MADISON, Wis. — Sheriff’s investigators are exploring the possibility that the man who brutally murdered Father Alfred J. Kunz in March 1998 is dead, and they are urging the public to come forward with tips and clues needed to break the case and solve one of the most vexing killings in Wisconsin history.
After a 20-year investigation involving more than 50 detectives and thousands of interviews, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office has “multiple” persons of interest in the murder of the traditionalist Catholic priest. Dane County Sheriff David J. Mahoney said investigators believe it’s possible the killer himself is dead. This has added urgency to law enforcement appeals for the public to come forward with more information.
“We have to look at the possibility that the person responsible, or others who might have been aware, are dead,” Mahoney said in an interview with Catholic World Report. “If that’s the case, we’ll never solve it unless somebody comes forth with evidence.”
Father Kunz, 67, was found with his throat slashed on the morning of March 4, 1998, in a hallway of St. Michael School in the rural enclave of Dane, about 15 miles northwest of Madison. He died from blood loss suffered when his carotid artery was cut during a brief but ferocious struggle with his killer. The massive murder investigation is the most extensive in Dane County history, but has yet to yield an arrest or assignment of blame.
“Where we’re at today, we have multiple people of interest, where 12 years ago we were concentrating our efforts on one individual,” Mahoney said in an extensive interview at the Dane County Public Safety Building. “We have multiple individuals who we would consider to be persons of interest, who either have motive or had a pattern of practices, maybe in the area of burglaries. We’ve looked at this as a crime of passion, we’ve looked at this as being a crime of opportunity—a burglary that was interrupted.”
New leads developed in the case over the past year have expanded the list of persons of interest. This development comes as one of the early persons of interest, a former St. Michael teacher who found Kunz’s body, has now been cleared of involvement in the crime. Mahoney wants members of the public who might have information to take a fresh look at memories from 1998 and in the years after. Investigators are hoping someone comes forward with information that can tip the case to a solution.
“Over the years, some of our witnesses and people with knowledge have died, and with them goes the information,” Mahoney said. “That’s one of the reasons we pushed more information out on the 20th anniversary. If there were family members of people who passed (away), or friends or associates or even somebody who heard something, we want to try to try to bring them out into the open at this point. Before we lose more people.”
Father Kunz was a sign of contradiction; a tradition-minded priest in the shadow of the liberal state capital. He was a 20th century fidei defensor, upholding Catholic teachings amid a sea of post-Vatican-II modernism. He preached the truth, no matter how unpopular. A sharp critic of homosexual corruption in the Church, he worked at the highest levels to expose priestly pederasty in rectories and chanceries. He saw the coming storm of sexual-abuse allegations that would swamp the Church years later and led to more than $3.3 billion in victim settlements and attorney fees in the United States alone. “You will find no justice in the Church today,” he told a friend not long before his death. He worried the pederasty scandals would destroy the diocesan priesthood.
His celebration of the Usus Antiquior, or the Traditional Latin Mass, drew congregants from three states. Even though he also celebrated the Novus Ordo Mass, some locals left for other churches. Kunz had a soft pastoral touch and a generous heart. He fixed up old cars and provided them to his cash-strapped teachers. He took no salary. His sister sent him boxes of socks when his became worn. He ran successful fish-fry fundraising dinners to support his parish and school. A typical day for Kunz started at 5:30 am and didn’t end until well after midnight. In between, he was a whirlwind of activity at church, in school, at diocesan offices in Madison, at hospitals and among his parishioners. His sudden, violent death left a trail of tears that still flows 20 years later.
Kunz was last seen alive about 10 pm on March 3, 1998, when his friend, Father Charles C. Fiore, dropped him off at St. Michael’s. The pair just took part in a recording session in Monroe for the “Our Catholic Family” radio program that aired on Sunday mornings across southern Wisconsin. Kunz fixed himself some dinner at the rectory and spoke by phone with another priest at 10:23 pm. He then retired to his sparse one-room office that doubled as living quarters in the adjacent school. Police believe Kunz encountered his killer shortly after. His body was found the next morning, face down in a pool of blood at the foot of a statue of St. Michael the Archangel. Kunz was barefoot, dressed in dark slacks and a white T-shirt.
There were no signs of forced entry, so the killer gained access without leaving evidence behind, had a key, or was let in by Father Kunz. Police said the attack was sudden and unexpected. Kunz, a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth, put up quite a fight and might have gained the upper hand on the suspect before being knocked to his knees by a blow from a weapon, Mahoney said. His throat was then cut with some kind of sharp-edge instrument, severing the artery that carries blood to the brain. No weapons were recovered.
