By Joe Hanneman
© The Hanneman Archive
PORTAGE, Wisconsin — The warm sun floods through the trees and splashes across the green grass and multicolored stone monuments on a manicured field on the north side of town. As on most days, it is quiet here, with only an occasional breeze rustling the changing leaves. Those at rest in this peaceful place include war heroes, mayors, farmers, judges, doctors, parents – and children. Children. Yes, their presence here in this holy ground makes it truly a special and blessed place.
Trails of tears have flowed at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery for more than 160 years. Processions of the bereaved have come and gone, leaving their loved ones to the earth — and eternity. Few, if any, were welcomed here with such pain, grief and sorrow as young Helen Leng. At her final committal, mourners stood shoulder to shoulder around her casket on a Wednesday in November 1927. Her parents, Harry and Alice, flanked by supporters, felt the ebb and flow of unfathomable grief and righteous anger. No one should have to bury their only child.
Just days before, on a Sunday evening at dusk, Helen was brutally murdered. The crime horrified this town of then 6,000 residents, not just because the victim was only 14, but because of the rape and extreme battery visited on the high school freshman. Despite a manhunt and widespread investigation, no one was ever tried for Helen’s murder. The case grew cold and left unsatisfied the community’s hopes and prayers for justice. Ninety years later, Helen’s case remains one of the highest-profile unsolved murders in Wisconsin history. It may have been the work of someone police didn’t consider: a serial killer.
Helen’s understated grave marker sits in Block 33, Lot 6 of the cemetery, just feet north of where her parents are buried. Harry originally purchased five cemetery plots, perhaps an indication the couple once hoped for more children. He never wanted this space to be filled before he was laid to rest. Harry gave up his career as a railroad man to become a police officer and pursue his daughter’s killer. He rose to the rank of assistant police chief in Portage, bravely serving more than 15 years and several times being injured in the line of duty. He died in 1954, never able to fulfill his graveside pledge to bring the murderer to justice. Alice carried the pain of loss for nearly 50 years before she died at age 91. She had no immediate relatives; no one who would even make sure her headstone was engraved with 1976, the year of her death.
The plot has no flowers or indications of visitors. But it most certainly has a story to tell. Nearly nine decades later, this peaceful but lonely cemetery scene begs a question: who still cries for Helen? Her murder case might be lost to history, but it is worth learning her story and remembering those sad days from 1927 and 1928. The long passage of time didn’t put a killer in jail. But Helen, and the other young women whose brutal murders were never solved, should never be forgotten. There is no statute of limitations on prosecution of a killer, so there should neither be a limitation on the memory of unsolved murders.
DEATH OF AN INNOCENT
Sunday, November 13, 1927 was like many weekend days for young Helen, just two months removed from the start of her education at Portage High School. In the morning, she attended Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church. She and her mother then motored to nearby Lewiston to visit Anna and Mary Shea, two elderly St. Mary’s parishioners. The Shea sisters, who had lived on their farm since the 1860s, were all alone since the deaths of two brothers a few years back. The Sunday visit was the Leng family’s good deed for the day.
Helen told her mother she wanted to attend a movie matinee later that day with one of her best friends, June Moran. Alice and Harry were very protective and usually didn’t let Helen go out without an adult. But today was different. They knew Robert and Helen Moran, and their daughter June, very well. The men worked together at the railroad. The families attended church together. No one suspected there would be any trouble.
Helen and June walked to the movie theater to see the 2:30 matinee. Fischer’s New Portage Theatre on West Wisconsin Street was a brand new movie house with more than 350 seats and a stage for live performances. The girls paid the 15-cent admission for an afternoon that included Louise Brooks and Thomas Meighan in the silent film The City Gone Wild. Other attractions included live Vaudeville performances by “guitar ace” Jack Pennewell and his Twin-Six Guitar, and impersonators Orren and Drew performing “The Town Clown.” Throw in some short film features and newsreels and the afternoon quickly disappeared.
Daylight was getting scarce when the girls left the theater to walk back north to the Moran home. June loaned Helen her copy of The Enchanted Hill, a popular book by Peter B. Kyne that was made into a movie in 1926. The book had been serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1924. Helen buttoned her coat, tucked the book under her arm and started for home. She left June’s house without telephoning her mother to let her know she was on the way. The girls walked a short distance west on Burns Street, then north on DeWitt toward the Milwaukee Road tracks. It was about 5:50 p.m. The air was chilly. Sleet began to fall. June watched as Helen walked into the south entrance of the subway, a 70-foot-wide concrete viaduct that ran under the railroad tracks. Helen hurried through the tunnel, climbed the stairs, then turned back toward June and, in a cheery voice called out, “Goodnight!”
Norman Stowers, a Portage High School student driving through the area at the time, noticed Helen walking up a hill on the north side of the viaduct just before 6 p.m. Frank Condon, a blind hobo who walked through the viaduct just after Helen, got the first indication of trouble. Around 6 p.m., Condon heard the sharp report of a shotgun. A block or so away, Charlotte H. Townsend, standing on the porch of her brother’s home on Albert Street, also heard the gunshot. She looked at her watch. It was 6:04 p.m. The Townsend house was a short distance northwest of the viaduct and less than a block from the Leng home.
