It has been called one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in American history. The wrongful conviction and subsequent prison release of Steven Avery in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, spurned nationwide news, television interviews, and a Netflix documentary (Making a Murderer). Upon his release from prison his father warned him, “Manitowoc County’s not done with you. They are not even close to being done with you.” Less than two years later, his father’s words would ring true when Avery, along with his nephew Brendan Dassey, was again accused of a heinous crime – this time the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of local photographer, Teresa Halbach.
The Avery’s – trying to fit a square peg into a round hole
Manitowoc County, Wisconsin is a typical American farming community, hardworking, moral, socially conscious. To the community, the Avery’s seemed like square pegs in a board full of round holes. They owned Avery’s Salvage Yard off Avery Road and were considered by most residents to be the “white trash” of the community. Regardless of their standing, many believe the Sheriff and justice departments of Manitowoc County “had it out for the Avery’s”.
The Penny Ann Beernsten attack (July 29, 1985)
It was a hot summer day on July 29 when Penny Ann Beernsten was jogging along the Lake Michigan shoreline just north of Two Rivers. At 3:50 PM, she noticed a “scraggly-haired man in a leather jacket” standing idly ahead of her. As she passed by the man, he pulled a knife and forced her into a nearby wooded area. She was sexually assaulted, beaten, and left for dead.
At the hospital, Beernsten gave a description of her attacker to Manitowoc County Sheriff Deputy Judy Dvorak who happened to live across the street from Steven Avery. Dvorak commented that the description Beernsten gave sounded a lot like Avery. In order to help determine if Avery was their man, detectives took an old police photo of Steven Avery from their records and detective Eugene Kusche drew a composite drawing using the photo as a template. The composite drawing was then shown to Beernsten who agreed that the man in the drawing looked like her attacker.
Sheriff Tom Kocourek then suggested that Avery’s photo be included in a photo lineup. Out of nine photos in the lineup, one of which she was already familiar with, Beernsten pointed to the middle photograph – Steven Avery.
The arrest of Steven Avery for the attempted murder of Penny Beernsten
As a result of the positive identification, police arrested Avery and charged him with the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten. Oddly, Steven’s name was not added to the jail list and it was later learned that Sheriff Kocourek issued an order that Avery be prohibited from accessing any phone in the facility. On a motion from Manitowoc County District Attorney Denis Vogel, Avery was denied bail. Manitowoc County now had Avery isolated and controlled.
Suspected of other crimes and currently under surveillance, Gregory A. Allen never considered a suspect
Today we know there was a critical name missing from the photo lineup that day – Gregory A. Allen. Manitowoc Police had arrested Allen in 1983 on the same beach where Beernsten was attacked, for stalking a woman and exposing himself. The omission of his photo from the lineup was odd given that the prosecutor in the case two years earlier, had also been Manitowoc District Attorney Denis Vogel. Vogel would have been intimately familiar with Allen. In the end, Vogel had reduced Allen’s charges from indecent exposure to disorderly conduct.
Ironically, at the time of the Beernsten attack, Gregory Allen had been under daily surveillance by the Manitowoc Police Department – he was a suspect in several sex crime complaints. According to a police report, “He is a dangerous individual with a potential for violence.” Allen was surveilled as many as fourteen times a day. Unfortunately, on the day of the Beernsten attack, his surveillance was briefly lifted so officers could investigate another crime.
It was later learned that members of District Attorney Vogel’s own staff had told him that Allen made a better suspect for the rape than Avery. In addition, Thomas Bergner from the Manitowoc City Police Department says they went to Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department and told them they had the wrong guy and that they also felt Gregory Allen was a more likely suspect. Sheriff Kocourek however disagreed. Years later a witness from the Sheriff’s office told investigators “the sheriff told the DA not to screw this case up because they wanted Avery convicted for this crime”.
Avery goes to trial for the murder of Penny Beernsten (December 14, 1985)
After his arrest, Avery was put into a second lineup, this time a lineup with real people. Already familiar with his composite sketch and mugshot photograph, Beernsten picks Avery as her rapist. On December 14, 1986, Avery went to trial.
During the trial, sixteen different witnesses corroborated Avery’s claim that he was elsewhere during the hours that the rape occurred. Receipts from a ShopCo in Green Bay proved he had been buying paint with his wife and children at 5:13 PM – only 75 minutes after the rape of Beernsten. Employees even recalled seeing him in the store at the time. Regardless, a jury unanimously found Avery guilty of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault, and false imprisonment of another person.
On March 10, 1986, Steven Avery was sentenced to 32 years in prison. Given Wisconsin’s unusual parole rules (if you did not admit your guilt, you were considered ineligible for parole), Avery, who vehemently plead not guilty, was sentenced with no possibility of parole.
Attempts to overturn Steven Avery’s conviction for the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten (1996)
Those in the know, including family members and many involved with the legal proceedings, were certain that a tragic injustice had occurred. Their concerns were validated after scrapings from Beernsten’s fingernails were found to contain someone else’s DNA (not Avery’s). Defenders submitted a bid for a new trial based on the new evidence. On September 23, 1996, Judge Fred H. Hazlewood denied Avery’s request for a new trial.
Finally, justice – Steven Avery conviction overturned 18 years later (2003)
Around 1995, a Manitowoc County Jail officer received a call from a police detective in nearby Brown County, who said a prisoner, Gregory Allen, had admitted committing a sexual assault years ago in Manitowoc County and that someone else was in jail doing time for it. Manitowoc County refused to consider the new details in the case. Deputies recall Sheriff Kocourek ignoring the information, flatly telling them, “We already have the right guy. Don’t concern yourself with it.”
After nearly 18 years behind bars, on April 3, 2002, the Wisconsin Innocence Project stepped in to assist Avery. Based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, the project represents prison inmates who claim to be innocent. Over staunch objections from the State, the project obtained a court order to conduct testing using a more powerful DNA technology. Using 13 pubic hairs recovered from the Beernsten rape kit in 1985, it was found that none matched Steven Avery. However, one hair matched Gregory Allen.
