BURLINGTON — Fifty years ago today, Jim Kubath was a young police officer working on New Year’s Day. Driving around town in the wee hours, he stopped at a late-night gas station.
What he found at the Clark station on Milwaukee Avenue would lead Kubath to a murder mystery that horrified the Burlington community — and remains unsolved to this day.
David Schwochert, the teenage gas station attendant who was working that night in 1973, was missing. A few hours later, the teenager turned up dead in a field just outside town.
Schwochert, 16, a junior at Burlington High School, had been shot in the head twice.
Police theorized that someone intending to rob the gas station decided to take the teenager with them. Then, that person killed him in a remote area about three miles away.
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Investigators uncovered clues, and they developed theories about potential suspects. But no one has ever been charged in the killing.
Kubath, now 80 years old and retired, still remembers the murder that sent chills through Burlington on the morning of Jan. 1, 1973. He wonders if the truth will ever be uncovered.
“You don’t forget about something like that,” Kubath said. “It was a shock.”
As the 50th anniversary of the David Schwochert killing arrives today, the fallen teen’s family members are hoping to rekindle interest in the case. If people remember, the family said, maybe new evidence will turn up and will shed light on what happened that night.
Searching for answers
Doug Schwochert, the victim’s younger brother, said it still hurts to think that both of his parents, Richard and Catherine, died without ever knowing who killed their first-born son, or why.
But seeing the mystery solved, Schwochert said, would bring relief and closure to him, his four sisters, and all of the other family members and friends who still live with the unanswered questions.
“It would mean something,” the 64-year-old brother said. “Finally, justice has prevailed then.”
Others in Burlington who experienced the terrifying events of New Year’s Day 1973 similarly hope — even after all these years — to see some sort of logical conclusion to the chaos that descended on the community that day.
Deborah Breske Vos, a neighbor and friend of the Schwochert family, remembers stopping at the Clark gas station and seeing David just hours before he was killed. Breske Vos, who was 21 years old at the time, was returning from a New Year’s Eve party with her husband when they stopped at the gas station to buy cigarettes on the way home.
The next morning, Breske Vos heard that someone in town had been killed overnight. She telephoned the Schwochert home to ask if David knew anything, seeing as how he had been out late. Now 71, she is haunted by the sound of Schwochert’s father telling her over the phone that David had been murdered.
Breske Vos finds it hard to believe that nobody in the small, tight-knit community that existed in the early ’70s could help police crack the case.
“People were too close not to know about each other — and have the answers,” she said.
At the time, Burlington was a quiet city with a population of 7,400 — about three-fourths of the size it is today.
Like any other year, 1972 brought such popular community events as the Kiwanis Club’s annual pancake day. The city’s Human Rights Council held a student poster contest commemorating “Brotherhood Week.” The Haylofters community theater group had a hit with a musical-comedy called “The Boy Friend.”
The year was not without heartbreak, too. That summer, teenage sisters Susan Pringle and Judy Pringle, both Burlington High School students, were killed in a car crash on Spring Valley Road.
Inside the house at 416 Ridge Ave., Richard and Catherine Schwochert were busy with their six children — two boys and four girls. David Schwochert was the second-oldest at 16, just behind sister Debbie. Then there was Doug, Cindy, Jean and Terri.
David had a talent for woodworking, and he also enjoyed working with his hands on electronics and cars. Just recently, he had taken a job at the Clark gas station, 590 Milwaukee Ave.
A co-worker, Leonard Drew, wanted the night off for New Year’s Eve, so he asked Schwochert to fill in. With his parents’ permission, the teenager agreed.
Schwochert’s friend, Steve Oaks, also worked at the Clark station. Oaks was just finishing up work when Schwochert reported for the overnight shift that New Year’s Eve.
Oaks died in 2021, but his older brother, Gary Oaks, remembers that Steve was left in “total shock and disbelief” when he learned about Schwochert’s murder. Steve realized that he could have easily been the one caught in harm’s way, although he chose not to discuss it much later in life.
“I don’t think he wanted to think about it,” Gary Oaks recalled. “How the hell could something like that happen here?”
