”
The SUV was empty. Both women tried the doors, wrapping their hands with their sweatshirt sleeves to prevent adding fingerprints to the handles. The car was locked.
Nicole peered through the windshield and read the VIN number out loud to her mother. It sounded familiar.
“Give me your cell,” said Pam. She punched in the numbers for the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department. “I think we found the vehicle in the Avery salvage yard.”
“Could you read the VIN number to us?” Sheriff Gerald Pagel asked. Pam repeated it into the phone.
The sheriff snapped instructions to the Sturms. “Step back from the vehicle as far as you can and don’t touch anything. Just wait for the police.” Within minutes, squad cars from Calumet and Manitowoc counties sped into the salvage yard.
The discovery of Teresa’s car opened the floodgates, sending more than 150 law enforcement agents to the compound. Over the next eight days, investigators found blood inside the car, charred bone fragments outside Steven Avery’s trailer home. And on his bedroom floor, the ignition key to the RAV4.
Throughout the investigation, Avery, 43, maintained his innocence. In interviews with the press, he claimed to be set up by conspirators who wanted to foil his $36 million wrongful conviction lawsuit against the County of Manitowoc, its former sheriff and former district attorney.
“I’m still trying to figure it out, and I can’t,” Avery said in a telephone interview from his cell block in mid-February. “The only thing I can come up with is the sheriff and some of them cops. I don’t know why they would’ve wanted to go this far.”
The case was fraught with contradictions: How could a man erroneously imprisoned for 18 years risk his hard-fought freedom by committing such a vicious crime?
Avery’s family united behind him, and his two lawyers pressed ahead with his civil lawsuit, settling with Manitowoc County for $400,000. But then, in early March, in a terrible twist of events, Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, told police he had helped Avery rape, torture, murder and burn the body of Teresa Halbach.
The confession jolted the public’s sensibilities. Legislators vowed to fight for a state death penalty law. Talk show hosts called for the repeal of bipartisan reforms that were passed to protect the innocent after Avery’s wrongful imprisonment.
Even Avery’s family turned against him. The stark and explicit nature of Dassey’s confession convinced his own siblings that Halbach met her end in Avery’s trailer.
“At first I had my doubts,” said his brother, Chuck, sitting in the salvage company’s office. “The way the evidence was coming in, it wasn’t adding up.”
“I got the same feelings,” said the younger brother, Earl. “Now… he’s no longer my brother. He can rot in hell.”
Teresa Halbach was a farm girl with a big world view. She grew up on a dairy farm settled by her great-grandfather, a German immigrant. Thirty miles south of Green Bay, the 225-acre farm lies between Sherwood, a small resort town on Lake Winnebago, and Hilbert, a farm town with an historic Main Street, two churches and a Sargento cheese plant. As a girl, Teresa helped her mother care for her two young sisters while her father and two brothers tended the farm’s 60 cows.
“She’s a very energetic, spontaneous person,” recalls Kelly Pitzen, Teresa’s friend since preschool. “We were always up to something” – hiking or swimming at High Cliff State Park on Lake Winnebago.
One of just 55 students in her class at Hilbert High School, Teresa was “a friend to everybody,” says Ryan Hillegas, her boyfriend throughout high school and into college. After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2002, she took a job as a portrait photographer with Pearce Photography in Green Bay. But in late 2004, she decided to rent a house owned by her parents next door to the farm so she could stay close to her family. She commuted to work in Green Bay, and in her spare time, coached her sister’s volleyball team at St. John-Sacred Heart School in Sherwood.
While devoted to her family, Teresa had a wanderlust that led her to faraway places. With a friend, she traveled to Mexico, practicing the Spanish she learned in college. Following her sophomore year, she lit out for Spain for a month on her own. As a junior, she studied abroad in Australia and learned scuba diving along the Great Barrier Reef.
“It took a lot to scare her,” says Pitzen, a teacher in Oshkosh. “She was a very outgoing, brave person.”
And whether in the Australian outback or at a friend’s wedding in Green Bay, she made pictures.
“Photography was her life,” says Hillegas, now a nurse at Froedtert Hospital. “She could do anything with a camera.” Her expertise became portraits of children. Her favorite song, when she mustered the guts to sing karaoke, was “Picture” by Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock.
