Murder We Wrote

Death in the Morning: Baffled by a vicious murder in the quiet village of Grafton, police received help from an unexpected source – the killers themselves. Reporter Jim Romenesko tells the story (June 1983) of this grisly slaying (the victim was stabbed 57 times) and the brothers, Kent and Jeff Denny, who were convicted of the crime after bragging publicly about their involvement. “They were directionless youths, so immersed in various forms of escapism that hardly anything seemed real to them anymore.” Both killers are still in prison.   The Fury of Judge McDonald: Romenesko told the bizarre story (November…

Death in the Morning: Baffled by a vicious murder in the quiet village of Grafton, police received help from an unexpected source – the killers themselves. Reporter Jim Romenesko tells the story (June 1983) of this grisly slaying (the victim was stabbed 57 times) and the brothers, Kent and Jeff Denny, who were convicted of the crime after bragging publicly about their involvement. “They were directionless youths, so immersed in various forms of escapism that hardly anything seemed real to them anymore.” Both killers are still in prison.


The Fury of Judge McDonald: Romenesko told the bizarre story (November 1985) of Dan McDonald, an ex-judge from Lafayette County who was wound just a little too tight. A Marquette Law School grad who despised lawyers, McDonald was convicted in the 1985 stabbing murder of Jim Klein, an easygoing attorney who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ex-judge had meant to do away with the prosecutor, who had defeated him in a bitter election campaign. “I didn’t know where the blood came from,” McDonald told his psychiatrist. “I didn’t know I had hurt Jim.” Six months after his conviction, McDonald died in his prison cell, apparently of a heart attack.


Murder in Dairyland:Lori Esker was crowned Dairy Princess of Marathon County in June 1989. Three months, later she strangled her ex-boyfriend’s newfound love in a motel parking lot outside of Wausau. Romenesko (February 1990) described Esker’s re-enactment of the murder, as told by a police sergeant: “Lori Esker then took my belt and in a split second had it wrapped around my neck and once again applied a good amount of pressure to my neck. …Esker had a very intense look on her face. At no time did she hesitate…” Her story was made into a TV movie titled Midwest Obsession, aka Beauty’s Revenge. Esker was convicted and is still behind bars.


Scenes from a Courthouse:Romenesko presented (April 1992) the not-for-primetime vignettes from notorious mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer’s February 1992 trial, including this gem: “One day, Channel 4’s Nancy Chandler decides she can’t take it anymore. She complains to officials that [Dahmer groupie] Angela Zettel … has annoying body odor. Deputies escort the devoted Dahmer fan from her seat and ask her to take care of the problem. She does – going to her home – but returns promptly to continue staring at the man who gives her love fantasies.” And this one: “A band called Macabre … has recorded some 30 songs about serial killers. … [The] group’s next effort is going to be an all-Dahmer LP called What’s That Smell?”


The Pulp Vat Murder: Tom Monfils was a diligent Green Bay mill worker who may have been too honest for his own good. In November 1992, soon after making an anonymous call to police to report his colleagues’ plan to steal an electrical cord, his mangled body was fished out of a pulp vat in the paper mill. As Romenesko (August 1993) described it, “Tied around his neck was a jump rope with a 40-pound weight attached to it.”


Hired to Kill:“She was obsessively jealous,” wrote Romenesko (August 1995), and “if she caught [her husband] cheating … said she’d hire a hit man.” When her worst fears came true, teacher’s aide Diane Borchardt hired three bored teen boys to kill her soon-to-be divorced husband. Ruben Borchardt died in his son’s arms on Easter morning 1994 in his Jefferson County home. “I can’t believe she would do this to me,” he said before falling into unconsciousness. Today, two of the youths remain in prison, and Borchardt, known as “Mrs. B.” to the hit men, er, hit boys, remains in Taycheedah Correctional Institution, her parole eligibility date 2035.


