Life took a dark twist on July 21, 1981. Around sunset, several blocks from our neighborhood, Sara Avon, 6, failed to return home after playing outside with other kids. Posters of the gap-toothed girl in her soccer jersey were plastered on storefronts.
Sara Avon was never found. Her abductor was never brought to justice. Her case has always stuck with me, So in recent months, I set out to investigate one of Wisconsin's tragic small-town cases: the May 14, 1983, disappearance of 5-year-old Bobby Joe Fritz.
My research led me to focus on the life of Michael Menzer, a convicted child molester who law enforcement officials believe may have been involved in multiple kidnappings of missing boys.
A native of Sheboygan, Menzer frequently drove to Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Virginia during the 1970s and 1980s to participate in Civil War re-enactments. He owned vintage uniforms, swords and black powder guns. He possessed several Daniel Boone-type toy guns, dolls and stuffed animals, items he used to gain affection and trust from unsuspecting children, search warrant records show.
"There is absolutely no doubt in this investigator's mind that Michael Menzer is the most dangerous pedophile he has studied," Wisconsin Department of Justice special agent Michael Vendola wrote in a letter to federal judge Terry Evans in 1993.
My review of Menzer's criminal history illustrates how public attitudes about crimes against children have shifted dramatically over the years. He was first arrested in 1980 after being accused of molesting a pair of brothers in Sheboygan's Big Brothers organization. Menzer was charged with one count of first-degree sexual assault, but, despite the serious nature of the offense, a judge released him on a signature bond, meaning Menzer remained free pending trial.
His arrest had consequences, though. Menzer was forced to resign as a middle school art teacher. He was removed from Big Brothers. The YMCA terminated its longtime boys swimming instructor and banned him from their facilities. Menzer's access to young boys around Sheboygan was being restricted, and he knew it.
On Oct. 25, 1980, while Menzer was free on bond, Brad Machett, 10, vanished from his Riverwest neighborhood in Milwaukee, hours after visiting a Boys Club facility near his neighborhood in Milwaukee. On Halloween, Brad's body was discovered in a tall row of corn 38 miles from Sheboygan. He was beaten and strangled.
A witness told police that she saw a young man with wavy brown hair coming out of the cornfield two days after Brad vanished. The man drove a clean, but older-model light-blue van with distinct white lettering on the back.
Both the police sketch of the suspect and the vehicle's description bore striking similarities to Menzer, 31. He owned a mid-1970s blue Dodge van with white decals on the back.
In 1980, there was no internet, no social media — and police departments had antiquated technology to exchange information with far-away agencies. Milwaukee police and Ozaukee County Sheriff's deputies were unfamiliar with Menzer. Other suspects were pursued.
Soon thereafter, Menzer caught a lucky break. His felony charge was reduced to fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor. The judge gave him no jail time. He got two years of probation for repeated acts of molesting a boy. There was no such thing as a state and federal sexual offender registry at the time, so few people outside Sheboygan knew about Menzer's predatory tendencies. His sexual preference, Vendola later determined, was blonde-haired boys between the ages of 6 and 14.
"Michael Menzer became more sophisticated with each arrest," Vendola wrote in 1993. "He moved away from his mother's home and ultimately took up residency at the Waldo Mill. Here he surrounded himself with innumerable visual images of juvenile males..."
In 1981, Menzer purchased a 19th century grain mill about 15 miles outside Sheboygan. He joined the Waldo Volunteer Fire Department and began selling art. He lived alone in Waldo, where he collected and produced child pornography.
Then, in 1983, Bobby Joe Fritz vanished 20 miles south of Fond du Lac.
In April 1984, Menzer emerged as the prime suspect in Bobby Joe's disappearance. Investigators learned that Menzer had created five large oil paintings of young blonde haired boys inside his residence at the Waldo Mill. The eyewitness told detectives that the oil paintings "could pass for Bobby Joe Fritz. The boys were all in a bikini swimming trunk," search warrants stated.
The tipster also saw a cut out newspaper article on Menzer's living room table "containing the picture of Bobby Joe Fritz and an article about him." The investigation revealed Menzer had a strong familiarity with Campbellsport, only 20 miles away.
Tucked inside Menzer's notepads, investigators found a collection of cut out newspaper articles about Bobby Joe.
Criminal profilers believe that serial killers and pedophiles are fond of saving newspaper articles and other mementos of their crimes to relive their fantasies and maintain a sense of control over their victims.
But without Bobby Joe's body, authorities were reluctant to charge Menzer in Bobby Joe's disappearance. Instead, Sheboygan County charged him with three felonies for sexual exploitation of a child for the videotaping incidents.
In 1986, Menzer pleaded guilty to the child exploitation charges but by then, he wanted the court to see him as a family man. He got married to a divorced mother from the Philippines with two small boys, and in 1985 she bore Menzer a son. Menzer's sentencing judge in Sheboygan gave him six years of probation. He avoided incarceration once again.
Back in Waldo, Menzer regularly molested his wife's three small boys, court records stated. He threatened to have his wife deported if she reported him to police. The marriage became a disaster, and by 1990, people around Waldo noticed Menzer spending an inordinate amount of time down at the Waldo Mill Pond, the public recreation area and fishing hole behind his property.
One neighbor observed Menzer working near the dam on at least 10 different dates that summer. "Mr. Menzer had a wheelbarrow, a rake and possibly a shovel while working along the bank area," a search warrant affidavit from October 1990 stated.
Neighbors later came to suspect that Menzer had moved the remains of Bobby Joe near the Waldo Mill Pond — based on the horrific events of Sept. 17, 1990.
At 4 a.m. that day, Menzer set fire to his 133-year-old mill while his ex-wife and three sons slept. Menzer's stepsons, ages 7 and 8, died in the fire. Menzer's ex-wife and her 5-year-old son jumped from a third-floor window to safety. A man with puffy white hair was seen running from the fire. Menzer, the investigation uncovered, owned an identical Halloween mask, a mask that wasn't found amid the rubble.
With two dead kids on the property, authorities intensified their probe of Menzer for Bobby Joe's disappearance, but no significant clues were turned up.
For the first time, Menzer was mentioned as a prime suspect in the 1980 slaying of Milwaukee's Brad Machett. Authorities thought that some carpet fibers found on the slain boy's clothes matched the carpet taken from Menzer's family cabin at Elkhart Lake. Weeks later, a state crime lab analyst determined otherwise. The lab did not exclude Menzer as a suspect, but the results were a setback.
But if Menzer thought he would continue to beat the justice system, he was wrong.
In 1993, a federal jury in Milwaukee convicted him of two counts of arson homicide. Menzer, the court learned, had molested and sexually exploited at least 10 juvenile boys over several years.
He received a 40-year prison sentence.
In 2008, at the age of 59, Menzer died of cancer while in federal custody.
Just how many children met their fate at the hands of Menzer? We don't know, and may never know.
Perhaps modern technology, including DNA testing, can finally shed more light on Menzer's past. The families of Bobby Joe Fritz and Brad Machett deserve answers to questions that have haunted them for decades.