Police believe the killer was a man, who might have been familiar with Kunz and St. Michael parish. While an FBI profile suggested the killer might have had an argument or altercation with Kunz in the 72 hours before the murder, Mahoney said it is possible the priest simply interrupted a burglary. The killer was likely shocked by the amount of blood that flowed when he cut Kunz’s throat. When he escaped from the school, the murderer was covered in blood and would have had noticeable injuries to his face, Mahoney said. Based on the wounds on Kunz’s hands, police believe the priest landed serious blows to the head of his attacker. An autopsy photo released by the sheriff’s office in 2018 shows Kunz’s right hand with major bruising along the index finger, bruises on three of the four knuckles, and several small puncture-type wounds across the back of the hand.
“Father Kunz did engage physically with his murderer,” Mahoney said. “We believe whomever was in fact involved probably had some significant facial injuries and probably was visibly injured.” The assailant would have “looked like he had been beaten up,” Mahoney said. “Father Kunz had hand injuries. He knew how to land a punch.”
Profilers said the killer likely did not go to St. Michael’s that night intending to kill Kunz. Investigators believe the killer felt regret afterward. He went home with clothing soaked in blood that he would seek to wash or destroy. Family or friends would have noticed facial injuries. The suspect might have missed work the next day. The killer could have used a favorite hunting knife, box cutter, or other instrument that he then discarded. Friends or co-workers could have noticed he no longer carried the cutting instrument and that he had a story for what happened to it. In the weeks, months and years afterward, the person could have had mental health issues, or struggled with alcohol abuse, police said.
Could something as simple as a burglary be the answer in this case? Kunz’s office was burglarized in 1994. The priest’s late-night routine was predictable, a fact that could be crucial if a burglar was watching the property. Kunz was security conscious and the school doors were always locked at night, friends said. Some collection money went missing in the weeks before the murder, police said. It was not unusual for bags of Sunday collection money to sit at the church, undeposited, sometimes for weeks. Large amounts of money had been moved between parish accounts in the months before the murder, and some large checks were cut, police said.
Early in the investigation, detectives questioned two men with ties to Kunz who were involved in burglaries. Jeffrey L. Maas of Pewaukee, Wis., pilfered statues, chalices, candles, books, and artifacts from churches in five Wisconsin counties, police said. He was convicted in 1999 of four misdemeanor and five felony counts of theft and receiving stolen property. Robert M. Pulvermacher of Dane was arrested shortly after the Kunz murder and later sentenced to nearly four years in prison for burglary. He escaped from a prison work camp in December 1998. While on the lam, he attacked a local constable and wrestled his gun away, police said. During a massive search of central Wisconsin, a deputy confronted and disarmed Pulvermacher. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison on escape-related charges. Investigators concluded the men were not involved in the priest’s murder. The burglary motive, however, remains an active focus.
The Kunz homicide was the first in the village of Dane since March 1971, when William C. Chambers shot and killed his 22-year-old son, Kenneth D. Chambers, during a long-simmering family feud. The father fired three bullets into the heart, brain, and lungs of his son. He was later acquitted of first-degree murder. Kenneth Chambers was a member of St. Michael Catholic Church. Father Kunz officiated at his funeral Mass on March 13, 1971.
Investigators believe there are individuals who can break the Kunz murder case. Those who mourn Father Kunz say the time for answers is now. The bloodstains don’t easily wash away. The injuries remain. Fleeting doubts have only grown. Memories of a bad day in March can’t be shaken. Flimsy explanations and a weak alibi hang heavy over someone, somewhere. Does the suspect’s bloody clothing still exist? What about the murder weapon? Relatives of the killer might know. In the balance hangs not just the murder mystery but Kunz’s legacy and reputation—reverenced by so many, questioned by a few, and tattered by the long investigation. Time could be running short for earthly justice.
“Perhaps you know something that you have been sitting on over these many years, perhaps you saw something back in 1998, or perhaps you have heard something since then,” wrote the Rev. Scott Jablonski, a successor of Kunz as pastor of St. Michael, in a Facebook post. “Regardless, please make justice your aim and help us bring closure and peace to this sad situation by contacting the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.”
