Karl Lotharius worked in a beer hall in Germany as a boy as the Nazis came to power.
Immigrating to Milwaukee years later, he opened two popular bars, Oliver’s and Von Trier.
Lotharius was a large man with a mean streak.
Somebody hated him enough to murder him in 1981.
Police still don’t know who.
The arrow that killed Karl Lotharius finished its work slowly.
Although it skewered his midsection in a fraction of a second, the 47-year-old tavern owner lingered for hours, finally expiring at Milwaukee County General Hospital the morning of Dec. 20, 1981.
Lotharius, founder of the popular Von Trier bar on Milwaukee’s East Side, left his pub around 3 a.m. Sunday morning and trekked from the intersection of Farwell and North avenues three blocks to his house on North Murray Avenue, oblivious to the bowman lying in wait.
Lotharius owned the 3,100-square-foot residence outright, but subdivided the building into three separate units. Accustomed to entering his own apartment from the rear, he walked down the gangway running between houses. As he reached the backyard patio, a 30-inch, double-barbed, razor-tipped wooden arrow sank into his stomach – its point and fletching protruding from opposite sides of his abdomen.
The attacker fled, leaving Lotharius to his fate. He crawled 40 feet up the stairwell to the second-story flat, shouting “Zebbie, help me! Help me!”
Ronald “Zebbie” Zbleski was Lotharius’ closest friend and employee. At the time, the 45-year-old bar manager shared the upstairs apartment with his wife, Laureen. Toppling out of bed, Zebbie franticly dressed and rushed to find Lotharius hemorrhaging blood on the doorstep. The arrow had been ripped from the wound – aggravating his injuries, accelerating blood loss and hastening a certain death.
Lotharius sprawled out on the floor while Zebbie ran from the house, gun in hand, to find the assailant. His voice fading, Laureen crouched down to make out Lotharius’ dying words. Instinctively, she tried to comfort him by cradling him in her arms.
Many versions exist about what happened that night, but official reports remain restricted as part of an open homicide investigation. Zebbie died in 2012, but Laureen can still recount Lotharius’ final tortured moments. “He was lying in my living room and I was holding him,” she says. “Officers with rifles came up to look through the house, and the paramedics came and … took him away. That’s how fast it all happened.”
Steve Spingola and his partner were among the first police officers to arrive at the scene. Spingola, who’d later rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Milwaukee Police Department, was still a patrolman with only two years on the job the night Lotharius died. He stepped into the gory aftermath as chaos took hold.
“Honest to God, it was like this mass second of panic,” says Spingola. “There was a trail of blood. You could see blood on the door from where he had knocked on it. He had either tried to pull the arrow out or it started to come out by itself, so there were intestines coming out.”
The grotesque severity of Lotharius’ wounds froze the paramedics. “He’s leaking blood. It’s like, ‘What do we do? How do we convey him?’” Spingola says.
Yet, as Spingola recalls, there was little they could do.
“Lotharius knew he was dying,” he says. “They told him there at the scene that he was probably going to expire, because there was a huge trail of blood.”
Slipping into shock, Lotharius repeated what he already told Zebbie and Laureen – words that became his dying declaration: “Buzzy got me.”
If Lotharius’ death was agonizingly slow, the homicide investigation was startlingly abrupt.
That morning, Spingola canvassed the neighborhood with his partner. The two cops knocked on doors, questioned neighbors, searched in trashcans, recorded license plate numbers, and checked for footprints in the freshly fallen snow. They found nothing.
Zebbie, though, had told police he knew who Lotharius meant when he uttered the name “Buzzy”: It was Herbert Dolowy Jr.
At age 20, Dolowy worked for a while at Oliver’s Cabaret, Lotharius’ Downtown discotheque at 782 N. Milwaukee St. A single man who prioritized his work, Lotharius had many professional relationships and few personal ones, and Dolowy bridged both categories. They traveled to Europe together, scavenging for Old World collectibles to outfit Von Trier.
