FOUR SUSPECTED KILLERS WHO WORE THE MASK OF NORMALCY: THE MYTH OF THE GOD-FEARING FAMILY MAN AND NICE GUY

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Source: Smith Family Funeral Home; Marinette County Jail; KULR 8; KING 5

Mar. 9 2021, Published 1:28 p.m. ET

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They hide their deeds and whereabouts from family members and leave behind crimes by moving, remarrying or changing professions — simply blending in. They conform as businessmen, churchgoers and upstanding citizens.

They are killers among us. 

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John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted in 1980 of murdering 33 young men, is the most infamous and arguably most extreme example. He fooled his family, business associates and friends into believing he was a pillar of the community. Gacy served as a leader in the Jaycees, put in time at his local Democratic Party precinct and even volunteered as a “Patches the Clown” for hospitalized kids.

In recent years, old men are finding their way into courtrooms for crimes they committed 30 or 40 years before. Their convictions are based on the fast-growing field of genetic genealogy — but they are the tip of the iceberg in closing thousands of cold cases where the only link between victim and killer is DNA.

Here is the story of four suspected killers who seemed to live normal lives after their killings. 

STEVE BRANCH, 66, AUSTIN, ARKANSAS. PROFESSION: EXCAVATION OPERATOR

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Source: Smith Family Funeral Home

In 2020, officers from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation (ABI) traveled to central Arkansas and showed up on the doorstep of Steve Branch. They wanted to speak to him as a person of interest in a long-ago crime: the rape and murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen in Sitka, Alaska.

Baggen disappeared on May 4, 1996, one day after celebrating her 17th birthday. She was walking home from her sister’s house early in the morning when last seen. Her body was discovered two days later, buried in a hollowed-out area under a fallen tree. In Sitka, the wilderness is never far away, and she lay near a bridge but nestled among the trees, on the grounds of a vacant and defunct college campus.

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Branch lived in Sitka in 1996, at the time of her murder, and was arrested that same year in the sexual assault of another teenaged girl. He was acquitted after a trial and left Alaska in 2010. Then, in 2019, a new DNA profile was developed from the victim’s clothing and genealogical research named Branch as a suspect, according to Alaska police. 

Steve Branch did not live a high-profile life in his new state of Arkansas. He was married to his wife Barbara for many years, raising two children and two stepchildren. He was a granddad, outdoorsmen and earned a steady income as a heavy-equipment operator for Jeff Smith Farms. According to social media, Branch attended Niceville High School and spent part of his early years in Florida, between Panama City and Pensacola.

His only legal problem after he left Alaska was traffic-related, in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, according to media reports. Branch was cited for traveling with an overweight vehicle, according to court information.

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Alaska police went to Arkansas, where they asked Branch to voluntarily submit a biological sample so they could rule him out as a suspect in Baggen’s rape and murder. He refused to submit DNA, spoke with the officers briefly, then escorted them out the door, police said. 

Within 30 minutes of leaving, police said, Branch committed suicide. 

The plan was to get his DNA to compare what was taken from the victim and then arrest Branch. That ended when he killed himself. Police would later confirm Branch’s DNA matched the sample from the crime scene. 

CECIL STAN CALDWELL, 59 BILLINGS, MONTANA. PROFESSION: CITY OF BILLINGS EMPLOYEE

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Source: KULR 8

One winter evening in 1973 in Yellowstone County, in the growing city of Billings, a young couple was enjoying dinner in their new home. They were found murdered the next day, lying in a freezing house where the windows were left open and the heat turned off. Authorities speculated the killer had done so to obscure the time of death.

The couple, 24-year-olds Linda and Clifford Bernhardt, were bludgeoned to death in the new house on Dorothy Lane. Linda was also strangled after being bound and raped. They had purchased their first home only one month earlier.

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Cliff and Linda missed work the next day and Linda’s mom stopped by to check on them. She found Cliff lying in a pool of blood in the master bedroom and discovered Linda’s naked body in another room, her purple jeans and other closed ripped off. Police believed Linda had been the killer’s prime target.

The crime stumped Billings police, but they never put it aside and solved the case with DNA from the crime scene 46 years later, in March 2019. The DNA sample led to a family in the Billings area and eventually zeroed in on Cecil Stan Caldwell, who had died 16 years earlier at the age of 59.

Caldwell had zero criminal history and came from a large extended family. He lived in Billings his whole adult life, with a stable employment history.

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“Cecil Caldwell had basically a spotless record,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder commented during a news conference and reported by local media

Caldwell was born and spent his childhood in rural Belleville Arkansas. During high school, the family moved to Chester, a tiny town in Montana. After he graduated high school, he relocated to Billings, then took a job working in a wholesale warehouse called Ryan Grocery Company in 1966, where he met Linda Bernhardt in the early 1970s.