Someone had leveled the sight of a shotgun and fired at the back of Helen’s head. Two slugs from the 12-gauge entered Helen’s skull, mortally wounding her. The assailant quickly dragged or carried her from the street up an embankment more than 100 feet into a field of tall grass. She tried to fight him off, but her injuries were too severe. The attacker raped and strangled her. When he finished his diabolical work, he left the girl in the bushes and disappeared into the dark.
At the Leng home just a few hundred yards away, Helen’s mother grew worried when Helen did not show up at dinner time. She and Harry drove around the area trying to find their daughter. Nothing. About midnight, they called police. At 3 a.m., a desperate Harry went to the high school and asked for help from William McLaughlin, the school janitor and a former neighbor. The men searched all night. Just after 8 a.m. Monday, they split up to cover more ground. Walking across a field next to the Milwaukee Road rail tracks, McLaughlin came upon what at first looked like a pile of beer cans. He soon realized it was a body. He summoned Harry, who confirmed it was Helen. “I found her but I wish I hadn’t,” a shaken McLaughlin told police. “I have known Helen since she was a tiny girl.”
Police guarded the body while awaiting the arrival of Coroner Charles W. Baker. A posse was hurriedly enlisted to search for the killer. Farmer Eugene P. Senogles brought his bloodhounds from Mauston about 10 a.m. in an effort to pick up the trail of the assailant. It didn’t work. Helen’s father paced the crime scene like he was in a trance. A crowd of more than 1,000 people soon gathered, pushing ever closer in a morbid attempt to gawk at the body. Police hastily covered Helen with blankets and summoned an ambulance to take her to Murison’s mortuary. A post-mortem exam was conducted by Dr. Karl A. Snyder and Dr. James W. MacGregor.
Searchers fanned out in the areas near the rail tracks, known as “the Jungle” and “Camp Rest,” frequented by hobos, drifters and undesirables. A few clues were collected from the scene. Shotgun wadding. Fall leaves stained with drops of blood. A handkerchief with holes in it. And that book, The Enchanted Hill, borrowed from June, was found feet from Helen’s body, smeared with blood and dirt. Helen somehow clung to the book even through the fatal attack. Oily spots on Helen’s clothes, and acid stains on the handkerchief, led detectives to speculate the killer worked as an auto mechanic or a machinist.
News spread across Portage like a clap of thunder. Columbia County District Attorney Elton J. Morrison summoned for help from Sullivan’s Detective Agency Inc., headed by John T. Sullivan, former captain and chief of detectives with the Milwaukee Police Department. Sullivan had supervised many big cases in Milwaukee, including the horrific 1917 bombing of the Milwaukee Police Department headquarters that killed nine police officers and one civilian. Sullivan had also crossed swords with Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan, who accused him of running a crooked department and eventually forced him to resign as chief of detectives in 1921. Eventually, Sullivan would also come to loggerheads with the Columbia County Board, which stiffed him for more than $500 in fees from the Leng case. Now a private operative, Sullivan was tasked with leading the Leng murder investigation, working closely with Portage Police Chief Thomas F. Curry and Columbia County Sheriff J. David Niemann.
Mrs. Leng told police she was recently threatened by a hobo near the railroad viaduct when she refused to give him money. She said drifters, many of whom lived on the “back side of the tracks,” often harassed her for food or money. One man threatened to “get” her and her family, she said. Based on her input, police began searching for a man known only as “Snowball.” A doctor driving near the subway viaduct hours before the attack reported seeing a stoop-shouldered man with a week’s growth of beard. “He looked like a hunchback,” the man said. Others reported seeing, in the parlance of the day, a “strange negro” loitering near the rail tracks. A black suspect arrested and held at Minnesota Junction in Dodge County was released after he provided an alibi.
A pharmacist in nearby Baraboo said two young men came into his store the night of the murder and talked about how they had been out with a girl in Portage. The druggist said they “looked like Vaudeville men.” A girl from the Leng neighborhood was interviewed regarding rumors that she and her friends had been followed home from school by a strange man in recent weeks. George H. Niemeyer, a Portage grocery truck driver, said he was stopped on Highway 16 northwest of Portage on the night of the murder by a man with blood on his hands. The man asked for a wrench to fix his Chevrolet coupe. Niemeyer said the man was in his mid- to late 20s, tall and slender. These were among the many early leads, but most fizzled without leading anywhere. The Columbia County Board authorized a $1,000 reward for information leading to capture of the killer. The investigation was just beginning.
A ‘LITTLE SAINT’ IS LAID TO REST
The spire of St. Mary Catholic Church rises high over West Cook Street, two blocks from the Wisconsin River near downtown Portage. The cream-colored brick church had no empty seats or dry eyes on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 16, 1927. Just after 9:30 a.m., six young men from Portage High School — Charles E. Boylan, 19; William A. Eastman, 15; Nestor M. Heller, 17; Norbert J. Keaveny, 18; Donald McDermott, 16; and John B. Pike, 17 — slowly carried Helen’s casket down the aisle. They were followed in solemn procession by seven honorary pall bearers: June Moran, 15; Catherine Miller, 16; Gertrude M. Gloeckler, 16; Lorraine A. Arn, 16; Winnie Robinson, 13; Janet B. Buglass, 15; and Rachel Cushing, 17. Friends from the high school and nearby St. Mary’s Catholic School were allowed out of class to attend the funeral.