Kubath, who had joined the Burlington Police Department five years earlier, sensed that something was wrong as soon as he arrived at the Clark station for a routine building check about 4:20 a.m. The gas station was located along State Highway 36 at the current site of a parking lot across the street from Veterans Terrace.
The front door was unlocked, but the place was vacated. There were empty beer cans in a trash basket, and what looked like confetti on the floor. Kubath figured someone had themselves a little New Year’s celebration.
But more importantly, where was everyone?
After contacting the business owner, police realized that the gas station’s teenage employee was missing.
“We had no idea where he was,” Kubath said. “As the time progressed, now you know something’s wrong.”
A wrenching revelation
A few hours later, a grim discovery led police to a wooded area along Highway 36, just north of Burlington’s city limits.
David Schwochert was found dead, lying on his back in a field near the woods southeast of the intersection of Highway 36 and County Road W. He was lying in a pool of blood, with two bullet wounds in his head from a .38-caliber gun.
He was still wearing a blue-colored Clark gas station uniform, but his money belt and coin-changer were gone, along with about $60. No money was reported missing from the station.
The murder scene was just east of the current Taco Bell restaurant at 2056 Milwaukee Ave. Because it was outside Burlington city limits, the police investigation was handled by the Racine County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the first questions that investigators asked: Who found Schwochert’s body, and how?
Police at the time said a private citizen named Wendell Adams happened upon the grisly scene. Adams, who lived in the area, was described as a police radio buff. He told investigators that he heard radio transmissions about the search for Schwochert, and he took it upon himself to join the search.
Adams led investigators to the body just after 8 a.m. — less than four hours after the search had begun. The body was found in a remote area.
When word of the tragedy reached 416 Ridge Ave. that New Year’s Day morning, Schwochert’s parents called the family together and told their five remaining children that David had been killed.
Doug Schwochert, who was 14 years old, has little memory of the hours and days that followed. But he grew up thinking often of his lost brother, and feeling a profound sense of loss.
“It’s always like there’s something missing,” he said.
Others in Burlington remember the episode as a moment of lost innocence for a community that suddenly went from peaceful and idyllic to seeming violent and frightening.
Dozens of students from Burlington High School filed into St. Charles Catholic Church for their fallen classmate’s funeral.
“I just thought, ‘Things like that don’t happen here,'” Breske Vos said.
Oaks, now 72 years old, said he found it impossible for several years to go past the Clark gas station without thinking about David Schwochert. People eventually stopped talking about the tragedy, he said, but nobody stopped wishing that the mystery would be solved.
“We were just hoping,” Oaks said, “that somebody someday would say something.”
Police investigators working under then-County Sheriff Robert Bertermann recovered a bullet in the ground beneath where Schwochert’s body was found. Then they came across the teenager’s wallet, followed by a coin-changer believed to have belonged to him.
The Clark gas station company offered a $1,000 reward for information about the killing.
But the days and weeks soon turned into months and then years, without any break in the case.
Tom Terry, who was Racine County’s deputy medical examiner at the time, said his office had little involvement in the case. Because the cause of death was clear and obvious, Terry said, the medical examiner’s work was largely finished after the death was declared a homicide.
DNA forensic testing — a hallmark of many successful homicide investigations of late — was still years into the future in 1973.
It just so happened that Terry lived in Burlington, and he was friends with Schwochert’s father. So he followed the police investigation with interest, wondering if the killer would turn out to be a random passerby, or a local resident, or perhaps even a serial killer on a rampage.
Unfortunately, considering the lack of evidence and the time that has passed, Terry doubts whether the case will ever be solved.
“We’ll probably never know,” he said.
Kubath, who served 30 years as a police officer, retired in 1995 with a nagging sense of unfinished business in the Schwochert homicide. Knowing that a young man lost his life without anyone being held accountable still troubles the ex-cop.
“I feel like justice hasn’t been served,” he said.
Bertermann retired as sheriff in 1977 and then died in 1996. Many other officers involved the case have since died, too.
Richard and Catherine Schwochert both died in 2018 — just two months apart — and were buried together at Burlington’s St. Charles Cemetery near their son David’s final resting place.