Dolowy had left Oliver’s months before Lotharius was killed – supposedly after being dismissed by his boss. As doctors worked in vain to save Lotharius, police arrested Dolowy at his girlfriend’s Bay View apartment. He claimed he was with her all evening, but said nothing else. A call to his father resulted in high-profile criminal defense attorney James Shellow visiting the district attorney’s office.
Detectives took the arrow to local archery salesman Grant Whiffen, hoping for a lead on a buyer. Whiffen recalls that custom markings on the arrow identified the manufacturer as crosstown business Warrior Archery, but it was a standard model that sold in high volumes. Linking it to an individual would be impossible.
Despite Dolowy’s alibi for that night, and the dearth of eyewitnesses and physical evidence (the bow was never found), many in law enforcement saw the case as open and shut on the basis of Lotharius’ dying statement. Some still do.
“I think this is a solvable case. I honest to God do,” says Spingola. “I think if this was presented to a jury, I honestly think they would come back and find him guilty. From the way [Lotharius] said it, he immediately volunteered that information [that Buzzy got him], and I’ll go to my grave thinking Buzzy is the guy that did this.”
However, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, led at the time by E. Michael McCann, determined the nickname “Buzzy” was too vague to apply to a specific person and declined to charge Dolowy. He was released from jail the day after his arrest. The case has never been solved.
In Milwaukee, a town that prides itself on its German heritage, Lotharius was the real deal. Born Karl Heinz Lotharius in 1934 in Trier, Germany, he rose from penniless immigrant to prominent nightclub owner, with assets totaling nearly $600,000 at the time of his death.
Notable as possibly the oldest city in Germany, Trier straddles the banks of the Moselle River 35 miles from the border of Luxembourg. In the early months of World War II, when Lotharius was still a boy, some 60,000 captured British infantrymen were marched to Trier, a staging ground for British soldiers destined for German prisoner of war camps. Although little is known about his early life in Germany, Lotharius told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1975 that his youth was spent working in a beer hall owned by relatives in Trier.
He was still working in taverns in 1957 when he met Bob Zbleski at the noncommissioned officers club on the Trier Air Base, a historic airfield used by the Germans during World War I to launch zeppelins. Zbleski – the twin brother of Ronald, or “Zebbie,” and future Lotharius’ friend and upstairs neighbor – was on leave from the U.S. Air Force, sightseeing with his grandparents, who came over from Milwaukee to tour their ancestral homeland.
“I met this girl over there that was part of the family and she introduced me to Karl,” Zbleski says in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine. “She told me in Trier, Karl had his fingers in everything. Anything you needed, Karl could get for you.”
Lotharius quickly befriended the family. Before they left, Karl asked for a favor: immigration sponsorship to the United Sates. Zbleski’s grandparents said yes.
“The next thing I know, I get a letter from home saying Karl had come to the United States, and he’s living with my grandmother and my grandfather,” says Zbleski.
Lotharius continued to bond with the family in America, cultivating close friendships with Zebbie and the twins’ aunt, Dorothy Thompson, whom Lotharius called “Aunt Dorothy.” Thompson and Zebbie grew so close to Lotharius that each would later inherit part of his estate.
Thompson’s daughter, Donna Phillips, was around 11 years old when Lotharius came to live with her family on Murray Avenue. She recalls him as a polite, well-dressed man, eager to make a good impression.
“He was very friendly,” says Phillips. “He conversed well with individuals. He hung around the house on his off-time.”
Lotharius’ industrious personality revealed itself immediately. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, which sent him to engineering and intelligence school, and was eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant.
“He went into the paratroopers because he got more money. Then he jumped out of a plane and his chute didn’t open that good, and he got pretty well banged-up and got an honorable discharge,” says Bob Zbleski, now 78 and living in West Allis.
