RIDGELAND, Wis. — After almost four decades, law enforcement officers and DNA genealogists have identified the human remains discovered by loggers in a wooded area near Ridgeland, Wis., in 1982.
Now, Barron County Sheriff’s Department investigators must solve another mystery: Who killed Kraig King of White Bear Lake?
The remains of King, a 1979 graduate of White Bear Lake High School, were found on Sept. 21, 1982, by loggers working in a wooded area on private land just off Wisconsin Highway 25, about 4 miles north of Ridgeland.
An autopsy determined that King had died by homicide in either April or May 1982. He suffered “three puncture wounds to the chest area with a sharp object that were so deep they left cut marks on the victim’s thoracic vertebra,” according to police reports. His skull and lower jaw were found about three feet away from his skeleton.
King, who was an adult, was never reported missing, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said, and the case eventually went cold.
“1982 was a long time ago,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday, Jan. 7. “People did things differently back then. There’s no right or wrong. Law enforcement was done differently in 1982 vs. 1992 vs. 2002. … Hopefully, now, the family can have some closure.”
King’s parents, Paul and Judy King, declined to comment when reached by phone at their house in White Bear Lake.
“This is very, very painful,” she said.
Investigators from the Barron County Sheriff’s Department informed the Kings about a week ago that their son’s remains had been identified.
“They were happy to know where he was, and that we know it was him,” Fitzgerald said. “They were relieved about that. All those years, you don’t know that answer, and now you know that answer. Obviously, it’s hard to hear the murder part of it, so now we work the second part of this murder investigation.”
Volunteer genealogists with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed to identify unidentified remains using forensic genealogy, are credited with discovering King’s identity.
After uploading King’s DNA to a GEDmatch.com database on Dec. 12, they had a match almost immediately, said forensic genealogist Jenny Lecus.
“It was our fastest ‘solve’ ever,” said Lecus, who lives in Franklin, Wis., a city in southern Milwaukee County, and served as the team lead on the case. “We got it down to that family almost immediately.”
Lecus contacted Barron County investigators, who checked databases and determined there was no indication of “proof of life” for King after the date the remains were found, she said. “They were able to contact family, and they were finally able to make that confirmation.”
Figuring out the identity of someone who has been a “John or Jane Doe” is exhilarating, Lecus said.
“We’re overjoyed,” she said. “There’s excitement every single time. Your heart starts beating, and you have butterflies in your stomach. … But then you start thinking about the family. It’s bittersweet. At least they’ll know, but it’s not good news. We absolutely hope that it will lead to finding the person who committed the crime.”
Barron County officials learned about DNA Doe Project from an agent with the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation who helped investigate the Jayme Closs case. Officials submitted the remains of King and bones that were found in 2017 south of Barron that belonged to a man who died of a gunshot wound to his head area; Lecus is working on this case as well, she said.
The bones were found about 6 miles from where King’s remains were found in 1982 “on the same road, just off of Highway 25,” Fitzgerald said. “It sounds suspicious, but they don’t appear to be connected. It’s a 12-mile road. It’s a corridor to Minneapolis through Menomonie.”
Melissa Cowley-Huff, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., said Tuesday that she was glad the mystery of King’s identity had been solved. Her father, Michael Cowley, of Barron, Wis., who died in 2016, was one of the loggers who found the body.
“They kept smelling something,” she said. “They thought a deer had died nearby and they kept having to work around it, so he said they stopped working to try and find where it was so they could bury it, so that they didn’t have to keep smelling it. … We always wondered if they found out who he was or what happened.”
Sara Schoetz Werzel, of White Bear Township, learned the news from a Facebook page devoted to the White Bear Lake Class of 1979. She and King used to “walk to kindergarten together,” she said, and their families both went to St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church in White Bear Lake.
“I saw it, and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s Kraig King,’ ” she said. “I hope all can be put at rest now, and there will be closure for his family and friends.”
The Barron County Sheriff’s Department is asking the public for any information on King and why he would have been in the area in 1982. “We’ve already gotten some calls,” Fitzgerald said. “Somebody knows something.”
“What we have learned in the past year is, you never give up hope. No matter what, you never give up.”