Mahoney agrees. “I’m really hanging my hat on a family member or someone involved whose soul has been troubled for 20 years, knowing they have information that would bring Father Kunz peace, or bring themselves peace,” he said.
Julie Howard felt a deep sense of pity in her heart. When she first observed Father Kunz at Mass in 1991, she and two college friends were deeply affected by his homily. “My very first thought was, ‘He is going to die a martyr,’” she said. Just recently graduated from Magdalen College, Howard took a job teaching at St. Michael School. Over the years working for Kunz, her admiration grew as she observed the priest’s care for others and his fidelity to the Catholic faith. She marveled at his homilies, recalling how he once was so moved when speaking of Christ that he shed tears looking at the crucifix. Howard’s initial sense of foreboding never left her. “I remember one day he came into my classroom to tell me that his room had been broken into in the night and his gun stolen,” she recalled of the conversation during the 1994-1995 school year. “By the tone of his voice, I felt certain he was trying to tell me his time may be coming soon.”
Kunz’s life complicates the investigation
From its earliest moments, the Kunz homicide investigation was greatly complicated—by Kunz himself. He was an outspoken defender of sacred tradition in the Catholic Church. While serving on the Diocese of Madison’s marriage tribunal, he was a tough, pointed questioner with individuals seeking to have their sacramental marriages declared null. He was an adviser to groups and individuals investigating homosexual corruption in the priesthood and episcopacy—controversial and potentially dangerous work. Associates said he occasionally served as an exorcist. He counseled troubled people, including quite a few fellow priests—some of whom had been accused of sexual abuse. His circle of acquaintances was global. He kept few records, often relying on notes scribbled on scraps of paper to keep track of commitments and to-do items. Police believe Kunz did maintain an appointment book, but detectives did not find one among his belongings.
“These are all things that raise potential suspects and potential motivations,” Mahoney said. “Trying to run all of those down is difficult.”
In 1996, Kunz became a canon law adviser to the Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF), an Illinois-based group investigating the sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests and bishops. Kunz was recommended to RCF by the Rev. John A. Hardon, SJ, a widely respected theologian and author who worked for several popes and had deep connections at the Vatican. The group was gathering information on Bishop Daniel L. Ryan of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill. Ryan was accused of sexually assaulting a mentally disabled man, soliciting sex from a 15-year-old boy, trolling area parks for teenage male prostitutes, and having sex with priests in his diocese. In sworn testimony to RCF investigators, one of the teen prostitutes said Ryan once heard his confession and blessed him, then told him, “go and sin no more.” Then the bishop winked at the teen and said, “See you later.”
With help from Kunz and Father Fiore, RCF developed a dossier on the situation in the Springfield diocese. Father Hardon carried the report to Rome and presented it to Pope St. John Paul II, vouching for RCF and the accuracy of the document. Nothing was done with the explosive information. Hardon told RCF officials that at least a dozen American bishops supported Ryan in his quest to hold onto his bishopric in Springfield, according to RCF president and founder Stephen G. Brady. One of them was the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, then archbishop of Chicago, Brady said. When the group approached Bernardin for help in removing Ryan, he refused, Brady said. Ryan abruptly retired in October 1999, shortly before a lawsuit was filed accusing him of covering up the sexual abuse of a child by another Illinois priest. Sheriff Mahoney said Dane County investigators interviewed Ryan, but have no indication he is linked to the Kunz homicide. Ryan died in December 2015.
“Father Hardon told me to go to Kunz if I needed any contacts anywhere or needed direction in my investigations,” Brady told Catholic World Report. “Father Kunz never discussed any other investigations with me except my own. He was tight lipped and you could trust him 100 percent. He had my files and answered any questions I had. He did work behind the scenes for me but kept it private.”
Brady said during the 14 years that RCF conducted its investigations, he received three death threats. One was serious enough to involve the FBI. An email circulated claiming a contract was out for Brady’s assassination. After Kunz was murdered, Brady bought a bulletproof vest.
Father Kunz laughed until he cried. The man described in media stories as strict and unbending had a great sense of humor that he showed around his teachers, parishioners, and friends. He told a story of a dream he had. He was playing baseball on the Pope’s team. He was playing outfield when a long fly ball was hit his way. Just as Kunz jumped to make the catch, he woke from the dream to discover he had landed in the bathtub. Another time, when an area parish was having a “polka Mass” (something Kunz very much opposed), his teachers jokingly developed a detailed plan for a polka Mass at St. Michael. He slapped his leg and howled. “I seriously thought he was going to pop something in his gut,” one of the teachers recalled. “He laughed so hard—until he cried!”