Returning to civilian life, Lotharius moved back into the Zbleski household and entered the workforce. In a short time, he had two jobs. “Karl was the kind of guy you could put him in the middle of a desert and give him two months and he’d be a millionaire,” says Zbleski. “Everything he touched turned to gold.”
He worked as a civil engineer for the Wisconsin Gas Co. starting in May 1963, and moonlighted as a doorman for the Third Ward dance club I.V. A-Go-Go. At the time, Lotharius was 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, a strong man who could be very intimidating.
“Physically, he was imposing,” Phillips says. “He had dark hair and strong German features.”
By the early 1960s, Lotharius had earned enough money to purchase the house on Murray Avenue from his host family after they moved to Milwaukee’s outskirts. In 1972, he bought a supper club on the southeast corner of Wells and Milwaukee streets, and reopened it as Oliver’s in September of that year.
Initially offering live rock shows seven nights a week, by 1975, it was a full-fledged disco. That year, Lotharius quit the gas company to focus solely on his business. He added the city’s first illuminated dance floor – 622 light bulbs and 500 feet of four-color neon tubing running through a Plexiglas floor. He began hosting dance contests offering grand-prize trips to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Denver, Los Angeles and Paris.
He also introduced wet T-shirt contests to Milwaukee. Emceed by disc jockey Larry “The Legend” Johnson, the contests drew massive crowds and attracted the disapproval of a few aldermen, who asked vice squad officers to break up the event in September 1976.
“The placed was jam-packed,” says Zbleski. “To get in Oliver’s, you had to stand outside and go down at least a block.”
The club often was overrun by sailors on leave from Naval Station Great Lakes – a common sight in Milwaukee during the Vietnam War. Not content to let recruits stumble upon Oliver’s on their own, Lotharius bought a bus that made trips directly to Waukegan, Ill., on Friday nights, transporting thirsty seamen from the naval base to Milwaukee.
Minor contretemps over wet T-shirt contests aside, Lotharius and right-hand man Zebbie made it a point to fraternize with police and city officials.
“Every Christmas, he’d go in his liquor room at the bottom of the stairs at Oliver’s, and he’d have all these bottles lined up with names on them,” says Zbleski. “This was for this inspector; this was for that inspector. The whole Downtown was like that.”
Lotharius’ hard work made Oliver’s the “busiest night club in town,” according to friend and rival Peter “Pitch” Picciurro. His efforts brought him enough success that, in 1978, he bought out retiring nightclub owner Frank Reider, whose eponymous pub on the corner of North and Farwell avenues was known for its jukebox filled with classical and opera selections, and counted several members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as patrons.
Lotharius wanted to keep the upscale trappings and clientele, but with his own personal twist. Filling the barroom with Teutonic showpieces, Lotharius’ new bar – which came to be known as Von Trier – reflected the German beer halls of his youth.
As with Oliver’s, Von Trier became an immense success.
“The story I heard was that he was the No. 1 Pschorr Bräu Weisse account in the United States,” says Von Trier’s current owner, John Sidoff, who took over nearby bar Hooligan’s the same year.
Antiques were sourced directly from Europe, but they were found locally as well. A Pabst Mansion chandelier, created by Cyril Colnik out of antlers and wrought iron, became the focal point of a second barroom, which opened after Lotharius bought the diner next door and combined the buildings. Sidoff says the chandelier has been informally appraised at $100,000.
Lotharius also opened one of the city’s first outdoor patios, even though they weren’t permitted at the time. Says Sidoff, “He told the alderman he just wanted to put up a little fence for the back area and put in the beer garden.”
Although German immigrants were not particularly out of place in Milwaukee in the 1960s and ’70s, there was another notable aspect of the never-married Lotharius’ personality that cast him as an outsider.
“Karl was obviously gay,” says friend Donna Phillips. “In those years, that was not anything that people talked about.”
Despite the laissez-faire attitudes that fueled the sexual revolution, Milwaukee was still nowhere close to embracing full-fledged, out-and-proud public figures. Still, many who knew him considered Lotharius’ sexuality to be an open secret.
