The Green Bay Northwoods Killings — Ch 17
Chapter 17: The Murders of Ann and Cecelia Cadigan
Ann and Ceil (Cecelia) Cadigan were found dead on Saturday, November 16th, 1991. Ann was 90 years old and Ceil, 85. They lived alone in a rural two-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Casco, Wisconsin. Tiny Casco was stunned by the heinous crime.
According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette:
Residents here were locking their doors this morning as rumors circulated about the murders of two elderly sisters found dead Saturday. "This is Casco. Things like this don't happen in Casco," said a next-door neighbor who declined to give her name. "I don't think the reality of it set in." she said. "It's something like in the movies but you don't expect it to happen right next door. My kids don't want to stay home alone anymore."
Casco, Wisconsin is a “village” in Kewaunee County; a rural community with fewer than 600 people in a recent census. It is just a short drive northeast of Green Bay, and is considered part of the Green Bay metropolitan area.
Kewaunee County police were secretive at a press conference this morning about the manner of death or possible motive in the slayings of Ann Cadigan, 90, and her sister Ceil, who turned 85 on Saturday.
Yeah. That’s right. Ceil Cadigan was murdered on her 85th birthday.
"We're going to be very tight-lipped about this. We're not going to tip our hand," Sheriff Cole Kuehl said. Autopsies were scheduled in Madison today. He would not discuss whether investigators had a suspect and could only offer this advice: "All I can suggest is leave your yard lights on and lock your residences standard procedure, but it's such a laid back community that it's not typically done."
All of Kewaunee County was in a panic about the murders. As reported by the Kenosha News:
There is “fear in the community because of the secretiveness,” said Joan Derenne, owner of P&J’s Cafe.
“When the last customer of the day leaves, we’re right behind him lockling the door, taking extra precautions.”
A young resident told the Green Bay Press-Gazette much the same thing.
"It's scary," one young man said. His mother said they never locked the door but have done so since Saturday.
In the early days of the investigation, Sheriff Kuehl characterized the authorities’ investigation as a "house-to-house canvass" of the Casco area, searching for any report from a witness; the tiniest clue that might lead to the murderer of the Cadigan sisters. However, many in the community believed the killer must be an outsider. From the Kenosha News:
[Derenne] said some customers don’t think whoever killed Ann and Ceil Cadigan is someone local.
“Everyone knows everyone. Nobody here is capable of doing this. Everyone around here is friendly,” she said.
The investigative team characterized the murder of the Cadigan sisters as “of a violent and unexplained nature,” but would initially say no more. When the autopsy results were announced in December, it became clear.
Two elderly sisters found dead in their Casco home last month were beaten and stabbed to death, Kewaunee County Sheriff Cole Kuehl said today. Preliminary autopsy results showed that Ann Cadigan, 90, and her sister Ceil, who turned 85 the day her body was found, were beaten with an object that probably was round, Kuehl said in a release. "The round object could be similar to a handle of some type," Kuehl said. "This could include a shovel handle, pipe, baseball bat, pool cue or a rake handle."
There was an anniversary memorial service for the Cadigans’ brother being held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Casco that evening, but as the time for the service arrived, Ann and Ceil were nowhere to be found. Surely they wouldn’t miss their own brother’s memorial service?
A woman who attended the 4:30 p.m. Holy Trinity Catholic Church Mass Saturday asked a neighboring farmer to check on the women. When the neighbor arrived, he found the back door open and the women dead in their home with supper on the stove, said Vi Smithwick of Green Bay, whose husband, Richard, is the victims' first cousin. She said the women usually locked their doors at dark.
The neighbor found a horror show.
"They turned on the light and they saw everybody was killed," the Associated Press quoted Richard Smithwick as saying. "Ann was slumped over the chair in the living room. And the other lady was right across the davenport. She was bleeding from the head." Smithwick said others had told him the sofa was "partly tipped over, almost upside down."
Nobody could imagine any reason someone would want to harm the Cadigan sisters. They were outgoing and likable.
"They weren't loners. They were very friendly," Vi Smithwick said. "This is horrible. Those two women couldn't defend themselves. Ann could barely get out of a chair and Ceil may have been able to put up a slight struggle,” she said.
Ann, who taught social studies and geography at Casco High School from 1941 to 1945, quit teaching when her mother died 40 years ago to run the family farm, said Vi Smithwick, who was in Ann's citizenship class. Ceil taught home economics at De Pere High School in the 1940s before moving to Milwaukee, where she taught until she was about 65, Richard Smithwick said.
