Through the perseverance of a Brown County woman whose mother disappeared nearly three years ago, April has been designated “Missing Persons Awareness Month” in Wisconsin.
Once a shy girl, Marsha Loritz has been on a personal crusade to help others while undertaking a constant vigil in her own search for her mother, Victoria Prokopovitz, who vanished from her Town of Pittsfield home on April 25, 2013.
Since then, Loritz has dedicated herself to ensuring that her mother and other missing persons are not forgotten.
“I feel helpless in my own search for my mom, so I feel like this is something I can do to help other people,” Loritz said.
In the wake of her own family’s tragedy, Loritz became more aware of other families missing loved ones in Wisconsin and across the country.
“We were kind of connecting and when I had to have my mom entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons’ System (NamUs) database, that’s when I realized the statistics specifically in Wisconsin,” she said.
Reports indicate that approximately 2,300 Americans are reported missing every day and there are more than 90,000 active missing cases in the U.S. at any given time.
Per NamUs — a nationwide database used by medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officials and the general public to locate missing persons — lists 129 missing persons in Wisconsin.
Shocked by that number, Loritz reached out to Gov. Scott Walker to designate a missing persons’ awareness day in 2015.
A proclamation signed by Walker designated April as Missing Persons Awareness Month. Loritz organized a small event in recognition of the observance and people with missing family members. However, her contact with them was limited to her reaching out via social media.
This year, with Gov. Walker again designating April as Missing Persons Awareness Month, Loritz reached out to the law enforcement agencies that hold the case files to assist in reaching out to family members of missing individuals to make them aware of the upcoming event.
The Missing Persons Awareness event will be held Sunday, April 24, at the Brown County Sheriff’s Office in Green Bay. Co-sponsored by Green Bay Area Crime Stoppers, there will be guest speakers, child identification kits, K-9 units, a balloon release for the missing and more.
In addition to organizing the event and trying to bring some comfort to families of missing persons, Loritz also is supporting passage of a law to make missing persons added to the NamUs database.
“There is no law that states you have to use a specific database,” she said.
Loritz has gone through various databases to try to come up with a more accurate number of missing persons in Wisconsin. She said she supports the law requiring listing them on NamUs because that is a streamlined database that holds DNA and dental record information and is searchable by both the general public and law enforcement.
Through analyzing additional databases and law enforcement agency inquiries, Loritz said, her research shows that there are closer to 163 open cases in the state. Four of those are in Jefferson County.
Surrounding counties have relatively similar numbers of missing persons cases. To the north, Dodge County has one standing case, while to the east, Waukesha County has four. On the southern end, Rock County has five and Walworth County has four.
Numbers increase for Dane County, which is far more densely populated than the remaining counties and accounts for at least 15 of the missing person cases statewide. Comparatively, Milwaukee County accounts for 51 of them.
“When you consider there are 163 missing in the entire state and we have 72 counties and our county has four of them, that is a high number,” Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Leah Meyer said. “I think it is a bit high, yet it’s nice that there are scientific advancements that, as time goes on, hopefully, it will help bring that number down.”
Meyer said in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the missing persons cases are never closed. Based on the length of time from when the person went missing, a case might be considered inactive, but it is never closed until the individual is located.
“Generally, they stay open, transferring from detectives through the generations,” Meyer said, noting that cases will get handed down when a detective retires or transfers into another division.
She currently holds the file for Georgia Jean Weckler, an 8-year-old who disappeared on May 1, 1947. Detective Kevin Doebereiner maintains the file on Catherine Sjoberg, an Oconomowoc teen who vanished after leaving a post-prom party at the Concord House in the Town of Concord on June 4, 1974, and Detective Sgt. Don Hunter remains the lead investigator on the remaining missing members of the Krnak family, who vanished in July 1998.
“Obviously after a prolonged period of time, the chances of recovering someone alive greatly diminishes,” Meyer said.
However, Loritz noted that there always is a chance for providing the family some amount of closure.
She cited the Weckler case as a perfect example. Dating back to 1947, it is the second-oldest missing person case in the state and it remains open.
“The fact that they are still working on that case gives me a lot of hope that my mom won’t be forgotten,” Lortitz said. “I just think none of these people should be forgotten. They were someone’s loved one.”
She acknowledged that it is difficult as the third anniversary of her mother’s disappearance nears.
“This gives me a positive outlet to do something,” Loritz said.
Meyer, who has been assigned to the Weckler case for three years, said she recognizes that at this point, the hope is simply to bring any remaining family members some amount of closure.
Georgia Jean Weckler disappeared from her Town of Oakland farm driveway after being dropped off by a family friend after school, and never was seen or heard from again. Over the years, many leads have cropped up, although none led to any new evidence or information that authorities deemed credible.
Based on Meyer’s understanding of the file, it was one of the first cases in which the Wisconsin State Crime Lab was utilized.
Meyer was assigned the case in August 2013 as a tip leading to an excavation at a site in Janesville was investigated.
Although Weckler’s parents and three siblings have died over the past 69 years she has been missing, her first cousin, John Weckler of Indiana, has taken over the role as family archivist and has built a website to document Georgia Jean’s disappearance. It includes a lot of historical information and newspaper articles from the 1940s. Visit http://georgiajeanweckler.weebly.com.
“It has become pretty evident to me as I’ve gone through the file that the most likely suspect was identified years ago on that case,” Meyer said. “Unfortunately, they were not able to develop enough evidence to charge and try the person for it.”
Although she would not identify the person she believes is the likely suspect, early on, authorities thought they might have had a suspect involved in the third-grader’s disappearance. A Richland Center man, Buford Sennett, was serving a life term at the Waupun state prison for a different 1947 murder and kidnapping when he confessed to abducting and killing Georgia. However, he refused to sign the confession, changed his story several times and no concrete evidence was ever developed to bring up charges on the crime.
