In the town of Hesper, a remote area in northeastern Iowa, a marked gravestone lies in a cemetery without a body.
The headstone reads: Ricky Jean Bryant, 1945-1949, but no casket will be found underneath the soil. It’s another odd twist in the mysterious case of Bryant, a four-year-old girl from rural Mauston who vanished during a house fire Dec. 19, 1949. She was never heard from again.
Shaun Goyette of the Juneau County Sheriff’s Office was assigned the case after he was promoted to detective several years ago. Goyette sees the case file every day when he enters his office. Bryant’s disappearance was a cold case long before Goyette took it on and it could remain open years after he leaves. But it’s cases like these which remain unsolved for years, sometimes decades, which push investigators to find the truth.
While other current cases take up most of their time, for area detectives, unsolved cases remain in the back of their minds. They’ll review the cases every now and then, check for new information and try to hunt down leads. Sometimes the leads are fruitful, other times, they’re dead ends. The pursuit of the truth, bringing the perpetrators to justice and the drive to bring closure to victims’ families remains the biggest objective.
In many of these cases somebody knows something and it often takes just one person to come forward to solve a mystery.
What happened to Bryant?
Sitting in the conference room at the Juneau County Justice Center, Goyette pours through the Bryant file. He picks out old newspaper clippings from the New Lisbon Times and the Mauston Star detailing the events of the day the small girl went missing. Years later, the story drew statewide attention when the Milwaukee Sentinel interviewed Bryant’s siblings in 1987.
It remains one of Juneau County’s biggest mysteries.
After the fire broke out, Bryant, along with older brother, Forrest and younger sister, Liz, went to the yard for safety. Forrest, who was a year older than Ricky, who also went by Jeannie, recalled seeing an expensive car drive up to the home. A woman got out and told Forrest to run to a neighbor’s house for help. When the boy returned, Liz was still there, but Ricky and the woman were gone.
It was initially assumed Ricky had died in the fire. Particles appearing to be human bones were analyzed but came back negative. Evidence never verified Ricky died in the blaze.
“The original reports were destroyed in a flood at the old sheriff’s department,” Goyette said of the Bryant case. “The family came back in 2005 and filed a new missing persons report. It’s been an active case since then.”
The sheriff’s office took DNA samples from Bryant’s siblings, which were placed in a national database. When a woman from California called with questions about her past and seemed to fit the description of Bryant, Goyette was optimistic, but the DNA did not match.
“There have been so many unanswered questions,” Goyette said. “There was talk there may have been somebody in Minnesota who may have information, but nobody has come forward.”
The Minnesota reference is compelling, because after Bryant disappeared, her siblings remembered their mother, Opal Bryant, taking weekend trips to the state. She never discussed why she would go to Minnesota and the family never talked about the weekend excursions. A rumor surfaced Bryant may have been born out of wedlock and the fire was started intentionally to mask a possible abduction.
Did the mysterious woman in the nice car kidnap the girl to Minnesota?
After she was lost, her siblings were told not to speak of her. The Bryants had family in Iowa and based on her mother’s insistence, the family placed a gravestone honoring Bryant in the town of Hesper in 1979. Members of her family remained convinced Bryant didn’t perish in the fire and she was living somewhere.
Goyette said Forrest passed away recently, but Bryant’s two sisters are still alive. After all these years, they still search for the truth. If Bryant is still alive she would be in her early seventies. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children published an updated composite photo of what Bryant would have looked like in 2012.
“The problem is no one from the fire department is still around from back then, no one from the sheriff’s department is still around and some members of her family have passed,” Goyette said. “No one has come forward and the case still sits on my desk. My gut feeling is she didn’t perish in that fire.”
Retired sheriff remembers Blackstone murder
Gervase Thompson didn’t deal with many murders during his tenure as Juneau County sheriff from 1982-89, but the one that went unsolved still keeps him puzzled.
Barbara Blackstone was a 30-year-old, well-respected teacher at New Lisbon High School. On the afternoon of July 9, 1987, Blackstone left a gas station near her house in Lyndon Station, returned home to finish lawn mowing a strip of land and at some point was abducted.
Her husband, Tom, came home from a landscaping job around 6 p.m. and couldn’t find his wife anywhere. Her car was parked at the property and her purse was still in the house, along with the family dog. After contacting neighbors and getting nowhere, Tom called the sheriff’s department.
Thompson said Chief Deputy Richard Giese took a statement from Tom and authorities began searching the area the following day. The search party received help from Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Juneau County native, when he ordered a helicopter to inspect the area.
