The 911 call carried an urgent message: Gunshots, Estabrook Park. At any time, it would prompt a frantic response. At this time, especially so. It was 7:41 a.m. on a chilly November morning. Rush hour. Every day, about 25,000 cars traverse the Capitol Drive bridge across the Milwaukee River, with the biggest concentration happening now. People are driving to work. Buses are heading to schools.
Officers from three different departments arrived, lights and sirens flashing, to find the day’s first surprise. At 7:45 a.m., officers already had stopped a suspect, a lanky man with a shaved head and raggedy army surplus clothes. Far from running away, the suspect actually walked toward them – south on Humboldt toward Capitol. “My dog’s missing,” the distraught man told UW-Milwaukee officers. “I got frustrated and fired three shots into the river.”
Four minutes after the initial 911 call, they had the gunman and a confession that required zero coaxing. But they didn’t have a gun – he wasn’t carrying – or any identifying details. He refused to give a name or address. So other officers, en masse, headed down the steep slope to the riverside trail.
They didn’t immediately find a weapon or ammo. What they did find was a bunker. That hole in the ground was the first of many pieces that, fitted together, revealed a man living completely off the grid and literally underground right in the midst of a bustling, heavily populated area. The public got its first glimpse of him by way of his mugshot, blasted across Milwaukee media and spread throughout the nation and world later that day – Nov. 20, 2019. His eyes darted sideways, locked in a haunting, zombie-like glare.
This patch of woods north of the Capitol bridge is particularly remote, just up a hill from a pond that sits next to the river. Halfway up the riverbank, the bunker was dug into the slope, with stacked paver bricks shoring up the dirt walls. The wooden pallets and scrap wood that had been a ceiling had caved in. A search through the pillows, blankets and clothing in the structure yielded no weapons.
At this point, officers encountered a middle-aged man, Todd Rongstad, walking the river trail with his small dog, as he does most days after dropping his kids off at school. Does he know the guy who lived here? “I’ve known him to be around here for about 15 years now,” he told them, according to the police report. “He’s had dogs and he takes pretty good care of them. He likes to take his gun out and show it. He’s never threatened anyone. He has a real race issue.”
Rongstad informed the officers that the suspect hasn’t lived in this particular bunker for years, but he’s still in the neighborhood. He walked them south on the scraggly trail, passing a lone fisherman and a few joggers. They climbed the wooded slope just north of Capitol, in the shadow of WTMJ’s studio and its massive TV towers. Just a short walk from Humboldt and the giant park-and-ride lot for UWM, bags and garbage strewn across the dirt alerted them that they had arrived.
The basic structure was the same as bunker No. 1, but its size was, by comparison, palatial. Officers first uncovered a 10-by-10-foot pit that, in bunker terms, seemed to be a storage shed. It was cluttered with bicycle parts. Nearby, officers removed a plywood roof and descended a ladder into the living area. It measured 20 feet long by 12 feet wide, with a 6-foot ceiling.
Immediately, they spotted three shell casings at the base of the ladder. They sorted through the clutter, which included a generator, a grill, propane tanks, power tools and canned food. By a bed, they found four guns – a pistol, a rifle and two shotguns, one that was sawed-off, plus ammo for each. A state ID card carried the occupant’s name: Geoffrey Graff, age 41.
Graff was placed under arrest and taken for questioning. He grew even more distraught about his missing German shepherd, Violet.
The discovery of Graff’s carefully constructed world, and his weapons stash, surprised even some hardened vets.
“I’ve been in this business 44 years now,” Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas said. “This proved to be a totally different day from all the others I’ve encountered in 44 years.”
Milwaukee police were less impressed.
“You mean Spider Hole Geoff?” an officer asked. “We’ve known about him for years.”
THE TWO LITTLE BOYS sat criss-cross applesauce. Between them, on the floor of the Montessori day care in Salt Lake City, was a cardboard box they’d converted into a chess board. One of the boys had dark skin and a head of glossy black ringlets. The other, Geoffrey Graff, was blonde and chubby, with blue eyes.
The boy with the curls learned chess from his dad – many in the school were children of professors at the University of Utah and came from all over the world – and taught Graff, then 3 years old, to play so he’d have a partner. “These two guys were locked in an intellectually deadly match,” says Graff’s mother, Kathy. “They were playing for blood.”
