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Police officials recall frustrating pursuit of killer

Published Sunday, September 5, 1999 (The Post-Crescent)

By Steve Wideman and Dan Wilson
Post-Crescent Staff Writers

Convicted serial killer David Spanbauer looked at the drawing of the suspect in an attempted kidnapping in Waupaca County held by Langlade County Sheriff's Department Detective Ben Baker.

"The Fourth of July thing. That was me," Spanbauer said.

What the man who would later confess to three murders didn't know was the composite drawing wasn't of him. Just somebody who looked like him.

Spanbauer's confession in the attempted abduction July 3, 1994, of an Illinois woman near Hartman Creek State Park was the beginning of the end to a manhunt that started Sept. 5, 1994, when 12-year-old Cora Jones was kidnapped near her grandmother's home in rural Waupaca County.

Her body was found five days later in a ditch in Langlade County.

Three days after confessing to attempted abduction near Hartman Creek, the then 53-year-old Oshkosh man confessed to killing Jones, the 1992 murder of 10-year-old Ronelle Eichstedt who disappeared while riding her bicycle near her parents' Ripon home, and the July 9, 1994, murder of 21-year-old Trudi Jeschke of Appleton who was shot to death during an attempted burglary.

In addition, Spanbauer confessed to two sexual assaults on Appleton's north side.

The search for Cora Jones' killer consumed Wisconsin. In the five days until the girl's body was found, posters went up across the state while hundreds of volunteers searched the Waupaca County countryside.

Gov. Tommy Thompson was among the hundreds of mourners at her funeral.

The story behind the investigation prior to Spanbauer's arrest after a bungled burglary attempt at Combined Locks is marked by inter-agency quarrels and the determination of three investigators who were convinced there was a connection between Jones' disappearance and the attempted abduction near Hartman Creek.

The struggle of three local officers bucking the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in the search for Jones' killer remains fresh in the minds of Baker, Langlade Chief Deputy Larry Shadick and Gary Schmies, then a Waupaca County Sheriff's Department detective.

Five years later, Shadick sometimes drives past the place on Forest Road north of Antigo where Spanbauer dumped Jones' body in a weed-filled ditch.

"For a brief time an angel rested here," is the inscription on a purple cross which marks the location and holds two white teddy bears and a fading picture of Cora.

The involvement of the Langlade County investigators began when Jones' body was found by a pair of hunters on Sept. 10.

She had been stabbed eight times and strangled.

Shadick contacted the Waupaca County Sheriff's Department to see if there were other recent abduction incidents on record. He was referred to Schmies.

Schmies had been on duty July 3 when a call came in on what appeared to be an attempted abduction on Golke Road in the Town of Farmington near Hartman Creek State Park.

Miriam Stariha, 24 at the time, but of slight build and wearing her hair in a ponytail, was riding her bicycle when a car pushed her off the road. The driver threatened her at gunpoint. The abduction attempt was thwarted when another car drove by and the assailant fled.

"It was just speculation," said Schmies. "Think about it. Two holiday weekends in Waupaca County, an attempted abduction and the next holiday weekend another abduction, both involving girls with ponytails on bikes. I sold Larry on it," Schmies said.

At the same time the FBI had been called into the Jones' case and was focusing its investigation on an Appleton man known to frequent biker bars and who had made comments on a cellular telephone call regarding the search for Jones.

The FBI path would lead to a group of FBI undercover agents posing as bikers who haunted the Appleton man's hangouts.

"I told Shadick the FBI was hook, line and sinker into this Appleton suspect, that we are chasing our tails here with the cell phone call thing," Schmies said.

But Shadick was convinced authorities should be looking for a man in his 60s rather than the 20- to 30-year-old suspect in the FBI's investigation. He was also convinced finding the maroon car used in the Hartman Creek incident would lead police to Jones' killer.

"There was no doubt in my mind from square one," Shadick said.

Shadick and Schmies attended a meeting on Sept. 12, 1994, between the FBI and other law enforcement agencies involved in the search for Jones' killer.

"We went into the staff meeting with about 20 to 30 people sitting around and (FBI Special Agent) Brian Manganello said how we were going to methodically go through this step by step process and concentrate on the Appleton suspect. Larry (Shadick) got up and said 'I know how the FBI works. It's one step forward and two steps back. You can do whatever you want and chase yourself around,' and Shadick pointed to me and said 'but Schmies and I are going to find this maroon car before he kills again,'" Schmies said.

Shadick and Schmies recieved a blessing from the FBI and Waupaca County authorities and pursued their theory.

The next day both detectives boarded a plane on loan from Waupaca Foundry, where Cora Jones' father Rick worked, and flew to Illinois to visit Stariha.

"When I first saw her I thought they (Stariha and Jones) could have been sisters. We took 400 photographs from the local jail and asked her to look at them and see if any were similar to the man who tried to abduct her. She said no," Shadick said.

They returned to Wisconsin and Shadick asked probation and parole agents to supply photographs of sex offenders in the 40 to 60 range.

"We went back to Illinois and showed her volumes of photographs. Finally she said 'That's him. That's the man,'" Shadick said.