It was a heart-rending scene. Helen’s parents sat near the flower-banked casket while St. Mary’s priests, Rev. John Baptiste Piette and Rev. John B. Sullivan, conducted the funeral rites. Father Piette eulogized young Helen as Portage’s “little saint” — words of comfort that were a temporary salve for the grieving city. “The community lost a sweet, kind, charitable little friend when death called Helen Leng,” Father Piette said. Helen’s friend June was overcome with grief. She convulsed with sobs throughout the Mass.
The funeral cortège of more than 40 vehicles headed east to DeWitt Street, then north past Portage High School. Students who were unable to attend the funeral lined the roadway and stood at attention as the hearse passed by. The procession continued to the outskirts of town, through the subway viaduct and past the murder scene. Mourners drove down West Collins Street and pulled into St. Mary’s Cemetery. It seemed the entire city had come out to say goodbye.
The mourners packed in tightly around the grave. Harry and Alice Leng stood with their nephew Raymond and a niece next to Fathers Piette and Sullivan for the committal rites. An altar boy held the holy water vessel while Father Sullivan read prayers and blessed the casket. In a gesture that would be talked about for years, Harry Leng removed his fedora, stepped forward and knelt in the overturned dirt. He promised his daughter that he would never rest until her killer was brought to justice. Heads were bowed and tears flowed. The community’s heart was broken.
Helen Alice Leng was born December 16, 1912 in Fargo, North Dakota. Although her parents were both native to Portage, the railroad jobs held by her father meant a lot of moving. The couple were married in November 1911 in Ramsey, Minnesota, before moving to Fargo. In 1917, they moved across the river to Moorhead, Minnesota. Harry worked in nearby Dilworth as a switchman for the Northern Pacific Railway. When Helen was 7, the family moved to Portage and Harry took a job with the Milwaukee Road.
The family lived in several homes at the northern edge of Portage, all near the expansive freight and passenger rail hub that employed a quarter of the town’s population. Helen was enrolled in first grade at St. Mary’s Catholic School in the fall of 1919. Six months before her death, she was among the eighth-grade graduates at St. Mary’s. When she started as a freshman at Portage High School in fall 1927, she became fast friends with a half-dozen girls. June Moran was one of her best chums. The girls exchanged confidences and dreamed about their futures. They wanted to study together to be nurses.
STRING OF SUSPECTS
Portage was under siege in the wake of Helen’s murder; a “reign of terror” as The Milwaukee Sentinel put it. “No woman goes on the streets at night unless accompanied by a man who is well armed,” the paper wrote. “There is a feeling that Helen’s killer is in the city and is waiting only for the excitement to die down before he will strike again.”
Just a few days after the funeral, police hauled in their first suspect. Word spread about Portage that someone was being brought from Milwaukee on the train for questioning. Some 150 angry residents waited at the Portage station. Sheriff’s deputies met the train at Lake George, four miles southeast of Portage, and spirited the suspect to the county jail for interrogation. Sheriff Niemann questioned the man at Milwaukee and did not believe he was involved. But authorities were taking no chances. Herman Grunke, 26, was a railroad worker who joined the posse on November 14 to search for Helen’s killer. He was already under investigation for a “serious statutory charge” from an attack on another Portage girl, but he vigorously denied any role in Helen’s murder.
“My mother heard the shot which killed Helen,” Grunke told police. “I am as anxious as anyone to have the killer brought to justice.” Sheriff Niemann searched the Grunke home and found a 12-gauge shotgun and an expended round. The man’s mother said the gun had been used by one of her other sons on a recent hunting trip. Police learned that Grunke did time in a reform school a few years back for an attack on a girl. He also had complaints against him for harassing local girls. As police checked his story, it appeared he had an alibi for the time of the murder. His name was released to the public, causing his mother to complain to Portage’s Register–Democrat that her family was being persecuted.
Emelia Grunke said it was unfair to publicize her son’s record, while protecting the identity of other suspects. “Why condemn the family before the guilt of the accused is established,” she wrote. “Why make this family bear the burden of all the hard feelings and meanness this terrible affair is bringing out? We are all bowed down with sorrow and sympathy for the bereaved family. Why take it out on a family and a man to whom suspicion is pointed circumstantially?” The Grunkes lived just blocks from the Lengs. Emelia’s husband, Albert W. Grunke, also worked for the railroad. They raised 11 children in their home on Volk Street.