Geoff had earlier surprised day care staff by picking up a book and reading it to himself. He was 2. Then he read books aloud as his teachers did, holding the book up so the kids around him could see the pictures. No one had taught him to read, his mother says. He just started doing it.
The early flashes of unusual intelligence were striking but, in context, not entirely surprising. Kathy Graff had finished graduate school and was starting work as an analytical chemist. The male-dominated field squeezed out all but the most high-powered, intelligent women, which Graff was by most measures.
Kathy Graff raised her son by herself from the start. She knew Geoff’s father only briefly, during a dalliance in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, when Kathy was visiting from her native Pennsylvania and the man was in town from St. Louis. They went their separate ways, and he never re-emerged.
Mother and son hopscotched the country in his early years, as she took any opportunities she could find for employment in industry and academia. Geoffrey Graff was born in rural Pennsylvania, the family’s ancestral home, and did stops in Utah and New Jersey before moving to Milwaukee, where they knew no one, on New Year’s Day 1984. Geoff was in first grade. Kathy was starting a job with a company in Mequon, which she stuck with for the next two decades.
When they arrived at their rented home in Grafton that New Year’s Day, she recalls snowdrifts reaching the eaves of the garage. They had taken up skiing in Utah, so the abundance of snow excited them. After a year or two in Grafton, mother and son moved to the East Side. Kathy bought a bungalow on Newhall Street, close to the Oak Leaf Trail and the Milwaukee River. The easy access spawned a passion for mother-son bike rides, which they undertook regularly. Geoff played a lot of soccer, and often they’d ride together to his practices at Estabrook Park – directly across the river from the woods where he eventually built his bunkers and assembled his arsenal.
IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, Geoff faced a choice. He had to leave Milwaukee, although the circumstances forcing the move are slightly in dispute. His mother recalls that he just refused to attend school anymore due to the widespread violence and bullying. Graff told a psychiatrist during a competency hearing in 2010 that the school forced the issue, expelling him for bringing a “ninja star” to ward off bullies. His mother told him he could join his grandparents on their rural homestead in western Pennsylvania, her brother in Illinois or her sister in New York’s Hudson Valley.
He chose his grandparents in Elderton, Pennsylvania.
The move brought to a close his uncommonly turbulent childhood in Milwaukee. Part of the problem came from his environment. The East Side neighborhood hadn’t gentrified yet and brought gritty urban problems up close and personal. He was in elementary school, when friends of his discovered a murdered woman’s corpse dumped near the Oak Leaf Trail. A different time, someone left cocaine in Cracker Jack boxes beside the trail.
Beyond the outside influences, Graff faced internal demons that never seemed to let up. His unusual intelligence meant he often was bored in school, and he didn’t do well socially. Kathy got her son mental health support starting in his early elementary years, when he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He behaved well one-on-one, but he’d go crazy in a large classroom,” his mother says.
He was hospitalized three times between ages 8 and 10 at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. In addition to ADHD, he was diagnosed at different times with conduct, schizotypal personality and adjustment disorders. He took various medications and cycled through different schools, both Grafton and Milwaukee public schools and private. Nothing seemed to change his trajectory.
“There was no place that he fit in really well,” Kathy says.
The move to Pennsylvania did change his trajectory. He had been close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, since birth. The rural 40 acres gave him respite from whatever pressures he faced, and he was known to escape periodically for a day or two into the surrounding hills, pitch a pup tent and come in only for meals, his mother says. In high school, he was placed into the Lenape Area Vocational Technical School program, where he had ample opportunity to work with his hands, training in precision machinery in addition to the usual high school curriculum. His mother remembers him evening out academically and socially, becoming a regular on the honor roll and attending formal dances.
“I think he was able to repress his problems so he could function better,” she says. “He loved it. He said, in Milwaukee all the girls go to private school because public school’s too scary. In Pennsylvania, they went to public school and they were nice.”
At graduation in 1996, he had earned an apprenticeship as a machinist with Oberg Industries. His grandparents gave him a used white Chevy sports car as a graduation present. The future looked bright.
But Graff’s rising social status in high school had come with a price: he started dabbling in drugs and alcohol. After high school, he grew more irresponsible in his choices. He wrecked the sports car, plus some other cars. One night, a few years into his apprenticeship, police found him pulled over, asleep at the wheel and heavily intoxicated, according to his mother. They found a marijuana pipe.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy who got home from work, ate supper and went to sleep,” Kathy says. “He’s kind of a party animal, but in another way, he’s withdrawn and mistrustful of people. He doesn’t trust me, for sure.”
