A jury’s burden

•August 11, 2013 • 4 Comments

You can’t write the story of one man murdered in cold blood and another man accused of killing him without considering what went on in the minds of the jurors who tried that accused killer. And eventually set him free.

What were the jurors thinking as the case was presented by the prosecution, the defense? What a wrenching story they had to consider In the case of defendant Michael Schertz, who was the police chief in Iola when his lone deputy, Jerry Mork, was murdered on the last day of the Iola Car Show in the sweltering wee hours of July 14, 1985?

The jury had a spectacle to behold as the trial unfolded. That was now 28 years ago and many of those jurors are still alive, and their memories of the days they spent in trial still pulse through their consciousness and consciences. They still ask themselves, “Did we get it right?”

“It was a most interesting case because of all those characters that were part of it,” a female juror told me recently. And one of her male counterparts added, “I had made up my mind he was guilty at first. I started playing solitaire and let the people argue. Then I said, ‘He’s not guilty, they didn’t prove it.’ There was all kinds of doubt.”

I was summoned to jury duty myself for the first and only time in December 2012, and I was happy for the opportunity, if only because it gave me insight and perspective for this book and, in a much smaller context, a look at what those jurors went through as they pondered Schertz’s fate.

Just as they did, I took my responsibility most seriously. I had the future of a young woman and mother in my hands. She had tied her fate with that of a charming young man with a long rap sheet for drugs and firearms possession. He brought her down, a pretty woman with one child before she met him and another child with him. She still owed money on her nursing student loans and held a hospital position when she was arrested at home shortly after he was caught in a drug sting in his SUV not far away. He was a repeat offender so he was going away for a long time. She had no record at all.

Now she does. We found her guilty as charged after long deliberation, much to the dismay  of one of our fellow jurors who was fit to be tied that we didn’t walk directly from the courtroom, cast a quick vote and be done with the case. “Okay, we all know she’s guilty, let’s vote and get out of here,” he said imperiously. The rest of us were stunned. That’s not what the judge instructed us to do. We were told to deliberate, to consider all we had heard over two days of testimony from witnesses, opening and closing arguments from counsel, and the judge’s instructions that included an explanation as to just  what “reasonable doubt” entailed.

Our jury foreman, the young man we all voted to that post, did a most conscientious job of going over the points of law we were to consider and in particular, reasonable doubt.  As it happened, in this young mother’s case, we could find no reasonable doubt at all. We found her guilty.

But in the Schertz case, reasonable doubt was his ally. Because the prosecutor could not provide evidence of Schertz at the murder scene, could not provide a murder weapon no matter how hard he tried, and because of so many contradicting statements by the witnesses that were called to testify for and against the police chief, the case against him was riddled with reasonable doubt. In the end the jury had no choice but to find him not guilty.

“It never leaves you. It was emotional,” that female juror from the Schertz case told me.

I know what she means. I felt terrible voting “guilty” when my turn came in that jury room –  because of the implications for her children, her mother whom I knew, her career which would forever be impacted. Just like Mike Schertz’s life was impacted…and he was found not guilty.

Sentencing in the case for which I was a juror didn’t involve me; it occurred two months after the trial. But being a reporter with a nose for news, I looked it up in online court records a couple of months later. She was given a fine which I can’t imagine she could easily pay and put on probation. I hope she and her children can move beyond this terrible event in her life and find the happiness and a chance at a life rebuilt that Schertz never did.

Sheriff’s words about the murder victim

•October 6, 2012 • 2 Comments

His father, Waupaca County Sheriff William Mork, died in 2006, 21 years after his son was murdered in Iola. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to find the person who killed his son Jerry in cold blood. Waupaca County Sheriff Brad Hardel, the most recent of his successors, has the reins of the department now…and the unsolved murder of Iola Village Deputy Gerald Mork on his hands all these years later. Jerry Mork was just 31 years old in 1985 when he was found shot to death in Iola’s Riverside Cemetery. A sheriff’s deputy found him beside his Iola squad car just after 5 a.m. on July 14th, the last day of the Iola Car Show. There was an estimated crowd of 85,000 show-goers swelling the community’s normal population of under 1,000 that hot summer weekend. To this day, no one knows why Jerry didn’t check in on his police radio before he got out of his car that steamy dark night, why he left the engine running and the lights on high beam, or why his flashlight, switched on, was beside him on the ground when he was found. A murderer may still walk among the citizens of Waupaca County today, or may have died with his deadly secret intact. Twenty-seven years later, it remains a cold and tragic case.

