Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 2 +
Date of murders: April 1980 / June 1987
Date of arrest: June 11, 1988
Date of birth: 1959
Victims profile: Anne Preimesberger, 18 / Tara Kassens, 14
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Wisconsin, USA
Status: Sentenced for kidnapping and raping a girl in Massachusetts. Sentenced to life in prison in two counts of murder in Wisconsin

Court of Appeals State of Wisconsin


opinion 94-0396-CR


Answers elude authorities 30 years after Denise Laack's murder

By Michael King - Gannett Wisconsin Media

November 15, 2009

APPLETON — Three decades have passed since a troubled young Appleton woman who had been estranged from her family over her involvement in a cult-like religious group disappeared.

Three days later, on Nov. 18, 1979, the nude and battered body of 24-year-old Denise Laack was found in a wooded area in north central Illinois, a four-hour drive from Appleton.

Laack’s murder remains an unsolved cold case in police files in Illinois in part because the killer’s trail was cold from the beginning due to an inexplicable oversight by authorities.

It wasn’t until May 1986 — 6½ years later — that an Illinois State Police investigator matched up an Appleton Police Department’s missing persons report and the Putnam County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department found body report to identify the Appleton woman who had been given a pauper’s burial under a “Jane Doe” headstone a few months after she was found.

Now, a new set of police officials who reviewed the case file over the past two weeks say they intend to check with Illinois State Police to learn whether state investigators ever pursued an interview with serial killer James Duquette Jr., an Appleton native who has been convicted of the April 1980 murder of 18-year-old Anne Preimesberger of Appleton and the late June 1987 murder of 14-year-old Tara Kassens of Mequon.

“It’s still open but idle,” said Chad Haage, chief deputy sheriff for Putnam County in Hennepin, Ill., who recently reviewed the thick case file for the first time.

Searching for suspects

Haage considers Duquette a person of interest in the case but acknowledges that police have not found any evidence that he and Laack knew each other.

“When I went through the file and from 1979 until about mid 1980, they interviewed dozens of people and there was no solid suspect in those interviews that they conducted,” Haage said.

The file does, however, contain a handwritten note on yellow legal paper from December 1988 signed by former Sheriff Phil Hansen regarding a telephone call from Outagamie County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Waid. It indicated that Duquette was in prison in Massachusetts and said Jeff Wittman, Duquette’s former roommate, had provided information “about Denise’s homicide” as part of a plea bargain.

“I cannot tell you if that was ever followed up on,” Haage said. “There was no report generated from this department; it was just a note.”

While both Preimesbeger and Kassens had been sexually assaulted and strangled by Duquette, Laack’s case is somewhat different. The autopsy report indicated she died of strangulation but shows no evidence of sexual assault, even though she was found nude, wearing only a ring.

Leaning toward religion

According to reports in the file, Laack had been seeking help for some mental health issues that at one point led her to be a chronic caller to the Crisis Intervention help-line. Based on interviews, she was described as “very committed” to The Way, a nondenominational ministry headquartered in rural Ohio. She sometimes referred to herself as “a prophet” and had told others that “God had talked to her directly,” Haage said.

An Appleton woman described by police as Laack’s “sometimes roommate” told investigators “Denise would witness (her beliefs) to anyone she met and sometimes she would accept rides from strangers and sometimes solicit rides in order to gain opportunities to witness.”

The latest information in the file came from 2007 when Appleton police Lt. Pat Geenen turned over to police dental records that were used to officially identify Laack.

“Duquette over the years was a person of interest,” said Geenen, the last local investigator to work on the case. “I don’t believe he’s ever been ruled out, but simply because of the nature of the offense and some similarities how bodies were found, he was always a person we were interested in talking to.”

Appleton Deputy Police Chief Bob Kavanaugh said it has probably been a decade since the last Illinois detective came to investigate. He called Duquette “still the prevailing theory, as far as I know.”

Laack’s body was found on Spotted Dutchman Hill in a remote area two to three miles from Henry, Ill., and about 18 miles west of Interstate 39, which runs due north to Madison.

Dave Elmore, a retired Illinois Division of Criminal Investigation special agent who traveled to Appleton in 1986 just after Laack was identified, said there was no explanation for the delay in identifying Laack. “I don’t know why we didn’t connect on that,” he said. “I know we sent out message nationwide with her description."