Lotharius had a string of lovers throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, often asking Zebbie to proposition male patrons he thought could be persuaded into sex with an older man of means. “Karl said, ‘OK, I like this guy here, see what you can line me up with,’” says Zbleski. “He wanted the young guys, especially the Navy guys that were coming down.”
Although he never cloaked his sexuality by pursuing female companions, he appeared to have issues with his orientation, or at least how he was perceived.
“He was kind of a denying homosexual,” says Sidoff. “He’d say, ‘Goddamn it, I’m not a fucking faggot. I just like boys.’”
With his boy-next-door features and military school upbringing, Herbert Dolowy likely would have appealed to Lotharius, being similar to the masculine GIs stationed in Trier and the sailors who frequented Oliver’s.
The scion of well-to-do families, Dolowy was born in Chicago Heights in 1961. His father, Herbert Sr., ran Lincoln National Bank, located in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago, near Wrigley Field.
His mother, Judith, was a member of the Milwaukee-based Pritzlaff family, and returned to Wisconsin after separating from Herbert Sr.
Herbert Dolowy Jr. spent his high school years away from home, enrolled at Northwestern Military and Naval Academy in Lake Geneva. Dolowy says today that he can’t recall how he acquired his nickname, Buzzy, but a glance at his 1979 senior yearbook may provide a clue. The “Senior Class Prophecy” section predicts that Dolowy would come to fry his brain cells. Still, he was named to the honor roll, played three sports and received ribbons in math, science and art.
By Dolowy’s account, he started working at Oliver’s shortly after graduating in 1979. He became one of Lotharius’ favorites and was invited on multiple trips to Europe to help secure antiques. Dolowy says he was chosen because Zebbie and Von Trier manager Mark Eckert were too important to the day-to-day operations to travel with Lotharius.
Why was Buzzy Dolowy’s nickname the final words spoken by his onetime boss and traveling companion? Dolowy insists he hasn’t a clue. In a telephone interview, he maintains his innocence.
“I have absolutely no idea why he named me,” says Dolowy, now 53. “Maybe he thought he saw me. I really don’t know what happened.”
Dolowy says he has no hard feelings toward Lotharius, describing him as a “decent guy” who was “straightforward, outgoing and cared about the community.”
“The only problem was when it came to what his intentions were,” he says. His relationship with Lotharius never went past friendship. In fact, says Dolowy, Lotharius was not openly gay.
It’s an assessment that goes against what Zbleski believed.
“He knew Karl was gay,” says Zbleski, who claims Dolowy routinely took advantage of Lotharius’ affections. “And he knew how to work Karl. Buzzy played him for everything – money, drinks, food. Whatever Buzzy wanted, Buzzy got.”
But, he adds, Dolowy drew the line at intimacy. “And that’s what used to piss Karl off,” says Zbleski.
Dolowy says leaving Oliver’s was “probably a mutual decision” after Lotharius made a pass at him. Asked for details, he says, “I don’t remember anything other than it being extremely awkward and uncomfortable.”
To many, Lotharius was a benevolent tyrant. Friendly with fellow bar owners, generous with friends and lovers, and eternally grateful to the family that brought him to the United States, he could also be demanding and confrontational, and particularly tough on his employees.
“He would always look out for family,” says Phillips, Zebbie’s niece, who worked at Oliver’s while in nursing school. “How he was with his other employees, let’s just say I would shake my head a lot.”
Others are more direct. “He was a dick,” says Von Trier manager Sidoff. “He was a real tough taskmaster. He knew what he wanted out of a staff and out of a place that he had. He didn’t tolerate lazy people or fools very well… I’m sure he made a lot of enemies over the years.”
Lotharius also had a tendency to do whatever he wanted, disregarding convention, etiquette and even legality.
