Some of the most fascinating myths, legends and hard-boiled crime stories that Milwaukee has ever seen. Settle in and prepare for a journey into the baffling and the bizarre.
A Date with Death
The youngest of the family’s seven children, Lillian shared her sister’s good looks but was a homebody, a bookish girl who friends said was willing to slap a boy who got too fresh.
On the night of the date, a Tuesday, Jack pulled up in front of the family home and sounded his car horn, and Lillian gathered her things. “I wonder what this goof looks like,” she said to Mildred as she breezed out the door. It was the last time Mildred would see her sister alive.
The family knew something was amiss when Lillian didn’t come home later that night. She was not the type to run off, and she’d never spent a night away from home before. But police believed she’d eloped with the young man. Nearly two weeks went by before they began to suspect foul play. Meanwhile, Mildred had struggled in vain to recall the details of her car ride with Jack. He’d mentioned his last name, but she couldn’t recall it. All she could offer her panicked family was a vague description of the man.
On Nov. 5, over three weeks after Lillian went missing, her battered body was found partially submerged beneath the Bluemound Bridge – which crossed the Fox River in Waukesha County. She’d been beaten and choked to death, her skull fractured in four places. Wounds on her hands indicated she had resisted the attack, and the scarf used to strangle her still clung to her neck. An autopsy confirmed she was dead when she hit the water and was most likely murdered shortly after departing the Graef home. According to the examination, she had not been sexually assaulted.
Police now intensified their search for the mysterious Jack, but not necessarily as a suspect. While Jack had called the Graef home on the day of the murder, so did someone else who spoke to Lillian. The family didn’t know the nature of the call, but detectives were working on a theory that both Lillian and Jack had been the victims of a third party, a mysterious man.
In search of him, investigators looked into an older man who’d regularly visited Lillian at her job at the Ramhorst Candy Store on North Third Street. Between 40 and 50 years old, the man was bald and paunchy but a fancy dresser and drove a dark Cadillac, a model similar to the car driven by Jack. Lillian sometimes called him “Cadillac Daddy,” and he typically stopped in on Tuesday and Thursday, including the day when Lillian was killed. After that, he never returned.
With a manhunt underway for both Jack and “Cadillac Daddy,” another killing on a back road sent the city into a panic. Three days after Lillian’s body was found, an assailant brutalized a married couple, Alvin and Emma Greenwald, on Highway 18, just a few miles from the bridge. Alvin had been beaten badly, and Emma raped and strangled. The panic subsided once police pressed Alvin on his muddled recollections of the evening, and he sobbingly confessed to staging the entire incident. Deeply in debt, he’d hired a man to kill Emma so he could collect on her life insurance policy. His own injuries had been self-inflicted.
Police followed dozens of other leads and questioned suspects caught in a dragnet that stretched from Chicago to St. Paul. But they were no closer to solving the crime.
In January 1928, police took the extraordinary step of ordering every man in the city who owned or had use of a Ford coupe – believed to be the make of Jack’s car – at the time of the murder to report to the central station for questioning, some 7,000 potential suspects. For weeks, Mildred had the grim duty of viewing these men, as many as 300 in a single evening, in an effort to find Jack. One man, a 26-year-old from Minneapolis recently arrested and charged with rape, was of particular interest. He’d been living in Milwaukee the previous fall, had access to a coupe and had left the city three days after the murder.
After Mildred picked his photo from a lineup, saying he looked like Jack, police put both of them together in a coupe, with the man driving, in a bizarre re-enactment. Under police guard, he drove the same route she and Jack had taken in October. Afterwards, she told police, “I am thoroughly convinced this is not the man.”
Over the next several years, police would periodically call Mildred in to look at a new suspect, and each time, she would shake her head. After calling a 1931 suspect a “dead ringer” for Jack, she backtracked and conceded that after multiple years, it would probably be impossible for her to positively identify the man. Still, police continued to check into leads as late as 1938 but came no closer to finding Jack or Daddy. The case remains unsolved. — Matthew J. Prigge
A Wannabe Mafioso Gets Whacked
Most people knew Max Adonnis as the hospitable host of Giovanni’s, the restaurant at 1683 N. Van Buren St. Who could forget a gregarious, rotund man missing an arm since an accident with a bread machine as a young man? But by the 1970s, Adonnis — born Maximillion Ludwig Gajewski Jr. in 1935 — had made it clear to police in Milwaukee that he wanted to be a mobster.