The sheriff’s file shows that early on upon discovery of her body police conducted quite a few interviews, including people at a Catholic religious retreat a mile and a half away. “We were on that part quickly,” Elmore recalled, but found no significant leads.

Lone family survivor

Sharon Nellis, of Appleton, is Laack’s older sister and only surviving relative. Their mother, Arlene, died about four months after Denise disappeared and their father, Donald, died about 10 years ago.

“We didn’t (always) get along very well but we were family,” Nellis said. “We were like four years apart and you don’t really have the same kind of interests.”

She has fond memories of how much Denise enjoyed going swimming in the lake near where they lived in Burlington. “My folks packed up the lunch and we all went to the beach during the summer,” she said. “My sister had a good time. She wanted to go to the water.”

Nellis was 18 and Denise 14 when they moved to Appleton. Denise went to Appleton West High School.

Before she disappeared, Denise had been living in an apartment near the Appleton YMCA. She had reportedly just started a job selling Avon products.

“She was a good person but she had problems,” Nellis said. “She was connected with this cult, whatever it was.”

Nellis recalled how she and her father tried to “talk her out of” her involvement with The Way. “He said, ‘We’ve got a nice church here.’”

Haage and his boss, Sheriff Kevin Doyle, intend to follow up with Illinois State Police at the Springfield headquarters to see what their case file says about Duquette. Doyle noted that all the investigators previously involved have retired and some are deceased.

“I can’t honestly tell you what state police have or don’t have,” said Doyle, who has been in office since 1998. “I’m not sure if investigators ever went to talk to James Duquette.”

If no contact was ever made with Duquette, Haage said they are going to ask state investigators to interview Duquette in hopes of being able to “close it and figure out what happened. Basically if he’s interviewed and refuses to talk about it, we’re right back to where we were.”

“There are no other leads concerning this case other than the Duquette one,” Haage said.


30 years later: Schnetzer murder case cold, but not idle

September 15, 2008

Three decades after her 17-year-old daughter disappeared and never came home again, Doris Williams still longs for her pretty smile and sense of humor.

Dawn Schnetzer was last seen alive during the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 1978, in the 600 block of Broad Street in Menasha. Nearly seven weeks later, on Nov. 4, 1978, her nude decomposed body was found in a wooded area between Sherwood and Hilbert in the Calumet County Town of Woodville.

"It seems like yesterday," Williams said Friday from her Weyauwega home. "I think of her every day. The years don't make a bit of difference because it's never been solved. I think she deserves better than that.

"I really have confidence in the new detective that's working on the case," said Williams, who received a visit from Calumet County Investigator John Dedering this summer. "I still think it's going to be solved."

Dedering took over the cold case murder probe in 2003 when veteran Investigator Jerry Pagel was elected sheriff.

"This is the only unsolved homicide that we have in Calumet County," said Pagel, who remains hopeful that advances in DNA technology will help solve the case. He said "investigators are still working with the FBI" on possible DNA testing of hairs found on Schnetzer's body.

Williams has always considered serial killer James Duquette Jr., a former Appleton resident serving a lengthy prison term for kidnapping and raping a girl in Massachusetts, as a likely suspect in her daughter's death.

"Mr. Duquette is a person of interest," Pagel said. "Hopefully technology is going to continue to improve, which is going to aid us in solving the case."

Dedering said there are "more than five" persons of interest named in the file and "they've all been interviewed at one point or another," except Duquette, who has declined to speak with investigators.

While Pagel said Duquette is someone police consider capable, "we're not funneling all of our energy towards James Duquette.

"We know he was in the area at the time of Dawn's disappearance and murder, and the fact that he has murdered individuals in the past," he said.

Once he finishes serving his Massachusetts sentence, Duquette will be returned to Wisconsin to serve life prison terms for the murders of Anne Preimesberger, 18, of Appleton in 1980 and Tara Kassens, 14, of Mequon in 1987.

"We're looking at all different aspects and avenues," Pagel said. "We don't want to get tunnel vision. Hopefully the DNA analysis will assist us."

"My attitude is that as long as the case remains open in our agency or DCI (state Department of Justice), there's a chance the case will be solved," Dedering said. "We're always hopeful."

"I still feel there's one person out there who knows what happened (as the perpetrator) but there also might be accomplices or acquaintances of this individual who knows something that might assist our investigation," Pagel said. "We would like to hear from them."



MO: Rape-slayer of teenage girls

DISPOSITION: Multiple life terms in Wis. and Mass. (for rape).

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers



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