On September 10, 2003, a Wisconsin court exonerated Avery and ordered his release from prison. When asked if he forgives the victim, Beernsten, Steven replied,
“It ain’t all her fault, you know. Honest mistake. I mean, most of the time, I think the cops put it in her head more anyway.”
When DA Denis Vogel was told about Avery’s exoneration, rather than surprise or humility, he reportedly asked a simple question, “Is there anything on Gregory Allen in Avery’s file.” Indeed, Gregory Allen’s case file was found in Manitowoc County District Attorney Denis Vogel’s case file against Steven prompting many to question how Vogel had not suspected Allen in the first place.
Avery’s exoneration became a model for reform and spawned the creation of several new laws in Wisconsin. However, for Avery, his troubles were about to begin anew.
Steven Avery files lawsuit against Manitowoc County
Upon release from prison, Avery moved into a trailer in Manitowoc County with a new girlfriend. He spent his days working at the family’s salvage yard. Meanwhile, many suspected Manitowoc County authorities knew Avery was innocent all along and as a result, investigations were launched into the conduct of Manitowoc County officials. On September 19, 2003, the Department of Justice ruled there was no basis for bringing criminal charges against Manitowoc County officials. The state’s 15-page review concludes that, at worst, the Sheriff’s Department failed to investigate Allen, all little consolation to Avery who had lost 18 years of his life behind bars.
On October 12, 2004, after the criminal lawsuit failed, attorney Walt Kelley filed federal civil lawsuits in U.S. District Court on behalf of Steven Avery. They sought $36 million dollars – $2 million dollars for each year that Avery wrongfully spent behind bars. Manitowoc County had insurance policies to cover such lawsuits but insurers took the position that because of the nature of the allegations against the county, Sheriff, and DA, the policy would not cover Avery’s lawsuit. The money would have to come out of County pockets.
The essence of Avery’s lawsuit said the District Attorney and the Manitowoc County Sheriffs were obliged constitutionally to turn the exculpatory evidence about Gregory Allen over to the defense. The named defendants were Thomas Kocourek (Manitowoc County Sheriff 1985) and Denis Vogel (Manitowoc County DA 1985).
Steven Avery was represented by two of Wisconsin’s top attorneys – Stephen Glynn and Walter Kelly. On October 11 and 13 respectively, Lieutenant Lenk, Sergeant Colborn, and Sheriff Peterson were deposed. In the interviews, it was revealed that Manitowoc County’s Lieutenant Lenk and Sergeant Colborn indeed knew about Gregory Allen’s potential involvement in the rape of Beernsten.
Meanwhile, in the midst of Avery’s lawsuit against Manitowoc County, another woman inexplicably disappeared.
The disappearance of Teresa Halbach (October 31, 2005)
A regular buyer and seller of cars through Auto Trader magazine, Avery called the publication to set up an appointment with a photographer. Using the name of his sister (it was her car he was selling), he told them “Send the girl who was out here before.”
On October 31, 2005, Teresa Halbach, a freelance photographer, had finished her third photoshoot that day when she called Steven’s phone and left this message:
“Hello, this is Teresa with Auto Trader magazine. I’m the photographer and just giving a call to let you know that I could come out there today um, in the afternoon. It would probably be around 2:00 or even a little later. Um… again, it’s Teresa. If you could please give me a call back and let me know if that’ll work for you. Thank you.”
At 2:27 PM, Teresa made a five-minute phone call to Auto Trader shortly before arriving at Avery Auto Salvage for her last shoot. A few minutes later, Avery returned Teresa’s call. Records show there were two phone calls made. One lasted seven seconds while the other disconnected before the phone is answered. Both were placed using the *67 feature to block caller identification.
At 3:35 PM, school bus driver Lisa Buchner testified that she saw Teresa outside the home photographing the van that Avery’s sister was putting up for sale. She dropped off 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s nephew. With an IQ of 73, Dassey is borderline retarded, but will become a critical component in Halbach’s missing person case.
Exactly one hour after Bucher said she saw Teresa taking photos outside Avery’s home, a phone call was made from Steven’s cellphone to Teresa’s cellphone (not blocked). The call lasted for thirteen seconds, suggesting someone had answered the phone.
At 5:36 PM, Steven received a phone call from his fiancée, Jodi Stachowski. Jodi was serving a sentence in Manitowoc County Jail for DUI. They talked for 15 minutes. Jodi said after that Steven sounded perfectly fine. In fact, she was under the impression that he may have already been in bed.
Teresa Halbach is reported missing (November 3, 2005)
On November 3, 2005, after being unable to reach her daughter, Karen Halbach called her son, Mike Halbach, and told him that Teresa’s voicemail was full. Mike “guessed the password” to his sister’s account and listened to the messages. Recognizing that Teresa had not answered her phone for quite some time, at 5:00 PM, Karen Halbach called the authorities and reported Teresa was missing.
At some point during that day, Sergeant Colborn called in Teresa’s license plate number, requesting additional information from the dispatcher. Oddly, Colborn knew the make and model of the car *before* he called in the plate number. Under testimony, Colborn claimed he was not looking at the car at the time he called in the plate check but could not explain how he knew the make and model of the car before it was called in. Below is a transcript of that radio conversation taken from police tapes.
Lynn: Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, this is Lynn.
Lynn: Hi, Andy.
Colborn: Can you run Sam-William-Henry-582?
Lynn: OK. It shows that she’s a missing person. And it lists to Teresa Halbach.
Lynn: OK, that’s what you’re looking for, Andy?
Colborn: Ninety-nine Toyota?
Colborn: OK, thank you.
Halbach’s car would not be found until two days later.
Search parties find Halbach’s car at Avery’s Salvage Yard (November 5, 2005)
The following day, the search for Teresa Halbach began. Maps of the area were printed by Ryan Hillegas who coordinated a search for the missing woman. Later that evening, police asked Avery for permission to search his trailer. Steven freely granted the police admission to his home. Nothing was found.