All Three of Them:Al, Donna and Tom Krnak drove away from their Jefferson County home in July 1998, leaving no clues. Except maybe one – Andrew, the son who remained behind. Andrew professed his innocence in interview after interview, including one with Milwaukee Magazine writer Stephen Filmanowicz outside the family home. (A wary Filmanowicz declined Andrew’s invitation to go inside and have a beer.) Many people who knew the Krnaks, Filmanowicz wrote (November 1998), were suspicious of Andrew. “He’s like a snake that changed his skin from black to green,” one Sullivan resident said. Andrew Krnak was finally convicted of his father’s murder in April 2006.


Dead Silence: On Nov. 5, 1974, a bomb wrapped in a decorative gift box killed paperboy Larry Anstett by mistake as he tromped down the sidewalk on his route. “The force of the blast killed Larry instantly,” wrote Kurt Chandler (March 2001). “His face was burned beyond recognition, his right eye ripped from its socket. Both of his hands were blown away and the bones in his arms shattered. Dozens of metal fragments were shot into his neck and chest, tearing into his windpipe and lungs.” The bombing was a hit gone bad by members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang. Seven murders followed. Police believed the killer was a Waukesha man, but then-Waukesha DA Paul Bucher declined to prosecute.


Blood Simple: In a case that dripped with irony, Steven Avery was convicted of savagely raping and killing photographer Teresa Halbach on Halloween 2005 at his family salvage yard in Manitowoc County. Avery had been a poster boy for the movement to free falsely imprisoned inmates just two years earlier, when he was exonerated of a rape and released after 18 years behind bars. Following his arrest for Halbach’s murder, Avery maintained that he had been set up by vengeful police investigators. But in a shocking twist, his guilt was sealed when his 15-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed to being an accomplice. “Avery handed the knife to his nephew. ‘Cut her neck,’ Avery told him. And the teen obeyed,” wrote Chandler (May 2006). Both killers now face long futures in prison: Dassey, no parole until 2048; Avery, no parole ever.


The Federal Prosecutors

Tom Schneider: Kurt Chandler’s March 1999 profile of Schneider found he had a huge credibility problem among Milwaukee lawyers – and his own staff – compounded by two internal investigations that hung over his head throughout his eight-year term. “We were once a pearl within the legal community,” a longtime assistant U.S. attorney said of the office. “We’re not anymore.” Schneider, who left in 2001, was cleared in the investigations, and now runs COA Youth & Family Center.


Franklyn Gimbel: As a young federal prosecutor, Gimbel put mob boss Frank Balistrieri away for tax evasion, then jumped to the other side as a defense attorney. “Nobody wants to help people who burn your buildings [or] kill your children,” Gimbel told writer Joel McNally (September 2003). “But… the American way of life is [based on] the ability to be represented by a lawyer and stand up to your government.” A power-wielding Democrat, board chairman of the Wisconsin Center District and cancer survivor, Gimbel was dubbed “Mr. Clout” by the magazine.


Stephen Biskupic: The successor to Tom Schneider, Biskupic was hardly a household name when appointed U.S. attorney. But he soon made headlines with the prosecution of corrupt Milwaukee alderpersons Rosa Cameron, Jeff Pawlinski and Paul Henningsen. Critics claimed his prosecutions smacked of politics, as the White House secretly pushed U.S. attorneys to prosecute Democrats. As evidence, they later jumped on an appellate court decision throwing out his conviction of Gov. Jim Doyle aide Georgia Thompson. “This is not about politics, this is not about making headlines,” Biskupic told writer Mark Kass (December 2003). A federal appointee until 2009, Biskupic is currently building a criminal case against Alderman Michael McGee Jr.


Tales of Top Cops

Robert Ziarnik:When Police Chief Robert Ziarnik took over for longtime leader Harold Breier in 1983, Milwaukee had one of the nation’s largest per capita police forces, and officers often made calls to help citizens change light bulbs and fuses. But the department, reporter Jim Romenesko (July 1986) noted, was woefully behind the times. Computerization was almost nonexistent. Smoother and more conciliatory than Breier, Ziarnik modernized the department, but some old-guard cops weren’t satisfied. “BBB” (Bring Back Breier) was their rallying cry, though some wags suggested it really meant “Bring Back Beck,” referring to the city’s very first chief, William Beck.


