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COLD CASE FILES

Mistaken for a Killer aired on A & E , July 25, 2004

Transcript
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>> KURTIS: Pasquarella walks into the duplex to find the victim, 25-year-old Sue Schaaf, already dead, her throat slashed, and with what appear to be multiple stab wounds. Investigator Al Vodicka is called to the house.

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Two things he notes immediately: first, ligature marks on the wrists indicating the victim was tied up before she was killed; second, the young lady fought hard for her life. At autopsy, the ME documents more than 45 wounds to the face, neck, back, and arms. The victim was also raped, and semen is collected from her body. Detectives return to the block of homes in Hickory Hills and begin to piece together the last moments of Sue Schaaf's life. They begin with a character sketch from her sister.

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>> Susie was a real simple person.

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She was a very simple gal.

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She didn't have any big dreams.

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You know, she wasn't going to be, you know, anybody famous. She didn't want to make a lot of money.

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She was really old-fashion.

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She wanted to get married, have kids, you know, raise them, you know, have a big group of friends. >> KURTIS: According to Karen, Sue's dream was just taking shape. Three months earlier, she had married her highschool sweetheart. Bill Schaaf was working when his wife was raped and killed, quickly eliminating him as a suspect. Detectives turn their attention next to the people on scene that day, specifically the neighbor who found the body. She tells police about a man who knocked on her back door that morning.

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>> She saw this person outside the door.

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It was a male white wearing a blue parka, and it had a snorkel hood, and the hood was fur lined, and it was drawn tight around his face. And when she made eye contact with this person, the man said, "Is Sue here?" And she responded, "No, she lives next door." >> KURTIS: A sketch artist sits down with the witness and develops these drawings released to the public in hopes someone might recognize a face. Problem is everyone seems to recognize this face.

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>> They would call in and say, "This is my neighbor." "I saw this guy waiting for the bus." "I gave him a haircut the other day." So we were we were pretty much running all over the place trying to track down these leads. >> KURTIS: For months, investigators chase down leads and get nowhere. Sue Schaaf's murder investigation stalls, until a year later, on the anniversary of her death, when detectives decide to stake out a cemetery. Under a blanket of snow in the shadow of a maple tree lie the remains of Sue Marie Schaaf. On the one-year anniversary of her death, friends and family gather to remember their loved one. Unbeknownst to the mourners, they are being watched.

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>> We took up strategic positions near and around the grave site in vehicles. That time of year in the Chicago area tends to be cold in late December. We remained there for a 24-hour period.

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>> KURTIS: Four officers stake out the grave site hoping whoever killed Sue Schaaf might return to revisit his victim. At a little after 1:00 PM, the cemetery is mostly empty when a single man walks towards Sue's headstone. >> Stands there for a period of time, a couple minutes, and then gets back into his vehicle. At this point we're interested in this person because it's kind of suspicious and we're not really sure who this is. It's not somebody that we recognize.

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>> KURTIS: Mike Tardi works the detail with Vodicka and approaches the man. >> At that point, we decided to approach him and inquire, you know, as to who he was and what he was doing there. He told us that he was the victim's sister's exboyfriend. >> KURTIS: 30-year-old Glen Simkunas dated the victim's sister, Karen Spallina, on and off around the time Sue was killed.

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Police ask Simkunas why he's visiting the grave.

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>> He responds that he loved Susan in a special way, and he felt compelled to go to the cemetery to pay his respects. >> KURTIS: As detectives talk to Simkunas, suspicions continue to build. Detectives ask and Simkunas agrees to take a ride to the station for a few more questions. >> As we began to ask him questions related to whether or not he was involved in her murder, he began to act suspiciously. >> He went from being very eager and willing to talk to us to very nervous, very guarded, broke down a couple times during the interview, started to cry. >> KURTIS: With their suspect weakening, Detective Tardi pulls out the composite drawings of the suspected killer. >> I asked him, you know, who is that?

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And he responded, "That's me." And I thought at that moment that he was going to confess to this murder. >> KURTIS: The case, however, would not be solved so easily, as the suspect rephrases. >> And he very quickly regained his composure and said, "Well, Karen just says"-- Karen's the girlfriend-"says, well, I look like the composite." >> KURTIS: It is more than enough reason to put Simkunas in a lineup.

