This article was last modified on August 3, 2014.

David Spanbauer, Wisconsin’s Forgotten Serial Killer

David Frank Spanbauer was born into a blue-collar German catholic family in January of 1941 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He was the oldest child of Frank and Evelyn Spanbauer and he had two younger sisters, Judy and Mary. Frank was tough on his only son and they had a troublesome relationship. When David was 14 years old, his father passed away from a heart problem.

The scores of blacked out entries on Spanbauer’s juvenile record indicate he had some tangles with the law in his teenage years. He dropped out of Oshkosh High School just after his seventeenth birthday and joined the Navy. He was a basket case in the military. He received three courts martial for being absent without leave and spent seven months in the brig. His mother received a letter from naval doctors stating they thought David needed psychiatric care, but no further mention was made of the issue. He received a dishonorable discharge and returned to Wisconsin in November of 1959.

After his aborted attempt at navy life, he went back to Oshkosh High School to pick up where he left off, but soon his twisted inclinations propelled him into the first major criminal event of his life. On January 3, 1960, he broke into a home in Appleton and made away with two diamond rings, a hunting knife, a bottle of booze, some cash and a .22 handgun. One night later in Neenah, ten miles north of Oshkosh, he robbed a home with his new pistol.

A week later in Appleton, a mother slept in another room while her 13-year-old daughter studied. A masked man entered the house and stole some cash. He flashed a pistol at the girl and hauled her out behind the garage.

“I’m going to rape you,” he said.
“What does that mean?” asked the girl.

The 19-year-old Spanbauer answered by smacking her twice. The girl screamed and attracted the attention of a person passing by. He ran off and drove to Green Bay.

That evening on January 12, 1960, Carol Grady, a 16-year-old girl was babysitting her cousins. As she played the piano, Spanbauer lurked outside the house watching her through the window. Armed with his pistol, he entered the house and pocketed a small amount of cash, and brought the teenager to the bedroom. Spanbauer lashed her down spread-eagle on the bed and slashed apart her clothes with a knife and raped her.

Her uncle returned and Spanbauer shot him in the face and escaped from the house. Since his first burglary when he procured the handgun, Spanbauer drifted around the southeastern Wisconsin area for almost a month and a half. There is a record of an attempted robbery near Milwaukee, and finally he was picked up for carrying a concealed firearm in Sheboygan County on February 16th.

Spanbauer broke down in police custody and told his stories and everything came out. In court, the judge labeled him as a “sexual deviate” and sentenced him to seventy years in prison: David Spanbauer, age 19, Wisconsin convict, sexual deviate.

During his prison time, Spanbauer’s mother, Evelyn, hammered authorities with letters encouraging her son’s release at his parole hearings. She wrote to Gov. Warren Knowles and claimed her son was not a pervert, and Spanbauer’s conviction was a result of the rape victim being a licentious woman, and of Spanbauer being poor.

His mother’s efforts were useless. Prison officials constantly suspected him of homosexual liaisons with other inmates, especially younger prisoners. They also noted he was an intelligent and good worker, yet his temper was vicious. During his 1971 parole hearing, Spanbauer had an outburst and later claimed he had no control over what he couldn’t alter. While in prison, he got a tattoo of a devil on his forearm and it would be a symbol of his potential for evil and an incriminating mark.

He was finally released in May of 1972 and it seemed like his was making positive steps in his life. He enrolled at Madison Area Technical College and maintained a B average while living at the YMCA at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. But he quickly became entangled in the local crime scene. He let an escaped prisoner borrow his car and the fugitive was arrested after a robbery in nearby Middleton. Spanbauer was dangerously close to going back to prison.

For being involved in the robbery case, Spanbauer did some time in the Dane County Jail but was able to get out with Huber Law privileges working for the Madison Parks Department.

Spanbauer worked the parks and the city beaches in the hot summer sun of 1972. He eyeballed the bikini-clad women lying in the sun. He just spent 13 years in prison. The half-naked women at the beach drove him mad with sexual urges. Later he told psychiatrists he did what he did out of sexual frustration, and he simply couldn’t wait any longer. He said to a social worker that he was “asocial,” and must have been “born retarded.”

He knew of Token Creek Park, and that is where he drove to rape the girl. She was a 17-year-old waitress out hitchhiking. He picked her up on Highway 51 by brandishing a knife and while driving to the park, he told her that he was going to rape her and when he was through with her, he would run her over with his car and toss her body in a ditch. She started crying, and David Spanbauer cried along with her. It was August 11, 1972. He tied up her hands and had his way with her.

She told the police the man had a tattoo of the devil on his forearm, and later when Spanbauer was rounded up as a suspect, she identified him as the man who raped her. Spanbauer tried to play it all off. In his eyes they got along fine and that everything was cool and they had consensual sex.

Spanbauer was found guilty for abduction and rape and Assistant District Attorney John Burr asked for the maximum sentence of 50 years on top of what Spanbauer would receive for violating his parole.