Early in the morning on November 5, 2005, Detective Dave Remiker asked permission to search Avery’s Salvage Yard. He also called Manitowoc County and asked that they question Steven Avery again. That same morning, Ryan Hillegas was allowed into blocked-off areas around the salvage yard. Dozens of volunteers showed up at the salvage yard to assist in the search. At 9:50 AM, Pamela and Nikole Sturm were given permission by Earl Avery to enter the salvage yard for a search. In an unusual coincidence, they carried the only camera handed out to volunteer searchers.
At 10:20 AM, a 1999 dark green Toyota RAV4 was found by Pamela and Nikole Sturm on the edge of Avery’s wrecking yard. It was partially covered with branches and had a car hood leaning against it. Pamela immediately called the police to report the find.
Sturm: Hi, this is Pam Sturm. I’m on the search for Teresa Halbach and we have found a RAV4.
Man: Is there any license plates on it?
Sturm: There’s… No plates on it, but it’s a little covered up. It’s weird. It’s covered up.
Man: OK. Can you get to the front of the car?
Sturm: Yeah, I will. I can find a VIN number. Is it OK if I go in the car?
Man: No, do not go in the car. Do not touch the car.
Man: Stay on the outside of the car, go over to the front on the driver’s side…
Sturm: OK, now hang on. The fir… The last four digits: three, zero, four, four.
Man: OK, where are you?
Sturm: Is that the number?
Man: Where are you?
Sturm: No, you gotta tell me if this is the car.
Man: OK, stop. I can’t tell you anything. Where are you?
Sturm: I’m at Avery Salvage.
About 30 minutes later, Sergeant Jason Orth arrived at the salvage yard and “secured” the area. Lieutenant James Lenk first claimed he arrived at the scene at 2:05 PM. At 2:24 PM, Special Agent Tom Fassbender arrived and suggested that Sergeant Orth keep a log of officers who arrive on the scene. Later, investigators noted that the log shows Lieutenant Lenk signing in at 6:45 PM and signing out at 10:41 PM. Under oath, Lenk will change his story saying this was the time he arrived at the scene. During the crucial find, Steven Avery was at his cabin in Crivitz helping to install a tin roof and butchering chickens for dinner.
Officers take control of Avery’s Salvage yard (November 6, 2005)
The following day, on November 6, 2005, authorities placed barricades on Highway 147, taking control of Avery’s Salvage Yard. Even the Avery’s were barred from entering their property. Detectives descended on the car and seized a mountain of evidence including hair and fiber samples, a broken pair of eyeglasses, an Auto Trader magazine, hand tools, duct tape, dog feces, a necklace, vacuum cleaner, couch pillow, claw hammer, blanket, and a plastic pail. They noted that in addition to the normal public roads leading into the salvage yard, there were a couple of roads in back where you could enter the property unseen.
Police immediately suspected Steven Avery as Halbach’s murderer. In fact, just 30 minutes after the car was discovered, this phone call was placed by Officer Jacobs.
Katie: Good morning, Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Katie speaking.
Officer Jacobs: Katie, just rolled into the parking lot. Can you tell me; do we have a body or anything yet?
Katie: I don’t believe so.
Officer Jacobs: Do we have Steven Avery in custody, though?
That same day, police questioned Steven Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. He tells them he has no knowledge of what happened to Teresa.
More searches of Steven Avery’s property (November 8, 2005)
In order to avoid an appearance of conflict or prejudice, Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz assumed the role of special prosecutor and the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department took over as lead investigators. Under testimony, one officer explained,
“That’s something that, again, District Attorney Rohrer and Judge Fox and really the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement community was very sensitive to… any appearance at all of conflict.”
Police began a series of searches of Steven’s home and property. According to Steven,
“They ain’t finding nothing. ‘Cause there ain’t nothing there, so why are they gonna find anything? All I can think is they’re trying to railroad me again.”
But officials did find something – lots of somethings – and each time evidence was found, the media published the shocking discoveries in the local newspapers. In the first searches of Avery’s home they found a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle and a .50 caliber deer-hunting rifle. During the second search, police found Halbach’s crumpled license plates in a scrapped car. They found spent rifle cases in the garage and a pair of handcuffs and leg irons in the house. Steven admitted they were his.
“I bought them. I wanted to try out something different with Jodi.”
On the same day Avery returned to Manitowoc County, police searched his home again. It would be the seventh time they entered the home and the third time Officer James Lenk participated in the search. Calumet and Manitowoc detectives say they were shuffling through a stack of paperback books on a nightstand when something dropped to the floor. “There’s a key there,” the detective said. Lying between a pair of corduroy slippers on the carpet was a single key to a Toyota automobile. Oddly, the bookcase had previously been emptied in an earlier search but no key was found.
Detective Kucharski: At one point, we found a key that appeared to be from a Toyota vehicle. It was on the floor when we found it, next to a cabinet that Lieutenant Lenk and Sergeant Colborn had been searching.
Attorney Loy: All right. And Lieutenant Lenk and Sergeant Colborn are officers of Calumet County?
Detective Kucharski: Uh, no, Manitowoc County.
Attorney Loy: Manitowoc County. And as far as you know, no one saw this key until November 8th, is that right?
Detective Kucharski: Correct.
Attorney Loy: And those slippers were moved before the key was seen?
Detective Kucharski: Yes.
Attorney Loy: And the first time they were moved, nobody saw the key?
Detective Kucharski: The key wasn’t there the first time they were moved.
Attorney Loy: And when you saw it there, it was sitting out there in plain view right on the floor, is that right?
Detective Kucharski: It was actually Lieutenant Lenk that saw the key first. He pointed to the floor and said, “There’s a key there.”
Compelling evidence found, Steven Avery is charged with murder (November 9, 2005)
On November 9, 2005, Steven Avery was arrested for possession of firearms. He was questioned on the two-hour drive to jail.
Steven: I didn’t do this one.
Detective: And we understand that. You made a mistake. You made a mistake.
Steven: No, I did not. I didn’t do nothing. How could I make a mistake?
Detective: So you intentionally killed her. That what you’re telling me?
Steven: No, I didn’t. I didn’t do nothing.
At that station, a DNA sample was taken of Avery’s saliva and blood.