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Investigators call on their star witness, Sue's nextdoor neighbor who talked with the man believed to be the killer. >> When she viewed the lineup that Glen Simkunas was in, she identified him as an individual who she said closely resembles the offender. >> KURTIS: "Closely resembles" is hardly enough to support a charge of murder. Detectives feel they have found Sue Schaaf's killer but simply cannot prove it. >> He was our prime suspect.

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There's no question.

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>> We have no one else, no others persons of interest that we're looking at at that particular point in time. >> KURTIS: For three years, Hickory Hills detectives bide their time, until one day when Mike Tardi reinterviews his star witness and discovers she has had a change of heart. >> She eventually tells us that the person that she saw at the door was, in fact, Glen Simkunas. >> KURTIS: Tardi's witness, however, is not done.

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>> She told us that she observed a struggle between Simkunas and Schaaf, that Simkunas had grabbed her around the arms and was forcing her back towards the hallway, and that they were both speaking in loud tones of voice, and that obviously she was frightened and left. >> KURTIS: The new testimony offers police the evidence they need for an arrest warrant. On September 30, Glen Simkunas is arraigned on charges he raped and murdered Sue Schaaf, and the small town of Hickory Hills breathes a collective sigh of relief, until a second woman is murdered and police wonder if they put the wrong man behind bars. >> KURTIS: In December of 1982, 25-year-old Sue Schaaf is raped and murdered in her suburban Chicago home. Four years after Sue's death, an eyewitness fingers Glen Simkunas for the crime. Detective Mike Tardi is confident he has found his killer. >> I would have bet my career that he was involved in this case. >> KURTIS: Tardi's bet is an ill-advised one.

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In December of 1986, Hickory Hills' star witness begins to hedge, and the case against Simkunas begins to fall apart. >> She, at that point, recants her testimony and basically tells them that she's not sure at this point of her identification.

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And based on that, they felt that it would be very difficult to prove the case. >> KURTIS: In February of 1987, murder charges are dropped, and Glen Simkunas is released from instigation is back to square one, until five months later when a second murder unfolds in the neighboring town of Burbank, Illinois. In the summer of 1987, a call rings through emergency dispatch. A man has come home to find his wife dead.

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Burbank police arrive on the scene, and 30-year-old John Meier points them in the direction of the bathroom. >> The victim is laying in the bathtub shower.

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There's a large amount of water in the tub and also on the floor. >> She had been beaten about the face, been strangled, and she had been stabbed one time in the back. It looks like she put up a hell of a fight.

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She was beaten pretty good.

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>> KURTIS: The victim is 30-year-old Donna Meier, wife to John and mother of two.

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Meier tells police a back window had been forced open and that credit cards, jewelry, and cash are missing. >> Initially you look at it like it might have been a burglary gone bad, but there was some things that just did >> There was a screened-in porch area where a washer and a dryer was. It was very neat.

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Walked into the kitchen area, which was very, again, neat. It wasn't that things were tossed, gone through, ripped up. >> KURTIS: mel Trojanowski has almost 20 years with the Illinois State Police assessing crime scenes. After just a few minutes inside the Meier home, he smells a set up. >> It was obvious to us that there was something wrong here, that the scene was cleaned up, it was altered. It was like something was being staged.

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>> KURTIS: Inside the home, Trojanowski works toward the apparent point of entry, a screened window in the back bedroom. On the sill next to the lock, he lifts a single print.

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It is upside down as if left by someone opening the screen from the outside. >> It was a very beautiful fingerprint, points up on the inside of the... over the lock area of the window on the inside, where the fingers are poked through going down. I mean, it was like somebody had just placed it there.

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>> KURTIS: The print is matched to the man who found the body, the victim's husband, John Meier. Detectives suspect Meier might have forced the window himself and staged the robbery scenario. Those suspicions deepen as they question friends and family of the victim. >> Right off the bat, within a day or two of the investigation, friends of Donna and John's and also Donna's family came forward and named John as a chief suspect. >> There was not one person that I interviewed or that any of the other detectives interviewed that said they wouldn't put it past him. >> KURTIS: Friends of the victim tell police the marriage was on the rocks, that Donna was planning to leave John. An interview with Donna's brother, Pat Mariner, lays bare yet another possible motive for murder. It flows from an incident on the day before Donna was killed.