On the Sunday before she disappeared, Hillegas ran into Teresa at a friend’s house. Halbach told him she planned to join her family at a bar in Appleton for a Halloween party. She was dressed as a cowgirl.
On Tuesday, Hillegas called to ask Halbach about the party. Her voicemail box was full. “Which was weird for someone with a business,” he says. “She’s not the kind of person who would just take off and not call.”
By Thursday, he knew something was wrong. With the help of a friend, he went to Teresa’s house, fired up her computer and printed out a list of names and phone numbers of everyone she knew. The search was on.
Allan and Dolores Avery grew up in Two Rivers and married at age 16. Allan got into the salvage business in 1965. Slowly and steadily, with his wife caring for their children, he turned a 40-acre farm into a giant repository for junked cars and trucks.
Their second-born, Steven, went to school in Mishicot before transferring to Riverview Elementary in Manitowoc, a school “for the slower kids,” says his mother. At Mishicot High School, “I think he only got up to the 11th grade,” she says.
“Steven is what he is,” says former Manitowoc County District Court Judge Fred Hazlewood, who presided over the trial that sent Avery to prison for 18 years. “He’s simple. When he comes in the court, he always looks like a deer in the headlights.”
Living within minutes of each other, the Averys are tight-knit. “We always stuck close to each other,” Dolores says, even as the siblings made the rounds of family court and criminal court.
All three brothers have been charged with violent crimes. In 1988, Steven’s older brother, Chuck, was charged and later acquitted of second-degree sexual assault. In 1998, a judge found him guilty of disorderly conduct following a family altercation. He got 12 months’ probation. Less than a year later, he was charged with raping and attempting to strangle his wife with a telephone cord. In court, the couple agreed to defer judgment pending further violence by Chuck, and the charge was finally dismissed in 2003. The couple subsequently divorced.
Meanwhile, in 1992, Steve’s younger brother, Earl Avery, was arrested after his wife claimed he beat and choked her during a drunken argument. Earl pleaded no contest to battery and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 18 months’ probation. Three years later, he was charged with sexual assault of a child. He pleaded no contest to fourth-degree sexual assault and battery and spent 45 days in jail and three years on probation.
Last November, the only daughter in the family, Barbara Janda, was stopped on Highway 147 and arrested for possession of marijuana. Janda, the mother of 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor.
Steven Avery launched his own criminal record when he was just 18. Avery and a friend broke into a bar, trashed the place and stole two cases of beer, a tool box, $14 in quarters and two cheese sandwiches. Convicted in March 1981, he did 10 months of jail time in Manitowoc County and was ordered to pay $1,399 in restitution and spend five years on probation.
A few months later, Avery and another man were charged with cruelty to animals after dousing Avery’s cat with gasoline and oil and tossing it into a bonfire at the Avery junkyard. Though he claimed he had nothing to do with the cat’s death, Avery was found guilty and imprisoned for nine months.
The bad blood thickened between Avery and the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department in January 1985, when Avery ran a deputy’s wife off the road at gunpoint and tried to force her into his car. The woman, Sandra Morris, was Avery’s cousin and a friend of Manitowoc County Deputy Sheriff Judy Dvorak. Morris had complained to police that Avery had exposed himself in his front yard on several occasions when she drove past his house. Avery let the woman go when she told him her infant daughter was alone in her car.
Avery admitted running Morris off the road and brandishing a rifle. He was sentenced to six years in prison for endangering the safety of another person.
Avery’s reputation among law enforcers made him a suspicious character. That same summer, while out on bail, he was arrested for raping and trying to kill a 36-year-old woman on a Two Rivers beach – the crime that would land him erroneously behind bars for 18 years.
As a later review of the case by the state Department of Justice would show, the case was fraught with doubt and inconsistencies. For starters, the victim was taken to a hospital and interviewed by Deputy Sheriff Judy Dvorak, the friend of the woman Avery ran off the road. The victim, Penny Beerntsen, was shown a photo array of suspects, with Avery’s mug shot included. She identified Avery as her attacker and picked him again from a lineup of suspects.
