Monday, March 21, 2011

Is convicted murderer innocent?

by Mike Nichols

The following opinion was originally published by the Wausau Daily Herald on March 4, 2011.

If Terry Vollbrecht really did murder Angela Hackl in the woods just outside Sauk City almost 24 years ago -- something prosecutors wrongly opposing a new trial continue to insist he did -- it's surely one of the most incredible coincidences in the history of Wisconsin crime annals.

Hackl was only 18 when she was killed. Last seen leaving Hondo's Bar with Vollbrecht early on the morning of June 12, 1987, her body, partly naked and shot in the back, was later found hanging at the base of a tree with a chain looped around the neck and brush piled all around.

"If you put a match to that," a prosecutor at Vollbrecht's trial said, "you would have a human sacrifice."

It was a uniquely grotesque killing in an area that can go years without a single homicide -- but not the last of its kind. Just six weeks later, Linda Nachreiner was killed in another rural, wooded spot about 30 miles away. The woman in her late 20s had been shot from behind and, although her body was found on the ground, her killer later said that he had chained her to a tree by her neck.

That killer, by the way, was not Terry Vollbrecht.

It was Kim Brown -- a deeply disturbed Oxford resident who liked to read pornographic books with titles like "History of Torture"and "Chained & Raped Wife." He also, according to two men who served time with him, said he talked about chaining women up and lighting them on fire. Two others who knew him in prison allege he also admitted killing Hackl, and one of those has said Brown intended to set her on fire but didn't because his lighter wouldn't work.

Steven Bauer, a former prosecutor who is now a judge, spent a year pondering things after the Hackl case was investigated by the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Because many of the details were not known when Vollbrecht was first tried, Bauer ordered a new trial recently.

Vollbrecht, as a result, was released from his cell the other day on a $425,000 bond put up by a sympathetic Prairie du Sac businessman, Curt Mueller. Prosecutors from the Wisconsin Attorney General's office, who want to lock him back up without further ado, are appealing Bauer's ruling and arguing that another trial is not necessary.

It is.

Vollbrecht is not a clearly innocent man. He has admitted having sex with Hackl that June night out by the Wisconsin River far from where her body was eventually found, and says it was consensual. His story is that after that she dropped him off back near his own car in Sauk City around 3:30 a.m., he tried to walk home because he'd lost his car keys. He was seen in the general vicinity of where Hackl's body was found -- although there is no evidence putting either him or Brown at the murder scene. If Brown did do it, moreover, he would have to have somehow come upon her and killed her without being seen in a pretty narrow window of time. Brown, who is incarcerated at Redgranite Correctional Institution and eligible for parole in 2031, denies having anything to do with it.

Still, the man's proclivities -- and the similarities between two murders just six weeks apart -- should nag at any conscience.

Bauer thinks a new trial would be a toss-up, but also points out that newly discovered evidence about Brown undermines confidence in the original verdict.

In the end, only a fresh set of jurors can determine what to believe in -- an awful and incredible coincidence or a guy who has already served over 20 years of a life sentence. Vollbrecht, who will turn 50 this summer, deserves another chance to argue that he shouldn't be sent back for twenty or thirty or forty more.

Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist, author and senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Views expressed in this column are his own. E-mail Nichols at

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