CORONER’S INQUEST, MORE CLUES
After completing its investigation, a coroner’s inquest jury held a hearing at Murison’s mortuary and quickly ruled that the perpetrator should be charged with first-degree murder. The news account of the postmortem exam published in The Register-Democrat contradicted earlier police and media statements about the condition of Helen’s body. “There were no signs of the girl having struggled or treated with violence,” the page one article on November 17 said. This was in stark contrast to reports her body had been mutilated and her face covered in blood. Testimony at the inquest noted “discoloration” around her neck, but the article dismissed it as being from the neck being turned after death. Original crime scene reports described Helen as being strangled. The jury’s written verdict said the death was a homicide. Helen was “criminally assaulted” (raped) and her death was from two No. 6 shotgun slugs that entered the base of her brain. Years later, other news accounts would continue to assert Helen had been strangled, so it is possible The Register-Democrat glossed over the graphic details.
About a mile from where Helen’s body was found, railroad conductor George Kerwin found an expended 12-gauge shotgun shell. He posed for a newspaper photograph holding the cartridge with his bare hands. It’s not clear if it had first been processed for possible fingerprints. Based on the lack of gunpowder burns on Helen’s body, police estimated the killer was about 30 feet away when he fired the deadly shot.
From the depths under the microscope lens, the investigation then rose into the clouds. In an effort to find the murder weapon, pilot Howard A. Morey of Royal Airways in Madison circled over Portage at low altitude on November 30. Mud Lake and Silver Lake are near the murder scene. The hope was to spot the shotgun if it had been tossed into one of the lakes; however, the aerial survey yielded no results.
Police first theorized the killer was a local, then dismissed the idea the crime was committed by a hobo living near the tracks. On November 29, Detective Sullivan insisted, “Yes, I still maintain that this crime was committed by a local man.” As events were soon to show, however, the local killer theory was going to be tested.
One of the biggest breaks in the case came November 30 after microscopic examination of the book Helen carried. Stuck in the dried blood on the cover were textile fibers that police believed had come from the attacker. The pieces of course fiber were black and “gaudy green,” and of a type used on plaid mackinaw jackets worn by lumbermen, farmers and other outdoorsmen. Sullivan theorized that Helen clung to the book at her side as she was carried by the attacker. The thread was transferred to the book under intense pressure. About 15 feet from where her body was found, Helen relaxed and dropped the volume. It might be an indication of where she actually died. The 369-page book was about 3 inches thick, and within its opening pages it contained a cruel irony. A would-be assassin took two rifle shots at the character Lee Purdy, a New Mexico cattleman working near the rail tracks at San Onofre, California. One shot just missed his head; the other grazed his shoulder.
A SUSPECT’S ‘MORBID CURIOSITY’
Shortly after news broke about the fiber pieces, authorities in Sheboygan arrested a man on suspicion of being involved in Helen’s death. The man owned a jacket of similar color, and he claimed he was in Portage the night of the murder. Philip Pingel, 40, was arrested on his father’s farm in the Town of Rhine on an unrelated charge, but when questioned he displayed detailed knowledge and a morbid curiosity of the Leng case. He told Sheboygan County deputies he attended Helen’s funeral, and described her as a “beautiful little girl with black hair.” Deputies summoned Columbia County authorities right away. Police said Pingel was carrying a box of the rat poison strychnine when he was arrested.
Although Pingel’s initial statements made him a strong suspect, under repeated grilling his story changed several times. He first said he attended Helen’s funeral, then changed his story and said it was the funeral of murder victim Emma Greenwald, who was killed near Waukesha. Pingel then said he was not in Portage the night Helen was killed, but rather stayed at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission under an alias. Just about everyone who questioned Pingel got a different story. He was a drifter who had worked on farms in North Dakota before returning to do manual labor at Tomah, Wisconsin. Receipts found in his pocket showed he was in Tomah on November 11 and Waukesha on November 14.
Pingel had a troubled past and deep mental problems. He served a 60-day sentence in Sheboygan County in 1913 after threatening to kill his entire family. His parents told police he was “partially demented.” Sheriff’s deputies who searched his home in early December 1927 found unmailed letters that threatened the life of a Manitowoc teacher and her Sun Prairie mother. The profanity-laced letters railed at the women for being Catholic and said they would both end up dead. “This world ain’t big enough for me and don’t you forget it,” he wrote. “Bang, bang, bang and it’s all over.” Police determined Pingel had worked on the family’s farm near Sun Prairie in 1926, before being run off by the man of the house.
On December 7, Sarah Zellin told police she was sure it was Pingel who came to her Canal Street junk dealership a day or two after the murder looking for an inner tube. She took him into the basement, where she kept the tires. He frightened her with his “queer behavior,” police said. She reported her concerns at the time, but police just told her “not to take strange men into the basement.” After seeing Pingel’s photo in the newspaper, Zellin said she was sure he was the man who came to her business. A man police refused to identify said someone matching Pingel’s description was seen at the Milwaukee Road depot about 6 p.m. the day of Helen’s murder. The depot is a short walk from the murder scene.