“When we searched the car, her keys were inside and some cash was lying there as well,” Thompson said. “As I recall there wasn’t any signs of a struggle down by the tractor she used for mowing and the car. We searched for a better part of a week for her all over the countryside, walking corn fields and through woods.”
Investigators even pumped a septic system on the property to find any traces of Blackstone’s body or other evidence.
Finally, nearly a month after she went missing, a hunter discovered Blackstone’s body in a wooded area two miles south of Blanchardville. Blackstone was left near Argyle where she grew up. Her body was badly decomposed and it took dental records to confirm it was Blackstone.
“I don’t think they ever determined the cause of death,” Thompson said. “She had been out in 90 degree heat most of that month, so between the heat and various varmints, there wasn’t much left. The strangest thing in this was she was found eight miles from where she grew up.”
July of 1987 was a month of terror for local residents. Two other women were brutally murdered in neighboring Sauk and Adams counties. It was determined the cases weren’t related because two separate men were charged with the other homicides.
After 30 years, Thompson still believes Blackstone knew her killer since there appeared to be no struggle and she was discarded so close to her childhood home. On the one-year anniversary of her abduction, the sheriff’s department set up a stake out along Delmore Road, near Blackstone’s home. They stopped every car that drove down the road and questioned people. The theory behind the ploy was to see if the killer would return to the scene to “celebrate” the first anniversary of their heinous crime. No leads showed up in the random vehicle check.
While three decades have passed, Blackstone’s case has not been forgotten. The popular computer and business teacher left an impact on her students, including Marc Andreessen, the creator of the Netscape web browser. In 2009, the case was reopened and Andreessen offered a $25,000 reward for information in the case.
The Blackstone case remains open in Juneau County, but most of the investigation was turned over to the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation.
Vicious act in Necedah
In the winter of 2003, the small, sleepy town of Necedah was rocked after the brazen killing of Tom Nowicki.
Nowicki, 49 at the time of his death, was found shot to death in a shed on his property along 28th Street. The killer fired one bullet to the back of Nowicki’s head and left him to die on a cold January day 14 years ago. Upon initial investigation, the Juneau County Sheriff’s Office didn’t know if Nowicki’s murder was a random act of if he was an intended target. More than a decade later, many questions remain unanswered.
Weeks following the homicide, Sheriff Brent Oleson kept the public informed of the investigation through a weekly column in the Star-Times. In one piece, Oleson wrote, “it’s a sadistic individual who can raise a gun to the head of another individual and then pull the trigger.”
Later that winter, Nowicki’s niece, Linda, wrote a heartfelt tribute to her uncle as a letter to the editor. Linda’s letter reflected the family's thoughts during a very difficult time.
“There are 49 years of wonderful memories and we owe it to him to cherish those instead of the shocking way he died,” wrote Nowicki’s niece.
The sheriff’s department isn’t saying much about the Nowicki case, but continues to pursue leads. Detective Ben Goehring has been assigned the case, along with help from DCI.
“I do know that solving that case is very important to Sheriff Oleson,” Goyette said. “The Nowicki family still lives in the area and we would like to bring justice for the family so they have closure.”
Backeberg goes missing
What would prompt a young mother to leave her world behind and disappear in a city hundreds of miles away?
It’s the burning question baffling Sauk County detectives for 55 years. Audrey Jean Backeberg left her home in Reedsburg the day after her 20th birthday, traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana and hasn’t been seen since July 7, 1962. Little is known as to why Backeberg would leave her husband and two children behind, but a troubled marriage might have been the cause. Backeberg filed a domestic abuse claim against her husband a couple days prior to her disappearance. She told police he beat her, causing head injuries.
According to Detective Lt. Chris Zunker of the Sauk County Sheriff’s Office, Backeberg left with a 14-year-old girl, hitch-hiked to Madison and boarded a Greyhound bus to Indianapolis. The juvenile runaway became nervous and turned herself into police, but Backeberg apparently had no desire to return to Reedsburg. She reportedly stated she didn’t want to return, walked away from the bus stop and hasn’t been since.
“The juvenile was interviewed again as an adult, maybe 15 years ago,” Zunker said. “She stated Audrey had taken a bunch of pills, put them in a Coke can and drank it before taking the bus down to Indianapolis. She reported Audrey potentially hooked up with some construction workers that may have been in the area.”
Zunker believes three generations of Sauk County detectives have investigated the Backeberg case. The department has fielded tips from callers throughout the years, but hasn’t had solid evidence to pursue. Zunker said the case file continues to grow, but the mystery remains unsolved.