Stariha had picked out the photo of a Madison man.

What followed was a spectacle that captured the attention of the entire state for one day.

Langlade County authorities obtained a search warrant on Sept. 15 for the home of the Madison man, but by the time they arrived at the home, an array of media, including news helicopters, hovered around the suspect's home.

"It was unbelievable," Schmies said. "There were cameras everywhere."

"I talked to him for 10 minutes and knew he didn't do it," Shadick said.

Langlade County was roundy criticized by the FBI following the Madison search.

"I told them at least I knew what the guy looked like," Shadick said.

An artist commissioned by the FBI refused to cooperate with Shadick's request that she go to Illinois and talk to Stariha and alter the photo of the Madison man.

"She said we had contaminated Miriam by showing her all the photographs," Shadick said.

The artist eventually consented to interviewing Stariha and reworking the photograph through a separate drawing to make him appear older.

Shadick, Schmies and Baker now had the picture that would lead to Spanbauer's confession, but no one to match it to.

For six weeks the investigation bogged down.

On Nov. 5, Langalde County authorities when to Richland County where a 41-year-old man with a history of violent sexual assault was in jail on a traffic charge.

Shadick said the possibility of a vehicle match prompted the trip, but authorities found no such vehicle.

With another dead end behind them, Shadick, Schmies and Baker began reviewing their efforts.

"We worked on it every day. It was the most terrible feeling you could ever imagine. We had someone out there that would likely kill again. We felt that if we did not catch him we would be responsible for the next death," Shadick said. "I knew we had to resolve it."

As the desperation mounted, Shadick received a call from the Appleton Police Department on Nov. 15 from an investigator familiar with Langlade County's efforts.

"I was told they caught a guy the night before burglarizing a house. The guy matched our description and he owned a maroon car. I knew we had him then," Shadick said.

By coincidence Baker happened to be at the Outagamie County Justice Center and received a frantic telephone call from Shadick.

"I told him to get over and interview that guy," he said.

Baker was told it was meal time and prisoner interviews were rarely granted during meals.

"When I told them it involved Cora Jones they became very cooperative," Baker said.

After weeks of carrying around in his briefcase an artist's sketch of an unidentifed, but prime suspect in the Hartman Creek incident and Jones' murder, Baker finally met the suspect face to face in the Outagamie County Jail where Spanbauer was kept following his arrest Nov. 14 during an attempted burglary of a Combined Locks home.

The burglary suspect drove a maroon car. The Hartman Creek suspect drove a maroon car.

Baker also knew Spanbauer matched the age of the Hartman Creek suspect.

"I showed him the picture and knew it hit him hard," Baker said. "He kept looking at it. I put it away and he tried to find it in my papers. Finally he saw it, pointed to it and said it was him."

"That Fourth of July thing. That was me," Spanbauer told Baker as he pointed to the picture of the Madison man.

Baker listened as Spanbauer admitted trying to abduct the Illinois woman near Hartman Creek. However, he denied involvement in the Cora Jones murder.

Fearing Spanbauer would stop talking, Baker took no notes during the confession.

Now heading back to Langlade County, Baker realized only he knew Spanbauer had confessed to being the assailant in the Hartman Creek incident.

"I left the jail without telling anyone," Baker said. "I got about as far as Greenville and my heart started beating fast. I thought that if I got in an accident and got killed no one would ever know he confessed."

As soon as he reached Langlade County, an hour's drive from Appleton, Baker stopped at the first deputy's house he could reach.

"I told him about the confession and wrote everything down for the record. Then I called Sheriff Dave Steger and Chief Deputy Larry Shadick and told them for the record," Baker said.

He said Spanbauer was not overly emotional after confessing to the Hartman Creek incident.

"I thought I would feel joy. But this was something you just couldn't get any joy out of," Baker said. "It wasn't a relief. It was just a basic emptiness, a lot like being shell shocked."

"I didn't hate David Spanbauer. But I wish I could feel hatred," Baker said.

Shadick said Spanbauer, who had prior convictions involving sexual assault and abductions, faced charges of aggravated assault and attempted abduction.

"He knew he was going back to prison for the rest of his life," he said.

Spanbauer began three days of interviews with Baker and Appleton Police Detective Dan Woodkey.

During that time Spanbauer would confess to the 1992 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Ronelle Eichstedt who disappeared while riding her bicycle near her rural Fond du Lac County home, the July 9, 1994, murder of 21-year-old Trudi Jeschke during the bungled burglary of her northside Appleton home and two sexual assaults in Appleton.

A maroon car was linked to the Jeschke murder and one of the Appleton sexual assaults.

Did Spanbauer commit other unsolved crimes?

"They had a similar incident in Joliet, Illinois with a girl on a bicycle," Schmies said. "Spanbauer was asked about it and said "Where was this? Illinois? Illinois has the death penalty, I don't know anything about it."

Shadick said Spanbauer told authorities he was responsible for at least 12 murders.

"He indicated to the people questioning him that the picture is much larger than the State of Wisconsin and that in the future he may say more," Shadick said.