Janet Raaschs Portage County murder mystery endures for decades

STEVENS POINT - The phone began to ring inside a farmhouse near Merrill.

Nancy Raasch and her father, Leland, had only just returned home after spending most of the day hunting deer.

Nancy, 21, picked up the phone and heard the voice of a deputy from the Portage County Sheriff's Office. Her sister, Janet Raasch, was dead.

Kurt Schweers, a retired detective who worked for the Portage County Sheriff's Office, talks about the unsolved case of 20-year-old Janet Raasch, who was found dead in November 1984.Jacob Byk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

It was about 5 p.m. on Nov. 17, 1984, a Saturday. The memory, even decades later, still brings Nancy to tears.

Janet's death is the only unsolved homicide left to be investigated by the Portage County Sheriff's Office. The detectives who have worked on the case — and there have been many — feel like they've gotten close. They've interviewed hundreds of people. They've had suspects, but have never made an arrest. Janet's body was exhumed in search of new evidence decades after her death, but still the investigation dragged on. The most recent development in the case came a few years ago when detectives received an anonymous letter with enough information to convince them the writer knew something about what happened to Janet. The years continued to pass and Janet's family was left to hope that whoever wrote the letter would still come forward and talk to police.

Janet was 20. She was a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She was last seen alive more than a month before she was found, at about 8 a.m. Oct. 11, 1984, at Watson Hall, a dormitory on campus.

A faded photograph from around that time shows her long hair falling over her shoulders, hazel eyes glancing off to the side as a smile appears on her face. Below the photograph on a notice handed out at the time, a description of Janet's clothing when she went missing was punched out by a typewriter in fading black letters.

“Possibly wearing blue windbreaker and hiking boots. She may have had a maroon-colored duffel-type bag and backpack.”

Two hunters found her body lying on the ground in a sparsely wooded area on the edge of a farm field near State 54, about 15 miles from Stevens Point. When deputies arrived, they talked to the hunters and photographed the body. They found other evidence, too. Details of exactly what they collected have never have been released to the public.

An autopsy didn’t conclusively determine a cause of death because the body was starting to decompose, but detectives immediately suspected foul play and believe Janet was strangled. They had a suspect early in the investigation.

TIMELINE: Key dates in Janet Raasch case, from 1984 to today

Years passed. The investigation changed hands multiple times. Nobody solved the case. The uncertainty left Janet’s family waiting — longing — for closure.

They’re still waiting.

“At least she was found,” Nancy said. “We have that much.”

‘I just want it solved’

Jason Meidl, a detective at the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, shares a corner of his office with stacks of brown file boxes packed with documents related to Janet’s case. That’s not everything; he keeps a few more boxes in the basement.

“I wouldn’t have an office if we really kept it all,” he said. “There’s just that much information.”

Meidl was put in charge of the case less than two years ago after another detective was promoted. The case is an “enormous responsibility,” he said, and detectives remain keenly aware of how long Janet’s family has been waiting for answers. Meidl tries to avoid thinking of himself as the only person who can solve the case.

“I don’t care where it comes from,” he said. “There’s no pressure on me to be the guy to solve it. I don’t want the limelight. I just want it solved.”

It may seem hopeless after decades, but these kinds of cases aren’t always lost causes. Joseph Reinwand, 57, was sentenced to life in prison last year after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder for shooting and killing his 19-year-old wife, Pamela, in Plover in May 1984 — about five months before Janet Raasch went missing. That case was reopened after new information came to light during an investigation into another homicide in Wood County.

“There’s no pressure on me to be the guy to solve it. I don’t want the limelight. I just want it solved.”


Most of the work in Janet’s case now involves scrutinizing the immense number of reports and other documents related to the investigation. Trying to find people, whether they’re potential witnesses or neighbors who lived in the area who might have talked with investigators in the past, is becoming increasingly difficult as many have moved and others are getting older.

The case wasn’t progressing, at least publicly, for years until detectives received an anonymous letter Meidl said offers “a new direction” to go with the case. The contents of the letter, which was received by the Portage County Sheriff’s Office in 2013, have never been released to the public, but investigators — echoed by Janet’s family — have urged the author to come forward.