The Racine County Sheriff’s Office is declining to discuss the Schwochert case or to release public records, citing the fact that even 50 years later, the killing remains the subject of an open investigation.
Lt. Michael Luell, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said evidence has been re-submitted to a state crime laboratory. But he would not divulge the nature of the evidence or any test results.
Officials at the state crime lab also declined to comment.
Schwochert’s remaining family members created a Facebook page and have appealed to the public for help closing the books on their family’s unsolved tragedy.
Doug Schwochert, who owns an auto-repair shop in Burlington, said the pain of losing his brother has long since faded. But knowing that the murder remains unsolved leaves the family with a sense of incompleteness in their own life stories.
“We just want to know that, yeah, it’s over,” he said.
Some of David Schwochert’s other siblings chose to share their thoughts via email.
Terri Nowicki, the youngest of the six children, recalled staring into her brother’s casket and wondering, at age 7, why he was not moving or opening his eyes.
Nowicki often wonders how her family might be different if David had lived.
“Our family wishes closure,” she wrote, “for the heinous act of my brother’s murder.”
Debbie Regner, the oldest of the children, wrote that many people in Burlington remember the Schwochert homicide, which is an indication, she said, of how deeply the community was touched by the loss.
“Our family is not the only ones whose lives were changed,” Regner wrote. “Our safe little city of Burlington would be forever changed, too.”
True crime: high-profile murders that remain unsolved
Morbidly fascinating, disturbing and 100% true.
Jack the Ripper killings (1888)
127 years unsolved
“Jack the Ripper” is a pseudonym given to an unidentified serial killer or killers in London, England in the late 1800s.
The murders took place in the impoverished Whitechapel district, and most of the victims were prostitutes. The victims’ throats were severed and their abdomens slashed and mangled.
The mutilation of the victims’ bodies became more severe with each murder.
At least 5 of the brutal murders were committed by the same person, but there could be as many as 11 victims. Because of the many crimes in London’s east end at the time, it is unknown how many of the crimes were actually connected.
Many names have been put forward as the true identity of the killer, and several were arrested. False confessions or reported confessions abound, but the true killer or killers were never identified.
Any surviving forensic evidence is too contaminated to provide results, and the slow meld of fact and fiction are the legacy of the horrific violence so long ago.
In 2015, a Jack the Ripper Museum opened in east London.
Andrew and Abby Borden (Aug. 4, 1892)
123 years unsolved
On the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, (two) wealthy residents of Fall River, Mass. were found dead in their home. Andrew and Abby Borden’s frightful deaths are still the subject of speculation today.
Authorities estimated that they were killed about an hour apart, by an ax or hatchet. Abby was killed first, suffering 18 or 19 blows, then Andrew suffered 11 blows.
Andrew’s daughter Lizzie Borden remains the primary suspect, although she was tried and eventually acquitted in 1893. Lizzie, a Sunday school teacher, denied involvement but had strange and conflicting testimony both before and during the trial.
Lizzie was given regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, which may have explained her erratic behavior.
Though alternative theories and suspects have been presented, no one else was charged for the murder.
The case was in newspapers across the country, and is still the subject of books and other media. It was even immortalized in a folk song:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
William Goebel (Jan. 30, 1900)
115 years unsolved
Just prior to being sworn in as governor of Kentucky, William Justus Goebel was assassinated – shot in the chest outside of the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.
He died four days later, after signing a single proclamation.
The 1899 election was tense, and Goebel’s bristly personality had made him many political enemies despite his attachment to popular causes.
The election results were still being disputed before his death, and he had been accompanied by two bodyguards after hearing rumors of an assassination plot.
Following Goebel’s shooting, wild turmoil broke out in Frankfort, as a clash of executive and judicial power in Kentucky brought about a state of affairs bordering on civil war.
As Goebel lay clinging to life, Democrats threatened to use the military to enforce his orders, while Republicans used the militia to resist.
An armed conflict was averted when the Republican Taylor yielded and all legislators left the capital.
Everyone charged with the shooting was either acquitted or pardoned.
Goebel remains the only state governor to have been assassinated while in office.
William Desmond Taylor (Feb. 1, 1922)
93 years unsolved
Born in Ireland, William Desmond Taylor was an actor and director in the era of silent films in a budding Hollywood. He directed 60 films and acted in 27.