Tests determined that red spots found on one of Pingel’s shirts were rust and not blood. While Pingel sat in jail in Sheboygan on a fish and game charge, investigators came to the conclusion that he was not Helen’s killer. One investigator told The Register-Democrat he believed Pingel knew details of the murder and Helen’s funeral that could not have been gleaned from news coverage. Nevertheless, Pingel was formally cleared in February 1928. Just weeks later, Pingel was arrested for threatening to kill his brother-in-law, who had to fight Pingel off with a stove poker. After an examination by physicians, Pingel was declared insane, said to be suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and delusions of persecution. He was eventually placed in the Dane County Asylum at Verona. He escaped for a brief time in 1932 but was recaptured.
On December 13, police sought help from Dr. Edward L. Miloslavich, a internationally known pathologist from Marquette University in Milwaukee. Miloslavich had solved many murder cases in Wisconsin and Europe using his forensics expertise. Miloslavich was given Helen’s clothing and other case evidence to examine and test. When evidence was transported to Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Sentinel expressed concern about the “indiscriminate handling” of Helen’s clothes since the murder. Miloslavich found that spots of grease on Helen’s clothes were identical to grease used in railroad yards. While news accounts called it grease, Miloslavich later used the term “coal dust” to describe the stains. He said it indicated the perpetrator likely worked around a railroad yard. However, it did not match samples from the suspect included with the evidence sent to Milwaukee. Detective Sullivan and Miloslavich said they believed the killer was not among the suspects questioned to date.
Then Miloslavich made a stunning request: he wanted to exhume Helen’s body in order to search for more forensic evidence. After examining her stained hat and clothing articles, Miloslavich was convinced a new autopsy would yield more clues. For years, Miloslavich used the Leng case an example of investigative mistakes that could have allowed a killer to go free. He was critical of the analysis done on Helen’s clothing, and the misidentification of the stains as oil. The December 15 editions of The Milwaukee Sentinel and The Register-Democrat said the exhumation request would be made that very day. Amazingly, there were no follow-up articles to indicate what happened. There are no notations in cemetery records that an exhumation ever took place.
In his writings and talks to police schools over the years, Miloslavich continually stressed that a full “medico-legal autopsy” should be done in all cases of unnatural or violent death. These autopsies, he said, should only be conducted by “an expertly trained and experienced pathologist.” As in the Leng murder, many of Miloslavich’s consultations with police and prosecutors came after a locally performed postmortem exam and burial of the body. Miloslavich was publicly critical of poorly trained laymen and inexperienced physicians who, he said, endangered justice by trampling trace evidence and reaching eror-filled conclusions due to a lack of scientific training.
NEIGHBOR BECOMES A SUSPECT
In mid-January 1928, a married father of two who lived near the Lengs was taken into custody and underwent more than three days of intense questioning on his whereabouts the day of Helen’s murder. Sheriff J. David Niemann brought the man to the Columbia County Jail on Jan. 16, but the pubic didn’t become aware of it for several days. Niemann denied rumors that the man had confessed. The suspect’s story contained discrepancies. He owned a shotgun and was in the vicinity of the crime on November 13. Niemann had concerns about his sanity, so he arranged to have the suspect examined by Dr. William F. Lorenz, a well-known psychiatrist in Madison. After the examination, the man was judged sane and cleared of any involvement.
“I feel justified after our investigation in saying that this man is absolutely innocent of any connection with the crime,” said District Attorney Elton J. Morrison. “There was, however, every physical evidence to indicate this man’s guilt, so we feel we were justified in subjecting him to the examination that we did.” Unlike the other suspects in the case, this man was never publicly identified.
LUMBERMAN, TEACHER QUESTIONED
Ten days after the neighbor’s release, police had their next lead. A lumber worker in Forest County, Wisconsin, was arrested on a charge of attacking an 11-year-old girl. Miles Stulich, 34, told deputies that he was in Portage on the night of Helen Leng’s murder, having come there from Port Washington. He then left for Soperton, where he procured employment at a lumber yard. Before Columbia County authorities questioned Stulich, he recanted his statement about being in Portage on November 13. He was quickly dismissed as a suspect in Portage.
Less than a week later, police detained a school teacher from nearby Marquette County who had been spotted loitering in the railroad yards near where Helen was killed. Glenn P. Waldo, 41, of Waupaca, said he came to Portage two days before the murder, but he insisted he had nothing to do with Helen’s death. He was arrested at midnight on February 5 wandering around the rail tracks. Waldo, who grew up near Westfield in Marquette County and taught high school there for a time, never stayed in one place for long. He held teaching jobs in Portage, New Lisbon, St. Paul, Minnesota; McComas, West Virginia; and the Town of Belt, near Great Falls, Montana.
Waldo took a leave of absence from the principal’s job in Montana to have sinus surgery. He never returned. He disappeared from the community on March 31, 1926. Police accused him of passing bad checks and making off with clothing for which he had not fully paid. Waldo was not held long by police in Portage, however, before they dismissed him as a suspect. He eventually returned to teaching in Marquette County. By 1940, however, he had been committed to the Columbia County Insane Asylum at Wyocena.
