Leroy Sommers: Murder or Suicide?

While it is the duty of law enforcement to investigate crimes and rumors of crimes, the story of Leroy Sommers illustrates how this can get out of hand when rumors are allowed to spread freely.

Leroy A Sommers was born circa 1920. His parents, Leroy and Luella Sommers, were from Outagamie County, having resided for a while in Hortonville and Dale. By 1930, the family was in Oshkosh where the elder Leroy operated a cheese factory. The younger Leroy no doubt was raised in the business, and would follow in his father’s footsteps.

By 1940, the family moved yet again to Fond du Lac, where the elder Leroy was a building materials salesman and the younger Leroy was a laborer in a cheese factory. The younger Leroy left the family home and was married around 1942 to Amy J. Markowski of Fond du Lac, and they briefly moved to Freeport, Illinois where Leroy took up work as the superintendent in a dairy around 1947-1950. The couple had three daughters.

Moving back to Fond du Lac County, Leroy next owned the Full Cream Cheese Company near Malone (or sometimes said to be near Pipe), which specialized in Italian cheese.

Sommers was found in a 1960 convertible early in the morning of May 22, 1962, on the Mill Pond Road in Oakfield, seven miles southwest of Fond du Lac. At around 6:00am, Adolph Scheberl saw a hose which appeared to have been hooked to the car’s exhaust led into the right side car window. He called police and dispatcher Clarence Marx sent over Sheriff Treleven and coroner Frank Decker. The sheriff ran the license plate, and then called the Sommers house, confirming that Leroy had been the last one to take the car. Decker saw Sommers slumped over in the driver’s seat and the scene appeared to him as an obvious suicide. The car and body were towed to a county-operated garage.

Decker went to the Sommers home and told Mrs. Amy Sommers and a daughter what they had found. Amy understandably broke down, and Decker stayed at the Sommers house until she regained her composure and could pick out a funeral home – she chose Candlish.

Decker went to Candlish with the body and had district attorney Eugene F. McEssey (1921-2009) meet him there, along with Dr. (FNU) Kief. They gave the body a look over at this time, and Kief said it was obviously carbon monoxide poisoning – no signs of external violence were present, and the skin was “cherry red” color, which is a telltale sign. Kief said no autopsy would be necessary and he agreed to sign the death certificate.

The following day, May 23, coroner Decker was called to the Sommers house where he met Amy Sommers, Leroy Sommers Sr, and Nancy Sommers (daughter of the deceased). According to his report, the three “really gave me the business” for declaring the death a suicide. They insisted that simply wasn’t possible. Amy Sommers requested an autopsy be done, so Decker called Dr. Steube and one was done. His conclusion was the same – no signs of violence and cause of death was “carbon monoxide asphyxia complicated by pulmonary edema.” The coroner’s report is somewhat ambiguous, but it seems the body may have been embalmed by the time Steube conducted the autopsy.

June 23, 1962: Amy Sommers signed papers to have her husband exhumed and tissues from his body and brain sent to the state crime lab. She testified before a coroner’s inquest, “I just knew he wouldn’t do this to himself.” She thought he was “making payoffs to unknown parties.” Fond du Lac district attorney McEssey told the press, “This may lead to something, and again it may not.” Charges of payoffs allegedly made by Sommers were introduced by Adolph Ritter, 53, president of the Lamartine Creamery, who had loaned Sommers large amounts of money.
Ritter testified he obtained the payoff information from “a man who I buy insurance from.” Ritter later identified the insurance man as James Fletcher, former president of the Fond du Lac Junior Chamber of Commerce. Fletcher denied he ever told Ritter that Sommers made payments to unknown persons. Fletcher admitted having a conversation with Ritter about Sommers shortly after the latter’s death. “It was a passing conversation,” Fletcher said. Coroner Frank Decker said his office had “positive evidence” that Sommers died of carbon monoxide poisoning. At the end of the inquest, the decision was again made that the cause of death was suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

On October 13, 1962, an ex-convict and former employee of Full Cream Cheese met with Amy Sommers and told her the name of the man who allegedly killed her husband. Amy had alerted the Fond du Lac police of the meeting, and they secretly recorded the man telling her the killer’s name. The police later confronted the man, and he told them the same story he told Amy Sommers. Based on this, district attorney E. Donald Marcille said the case would be reopened. The name of the ex-convict and the alleged killer were not made public.

In January 1963, newly-inaugurated Wisconsin Governor John Whitcome Reynolds (1921-2002) spoke out on what he said were the three cities in the state plagued by organized crime. Milwaukee was the most obvious. But he also named Kenosha, singling out the recent abduction and murder of jukebox distributor Anthony Biernat (for more on that, see my book “Shallow Grave”). Third, Fond du Lac, where he said the Grande Cheese Company had been built on a history of murder and connections to the Mafia in Chicago and New York. Following his speech, Grande’s president John DiBella left Fond du Lac for a while to avoid press inquiries.

Reynolds likely included Fond du Lac because of Amy Sommers being outspoken. Though he focused on the Grande Cheese murders, those had happened 20 years prior and were by no means anything in the public consciousness.

Around January 24, a report was submitted to the Chicago Narcotics Bureau: cheese from Full Cream Cheese had been sent to California, and from there was sent to other places with narcotics packaged inside. This was investigated and reported to the Federal Narcotics Bureau who also investigated, and they were unable to find any evidence to support the claim whatsoever. George M. Belk, the FNB supervisor in Chicago said there were simply no facts to substantiate this story.

In response to the governor, Fond du Lac district attorney Thomas Massey and newly-elected state attorney general George Thompson (1918-1982) told the press they would consider launching a John Doe probe to look into the cheese business around Fond du Lac. Maybe the rumors were false, but they were now reaching a statewide and perhaps even national audience because of the governor’s speech.

In February 1963, the Labor Department filed a claim against Full Cream Cheese for $319 which it said was owed to two employees. This was because in September 1961 minimum wage went from $1 to $1.15 per hour and the company had not adjusted paychecks accordingly.

On March 26, 1963, Amy Sommers filed in US District Court declaring Full Cream Cheese to be insolvent. She told the court she would file a plan to pay creditors, but the business was no more.

Governor John Reynolds only served two years. In those days, that was the term. He was defeated by Warren Knowles, a Republican conservationist. Reynolds was appointed a judge, and oversaw the desegregation and integration of Milwaukee schools in 1976.

Amy Sommers passed away on November 21, 1979 at only 56 years old and was buried alongside her husband in Rienzi Cemetery (Fond du Lac). No public funeral was held.

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