Adonnis served “unusually short sentences,” according to the Chicago Tribune, for a number of criminal charges befitting an easily provoked tough guy on the rise. In 1985, after a two-year stint in prison for battery, someone stabbed him in the chest with an ice pick in front of Giovanni’s. The Polish spitfire survived but was still seen by the town’s Italian mobsters as a wannabe.
On March 18, 1989, two still-unidentified shooters gunned down Adonnis and a cleaning woman outside Giovanni’s. While she survived, he didn’t. The case remains open at MPD, but investigators haven’t received any substantial tips in recent years.
According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, friends, family and associates paid their final respects to Adonnis at a funeral home in Whitefish Bay. Those in attendance told the paper of the man’s kindness, generosity and joie de vivre, but almost all declined to be named.
Rumors swirled about Adonnis’ possible involvement with Chicago drug gangs, so much so that when two men were found buried underneath a house on that city’s South Side in 1991, some in Milwaukee theorized they were killed as payback, or perhaps were hitmen who offed Adonnis and were in turn snuffed out. This theory was just one of many: Although he had many fans among the patrons of Giovanni’s, Max had no shortage of enemies. — Claire Hanan
During the summer of 2009, Ashleigh Love lived the life of a typical 19-year-old: miniature golf with friends, Brewers games at Miller Park, silly photos in front of fountains, grinning selfies. Ashleigh had just graduated from Pius XI High School, the Catholic high school on 76th Street known for its strong arts programs, and had taken a job at Arby’s — a position she enjoyed, her mother says — while figuring out her life’s next chapter. “Ashleigh was the sweetest, kindest person in the world,” says Tammy Love of her brown-haired, brown-eyed daughter. “She would do anything for anyone.”
On Oct. 6, 2009, a man wearing a bandanna entered the Loves’ house near 64th Street and Hampton Avenue, walked into Ashleigh’s second-floor bedroom and fatally shot her in the face. The commotion awoke Tammy, who spotted the man running through the backyard holding a long gun. He was clad in a dark jacket and had dark, spiked hair.
Milwaukee police don’t believe she was targeted at random, and a few weeks after the murder, detectives asked for the public’s help in finding a man they believed Ashleigh Love could have met online, someone whose identity was unknown to her friends and family. It was their only lead. Detectives still working on the case believe that while only one suspect entered the house, “there is the possibility that others are involved,” says MPD spokesman Tim Gauerke.
Despite periodic tips from the public, more than 3,000 days have passed without a significant new lead in the case, though Tammy Love believes someone learned after the murder who killed her daughter. She hopes that person will have the courage, she says, “to bring us the piece we need to end this hunt for a killer.” — Claire Hanan
The Strange Disappearance of Flight 2501
Air travel in 1950 could be both glamorous and scary. Passengers dressed for the occasion, full meals were served, and the drinks were free. The friendly skies were an exclusive place, but also exceedingly dangerous. Between 1946 and 1949, fatal airliner incidents averaged nearly seven per month and more than 4,300 people lost their lives during air travel.
So, on the evening of June 23, 1950, as Northwest Orient Flight 2501, a fully loaded Douglas DC-4, roared westward on a New York to-Seattle flight bound for a layover in Minneapolis, its 55 passengers were well aware of the dangers. When the plane approached the storm-whipped skies over Lake Michigan, the turbulence would have been a grim reminder of the recent air disasters in the news, as within the past two weeks, a pair of DC-4s had crashed into the Arabian Sea, killing 86 people.
The plane was scheduled to pass over Milwaukee at 11:30 p.m. in an aerial homecoming of sorts for several on board. Whitney Eastman, 59, had previously lived in Milwaukee. John Hokanson, on board with his wife and two children, had lived in Manitowoc. And stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman, 25, was born in Bay City, in western Wisconsin.
It was nearing midnight when the control tower at Mitchell Field tried to contact Flight 2501. No one had heard from the plane since its 11:13 request to a Chicago control tower to reduce its altitude, which was denied due to air traffic. Calls sent out into the storm produced no reply. Operators in Milwaukee then issued a “blind broadcast,” asking the pilot to identify himself by circling Mitchell Field. The Milwaukee tower nervously watched the skies. After a half-hour, an emergency signal alert was issued to locate the missing craft.
By the next morning, it was obvious something had gone terribly wrong. Rescue boats spread out across the lake and dozens of planes prowled the skies as the Milwaukee County Morgue prepared to deal with the carnage. A pair of oil slicks a few miles off the shore of South Milwaukee were investigated, but divers found nothing. Within two days of the plane disappearing, the search had spread to an area of the lake 60 miles by 170 miles – a territory larger than Vermont.
