MARINETTE—Marinette County Circuit Judge Jim Morrison denied a key defense motion in the double murder case against a man accused of killing a young couple nearly 45 years ago at a county campground.
The motions hearing took place Thursday in Branch 2. Morrison made his ruling on Friday.
Raymond Vannieuwenhoven, 84, Lakewood, is charged in a July 9, 1976 double murder of a Green Bay couple who was camping at McClintock Park in the Town of Silver Cliff. David Schuldes, 25, and Ellen Matheys, 24, were shot and killed at the campground. They were engaged.
Matheys was sexually assaulted but that charge has been dismissed because the statute of limitations has elapsed. There is no statute of limitations for the two first-degree homicide charges against Vannieuwenhoven.
The case went cold for many years until a Virginia lab, utilizing new DNA technology, informed the Marinette County Sheriff’s Department that it had made a break in the case.
The state is represented by Marinette County District Attorney DeShea Morrow and special prosecutor Mark Williams. The defense is led by attorneys Lee Schuchart and Travis Crowell.
The defense first filed a “Denny” motion on March 19 to admit evidence labeling Robert Lukesh as a potential suspect in this case.
The Denny rule is unique to the State of Wisconsin and stems from a 1984 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in the case State v. Denny. In short, it states that the defense in any trial cannot suggest other suspects for the crime the defendant is accused of without being able to support that accusation with a possible motive from the new suspect, a proven opportunity for the suspect to commit that crime, and the ability to place them within proximity to the crime scene.
The defense argued that Lukesh—by everyone’s account was an awful man who drugged and sexually assaulted his children and foster children, used the family dog in some of his assaults and physically beat his wife and children—met the three standards of the Denny rule to make him a suspect.
“We believe that the evidence, when taken as a whole, when taken in the aggregate, does show motive, opportunity and a direct connection ....,” Crowell said. “We believe this evidence should be weighed by a jury.”
Morrison asked Crowell what he believed to be Lukesh’s motive.
“We believe that—as he stated to other people—that he wanted to commit the perfect crime and see if he could get away with it,” Crowell said.
The defense has stated that Lukesh had a motive as in 1954 he was pardoned for a rape conviction and he had direct connection as he had an “unusually close relationship with a lot of the deputies” and that he gave details of the crime that only the person who committed it would know.
Morrow countered that this crime was not Lukesh’s normal pattern of assault. She said his regular behavior was to assault and terrorize members of his own family and not commit random acts against complete strangers.
Morrow also stated that Lukesh already was ruled out as a suspect.
“Robert Lukesh has been excluded, just like Merv Walker (the subject of another Denny motion that was denied in March) has been excluded,” she said of DNA testing in 1997. Lukesh died in 2000.
The state also questioned the time element because Lukesh lived a significant distance (40 minutes) from the crime scene.
Crowell again argued that the evidence, along with expert testimony, needs to be heard by a jury.
Morrow said the defense is making “a lot of speculation” concerning this motion.
Before adjourning on Thursday, Morrison said, “What’s clear to me is that Mr. Lukesh was a very, very despicable human being. ... Mr. Lukesh had lots of different stories about what happened here and lots of the things he said about what happened were just wrong. ... The timeline may or may not be a problem.”
In his written ruling, Morrison states that Lukesh may havehad motive, “although no specific motive against these individuals was shown but may have a generalized motive arising out of his negative personality.”
The judge wrote that the second prong, opportunity to commit the crime, is very thin. He said the real problem lies in Lukesh’s connection to the crime.
In summary, Morrison wrote, “... a theory without a direct connection is not enough to support Denny evidence. For that reason, the motion with respect to Robert Lukesh is denied.”
A pretrial conference is scheduled for 1 p.m. June 22. A 10-day jury trial is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. July 19.
EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—Enduring almost four years of frustration over what some criticize as slow progress forward on the implementation of a permanent solution for clean and safe drinking water in the Town of Peshtigo (TOP), during the town’s inaugural meeting of the TOP Water Committee a quorum of the town board of supervisors took steps last week to start the ball rolling.