Philip Arreola:The city’s first Hispanic police chief, he succeeded Ziarnik in 1989. The Jeffrey Dahmer case and other controversies left Arreola “Under Fire,” a November 1991 cover story declared. Well-spoken, with a law degree, Arreola’s firing of two police officers who returned a teen victim to Dahmer put him at odds with the police union. “What you need is a chief like a Harold Breier who took the Dale Carnegie course,” he told Romenesko. Mayor John Norquist soon soured on that soft-pedaled style, and Arreola left for the top cop job in Tacoma, Wash. He now heads the regional office in Colorado for the federal Department of Justice.


Arthur Jones:Norquist wanted a tougher successor to Arreola, but police officers saw Chief Arthur Jones’ tenure as a “reign of terror.” Jones felt right-wing racists were out to get him. “Super Cop or Genghis Kahn?” asked reporter Mary Van de Kamp Nohl (February 1999) in a story that showed how Jones courageously fought racism in the department for years, only to become a tyrant when he took over. “I respect the man and what he’s trying to do, I’m just at odds with the way he’s trying to do it … like a dictator,” said Police Capt. Howard K. Lindstedt.


Nannette Hegerty:The “BBB” saying got resurrected after she took over, and they weren’t talking about William Beck. But Hegerty, the first woman to serve as Milwaukee Police Chief, “reached out to minorities … while getting tougher on crime” and “managed relations reasonably well with the thorny police union even as she took a tough stand against rogue cops,” our March 2007 Endgame noted. “Hegerty’s record has been solid and her reforms well-received.” Yet Mayor Tom Barrett was dissatisfied with her performance, the column noted, leading Hegerty to resign.


Sheriff David Clarke: Clarke was criticized in the black community for being “the acceptable Negro,” but others saw him as a reformer and the right man for the job. “He has problems with black people,” said Michelle Bryant, an African-American community activist. Kurt Chandler’s July 2003 profile uncovered a man who was at once charismatic and polarizing – and still is.


Little Criminals

Jive Wars:Writer Jim Romenesko chronicled the city’s youth gangs in March 1984: “They swarmed onto Wisconsin Avenue like a pack of wolves, hundreds of them, streaming down Third and Fourth streets from the arena. … Something new had been loosed on the streets, and it would soon become a reign of terror. … ‘I grew up wanting to be a gangster, ever since I was 6 or 7,’ said (gang member) Bruce Narten. ‘I like the way they dressed.’ ”


Urban Psychosis:Defense attorney Robin Shellow created a stir with her theory that the social pathology of the inner city caused a teenage girl to suffer “urban psychosis,” which led her to fatally shoot another girl over a leather jacket. “In a well-constructed tragedy, there is no right or wrong. I try to leave room for the audience – the community – to make up their mind about what is the just thing to do,” Shellow told Kurt Chandler(May 1997). Prosecutor David Robles was dismissive: “Robin … tries to convince people that something is a dog when it’s a cow.” Shellow lost the case.


No Exit:The mob beating death of Charlie Young Jr. shook the city. Nearly all of Young’s 15 assailants were teenagers. Chandler (March 2003) traced the lives of two of the teens, brothers Marlin and Don Dixon, ages 14 and 13, who were raised in a broken home in a violent neighborhood. “Sometimes you get kids who are not monsters,” said Christopher Foley, Chief Judge of Children’s Court at the time. “The values of the streets jump up and grab their souls. And getting them back is a very difficult proposition.”


Gang Wars:“When you look at violent crime in Milwaukee, it’s related to gangs, drugs and guns, and these three things run together,” Police Chief Nannette Hegerty told reporter Mario Quadracci (January 2007). An inside look at Milwaukee’s secret and bloody world of organized thugs, tough cops and informants who walk a dangerous line between the murder-plagued street game and the law.