Game Warden Neil LaFave

This is a well-known case, but was new to me. I read about it in Wisconsin Game Warden magazine. Yes, I read Wisconsin Game Warden magazine! The story also appeared on the Beyond Contempt podcast, though I’ve not listened to that podcast and was not aware of it until I started researching this case. (I don’t want it to influence my writing and cause an accidental plagiarism.)

September 24, 1971: DNR wildlife technician Neil L. LaFave, 32, was in the Sensiba Wildlife Area northwest of Green Bay. He was shot several time in the face by a .22 Remington rifle and also shot by a .30-06 Remington. It was LaFave’s birthday.

When LaFave did not return home that evening, his wife was immediately concerned. She knew that poachers were unpredictable, and Neil had specifically told her about Brian Leon Hussong, 21, a paranoid schizophrenic with many poaching violations. Hussong was described as a white, “weird, skinny, gangly guy” by another conservation officer. Hussong had a history of mean, angry actions. While fighting with a neighbor boy in grade school, Hussong savagely bashed the youngster’s head into a sidewalk. A neighbor rescued the boy, certain Hussong meant to kill him. While babysitting a niece, Hussong dismembered her doll as she screamed in terror. Acquaintances feared him and said he once ripped the head off a kitten that was purring in his lap at a house party.

A search was on and it was actually LaFave’s wife who made the first discovery. His truck was abandoned on a dead end road where LaFave had been posting signs. Various members of law enforcement and concerned citizens searched the area all night until a spot of sandy soil was found and pushed aside by bowhunter Marvin Olson. Underneath a belt buckle was found, and then an elbow. Everyone began uncovering the rest of the body with their hands and soon determined that the corpse had no head. The area was roped off and the state crime lab in Madison was called.

Within 50 feet of the body, they recovered a pen, notepad, sunglasses several .22 shells, a tooth, blood and what they believed to be “brain tissue.” Lead investigators Dale Morey and Marvin Gerlikovski were able to determine the types of guns used based on what they found, and they had the same hunch as Mrs. LaFave – it was likely a poacher, and Hussong was suspect #1.

On September 28, four days after the murder, Deputy Robert Grant found another patch of loose soil 60 feet north of the body and uncovered the head, buried face up. The head and neck were torn away by several rounds delivered from a 30.06. The remainder of LaFave’s head was viciously chopped off with a sharp instrument.

Around this time, two different theories were proposed. One (from investigator Morey) was the killer had a long-standing feud with LaFave and waited to ambush him, and perhaps this wasn’t the first time he waited to carry out the plan. District attorney Donald Zuidmulder thought the killing might be from “volcanic rage.” He thought the killer was cited for some violation – possibly firing his .22 – and rather than accept a ticket, instinctively shot the warden and had to quickly cover it up.

Police interviewed all known hunters from the area, and every poacher who had ever been cited by LaFave. From there, a shorter list of suspects was made and they tried to administer lie detector tests. Many men complied. Hussong declined, and swore he had an alibi – he was canning tomatoes with his grandmother that day.

Two .22 shells recovered from the murder site were found to be identical to those previously fired by Hussong by William Rothman, a state crime lab ballistics expert. The police already had fired shells in evidence from prior poaching incidents. Metal slugs recovered from the victim’s head were found to have rifling characteristics consistent with having been fired from a rifle similar to Hussong’s, but 100% identification could not be made because police were unable to locate Hussong’s .22 rifle. They suspected the rifle was gone forever – there is nothing special about a .22 rifle – but no one would part with a .30-06.

Months after the murder, DA Zuidmulder contacted a school friend – Peter Peshek, an assistant attorney general. They believed the answer was to put a wiretap on Hussong, which had allegedly never been done in Wisconsin before (except by federal agents looking into organized crime).

The Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law was patterned after the federal surveillance statute, 18 USCA 2510, et. seq. It was created by ch. 427, Laws of 1969, and replaced sec. 885.365, Stats., which had prohibited the use of evidence obtained from wiretapping. The act permits the limited use of wiretapping and other electronic surveillance where such may provide evidence concerning the commission of or the conspiracy to commit specified crimes, including murder.

The act permits the application to the circuit court of the county involved by a law enforcement officer, approved by the district attorney or attorney general, for authorization of electronic surveillance. The application must include with specificity the identity of the applicants, a particular description of the nature and location of the facilities involved, the facts and circumstances relied upon by the applicant in seeking authorization, a statement as to the need of such surveillance and the period of time involved, and a statement concerning past applications and/or surveillances. Maximum time to use a wiretap was 30 days.

Their legality (or constitutionality) was questionable because they had never been challenged in state court before, but the investigators went for it anyway. At the hearing Sergeant Gerlikovski stated the means of investigation used in the case prior to the application for a wiretap included a search of 40 to 60 acres of the crime scene, use of a metal detector, scientific laboratory testing, stake-outs, interviews with over 200 people and polygraph exams. He stated that all available leads had been followed up. The wiretap was approved by Brown County judge Donald W. Gleason.