Not included in the photo array or lineup, however, was Gregory A. Allen, a local man with a long police record. In 1983, Manitowoc Police had arrested Allen on the same beach where Beerntsen was attacked after he stalked a woman and exposed himself.
Allen was prosecuted for the 1983 offense by Manitowoc County District Attorney Denis Vogel, who would also prosecute Avery in ’85. Vogel and former Manitowoc Sheriff Tom Kocourek both were plaintiffs in Avery’s wrongful conviction lawsuit.
According to Avery’s attorneys, members of Vogel’s own staff told him they believed Allen and not Avery was the likely suspect of Beerntsen’s rape. In fact, at the time of the attack, Gregory Allen was under surveillance by the Manitowoc Police Department as a suspect in several sex crime complaints.
“Both the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office should have been on notice that Allen was a reasonable suspect in the 1985 assault,” said the Justice Department’s review.
Yet the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office seemed more interested in Avery. “Shortly after the investigation began,” added the Justice Department, “[Manitowoc Deputy Police Chief Thomas] Bergner asked if [Sheriff] Kocourek knew about Allen. Kocourek told Bergner that Allen had been ruled out as a suspect. Bergner got the impression that Kocourek knew about Allen and Allen’s history.” Kocourek told investigators he did not recall this discussion.
Avery, meanwhile, had a strong alibi. At trial, 16 witnesses corroborated his claim that he was elsewhere when the rape occurred. Employees at a Shopco in Green Bay said he had been buying paint with his wife and children.
But with the victim’s positive identification of Avery as her assailant, a unanimous jury found him guilty of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault and false imprisonment. The sentence was 32 years.
Even after Avery’s incarceration, misgivings about his guilt persisted. Around 1995, a Manitowoc County Jail officer got a call from a police detective in Brown County, who said a prisoner had admitted committing a sexual assault years ago in Manitowoc County and that someone else was in jail for it. That prisoner was Gregory Allen, who had been convicted of rape in Brown County and sentenced to 60 years.
The jail officer forwarded the message to the detective bureau. Deputies recall Sheriff Kocourek telling them at the time: “We already have the right guy. Don’t concern yourself with it.”
In 2002, the Wisconsin Innocence Project stepped in. Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, the project represents prison inmates who claim to be innocent, often using DNA testing to build appeals. Since its founding in 1998, the Wisconsin chapter has successfully overturned the convictions of three inmates.
Over the state’s objection, the project obtained a court order to conduct testing using a more powerful DNA technology. Taking pubic hair recovered from the rape kit following Beerntsen’s attack, the state crime lab concluded that Avery was not the attacker. Rather, the DNA was Gregory Allen’s.
On September 10, 2003, a Wisconsin court exonerated Avery and ordered his release. He walked out of prison the next day, gaining instant attention coast to coast as the latest cause célèbre of the movement to free the unjustly imprisoned.
Following Avery’s release, the state Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle, that clarifies eyewitness identification procedures and DNA testing rules. Avery’s exoneration became a model for reform.
But with his arrest for murder, Avery has now gained a more notorious distinction as the only Innocence Project inmate out of 174 nationwide to be charged with a violent crime.
The case troubles Keith Findley. As co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he was instrumental in freeing Avery from prison. “It was a horrible murder,” says Findley. “I have great sympathy for Teresa Halbach and her family.”
Yet the outcome of the Halbach case doesn’t change the fact that Avery did not commit the 1985 crime, says Findley, a UW law professor. “What’s going on is bigger than this one case. The reforms were adopted to make the system better, to more reliably protect the innocent.”
Still, some may wonder: Would Teresa Halbach be alive today if Steven Avery was never released from prison?
“There’s all kinds of ‘what ifs’ in life that no one can anticipate,” Findley answers. “I don’t think it’s acceptable to suggest we should arrest and convict innocent people out of fear that someday someone might commit a future crime.”
Life on the outside wasn’t easy for Avery following his release. He had a hard time coping, he says. He felt frustrated, “down in the dumps.” He clashed with his brothers over the family business and took long drives to get away.
At the time he was imprisoned, he was married and had four young children. Avery and his wife, Lori, also raised a son that she had by a previous relationship.