“I love Karl, but he was a hard man,” says Zbleski. “He did what he wanted and got away with a lot of crap… You had to know Karl. He would not be afraid to pull a gun and shoot you just like that if you messed with him…
“He was one mean SOB.”
And then there were his run-ins with the mob.
Much of the information about Lotharius’ dealings with organized crime comes from heavily redacted FBI files. Milwaukee Police Department records from the era have been destroyed. What little survives publicly reveals prolonged antagonism between Lotharius and a cabal of vending machine operators.
Less than a month after Oliver’s opened in 1972, Lotharius was approached by Vincent Maniaci, another bar owner known to Lotharius from his days at the I.V. A-Go-Go.
Maniaci ran Little Caesar’s Cocktail Lounge, the bar of choice for several I.V. A-Go-Go employees who wanted to keep the party going after their club closed at 1 a.m.
Maniaci would eventually complain Oliver’s was taking away his business, but this night, things were cordial. Maniaci bought Lotharius a drink. He had come to talk about vending machines.
“Karlo, whose machines do you have in here?” he asked.
Lotharius named the company that provided the cigarette dispenser, the jukebox, the pool table and the gaming machines.
Maniaci asked if Lotharius had made any money off the machines yet. Karl said he hadn’t. Maniac said to get rid of them.
“Throw them out. You don’t have to honor that contract. They didn’t give you no money.”
Maniaci touted machines from a different vendor. If Lotharius accepted, he would split the profits with the vendor. Maniaci also offered Lotharius $1,000 and said he would send someone over to fix a portion of the ceiling in disrepair. Finally, Maniaci said money would be available for Karl should he ever need a loan. The FBI report notes Maniaci’s offer was “strenuously declined” by Lotharius.
The hard sell came days later when Lotharius was with friends at Pitch’s Lounge. There, he encountered August “Augie” Palmisano, another bar owner who worked his way up from a fruit peddler. He also wanted Lotharius to swap his vending machines.
Palmisano confronted Karl, drew a gun, pointed it at Lotharius and said, “You better know who your friends are. Your head is getting too big for your own good.”
“You guys are driving the Cadillacs, not me,” snapped Lotharius.
Palmisano would later recruit an unnamed man to start a brawl with Lotharius in the middle of Oliver’s, according to FBI records. The same man told investigators he was shown dynamite hidden inside Palmisano’s bar, which Palmisano said would be used to blow up Oliver’s. Neither plot moved past the planning stages, but it’s clear Palmisano wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.
Illegitimate business was not unheard of at Oliver’s. In 1978, Zebbie – an inveterate gambler – and another man, Martin Dzelzkalns, a 34-year-old Latvian-born health insurance administrator, were arrested for running a bookie operation out of Oliver’s. A search of Dzelzkalns’ East Side apartment turned up a notebook listing $23,000 in bets.
Zbleski said Dzelzkalns – who now lives in Hartland and declined to comment on the record – turned state’s evidence once in custody. He was pardoned by Gov. Tony Earl in 1983, while Zebbie was saddled with fines and probation.
Another trick Zebbie would pull, according to his brother, was defrauding drunken foreign sailors unfamiliar with American currency, giving them change for a $10 bill when they paid with $100.
There was never any mention of Lotharius being directly involved in illegal moneymaking schemes, however, and whatever the reason, he did not want to get involved with Maniaci and Palmisano.
He continued to rebuff all offers, only to find a machine installed in the men’s room at Oliver’s one day in early 1974. The cleaning lady had let an unknown man set it up after hours, thinking Lotharius wanted it done.
Lotharius ripped the machine off the wall and tossed it outside. He told the owners a drunken sailor did it.
A few months later, in May 1974, burglars entered Oliver’s using a crowbar to remove part of the roof and made off with around $1,000. They also ransacked the bar and vandalized Lotharius’ vending machines.
Lotharius started recording his phone calls. Eventually, he heard a rumor about who was behind the robbery. He spread word he had audiotape of Maniaci ordering people to burglarize his house. Lotharius told investigators he did this just to see what would happen.