They were extremely lucky – only two days later, Hussong called his grandmother and told her not to let anyone see the .30-06 he had left with her. She assured him that no one would ever find it. A search warrant was issued immediately and police arrived at the grandmother’s house. She at first denied knowing anything, but then said she gave it to her daughter, and was escorted to a business owned by that daughter. There, they found the rifle – dismantled into three pieces. Once test-fired, the bullets matched the murder bullets and Hussong was arrested on December 15, 1971.

A preliminary hearing was held in January and Hussong was bound over for trial by Judge John Jaekels. On April 4, 1972, the court denied a motion to have the trial moved to a new county. Various pieces of “prejudicial” evidence were introduced, including articles from Green Bay papers covering dates immediately after the commission of the crime, the preliminary examination and the trial in general, two articles from national “criminal magazines” and several affidavits. This was determined to be no more prejudicial than any other coverage of a murder and would not affect jury selection. Indeed, starting with a pool of 108 jurors, the court had no trouble narrowing it down.

The case went to trial in April 1972 before judge Robert J. Parins. Hussong tried to suppress the wiretap evidence, based on the claim their was no probable cause to request such a tap – just a hunch. The judge allowed the wiretap evidence, believing the similarity of the .22 shells was sufficient.

Originally, police suspected the .30-06 was the cause of death, but analysis of blood at the scene showed the .22 was more than enough to kill LaFave, and the .30-06 was fired later, possibly even after the warden was already dead. Hussong’s defense argued that he couldn’t be named as the one who caused LaFave’s death if the police were not sure what had actually caused the death. The court found this argument to be incredibly stupid.

Hussong was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Whiel leaving the court, Hussong said to DA Zuidmulder, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.” On the drive to prison, he threatened the officers, too, and said when he got out, LaFave’s body would look like “child’s play” compared to what he had in mind for them.

On May 11, 1973, the state public defender made an extensive postconviction motion. On May 16, 1973, a written order denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial was entered. There was an appeal on a number of issues, including the claim that the wiretap law violates the Fourth Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court wrote, “This court has not expressly considered the constitutionality of the Wisconsin wiretap procedures although implied approval was given in State ex rel. Arnold v. County Court (1971).” They noted that, “The federal statute upon which it was patterned has been upheld by all federal courts of appeal which have considered it. United States v. Cox (10th Cir. 1971); United States v. Cox (8th Cir. 1972); United States v. Cafero (3d Cir. 1973); United States v. Whitaker (3d Cir. 1973); United States v. Bobo (4th Cir. 1973); United States v. Tortorello (2d Cir. 1973). In our opinion the above cases are ample authority to support the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s Electronic Surveillance Law.” Essentially, if the federal wiretap law was constitutional, surely the state law based on it must also be okay.

I’m not sure how common threats are from convicted killers, but this one carried a bit more weight – Hussong managed to escape from Fox Lake Correctional Institution on August 28, 1981 after his Sheboygan girlfriend, Mary Conrad, threw bolt cutters over the fence. Conrad, 32, had been writing to Hussong for a while – they had not known each other before prison. Other sources say the cutters were from the prison workshop. But either way, the girlfriend was waiting outside to pick him up. He was out, and those he threatened nearly a decade earlier were not sleeping very well.

A police officer in Hayward pulled them over on a routine traffic stop August 30. Hussong punched the officer in the face and drove over another officer’s foot as he sped away in the woman’s car. The woman ended up getting a two-year prison sentence for her role in the escape. She at first gave a fake name and said she picked Hussong up as a hitchhiker, but later came clean. Hussong ditched the vehicle and fled into a forest, then stole another vehicle a week later in Chippewa County. He abandoned that vehicle at a restaurant in Menominee, Michigan, about a week later.

Hussong remained on the run for 104 days until he was found in a shack in the forest, on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Shawano County on December 9, 1981. Hussong refused to surrender and after a short standoff, he was killed on site. His body was brought to the Shawano Hospital for an official pronouncement. Hussong was 31 years old, and was buried at Fort Howard Memorial Park in Green Bay.

In 1972, a large granite monument honoring LaFave was put up at Sensiba Wildlife Area by his wife from $1,200 donations collected at the funeral. “I was living from paycheck to paycheck, like a lot of people, but I put that monument there,” she said. In February 2020 a nearby boat ramp was named the Neil LaFave Boat Launch after a push from his daughter, who was only an infant when he was killed.

LaFave’s widow remarried and as of November 2019 was alive and well.

Zuidmulder was later (2021) a district judge in Brown County Circuit Court.

What became of Mary Conrad, I do not know.

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