Wednesday, supervisors at the meeting voted unanimously, authorizing chairperson Cindy Boyle to begin organizing a “water summit” of stakeholders (Water SOS) specifically related to navigating through the complex issues, mechanics and finances of establishing a permanent and safe water supply.
“I think the (summit) will be very rigorous and a lot of work but hopefully the takeaway will be some clarity on where the immovable roadblocks are, what they are and where we actually have paths forward,” Boyle said.
LONG TIME COMING
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, City of Marinette-based Tyco Fire Products LP (Tyco), began conducting sampling tests for contaminants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on the property of its outdoor testing facility in Marinette in 2013. However, the actual contamination reached far beyond Tyco’s property. Tyco began disclosure to TOP residents of the potential toxic PFAS contamination of their groundwater and private drinking water wells in 2017, catalyzing the town’s long struggle to access a safe source of potable water. Following that disclosure, Tyco also began supplying interim sources of safe drinking water to residents (bottled water and point of entry filtration systems for those with high contaminant levels).
With the water summit, Town Board Chairperson Cindy Boyle and other town residents hope to streamline progress down a road that leads to more productive discussion and compromise among the various stakeholders as they work towards a permanent water solution.
“I am personally really tired of reacting,” Boyle said Wednesday during the meeting of the town’s newly established Water Committee. “I would really like to start steering this (process).”
Boyle, who took the seat as TOP chairman following her victory in the spring election, campaigned on a platform of clean water for the town. She established the ad hoc Water Committee as a critical advisory component for the town’s PFAS and water issues and to uphold accountability to parties accountable.
Of the many stakeholders Boyle hopes to engage in a summit, topping the list are TOP, cities of Peshtigo and Marinette, Johnson Controls Inc. and subsidiary Tyco (JCI/Tyco) and the DNR all.
JCI/Tyco (the responsible parties) also appear aligned with Boyle’s desire for some sort of facilitated summit. In April the company made a similar proposal to DNR Secretary Preston Cole in a letter from JCI Vice President & Chief Sustainability, Global Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer Katie McGinty. Cole directs the state programs for environmental protection, natural resource management and law enforcement.
“To support your leadership on this important project, we at Tyco, would like to propose that DNR engage a neutral, third-party professional facilitator that would work at your direction,” wrote JCI’s McGinty. “The facilitator’s services would be at Tyco’s cost and the firm chosen by you. We share your goal and that of Governor (Tony) Evers to make permanent clean drinking water a reality for affected Peshtigo residents as soon as possible and we offer these resources to spur progress that has been stalled too long.”
BOARD GAINS ITS FOOTING
The source of the TOP contamination centers on a Tyco-owned fire suppression testing facility, the Fire Technology Center (FTC) in Marinette. After decades of testing firefighting foams that contain PFAS, the facility’s contaminant saturated properties resulted in a widespread plume of pfas-contaminated groundwater that now lingers under much of TOP and Marinette.
TOP residents learned of the contamination in about 2017, and many—the town leadership among them—grow continually impatient with the delay, often laying the blame for delays with JCI/Tyco.
Since the spring election, progress on TOP’s PFAS front hovered on hold while a relatively new town board addressed some internal priorities, which included the recent acquisition of a new municipal lawyer. Moreover, the last few weeks allowed time for new board members to come up to speed on various environmental discussions that occurred under the prior TOP leadership.
A recent communication exchange between DNR Secretary Cole and JCI’s McGinty, regarding continued discussion and hopeful progress on the TOP water issue recognized the learning curve facing the TOP board and the necessity for patience as other interested parties allow time for the board to gain a solid footing on the matter.