The next day, police announce Halbach was murdered at the salvage yard. In a 6 by 6 fire pit behind Avery’s garage, they find human tissue, teeth, and bones. In a barrel used to burn trash, they found remnants of a cell phone and camera. On November 15, the charges against Avery were expanded to include first-degree intentional homicide and mutilating a corpse and police make a shocking announcement – Avery’s blood was found inside of Halbach’s SUV.
They day after police find Teresa’s phone on Avery’s property, a new message arrived on the phone. This is significant because prior to this day, her messages were full and her device was unable to accept any new messages. According to Tony Zimmerman, a Cingular Wireless Network engineer, this indicates that some messages on the device had been deleted.
DNA evidence proves conclusive (January 19, 2006)
Two months after his arrest, Steven plead not guilty and again, insisted that he was innocent. Meanwhile, the FBI lab determined that the remains found at Avery’s Salvage Yard were indeed Teresa Halbach’s.
Blood samples were taken from the back seat panel, steering column, and center console of Halbach’s car. The blood matched Halbach’s. In addition, using DNA collected from Avery the previous year, they say they were able to conclude that some blood and dried perspiration on the car’s key matched Steven Avery’s DNA. They grilled Steven relentlessly about the “find”. Steven claimed the evidence was planted using blood taken from him on November 9, 2005.
Wiegert continues campaign against Steven Avery (February 25, 2005)
On February 25, 2005, Investigator Mark Wiegert spoke to Jodie in jail where she was serving a 7-month sentence for DUI. Wiegert tells her she is about to marry the most “cold blooded” person he has ever met.
Several months later, police collect more evidence from Steven Avery’s home (March 1, 2006)
On March 1, 2006, police entered Steven Avery’s mobile home yet again. This time they collected hair fiber, a nightstand, box springs, a pair of slippers, paint remover, cleaning agents, bullet fragments, rifle shell casings, and long slabs of concrete from the garage floor.
Wiegert: I know you’re scared, Steve. I know you’re scared.
Steven: I’m not scared.
Wiegert: Because you didn’t mean to kill her. I don’t think you meant to kill her.
Steven: No, I did not kill her.
Wiegert: This wasn’t a planned thing. Did you plan it? I think what happened, you come out of prison for serving time for something you didn’t even do…
Steven: I did not do it.
Wiegert: and it screws you up in the head.
Steven: Like it screws everybody up.
Wiegert: They didn’t give you any counseling. You said before they gave no counseling.
Steven: I did not kill her.
Steven: You know the key is there because you put the key there. That’s the only way the key gets there.
Wiegert: Yes, Steve. Yes. That’s the fact. You can deny it all you want. The evidence will show that, OK? That’s the way it is.
Steven: But the cops got the evidence.
Wiegert: Yeah. Two independent investigators that have never met you. Two people who have never met you. Have nothing against you. I know nothing about you.
Steven: No, you see, if somebody else plants that sh1t there, you ain’t gonna see it…
Wiegert: Then why are your… Why is your DNA in there? Why is her blood in your house? How are they going to get that blood in your house?
Steven: How is her blood in my house? It can’t be. [Pause] I used to leave my house open all the time.
Wiegert: How does your DNA get inside of her truck?
Steven: My DNA ain’t. That’s because they got blood out of me. How much blood do they get out of me? A lot of blood. They got a lot of blood outta me.
Brendan Dassey pulled from remedial class and questioned (February 27, 2006)
On February 27, 2006, investigators Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender pulled Brendan Dassey out of class and questioned him alone. Later that day, he was questioned again at the Two Rivers Police Department. Police tell Brendan, if he testifies against Steven, he’ll only get 20 years plus parole. If he doesn’t – he’ll get life without the possibility of parole. Police pushed the boy hard, blatantly manipulating Brendan with little regard for the consequences. According to Making a Murderer:
“Nobody knew that they had evidence that she had been shot in the head. If they could get Brendan to say that, then that would be dynamite, because no one knew that and here if he came out and said it, then it must be the truth. And so they kept asking him, “Come on, Brendan. Something else happened to her now. We know something else happened to her.” And eventually they got more specific.”
Fassbender: “What else happened to her? Something happened to her head, Brendan, tell us.” Something happened to her head.
Fassbender: Come on. Something with the head.
Wiegert: What else did you guys do? Come on. What he made you do, Brendan.
Fassbender: We know he made you do something else. What was it?
Fassbender: What was it?
Fassbender: We have the evidence, Brendan. We just need you to… to be honest with us.
Brendan: That he cut off her hair.
Fassbender: He cut off her hair? OK. What else?
Fassbender: What else was done to her head?
Brendan: That he punched her.
Wiegert: What else?
Fassbender: It’s OK. What did he make you do?
Brendan: Cut her.
Fassbender: Cut her where?
Brendan: On her throat.
Fassbender: You cut her throat?
Wiegert: What else happens to her? In her head?
Fassbender: Extremely important you tell us this… for us to believe you.
Wiegert: Come on, Brendan. What else?
Fassbender: We know. We just need you to tell us.
Brendan: That’s all I can remember.
Wiegert: All right, I’m just gonna come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?
Brendan: He did.
Wiegert: Why didn’t you tell us that?
Brendan: ‘Cause I couldn’t think of it.
Brendan Dassey, with an IQ of just 73, had no idea what he was saying would result in his arrest.
Brendan: How long is this gonna take?
Fassbender: It shouldn’t take a whole lot longer.
Brendan: You think I can get there before 1:29?
Fassbender: Um… probably not. What’s at 1:29?
Brendan: Well, I have a project due in 6th hour.
Fassbender: OK. We’ll worry about that later, OK? All right.
Then officers break the shocking news to him.
Fassbender: You know, obviously, that we’re police officers, OK? And because of what you told us… we’re gonna have to arrest you.
Fassbender: Did you kind of figure that… was coming? For what you did? We can’t let you go right now.
Brendan: Is it only for one day or…?
Wiegert: We don’t know that at this time.
Fassbender: But let me tell you something, Brendan, you did the right thing, OK? By being honest, you can at least sleep at night now. ‘Cause I’m sure you’ve had some difficulty with that.