What happened was another break-in – this time where he lived. The only thing taken were some movies, which Lotharius said could have been mistaken for audio recordings.
Lotharius spoke to the feds in early January 1975. Later that month, his house was broken into again. After that, his tires were slashed.
Tensions eventually subsided, no doubt due in part to Maniaci’s April 1975 conviction on charges of loan extortion and interstate transportation of four stolen mink coats. He went to prison on Jan. 20, 1976. The FBI investigation into Lotharius’ problems closed nine days later when a federal prosecutor advised there was not enough evidence to charge Palmisano, and going after Maniaci was not warranted since he was already incarcerated on similar charges.
The mob backed off temporarily, but they weren’t finished. According to Zbleski and Dave Stirmel, an Oliver’s Cabaret bartender, Lotharius was again pressured about vending machines around the time he opened Von Trier. This time, Lotharius took matters into his own hands. He confronted the men who had been giving him trouble as they held a business meeting at a Shorecrest Hotel restaurant named Snug’s, the reputed headquarters of the Milwaukee Mafia.
“He went around and held a gun on them and maced them all and said, ‘You stay the fuck out of my bar,’” says Stirmel, who married Laureen after she divorced Zebbie.
Afterward, it appears people were done trying to sell Lotharius vending machines. But when he was murdered, some wondered if the mob had anything to do with it. Zebbie was so concerned, he started wearing a bulletproof vest, which his brother claims was given to him by the head of the police union.
Archery salesman Grant Whiffen recalls Zebbie coming into his shop to see how the vest held up against arrows. “I shot through the vest and the guy was very unhappy,” says Whiffen. “He saw this bulletproof vest that can stop a .357 magnum can’t stop an arrow, and he’s going, ‘I’m screwed.’”
By December 1981, however, the Milwaukee Mafia was substantially compromised. A web of investigations had begun to close in around mob boss Frank Balistrieri.
Around the time Lotharius was being harassed, an undercover FBI agent set up his own local vending company in an effort to draw out the criminal network. His testimony was a key piece of evidence at the trials of Balistrieri and his two sons.
Plus, the Milwaukee Mafia seemed to prefer dynamite to arrows. Transferred to a halfway house in 1977, Maniaci found dynamite wired to the engine of his Buick Electra. He was sent back to prison for his own safety, and hightailed it to Honolulu after being released the next year. Augie Palmisano wasn’t so lucky. The dynamite placed in his white Mercury exploded as he cranked the ignition in the underground garage of Juneau Village Garden Apartments on June 30, 1978.
Lotharius was vacationing in Florida when Palmisano was killed. According to Zbleski, after hearing the news, he called Zebbie and said, “Send that son-of-a-bitch a dozen red roses, but make sure they’re dead roses.”
Fear ran raw in the wake of Lotharius’ death. Despite its improbability, the potential of the mob involvement calcified a sense of paranoia. At Lotharius’ funeral, both of the Zbleski twins were packing heat. Rumors of unknown archers lurking in alleys swirled through barrooms.
Dolowy, too, became concerned for his safety, claiming to receive death threats from people close to Lotharius. Although he was never attacked, he says he still took them very seriously.
“Somebody was just killed. You don’t know where the limitations are,” he says.
Months passed without any significant action. Then, in the late spring of 1982, a seemingly unrelated event in Wauwatosa gave Dave Stirmel an idea.
“Some other guy Karl was seeing was a hunter,” says Stirmel, referring to a 23-year-old salesman and avid outdoorsman named Mark Tagatz. Tall, handsome, and described by his sister Laurie Nowak as ambitious and outgoing, Tagatz was quick to make friends and always hustling to get ahead.
“Mark was like an entrepreneur-type of person,” says Nowak. “He always wanted to try something different, something unique. He was good with sales. He was always a happy-go-lucky guy, although as he got older, things got a little more difficult for him.”