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On the evening of July 9, Pat Mariner has a date with his fiancée, Wendy. The two plan to meet after work for dinner at Wendy's home. They arrive to find someone else has been in the house. >> We had noticed that the house has been gone through, ransacked, drawers opened, furniture moved, things turned out from the wall like somebody was looking for something. >> KURTIS: Pat and Wendy go through the house, find nothing missing, and decide not to call police. A short time later, the couple is sitting down to dinner when the doorbell rings. It's Wendy's neighbor, a man who heads up the unofficial neighborhood watch. >> He had knocked at the door and said there was a truck parked across the street, and he wrote down-it was either the VIN number or the number on the city sticker, and he handed it to me. >> KURTIS: That evening, Mariner mentions the incident to his brother-in-law, John Meier. >> He became interested in this information, saying why don't I give him the info, and he'll find out who those plates belong to. >> KURTIS: Pat gives John the tag numbers and dismisses the matter.

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After his sister is murdered the next day, Pat relates the break- in story to police and gives them the tag numbers as well. Turns out the plates run straight back to John Meier.

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>> When we ran the plate, it came back to John's roofing company. We interviewed people from the company and found out that John was driving that same truck that day. >> KURTIS: Crime scene analyst mel Trojanowski dusts wendy's house for prints, finds several on a large jar of money. >> They had made a match on the fingerprints taken off that item, and they were matched to John Meier. >> KURTIS: The plot thickens with Meier now connected to the break-in at his soon-to-be sisterin-law's and the discovery of his involvement acting as a possible motive for murder. >> We were thinking that Donna came home approximately an hour after John had this information that he's going to be caught in a burglary, and I think that was just something else that was playing on his mind when she came home, and I think it just built up, and they probably had an argument, and he lost it. >> KURTIS: Burbank detectives have a theory but nothing in the way of hard evidence to back it up. With few other options, they decide to bring in their suspect for questioning and see if he makes a mistake.

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Detectives sit down with John Meier and get directly to the heart of the matter, the state of affairs between him and his recently deceased wife. >> That's when he kind of broke down a little bit and admitted, "Yeah, we were having problems, and you know, I knew that she wanted to leave me." And you know, he sobbed a little bit. >> KURTIS: Detectives move in a bit and begin edging Meier toward the hard truth of murder. >> He started breaking down.

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He kept asking to see his son, to say good-bye to his son. And then he clammed up, and he said, "Unless you let me talk to my kid, say good-bye to my kid, I'm not going to talk anymore." He goes, "Let me say goodbye to my kid, and I'll tell you how it happened." >> KURTIS: Detectives arrange a meeting between father and son, then reconvene with Meier, expecting to hear a tear-soaked confession. Instead they get the back of their suspect's hand.

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>> He met probably about five minutes with him, brought him back in the interview room, and that's when he basically told us to pound sand. >> KURTIS: John Meier lawyers up and goes silent. The Cook County state's attorney reviews the case but refuses to approve charges, and John Meier walks on his wife's murder, until his name resurfaces in the Sue Schaaf homicide, a murder cold-case detectives thought they had already solved.

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>> KURTIS: In 1982, in Hickory Hills, Illinois, 25year-old Sue Schaaf is discovered raped and stabbed to death in her home. Five years and four miles away in Burbank, Illinois, another woman, Donna Meier, is found also stabbed to death, also in her home. Police suspect Donna's husband, John Meier, is responsible but can't prove it. While investigating, Burbank police happen across a coincidence between their case and the murder in Hickory Hills. The coincidence's name: John Meier.

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>> We met with the Hickory Hills detectives because there were just too many coincidental links with John and Sue and Donna. >> KURTIS: Among the connections, in the early '80s, Sue Schaaf was friends with John and Donna Meier, and John and Sue had actually worked together at the local Denny's. >> It was unusual to us that, you know, John Meier's name surfaced. We looked back at the case.

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We would constantly review it to see, you know, did we miss anything? Is there something there that we're not seeing?

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>> KURTIS: Tardi pulls evidence from the Sue Schaaf murder, including semen samples collected from her body. In 1988, Tardi sends his samples to one of two private labs in the country outfitted to do forensic DNA work. He asks the lab to compare the samples against two suspects: Glen Simkunas, already arrested once for the Schaaf murder, and a long-shot named John Meier. A year later, Tardi gets his results.