After Milwaukee woes chased him to Pennsylvania for high school, Pennsylvania woes chased him back to Milwaukee in his early 20s. This time, there was no redemption story, not even for a while.
The substance abuse continued. Graff worked a series of jobs, mostly through temp agencies, delivering bottled water in the suburbs, doing landscaping, laying fiber optic cable.
One morning, he showed up at his mother’s place beaten and bloodied. He’d done a wee-hours drug run after his group’s supply ran out and paid with counterfeit bills. For this indiscretion, he received street justice.
“I told him he was lucky he was just beaten up,” says his mother. “I knew of people who were killed for doing less than what he did.” The next time she saw him, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a pistol. She believes it was his first gun.
“He showed it to me,” she says. “He wasn’t going to get beat up again.”
THERE’S BUDDY AND CRAZY GIRL, Vom Graff and Fat Boy, BT and Little Big Girl, Little Piggy and Big Eyes, Poopers and Feral. They’re German shepherds – with one pit bull mixed in – that Graff has owned since 2005 before the dogs were seized, usually forever, by the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission.
Over and over, Graff got a dog or dogs from a classified ad in the newspaper; at one point he was rumored to have enough to pull a sled in the Iditarod. By all accounts, he loved the dogs with every fiber of his being but trained them with the severity of a drill sergeant. In his chaotic world, where he trusted no human, the dogs served as protectors and best buds – until they were taken from him. The reasons are predictable. Graff didn’t provide them a home and didn’t keep them current on shots and vaccinations. Once the dogs were in custody, Graff would attempt to get them back, often showing up in person at MADACC’s headquarters near Miller Park. Always, though, he lacked the necessary money to spring them. Often, he lashed out in anger.
In the early 2000s, when Graff was drifting from apartment to apartment and job to job in Milwaukee, he scored a gig that seemed heaven-sent. A contractor hired him – and his team of dogs – to patrol a vacant patch of riverfront near Downtown. Their mission: chase off any gulls that were thinking of nesting at what was to become a massive construction site in the coming months. “He’d show up at 6 a.m. and he’d run them in shifts,” says Kathy Graff. “He’d patrol it from dawn to dusk.”
Her son’s obsession with German shepherds started very young, though her work schedule and lack of a car prevented them from having a dog. A shepherd named Dogowitz, who had been trained by the U.S. Forest Service, was left to friends of his mother’s in Utah. Soon Dogowitz was running alongside them on cross-country skiing trips in the mountains. “Geoff fell in love with Dogowitz,” she says. “He’s always loved German shepherds.”
“I CERTIFY TO THE BEST OF MY KNOWLEDGE and determination that Geoffrey Graff cannot be found.” That’s from a signed affidavit filed in a small claims case against him by a former landlord. Multiple signs point to 2005, the year of the disappearance affidavit, as when Graff stopped living as a vagabond – sleeping in a van for a while, a rooming house for a while, in a tent in a friend’s backyard for a while – and settled down, in his own way, in his bunker.
“That hole in the ground was probably the most stable house he had in 10 years,” his mother says. “He could have the amount of social contact he was comfortable with.”
In August 2005, Kathy Graff left Milwaukee for good, taking early retirement due to disability and moving back to Pennsylvania to care for her elderly parents. It was the last time she saw her son. His fate left her “worried sick,” she says, but she had to get on with her life, noting that her son was well into adulthood and needed her less than her parents did.
A few years earlier, she learned of a hiring fair far outside the city and got her son a nice outfit for it. She and a friend dropped him off, all spiffed up, for the event. A few minutes later, he was back, banging on her car door, in a panic.
They want to give me a job in a bank, he told her. “Well, what’s wrong with that?” she replied. They want to send me to school and train me, he continued, and they’ll pay me to go to school, and they’ll pay full-time.
“He’s going through all this stuff that people would die to have,” she says. “And he’s totally freaked that they’re trying to steal his soul or something. He was fighting some severe demons.”
He went into the woods in the city and largely fought those demons alone.
TODD RONGSTAD WAS WALKING his Australian cattle dog and Jack Russell terrier, off-leash as always, when he first met Graff, who was flanked by his German shepherds. It was 2005 or 2006. They bonded quickly over dogs and a shared love for the wildness of that stretch of riverbank.