Something about Tagatz attracted Lotharius. He asked Stirmel, who had worked alongside Tagatz at the garage door company owned by Tagatz’s father, to act as a sexual liaison. Stirmel says Tagatz was interested, and the two men became involved.
“He was just exploiting Karl for money,” says Stirmel. “It wasn’t really a relationship. It was more of a means of opportunity.”
Even so, Tagatz had a dark history with intimate partners. In high school, he tried slashing his wrists after a girlfriend broke up with him. Another breakup led to an overdose. In 1979, Tagatz received psychiatric treatment as an inpatient at Lutheran Hospital.
“I thought maybe he might have bipolar or something like that because he would be happy and then not so happy. He suffered with that,” says his sister.
Tagatz would attempt suicide again on June 13, 1982, six months after Lotharius was murdered.
According to Milwaukee County Medical Examiner records, Tagatz’s girlfriend told police he had been acting strangely for the previous six months, getting hired and fired from several jobs in rapid succession and having trouble at home. They had been together nearly three years, and she told police she tried breaking up with him many times only to see him become unhinged. In May 1982, he was arrested twice in two days on charges of forgery and issuing worthless checks.
She told police he had become violent over the past six months, too, recounting one incident in which he had “roughed her up.” On June 11, 1982, Tagatz showed up at the steakhouse where she worked. She drove him home once her shift ended, but he refused to leave the car. For more than an hour, Tagatz kept her trapped inside the vehicle as he alternated between fits of violence and catatonia, until finally she escaped.
The next night, through her kitchen window, she saw him approach her Hillside Avenue home. She refused to let him in, and for 10 minutes he yelled through the door, “Please, let’s talk.”
She avoided him by going upstairs.
In the past, Tagatz would linger outside, sometimes throwing gravel at her window. On this night, however, he fastened a note to the kitchen door and left quietly.
His brother found the body. Daniel Tagatz dated a woman living across the street. As he took her home that night, they spotted Mark’s body dangling from the flagpole outside his girlfriend’s house, a noose fashioned from the halyard.
The next day, Nowak found a tape recording of Tagatz discussing his plans for suicide. The medical examiner’s report states Tagatz said he wanted to kill himself to prove that God was real. He also said he wanted everyone to turn Christian, and asked that they pray for him.
Could Tagatz have attacked Lotharius if they had a falling out, given his relationship history?
According to Stirmel, Lotharius blew off Tagatz the night he was killed. He remembers Tagatz calling Oliver’s that night, and Lotharius instructing him to say he wasn’t there. “Mark was pretty insistent,” says Stirmel. “I think he needed some more cash. We had four or five bounced checks from Mark in the register, and Karl said, ‘I don’t want to see him anymore.’”
It’s unlikely Tagatz could have overpowered Lotharius given the latter’s size and background. But it’s possible he could have drawn from his hunting experience in order to carry out the attack.
“He was very good with a bow,” says his sister. “Our grandparents had a place up north … all of us were pretty much outdoorsy people and had bows.”
But why did Lotharius tell witnesses that is was Buzzy that got him as he lay dying? Might he have mistaken Tagatz for Dolowy?
There were similarities. According to his autopsy, Tagatz was listed 6 feet 3 inches, 180 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. Dolowy was 6 feet, 165 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. Tagatz was 23 years old. Dolowy was 20.
The murder happened in late December, and the killer may have been outfitted in bulky winter garments. Samples of the little blood Karl had left, taken hours after leaving Von Trier, showed alcohol in his system.
Lotharius’ dying declaration caused the police to focus on Dolowy. Even Stirmel says it was only after Tagatz died months later that he made the link.
“As soon as Mark killed himself, all the bells went off in my head, and I went, ‘Holy crap,’” he says. He told some cops who were in Oliver’s about Tagatz, but says he doesn’t know if they ever followed up.
Even if they did, solving a 33-year-old open case with very few leads may be impossible.