About a week later, two days before Thanksgiving, 1991, the AP reported the investigation was moving, but with little success.
One possible suspect passed a lie detector test but others are under investigation in the killing of two elderly sisters at their farmhouse near Casco, authorities say. "We do not know the motive," Chief Deputy Dale La Crosse of the Kewaunee County Sheriff's Department said Monday. "We are looking at a lot of people who may have some connection some way or some how and we are eliminating them one by one."
By the first week of December, the authorities had begun to express frustration about running out of leads, even daring to use the word “cold” in relation to the investigation. A car was seen near the crime scene on the morning of the murders, detailed by the Press-Gazette.
Police haven't found a car seen near the house the day of the murder, La Crosse said. They are seeking a Ford Tempo GLS or Taurus or a Mercury Topaz or Sable, all similarly-styled cars. The car was one to seven years old and may have had a black top and gray lower half. Information on cars fitting that description or other tips may be called into the sheriffs department at 388-3100
Summer of 1992
In the summer of 1992, an auction was held at the Cadigan sisters’ farm in which their worldly belongings were sold on behalf of their heirs, and while area residents poked through the murdered sisters’ possessions, a subplot played out in the investigation.
The Smithwick family, outspoken about their beliefs about the case, were apparently a focus of the investigation. Vi Smithwick spoke to the Press-Gazette:
The Smithwicks and their friends have been questioned repeatedly by Kewaunee County Sheriff's Department investigators, she said. Their son, who now lives in Milwaukee, was hauled in for questioning in the middle of the night on one occasion. Both men have been followed, she said. "I'm frustrated that they still consider my husband and my son suspects," Smithwick said. "I resent that they went to our friends. It's an intrusion." Smithwick speculated that the real murderer might have attended the auction, undetected by investigators who are wrongly focusing on her family members instead. Kewaunee County Sheriff Cole Kuehl said hundreds of people have been interviewed during the ongoing investigation. Kuehl said the Smithwicks are suspects "in her mind, perhaps," he said. "That's her definition, not ours." Kuehl said he understands the family's frustration, but added, "If you had some loved ones killed, wouldn't you want law enforcement to leave no stone unturned?" He declined to speculate on when an arrest will be made, "The batteries are dead in my crystal ball," he said.
Law enforcement was getting a little snarky with the media, because the media was reporting frustration in the community. As the investigation approached its first anniversary, patience was wearing thin because there had been no arrests.
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By 1993, there was a new Sheriff in Kewaunee County and he had some complaints about the state of Wisconsin’s handling of the evidence.
Kewaunee County Sheriff Lee Ledvina says people are willing to talk about the Cadigan murders, but he wishes the state would be equally willing. He's been frustrated by the state's snail's pace in sifting through evidence from the double homicide of Nov. 16, 1991. Ledvina said today that he asked the state to return evidence five months ago after the state failed to analyze most of it. Instead, he turned to DNA testing, which genetically breaks down any traces of blood, semen or hair at the scene of a crime and matches it against possible suspects. It is considered 99.9 percent accurate. "We're so close to something happening by mid-December that could eliminate or enhance the suspects or suspect we've been looking for," he said. He said the only explanation he got from the state was that the crime lab was clogged with cases. He's also waiting to find out whether the federal government has any photographs that satellites may have taken of the Casco area from the day of the murders.
In 1994, without any promising leads, investigators turned over their case files to the FBI. Kewaunee County Sheriff Todd Chaney, the third sheriff to oversee the investigation, said “It’s a we-need-a-break case.” Despite hundreds of interviews and DNA testing, the investigation was not moving.
Fading from Attention
In 1995, the Cadigan sisters’ murders started to disappear from the press, with noticeably fewer stories getting published. As with any cold case, leads had dried up and momentum slowed.
Then, in November, 1996, five years after the murders, a major development. Under the headline “Solution to 5-year-old murders may be near,” the Press-Gazette reported:
Just days away from the five-year anniversary of the murder of two elderly women here, investigators say arrests are likely soon. "We've got suspects. We're coming close in the investigation and I think you'll see criminal charges pretty soon," Kewaunee County District Attorney Jackson Main said this morning. "Pretty soon is a relative term, but it won't be a year from now. It'll be well short of that."
