Wisconsin true crime documentary in the works
Doug Moe recalls covering 1979 murder case for Madison Magazine.
A national video crew was in Madison last week conducting interviews for an upcoming true crime documentary series.
They asked me not to share details of the production, and I won’t. But my two-hour Skype interview plunged me back into a story that decades ago an investigator told me included “the most patently bizarre, absolutely incredible set of circumstances you’d ever want to see.”
For me it began with a phone call to the Madison Magazine office in 1987.
A man named Robert Pfeil Sr., who was in his early 70s and lived in Racine, wanted to come to the magazine office — I was then associate editor — to discuss a potential article.
In the past few years I had written some true crime articles, which I assume is what brought Pfeil to Madison. Pfeil’s son, Robert Jr., was murdered in 1979. Eight years had passed. It remained unsolved. The murder took place up north, outside Ladysmith in Rusk County — but there was a significant Madison connection. The man Pfeil suspected of engineering the crime was a former Dane County assistant district attorney.
What I remember best about Pfeil’s visit was how consumed he was by the case. That was understandable. His son was murdered, shot in the back of the head. But Pfeil’s obsession was all encompassing. He’d offered a five-figure reward for information, pursued witnesses, courted media attention and filed civil lawsuits — including a 1983 federal action that was summarily dismissed by U.S. Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison.
Yet by the time of Pfeil’s visit with me in Madison, the man he believed most responsible, Bob Rogers, was dead, too.
Let me try to briefly summarize the cover story, titled “The Dreamer and the D.A.,” I wrote for Madison Magazine in February 1988.
In summer 1979, it was well known around Ladysmith that 27-year-old Rob Pfeil, a likable college student from Racine who wrote poetry, loved animals and had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian, did not get along with Bob Rogers, the Rusk County district attorney, a native of the area.
They’d had more than one disagreement but the most serious occurred earlier that summer, when Pfeil, who lived on 80 acres outside Ladysmith, was out of town. His dogs got loose and were shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies. Pfeil blamed Rogers. They argued.
Rogers was a 1968 UW–Madison graduate who then got a law degree from Stanford and worked as a Dane County prosecutor.
I interviewed my attorney friend Jack Priester, who had been an assistant D.A. with Rogers in Madison in the early 1970s. Priester recalled Rogers “one of the most brilliant and talented people I’ve ever met in my life. He could do anything. He was extremely good at working with his hands, and he had a photographic memory. He knew more about medicine than most doctors. He was a colorful guy.”
But Rogers had a dark side, Priester said. “He had a huge ego. He liked doing outlandish things and he smoked pot constantly. I guess you could say he was on that fine line between genius and madness. He was vengeful person. If you crossed him, there was no going back.”
On the night of Aug. 14, 1979, Rob Pfeil was walking home after buying milk at a neighboring farm when he was fatally shot in the back of the head.
Rogers was a suspect but was never charged. Still, the suspicion, and the elder Pfeil’s relentless pursuit, may have prompted Rogers’ move to California. It was there in the fall 1984 that Rogers — suspecting his wife of an affair with a man named Gary Grady — shot and killed Grady, then fatally turned the gun on himself.
Robert Pfeil Sr. did not believe Rogers’ death closed his son’s case. And indeed, in my 1988 Madison Magazine article, I wrote that an unnamed Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) source told me their “best thinking” on Pfeil’s death was that “Rogers may have convinced someone very close to him to do the murder.”
Still, years passed, a decade, more. Then, in April 2005, I got another phone call at my office, which by then was at The Capital Times newspaper. It was an acquaintance from the Wisconsin DOJ. “There have been two arrests in the Pfeil case. Can I fax you the press release?”
I was stunned. Two brothers of Bob Rogers were charged in the murder, and eventually convicted.
When I got that call in 2005 from the Justice Department, I dug out Robert Pfeil Sr.’s phone number in Racine. I spoke with Roger Pfeil, Rob’s younger brother, who said his father couldn’t come to the phone. He was recovering from a stroke just a week before.
“Does your dad know about the arrests?” I asked.
“He does,” Roger said.
Robert Pfeil Sr. died, age 95, in December 2009.
I spoke to him last right after my Madison Magazine article came out. He liked everything about it except the title.
“My son wasn’t a dreamer,” he said.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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