But the searchers were on the wrong side of the lake. It was near South Haven, Michigan, that the grisly remains of the crash and its 58 victims washed ashore. No large pieces of the plane or complete bodies were ever found, but smaller bits of the dead become so plentiful that the beaches at South Haven were closed for several days. These remains were buried in a pair of mass graves in Michigan.
Since 2004, Michigan resident and shipwreck diver Valerie van Heest has been trying to find the missing plane. Since starting her search, she has made contact with the families of about 50 of the people on board the doomed plane. “For us both this is a historical challenge as well as a desire to provide the families with answers,” van Heest told Milwaukee Magazine.
But despite extensive searches over the years, the airplane due over Milwaukee that stormy night has never been found. — Matthew J. Prigge
Early one Thursday morning in June 2016, 10 tons of cheese went missing. Poof. Never to be seen again. A truck driver had left a large trailer chock full of the dairy product unhitched at a small outdoor lot in Oak Creek called Hoffman Storage and driven off to run an errand. When he came back, the $46,000 in wholesale cheese was gone. Someone had broken into the lot with a tractor truck, hooked up the cheese, and made off like a bandit. Hoffman had surveillance video of the lot, but it wasn’t enough to track down whoever had cheese on his hands. This person (or persons) remains at large and the case unsolved, according to Oak Creek Police Chief Steven Anderson.
Such cargo thefts, as they’re called, are difficult crimes to profit from. Thieves must find someone willing to buy a massive amount of one product, or a small variety, on short notice. So the heists remain relatively rare, but not unheard of, even when it comes to something as perishable as cheese.
In January 2016, a similar theft took place when two Milwaukee men stole a tractor truck from the Northwest Side and drove it to D&G Transport’s refrigerated warehouse in Germantown, which regularly serves as a depot for trucks full of cheese and other products. There the two men hooked the truck up to a cheese-filled trailer worth some $70,000 and drove away. Little did the curd burglars realize their truck had a GPS tracking device on it that recorded their movements, including a trip to the Silver Spring Meat Market on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, where the proprietor purchased the cheese. Eventually the thieves returned the tractor, slightly banged up, in Milwaukee.
Police were able to find one of the men, Larrelle Henderson of Milwaukee, by way of the phone number he’d used to contact the grocer. In court, Henderson received three years of probation and about $75,000 in restitution. Prosecutors also charged Tracy Steed of Milwaukee as an accomplice, although he remains at large. The cheese itself was destroyed, and Germantown police weren’t able to get a confession from the store’s owner. However, “Common sense would prevail that he knew it was stolen,” says Germantown Police Chief Peter Hoell. Hoell says the theft appears to have been a one-off and not connected to an organized cheese ring. — Matt Hrodey
The Curious Case of the Cross-Dressing Corpse
Whatever happened to Madison’s chimney man, it was ghastly. On Sept. 3, 1989, a worker repairing a boiler in the basement of the Good ’n Loud music store in Madison found the bones of an unidentified 20-some-year-old male at the bottom of the old chimney, setting off one of the coldest, most inscrutable cases in state history. The bones were wearing a paisley women’s dress, sweater and low women’s shoes, and the man had been carrying an extra pair of socks, a butter knife and a German Iron Cross military medal. His pelvis had been broken twice, and he could have died two months prior to being found, or two years. Police weren’t sure of much and were only 93 percent certain the person was a man.
Theories argued by police and the public were split between grisly homicide and terrible accident. Some cops suggested the man could have gone to the store to meet another man in the parking lot, and the second man, hoping to meet a woman, could have beaten him for being a cross-dresser, dragged him onto the roof of the store and crammed him into the chimney, which was just under 12 inches in diameter. Capt. Jay Lengfeld, who oversees cold cases at the Madison Police Department, leans in the other direction. “I think it was a burglary,” he says. The man was small — about 5 feet, 5 inches — and may have worn the dress as a disguise. His plan to burgle the store like a reverse Santa Claus, perhaps, only resulted in him getting stuck.
From the beginning, the case went almost nowhere. “It got cold pretty quick,” says Lengfeld. The FBI made a cast of what the man’s face would have looked like (it had a feminine look and a prominent nose), but it drew little response. Injecting some political intrigue, one woman claimed she had known a statehouse page who looked like the cast, but she couldn’t remember his name.
Lengfeld says there have been no solid new leads and little to go on since the FBI worked on the case in the 1990s. “They pushed it as far as they could have then.” He said he wasn’t aware if any DNA had been recovered from the bones, evidence that might have helped to identify the chimney man. Or it might not have, given the paucity of other evidence. — Matt Hrodey
Evicted: Milwaukee’s Moving Graveyards
These final resting places were not so final after all. We track the course of the dead and displaced.
