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IN-DEPTH: A deep dive into unsolved murders and cold cases in Wisconsin

Milwaukee Police
Posted at 2:08 PM, Oct 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-15 15:08:43-04

MILWAUKEE — It has been one year since John Schmutzer of Wauwatosa was murdered at Devil’s Lake State Park. Investigators say the homicide remains unsolved as they continue to search for the suspect.

The Devil’s Lake homicide is one of thousands of unsolved murders in Wisconsin. Some date back several decades.

Definitions of cold cases vary depending on which agency you ask. For some, it’s 3 years with no leads. In Milwaukee, police say it’s typically 5 years. Even when cases go cold, detectives say there is always hope.

Unsolved murders leave victims’ families struggling with unanswered questions and often prolong a painful grieving process.

High profile cold cases have grabbed the nation's attention, like the 2002 disappearance of Alexis Patterson. Alexis would be 26 years old today. Marking the 14th anniversary of when she went missing, her family said they still hold out hope she will be found alive.

Alexis Patterson

"No matter if it's 20 years, if it's 30 years,” Alexis’ mother Ayanna Patterson said in 2016.

“We need to know what's going on, where she's at,” added Alexis’ aunt, Angel Patterson. “If anything, just closure."

Milwaukee Police Department’s cold case unit has been investigating Alexis’ disappearance for nearly two decades. Detectives have worked on others that date back half a century.

“Even if someone thinks that it's a small piece of the puzzle, it's still a piece we'd be interested in hearing about,” said MPD Homicide Detective Timothy Keller.

Detective Keller says even when murder investigations reach a standstill, his unit is constantly searching for the tip that could lead to their suspect.

Statewide, an organization called Project: Cold Case shows there were more than 8,600 homicides in Wisconsin between 1980 and 2019 with a clearance rate of 80 percent. Project: Cold Case says about 1,700 of those murders remain unsolved.

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While national statistics show the likelihood of solving a murder goes down drastically without a credible tip or witness just 72 hours after the crime occurred, Detective Keller says there are also benefits to time passing.

“People that once were close to someone, had a good relationship with them at the time, maybe that fell apart and now that person is willing to come forward because they're not betraying someone that's close to them,” he said.

As Milwaukee’s homicide rate continues to climb, the Milwaukee Police Department’s clearance rate is falling. In 2018 and 2019, MPD data shows police helped solve nearly 4 out of every 5 homicides in the city, but when Milwaukee set a new record of 190 homicides last year, the clearance rate dropped to 55 percent.

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Detective Keller says his cold case unit often struggles with witnesses who refuse to come forward out of fear of retaliation.

“Someone who is courageous enough to come forward and work with us, we will absolutely stand behind them and protect them,” he said.