“We are all aware of the change in leadership in the town’s governmental body,” Cole wrote on May 21, addressing JCI’s McGinty. “Our team has expressed to me, a need to work with the new leadership of the (TOP) to ensure they are fully briefed on the investigation and activities our two organizations have completed over the last four years. They may have things they need to have in place to ensure we all have a meaningful dialogue moving forward. We expect to be able to engage with the town in the coming weeks and see July 1, 2021, as a date after which we believe all interested parties would be able to begin a fully informed, facilitated conversation.”
About six weeks after officially becoming chairperson, Wednesday’s board vote, authorizing Boyle to begin organizing a water summit represented a big step toward that “meaningful discussion.”
“Six weeks in and we have hired a new municipal lawyer, established numerous working committees, received a comprehensive environmental debriefing and are moving forward with a water summit,” Boyle said. “That is progress in my book.”
TRANSPARENCY NEEDED TO END DELAYS
Boyle also addressed a significant lack of transparency that existed between the prior town board and the TOP residents regarding past discussion among stakeholders of a permanent water source.
“Something that I was thinking about before the election and every day since the election: it seemed that historically, from an outsider’s perspective, the lack of progress … was a lot of stalling,” she said. “It seemed like JCI was doing a very effective job at (pointing to) who the responsible stall was on any given day … We all know that the best way to cut to the chase is to get all the parties in the same room so that (it) can just be vetted out once and for all.”
When it comes to the need for a permanent water source, two of the primary stakeholders, JCI/Tyco and the TOP seem to be on the same page, at least in theory. But as the committee’s discussion revealed Wednesday, water is complicated and the specifics of any negotiation or agreement will need to be hashed out in discussions between stakeholders.
Earlier this year JCI/Tyco issued the following statement to the EagleHerald that addresses the complex nature of providing a permanent water source and their promise to provide that source to homes within a “study area” of the plume for which JCI/Tyco have accepted responsibility.
“Tyco would like to reiterate that we have been committed to providing a long-term, safe drinking water supply to the Peshtigo residents who have been impacted by the groundwater contamination coming from the FTC. Over 2 years ago, Tyco proposed connecting the homes in the Study Area to a municipal water line extension and committed to paying for its construction. To move forward, however, this proposal requires the consent and cooperation of local elected officials. We look forward to action by those officials and will continue to fund the legal/technical resources they need to inform their decision.”
TOO EALRY FOR WATER SPECIFICS
Dialog at the TOP water committee meeting inevitably turned to “legal/technical” aspects of providing access to clean and safe drinking water. Committee members pondered over how the financing of a permanent water source might work, whether that source results from connection to an outside municipality like the Marinette, purchase of bulk water or the establishment of the town’s own water district.
Town supervisor and member of the water committee Kristen Edgar touched on the tremendous responsibility that comes with establishing a water district.
“We have a town right now that has (private water) wells,” Edgar said. “We are not responsible for providing water to our citizens, (but) once we have a water district it is our responsibility to provide water. So (it) changes the whole landscape when you have a water district because then we have a responsibility of providing clean water.”
Committee member Jeffrey Lamont, a retired hydrogeologist, stirred further discussion after offering an overview of the work to come and the questions that remain unanswered.
For example, the costs and logistics associated with extending a waterline from a neighboring municipality, not to mention the continued maintenance of that system and whether annexation would be required.
Lamont brings 30 years of experience in geology and water resource engineering to the committee. He worked on numerous large environmental cleanups for the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency and private clients across North America. In his professional opinion, if the town chooses a municipal connection, Marinette represents the most viable option. He cautioned, however, the necessity of town officials to remain cognizant as discussions commence of where that connection would extend, the associated costs and the annexation/non-annexation issue, for which some on the committee feel that JCI/Tyco should fund.
“It’s easy to lose sight of those kinds of costs unless you … understand them upfront,” Lamont said.
In the end, the committee refrained from digging too deep into the details, understanding those discussions need to occur at a larger table, one that engages all interested and responsible parties in an open dialog, such as Boyle’s proposed water summit.
“Let’s just find out what everyone’s appetite is, where the roadblocks are and, instead of trying to move an immovable mountain, let’s find different paths if there are some,” Boyle said.