Cold murder case not forgotten
Hitchhiker was found near Elk Lake in 1974
Christena T. O'Brien
Leader-Telegram Staff

MENOMONIE — Mary Kathleen Schlais left her home in Minneapolis almost 30 years ago, planning to hitch her way to an art show in Chicago.

The 25-year-old never made it. Her body was found on Feb. 15, 1974, in a ditch along a dead-end road in the Elk Lake area near the Dunn-Eau Claire County line. She had been stabbed at least 15 times.

Police haven’t been able to solve the 29-year-old homicide, but one investigator — Craig Koser of the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department — hasn’t given up.

“I try to devote a little time to it each month,” said Koser, who keeps a photo of Schlais on his desk to remind him to stay on the case.

Since he first dug into Schlais’ murder several years ago, he has followed up on a number of leads but has come up empty-handed. He is hoping that after almost 30 years someone will come forward with a tip.

“Somewhere along the line, people talk,” said Koser, a 17-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department. “Somebody obviously knows something about this case.”

The case

Before her death, Schlais, a 1973 graduate of the University of Minnesota and an artist, had a recent exhibit of sculptures, paintings and drawings, according to a 1974 newspaper account.

She spoke German and Danish fluently and began studying Japanese, the article said. She also traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, often hitchhiking.

The day her body was discovered, Schlais had left her home between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m., her roommate, Judith Daniel, told authorities, according to a 1976 report by John Schultz, a special agent with the state Division of Criminal Investigation. She had made a sign bearing the word “Madison” to use as she hitchhiked toward Chicago.

Her body was found around 1:15 p.m. that day, about 90 miles from her home and approximately four miles from Interstate 94.

Local resident Dennis Anderson had driven by a late model, gold compact car parked on the dead-end road. He and his dog had just come from a store. Wanting to give the animal a longer ride, Anderson drove down the dead-end road.

Anderson at first “thought that it was two males fighting at this location and continued towards the end of this dead-end road,” Schultz’s report stated. “The witness then began realizing that something was wrong and turned around and came back to the scene. He observed (Schlais’) body in the ditch, and the white male with the late model, gold-colored compact automobile was gone.”

Anderson continued home, tied up his dog, ran in the house and told his wife someone was hurt down the road, Koser said. He called Dan Murphy, a nearby neighbor, to go back to the scene with him.

Both looked at the body, got back in the car and drove to a nearby home, and Murphy called the Sheriff’s Department.

When he and Anderson got back to the scene, they found a truck driver for Culligan standing near the body, Koser said. The three talked for three or four minutes, and the Culligan man left to make deliveries. Koser doesn’t believe police ever talked to that man, or if they did, there’s no record of it.

The hunt

Police found an orange-and-black stocking hat at the crime scene. and they took plaster casts of tire impressions believed to have been left by the assailant’s car.

“The tire impressions were not of good quality due to the freshly fallen snow,” Schultz wrote, “and the tires have never been identified.”

The state crime lab did some extensive comparisons of hair found in the stocking hat with samples of at least a dozen suspects, Koser said.

“They were never able to make any connection based on that,” he said.

Eight months after Schlais’ murder, an anonymous person sent a note to the crime lab. The handwritten message said, “Did you ever think man who found murdered girl at Elk Lake also put her there.”

In their investigation, the authorities conducted close to 100 formal interviews and made several hundred informal contacts, Schultz said. They showed Anderson numerous photo lineups, and he underwent hypnosis twice “in hopes that he would be able to recall” more specific information, but those efforts were fruitless.

“The most remote leads were followed in this case, without success, and it appears this is a case where a lone girl was hitchhiking and was subsequently picked up and transported to her death,” Schultz wrote in 1976.

No motive for the crime has been determined, and the weapon never was found, Koser said. Over time the case grew cold.

Twenty-one years later he came across the case during a move of evidence. The investigator began going through the cardboard box that contained the investigation of Schlais’ murder.

The remote location of the dead-end road where Schlais’ body was found “leads you to believe it was someone who knew that area,” Koser said. “But we don’t know that for sure.”

He’s poured over crime scene photos, pages of interviews and autopsy results, organizing it all in three three-ring binders.

Because of advances in technology since the murder, Koser submitted biological evidence, blood-stained clothing and fingernail scrapings to the crime lab for DNA testing.

“I was pretty excited,” Koser said. “I thought maybe here we were going to get a break. As it turned out, it didn’t pan out, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Even though he’s hit some roadblocks, Koser has a few leads he’d like to follow up, and he’s hoping anyone with information about the case comes forward.

“The thing that probably worries me most about cases like this is somebody that has the ability to go out and commit such a horrendous crime is still out there,” he said. “Maybe they’ve committed (murder) again and haven’t been caught, or they could commit it again. I’d sure like to see them locked up before that happens.”

O’Brien can be reached at 830-5838, (800) 236-7077 or christena.obrien@ecpc.com.

Designed by Terry Fisk
Revised: September 28, 2004

Designed by Terry Fisk
Copyright © Unexplained Research. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 28, 2004