‘It’s one phone call away’: Sauk Co. investigators hopeful they’re closer than ever to solving Devils Lake homicide

BARABOO, Wis. – It’s been more than seven months since 24-year-old John Schmutzer was murdered at Wisconsin’s most popular state park.

After spending thousands of hours sifting through hundreds of tips, tracking down dozens of people at the park that day for interviews, and issuing more than 30 search warrants and subpoenas, police feel they’re closer than ever to finding the person responsible.

The more information we can get from the public, the better this investigation goes,” said Lt. Christopher Zunker of the Sauk County Sheriff’s Department said. “I still am convinced that there is someone or some people that know or strongly suspect who is responsible for this homicide. Those people need to call us.”

In recent weeks, however, a number of interviews with people at the park on the day of the murder have come back with one common thread.

“We are terming (them) ‘The Runner’,” Zunker said. “We have at least 15 witnesses that saw this person. Dark clothing, mask, potential hoodie or hat, ripped out black pants of some sort, and the last place he’s seen is approaching north shore on the East Bluff Trail.”

Zunker says these eyewitness accounts place ‘The Runner’ in the area of Schmutzer’s murder at the time it happened. In addition, witnesses say the person ran erratically, appearing frantic and falling down multiple times.  

This is the person we need to talk to,” he said.

The lead detective with 30 years of experience says in addition to being one of the most gruesome murders he’s investigated, it’s also one of the most complex – namely because they believe the stabbing was done entirely at random.

It’s more likely that this was an event that was a spur of the moment that was potentially drug induced or was potentially a mental illness issue,” he said. “The potential is that these two people ran into each other, and for one reason or another, our suspect chose to take the life of John Schmutzer.”

Moreso, Zunker says evidence points to the Wauwatosa native and UW-Madison grad being ambushed, or blindsided by the attack.

We believe that this was a wrong place wrong time for John. Sadly, that ended up with him losing his life,” Zunker said. “We want nothing more than to solve this for John and his family. John didn’t deserve this. His family didn’t deserve this. I think the person responsible for this needs help. There’s no way to believe that this is a premeditated or targeted towards John.”

Zunker says he’s confident there’s someone who knows or suspects they know the person responsible. He’s asking for any tips that can lead police to that person.

There’s nothing too small that we’re not checking out,” he said. “So when you refer to a needle in a haystack, yeah, it probably is. But we’re willing to dig through the haystack and find that needle. We’re committed to doing that for John and his family.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the Sauk County Crimestoppers at 1 (888) Tip-Sauk (1 (888) 847-7285 ) or text “tipsauk” and your message to 274637 (CRIMES).