But the couple divorced in 1988 after Lori filed for a separation, and Avery lost contact with his kids. The divorce ended acrimoniously. According to prison records, Avery sent threatening letters to his wife.
“I hate you, you got your divorce now you will pay for it,” he wrote in an undated letter mailed to Lori from prison. In another letter, he wrote, “If you don’t brang up my kids I will kill you. I promis. Ha. Ha.”
Facing a wide world of freedom after being cooped up in jail, Avery at first chose to live in a 10-by-12 ice-fishing shack on the Avery land. “I wanted somethin’ small,” he says. “Everything was, I don’t know, just too big. It didn’t feel right.”
Avery and his girlfriend, Jodi Stachowski, eventually moved into a house trailer owned by a neighbor just across the Avery property line. The relationship could get stormy. In September 2004, sheriff deputies arrested Avery for violating a disorderly conduct ordinance after an altercation with Stachowski. The court ordered him to stay away from the woman for 72 hours and pay a fine of $243.
Stachowski had her own issues: convictions for drunk driving, driving without a license, passing a bad check and disorderly conduct. When Avery was arrested for murder, she was in jail in Manitowoc on a DUI.
But things were turning around, say his parents. At the time of Halbach’s disappearance, Avery and Stachowski were planning their wedding. Avery worked full time at the salvage yard. He had received $25,000 in compensation from the Wisconsin Claims Board and stood to get more as legislators considered increasing the cap on compensation. Representing him in his $36 million wrongful conviction suit were two of Milwaukee’s top attorneys, Stephen Glynn and Walter Kelly.
“Stevie had everything going for him – everything,” says his father. “And he was happy. Like in the shop here, Christ, if I needed some help, he’d be right there. And Stevie had his own plans. He wanted to buy his own house.”
Avery was at the cabin in Crivitz helping to install a tin roof and butchering chickens on the day Halbach’s car was found. The case immediately became national news. Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren highlighted the story. CNN’s Nancy Grace interviewed Avery by telephone. He denied any foul play and suggested that he’d been set up. “I got nothing to hide,” he said over and over again to news outlets from Manitowoc to Green Bay to Milwaukee.
Avery returned to Manitowoc County in a friend’s car three days later, a thick bandage conspicuously wrapped around his right hand. Law enforcers put up barricades on Highway 147, taking control of the salvage yard. The Averys were barred from entering their property. Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz assumed the role of special prosecutor, and the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department took over as lead investigator to avoid appearances of a Manitowoc County conflict.
In the first of several searches of Avery’s home, investigators confiscated two firearms that hung above his bed – a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle and a .50-caliber deer-hunting rifle. The next day, November 9, after visiting his daughter in Two Rivers, Avery drove to his brother Earl’s house in nearby Melnick. A car was parked in the driveway, and behind the wheel sat a special agent with the state’s Division of Criminal Investigations, along with a Calumet County sheriff’s detective.
The investigators arrested Avery for possession of firearms, based on his past conviction of reckless endangerment. They placed him in the back seat of the car.
Avery waived his Miranda rights. For the next few hours, the investigators drove through the county questioning him before taking him to a Two Rivers hospital. A nurse took a swab of his saliva for DNA testing. And the detectives delivered Avery to the Calumet County jail.
Overnight, the Avery salvage lot turned into a countrified version of TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Armed with a ream of search warrants, law enforcement agents and forensic experts marshaled from Manitowoc, Calumet and Winnebago counties, as well as the DCI, State Patrol, state crime lab and local fire departments, swarmed the property. A K-9 unit patrolled the grounds, searching for human remains.
Crime lab experts rolled Halbach’s Toyota into an enclosed trailer and trucked it to Madison for inspection. Police ordered fingerprints, palm prints and buccal cell samples from inside the mouths of each member of the Avery family.
Detectives seized a mountain of potential evidence: hair and fiber samples, a broken pair of eyeglasses, an Auto Trader magazine, hand tools, duct tape, dog feces, a necklace, vacuum cleaner, couch pillow, claw hammer, power golf cart, blanket and plastic pail.