Fassbender: So you did the right thing here by telling us what happened, OK?
More interviews with Brendan, more searches of Avery’s property (March 1, 2006)
On March 1, police conducted another search of Steven’s property and questioned Brendan again. Lieutenant James Lenk was among those searching Steven’s property. Although the area had been searched many times before, police find a bullet fragment in Steven’s garage, underneath an air compressor. The fragment held Teresa’s DNA but the lab found that the testing sample was “contaminated” so the evidence was thrown out.
The unusual discovery of the bullet fragment and its later classification as “contaminated” prompted suspicion in Avery’s attorneys. They began looking at Manitowoc County officers individually and one name consistently stood out as present during key evidence discoveries – Lieutenant Lenk.
“So we looked around and one guy’s name just kept coming up over and over and over every place we looked. At critical moments. And that was Lieutenant James Lenk. Lenk is the guy who finds the key in the bedroom on the seventh entry, supposedly in plain view. Lenk is deposed just three weeks before this Halbach disappearance. And then, most peculiar of all, is when we looked in Steven’s old 1985 case file in the clerk’s office. Some items from that court file ultimately proved to exonerate Steven. Interestingly enough, the transmittal form that goes with the evidence in 2002 to the crime lab is filled out by none other than, at that time, Detective Sergeant James Lenk. And I said to myself, “Whoa. This is starting to sound more than just coincidental.”
Brendan Dassey is arrested (March 3, 2006)
Brendan Dassey, son of Avery’s sister Barb Tadych, was arrested on March 3, 2006 and charged with being party to first-degree homicide, sexual assault, and mutilating a corpse. Police video show an officer entering the interrogation room to arrest Brendan. Brendan appears oblivious to what is about to happen.
Officer Jacobs: Brendan? My name is Dennis Jacobs. I’m a detective with Manitowoc County. Do you have any weapons or anything on you?
Brendan: Just some stuff that I can give to my mom, like a CD player.
Officer Jacobs: That wouldn’t be a weapon, though.
Officer Jacobs: You have like a little pocket knife, anything like that?
Officer Jacobs: Can you stand up? I just want to pat you down real quick, just to make sure.
[Brendan pulls a music player out of his pocket]
Oh, that’s nothing that’s gonna hurt me.
[Brendan pulls headphones out of his pocket]
Officer Jacobs: Okay. That’s fine.
Jodi released from jail – more charges added to Steven’s case (March 6, 2006)
Three days later, on March 6, Jodi was released from Manitowoc County Jail. Two days later, additional charges were added to Steven’s case including kidnapping, false imprisonment, and sexual assault with a deadly weapon.
Brendan interrogated again – this time by private investigator Michael O’Kelly (March 12, 2006)
On March 12, 2006, an attorney for Brendan’s defense, Michael O’Kelly, interrogated Brendan while he was jailed. He asked Brendan to make drawings of the crime scene. He was very specific in what he wanted Brendan to draw. Video of the interrogation was shocking. The man who was supposed to be representing Brendan appeared to be seeking a confession from him instead. Later, the recording of the interrogation was turned over to prosecutors.
O’Kelly: There’s two things I don’t know: Are you sorry for what you did, and you promise not to do it again? I know everything else I need to know about this case, except for those two things. So what I want you to do is make a decision.
O’Kelly: I want you to read this form. And then we’re gonna fill it out.
O’Kelly: Are you sorry?
Brendan: I don’t know. Because I didn’t do any…
O’Kelly: If you’re… Brendan, if you’re not… Look at me. If you’re not sorry, I can’t help you.
O’Kelly: What I don’t want you to do is spend the rest of your life in prison.
O’Kelly: Can you look at me?
O’Kelly: Do you want to spend the rest of your life in prison?
O’Kelly: OK. You did a very bad thing.
Brendan: Yeah, but I was only there for the fire, though.
O’Kelly: Brendan, you haven’t told me the truth yet. And what I don’t want you to do right now is tell me any more lies. So you gotta make a decision before you start writing anything. You’re gonna write the complete truth, no matter what the truth is.
[Brendan writes a statement describing what he did after school the day of Halbach’s murder. Nothing in the statement hints at a crime being committed.]
O’Kelly: Is there anything missing from this statement here?
[Brendan is silent]
O’Kelly: Then it’s missing. Then it’s not a truthful statement.
O’Kelly: Would you do this again?
[Brendan nods slightly]
O’Kelly: Why not?
Brendan: ‘Cause I didn’t do nothing.
O’Kelly: Well, that’s not true.
Brendan: I was only there for the fire.
O’Kelly: I wish that was true.
Brendan: It is.
O’Kelly: You were also in the mobile home.
Brendan: Not that day, though.
O’Kelly: Just so you’re perfectly clear… I want you to testify against Steven Avery and tell the truth. And this is how I can help you.
O’Kelly: But I can’t help you with those words that you wrote down. Those words, I can’t help you at all.
O’Kelly: Why don’t you draw another picture over here of him stabbing her?
[Brendan draws a crude stick figure picture]
O’Kelly: Why don’t you draw a picture down here… of you having sex with her there.
[Brendan draws another crude stick figure picture]
O’Kelly: OK, why don’t you do this… Why don’t you draw a picture of the bed and how she was tied down.
O’Kelly: But draw it big-sized so we can see it.
[Brendan draws another crude stick figure picture]
O’Kelly: Thanks very much. You’re doing the right thing.
Brendan Dassey interrogated by investigators Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender (March 13, 2006)
On March 13, Brendan was interrogated by investigators Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender inside Manitowoc jail. Oddly, they were invited to interrogate Brendan by Len Kachinsky, Brendan’s attorney, and his private investigator, Michael O’Kelly. In a surprising coincidence, immediately after Brendan’s interview, the camera is accidentally left running. O’Kelly’s makes a phone call – to the prosecutors.
O’Kelly: Hi, Len? Hi, Len, this is Mike O’Kelly. I’m with Brendan right now.
O’Kelly: Oh, quite well. Quite well. Very well.
O’Kelly: He’s given a detailed statement.
O’Kelly: Would you like me to call Special Agent Fassbender and have him interview Brendan at this time?
