Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists unveil unsolved murders project

1:01 PM, Jul. 6, 2013  |  Comments
John Ferak
John Ferak
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Amber Wilde, 19, never showed up for class on Sept. 23, 1998, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Fifteen years later, her killer remains free. Wilde's body was never found.

Someone abducted Berit Beck, 18, from a Fond du Lac shopping mall parking lot on July 17, 1990. Her body was later discovered in a ditch near Waupun.

The Beck family has waited 23 years for justice.

In central Wisconsin, the family of hunter Jim Southworth has waited 12 years for answers. Someone pumped two bullets into Southworth's back about 100 yards from his tree stand back on Nov. 23, 2001, about 15 miles from Marshfield.

"It's very difficult because I know that there is someone who knows something, and no one comes forward. I want justice," the victim's wife, Janis Southworth, recently told Gannett Wisconsin Media reporter Liz Welter.

Starting next Sunday, the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team will publish an extensive and compelling four-week series called Cold Cases: Tracking Wisconsin's Unsolved Murders. Cold Cases will be the most comprehensive unsolved murders project of a regional and statewide interest ever assembled in a print and digital format.

You can follow the entire four-week series in print, on mobile and by tablet at

To kick off the series, each of your Gannett Wisconsin Media newspapers is focusing on one specific unsolved murder case in your coverage area.

You might ask, why are we pursing this project? Aren't these stories reopening old, painful wounds for many families?

I can't stress enough: Most of our locally produced Gannett Wisconsin Media unsolved murder stories came together because our journalists achieved key cooperation and support from your local police departments, homicide investigators and the grieving families. Several investigators met with our journalists at the original crime scene to help us retell and recreate the circumstances of the slaying.

The intent and mission of Cold Cases is to generate new, valuable leads and tips for Wisconsin homicide investigators. Many of them have hit roadblocks or face dead ends even though they want to make an arrest.

"A series like this can only assist in generating public interest and additional information that can be beneficial to law enforcement in solving crimes," said Wayne Smith, president of the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators. His group has about 350 active members across the state.

Smith works as a lieutenant with the Columbia County Sheriff's Department in Portage. Three years ago, his investigative team achieved closure for the relatives of murder victim Marilyn McIntyre, 18. She was bludgeoned, stabbed and strangled inside her Columbus apartment in 1980.

Information from a local citizen who had previously not come forward helped crack a giant hole in the suspect's alibi, Smith said. In late 2010, Curtis Forbes of Randolph was convicted of killing McIntyre.

All too often, there's a common thread in many unsolved murder cases, Smith said.

"People often think the information they may have is insignificant, not important and then not call," Smith said. "I want to encourage them to make that phone call. That might just be the final piece of the puzzle we need to bring an answer to a family."

The Wisconsin unsolved murder stories that will appear in print, on mobile and by tablet starting next weekend will include contact information for you to provide tips to local police investigators overseeing the case.

One major public service component of Cold Cases is a first-of-its-kind unsolved murders digital database highlighting Wisconsin cases.

I-Team reporter Nick Penzenstadler is building the custom database, which will be a resource tool for citizens, law enforcement and victims' families. We plan to unveil the Cold Cases online database in late July.

On Sunday, Aug. 4, I-Team reporter Adam Rodewald and photojournalist Sharon Cekada will chronicle the frustrations of one Wisconsin detective. That investigator ultimately needs your help to identify the victim before he can determine where she came from and who murdered her.

I encourage you to share and like our investigative stories and story videos on Facebook and Twitter. It's important that as many people read these stories and watch our videos, regardless of whether they live in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

It is my hope that your tips and your leads might just hold the key to unlock some of Wisconsin's long-forgotten murder mysteries.

After all, justice delayed is still better than no justice at all.

Just ask the families of Amber Wilde, Berit Beck and Jim Southworth.

- John Ferak: 920-993-7115, or; on Twitter @johnferak

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