The existence of the letter wasn’t made public for almost a year. Meidl and other detectives suspect the author could answer questions and point them in the direction of other people who might have information about the case.

Nancy, Janet’s sister, was encouraged when she heard about the letter.

“There is at least one person out there who knows something,” she said. “They just need to come forward.”

‘Nobody saw her’

Janet grew up as the youngest of three sisters on a small farm a few miles outside of Merrill. The family was close and Janet and her two sisters, Nancy and Bonney, worked hard to keep the farm in good shape. They baled hay. They cut grass. They picked weeds out of the family’s garden.

“We each had our own chores to do,” Nancy said. “You had to work.”

They had fun, too. The sisters went fishing when they got the chance, or went outside and played together when they didn’t have anything else to do.

“I remember tunneling through the big snowbanks in the backyard,” Nancy said. “It was a lot of fun.”

The sisters all went to high school in Merrill and spent a lot of time together, especially when they all got involved in the school’s band program. They played different instruments — Janet played the trumpet — and frequently made trips into town together to play at events with the band.

“Nothing bothered her,” Nancy said, describing her sister Janet. “She was just very happy. That’s really all I remember.”

[Janet Raasch's body was found by hunters in this wooded]

Janet Raasch's body was found by hunters in this wooded area near State 54 in rural Portage County on Nov. 17, 1984.
(Photo: Jacob Byk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

The sisters split up as they graduated high school and continued on to college. Nancy was away at the University of Wisconsin-Superior when she found out Janet was missing. She was far from home and isolated from her family, but relied on her friends for support while she waited to hear something — anything — about her sister.

Days passed. Then weeks. Nothing.

“Then it became real,” she said. “Nobody saw her.”

Nancy still wonders whether she could have changed things had she reached out to her sister before she went missing.

“Was she going through something that she didn’t have anybody close to her to talk to about?” she said. “I don’t know. You just run that whole scenario through your head.”

‘It would have helped’

Pete Thrun, a detective with the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, was already working overtime when a body — Janet’s body — was found. Thrun met two hunters, a 33-year-old Union Grove man and a 40-year-old Almond man, shortly before 1 p.m. Nov. 17, 1984, on State 54, just east of Portage County J, according to an investigation report he wrote two days later.

The weather was cold, but snow hadn’t yet fallen. The hunters took Thrun to the body and explained how one of them had at first mistaken the body for a dead deer. Thrun looked close enough to discern the body was a woman with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Thrun marked the location by tying a red handkerchief to a tree branch before he led the hunters back out to the highway. Other officers started to arrive. Thrun took another deputy with him and used yellow tape to create a perimeter around the body. Thrun eventually took photos of the body and some of the surrounding area while another deputy took notes.

“There was no doubt foul play was a factor.”


The body was wrapped in a sheet and moved to a body bag. After collecting evidence, the place where the body was found was covered with plastic anchored by metal stakes. Thrun’s report mentions other evidence removed from the scene, but redactions to the report make it difficult to discern exactly what was found.

“There was no doubt foul play was a factor,” Thrun said in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

Thrun was reluctant to discuss much about the investigation because certain details might only be known by the perpetrator. Thrun, who would later be elected Portage County sheriff, was the first detective to spend a significant amount of time working on the case. At one point, Thrun had a suspect.

“They didn’t let me go pursue the situation any further because he was out of state,” he said. “We did later, but I wish I could have gone immediately when I found out where he was.”

Thrun, frustrated by the situation and the decisions made by his superiors at the time, still wonders what might have changed had he been allowed to go after his suspect.

“I can speculate that it would have helped,” he said.

‘You can’t just dive into it’

Kurt Schweers wasn’t a detective when Janet’s body was found, but more than a decade later he was asked to revive the investigation into her death.

Schweers was enthusiastic about the opportunity and spent the early months of his investigation in his office organizing what was already an immense amount of reports and other documents related to the case.

“You’re given three or four boxes of stuff — papers, reports — and you can’t just dive into it,” he said.

Schweers combed through all of the statements given to past investigators, hoping to track down as many people as he could for interviews. He traveled to multiple states — Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — looking for missing pieces in the case. The process took years.