O’Kelly: He has also prepared a document for me. And it will be up to you if you want a copy or not.
Records show that after receiving drawings of the event from Brendan, his attorneys called in prosecuting attorneys and allowed them to question Brendan for over 3 hours – without any of his defending attorneys present. It seemed as if Kachinsky was allowing Brendan to build a case against Steven Avery.
Wiegert and Fassbender concluded their interview with one more act of deception – they tried to get Brendan to call his mother and confess (all phone calls were recorded).
Fassbender: OK, Brendan. I was told by your attorney, Mr. Len Kachinsky, that you wanted to speak with us. Mark and I came out here today, you know, Saturday morning, because we wanted to give you that chance. We’ve had an opportunity to look at the evidence in the case and even your last statement, there’s some areas that you may want to address because they don’t seem to, you know, necessarily add up.
Fassbender: Do you understand that?
Fassbender: Did you cut her hair off?
Fassbender: Where did that happen?
Brendan: In the… In the… bedroom.
Fassbender: What’d you cut the hair off with?
Brendan: The knife.
Fassbender: The knife you guys found in the garage? Doesn’t make sense.
Wiegert: That’s impossible.
Fassbender: Did you cut her hair off?
[Brendan nods “no”]
Fassbender: Then why did you just tell us you did?
Brendan: I don’t know.
Wiegert: Why did you ask us to come here?
Fassbender: So you could lie to us?
Fassbender: What do you think your mom would say if she knew you were sitting here lying to me?
Brendan: I don’t know.
Fassbender: You think she’d be OK with that? And when I walk out this door right now and I go call your mom and tell her that you’ve been lying to me… what do you think she’s gonna say?
Fassbender: Mark mentioned talking to your mom about this and being truthful with her now. OK? If you’re truly sorry, you’ll tell your mother the truth about this, OK?
Wiegert: Are you gonna do that?
Fassbender: When are you gonna do that?
Fassbender: OK. Probably be a good idea, before we tell her.
Brendan conceded and called his mother. The phone call was recorded but Wiegert and Fassbender’s ploy backfired. Instead, Brendan claims he is innocent and that everything he has said up to this point was under pressure from investigators.
Brendan on phone: Hey, Mom.
Barb on phone: What?
Brendan: When do I get another attorney?
Barb: You’ll get a different one for Friday.
Brendan: April 10th is WrestleMania.
Barb: Your dad’s taping it.
Brendan: Yeah, but I won’t get to see it.
Barb: When you come home, you can.
Brendan: Yeah, when’s that gonna be? Next year?
Barb: No, we’re gonna get you out before then… because you’re not guilty, hon.
Brendan: Yeah, I know that.
Barb on phone: I need to know the truth.
Brendan: Well, you know I’m telling you the truth that it’s not true.
Barb: Then why say it?
Brendan: That was when they came up here, remember?
Barb: Yeah. On that Saturday.
Brendan: Yeah. They said that they knew already what happened. That they wanted me to… They just wanted it coming out of my mouth.
Barb: Brendan, you don’t just come up with something like that if something like that didn’t happen. Or is it true, that he did kill her?
Brendan: Not that I know of, I told you. He might’ve but not… not with me.
Barb: So you’re honestly telling me the truth?
Barb: You didn’t have nothing to do with this.
Barb: Don’t lie to me, Brendan.
Brendan: I ain’t.
Barb: But what I can’t figure out is why you said all this sh1t if it’s not true? And how you came up with it?
Barb: What do you mean, “guessing”?
Brendan: I guessed.
Barb: You don’t guess with something like that, Brendan.
Brendan: Well, that’s what I do with my homework, too.
Barb: Yeah, I know.
Brendan: Well, I do…
Barb: This is what put… No. The statement you made is what put you in there.
Barb: And now you’re gonna have to get… so everybody out there… you’ll have to get them to…
You’re… You’re not… You’re gonna go to prison.
Barb: Yeah. For the rest of your life. For something that’s not even true.
Barb: Is that what you wanted?
Barb: Well, how you gonna turn everything around now?
Brendan: I don’t know.
Barb: Well, you better just start putting your head on your shoulders, and start thinking.
Brendan: How can I? I’m really stupid, Mom. I can’t help it.
Barb: Why do you agree to everything then?
Brendan: ‘Cause I’m stupid, I told you.
Barb: You’re not stupid to me.
Brendan: Yeah, I am.
An AP reporter contacted Steven Avery soon after Brendan’s “confession” and asked what he thought about it.
Associated Press: We can just jump right in and if you want to begin by telling me what you think of your nephew’s confession?
Steven: Um, he was coerced to say it.
Associated Press: So are you… You said that you think that he was coerced to say those things…
Steven: I know he was. Because there ain’t no evidence to back it up. They took everything out of the trailer. They ain’t gonna find nothing.
Associated Press: So do you place any blame on your nephew for making those statements?
Steven: With the detectives, it don’t take much for a young person to… You know, coerce him to say that stuff.
Associated Press: Would you describe him as smart?
Associated Press: Mm-hm.
Steven: Um… not really.
Steven Avery settles lawsuit against Manitowoc County under pressure
Steven Avery desperately needed money for his defense attorneys in the Halbach trial. As a result, he settled the $36-million-dollar lawsuit against Manitowoc County for only $400,000. As part of the agreement, Manitowoc County did not admit fault or liability. Steven said afterward:
“You might say they won again. You know? What is $400,000? That ain’t nothing to them. I had to do it. You know, just to get a lawyer. Because I wasn’t gonna win with a public defender. So I guess it was time to settle and take… I guess take another loss.”
Jodi arrested for violating “no contact order” (August 31, 2006)
After her release from jail, Jodi Stachowski had been instructed to stay away from Steven Avery. She says she drove past him one day in town and smiled as they crossed paths. She was arrested three days later and spent two days in jail for violating a “no contact order”.