Only one more suspect was brought to Portage in connection with Helen’s murder. Jacob Gesser of Juneau County was already wanted for escaping the Mendota insane asylum at Madison in May 1927. Juneau County Sheriff Lyall Wright and two deputies arrested Gesser in March 1928 at the farm of Gesser’s two bachelor brothers in Seven Mile Creek. When the lawmen started carrying Gesser to the car, his brothers grabbed sticks and attacked the lawmen. They were repelled when Sheriff Wright decked one of them with a punch to the jaw. Gesser was taken to Portage for questioning, then returned to confinement at Mendota. Portage Police Chief Thomas Curry interrogated Gesser again in October 1928, but the former Mauston harness maker was dismissed as a suspect.
The gun that police believe was used to shoot Helen was discovered on May 7, 1928 in a muddy ditch along Highway 51. This gun was a 10-gauge bearing the markings of the N.R. Davis Co. Earlier, police had said a 12-gauge was used to murder Helen. The 10-gauge, found along the road by Harold McCann, was rusted and the butt was smashed. Sheriff Niemann invited the public to view the gun to see if anyone recognized it or had ideas who owned it. It was then sent to Milwaukee for testing. Since the N.R. Davis & Sons Co. changd its name in 1917 to Davis-Warner Arms Corp., this weapon was likely at least 10 years old. Police were able to identify the man who sold the gun, but not the man who made the purchase. From there, the case went cold. There were no significant developments for eight years.
THE ‘SADISTIC GRAVE DIGGER’
The final lead in the Leng murder came in April 1936 with the arrest in Illinois of a grave digger who was charged with the rape and murder of 14-year-old Edna Mueller on September 19, 1927. The case was stunning in its parallels to the Leng murder. Mueller was attacked as she walked home from an elevated rail station in Hillside, a suburb west of Chicago. She was raped and brutally beaten with a pipe. A crushing blow to the skull caused her death. The attack happened as she walked through prairie fields between the rail station and her Division Street home. There was evidence that she valiantly fought off the attack. She was returning home about 8:30 p.m. after her first day as a housemaid. She left high school to earn money so she could buy her family Christmas presents. She was just 11 days shy of her 15th birthday.
Police in the Mueller killing went through similar issues as in the Leng case. Men in a nearby railroad-construction camp were brought in for questioning. Two neighborhood girls pointed out three of the men whom they said tried to make friends with them on the street several days before. Some suspects were identified, but in each case the leads fizzled out. The case went cold and had been all but forgotten when an Illinois woman came forward in 1936. A man named Otto Pech complained to the woman about his aunt, saying he wanted to beat her and toss her from from an automobile. When asked why, he stated: “Oh, you don’t know what I did to that girl across the tracks.” Pech, then 24, warned the woman not to repeat the tale. “I know you wouldn’t say anything, but if I ever did get caught, I’d be like (Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno) Hauptmann. I wouldn’t talk.”
When Pech was arrested, however, he did talk. Police took down minute detail in a 59-page statement. Pech even re-enacted the crime for police in the prairie field near Hillside. He admitted strangling then raping Edna. Police said he placed a huge floral wreath at her grave when she was buried on September 22, 1927. As a grand jury prepared a murder indictment against him, newspapers condemned Pech as a “sadistic grave digger,” “cold-blooded murderer,” and someone who should be “in the shadows of the electric chair.”
Columbia County Sheriff Robert Roche and Harry Leng, now a Portage police officer, traveled to Chicago to question Pech. He steadfastly denied any involvement with Helen’s murder. The men took photos of Pech back to Portage to show the seller of the shotgun and other witnesses in the Leng case. It was an intriguing lead that re-opened the Leng case. Surprisingly, it generated no coverage in the Portage newspaper.
It was another dead end. Pech was released from jail in July 1936 after the court ruled his confession was coerced. Pech had recanted his story and claimed he was beaten by Lester Laird, chief of the Cook County highway police. Doctors found Pech suffered broken ribs and bruises while in custody. Ironically, The Daily Herald had earlier fêted Laird for his “tactful measures” that left the case “practically a closed matter.” Closed it was, but hardly how anyone hoped. So Pech went back to digging graves, and Edna got no justice. No one else was ever charged in her death.
THE WORK OF A SERIAL KILLER?
Dr. Miloslavich might have been a man before his time. “Doc Milo” as colleagues called him had performed thousands of autopsies and consulted on countless murder cases before he became a fixture in Milwaukee in the mid-1920s. Not only was he expert at finding a well-hidden cause of death, he understood the criminal mind as well as anyone in his era. In August 1928, he went public with a theory that Helen Leng and three Milwaukee women were possibly victims of a serial killer. His idea went largely unnoticed. The investigations of all four deaths were carried out independently. They all went cold. The murders were never solved.
“All of these murders were the result of a sadistic eroticism in a low-level mind,” Miloslavich told The Milwaukee Journal in a front-page story on August 30, 1928. “They have striking points of similarity.” He said the same hand was at work in the deaths of Julia Twardowski, 19; Lillian Graef, 17; Helen, 14; and an unidentified 18-year-old woman, “Mae Doe” found stuffed in a drainage culvert near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. The deaths occurred between 1924 and 1928.