Sennett later recanted the oral confession.
Even so, many authorities still believed he was guilty. Meyer also indicated that the suspect to which she was referring had been in custody for another murder.
Meyer noted that when she first was assigned the case during the Janesville excavation, her goal was to try to improve the identification process chances for Weckler’s remains someday by creating a mitochondrial DNA profile.
Nothing in the current file had anything to extract Weckler’s DNA.
“In order to get a mitochondrial DNA profile it comes through the siblings and the mother,” Meyer said.
At the time, two of Georgia’s siblings, Laverne Weckler and Joanne Cushman, were still alive. Both have since died.
The DNA samples were sent to the Northern University of Texas laboratory, the only other lab in the country outside of the FBI’s crime lab that can create a mitochondrial DNA profile.
“By doing that, we then have something to match to if any remains are found,” Meyer said. “Sometimes if the bones are very old, they can’t extract enough genetic material to create the DNA profile, but they can usually get enough to create a mitochondrial profile.”
The detective said the DNA profile is in addition to a dental profile that she worked with forensic odontologists to put together.
“My focus was to gather the necessary information to improve the identification cha-nces,” Meyer said.
All the new information was added to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
For the first year after improving the entry, Meyer received almost monthly “hits” from cases around the country. Now she still gets them sporadically whenever remains are found.
“That’s what I think would mean the most to her family. I think that’s one of the hardest aspects for the people who are the surviving family members: that constant unknown,” Meyer said.
The detective noted that family members never give up hope. However, she acknowledged that at some point — for the Weckler family it’s been almost 69 years — families come to accept the reality of their loss.
Meyer said Weckler’s family came to grips with the fact that she likely was deceased very early on.
“You’ve got to appreciate the position those family members are in and how they probably even felt like they were never going to get that closure of having their family member come back to them,” she said.
Twenty-nine years after Weckler disappeared, Catherine Sjoberg, 17, walked out of the Oconomowoc High School post-prom party at Concord House after a disagreement with her boyfriend, Timothy Counsel of Oconomowoc. A girlfriend last saw her as Sjoberg was leaving the building. Her mother, Ruth Schwartz, was not alarmed until that Friday evening because Sjoberg had planned to spend the night at a friend’s house. On Friday night, Counsel called Sjoberg’s mother to report “Nobody can find Cathy.”
In 1995, Mrs. Schwartz held a memorial service for Sjoberg at a Lutheran Church in Oconomowoc.
“It’s been 21 years and I think it’s time to say goodbye,” she was quoted as saying at that time.
Schwartz said she believed her daughter was abducted, saying she was scheduled to distribute programs at commencement exercises the next day and was to serve as maid of honor at a family wedding the following weekend.
Detective Sgt. Don Hunter has been involved in the investigation revolving around the disappearance of the Krnak family in July 1998 from the beginning. Allen Krnak, 55; his wife, Donna; son, Thomas, and the family dog, Hunter, disappeared from their rural Helenville home over the Fourth of July weekend in 1998.
Allen Krnak’s skeletal remains were found by hunters in 1999 in the Roy Taylor National Forest of Jackson County, N.C., less than 10 miles from Western Carolina University, which the elder son, Andrew Krnak, attended in the early 1990s.
Andrew, who changed his name to Derek Anderson shortly after the family’s disappearance, was arrested in 2001 after his father’s remains were identified. An autopsy found that Krnak was killed by a blow to his face and head that broke his jaw into two pieces.
From the time of his arrest, Anderson fought extradition from Wisconsin, until late November 2002, when he was transported to the Jackson Hole Jail in Sylva, N.C. The trial was slated to be held in September 2003.
During the course of the case, Jacks County District Attorney Charles Hipps died.
The new prosecutor handling the case in North Carolina, then-District Attorney Michael Bonfoey, felt there was insufficient evidence that the slaying occurred in North Carolina. He suggested that most of the evidence pointed to the crime being committed in Wisconsin.
Then-Jefferson County District Attorney David Wambach charged Anderson in Jefferson County in August 2003. Binding him over for trial, a judge stated that there was no evidence of an act of murder in the county.
In May 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state has jurisdiction in first-degree murder cases if it can establish that at least one of the elements to the crime was committed there: either the killing itself or an act that establishes the intent to kill was developed here. The court ruled in the case against Anderson the prosecutor had enough evidence to meet the second requirement.
In a 10-day trial in 2006, a Sheboygan County jury of six men and six women deliberated for more than 23 hours over three days before rendering a guilty verdict and convicting Anderson, now 47, of killing his father.
The remains of Donna and Thomas Krnak have never been recovered.
Meyer and Hunter agree that, at this point in the investigation, the two remaining family members are presumed dead.
The detective sergeant noted that the forest site where Allen Krnak’s remains were found contains many similar road pull-offs.
“I think it is a higher probability that Tom and Donna are down in that area somewhere,” Hunter said. “Certainly, it does remain a possibility that they could be anywhere between here and there.”
The possibility of someone coming across those remains always remains open.
“There are always new advancements in science,” Meyer said. “You never know what could be a normal testing procedure 20 years down the road that we would think is impossible today.”
She said she appreciated Loritz’s efforts in reaching out to families across the state.
“She is really taking the most negative aspect of her life and being able to do something so positive,” Meyer said. “The fact that she is not dwelling in the negativity of her own personal circumstances and rising above that to try and do something really positive and bring awareness to missing persons in Wisconsin, I think, is remarkable.”
The detective recognized Loritz’s positive and energetic spirit.
“Like she told me, if she can help only one family have their missing family member recovered, that would be enough for her,” Meyer said.