The Trial of Lillian Lutzke

Milton Lutzke was born in Liberty (Manitowoc County) to Louis and Ida Lindeman Lutzke on November 25, 1905. He had one brother, Norman.

On January 2,1932, 26-year old Milton married 16-year old Lillian M. Ahl, daughter of Peter and Rose Marx Ahl, at Waukegan. Milton was Lutheran and Lillian was Catholic. They had one son, Bernard, who was born in Liberty on September 9, 1932. (The dates suggest Lillian may have been pregnant at the time of the wedding, but she almost certainly wouldn’t have known.)

On January 27, 1935, John C. Ahl (Lillian’s brother) and Milton Lutzke happened to be at a dance hall in St. Nazianz. Lutzke accused Ahl of stealing a bottle of whiskey from him. Ahl tried to walk away, and Milton went berserk on him – when he woke up from being unconscious, Ahl found he had two black eyes and a head full of bumps. Ahl said Lutzke was known as a “sneaky fighter” who picked on smaller men and never fought “face to face.” He was “brutal” and “bloodthirsty.”

Around September 1935, the Lutzke family moved to Sheboygan and Milton took up work at the Kohler Company. They lived in an upstairs apartment at 912 Logan Avenue, which shared a basement with the lower apartment.

On July 24, 1937, Lillian went to district attorney John Cashman with swollen eyes and lips, and clearly visible finger marks on her neck. Milton was arrested for aggravated assault. The arresting officer said that Milton’s wrist were so big that the handcuffs could only be put on the first notch.

On June 16, 1938, Lillian stopped in a Sheboygan tavern, Midge’s on Michigan Avenue, to look for her husband. The tavernkeeper, Eldor Heimbecker, said to her, “Haven’t I seen you before?” Milton took this as a sign that his wife had been “stepping out” and had been in the tavern before with another man. In fact, the only time she had been near there was two weeks earlier when she was also looking for her husband.

They returned home, picking up Bernie from Lillian’s brother Frank on the way. Back at the house, Milton was in a foul mood, so Lillian hid in the basement with downstairs neighbor Lloyd Lovell, a student. Milton and Bernie left for an hour or two, so Lillian returned upstairs and napped on the couch.

That evening, Milton and Lillian were involved in a “quarrel” that was witnessed by their 5-year old son, Bernard. Milton pulled her hair and even kicked her in the face, trying to get her to admit she had been seeing the bartender. The fight started at home but then escalated when Milton drove the three to an isolated “lovers lane.” The son was in a car parked on a lonely road north of Sheboygan when he saw his mother shoot his father. According to Lillian, Milton forced her out of the car, struck her and pointed a .38 revolver at her, saying she “would never see daylight again.” Lillian instinctively tried to get the gun away and a shot went off, striking Milton in the abdomen. Lillian went for help at the William Najacht farm. By the time Milton reached St. Nicholas hospital, he had been dead 15 minutes. At the emergency room, Lillian was arrested and handed over the revolver, which was under her coat.

The next morning, Lillian admitted the shooting to District Attorney Jacob Fessler, claiming self-defense.

For a couple days, Lillian was held without charge but finally brought to court on June 20 on a charge of premeditated murder. Commissioner Charles Voight was undecided whether or not to grant her bail. Eldor Heimbrecker testified about the tavern incident at the preliminary hearing – he said he had made the “haven’t I seen you before” remark, but quickly realized his mistake. What he had recalled was Milton being in the tavern with a different woman – Lillian was blonde, that woman was brunette. In other words, it seems that Milton was the one “stepping out.”

Officer Clarence Perle testified that after she came to the station, she said she had brought the gun with her from home for self-defense. She had not wrestled it away from her husband, as she had originally reported to the district attorney. William Najacht Sr, William Najacht Jr and Dewey Heineman, who assisted her immediately after the shooting, were told the same thing. Undersheriff Richard Froelich said the car and the area around the car showed no sign of a struggle. Lillian did, however, have a bruised eye and “disarranged” hair to support her claim of self-defense. She pleaded not guilty.

The funeral was held at the home of Milton’s parents in Liberty, with burial in the Liberty cemetery.