The evidence piled up. Police found Halbach’s crumpled license plates in a scrapped car down the road from Avery’s trailer, spent rifle casings in his garage, a pair of handcuffs and leg irons in his house. And in his bathroom, staining the surface of the vanity, blotches of dried blood.
On November 8, a week and a day after Teresa’s disappearance, Calumet County patrol deputy Daniel Kucharski stepped into Avery’s trailer with two other investigators to search Avery’s bedroom yet again.
The detectives worked methodically, wearing latex gloves and snapping photos of evidence. An hour into the search, one of the detectives began shuffling through a stack of paperback books on a nightstand when something dropped to the floor.
“There’s a key there,” he said. Lying between a pair of corduroy slippers on the carpet was a single key to a Toyota automobile.
The discovery further fueled notions that police had set up Avery. Only later, during a court hearing, was it revealed that the detectives helping Kucharski were Manitowoc County deputies, both of whom had been subpoenaed to testify in Avery’s wrongful conviction suit. In fact, one of the deputies had arrested Avery’s brother, Earl, 13 years earlier.
Over the next several days, the media publicized shocking discoveries as police built their case. In a 6-by-6 fire pit behind Avery’s garage, they found human tissue, teeth and bones, crushed and charred. In a barrel used to burn trash, they found remnants of a cell phone and camera.
In Madison, forensics experts examined blood samples from Teresa’s car – on the back seat panel, the steering column and the center console. A state analyst determined blood from the car and dried perspiration on the car key matched Steven Avery’s DNA.
Avery was charged with first-degree intentional homicide and mutilating a corpse.
The irony was obvious: The same method of DNA testing that had freed Avery put him behind bars once again.
Since November, there has been no shortage of conspiracy theories about how Teresa Halbach died. A Stevens Point man, who once burned down his own house after his property taxes went up by $800, claims rogue cops killed Halbach, burned her body and left it at the Avery yard. A Fond du Lac woman, who maintains that unsuspecting citizens have been injected with cancer cells through flu shots, believes Avery was set up by federal operatives.
Avery himself points an accusing finger at an ex-con from Manitowoc who was arrested for attacking a woman with an ax five days after Halbach went missing. Avery says he knew the suspect in prison.
In a jailhouse interview with Milwaukee Magazine, Avery skillfully explained away each piece of incriminating evidence. The blood in his bathroom came from a work accident, he claimed, when he loaded a flatbed truck with tin roofing and cut his finger. “Then every time I broke it open, it bled like a stuffed pig.”
Teresa’s car was driven secretly onto the property, he said. “There’s a straight shot down there. Or in the back way. There’s a couple of roads back there you can get in.”
Avery claimed the spent rifle shells were left behind by one of his nephews. The blood in the car and the key in the bedroom were planted by police. “All I can think of, one of the cops dropped it there,” he said. “They could have rubbed it on my slipper with my DNA.”
And the handcuffs and leg irons? “I bought them,” Avery said. “I wanted to try out something different with Jodi.”
And he let out a fiendish laugh.
The arrest of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, and the gruesome details that emerged doused speculation that Avery was set up.
Based on criminal complaints, statements to police by Dassey, statements by investigators and prosecutors and interviews by Milwaukee Magazine with Avery’s mother, father and brothers, here is an account of Teresa’s death as the prosecutor is likely to describe it, a picture of pure terror.
Steven Avery called Auto Trader magazine to schedule an appointment with a photographer. “Send the girl who was out here before,” he told the magazine, using his sister’s first initial and last name – “B. Janda.”
On October 31, Teresa made a call on her cell phone to Auto Trader magazine at about 2:30 p.m., shortly before arriving at Avery Auto Salvage. She drove her Toyota RAV4 down a gravel road past Barbara Janda’s trailer and parked between Avery’s trailer and the garage. She knocked on his front door, perhaps remembering that on past trips to the junkyard, Avery had come to the door wearing only a towel.
When no one answered, Teresa walked to the opposite side of the trailer, concealed from view. She stepped onto the deck and knocked on the patio door.
By choice or by force, she entered Avery’s home.