Defense attorneys attempt to keep Brendan’s confession out of the trial
Coerced or not, Brendan’s testimony was not only detrimental to Steven Avery’s case, but would allow his own conviction based solely on his confession. Brendan’s defense attorneys attempted to keep Brendan’s confession out of the trail. They argued that Brendan was questioned without an attorney present and that he was mentally incompetent, unable to understand the consequences of his statement to the police. A phone call from Brendan to his mother reveals how little he understood what was going on.
Barb: Yeah. You watch the news?
Brendan: About what?
Barb: About you. It says, “Teen’s attorney seeks to throw out confession.”
Brendan: What’s that mean?
Barb: He wants to throw out the statement that they made you say, or whatever.
Brendan: Yeah. They said that my statements were inconsistent. [Brendan pauses] What does “inconsistent” mean?
Barb: I don’t know exactly.
Brendan: Maybe they’re false or something?
Barb: I don’t know.
Brendan: Well, that’s what I’m thinking.
Barb: So do you like this attorney?
Brendan: I don’t know. I don’t know him much.
Barb: Yeah, I know.
Brendan: Just like, well, his favorite animal is the same as mine.
Barb: What’s that?
Brendan: A cat.
Regardless of his low intelligence, the judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the statements Brendan made. The judge announced to the courtroom:
“The court finds that this tactic of misleading Brendan Dassey was neither improper nor coercive because it did not interfere with Brendan Dassey’s power to make rational choices. In short, the statements made by Brendan Dassey to investigators Wiegert and Fassbender were voluntary statements. The defendant’s motion to suppress these statements is denied.”
Brendan attempts to secure a new attorney
By now, Brendan and his family were certain that his attorney was not working with his best interests in mind. They felt the attorney believed Brendan was guilty and was working secretly with Manitowoc County authorities to build a case against Steven Avery. A motion was filed to dismiss his attorney and have a new one assigned to his case. Judge Fox ruled on the motion:
Judge Fox: Do you think he’s doing what he believes to be in your best interest?
Brendan: Sort of.
[Judge Fox sighs]
Judge Fox: Tell me why you want to change lawyers at this point.
Brendan: ‘Cause I think he… that he…
Brendan: I think he…
Brendan: No, he…
Brendan: That I think he thinks I’m guilty.
Judge Fox: And that’s the reason that you want to get a different lawyer?
Judge Fox: I don’t see or hear anything that tells me that there is an irreconcilable conflict or difference. There certainly isn’t, I don’t believe, any breakdown, complete or otherwise, in communication. Accordingly, I’m going to deny Mr. Dassey’s motion to substitute someone for Mr. Kachinsky as his counsel.
Avery’s attorneys find mysterious vial of blood in court evidence (December 20, 2006)
Steven Avery’s defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, found a mysterious vial of blood inside a box in an unsecured area of Manitowoc County Clerk of Courts office. The office was located right next to the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s office. Examining the box, they found the evidence seal had been broken. In addition, the evidence seal on the Styrofoam container had also been broken. Inspecting the vial, they found a perfectly round needle puncture in the seal. According to Buting:
“The seal was clearly broken on the outside of the box and inside the box is a Styrofoam kit. The seal is broken in that. We pulled the Styrofoam halves apart and there, in all of its glory, was a test tube that said “Steven Avery,” inmate number, everything on it. The blood is liquid. And get this. Right in the center of the top of the tube is a little tiny hole. Just about the size of a hypodermic needle.”
The trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey (February 2007)
On February 2, 2007, Judge Fox denied the defense’s request to delay while the vial of blood was tested. On February 9, 2007, Steven Avery’s trial began. The trial was held in Chilton at the Calumet County Courthouse. It included 19 days of testimony and 59 witnesses. Steven’s attorneys proposed to jurors that Manitowoc County sheriff’s planted evidence in retaliation for the lawsuit Steven had filed against them.
The jury deliberated over three days. On March 18, 2007, the jury found Steven guilty of intentional homicide and felon in possession of a firearm.
One month later, on April 25, 2007, Brendan Dassey was tried in Dane County and found guilty of rape, murder, and mutilation of a corpse.
On June 1, 2007, Steven Avery, who was 44 years old at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
On August 2, 2007, Brendan Dassey was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2048.
Attempts to appeal fail time and time again (2011 thru 2013)
Multiple attempts were made to appeal the convictions. On August 24, 2011, the 2nd District Court of Appeals upheld Steven’s murder conviction. On January 30, 2013, the State Court of Appeals rejected a request from Brendan to get a new trial. On August 1, 2013, the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied Brendan’s bid to review the case.
On December 14, 2015, Netflix aired a 10-part documentary, Making a Murderer, outlining the atrocities and unusual circumstances in the case.
Brendan Dassey’s conviction is overturned (August 12, 2016)
On August 12, 2016, Federal Judge William E. Duffin, overturned Brendan Dassey’s conviction in the death of Teresa Halbach. The judge rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth Amendment. He’s to be released within 90 days unless the state wants to retry him.
In his petition for release, Dassey argued that his attorney had a conflict of interest in the case, that his confession had been coerced by law enforcement and that he was given false promises by investigators. But ultimately, it was the false promises allegation that persuaded Judge William E. Duffin to overturn the conviction.
“The investigators’ collective statements throughout the interrogation clearly led Dassey to believe that he would not be punished for telling them the incriminating details they professed to already know,” Duffin wrote in his ruling. He pointed out that one investigator at one point said “We can’t make any promises…” but that single and isolated statement was “drowned out by the host of assurances that they already knew what happened and that Dassey had nothing to worry about.”
Duffin added a harsh indictment of Wisconsin’s criminal justice system, saying that Dassey’s case represents “extreme malfunction” of the state system.
“Consequently, the court finds that the confession Dassey gave to the police on March 1, 2006 was so clearly involuntary in a constitutional sense that the court of appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”
Duffin also criticized Dassey’s first attorney, Leonard Kachinsky, who the judge wrote, was excited to be on the case because of all the media attention. Duffin wrote that Kachinsky’s conduct throughout the case was tactically and ethically inexcusable.