A year before he began working at the warehouse, Caldwell got married. Two years later, in 1967, he and his wife adopted their first child — a boy. They adopted a second son but by 1978 had divorced. Caldwell married again and took employment with the City of Billings, where he eventually moved to the Traffic Department, according to reports. 

His obituary states he “became a second dad” to his new wife’s two children. The death notice also recounted that he enjoyed NASCAR, basketball, and old movies and “was loved by all and will be greatly missed.” No cause of death was listed.

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RAYMOND L. VANNIEUWENHOVEN, 82, LAKEWOOD, WISCONSIN . PROFESSION: VARIOUS, INCLUDING IRON-WORKER OR BOAT-HAULER

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Source: Marinette County Jail

Raymond L. Vannieuwenhoven was 82 years old when he was arrested and accused of a decades-old murder, but he didn’t have a totally clean record.  

In retrospect, his 1957 crime should have given police cause to keep a closer eye on the man. At the age of 20, he was jailed for six months after an assault conviction, according to reports. He saw a small group of teen girls walking and, out of nowhere, hit one on the back, shoulders and face — later testifying during his trial he “was only trying to scare the girls.”

Just before his crime, he had another incident of randomly attacking a stranger — another teen girl, this one 16. Vannieuwenhoven had one other legal blemish: failure to pay child support to his wife and infant daughter when he was 23. He received few legal consequences for any of this bad behavior, however.

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In 1976, the evidence showed Ray murdered a young couple who were camping in McClintock Park in Wisconsin. David Schuldes and Ellen Matheys pitched their tent at a secluded spot in the park on a Friday afternoon in July. They did not see other campers and the two, engaged to be married, were enjoying the solitude.

Both victims were beginning careers. Schuldes, 25, worked part-time in the circulation department at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, while Matheys, 24, had a job at the Wisconsin-Green Bay library.

They got ready to go for a walk, but Schuldes stopped to use the park restroom. He was hit in the neck from about 50 feet away from a rifle blast. A second shot went into the wall of the restroom building. He died instantly.

Matheys took off on foot through the woods. Vannieuwenhoven caught up to her and raped her, then shot her twice in the chest.

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The crime went unsolved for many reasons, not the least of which was its random nature. The DNA collected from Mathey’s shorts, however, held out hope for identifying the killer. But Vannieuwenhoven’s DNA was not to be found in any databases. When the DNA was analyzed for family connections, however, genealogists found Ray Vannieuwenhoven’s parents in December 2018, according to reports. 

By March, the familial DNA had led them to Vannieuwenhoven’s quiet suburban home. 

Vannieuwenhoven was a widower when the police tracked him down. DNA from the victim could be traced through his family, and authorities had ruled out two of his brothers. They caught Vannieuwenhoven  — who sometimes went by the name Lawrence — by posing as door-to-door survey takers. It was the saliva on the envelope he licked that provided the sample.

Ray was well-liked, a genial retiree living the good life in quiet Lakewood. Neighbors said he offered to help out with odd jobs. His next-door neighbor, Wayne Sankey, was interviewed by the Associated Press. “People had the impression that he was a very good, normal person, just a retired guy. No matter where you went you’d mention Ray and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, old Ray.’

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GARY HARTMANN, TACOMA, WASHINGTON. PROFESSION: REGISTERED NURSE

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Source: KING 5

Michella Welch was murdered when she was 12-years old. The crime stunned and saddened her hometown of Tacoma, Washington. She was lured to an out-of-the-way area in Puget Park, raped, and stabbed in the neck.

The crime happened on March 28th, 1986. Welch had two younger sisters. On the day she was murdered, she’d ridden bikes with them — towing one behind on a skateboard — for a day at the park.

Officials from Pierce county held onto the evidence collected from Welch’s body but could not trace the DNA extracted to any database of potential offenders. It appeared the killer they sought had either never committed a crime, hadn’t been caught or his information was never uploaded by local law enforcement.

It turned out the suspect was right under their noses, having lived in Pierce County all of his life, according to the Tacoma News Tribune.

Gary Hartmann worked as a Registered Nurse at Western State Hospital. He was on his third marriage and had amassed considerable assets over his long, stable career. At the time of his arrest Hartmann, 66, was still working full-time, according to the News Tribune. His bail was set at $5 million to avoid the possibility of him skipping town.

Hartmann is the most non-threatening of men. Of average build with a shock of white hair and black glasses, he appeared the epitome of a respectable, older gentleman. He was employed at the Department of Health and Social Services as an RN since 1998, the News Tribune reported.

He lived in a quiet neighborhood, owning a home with a view of the lake.

Hartmann legal proceedings are ongoing and he has not been convicted of the murder as of March 2021. 

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