At 3:45 p.m., a school bus dropped off Brendan Dassey on Avery Road. Dassey, a high school sophomore, had turned 16 just 12 days earlier. Upon arriving home, he hopped on his bike and pedaled to the mailbox. With an envelope addressed to his uncle in his hands, he headed to Steven Avery’s trailer.
As he biked through the lot, Dassey passed a burn barrel. Inside, he noticed a cell phone and digital camera. He also noticed Halbach’s car parked near his uncle’s garage.
As he approached Avery’s trailer, he heard screams.
Dassey knocked on the door three times before his uncle finally appeared, half-dressed and dripping with sweat. Avery took him into the kitchen and told him he’d been having sex with a woman.
“You want to get some of that?” he said to his nephew. “You do her. You screw her.”
Avery led Dassey into his bedroom. Teresa Halbach lay face up on the bed, naked and bound with handcuffs and leg irons.
“Help me!” Halbach begged. “Don’t do this. Please let me go!”
Dassey told police investigators he raped Halbach as his uncle watched. Following the assault, Dassey dressed and the two went into the living room to watch television, Avery shutting the bedroom door behind him.
“That’s how you do it,” he said, congratulating the teenager.
As they watched TV, Avery told the teen he was going to kill the woman.
According to Dassey’s statements to the police, the two returned to the bedroom 10 minutes later and, with a butcher knife taken from the kitchen, Avery stabbed Teresa in the stomach.
He handed the knife to his nephew. “Cut her neck,” Avery told him. And the teen obeyed.
“Cut off some of her hair,” said Avery, and again, Dassey did what he was told.
Seeing that she was still alive, Avery choked Halbach for two or three minutes, Brendan Dassey told police, then went into the bathroom to wash. The two unshackled Halbach’s limp body, tied her up with rope and carried her to the garage. They then placed the body in the cargo area of Halbach’s car.
Avery told Dassey he planned to dump the body in a pond on the salvage yard. But the pond was dry, and Avery decided instead to burn the body in a fire pit behind the garage. A fire already smoldered in the pit.
Before carrying her to the pyre, Avery lay Halbach on the garage floor and walked to his house for his .22 semi-automatic rifle. He then fired 10 rounds into Halbach’s body.
Using Dolores Avery’s golf cart, the two collected old tires, brush and a wooden cabinet to place in the fire as the body burned.
With Dassey in the passenger’s seat, Avery drove the RAV4 to the far side of the salvage yard, passing the car crusher. Avery told his nephew he planned to crush the SUV, “the sooner the better.” After walking back to the trailer, Avery stashed the Toyota ignition key in a drawer. The two removed the sheets from the bed and heaped them onto the fire pit. As Dassey helped his uncle wipe blood from the garage floor, he splashed bleach onto his blue jeans, turning the fabric white.
Dassey went home a little after 10 p.m. His mother had phoned. The next day was a school day.
For four months, Brendan Dassey harbored a dreadful secret. He kept to himself, quiet, chin to his chest, avoiding the salvage lot and his uncle. But it ate away at him. He lost 30 pounds. One day he told a fellow student at Mishicot High School that he wanted to kill himself, according to his uncles, Chuck and Earl Avery. His grandmother was called, she picked him up from school and took him to the salvage yard office, where Chuck kept an eye on him while he worked.
On February 27, Dassey’s mother spoke with police investigators. Barbara Janda, 41, mentioned that her son had stained his pants while helping his uncle clean his garage floor around Halloween. Detectives interviewed Dassey later that day.
Two days later, on March 1, a Calumet County detective confiscated the jeans. The next day, Dassey was taken into custody and charged with being a party to three felonies: mutilating a corpse, first-degree sexual assault and first-degree intentional homicide. If convicted, like his uncle Steven, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
On the day before Dassey’s arrest, police investigators returned to the salvage yard with yet another search warrant. Their search was precise. From Avery’s mobile home and garage, they collected hair fiber, a nightstand, box springs, a pair of slippers, paint remover, cleaning agents, bullet fragments, rifle shell casings and long slabs of concrete from the garage floor.
The pieces of the puzzle fell quickly into place.
Brendan Dassey is the youngest of three brothers and a step-brother. His parents divorced when he was 2. His father, Peter Dassey, lives in Two Rivers and is now married to Steven Avery’s ex-wife, Lori.
