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Ferak: Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists unveil unsolved murders project (column)

1:23 AM, Jul. 7, 2013  |  Comments
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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 never was found.

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

The Beck family has waited 23 years for justice.

In central Wisconsin, the family of hunter Jim Southworth likewise has waited 12 years for answers. Someone pumped two bullets into Southworth's back about 100 yards from his tree stand 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 murder victim's wife, Janis Southworth, recently told Gannett Wisconsin Media reporter Liz Welter.

Starting next weekend, 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 regional and statewide interest ever assembled in a print and digital format.

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

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

I can't stress enough: Most of our unsolved murder stories came together because our journalists achieved key cooperation and support from local police departments, homicide investigators and grieving families. Several investigators met with our journalists at the original crime scenes to help us retell and re-create the circumstances of the slayings.

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 arrests.

"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 active 350 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 resident who had not come forward previously helped cracked 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."

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 better than no justice at all.

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

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