“He felt that the space down there was his, in a way,” Rongstad says. “I was somebody who wasn’t offended by him, and I think he likes to talk. He liked to talk about his grievances with people taking his dogs away and how that wasn’t right.”
Early on, Graff showed Rongstad his gun, explaining that he keeps it for self-protection, and pointed him to his bunker.
Rongstad says Graff didn’t seem to drink or do drugs much, an observation shared by others who know him. One friend says Graff would often complain about other homeless folks who, in their public drunkenness, give the rest a bad name. Graff built a pretty stable life, all things considered, tinkering constantly to upgrade his motorized mountain bike – “you could always hear him coming,” says another friend – disciplining his dogs and doing bunker improvement projects.
He worked seasonally, putting in long days all summer – on the loading dock at Walmart, in the kitchen at Bavarian Bierhaus, or doing handyman work – so he could hunker down and not move much all winter. He had a membership at a nearby Planet Fitness, which can be had as cheaply as $10 a month, so he could bathe daily, and he kept himself and his dogs well fed with canned food and meats he prepared on the grill and a kerosene stove.
In a way, he was kind of a reality show waiting to be filmed. Rongstad happens to be a filmmaker and, early on, thought Graff would make a compelling subject. Graff himself torpedoed that idea.
“He started throwing the N-word around,” Rongstad says. “I mean, he was clearly trying to feel me out, see if I was on his team. And I’m like, ‘No.’ And so that really made me sort of want to avoid the interactions because he would end up just saying crazy shit. I couldn’t pretend to be comfortable with that kind of nonsense or give him a platform.”
For a few years, Rongstad did his best to avoid Graff and largely succeeded. In that time, Graff moved downriver to his new bunker; it’s not clear why. Once, Rongstad noted with disgust that someone had dumped a large amount of garbage along the hillside by the river. “The next time I came back, it was gone,” Rongstad says. “I assumed [Graff] had cleaned it up. I really do believe he saw this as his place.”
Rongstad found a fresh reason to avoid Graff in 2019. They ran into each other, and, as usual, Graff had a lot to say. On his mind: President Donald Trump.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, he’s stopped them damn Mexicans from coming,’” Rongstad says. “It wasn’t threatening or anything like that, but it was pretty repulsive stuff that he was saying, white nationalist stuff. He just was really excited and happy with this sort of change in the world, which really kind of made me crazy.”
State voter records show that Graff has voted only once, in the 2016 general election, when Trump was on the ballot. He listed his address at Repairers of the Breach, a homeless day center. His mother notes that their patch of western Pennsylvania is home to right-wing militias and is a Tea Party hotbed. “I think he picked that up back here,” she says. “I don’t think he was that way when he was in Milwaukee, at least at first.”
Graff had shut off contact with most of his family but remained in touch with his grandfather. He’d call on holidays and on his grandpa’s birthday. Out of character, he rang on each of the three days leading up to his arrest this year, for reasons unknown. His grandfather is hard of hearing, and Graff’s speech tended to be rambling and difficult to decipher. This Christmas, Graff sat in jail and didn’t call his grandfather for the first time in many years.
It’s hard to imagine anyone less suited to life in jail. Graff’s been in the Downtown lockup since his arrest in late November, facing two low-level felonies – recklessly endangering safety and possessing a short-barrel shotgun – that, together, would add up to a sentence of up to 16 years (he’s likely to plead down to nowhere near that time). A friend who visited Graff twice in the weeks after his arrest says he deteriorated quickly, going from the orange jumpsuit of the general population to the red of high-risk after allegedly threatening a guard. His dog, Violet, was adopted out. All his possessions were taken, with whereabouts unknown, which his mother says upset him, in part, because he wanted to donate his generator to his grandpa, who needs one to run his in-home ventilator. Milwaukee Area Technical College, which owns the land where he built the bunker, served him with an eviction notice.
Most who know Graff hope for a way out of his current legal predicament, arguing that he’s a flawed guy with unmet mental health needs, who was at heart trying to stay out of society’s way. His mother cites economics, arguing the cost of incarcerating him far exceeds letting him be outside, where he collected about $100 a month in food stamps, she says, but otherwise managed on his own. She also noted his cooperation.
“He surrendered without any struggle at all,” Kathy Graff says. “He exercised some good judgment when he was arrested. He was trying to cooperate and he got hit with everything.”