Uncooperative witnesses slow the investigation?
The murder investigation was hampered by witnesses who police said refused full cooperation with detectives. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office singled out former St. Michael School Principal Maureen (O’Leary) Schultheis. The principal “was very close with him (Father Kunz), yet she was uncooperative with detectives throughout the investigation,” read the department’s Facebook post on March 7, 2018. “She even suggested that DCSO call off the investigation and mark it ‘unsolved.’ She knew a lot about him. Could something she knew have been a motive for the killer?”
A witness who was on scene the morning Kunz’s body was found said Schultheis made perplexing statements. “I remember standing on the hill looking down at the sight of all this going on on the day of the murder,” said the witness, who asked not to be named. “She walked up to me and she said, ‘They’ll never figure it out,’ or, ‘They’ll never solve it.’ That’s what she said: ‘They’ll never solve it.’ I was like, whoa, that’s pessimistic.”
In her first media interview in 20 years, Schultheis said she does not recall that exchange. “If I did, I was thinking this is so much bigger than our local police, because he (Kunz) had such a worldwide sphere of influence,” she said. As for telling the detectives to mark the case unsolved, Schultheis said she was frustrated with what she felt was gossip being spread publicly by police, harming Father Kunz’s good name. “I did make that statement, not to obstruct justice but to stop the scandal,” she said.
Although the school was off limits because it was a crime scene, teachers were eventually allowed into their classrooms to retrieve items for themselves and their students. A detective visited each classroom to interview the teachers. As staff members were leaving, Schultheis scolded one of the teachers, saying, “You know you don’t have to talk to them!” according to a person who witnessed the exchange but asked not to be named. The teacher replied, “They’re trying to solve the murder. Why would I not want to talk to them?” according to the witness.
Mahoney said his detectives are well aware of those incidents. “That’s all true,” he said. “To this day, she [Schultheis] has never been cooperative with our investigation. We believe she probably has some information that could have assisted with the direction of the investigation and chose not to share it.” Mahoney said Father Fiore also had more information that would have been useful to detectives. “We truly believe that he was a confidant of Father Kunz and wasn’t as forthright with all of the information he would have had,” Mahoney said.
Schultheis said she spent countless hours meeting with investigators. “At this time, my mother was dying and they seemed to have no respect for my time. They wanted me at their beck and call—and I cooperated,” she said. “Every time they asked, I responded in kind. I went to the sheriff’s office in downtown Madison, even late at night one time.” She said the questioning was repetitive, “or checking out these little innuendos, pieces of gossip they got from people.”
Schultheis said after she left St. Michael’s to take a job in Wausau, Dane County detectives showed up at her new job to conduct another interview. After she moved to Ohio, Schultheis said she was compelled under subpoena to return to Madison and testify under oath. “They decided they had to interview me under oath in front of a judge,” she said. “I have been through grueling interviews, where I answered everything to the best of my knowledge.”
Schultheis said her dealings with investigators could be contentious, but that was because she felt gossip was being treated as fact. St. Michael altar boys faced “horrible questions” from detectives, she said, that planted seeds of doubt about Father Kunz. “I was told by the parents, who were outraged,” she said. A detective came to interview her one day and told her to “vent” her frustrations with the investigation, she said. “It went in one ear and out the other, because they continued to do all of those things that were upsetting me.” Eventually, these frustrations caused Schultheis to stop talking to detectives, but she said it is unfair to say she never cooperated. “I think people assumed I knew things I didn’t know and they would tell (detectives) that,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t give them anything new. I certainly spent time with them.”
They named him Raphael. Father Kunz was determined to provide a solemn funeral for a tiny, preborn child, who was aborted and then stored in a pathology laboratory at the now-defunct Northwestern General Hospital in Milwaukee. “We had a beautiful funeral for that child,” Kunz said on his radio program.
Raphael was one of nine aborted children smuggled from the hospital lab and provided to Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. On a Saturday in 1996, Fathers Kunz and Fiore held a Solemn Requiem Mass for Raphael outside St. Michael Catholic Church. Placed in a tiny casket, the child was buried at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This is the first in a three-part series about the murder of Father Kunz. Part Two can be read here.
(Matt C. Abbott contributed to this report. Anyone with information on Father Kunz’s murder should contact the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, (608) 284-6900 or email@example.com.)