Sisters’ murders unsolved years after killer’s DNA freed woman,
Ann and Cecilia Cadigan were brutally murdered on their family farm in Casco, Wis., on Nov. 16, 1991. A decade after locking up the wrong person, the real killer of the Cadigan sisters continues to elude the Kewaunee County sheriff’s department. Josh Clark/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
CASCO – Cecilia and Ann Cadigan lived in a white, two-story farmhouse about 20 miles east of Green Bay. The two former school teachers had few visitors to their family’s 1910-era farm before the day someone showed up with a pool stick.
A grain elevator calendar served as their daily diary. “Nov. 16, 1991, Noon, 43 Degrees,” Cecilia Cadigan jotted down on her 85th birthday. The sisters had planned to eat an early Swiss steak dinner and were expected to attend the 4:30 p.m. Mass at the nearby Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
Timeline: Cadigan sister murders
They never made it. About 6 p.m., neighbors found the sisters fatally stabbed and brutally beaten. Ann, who was 90 years old, was slumped over in her favorite chair. Cecilia’s body was under a toppled couch. Blood stains were smeared into the living room’s rose-colored carpet. The victims’ purses were stolen.
“They were in the living room, murdered,” said neighbor Larry “Tex” Dellis. “Everybody was in shock.”
Kewaunee County investigators caught what could have been a major break in the case: Someone, the likely killer, had left his genetic material all over the crime scene, including on one of the weapons used in the slayings. But they didn’t know it at the time because DNA technology hadn’t yet emerged as a powerful tool to identify perpetrators.
Instead, authorities followed up on suspects based on hunches and circumstantial evidence, discounting each one until they focused on Beth LaBatte of Green Bay as a prime suspect. LaBatte and her boyfriend Chuck Benoit of Sturgeon Bay, had committed a slew of burglaries, break-ins and thefts across northeastern Wisconsin, and they were charged in the sisters’ deaths more than five years after the bodies were discovered.
The village of Casco, population 600, was relieved that the nightmarish murders had been solved. That feeling of relief didn’t last.
An Outagamie County jury found LaBatte guilty in 1997, but her trial judge, Dennis Luebke, overturned her convictions in November 2005. Charges were formally dismissed in August 2006. A year after she was exonerated, LaBatte died in a rollover crash near Redgranite.
As for Benoit, an Ozaukee County jury found him not guilty at his 1998 trial. Even so, he said he has forever been tainted by the wrongful prosecution. “This crap is still over my head,” said Benoit, who is now in his 60s, lives in Green Bay, and says he has turned his life around since his younger days.
When the cases against LaBatte and Benoit unraveled due to DNA evidence that pointed to their innocence, the Cadigan murder investigation went inactive. Their killer or killers have escaped justice for 26-plus years.
The Cadigan case highlights a common dilemma in DNA exonerations across the country: The same law enforcement agency involved in the initial miscarriage of justice often remains in control of the case.
For many agencies, a flawed murder investigation is something they would rather not reopen and pursue aggressively.
“There are cases that law enforcement do take the initiative to follow up on the new leads, but in many, many, cases they still don’t want to admit that they made a mistake,” said Jim Trainum, a retired Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police homicide detective who has published a book pertaining to wrongful convictions.
“Too often, we want to sit on our hands, and we depend on technology instead of asking ourselves, ‘What went wrong and is there anything else we can do on this case?'” Trainum said.
Case goes inactive
LaBatte’s wrongful conviction “brings up a lot of old hurt,” said her mother, Maria Brunette. The Algoma woman sat through the trial where her daughter was convicted of a double murder and given a life sentence while the real killer eluded justice.
“I would love to see the person go to prison,” she said. “They should be prosecuted.”
This month marks 12 years since Kewaunee County learned that none of the DNA evidence recovered from the Cadigan crime scene matched LaBatte. According to 2005 court documents, DNA extracted from one of the recovered murder weapons and one of the victims came from an unknown male attacker.
Asked why his agency hasn’t publicized the case for new leads, Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski said, “I don’t know if it’s productive and beneficial” because the Cadigan murders are already well-known around the area.
“As a community, it’s always something that weighs on our mind,” Joski said. “I think if something substantive came forward, I’d expect we would move forward. I’ve never had anyone that we could have taken to the court for charging.”
Joski hopes the FBI’s criminal justice DNA database will eventually unmask the killer. Every year, more criminals get added to the offender database, increasing the odds for a DNA match, he said.
“Samples have been submitted to allow things to (go) further in the investigation,” Joski said. “It’s just that a long time has elapsed … We can’t just develop or create a suspect.”
The killer had left DNA on one of his murder weapons — a bloody pool stick, which snapped during the slayings. Its sales tag was traced to a Kmart in Sturgeon Bay. The killer also left DNA on a pair of white socks he used to wipe up Cecilia Cadigan’s blood. Additional DNA was extracted from two hairs found on Cecilia Cadigan’s body, court documents show.
Keith Findley, co-director at the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said law enforcement’s reliance on the federal criminal database to uncover a DNA match is one of the reasons the Cadigan murders have become a cold case. His innocence team took up LaBatte’s case and won her exoneration.
“I’m a little surprised and I’m disappointed,” Findley said. “We had asked for them to reopen the investigation. … We never really got any additional information from them.”
Findley’s team unraveled the flawed case of former Kewaunee County prosecutors Jackson Main and Elma Anderson. Main and Anderson convicted LaBatte with no physical evidence and no eyewitnesses linking her and Benoit to the crime scene.
Instead, the two prosecutors relied on now-discredited testimony from a handful of prisoners who testified that fellow inmate LaBatte confessed to murdering and robbing the elderly sisters.