1. East Side Potter’s Field
SITE: Present day site of Maryland Avenue School
YEARS USED: 1849-50
WHO?: Used for Cholera victims who died during the 1849-50 outbreak
NUMBER OF INTERRED: Unknown, although about 300 people died in the outbreak
EMOVED: Many remains were moved in 1887, when a school was built on the site. But construction work in 1950 turned up still more bones.
NOTE: For unknown reasons, some of the remains found in 1950 were buried under as little as 18 inches of soil.
2. Second Ward Cemetary
SITE: North 13th Street and West Juneau Avenue
YEARS USED: Circa 1848-61
WHO?: This was a predominantly German burial ground.
NUMBER OF INTERRED: Unknown
REMOVED: The Common Council ordered the cemetery removed in 1874 to make way for an extension of North 13th Street. The bodies were mostly relocated to Forest Home and Union cemeteries, although work in the site in 1905, 1964 and 2015 uncovered many remains that had not been removed.
NOTE: Because of the great fear of being buried alive while in a comatose state in the mid-1800s, many tombs at this cemetery were outfitted with bells that could be rung with a cord that ran into the casket, allowing an unduly buried person to signal the living world.
3. Elizabeth Street Cemetary
SITE: Bound by West National Avenue, West Pierce Street, and South 12th and 16th streets
YEARS USED: Circa 1845-60
WHO?: Many prominent citizens were buried here, including politicians and business leaders.
NUMBER OF INTERRED: Over 1,000
REMOVED: Most of the interred were moved to Forest Home Cemetery beginning in 1864, although remains were found there in 1875, 1881 and 1926.
NOTE: The cemetery was in sickening disrepair by 1864, when it was moved and many of the caskets crumbled apart as they were being removed. The men who did the work were paid some of the highest laboring wages in the city at the time and rewarded with a keg of beer at the end of each day.
4. Milwaukee County Farm Potter’s Field
SITE: North 87th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue, near Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa
YEARS USED: Mid-1850s-1929
WHO?: Poor and indigent county residents who died at the nearby public hospital and almshouse
NUMBER OF INTERRED: At least 1,300
REMOVED: The remains were recently removed for an expansion to the Froedtert facility and given to the UW-Milwaukee Anthropology Department.
NOTE: This site came into use after burials were stopped at the East Side Potter’s Field.
5. Spring Street Catholic Cemetary
SITE: West Wisconsin Avenue and North 22nd Street.
YEARS USED: 1844-57
WHO?: Many of Milwaukee’s most prominent early Catholic citizens
NUMBER OF INTERRED: Unknown
REMOVED: The site had become too small by the late 1850s and the interred were moved to the new Calvary Cemetery in 1857.
NOTE: Solomon Juneau, co-founder of Milwaukee and the city’s first mayor, was buried here along with his wife, Josette.
6. Pioneer Cemetary
SITE: Southeast corner of East Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway
YEARS USED: Prior to 1850
NUMBER OF INTERRED: Unknown
REMOVED: In about 1850, the remains at this site were removed to Forest Home Cemetery.
NOTE: Little is known about this burial site, which was the first to be dedicated in Milwaukee. There is even no clear indication the place had a proper name. Still receiving burials shortly before it was moved, it was likely one of the last active cemeteries in the city east of the Milwaukee River.
Nazis’ Night Out
When a pair of Milwaukee Police detectives stopped a couple of suspicious-looking men at the corner of South 1st Street and National Avenue early on the morning of Jan. 14, 1945, they had no idea they were about to catch a couple of Nazi paratroopers out on the town and very far from home.
The Germans, 23-year-old Willi Lepil and 19-year-old Carl Zoeller, had escaped from Camp Mitchell, a prisoner of war camp that had recently opened on the grounds of General Mitchell Airfield. The camp was one of 36 in Wisconsin and would come to house more than 3,000 enemy soldiers. Lepil and Zoeller had seen extensive combat action before they were captured by the Americans near Rome in August 1944. Months of being in custody had taken their toll on the men and, after just two days at Camp Mitchell (the men labored in a battery assembly plant that had been constructed on the grounds), they decided to take their chances on Milwaukee’s streets. They had, after all, heard that Milwaukee had a very large German population.
Despite the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp – and the 250 GIs who guarded it – the pair escaped without much trouble, sneaking from barrack building to barrack building in the wee hours of the morning before scaling the fence. As free men, they enjoyed a few beers and took in a polka show before being stopped by police. Both men were dressed in inside-out jackets – worn so to conceal the “PW” stitched onto the back of the army-issued clothing. It didn’t take long for the cops to realize that the men were escapees from the newly opened prison camp. Lepil told his story to the police in heavily accented English, explaining that the camp and the work had depressed him. “I figured it would be much nicer on the outside than on the inside,” he said.