Assuming Backeberg is still alive, she would have turned 75 July 6.
“There’s a possibility she’s still alive and chooses to remain anonymous and has taken up a different identity, but we can’t prove that,” Zunker said. “But we certainly can’t prove the opposite either.”
After she went missing, investigators questioned her husband, Ronald, but he was cleared of any suspicion. In her report to police, Backeberg alleged her husband threatened to kill her and had two loaded firearms in his car.
“The prevailing theory in the case is that she didn’t want to be with him anymore,” Zunker said.
Body found under bridge
In the mid-1970s, two cases involving young people captivated the Lake Delton-Baraboo area.
In 1976, the body of 21-year-old Lisa Staes was found under a bridge off Highway 23 about three miles outside the village of Lake Delton. Staes was a resident of Leawood, Kansas.
“She was found nude under the bridge and it took us more than a year to identify her,” Zunker said.
For the past 40 years, authorities in Sauk County have worked with DCI to try to solve Staes’ murder. Zunker said he is actively reviewing evidence gathered at the scene to determine what should be resubmitted to the state crime lab. There is a chance Staes’ killer could have DNA in the system.
“From my understanding, she liked the nightlife,” Zunker said. “But we don’t know where she was prior to her death.”
It’s possible she could have been murdered in another area and the killer chose to dump her body in different location. Detectives aren’t sure how she was murdered.
“It is a case where we are strictly limited to physical evidence and we’re looking into whether new technology will yield different results,” Zunker said.
In September of 1977, Robert Louis Christian, an 18-year-old, went missing near Baraboo. The sheriff’s department published a missing person notice with vital information, but the case remains open after four decades.
Zunker said Christian left Madison Sept. 16 to meet a friend in Baraboo to go bow hunting the following day. Christian never saw his friend. His father reported him missing two days later. Police eventually found the car he was driving, an AMC Hornet, abandoned in the town of Greenfield near the Devil’s Lake bluffs.
“All four tires were missing and the battery was removed from the car,” Zunker said.
Mother Nature also hampered the investigation as it had rained prior to police finding the car. Any tire tracks or footprints that may have been there were washed away. Detectives did find the tires in a quarry south of Badger Ordinance. There was no sign of violence inside or outside the vehicle.
“Christian has not been located since and we don’t have many leads in that case,” Zunker said. “We hold out hope for the one break we need.”
Detectives placed Christian’s DNA into a national FBI database in 2013. If a body of an unidentified person is found, investigators can check to see if it matches Zunker’s profile.
Infant’s remains found
About eight years ago, a truly bizarre and disturbing discovery was made along Bunker Road in the town of Delton.
A woman collecting cans on the side of the road found a blue duffle bag which contained the bones of an infant, believed to be only a few weeks old. Due to the condition of the remains, authorities couldn’t determine the sex, race or how the baby died.
“We’ve never had anybody come forward that’s said, ‘Hey, this person was pregnant, she’s not now and I haven’t seen her with a kid,’” Zunker said. “We haven’t had any solid leads like that. It’s been more innuendo and those are tough leads to follow up on.”
The bag contained an afghan inside, but DNA tests haven’t led to a match. The physical evidence is limited.
“We don’t know the circumstances on the death, but it’s certainly a crime of hiding a corpse,” Zunker said. “Those cases are certainly heartbreakers, but we would love to put all these cases to closure.”
The detective said the first 48 hours of a homicide or missing person case is crucial. After two days the evidence trail often becomes murky. Witnesses either flee the area or choose not to talk and potential suspects are harder to pin down.
While the advent of forensic testing, computer databases and more advanced police work have aided local departments, most rural counties don’t have cold case units. The files are often assigned to a specific detective and are reviewed at least once a year. Zunker said retired investigators are often hired by DCI to assist in open cases.
“They have been a big help to many local agencies,” he said.
Sauk City police have been searching for a missing child for four years. Leonelly Barron, 3 at the time of his disappearance, may be with his non-custodial mother.
Jane Doe mystifies Portage area
Detective Lt. Roger Brandner and his team in Columbia County have a wide-range of cold cases to deal with, from suspicious homicides to hit-and-runs. Probably the most difficult to crack was the murder of an unidentified female, a Jane Doe, in the early 1980s.
Authorities believe the victim was killed from blunt-force trauma to the head. Her body was found in a ditch off Petra Road in the spring of 1982. Brandner believes she might have been killed several months earlier and wasn’t discovered for quite some time. A.J. Agnew, a fellow detective with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, said the woman was likely between age 45 and 65.