With all of the facts of the case before him, Judge Richard Bardwell reasoned that the rape was much more “mild” than Spanbauer’s previous rape—the one where he tied the victim down spread eagle, raped her at knife point and then blasted another man in the face with a handgun. Therefore, the judge figured, Spanbauer has moved from being a “very dangerous sex offender” to now merely “just dangerous … so there has been some improvement.” He noted that Spanbauer was still a sociopath but his tendencies weren’t so severe. Bardwell gave Spanbauer 12 years in prison than ran concurrent with his revoked parole. ”The girl was in effect asking for it,” said Bardwell, “They are tempting fate when they do it.”

Assistant District Attorney Burr thought Spanbauer was a threat to society and was enraged by the light sentence. Burr later said that Spanbauer was, “in the top ten of the most vicious and violent people I’ve ever had the displeasure of coming in contact with.”

He continued to pine for an early parole and continued to mention his former wife as part of his plan of making a new positive life once he got out. Spanbauer planned on moving in with her, but nothing he could scheme could change the adamant decision of the Parole Board. They continually refused parole until they no longer could, until the mandatory release date on Jan. 29, 1991. Spanbauer finished doing time.

He left prison with $8,000 in savings from his prison work and moved in with his sister, Judy who was married to Clark Tadych, an Oshkosh police officer. It was a temporary stay and once he got settled in with a job at the local Seven-Up bottling plant he moved into an apartment of his own on the west side of Oshkosh.

He was out on parole and had to file reports of his on-goings and whereabouts. In his descriptions of what he was up to, he would write a dull platitude and tag at the end of the sentence: “Smile!”

On Christmas Eve of 1991, Spanbauer had a heart attack and for a moment, there was no heartbeat, but the doctors brought him back to life. His poor heart condition would haunt him for the remainder of his life.

He worked early mornings and finished up mid-afternoon at the bottling plant and would head to a couple nearby taverns to knock back a few cold ones. He never got blatantly drunk; he was a slow and steady drinker that minded his own business and one tavern owner tagged him to be a “nice guy.”

A girl disappeared. Her bicycle was found near her rural home in Ripon in Fond du Lac County on August 23, 1992. Six weeks later her body was found about 100 miles away in a cornfield ditch near Tower Hill State Park, not far from the Wisconsin River. Her name was Ronelle Eichstedt. She was ten years old. David Spanbauer raped and killed her. He used his 1988 four-door Eagle Premiere to transport her body. He sold that and later bought a maroon 1991 Pontiac Bonneville.

Almost two years later, on the Fourth of July of 1994, 24-year-old Miriam Stariha was riding her bike on a country road near Hartman Creek State Park when a maroon Pontiac banged into her bike hard enough for her to crash. Spanbauer emerged from the car. He said he was trying to scare her, and he held a pistol. Another car coming down the road, slowed down and Spanbauer got back in his car and drove away.

Stariha reported the incident to the police. The FBI hired a professional artist from California to sketch out the suspect’s features, one of six pictures of what they thought the attacker might look like, including a side profile. State and federal investigators in charge of the case were unsure if they had reliable composite drawings and they decided only to release the sketches to involved law enforcement bodies. They already had plenty of leads to follow-up on and the special agents did not want a flood of bad tips coming in if the sketch were shown to the public.

His crime spree continued throughout the Fox Valley region. He burglarized homes with the intention of there being no confrontation, just a matter of getting the goods, in and out, but if a person were home, he produced a pistol to finish the robbery at gunpoint. On July 9th, less than a week later after he attacked Stariha, Spanbauer broke into a home in Appleton armed with a handgun. He thought nobody was home, but he found 21-year-old Trudi Jeschke in a bedroom and fired one shot into her chest. She would have been a witness. She died from the bullet wound. He later ditched the gun at Menominee Park in Oshkosh.

On Labor Day, September 5th, a 12-year-old girl from nearby Weyauwega rode her bike on Sanders Road near her grandma’s house in the township of Dayton. It wasn’t far from the place where Spanbauer ran down Stariha in his car. He got her into his car and molested her and he drove 75 miles north up into Langlade County near Kempster. Five or six hours transpired from when he picked her up and when he finally decided to end it. He strangled and stabbed her and threw her body into a steep ditch.

Police organized a search for the missing girl using a country church for the headquarters. Hundreds of volunteers helped canvass the surrounding woods in a ten mile perimeter and the FBI joined the case. Her body was found body five days later. Her name was Cora Jones.

Two hunters found the body of a 12-year-old girl in a ditch along a country road. It was September 10, 1994, near the small village of Kempster, an area known as the “Gateway to Wisconsin’s Northwoods.” There were no clothes on her body and her hands were bound behind her back with ripped shreds of a pink t-shirt. She had been beaten, raped, strangled and stabbed in the abdominal area and chest. She had been there for five days. The hunter-killer left one clue, a small speck of evidence that would later be used against him. It was a carpet fiber found on the girl’s body.

His attacks continued and occurred with regularity. On October 20th, he raped a fifteen year old girl and on November 5th, he raped a 31-year-old woman in the Appleton area. By now the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department, the Langlade County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation were on the case, suspecting the string of assaults and murders were more than a coincidence.