Pointing out the irony of the Germans escaping into the city’s Polish neighborhood, one of the detectives told the men they were lucky to have been found by police before the locals learned their identity. “Looks like we were in enemy territory without realizing it,” Lepil said. Zoeller agreed and expressed thanks to the police for their kind treatment before they were turned back over to the army. He also made the rather dubious claim that the German Gestapo would have been just as kind to an escaped American soldier in Germany. The men remained at the camp until it began to be phased out after the German surrender. It was closed for good in April 1946. — Matthew J. Prigge
Ancient Underwater Pyramids?
Rock Lake, at some 1,300 acres in western Jefferson County, is only about half the size of Pewaukee Lake. Its water is murky, a screen of silt and algae stirred up by the weather. Lake Mills, the town on its eastern shore, has had several businesses with the word “pyramid” in their names: Pyramid City Driving School, Pyramid Silo Services and the Pyramid Motel.
But you won’t see any pyramids above ground. You have to look under the water.
The Lake Mills Chamber of Commerce has promoted a legend that large stone structures lie beneath Rock Lake, dating back hundreds of years. The chamber claims Native Americans built pyramids in a valley, hoping to end a drought, and the gods responded by filling the valley with water.
The modern history of that legend began in the early 20th century, when a variety of divers and local fishermen reported seeing structures in the lake that looked man-made. Most famously, Wisconsin diving pioneer Max Nohl dived into the lake in 1937 and came across a stone structure that “looked like an upside down ice cream cone.” That’s according to the Rock Lake Research Society, a group of divers, pilots and scientists that launched several expeditions between the late 1990s and early 2000s, resulting in a series of tantalizing photos but no conclusive evidence.
The society and other investigators have enjoyed little to no support from mainstream scientists. Former state archaeologist Bob Birmingham told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2015 that the tales were “a bunch of baloney.” The structures are just rock piles left by glaciers, Birmingham and others say.
In recent years, believers have used sophisticated sonar systems to produce maps of such large shapes as an 18-foot tall, tent-shaped stone pyramid with a 60-foot by 100-foot base. Whether any of the objects are man-made, they still don’t know. — Matt Hrodey
We put these urban legends to the test to see which ones hold up!
By Matt Hrodey
In 2015, dozens of people reported seeing a large, lion-like creature prowling the city’s North Side, and one of them captured a short video of the alleged “Milwaukee Lion.” Given the large number of witnesses, the furor became a national curiosity, and while many people dismissed the scare as nonsense, experts on big cats said a lion – but more likely a cougar – could have found its way into the city. A similar panic took hold of the city in 1961, when several people, including two police officers, reported seeing a large cat roaming the city.
For decades, the dead end of Mystic Drive in Muskego has been rumored to skirt close to a tiny village hidden in the woods with small houses roads, a to-scale refuge for former circus-performing little people, all watched over by a full-sized, gun-toting albino man. A legend that has launched a thousand late night car rides, Haunchyville has stood as one of the area’s most persistent tall tales, but its time is about up.
The pellet-shaped fertilizer made and sold by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is terrific, providing nutrients without burning plants like other fertilizers do. But, considering its origin, are gardeners and golf courses spreading human scat on their greenery?
4. Oak Creek’s Road to Nowhere
Quite dramatically, East Fitzsimmons Road in Oak Creek ends in a 100-foot drop to the rough shoreline of Lake Michigan. While at least one person has driven off the cliff, Thelma-and-Louise style, these days concrete barriers a half-mile from the precipice bar entry by cars and trucks. But that doesn’t stop people from parking and walking down the road, through some sparse woods, to the cliff. Along the way, all kinds of spooky things can happen, including supposed encounters with a dead farmer who is said to have murdered his family (of course). He wanders about and occasionally chases visitors at superhuman speeds.
According to the West Bend author J. Nathan Couch, an expert in strange beasts, the countryside of Washington County is peppered with legends about a Goatman, a half-man, half-goat creature like a satyr. In particular, stories point to treacherous and secluded Hogsback Road, where Goatman is said to instigate car crashes, run off with the drivers and hang their dead bodies from trees. During the research for his book Goatman: Flesh or Folklore?, Couch remained deeply skeptical, treating the tales as folklore, until he interviewed Jason Miller, a local who said he’d encountered a large goat man in 2003 while deer hunting in Kewaskum off South Mill Road, otherwise known as Goatman Road.