Taylor’s body was found in his home on the morning of Feb. 2, 1922, having died the evening before. He had been shot in the back with a small caliber pistol.
A large amount of money and valuables was on the body.
Although many suspects were named, the case remains unsolved. Poor crime scene management, corruption and sensationalized reports contributed to the failure to identify the killer.
- “Taylorology” – an online archive/journal devoted to the case
Rev. Hall and Eleanor Mills (Sept. 14, 1922)
93 years unsolved
Rev. Edward Hall and choir member Eleanor Mills were found murdered in a field on Sept. 16, 1922.
The Episcopal priest was shot once in the head, and the woman was shot three times in the head, her throat severed and tongue cut out.
The bodies were found to be posed in a suggestive manner. It is speculated that they had been having an affair.
There were several suspects, including the late priest’s widow, Frances Stevens Hall, and her brothers, who were tried and acquitted in 1926. Although they had a motive and the means, there was not enough evidence to convict them.
In fact, no one was convicted of the murders.
The sordid story inspired several books, including one in 2013 that speculates the murder inspired parts of The Great Gatsby.
Harry Oakes (July 8, 1943)
72 years unsolved
In one of the most famous crimes in the Bahamas, a wealthy gold-miner was butchered to death and his body set aflame in his home. The violent and unexplained death of Sir Harry Oakes is a mystery to this day.
Oakes’ son-in-law, Alfred de Marginy, was charged with the murder, but after three months in prison was acquitted and promptly deported.
During the trial, a family feud surfaced between de Marginy and Oakes. The playboy and twice-divorced de Marginy had secretly married Oakes’ 18-year-old daughter Nancy, and she was soon pregnant. A near fatal illness required two surgeries to terminate the pregnancy.
There was little evidence that de Marginy committed the gruesome crime and no one was convicted in the murder.
Oakes’ son later died in an auto accident.
The Black Dahlia (ca. Jan. 15, 1947)
68 years unsolved
A chilling wave of crimes swept (through) over Los Angeles in the 1940s, ranging from theft to sex crimes and murder.
The most famous was the murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the “Black Dahlia” for her raven hair and black clothing.
Short’s body was found mutilated in a vacant lot, nude and bisected at the diaphragm. She was carefully posed, with deep gashes on her face (resembling a ghoulish smile), along with other cuts and gashes.
At least nine other women were gruesomely violated and killed, most of them within six months of Short’s murder.
One after the other, several men “confessed” to the crimes but no one was convicted.
Fresh theories have emerged as recently as 2014, when a retired police detective, Steve Hodel, came forward with a theory that pins the murders on his own father.
The Grimes sisters (Dec. 28, 1956)
59 years unsolved
The nude and frozen bodies of Patricia Grimes, 13, and Barbara Grimes, 15 were discovered in a snow-covered ditch in Chicago, weeks after they disappeared.
On the evening of Dec. 28, 1956, the girls left home to attend an Elvis Presley movie.
They never returned.
A coroner’s jury ruled that the Grimes sisters were murdered, and an autopsy showed that the girls froze to death.
Many suspects were questioned and charged, resulting in a confusing flurry of false confessions and conflicting testimony of their whereabouts.
A skid row, homeless man named Edward Bedwell was beaten into confession, jailed and eventually released.
Alfred Lawless also confessed to the Grimes murder and several others in 1962, but no one was ever convicted.
Boy in the Box (Feb. 25, 1957)
58 years unsolved
In 1957, in a patch of weeds in Northeast Philadelphia, a little boy’s body was found in a cardboard box.
The child was between 4 and 6 years old, bearing bruises on his face, stomach and legs. He had blue eyes and dark brown hair, crudely cut. He was nude, wrapped in a plaid blanket.
He had been dead for at least two days.
The boy’s body was found by a LaSalle college student named Fred Benonis, who called police to tell them about a box containing what might have been a “large doll.”
His identity remained a mystery as police investigated. No child bearing that description was reported missing, so it was theorized that his body had been transported from somewhere else, possibly murdered by his parents or guardian.
