Town of Menasha police Detective Mike Krueger reveals one of several drawers filled with paperwork related to the Laurie Depies case in February 2002. Depies disappeared in 1992. / Gannett Wisconsin Media
One of several drawers filled with paperwork related to the Laurie Depies case is shown in February 2002 at the Town of Menasha Police Department. / Gannett Wisconsin Media
About ‘Cold Cases’
Gannett Wisconsin Media is publishing an exclusive four-week series called Cold Cases: Tracking Wisconsin’s Unsolved Murders. Cold Cases is the most comprehensive unsolved-murders project of regional and statewide interest ever assembled in a print and digital format. The Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team spearheaded the project in conjunction with local reporters at all 10 Gannett Wisconsin Media news organizations, including Post-Crescent Media. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison also partnered with the newspapers. The intent 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.
Coming Monday: Unsolved murders are heavy burden on grieving families.
MADISON — State officials keep track of all kinds of information — from record-breaking fish to registered ginseng dealers — but there’s no comprehensive listing of Wisconsin’s ever-increasing number of unsolved murders, a Gannett Wisconsin Media review found.
The absence of a data bank or central repository of information on the hundreds of homicides still on the books doesn’t sit well with Dave Robinson of Manitowoc. His brother, Terrance, was shot and killed in October 1998 in Milwaukee, the victim of an apparent armed robbery. The case is unsolved.
“From my standpoint, if we are going to spend any tax dollars on anything, this is the kind of thing you want to spend it on,” Robinson said. “I think it would serve a purpose and you never know, a statewide database might (help solve a crime).”
An analysis by Gannett Wisconsin Media revealed that there have been at least 282 homicides that went unsolved in Wisconsin between 2003-12. Add in prominent cases that date back to 1953 and that number rises to nearly 400. It’s possible the number could be much higher.
The analysis spanned 52 policing agencies in 34 Wisconsin counties. A team of reporters combed through media clips, court and police documents along with data from the state’s Office of Justice Assistance and Department of Justice to assemble the list.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge there are hundreds of unsolved murders, but since no single agency is keeping track, they aren’t sure how many.
In Wisconsin — as in many states — homicide files are found in file cabinets and computer systems of hundreds of police and sheriff departments. And it’s up to each police agency to create its own method of tracking the unsolved murders, said Lt. Wayne Smith of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department.
“It’s all over the board, from they do a good job to they don't do it at all,” Smith said. “There’s no requirement that agencies report these cases to the state, or anyone else.”
Smith, who recently served as president of the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators, said he once was surprised to learn that a law enforcement agency in his county had an unsolved homicide case. He only became aware of it when a family member called asking about the crime.
“There are cases out there that nobody knows about anymore, which is a shame,” he said. “I’d like to say it doesn’t happen anymore right now, but it does happen.”
Smith said having a database of unsolved murders could generate tips and leads from the public and possibly lead to a breakthrough in some cases.
Institutional barriers have stood in the way of establishing a public listing of cold cases. The progress of an investigation, and how broadly the case information is shared, depends on which agency is handling the case.
The lead agency on a homicide investigation is typically the agency located where the crime occurred, said Steve Daniels, a former high-risk parole agent for the Department of Corrections in Brown County. Daniels is now co-chairman of the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators cold case team.
“Sometimes it gets a little messy,” Daniels said. “You may have somebody taken from a home in a city and the body is dumped out in the county. The county has the body so it’s probably the county’s case unless they can show the actual homicide ... started in the city.
“It’s a little weird, but it’s something that gets worked out. But jurisdiction is always an issue.”
Once jurisdiction is sorted out, the local agency investigating the crime can decide whether it wants to request state help on the case. If it does, the case becomes part of the state Department of Justice’s homicide files.
But if local police don't request state help, the information often never gets to Madison.
John Summers, a special agent with the state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation’s cold case unit, estimates his agency has received information on just a third of Wisconsin’s unsolved homicides.
“Sheriff departments and police departments have these older homicides and they are unsolved,” he said. “Perhaps they are still working on them. Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they have reached a point where they have run all the viable leads and they are inactive. There are many, many out there that are not on our list at DCI.”
Listings vary by state
Rob Wells, executive director of the Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, a Colorado-based nonprofit, said the situation in Wisconsin is similar to many other states.
Some states publicize certain unsolved murders, but don’t publish a comprehensive listing, he said. For example, a Michigan State Police website highlights just six of its cold case homicides. The Illinois State Police site focuses on 24 cases, he noted.
“The tracking of (all) unsolved homicides is not something that’s the norm,” Wells said.
Wells’ group created a database of 1,500 unsolved homicides in Colorado dating to 1970 — an effort that eventually was taken over by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
“The database has been a real big tool for Colorado, and other agencies outside the state,” Wells said. “It’s opened up communication between agencies.”
The group also pushed through a change in Colorado law that requires police agencies to report to the state homicides that have been unsolved more than three years.
Wells said Wisconsin should take a look at what has been done in Colorado, including the possibility of a public-private cooperative to attack cold cases.
Prior to last week’s launch of the Gannett Wisconsin Media’s cold cases online database — one of the most complete listings of unsolved homicides in Wisconsin — the homicide investigators association in 2011 released two decks of playing cards highlighting cold cases.
Joell Schigur, special agent in charge of the state’s Cold Case Unit, said the cards were produced with the help of a $5,000 state grant. She said they were distributed to the Wisconsin prison and jail system, with the hope that they would generate information on old homicides.
The 104 cards represent 52 cold cases from Milwaukee and 52 from other jurisdictions.
“We had a little difficulty in getting what we got, but as far as I know it’s the best database in Wisconsin,” said Smith, the past president of the association.
The state doesn’t pretend the listing is comprehensive.
“Each agency has its own cases and so we only assist on those where we have been asked to assist,” said Dana Brueck, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice. “It’s not like there’s a clearinghouse of all cases.”
Lori Juedes, sister of Kenneth Juedes, who was murdered in Marathon County in 2006, said there’s an important reason why such a clearinghouse should exist.
“For every unsolved murder, there is at least one murderer who is free to kill again,” she said. “If you don’t know the reason why he killed your family member, you don’t know if he’s going to kill again, close to home.”
— Ben Jones: 608-255-9256, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @MadisonPolitics