Oliver’s closed shortly after Lotharius died. Zebbie sold it to another tavern owner, who turned around and sold it to real estate developers. The building was torn down and replaced by a 70,000-square-foot, sinuous red-brick office building in 1986. Ownership of Von Trier was divided among Zebbie, his aunt Dorothy Thompson, and Lotharius’ sister Inga. By the end of the ’80s, all three had sold their shares to bar manager Mark Eckert, who in turn sold to Sidoff in 2009.
Dolowy brushed aside the threats and remained in Milwaukee for several years after Lotharius’ death. Six weeks after Lotharius died, Dolowy married the girlfriend whose apartment he was arrested in on the night of the murder. He later got a job bartending for Max Adonnis, a one-armed Polish restaurateur who also ran afoul of the remaining Milwaukee Mafia in 1989, and was gunned down one early Saturday morning at Giovanni’s, the Van Buren Street restaurant he managed. Adonnis was found by police lying in a pool of blood, and his murder has never been solved.
It’s believed his killers were themselves executed shortly after slaying Adonnis.
According to Dolowy, he just missed becoming another victim. “Saturday was inventory day. I was about an hour late,” he says.
Dolowy returned to Illinois after Adonnis’ death. He now lives in a secluded farmhouse close to New Lenox, and owns other properties in the area. He claims to have worked in real estate until the housing collapse in 2008, after which he went into securities trading, though there is no license listed for his name on the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation website.
He also says he long ago dropped the moniker Buzzy.
“My whole adult life, I’ve been Herb,” he says.
In 1985, his sister Terry Dolowy was brutally murdered in La Crosse around Valentine’s Day (the exact date of death was never determined). Sharing an eerie parallel with the Lotharius case, her murder has also never been solved, and her boyfriend at the time has been under intense scrutiny for more than 30 years.
Speaking about her, Dolowy might as well be talking about all unsolved murders. “Of course you want it solved, and you want the person to go through the system, but that won’t bring them back.”
Once a year at Von Trier, the timeless Old World atmosphere makes room for anticipation of a new year. Frigid temperatures and parking woes suppress the desire to celebrate, but the iconic establishment draws a good crowd as 2014 faded out.
As midnight approaches, older patrons are replaced by swarms of younger revelers. A mural hanging behind the bar depicts a rustic, Germanic pub above the words “Karl Von Trier.” Ornate beer steins line the ledge directly below. Racks of antlers from exotic European game adorn the walls, and a reproduction of the Trier coat of arms is mounted on the opposite wall, between stained-glass windows.
Change is constant in all walks of life, and the East Side bar scene is no exception.
Von Trier owner John Sidoff talks about modifications for his own bar in 2015: starting a stein club, adding more Eurocentric beer and using the long-dormant kitchen to offer German delicacies.
“We’ll do German charcuterie, where we’ll bring in Black Forest ham, some German pâtés, we’ll have a typical German pretzel and then probably we’ll do pork shanks,” Sidoff says. “There’s nothing wrong with having an old-school cocktail lounge, but we know that we need to kind of update and upgrade a little bit.”
For nearly four decades now, Von Trier has thrived amid seismic shifts in East Side tastes and demographics, even though its founder died less than four years after it first opened. Sizing up a barroom that still largely reflects Lotharius’ vision, Sidoff muses, “It’s sad the guy died so early and didn’t see how successful the place became.”
As 2015 dawns, a mirthful roar fills both of Von Trier’s crowded rooms. Plastic cups of free champagne are distributed to patrons, many of whom have stopped considering the linear progression of time. A mix of hip-hop and indie rock emanates from the sound system, light years removed from disco.
And as the prologues of the past cede ground to fantasies of the future, Von Trier and the unsolved murder of its founder, Karl Lotharius, remain firmly entrenched in the present.
Zach Brooke is a Milwaukee-based freelancer. Write to Brooke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hear more about the story from Zach Brooke on WUWM’s “Lake Effect.”