“A case growing out of sadistic eroticism is, of all murders, the most difficult to solve,” he said. “The authorities are baffled again, and well they may be, for the killer has been careful to leave no telltale clues behind.”
Miloslavich said most of the women were strangled and suffered serious head wounds. All were raped. Most of the bodies were dumped away from the primary crime scene, some covered by leaves or weeds. Helen likely would have been moved to a secondary location, he said, but “the opportunity failed to present itself.” The murders were all committed in late summer or fall. The women were brutally beaten. And although Miloslavich did not mention it, the women were remarkably similar in appearance. All were brunettes with short hairstyles.
YOUNG LIVES ARE CUT SHORT
Julia Twardowski dashed out of her home on Milwaukee’s Maple Street on September 24, 1924. “Goodbye, ma. This is going to be my wedding day,” she said. It wasn’t really her wedding day, but she had just become engaged to Winifred Hunt. The pair were going out downtown to celebrate.
The waitress at the North Shore restaurant kept her date with Fred, then boarded a streetcar at 6 p.m. to return home. She never made it. She was next seen on October 19, when some rabbit hunters found her body hidden under leaves near the Racine-Milwaukee county line. She had been raped and strangled. She was 5 feet 5 inches tall and 125 pounds, with short brown hair.
Lillian Graef was a carefree girl with an infectious smile. Whenher older sister Mildred wanted to back out of her blind date on October 11, 1927, Lillian volunteered to go in her place. What harm could it be? Mildred had met Jack, a “nice young man” who gave her a ride home the week before. Lillian thought it would be fun.
She left her Garfield Avenue home wearing a pink hat, a brown plaid coat with a fur collar, a rose dress, light stockings and black patent leather shoes. She never came home. Her body was found November 5 in the Fox River in Waukesha County, caught on a wire fence underneath the Bluemound Road bridge. She was raped, beaten and strangled to death. Lillian was 5 feet 2 inches and 108 pounds, with light brown hair and blue eyes.
Driving a motor grader for the Walworth County highway department, Roy Grice sensed something was amiss when he saw a dog furiously tugging at a blue blanket in roadside culvert on Highway 67 south of Elkhorn. He stopped the road grader for a closer look. He stepped down into the culvert and pulled the blanket from the drain pipe. After removing hay and weeds clogging the end of the 18-inch-diameter iron pipe, he was shocked to see two human feet.
Before the end of that August day in 1928, police were using an acetylene torch to cut away a section of the pipe to extricate the decomposed body of a young woman. An autopsy would eventually determine she was about 18 and died of a brutal blows to the head some two months before. She had no identification. She was wearing only a flimsy chemise and was wrapped in a motel sheet. The newspapers called her “the girl with the black hair and perfect teeth.” Decomposition prevented determination of sexual assault. Police labeled her “Mae Doe.” She was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and wore her hair short.
Three days after the Elkhorn body was found, Miloslavich predicted the perpetrator would continue to rape and kill until he made some kind of “ultimate mistake” that unmasked him to police. “If one person is responsible for all these murders, in view of the fact that nearly four years have elapsed and the first is still unsolved, I fear that there will be at least another of the kind before the killer is apprehended,” Miloslavich said. “It has been the case history in affairs of this kind both here and in Europe that from two to half a dozen such murders have plagued the authorities over a period of time and were not cleared up until the killer made an ultimate mistake that led to capture and to subsequent confession of all the previous mysteries.”
In October 1931, the naked body of a young brunette woman was found in a farm pasture about four miles south of the village of Mattoon in Shawano County. She had been shot below the right eye at close range, raped and struck over the head. Her body was dragged from the road to a swampy area on the farm. She was covered only by a burlap sack over her head. Miloslavich conducted the autopsy and determined death was from a .22 caliber shot to the head. He classified it as the work of a sexual sadist. The woman was about 5 feet 7 inches tall and wore a short, waved hairstyle.
In late July 1937, 11-year-old Joyce Roberts was found floating in the Little Menomonee River near the Ozaukee-Milwaukee county line, hours after she disappeared from Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach. She was raped, strangled and beaten in the skull. She had dark hair, similar in style to the other victims. An anonymous letter sent to The Milwaukee Journal from someone claiming knowledge of the crime said it was “reminiscent” of the Helen Leng murder from 1927. Police undertook one of the biggest manhunts in Wisconsin history, searching for a “big, fat man” said to have befriended the girl at the beach and bought her ice cream. Despite an investigation that stretched over years, Joyce’s murder was never solved.
Illinois police were convinced they arrested the right man in the September 1927 Edna Mueller case, but her her murder also was very similar to the other five. Edna was a brunette with a short hairstyle. She was strangled and suffered a severe head wound in the attack, which occurred as she walked home from the elevated train station near her suburban Chicago home. After grave digger Otto Pech was freed, the investigation stopped. But should it have? Columbia County authorities saw the parallels with Helen Leng’s murder, but no witnesses recognized Pech as being in Portage or having purchased the murder weapon. If Pech was not Edna’s killer, a link could still exist to the other cases.