Although thousands viewed his body at the morgue, and thousands more saw his retouched photographs, he was never identified. His killer or killers were never brought to justice.
Zodiac killings (1968-1972)
47 years unsolved
A mysterious serial killer terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s – early 1970s, killing between five and seven people and possibly many more. He called himself the “Zodiac.”
The victims were killed in random shootings, some women and some men.
The first victims were a young couple in a lover’s lane. Another victim was a college student, another a taxicab driver. The cases were not connected until nearly a year after the first murder, when local newspapers started receiving letters and cryptograms. The Zodiac demanded that the letters be placed on the front page, or he would kill more people.
In these letters, he claimed to have killed 37 people.
The Zodiac allowed himself to be seen by five witnesses during his attacks. He was described as a slightly overweight, 5 feet 8 inches tall man of 35-45 years.
The public flooded police with more than a thousand tips, and all were checked, causing hundreds of fruitless investigations.
The Zodiac became frustrated, and sent a Christmas message to an attorney asking for help. Enclosed was a bloody scrap of the shirt from the taxicab driver.
The Zodiac was never found, although several people claimed they were him.
After a decade of quiet, another wave of murders began on San Francisco trails. Seven hikers were found dead on area trails in less than two years.
Were those murders also committed by the Zodiac? We may never know.
Bob Crane (June 29, 1978)
37 years unsolved
For anyone who enjoyed the TV comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” in the 1960s, the murder of Bob Crane was especially heartbreaking.
Crane played a wisecracking Colonel in the TV series about a Nazi POW camp.
After the show was canceled, Crane was performing in a theater production in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix. On June 29, 1978, he was found dead in his apartment, the bed soaked with blood. His skull had been crushed and an electrical cord was wrapped around his neck.
Prosecutors believe his head wounds were caused by a camera tripod, although the murder weapon was never found.
Crane was 49.
A longtime friend of Crane’s, John Henry Carpenter, was charged with first-degree murder in 1992. Prosecutors argued that Carpenter committed the murder several years earlier out of fear that their friendship would end, putting a stop to a parade of willing women.
Carpenter was acquitted in 1994, and the case remains unsolved.
Crane’s killing was the subject of the 2002 movie “Auto Focus.”
Oscar Romero (Mar. 24, 1980)
35 years unsolved
At the beginning of a tumultuous civil war in El Salvador, Roman Catholic archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated on Mar. 24, 1980.
The archbishop was shot through the heart by a sniper while celebrating Mass.
An outspoken advocate of social reform, Romero was loved by the poor and loathed by conservatives.
Following the news of his death, a dozen bomb explosions damaged buildings and factories throughout the capital city.
Four years later, a former U.S. ambassador Robert White claimed that a Salvadorian rightist leader Roberto d’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of the archbishop.
The assassin has never been identified, and no one has been prosecuted for the murder.
Archbishop Romero was beatified by Roman Catholic officials on May 23, 2015, 35 years after his death. Over 260,000 people attended the ceremony.
Dian Fossey (Dec. 26, 1985)
30 years unsolved
In a remote metal cottage in mountains of Rwaanda, American naturalist Dian Fossey was found dead in Dec., 1985. The 53-year-old author and TV personality was found hacked to death by a machete, her face split diagonally.
Beginning in 1967, Fossey crusaded to protect the gorillas of central Africa from poachers. She called the rare mountain gorillas a misunderstood and gentle species.
The dedicated scientist named the gorillas, learned to mimic their sounds and built a cemetery near her cabin for those that were killed by poachers.
Though Fossey’s eccentric behavior sometimes embarrassed the wildlife community and Rwandan government, her research portrayed the mountain gorilla in a new light – as an affectionate, friendly animal.
The following year, the government of Rwanda accused and convicted Wayne McGuire of the murder in absentia. McGuire had spent the past year studying with Fossey as her research assistant.
Having returned to the U.S., McGuire publicly declared his innocence, suggesting that poachers or Rwandan officials wanted Fossey dead.
Her attacker was never identified and her murder was never solved.
Amber Hagerman (Jan. 15, 1996)
19 years unsolved
In the middle of the afternoon on Jan. 13, 1996, a 9-year-old girl was snatched from her bicycle by a stranger and thrown into a truck. A witness saw a man drag her as she fought and screamed.
