Kaukauna’s Michael McCormick

March ?? 1956: Friday evening around 8:05pm, high school junior Michael McCormick, 17, (703 Quinney Avenue) met Terese VanderHorst, 18, (1121 Lawe Street) at 323 West Ninth Street. The house belonged to Angela McCormick, Michael’s grandmother, who was not home at the time. Soon, an argument broke out, and McCormick struck her over the head with a souvenir wartime shell case. A carload of steel 37-millimeter anti-aircraft shells had made their way to Kaukauna to be melted down in the foundry, but some had survived and were kept by locals as souvenirs.

While unconscious, she was stuffed into a coal chute that was now being used as a potato cellar. Because of the way her neck was bent, she died of asphyxiation before waking up. The spot was described as a “small closet-like room” that could only be accessed from an outside door.

McCormick left and attended a basketball game at the high school gym. When McCormick stopped in, several people noticed how scratched up he was.

Late Friday, around midnight, Terese’s father George filed a missing person report with Patrolman Charles Arnold, the only officer in the station. He brought with him torn up notes he had found in Terese’s wastebasket. One note mentioned meeting McCormick in “the basement,” which the father thought meant the VanderHorst basement – but there was no evidence she had been down there. Arnold at first did not want to pursue the report. The girl was 18 and it was “only midnight” – she could be on a date, and either way was a legal adult only gone for less than a day. George insisted and the officer took down her description. He called around to area police agencies to see if she was an accident victim – she wasn’t.

George VanderHorst returned at 1:30am and showed Arnold what he had found – his daughter’s purse was still in her room with money in it. And her clothes were not packed and no suitcase missing, so she was apparently not planning to go anywhere. He also brought torn up notes that expressed her love for someone named Michael, and that she wanted to marry him and run away. George had no idea his daughter felt that way about anyone, but knew she had dated Michael McCormick. Arnold knew McCormick, as he was a notable athlete on the school’s basketball and football teams. Arnold called the McCormick house and woke everyone up – Michael expressed surprise and said he had not seen Terese. Arnold believed him. Arnold then called Chief Harold V Engerson, who thought the girl was on a date, but said he’d get on it if the situation wasn’t resolved by morning.

The next morning, the girl was still missing. Engerson knew the VanderHorst family, knew Terese was a good kid, and knew she grew up the best she could for having lost her mother at 9 years old. He now believed something was very wrong.

McCormick went to work at his uncle’s store as usual on Saturday. Police questioned him, but he said he had not seen Terese in about a month besides in the halls at school. They had broken up in August 1955 (seven months ago), and he had dated dozens of girls since then. When asked about the scratches on him, he said he had picked up a stray cat out of the street at the corner of Eighth and Crooks. His timeline was that he left work at 8:05pm and met two friends at the post office at 8:50pm, attended the basketball game until 11:00pm, stopped at a malt shop, and was home by midnight. This was all confirmed, but allowed for a gap between 8:05 and 8:50 because it did not take that long to go a few blocks.

Later, McCormick went to Chief Engerson and told him the cat story was a lie. What “really” happened was on Friday night, he was picked up by Terese a man from Appleton. They threatened him, said he was the father of Terese’s unborn daughter (she was seven months pregnant) and told him he would never see his parents alive again if he did not marry her. McCormick told Engerson he was never intimate with Terese, so the child could not be his. The scratches happened in the car after he slapped Terese and she scratched him in return, but where she went with the Appleton man he did not know.

At this point, we have to talk about Chief Engerson. He was a tall, solid, imposing figure. Stories about him still get told in Kaukauna today (2022), some of which I cannot repeat in public. He joined the force in 1928 as a part-time motorcycle officer, at a time Kaukauna only had four officers (including Chief Richard McCarty). He rose up the ranks to chief by 1946. His brother Carl was also the city’s fire chief, so the Engerson brothers were giants in the community for decades.

When he passed years later (1977), the newspaper said, “Engerson was a no-nonsense officer of the law. He had no compassion for crooks, and his scorn as well as his strength intimidated them. He took pride in making the community an unhappy place for undesirables. His classic system of interrogation included grasping the accused by the hair at the top of the head and tilting the head up so the accused had to look him in the eye.”