[Kurt Schweers, a retired detective who worked for the]

Kurt Schweers, a retired detective who worked for the Portage County Sheriff's Office, thinks back on his investigation into Janet Raasch's death, which has been unsolved for decades.
(Photo: Jacob Byk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

“We had to find every witness and go back to them and say, ‘Do you remember being questioned?’” he said. “We would go over their (original) statement with them.”

The trips didn’t always go as planned. Schweers once went to Minnesota hoping to talk to a man about the investigation. He left at 4 a.m. and eventually found the man’s home with the help of local police. He parked and, with only a book to read, waited for hours.

“You don’t tell people you’re coming if you don’t have to,” he said. “You like the element of surprise.”

The man’s wife came home first and Schweers approached her.

“You know what she tells me? ‘He’s visiting family back in Stevens Point,’” he said.

‘Major decision’

Schweers was in charge on June 5, 2002, when Janet’s body was exhumed at St. Paul's Cemetery in Hamburg, a town in rural Marathon County about 15 miles from Merrill. The operation was the result of a tip and involved officers from both the Portage County Sheriff’s Office and the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

The chances of finding something helpful to the investigation seemed small, even at the time, Schweers said.

“But it’s a homicide,” he said. “You do it.”

The goal was to look for something specific about Janet’s body, but Schweers wouldn’t say exactly what was checked. The evidence collected that day was sent to a crime lab, but the results of those tests have never been released to the public.

The details of what investigators found haven’t been released to avoid possibly divulging something about the body only the killer would know, Schweers said.

Schweers got permission from Janet’s family before exhuming her body. The emotion of the situation for anyone who knew Janet wasn’t lost on him. Schweers saw Janet’s sisters watching everything and, hoping to help them through an unthinkable situation, walked over and wrapped his arms around their shoulders.

[Officers from the Portage County Sheriff's Office and]

Officers from the Portage County Sheriff's Office and the Wisconsin Department of Justice exhume the body of Janet Raasch at St. Paul's Cemetery in Hamburg.
(Photo: Gladys Mondala)

“It was pretty emotional for everybody,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Nancy won’t either. The case was given renewed attention that day, but the entire experience brought back a flood of painful memories.

“We had to bury her, basically, for a second time,” she said.

Schweers pressed on with the investigation. He spent years tracking down witnesses, trying to find something — anything — that might have been missed. The case, despite all of his work, proved to be frustratingly difficult to crack. Still, Schweers thought he was close.

“I felt strongly enough about one person that I felt that person was responsible,” he said.

Schweers might have felt that way, but prosecutors hesitated to bring charges, uncertain whether they could get a jury to convict someone based on the evidence collected by investigators.

“It’s a major decision. It really is,” he said. “I don’t blame the district attorney. They know what they have to get.”

Schweers retired in 2012. He didn’t want to retire. He wanted to work until the case was solved, but an ailing shoulder forced him off the job. He occasionally drives past the spot where Janet’s body was found when he plays golf with a few other retired deputies. His thinks about the case every time.

‘Held accountable’

Nancy hasn’t seen the letter. She doesn’t know what it says. But Nancy, now 54, desperately needs whoever wrote the letter — anonymously written a few years ago, but still of great interest to detectives working her sister’s case — to come forward.

“You can’t let go.”


The letter may have inspired a bit of hope, Nancy said, but might not be helpful without more information from the writer.

“Somebody needs to be held accountable,” she said.

Nancy is self-employed and lives in Appleton now. Her father still lives in Merrill. Her mother died about a year before Janet went missing. Nancy has a daughter of her own, Brittney, 26, who, in her mannerisms, reminds her of Janet. She found raising a daughter after losing a sister to be an especially difficult experience.

“I had to know where she was all the time,” she said. “She had to have a ride everywhere.”

Sometimes, Nancy digs into news stories about other cold cases. She reads them, often wondering if those other cases have some connection to her sister’s case.

“You can’t let go,” she said.

Chris Mueller: 715-345-2251 or christopher.mueller@gannettwisconsin.com; on Twitter @AtChrisMueller.