Four days later, her body was found floating face down in a creek, her throat cut. It was just a few miles from her home in Arlington, Texas.
The victim was Amber Hagerman, whose gruesome murder sent shockwaves across the nation.
After Amber’s kidnapping, somewhere in the flood of calls to area radio stations, an idea was born to prevent future tragedies: the AMBER alert.
The acronym honors the memory of the murdered girl, but it also stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, built to mobilize the public to help fight crime.
Now used in all 50 states, 758 children have been successfully recovered thanks to the AMBER Alert system.
Despite thousands of leads, Amber’s killer was never found.
JonBenet Ramsey (Dec. 26, 1996)
19 years unsolved
The day after Christmas, a 6-year old beauty queen was found slain in the basement of her home, just hours after her mother discovered a lengthy ransom note saying that she had been kidnapped.
JonBenet Ramsey had been inflicted with a mortal head wound, strangled, and then concealed in her own home.
In the years that followed, the case has taken many twists and turns, with an air of suspicion cast on her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey.
In the many books and articles written about the case, many theories blamed the mother, suggesting that she killed her daughter by accident and attempted to cover it up.
In 2008, new DNA evidence suggested that her killer was a male, and not related to the family.
JonBenet’s parents were never indicted, and her mother died of cancer in 2006, two years before she could be exonerated by the DNA evidence.
Tupac Shakur (Sept. 13, 1996)
19 years unsolved
While in Las Vegas, Nevada, hip hop artist Tupac Shakur was involved in a gang-related incident after attending a boxing match with Suge Knight. The brawl was captured on a hotel surveillance camera and was broken up by security.
Later that evening, as Shakur and his entourage were heading to a club, a car pulled up beside his, rolled down the window, and opened fire.
Shakur was hit four times in the chest, pelvis, right hand and thigh. He died from his injuries six days later of internal bleeding. His mother made the decision to cease medial treatment.
Despite many witnesses that had accompanied Shakur at the time, including Knight, no one admitted to seeing the shooting or the suspect.
The investigation that followed zeroed in on gang ties, but got little cooperation.
Notorious B.I.G. (Mar. 9, 1997)
18 years unsolved
Just months after the death of Tupac Shakur, another rap artist was murdered in a drive-by shooting, this time in Los Angeles.
Christopher Wallace, also known as The Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls, was shot multiple times outside of a party while sitting in his parked SUV. the vehicle was punctured by at least five bullets in the gang-style attack just after midnight.
Wallace was 24 years old.
In 2012, 15 years after his death, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office released the autopsy report. The fatal bullet entered his right hip, ripping through his liver, heart and lung. The others struck his left forearm, back and thigh.
At the time of his death, he had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Many believe Wallace’s murder was linked to Shakur’s, both because of the similarity in their murders and their involvement in the West Coast-East Coast rivalry.
No arrests were ever made in the case.
Suzanne Jovin (Dec. 4, 1998)
17 years unsolved
In a prosperous neighborhood just outside of the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn., a talented and popular student was stabbed to death. Suzanne Jovin was a senior at Yale, just 21 years old.
Following a meeting at a local church, Jovin met several witnesses as she returned a car, sent an email and walked home to write an essay.
Just 30 minutes after she was last seen alive, her body was discovered nearly two miles away. Jovin had been stabbed 17 times in the back of her head and neck, and the killer had slit her throat.
Just days after the murder, it was leaked that authorities were considering Jovin’s thesis advisor, James Van de Velde, as a suspect. Police never said what evidence, if any, fueled their suspicion. He was never charged or arrested, and DNA tests ruled him out as a suspect in 2001.
In 2009, after eight years of hoping that DNA evidence from a fingernail would lead to her killer, Jovin’s family and investigators found that the sample had been contaminated. Instead of leading to a suspect, the DNA belonged to a technician.
Jovin’s killer was never found.
In addition to the cold cause unit, citizen investigators still pursue justice for Jovin. One theory presented is that a mentally disturbed former student had killed her, although there is no direct evidence. The student has since died in a apparent suicide.