August 8, 1938: Jury selection took relatively little time and the trial began at 2:20pm the same day. Charles Copp served as prosecutor, with Herbert Humke and Arthur Gruhle for the defense. Copp said he would show the shooting was premeditated, and despite what might be good reasons, a person cannot take the law into their own hands. Humke said Milton was a “sadist” and a “bloodthirsty individual” who enjoyed “watching weaker persons suffer.” Humke said Lillian had probably been beat up 100 times, was threatened with death and was told she should die in childbirth. In fact, Lillian was pregnant at the time of the shooting with the baby due in October. Humke said Milton was so brutal that on one occasion he punched out his own mother and chased her with a butcher knife.Milton and his brother had a reputation as “dance hall fighters.” Fianlly, Humke said they had discovered the identity of the “east side brunette” Milton was seeing, who had since dyed her hair red to avoid publicity. After opening statements, the jury was brought to the lovers lane to see the scene of the crime.

Mrs. Louis Lutzke, Milton’s mother, was called to testify on August 9, but was dismissed almost immediately because she would not stop crying. Defense attorney Humke said he thought this was a planned outburst. The prosecutor said he had no idea it would happen. Darlene Lutzke, Milton’s 11-year old niece, testified that she saw Lillian hide the revolver in the car weeks before the shooting. Upon further questioning, she admitted she saw no such thing and was told by her father Norman to say it.

Mrs. Louis Lutzke returned to the stand on August 10. She told a story that four weeks before the shooting, Milton had returned home and his bedroom door was locked. He told Lillian to open up, and she cracked the door just enough to point out a revolver and threatened to shoot him. (This sounds like hearsay to me and I have no idea why it was admitted.)

One of the last to testify was Lillian herself. She told the court, “I grabbed for the gun and hung onto it with both hands. We fell. He was choking me with one hand.”

For closing arguments, prosecutor Copp stressed that there was another woman, and this made Lillian angry. He further stressed that the defense’s version of how the gun went off made no sense with the way the bullet hit its target. There was no accident or dropped gun. The gun was pointed and fired deliberately.

The defense said Lillian had an “unblemished” record and Milton was a man of “brutality.” Attorney Gruhle said, “I have more respect for a Dillinger than I would have for a man of Milton Lutzke’s character.” He showed the jury Lillian’s coat and dress from the night of the murder and pointed out the pockets were too small to hide a revolver. Any shooting was not planned. “The mastermind behind the whole affair is Norman Lutzke, brother of the deceased… The whole story, the state’s whole case, was fabricated by Norman Lutzke from start to finish.”

Attorney Humke doubled down. “Milton Lutzke was a sadist,” he said. “After the episode at the gravel pit, during which he beat Mrs. Lutzke severely, he sat by his prey until morning.” He said he wished the state had allowed him to call Bernie, but it was denied because it would evoke too much sympathy. “I got to love that little tow-headed fellow, and so would you.”

Copp returned for a quick rebuttal, saying the proper way to deal with a bad husband is divorce. “Even a bad man must not be killed in cold blood,” he said.

On the evening of August 10, after a brisk 3-day trial, Judge Detling turned over the case to the jury. He gave a very lengthy instruction, explaining the differences between homicide, self-defense, manslaughter and so forth. He reminded the jury that Lillian Lutzke was the only one present at the shooting who was alive to testify. Therefore, her testimony was important, but she was also the defendant, and if other testimony contradicted her, that should be taken into account.

The jury left for deliberations. They were out a short time (two hours, including a 45-minute dinner break) and voted unanimously on the first ballot. Their decision? Not guilty. When Judge Detling read the verdict handed to him by foreman Paul Kaufman, the audience cheered and applauded, and then crowded Lillian to offer congratulations.

Lillian addressed the media, “I’m the happiest girl in all the world. Now I am finally free of everything. It’s such a great load taken off my back. Believe me, these months in jail were no fun and I’m certainly glad the trial is over. Now I am going back to stay at the homes of mother and dad and my sister. I want lots of sunshine, but I got plenty of rest up in jail. I’m just dying to get home to see my little Bernie!”

Ronald Leonard Lutzke was born November 9, 1938, never having met his father.

Norman Lutzke, Milton’s brother, passed away June 24, 1954 at age 51. He had been a cattle dealer and auctioneer.

Lillian remarried at some point to an Edwin Sieracki, though few records acknowledge this. He owned the Log Cabin tavern in Newton (Manitowoc) and passed in 1967 at age 58. Lillian passed May 3, 1989 in Manitowoc at age 74. She is buried under the name Lillian Lutzke.

Lillian’s son Bernard graduated from Valders High School in 1950, served in the Korean War, and then went to Marquette University where he received a bachelor’s degree in history and a law degree. For 40 years, he was an attorney in West Allis. According to his obituary, he wrote a brief in a Michigan court case that changed the law. It does not specify how. Bernard was a devoted Catholic and following his death in 2009 was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee.

Ronald Lutzke passed on February 11, 2021. He had been an employee of the Manitowoc Company.

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