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>> The DNA test results eliminates both Glen Simkunas and John Meier as sources of the seminal fluid that was recovered at the crime scene. So essentially it eliminates both of these guys as suspects. I couldn't believe it at the time.

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I didn't think there was anything that we overlooked.

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I didn't think there was anything that led us in any other direction other than where we were with these two suspects. >> KURTIS: The DNA results devastate Tardi's case.

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With no other suspects and no working leads, the Sue Schaaf murder goes back into the cold files, where everyone agrees it will likely stay forever.

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21 years after her rape and murder, and 14 years after DNA testing eliminated his best suspects, Detective Mike Tardi cannot shake the Sue Schaaf murder. >> Sue was stabbed 45 times.

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Her throat was slashed.

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She was raped.

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She was stabbed in the face.

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She was bound.

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Those are just things that you never forget.

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>> KURTIS: Over the years, Tardi has read and reread the test results that exculpate both Glen Simkunas and John Meier. None of it makes sense to the detective.

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>> The bottom line is I just didn't believe it.

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I just couldn't accept the fact that one of these guys wasn't the killer. >> KURTIS: Mike Tardi is not a genetic scientist.

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He is, however, a cop with a cop's instincts.

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In the spring of 2003, he orders new genetic testing on the Schaaf semen samples and once again asks that the samples from John Meier and Glen Simkunas be submitted for comparison. Kathleen Kozak is an analyst with the Illinois State Police Forensic Science Center. On April 8, she opens up a package that is supposed to contain semen evidence from the Sue Schaaf murder. What Kozak finds inside is a single broken stick.

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>> When the other lab did DNA, they broke off the tip of the swab where the cotton part is, so all I had left was a stick. >> KURTIS: Kozak's only hope is that some portion of the semen is remaining on the wood portion of the broken swab. as well as the box it was stored in.

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Kozak is encouraged by what she sees.

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>> The box glowed, so it looked like there had been some stain transferred to the box and that there was still some stain left on the stick. >> KURTIS: Kozak is able to collect a small amount of semen sample.

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Using short tandem repeat or STR DNA testing, she begins the extraction process. Despite the degraded nature of the samples, Kozak develops a full genetic profile. >> I really didn't know when I started what I was going to get, and I was a little bit surprised that I got a complete profile because I thought I might get something but not complete. >> KURTIS: Kozak then compares the unknown profile to her two suspects, Glen Simkunas and John Meier. On November 13, Mike Tardi gets a call from the lab.

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Kozak has developed a match, his name John Meier.

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>> When she told me it was John Meier, I couldn't speak. I was shocked.

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I really... I had to call her back.

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I had to get my composure back just to be able to finish that call with her. >> KURTIS: The match to John Meier has a probability of more than one in 26 quadrillion white men.

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The DNA work eliminating Meier as a suspect in 1988, simply flawed, the product of a science that had not yet perfected its technique and reliability. Detective Tardi's first call is to the victim's family.

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>> And I just looked at him.

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And I said, "John Meier?" >> KURTIS: For more than 20 years, Karen Spallina, like detective Mike Tardi, thought Glen Simkunas killed her sister. Now they both discover they were wrong.

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>> 90% of this case pointed to him, but we were wrong. And as difficult as it is for some people to say it, I'm not... I mean, it was... he wasn't the guy. >> KURTIS: For the man who actually did the killing, there will be no knock on the door, no day of reckoning with his past. The DNA match linking John Meier to Sue Schaaf is made in November of 2003. Meier had died of natural causes three years earlier in June of 2000. >> As much as I would have liked to have seen John Meier go to trial for this case, I look at what the family's gone through. The family has suffered dearly.

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>> I've been told and I've learned over the last several years of my life that to pray for those that have caused you the most pain. And so I have a prayer list.

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I didn't like this, but I had to add John to my prayer list. >> KURTIS: While one family manages to forgive, another cannot forget. The family of Donna Meier still searches for answers.

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Did John Meier kill his wife and, as police suspect, arrange the scene to look like a burglary, or was it someone else who actually broke into the Meier home and killed Donna? >> That's why I'm here.

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That's why I wanted to talk today, because you know, like I said, possibly someone knows something, you know? I would ask them to come forward and bring closure for our family. >> KURTIS: If you have any information you believe might be helpful in the Donna Meier murder case, please call the Burbank Police Department at 708-924-7300.

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