Brendan had never been in trouble before. Relatives describe him as a normal kid, a B or C student, who liked snowmobiling and video games. But, like other teens, he was also impressionable and easily intimidated, say his uncles Chuck and Earl.
“Brendan, he was always like that,” says Earl, 35. “If you would tell him to do something, he would do it. Especially with a manipulative guy like Steven.”
Earl claims his brother, Steven, manipulated him as well. Years ago, when Steven was first sent to prison and Earl was 14 or 15, Steven would call him from his cell block and order Earl to have sex with Steven’s then-wife, Lori.
“Steven was a controller,” confirms Chuck, 51.
The day after Dassey was arrested, Steven Avery placed a call to his mother, says Earl. “He was denying everything that was going on and said Brendan was lying.”
Both brothers side with the boy.
“Brendan was forced on it,” says Earl. “I do not blame it on the kid at all.… He was scared ’cause Steven threatened him.”
At a bail hearing on March 3 in Manitowoc, a handcuffed Brendan Dassey hung his head as he was led into the courtroom. He refused to look at his mother and grandmother sitting behind him. “This is a young man who was threatened by his own uncle,” his court-appointed attorney told the judge, arguing for a lower bail. ”He was victimized by Mr. Avery.”
The prosecutor was unmoved. “There is only one victim in this case,” said Ken Kratz, “and that is Ms. Halbach.”
More shocking revelations spilled out. Days later, in a move to increase Avery’s bail, Kratz claimed Avery had plotted such acts for years. According to Kratz, Avery told prison inmates he planned to build a torture chamber when he was released and use it to rape, torture and kill women.
Brendan Dassey is now locked in a juvenile detention facility in Sheboygan. Following his arrest, his uncle was charged with additional crimes: first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Avery’s trial is scheduled for September.
Avery swears he won’t go back to prison and vows to end his life by his own hand. “I’d have to die, ’cause I ain’t gonna do it again,” he says. “There ain’t no way. It was too hard last time.”
The fact that Steven Avery was wrongly imprisoned means little to the family of Teresa Halbach. The Halbachs’ point of reference stretches back in time, not to Avery’s imprisonment in 1985 or his release in 2003, but to last Halloween, when a personable young woman going about her business crossed paths with a man who police say is capable of unthinkable acts of violence.
In Manitowoc, the dome of the 99-year-old county courthouse towers above the city, three blocks from Lake Michigan and kitty-corner from a Budweiser brewery. At every court hearing since Avery’s arrest – and now with the arrest of Dassey – television trucks pack the courthouse parking lot, hoisting satellite dishes and laying out power cables, as reporters await the show.
Like a ritual, friends and family of the victim and the accused climb the courthouse stairs and silently take their seats in the first two rows of the courtroom, the Halbachs on the left, the Averys on the right, separated by a narrow center aisle. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, two sets of parents, pained but stoic, their eyes seldom meet.
Outside the courthouse, life goes on. The Avery brothers scratch out a living at the salvage yard, dumbfounded by the latest string of events that has drawn their family into the public spotlight again. The Halbachs, meanwhile, rise every morning before the sun for the 4:30 milking, blue ribbons hanging in remembrance from evergreens in their front yard.
“The whole situation from start to finish is completely surreal,” says Mike Halbach, Teresa’s 23-year-old brother, who has dutifully taken on the role of family spokesman. “It’s hard to believe we’re going through something like this.”
During court proceedings, Steven Avery sits quietly, listening to the judge. White-haired and bearded, he wears black-and-white-striped jail garb, handcuffs and shackles on his feet.
“Does it hurt seeing Steven Avery in the courtroom sitting near us? Yeah,” says Halbach. “My family just tries not to focus on him.”
If he ever did get a chance to talk face to face with Steven Avery, what would he say? Halbach considers the question. Each time he’s in court, he hears the accusations, the excruciating details of how this man brutalized his sister.
“I would basically want to know: Why Teresa? Why anyone, really? But why Teresa? Why?”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine. He recently won the first-place National Headliners Award for magazine feature writing for three stories he did in 2005.