This YouTube video, produced by my colleague, videographer Diane Cherney, captures the touching and fitting words of Sheriff Hardel on the occasion of the unveiling of the bronze likeness of Deputy Gerald Mork when it was unveiled outside the Waupaca Law Enforcement Center on August 17, 2012. Listen to his words which were meant to let the Mork family, those in attendance at the unveiling ceremony, the media, this author…and the murderer, know that Jerry Mork has not been forgotten.


It’s never too late

•September 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Judge. Found him in Arizona. How cool is that? To find the Eau Claire trial judge in the Schertz case 27 years after the fact and to find him more than willing to talk about the trial with me…that was a heady day for me in my research efforts.

How did we do it as newspaper reporters in the 1970s and 1980s when I started in my chosen field? How did my Great Uncle Sherman Duffy and my Grandfather Palmer Wright conduct any investigation into the stories they were sent out to cover for the Hearst papers in their Chicago heydays in the 1920 and 1930s? Imagine – like me 50 years later, they actually had to go to public libraries and look stuff up! Or even more difficult – find the sources they needed and ask the questions directly.

I am very lucky as I research the 1985  case of Iola Deputy Jerry Mork’s murder and the charges against Iola Police Chief Michael Schertz – even 27 years later – because I have the near-miraculous Internet at my disposal and, because of my career and my recent return to academia, I have learned some new ways to make good use of it. Through them I have found Jerry’s burial plot number, but couldn’t come up with the information about his father’s death. Go figure. I found his married daughter’s address in another state but not his son’s in this state. (Being a police officer still gives one some anonymity.) But retired officers don’t have that shield, so I was able to find the retired Special Agents from the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation and the retired Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department personnel that were involved in the case. I could track down all but two of the jurors, but found that one is deceased, maybe two. Still looking for the bikers who were in Iola causing some trouble the night before the murder, suspects  in some people’s minds back then. Schertz was found not guilty of first degree murder by a jury of his peers in 1985. Those who uttered the death threats at Jerry Mork that were witnessed by others the weekend of his murder were never brought in for questioning. Perhaps they still need to be located through the kind of research a reporter can do, or better yet, by law enforcement that may perhaps be taking another look at the Mork murder.

27 Years Later – Gerry Mork Unveiled in Bronze

•September 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

27 Years Later – Gerry Mork Unveiled in Bronze.

27 Years Later – Gerry Mork Unveiled in Bronze

•September 5, 2012 • 1 Comment

Why am I writing this book 27 years after Deputy Jerry Mork’s murder? Because I havce personal knowledge of it, of course. And because it is one of many unsolved murder cases in Wisconsin in which investigators, in some counties at least, are still pursuing the killers. I’m not so sure they are in Waupaca County where they thought they had their man when they charged Iola Police Chief 27 years ago. But he was acquitted later that year and, to my knowledge, the sheriff’s department never looked for anotber killer, confident that they knew who did it. They just couldn’t “pin it on him” as Mike said back then. Mike died in 2002 and no one has ever been brought to justice for Jerry Mork’s untimely death. The question remains unanswered: Who did it? As I interviewed the parties who were involved in the case back then, many of them are as sure now as they were back then that the killer was Mike. But there is the other side who know there was no evidence at all that pointed at him. There was, however, evidence that was ignored and corrupted at the crime scene, tossed aside, evidence that might have pointed at someone other than Mike Schertz. I wonder why the folks in Iola and Waupaca County were so intent on immediately charging Mike Schertz with the crime and avoiding any other possibiilities. It’s true, he didn’t want Jerry as his deputy, but Jerry’s father, Waupaca County Sheriff Bill Mork made it happen. But as one investigator told me, office disputes happen every day in every workplace and people don’t get killed over them. I’m going to meet with the current sheriff, Brad Hardel, in the next week or so to talk about what, if anything, is going in the Mork case.

First words – new book

•September 5, 2012 • 1 Comment

First words – new book.

Research, resea…

•August 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Click for Night Shots

Research, research, research. I have spent eight or nine days in the Waupaca County Clerk of Courts office poring over the transcript of the Gerald Mork Murder Trial from December 1985. The more I read about this case, and the more people I talk to who were involved in it 27 years ago, the more intrigued I become.  I’ve talked to the current sheriff of the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Dept. and a former sheriff; a police chief in Neenah; two key investigators who helped win the case for the defense back then with the accused’s Green Bay defense attorney, and others. So many twists and turns, and as the former sheriff said, “too many coincidences”. The sheriff whose son was murdered died in 2006 without seeing justice for his boy. The accused, the police chief under whom the victim served as a deputy, although cleared by the jury in 1985, lived under a cloud of suspicion the rest of his life. He died in 2002, never able to work in law enforcement again. The attorney who did such a brilliant job defending him died in 2010. Much more research to do, witnesses to interview, stories to unravel. Is the murderer still out there?