Main, who has since died, speculated in the courtroom that LaBatte experienced a drug-induced blackout, causing her alter ego known as “Bad Beth” to go on a wild rampage inside the farmhouse.
“Bad Beth would know what happened,” Main told the jury.
Even though DNA tests later proved LaBatte was innocent, some local residents still wish she had never been released from prison.
“DNA got her off,” scoffed Tex Dellis, whose brother and sister-in-law discovered the bodies of the Cadigan sisters. “I do feel she was involved, but this case has never been totally solved.”
That kind of sentiment — fueled in part by the Sheriff’s Department’s strategy in trying to solve the cold case — has left LaBatte’s family infuriated. Her mother contends the decision to let the double murders go by the wayside is appalling.
“No matter how hard you try to clear her name, it just won’t work in this county,” Brunette said. “I used to call the sheriff’s office up, and I checked to see if it was getting solved. I was always being told, ‘It’s under investigation. It’s under investigation.’ Well, if you’re not collecting any DNA from anybody, then I’m sure you’re not going to get any hits.”
Long before LaBatte and Benoit were arrested, authorities spent three unproductive years targeting a young man from Colorado as their prime suspect. The man, then 22, had lived in rural Casco and several people told investigators that he had an explosive temper, was supposedly broke and regularly shot pool, court documents reflect.
The man drew heightened suspicion because he moved back to Colorado just four days after the slayings. During the 1990s, he denied involvement and a warrant to search his station wagon in Colorado yielded no forensic evidence. By 1995, investigators disregarded him as a suspect.
In the months after the killings, investigators for Kewaunee County and the Wisconsin Department of Justice also explored whether an inheritance dispute provoked the murders. The Cadigan sisters had never married and had no children and it was revealed their estate was worth at least $500,000.
But that angle never panned out.
A male relative of the Cadigans from Milwaukee drew suspicion after investigators learned that he cryptically asked a girlfriend whether she believed he could be the killer, Wisconsin Department of Justice records show. The man often visited Green Bay and the Fox Valley on weekends. According to DOJ reports, he told investigators “he had not been to the Cadigan residence since … 1989 which appears to be contradicted by information received from … a friend of the Cadigans.”
In 1992, investigators told the man his alibi was shaky. He “replied that he has thought about Nov. 16, 1991 (the date of the murders) and can’t produce any new information.” The two investigators spent days trying to persuade the man to take a polygraph test. He declined. It’s unclear why investigators backed off the man as a suspect.
By 1995, investigators latched on to the theory that LaBatte committed the slayings while Benoit waited outside the farmhouse in his car and served as her lookout.
But at Benoit’s trial, his lawyer David Christian of Green Bay presented evidence that his client and LaBatte didn’t even meet until February 1992 — three months after the slayings. Although Benoit was acquitted, he went to prison for about seven years for his role in burglarizing a Manitowoc County supper club.
During LaBatte’s post-conviction appeal, Benoit furnished a DNA sample to prove he was not the killer, he recently told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
“I was told it wasn’t a match,” he said.
The case left Benoit feeling bitter for years. Unlike LaBatte, he is not classified as an exonoree because he was found not guilty. After prison, Benoit said he worked in Appleton as a metal fabricator until 2011 when he suffered a heart attack and underwent triple bypass surgery.
“I avoid Kewaunee County at all costs,” Benoit said. “I’ve had an opportunity to rent places there, but won’t do it. I don’t have any respect for them at all. Whether they knew what they were doing is up in the air.”
Benoit, too, is upset that local sheriff’s deputies haven’t arrested the person or persons who killed the Cadigan sisters.
“I don’t think they have a clue,” Benoit said. “It’s just unreal to just let it go.”
He and LaBatte never reconnected after her murder charges were dismissed in 2006.
“I wanted to see the past stay in the past,” Benoit said.
After her exoneration, LaBatte moved to Fond du Lac County where she lived with a boyfriend. On Sept. 1, 2007, she went to a Wautoma tavern and later tried to drive home. She lost control of the truck on Wisconsin 21 near Redgranite and hit a ditch. LaBatte was thrown from the truck and died of massive injuries. Authorities in Waushara County determined her blood alcohol level was 0.21 percent, more than double the legal limit for drivers.
‘God knows I’m innocent’
The weathered farmhouse where the Cadigan sisters lived and the red barns on the property still stand. The sisters share a tombstone in Casco at the peaceful cemetery across from their church.
Dellis, the neighbor, now owns the 130-acre farm. The house has served as a rental property over the years. He’s thought about demolishing the dwelling, but that would cost him thousands of dollars.
Today, 26 years later, the haunting double murders stir nothing but awful memories.
Dellis is confident the case will never be solved.
“I feel it was bungled from the start; I’ll just leave it at that,” he said. “That’s the trouble with this case. The public would like it solved, but time has passed too much and the principal people are gone.”
Findley, of Wisconsin’s Innocence Project, questions why solving the Cadigan murders hasn’t been a top investigative priority. Why is Kewaunee County content to let the case go inactive?
“Sometimes, there’s a reluctance to ask about why errors were made,” Findley said. “I’m not judging what was done or what they could be doing because I don’t know.
“Certainly, there should not be any reluctance because someone was wrongfully convicted in the first place. It’s a horrible crime and the reality is it’s unsolved, and that’s problematic.”
September marks the 10-year anniversary since LaBatte’s tragic and troubled life came to an abrupt end.
The words she spoke at her 1998 sentencing still ring true:
“God knows that I’m innocent. I’m not guilty, and I know that the Cadigan sisters and Kewaunee County will not be able to rest until the real killer is found.”
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