What prosecutors say happened
Prosecutors say they believe they know the timeline of events. According to them, Brendan Dassey rode his bike to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. Seeing a letter addressed to Steven, he rode his bike to Steven’s trailer to give him the mail. As he approached the trailer, he heard screams. After several knocks, Steven answered the door, partially dressed and sweaty. Steven lead Brendan to the bedroom where he saw a woman chained to the bed. “Help me!” Halbach begged. “Don’t do this. Please let me go!”
Brendan told police investigators that he raped Halbach while his uncle watched. Afterward, they went into the living room and watched TV. Steven boasted and praised Brendan for his deed and discussed how to dispose of the body.
Steven and Brendan returned to the bedroom, grabbing a kitchen knife on the way, and stabbed Halbach in the stomach. Steven then gave the knife to Brendan and commanded he cut her throat. Brendan did as he was instructed.
According to Brendan, after seeing that Halbach was still alive, Steven choked her for two or three minutes. The two then unshackled Halbach’s limp body, tied her up with rope, and carried her to the garage. Planning to dump the body in a nearby pond in the salvage yard, they placed the body in the cargo area of Halbach’s car. Steven then decided to instead, burn the body in a fire pit behind the garage. A fire already smoldered in the pit.
Avery lay Halbach on the garage floor and walked to his house for his .22 semi-automatic rifle. According to Brendan, he then fired 10 rounds into Halbach’s body.
Using Dolores Avery’s golf cart, they collected old tires, brush, and a wooden cabinet to place in the fire as the body burned. They drove the RAV4 to the far side of the salvage yard, passing the car crusher. Afterward, Steven stashed the Toyota ignition key in his dresser drawer.
The two cleaned up. They removed the sheets from the bed and heaped them into the fire pit. They then cleaned blood from the garage floor using bleach. Steven returned home around 10:00 PM that night.
Steven Avery’s past crimes
That Steven Avery was no angel is without question. Below are some of the crimes Avery has been accused of.
- Accused by his cousin, Sandy Morris, of chasing her car while masturbating on 9/20/84
- Accused of having sexual relations with his wife on his front lawn in the daytime
- Convicted of two burglaries (robbed a tavern)
- Cruelty to an animal (poured gasoline on a cat and tossed the cat into a fire)
- Convicted of “endangering the safety of another person” after chasing cousin Sandy Morris, running her off the road, and threatening her with a rifle. Sentenced to six years in prison.
- September 2004, sheriff deputies arrested Avery for violating a disorderly conduct ordinance after an altercation with Jodi Stachowski.
- Steven’s brother, Earl Avery, testified that when he was 14 or 15 years old and Steven was in prison, he would receive calls from Steven ordering him to have sex with his then-wife, Lori.
- While in prison, sent angry email to recently-divorced wife Lori: “I hate you, you got your divorce now you will pay for it. If you don’t brang up my kids I will kill you. I promise. Ha. Ha.”
Who’s who in the Steven Avery/Brendan Dassey murder case
Steven Avery – lifelong resident of Manitowoc County. Family runs Avery Salvage Yard. Wrongly convicted for the 1985 rape of Penny Ann Beernsten. Freed in 2003 after DNA evidence proves his innocence. Files suit against county after which he is arrested for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach.
Brendan Avery – nephew of Steven Avery. IQ of 73 makes him borderline retarded. Convicted as an adult along with Steven Avery for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach.
Gregory A. Allen – Penny Beernsten’s true rapist (was under daily surveillance by authorities). Notorious sexual predator.
Penny Ann Beernsten – Married to prominent local businessman. Raped on a Two Rivers beach in July 1985. Picked Steven Avery out of a lineup.
Fred H. Hazlewood – Manitowoc County Circuit Court judge. Presided over Steven Avery’s December 1985 trial where Steven was mistakenly convicted of the Beernsten rape. Now retired.
Patrick Willis – Manitowoc County Circuit judge. Presided over Steven Avery’s 2006 murder trial (held in Calumet County). Convicted Steven of Halbach’s murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole.
Dennis Vogel – Manitowoc County DA in 1985 who falsely prosecuted Steven Avery for rape. It was later found that Vogel knew undisclosed information about Gregory Allen, the true rapist.
Stephen Glynn – a top attorney in Wisconsin. Represented Steven Avery with his 36-million wrongful conviction suit
Walter Kelly – a top attorney in Wisconsin. Represented Steven Avery with his 36-million wrongful conviction suit
Len Hackinsky – Appointed as Brendan Dassey’s public defender in the Halbach murder trial. Several months into the case, Kachinsky was decertified by the Office of the State Public Defender for “failure to provide competent representation” after allowing his 16-year-old client to be interviewed by the police without an attorney being present. Evidence gained in the interviews is still allowed in court.
Ray Edelstein – Represented Brendan Dassey after Len Hackinsky was removed as his attorney.
Mark Fremgen – Represented Brendan Dassey after Len Hackinsky was removed as his attorney.
Ken Kratz – Calumet County District Attorney in 2005 and special prosecutor in the Halbach murder case. Secured conviction of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. Kratz’s tenure as prosecutor ended and his law license suspended in 2010 after the Associated Press reported that Kratz sent numerous explicit text messages to a 25-year-old woman while he was prosecuting her ex-boyfriend for a crime.
Dean Strang – Defense attorney hired by Steven Avery in the Halbach murder trial.
Jerome Buting – Defense attorney hired by Steven Avery in the Halbach murder trial.
Thomas Kocourek – Manitowoc County Sherriff in 1985 that falsely charged Steven Avery with rape. One of the defendants in Steven Avery’s $36 million lawsuit for wrongful conviction. Retired in 2001.
Judy Dvorak – Manitowoc County Sheriff’s deputy. Takes statement from Beernsten at hospital and decides the attacker’s description sounds like Steven Avery (who had no history of sexual violence at the time).
Related family members
Barbara Janda – mother of Brendan Avery
Sandra (Sandy) Morris – Steven Avery’s cousin and a friend of Manitowoc County Deputy Sheriff Judy Dvorak. Accused Steven of exposing himself and running her off the road.
Jodi Stachowski – Steven Avery’s girlfriend. Had convictions for drunk driving, driving without a license, passing a bad check and disorderly conduct. Was serving time in