Engerson believed the grandmother’s basement may have been the one in the note and received permission to search it on Saturday evening. The grandmother said she had not been down there in two weeks. He found nothing. The reason he suspected this house is because Michael’s parents were divorced, and for a while he lived with his grandmother, so he would be familiar with the layout. Also, it was very close to where Michael’s job was.

Still suspicious, Engerson went back, and the body was found on Sunday morning (March 11). Engerson called Sheriff Donald Heinritz, coroner Bernard Kemps and DA Fred Froehlich. With the body found, McCormick confessed (but still denied the baby was his). Sergeant Oscar Jahns and Sergeant Robert Eugene Main were called to the scene to collect evidence. McCormick was taken away by county officer Ira Dominowski and Dr. George French in order to give a blood sample.

The autopsy was conducted that afternoon by Dr. Emory Strauser of Neenah, at St. Elizabeth Hospital. Lacerations were found on Terese’s head, but no skull fractures. He concluded that she had received a concussion and would have lived if not propped in the basement in such a way as to limit her air intake. Being upside down also did not help because that would make the head wounds bleed more. But, he was sure if she had been left alone to recover, or brought to the hospital, a full recovery would have happened. Although blood was taken from McCormick, paternity could not be determined. Dr. Strauser said the blood type of an unborn child or newborn infant is “not clearly established” and “not reliable.”

McCormick made his first appearance in court on Monday, but defense attorney Allen Cain wanted more time before deciding on a plea, so the hearing was moved to Thursday. The initial charge was second-degree murder, which had a maximum 25 years in prison. Bail was set at $35,000.

Funeral on Tuesday, with 168 senior classmates in attendance. Burial was in Holy Cross Cemetery.

McCormick was scheduled to plead before Judge Oscar Schmiege on Thursday. After conferring with Cain, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Before the trial, there was great publicity and the case was a featured story in a true detective magazine. They claimed it was only the second murder in Kaukauna’s “160-year history.” This math puts Kaukauna’s birth at 1796, which is debatable but there’s reason to accept that date. The “second murder” part is far more dubious, though technically some of the more notorious cases happened outside of city limits.

Trial was in July 1956. With new evidence, the prosecution raised the charge to first-degree murder.

The defense asked that the Kaukauna police not be allowed in the courtroom when other officers were testifying, to avoid contamination. Judge Schmiege agreed, and while Sergeant Oscar Jahns testified, the other officers waited in the law library. Defense attorney Cain also asked that Chief Engerson’s son Harold Junior be removed, because he was a police officer in Appleton, but this request was denied. (The total Kaukauna police force in 1956 was eight men – Engerson, Arnold, Jahns, Main, Dean J Ball, Earl W “Dreek” Verbeten,William Nagel and Bert Lopas.)

July 17, 1956: The prosecution ended its case, and Cain asked for a dismissal, saying the state did not prove premeditated murder. Prosecutor William Platz argued that McCormick’s friend David Mayer, 18, testified to McCormick saying he would kill her, though he might have been joking. The judge allowed the trial to continue.

July 18, 1956: The only defense witness was McCormick himself. He gave a full confession, emphasizing that the death was an accident. The jury deliberated under five hours and found McCormick guilty of second-degree murder. The judge gave them a range of options – the state wanted first-degree – but the jury did not believe the killing was premeditated. Defense attorney Cain said he was “well satisfied” with the verdict and would not appeal. McCormick agreed, saying he had the best attorney he could have asked for. Two days later, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

November 1957: Michael’s father Donald McCormick died of a heart attack in the middle of his shift at Thilmany Pulp and Paper. He was 43.

June 23, 1958: McCormick is denied parole.

In December 24, 1958, the Wisconsin Parole Board unanimously approved McCormick’s parole, and he was released on January 1, 1959. He was 20 years old and had served a little over two years.

Postscript: Sergeant Robert Main was promoted to lieutenant in 1957, shortly after the McCormick case. He rose to the rank of assistant police chief before retiring on April 15, 1968 after 31 years. While assistant chief, he ran a program counseling boys who got in trouble, steering them to a good path rather than sending them away. Main passed away in March 1972 at 59 years old.

Scroll to Top