Jim Grann wasn’t supposed to work on the case that became one of the most storied of his career.
Grann, a detective with the Madison Police Department’s crimes against persons unit, worked nights, the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift. Homicides, robberies, batteries — serious crimes with high stakes riding on the outcomes. Grann wouldn’t have had it any other way.
But in October 1983, Grann was temporarily assigned to fill in for the department’s vacationing community corrections liaison. When he arrived for work at 8 a.m. on Oct. 14, the Madison police station was swirling around him. A murder — at a police officer’s house! — had been called in only a few minutes earlier. The perpetrator was at large, but they had a license plate number. Detectives fanned out across the city. Grann, unhappily, remained seated.
Another call came in, from the airport. A rental car with the suspect’s driver’s license number was being turned in. Grann, alone in the detective bureau, was dispatched. He had a description of the driver, and on arriving at the airport Grann spotted him walking near the coffee shop. Grann circled close behind, drew his gun, and said, “Police, you’re under arrest!”
So began the eventual solving of one of Madison’s most notorious homicides, the contract killing of Carolyn Hudson.
Jim Grann, who died at 76 on Dec. 14 in Madison, was a detective’s detective, a relentless investigator for whom the phrase “no stone unturned” might have been coined.
“He saw it as a calling,” Grann’s son, Jamie Grann, himself an MPD detective, told me when we spoke last week. “He set the bar pretty high in terms of how to do the job right.”
Joel DeSpain, who later served as public information officer for MPD, was a News 3 Now reporter when he first met Jim Grann. “He took the time to navigate a young reporter through investigative processes,” DeSpain told me. “It was an education that also took place at crime scenes, and if Jim was present, you knew this was likely going to be a significant case. I would later learn he was a mentor to many, particularly inside MPD as he took time to educate young patrol officers.”
Grann grew up in Monona, served as an intelligence specialist in the Air Force and joined MPD in 1969. I met him in 1985, while I was researching a Madison Magazine article on the Hudson murder case. I interviewed Grann — who, alongside John Cloutier, was the lead detective on the case — and prosecutor Steve Bablitch for several hours after the trial, in which Richard Wheeler was convicted of hiring Joseph Hecht to murder Hudson, Wheeler’s ex-wife.
The man Grann arrested at the airport, Andrew Slickman, drove Hecht to Hudson’s home but knew nothing of the contract to kill. He gave police the information that led to Hecht’s arrest. Linking Wheeler to the crime was much more difficult. Hecht wouldn’t talk. Trying to connect Wheeler and Hecht was painstaking. I wrote in my article: “It was, Grann felt, like trying to put a 5,000-piece puzzle together, one piece at a time. The detective wanted all 5,000 pieces. His predominant emotion in a murder investigation was greed. He wanted everything he could possibly get in terms of evidence. He wanted it all nailed down.”
How did Wheeler get Hecht the money for the murder? Hecht was living in San Antonio before coming to Madison, and the detectives searched postal and commercial carrier records in vain looking for a package sent from Wheeler’s address to Hecht’s address in San Antonio.
In January 1984, three months after the murder, they learned of a San Antonio post office box connected to Hecht. Texas postal inspectors said it had received only one package. It was Cloutier who took the receipt number to the Madison post office and found that on Oct. 6, 1983, a package went to San Antonio with this return address: “Wheeler, Rt. 3, Lodi, WI.” Cloutier called Grann: “We’ve got it!”
Grann so impressed me while I was doing the article that, the following year, I wrote a Madison Magazine cover story on the MPD detective bureau in which he was prominently featured. It was evident Grann was highly respected, but also undeniable that his work ethic and perfectionism rubbed some wrong. He knew it and wasn’t about to change. He would never boast, but allowed this: “I’ve conducted myself in a manner that was to a different standard than what is minimally acceptable to the department.”
Grann retired in 1999 — he and Jamie went on one call together — and when we spoke recently, he told me he’d hoped to work on unsolved cold cases but ran into a bureaucratic roadblock related to obtaining open case files as a private citizen. This did not make him happy.
The one cold case that haunted him most — there were others, but it was clear — was the reason we spoke a year ago. I was writing another Madison Magazine story about one of his cases, the mystifying “skeleton in the chimney,” human bones that were found in the chimney of a commercial business on University Avenue in 1989. The deceased was never identified.
Grann was cheered to learn there was potential movement in the case after all these years — rootless hair found with the bones was being tested in hopes of extracting DNA. We spoke for more than an hour. His recall of the case was extraordinary, but he was struggling with a persistent cough. I could tell he wasn’t well. Still, he insisted we keep on. He wanted to help.
Grann and I swapped emails in September, when there was a break in the case. A California lab had successfully extracted the DNA — it is now with the DNA Doe Project, which is working on the genetic genealogy. If successful, it could lead to a relative being able to identify the “Chimney Doe.”
Lindsey Ludden, the MPD detective now handling the case — she appears to share Grann’s dogged determination — gave him updates. In a recent note to me, she said, “I am sad I was not able to give him a big update before his passing — but I will continue to think of him as we work on the case.”
There was, of course, much more to Grann than his detective’s badge. George Hesselberg, who checked in yearly with Grann for his Wisconsin State Journal columns on the chimney case, noted, “He was a man of many talents and interests. History, especially, interested him.”
And from Jamie: “My father cherished spending time with his grandchildren, helping his friends, family and the church, and was the most dependable person I have ever known.”
There was only thing, Jamie said, that you didn’t want to do with his dad: Watch a cop show on TV. Five minutes in, he’d have the bad guy pegged, the how and why of the crime.
“He was very intuitive,” Jamie said. “He just had a knack for the profession. It was second nature and he did a great job with it.”
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