In December of 1996, Beth A. LaBatte, a 29-year-old Green Bay woman was charged with murder in the slayings. From the earliest reporting on LaBatte, the arrest of a second suspect was characterized as imminent.
In February of 1997, LaBatte pleaded not guilty. Just weeks later, a second person was charged in the death of the Cadigan sisters: Charles Benoit.
Communication from the authorities was sparse at that early stage, with trials pending, but the narrative seemed to be: LaBatte was a drug user known for robbery, and Benoit was an ex-boyfriend that investigators saw as a co-perpetrator.
In May of 1997, however, in a sign of things to come, a judge ruled the evidence in the case was not strong. Under the headline “Murder charges reduced in deaths of Cadigan sisters,” the Appleton Post-Crescent reported:
A murder charge against one suspect in the 1991 killings of two elderly sisters in their rural Casco home has been reduced. Charles Benoit, 42, of Sturgeon Bay, is now charged with two counts of felony murder instead of two counts of being party to first-degree intentional homicide. [...] The new charge against Benoit alleges the killings occurred as a result of his role in an armed robbery, [Kewaunee County Assistant District Attorney Elma] Anderson said. Last week following a preliminary hearing, Circuit Judge Dennis Luebke ruled the evidence against Benoit did not support the intentional murder charge.
Charles Benoit was scheduled to go to trial on January 26th, 1998, on two counts of felony murder. By the summer of 1997, however, Benoit’s defense had already cried foul and requested a change of venue. They did not believe it was possible for Benoit to get a fair trial in Kewaunee County.
In October, 1997, Beth Labatte’s trial was moved to Outagamie County, and Charles Benoit’s trial was set for Ozaukee County.
I’m gonna cut to the chase, here, because the outcome of each trial would prove irrelevant. LaBatte was found guilty, but Benoit was acquitted. The truth is, the authorities had nothing on him, other than the crime of being a dirtbag burglar in unrelated cases.
However, even LaBatte’s trial and conviction stood on shaky ground. You can go through all the media reports over the history of the investigation and clearly see what happened.
The Cadigan sisters were killed by a man who left his DNA at the crime scene. It was 1991, though. It would be a few years before the OJ Simpson trial would introduce most of America to DNA science, and at the time of the Cadigan sisters’ murder, investigators could not rely on it. They had to rely on old fashioned detective work.
They arrested and charged LaBatte, a drug user who couldn’t save herself by closing her own mouth, but at some point they realized they also needed a male suspect because of the DNA and other evidence left at the crime scene.
Bang. It resulted in charges for Benoit, but the case was not strong and he was acquitted. He did not match the DNA profile left at the crime scene. In 2005, after a heavy lift by innocence project advocates, LaBatte’s trial judge overturned her conviction and she was freed. She died in a vehicle rollover in 2007.
The Cadigan Murders are Unsolved
The Cadigan sisters’ murder is today considered unsolved. I’ll be so bold as to say, we know LaBatte and Benoit did not do it. DNA might have been nascent in 1991, even 1995, but that was a long time ago.
Investigators know an unidentified male left his DNA at the crime scene.
We also know, the Cadigan sisters were murdered largely in the same fashion as the Cizauskas in Sheboyagn in 1988 — bludgeoned to death — then finished with a knife. Much like the Cizauskas, the Cadigans were elderly and unable to defend themselves.
In examining early press reports about the investigation, we know the authorities strongly suspected robbery as a motive, because the sisters’ purses were missing.
We know the unsolved Badgeman attacks on women in 1977 were similar in execution — the man got into the house, assaulted the women and robbed them, but only took things of minor value. Petty cash.
We know those attacks in 1977 were in Appleton and DePere, Wisconsin. We also know, one of the Cadigan sisters was a former schoolteacher in DePere.
I smell a coincidence on that last one, but it’s worth checking into.
Could it Have Been Ray?
If I haven’t made it really clear by now, I believe Ray Vannieuwenhoven could be the man who perpetrated the murders of Ann and Ceil Cadigan, on Saturday, November 16th, 1991. He would have been 54 years old at the time of the Cadigan sisters’ murder, a time when men usually start to feel the effects of their age and health.
Neighbors who knew the Cadigan sisters said they would not have been able to defend themselves due to their age and condition. Could the attack on the Cadigan sisters have been the sick act of an aging predator, who chose frail old women to minimize the struggle?
Here’s the most important question: How can we find out?
We have two chapters to go, and we’re gonna talk about that next.
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