When it bleeds, Doug Moe leads
In the early days, Moe covered crime
Crime stories are not typically a staple of city-regional magazine coverage. But Madison Magazine published more than a few features on gruesome murders and gritty street-level crimes, illustrating that the city isn’t immune to the sort of tragedies that bigger metro areas see regularly.
In fact, some of the criminality that has occurred here has been unique and, frankly, bizarre.
Consider the case involving Vilas Park Zoo reptile keeper Thornton Willoughby, who was offered $15,000 for a vial of cobra venom a woman planned to use to kill her elderly husband. The October 1978 issue detailed how Willoughby had to convince police that the murder plot was real before they agreed to set up a sting, which resulted in the arrest of Charlotte Durfee. She bought from Willoughby what she thought was venom, but was actually yellow water. She and another man were convicted of conspiring to commit murder.
The magazine’s crime coverage peaked with the reporting of Doug Moe in the 1980s and ’90s. And it wasn’t always appreciated.
An early example was Moe’s February 1983 story about nine murders in rural Adams County, north of Wisconsin Dells, between 1969 and 1977. The county board responded to the coverage by officially censuring Moe and the magazine. “I still have the framed proclamation,” Moe says.
It wouldn’t be the last time Moe strayed outside Madison for a crime story. For the September 1988 issue, he wrote the story “What Really Happened on the Kunz Family Farm?” about the unsolved execution-style shooting deaths of five family members on a farm near Athens, northwest of Wausau.
Moe also didn’t confine himself to reporting only on recent cases. In “The Saga of Butch and Sadie,” he revisited the 1949 killing of a married woman by a jealous lover – ”Madison’s most notorious murder case” – for the March 1989 issue. And demonstrating that justice truly never rests, Moe filed a fascinating report on the hunt for former Nazi concentration camp guards living quietly in Wisconsin.
“The Death’s Head Files” ran with a haunting illustration of uniformed Waffen SS officers standing in silhouette beneath barbed wire and a skull and crossbones, the corps’ insignia.
Moe wrote a cover story on Milwaukee police officer Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek, who was convicted of murdering her husband’s ex-wife Christine Schultz in 1981. Bembenek escaped from prison in Fond du Lac in May 1990, but three months later, after the airing of an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” about her, she was arrested in Canada. She was fighting extradition when Moe wrote “Femme Fatale? The Strange and Mysterious Saga of Lawrencia Bembenek,” published in the January 1991 issue. Bembenek got a new trial, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and, in 1992, was sentenced to time served plus 10 years’ probation. She died Nov. 20, 2010, at the age of 52.
“Who Killed Chad Maurer?” was a May 1991 cover story by Moe. A year earlier, Maurer, a 19-year-old Madison LaFollette High School graduate, was found dead in a garage on Chicago’s south side. The Chicago police ruled his death a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his father’s Mustang. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s report concluded, “No foul play is suspected. There was no apparent trauma to the subject.”
But Moe viewed photos of Maurer’s body and of the crime scene. “The photos are gruesome,” Moe reported, describing the victim’s blood-soaked T-shirt and bruised face, hands and groin. After initially stonewalling Madison-area law enforcement, Chicago police eventually changed the cause of death to “undetermined” and the case remains open.
Moe revisited the case in 2015 – the 25th anniversary of Maurer’s death – for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he was then working. He wrote of sitting down with Darla “Dolly” Maurer, who was still grieving the loss of her son.
A story that had a more satisfying outcome was Moe’s March 1996 piece “Splitting Hairs” about Anthony Hicks, an African-American inmate convicted in Dane County of sexual assault. Moe visited Hicks at the Waupun Correctional Institution as Hicks was seeking a new trial based on newly available DNA testing. “I can’t say for sure that the article was a catalyst, but Anthony was released and eventually exonerated,” Moe says.
In 1996 Moe interviewed another reporter, Tom Bates, then working at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. Bates speculated that the still-at-large Unabomber could be Leo Burt, one of four men suspected of the August 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. That speculation featured prominently in Moe’s February 1996 cover story “The Last Fugitive: Could Leo Burt be the Unabomber?”
Two months later Ted Kaczynski was captured. He was later tried and convicted of the Unabomber’s crimes.
“I felt a little sheepish, though my story was about more than the Bates theory,” Moe wrote last May in a blog post at madisonmagazine.com. Burt, who was never apprehended for the Madison bombing, turned 70 in April – assuming he’s still alive.
“Whatever happened to Leo Burt is Madison’s great unfinished story,” says Moe, ever ready to write another follow-up story.
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