“It’s very tough when you have a homicide and the victim remains unidentified,” Brandner said. “A.J. was assigned this case a few years ago and has done a lot of work on it and developed a DNA profile and facial reconstruction with the FBI. It’s hard to believe in this day and age with social media that we have not got the right information to identify who this person was.”
“The body was all bones and clothing when she was found, so it could have been up to a year prior to when she was murdered,” Agnew said.
The woman’s remains were found by a man who was collected glass soda bottles. A couple people were looked at as suspects, but were ruled out.
Bringe death suspicious
When Lori Bringe died in August of 1988, her death was ruled a suicide. Jim Smith, who was the Columbia County sheriff at the time, kept thinking something was off about the case. Several years later, after retiring from law enforcement, Smith requested the case be reopened.
Bringe, a 33-year-old mother of two, was found with a gun-shot wound to her head in some woods near her Poynette home. Bringe was right-handed, but was shot on the left side, making a suicide unlikely.
“When she came home from work that day she was not depressed and there was no suicide note,” Brandner said. “Jim came back to us and said this was one that really bothered him. We’re convinced it is a homicide.”
Brandner said the department has a suspect in mind, but is not willing to release his name at this time.
Columbia County is also still trying to find the body of Beth Kutz who was allegedly killed by her husband in 2000. Dan Kutz was convicted of the murder in 2001, but will not disclose where he left the body. Back in 2000, she was going through a divorce and witnesses said her husband stalked her.
“We don’t know if other people were involved,” Brandner said. “We are confident someone knows something; they either know or are just not telling us or they have a bit of information they don’t know is important. We’ve exhausted some tips but they haven’t taken us in the right direction yet.”
Hit and runs stymie detectives
On Dec. 15, 1994, William Lawrence was walking along Highway 22 in the village of Wyocena before sunrise when a truck, a Ford pickup or Bronco from the late 1970s, struck and killed him. The vehicle stopped briefly then continued traveling southbound along Highway 22.
An eye witness said the truck was silver or gray and had passenger headlight assembly damage. The witness could not identify a description of the driver.
“She observed both the collision and saw the vehicle, but since most people didn’t have cell phones back then, she had to go to another gas station down the road, call 911 and report the incident,” said Det. Cory Miller.
Detectives realize finding a nearly 40-year-old truck will be difficult, but they feel someone knows a piece of valuable information.
“Maybe their loved one came home with a smashed vehicle or came back and sold it right away and they wondered why,” Brandner said. “Back in those days, media coverage wasn’t as wide spread. Nowadays when something like this happens people tend to know in minutes. Our hope is that someone local is still around and is willing to come forward.”
Since the case is considered a reckless homicide, the 15-year statute of limitations has passed. The perpetrator can’t be prosecuted, but Brandner and his team is still hoping to close the case and bring a sense of comfort to the Lawrence family.
The hit-and-run fatality of Shari Sampson in 2010 was especially grizzly. Sampson was found in the eastbound lane along Wolfram Road in the town of Lewiston.
“I think this started as an argument at a local tavern, called Sidetrack at the time, now it’s Triple Play,” Brandner said. “She was hit on the roadway and then ran over by a second vehicle. None of them stopped.”
Police are looking for a 2000-2002 Saturn S series with possible passenger side fog light and front lower fascia damage. Authorities are unsure what the make and model of the first car that struck Sampson was. It is believed she died before the second vehicle ran her over. Because the incident happened around 10 p.m. along a dark stretch of highway, identifying the vehicles was difficult.
While multiple cases remain unsolved, Columbia County authorities were pleased to finally put two to bed in recent years.
In November of 2010, a jury convicted Curtis Forbes of the 1980 murder of Marilyn McIntyre. Forbes was an initial suspect, but never charged in the days after the Columbus murder. The case was reopened in 2007 and Forbes was brought to justice. The McIntyre case attracted national intrigue and was profiled on Investigation Discovery’s “Ice Cold Killers” and CBS’s “Forty Eight Hours.”
In the death of Curtis Wylesky in 2001, authorities charged his girlfriend, Leah Waldhart, but the defendant was found not guilty. Brandner believes Waldhart committed the murder.
Brandner said it often takes “boots on the ground” work whether it’s interviewing suspects or taking a fresh look at evidence to solve cold cases. When law enforcement agencies exhaust all possible leads, a case turns cold.
“Sometimes people who didn’t want to talk back then decide to finally talk,” Brandner said. “In every cold case out there in every jurisdiction, someone knows something. That’s what will help us solve these cases and give families closure.”
Contact Kevin Damask at 608-963-7323 or on Twitter @kdamask