On November 14th, 1994, Gerald Argall went to his home in Combined Locks and discovered a man breaking into his house. He gave chase and tackled and wrestled the 53 year-old man into submission and when the police arrived, they arrested the prowler on burglary charges.

While in custody, the police noticed that the tools found in the suspect’s car matched those used in the two home invasion rapes that happened earlier that fall. The police kept up their interrogations and after four days, he confessed in the presence of his attorney, Tom Zoesch, to kidnapping and killing the two little girls and for the shooting death of Jeschke.

Langlade County Sheriff David Steger said that his confession contained details that only the killer would know about and felt that, “he is our guy.” The cases were finally closed.

Spanbauer’s crimes ranged through five counties and each county prosecutor wanted a piece of him. Spanbauer’s attorney negotiated that the eighteen charges be consolidated at one venue, and the case landed in Outagamie County, and into the lap of Prosecutor Vince Biskupic.

During the proceedings, Biskupic painted Spanbauer as the criminal he was, calling him a ”festering soul” and a coward and asked him to turn to face the courtroom audience composed of the victim’s families stricken with grief. “He’s evil. And at the same time he’s pathetic,” said Biskupic.

On Thursday, December 8th, 1994 Spanbauer pleaded no contest to two charges and guilty to the remaining sixteen charges. He was found guilty for first-degree intentional homicide in the Jones and Eichstedt murders and guilty on all other counts.

The sentencing came on Dec. 20th. The courtroom was packed to see what fate Spanbauer would receive. Circuit Judge James Bayorgeon was a far different judge than Judge Bardwell back in 1972. There was no leniency and there was no speculation of any innate goodness that might be left and coaxed out of Spanbauer in any kind of rehabilitation. It was the end of the road for him.

Judge Bayorgeon said, ”I don’t know from what cesspool in hell you slithered forth and I can’t send you back.” He speculated that it couldn’t be possible for the God they believed in “would let a piece of offal like you walk this earth… The only thing I can hope for is that you never spend one more moment of peace for the rest of your life.” Spanbauer was handed three life terms plus the maximum consecutive sentences on the other crimes, a total of 403 years. The earliest possible time Spanbauer could be a free man would be December 20, 2191. He would die in prison.

He was sent to the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault, Minnesota, a medium-security prison. While serving his time there, he returned back to Appleton for a secret court hearing in early December 1998. His health at the time was poor, but he made the trip to inform the police where he ditched the murder weapon in the 1994 Jeschke case. Menominee Park in Oshkosh, he told them and with his accurate details, the police located the gun within half an hour.

State Representative Dean Kaufert of the Fox Valley region where Spanbauer hunted his victims, penned a bill supporting chemical castration of pedophiles. It was later passed and approved by Governor Tommy Thompson.

In May of 1997, a truth-in-sentencing proposal arrived and it was spearheaded by Carol Grady with a petition holding thousands of signatures. Felons would serve the time they are given—no early releases, and they would serve a “community supervision” term that is a minimum of a quarter of their prison sentence. Twenty years in prison would mean twenty years. The proposal met wide support from political parties on each end of the spectrum.

By the spring of 1998, the Wisconsin Senate passed a bill dubbed, “two-strikes-you’re-out.” It was designed for those that commit crimes against children. If convicted twice, the offender would receive a life sentence. The bill encompassed sexual assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment, incest, and nearly all forms of sexual exploitation or exposure.

In October 2000, he was secretly transferred back over the state line to Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun. Spanbauer’s lawyer, Tom Zoesch, didn’t know about the transfer, only that the letters they exchanged mysteriously stopped that autumn. He was informed of Spanbauer’s presence in Wisconsin by a journalist when the story broke in the local media in early May 2001 that the killer was back in the state. The reason cited for the move was that Spanbauer was suffering from heart problems and that the prison at Waupun could attend to his medical condition better because it staffed a 24-hour infirmary.

Zoesch noted in his contact with Spanbauer over the years that he was friendly, smart, and polite yet he had a side of evil and darkness, “a kind of a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde personality,” he said. In Spanbauer’s remaining months he was trying to arrange for an interview with the Post-Crescent for a fee. He wanted to clean his conscious and make a few bucks on the side. It never happened since the newspaper’s policy is not to pay for interviews.

Spanbauer died on Monday, July 29th, 2002 at Dodge Correctional Institution. He was pronounced dead at 4:25 p.m. in the prison hospital. An autopsy revealed that final stage liver disease and coronary heart disease were the causes of death. Spanbauer previously instructed the doctors that he should not be resuscitated if he flat-lined.

Biskupic, who now is in private practice, commented that “you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is shedding a tear over his death.” His body was not claimed and no family was present when Spanbauer was buried on Thursday near the prison grounds, but the details were handled by Spanbauer’s niece in Florida, who felt that Spanbauer almost treated her “like a daughter.” A prison chaplain performed a brief funeral rite.

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