Another unsolved case could be examined with these others, even though police were confident they had the crime solved. Clara Olson disappeared from her father’s home in the fall of 1926. Her body was found in a shallow grave on December 2, 1926, near the home of her boyfriend’s father in Rising Sun, an unincorporated area of Crawford County in western Wisconsin. It was discovered that Clara was pregnant by Erdman Olson (no relation). She had left her home late on September 9, ostensibly for a rendezvous with Erdman. A note she left behind hinted that she expected to be married soon. Erdman disappeared several weeks after Clara was reported missing. Police were quick to pin her murder on Erdman, and a coroner’s inquest jury formally reached that conclusion. Clara was killed by a heavy blow from a blunt instrument to the back of her head. In just three months’ time, she would have given birth to a son.
Based on letters he wrote to Clara, it seemed Erdman disliked the idea of being married or being a father. Clara’s body was clutching some of the letters when she was found. Despite an exhaustive search and an investigation that stretched until almost 1950, Erdman was never found. His father believed he was murdered. Clara’s father was sure Erdman was out there somewhere, hiding from the law. Clara’s murder remains unsolved. Her body was located on a farm adjacent to that of Erdman’s father. A decade earlier, those same woods were the resting place of a male murder victim, whose remains were uprooted by foraging hogs.
MASSIVE INVESTIGATIONS, NO SOLUTIONS
At least six and more likely eight girls and young women, raped and murdered between 1924 and 1937. Newspapers on occasion mentioned that some of these cases were unsolved, but law enforcement apparently did not try to connect them. The investigations were intense; some of the highest-profile cases in state history. At one point in the Roberts investigation, more than 600 Milwaukee police officers worked on the case. In the Graef murder, police checked more than 8,700 vehicles in a year in an effort to find the man who abducted and killed Lillian.
Police tried truth serum and lie detectors on some suspects. They waded through dead-end leads, paraded literally thousands of suspects through lineups, and had to shoot down a false confession from an attention-hungry prison inmate. In the “culvert girl” case, police arrested and charged a man they later had to release for lack of evidence. He then sued for false arrest. Walworth County District Attorney Charles Williams committed suicide the night before the civil case was to go to court in January 1929. A witness who was to testify in that same civil suit hung himself in 1931. Those men were also victims of the killer. The Elkhorn investigation was bungled early on. Miloslavich blasted the initial postmortem exam and cause of death determination. Other investigative missteps cost valuable time and took investigators down dead-end paths and away from promising leads.
Miloslavich said the killer involved in these cases showed “fearlessness and cunning.” The gaps between some of the murders could indicate the man was incarcerated at some point. “A sadist with homicidal tendencies is frequently apprehended for other sex offenses,” he said. What Miloslavich called sadistic eroticism is today known as sexual sadism. A sexual sadist achieves arousal and pleasure from watching the pain and suffering of their victims. They desire to have total control and domination over their victims. They are psychopaths with no remorse for their crimes. They are often masters of deception and manipulation.
Miloslavich said this type of killer plans carefully and rarely makes mistakes, although he invariably leaves some forensic clues behind if expert investigators can be engaged to find them. “A sadist never kills a woman upon impulse,” Miloslavich told the University of Wisconsin police training school in 1931. “The crime is always well prepared by studying the neighborhood and long premeditation. He strikes with precision and is nearly always successful. He flees from the crime immediately and never returns.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was no such thing as criminal profiling; the term “serial killer” did not come into use for more than 40 years. Crime labs were unheard of; Miloslavich would not found Milwaukee’s first crime lab until 1929. There were no electronic databases, no DNA testing. DNA would have been particularly useful in these cases, since the perpetrator left biological evidence at some of the crime scenes. Joyce Roberts fought off her attacker and had his skin under her fingernails. Other victims had scratches and finger marks on their necks.
Would the investigations have yielded different results if police had listened to Miloslavich in 1928, or 1931? Miloslavich, who worked in Vienna, Austria before coming to Milwaukee, said the United States at the time lacked a scientific system to detect and solve crimes. Many bungled jobs of detective work by American investigators are caused by failure of authorities to keep the unexperienced away from the scenes of crime, he said. “Examination of the scene of a crime by an experienced investigator is a paramount step in reaching a successful conclusion,” he later wrote. “Preconceived hasty conclusions based upon cursory inspection, upon hearsay evidence or upon misinterpreted facts characterizes the dangerous layman, irrespective of his position or function, thus often hindering and jeopardizing the work of the crime expert and of the skilled investigative authorities.”
Standing in Block 33 of the quiet St. Mary’s cemetery in Portage, it is quite easy to find tears for young Helen Leng. But the sorrow is so much wider and deeper than Helen’s horrific 1927 death. There must also be tears for Julia, Edna, Lillian, Mae, Joyce and Clara. Mountains were moved to find their killers, but justice was never done. A deadly predator might well have roamed across Wisconsin for many years, targeting, raping and killing girls and young women. This person is no doubt long dead. He escaped the reach of the law. Frustration over the outcome might only be quieted by the belief that the hand of God brought about the justice these poor victim souls failed to find on earth. •
This article has been updated to the current number of years since the crime was committed.
© The Hanneman Archive