Searching for a break in 66-year-old case
JANESVILLE—The mother of a classmate was the last person to see Georgia Jean Weckler alive, watching the 8-year-old girl walk up the lane to her family's farm outside Fort Atkinson after school May 1, 1947.
Weckler's family reported her missing that night, and although hundreds of people took part in searches for her, each came up fruitless.
Her body, her clothes, even the mail the classmate's mother saw her carrying up the drive were never found, and the case grew cold as the decades ground on.
Until a break last Tuesday.
That's when authorities say a man contacted Janesville Police and the Rock County Sheriff's Office, telling them he knew a place where Weckler's body might have been buried: A shallow grave in a vacant lot on the fringe of Janesville's northeast side.
Specially trained dogs brought to the lot on Friday indicated the presence of human remains in an area the man said she could be, sparking a search that intensified Monday.
Dozens of law enforcement officials—from Janesville, Rock and Jefferson counties, K-9 search squads and the state crime lab in Madison—converged on the plot of land at the intersection of North Wright and East Rotamer roads.
Men and women dug up the ground and sifted buckets of earth through mesh screens, looking for the trace of Georgia Jean Weckler that has eluded authorities for 66 years.
CREWS DIG, SIFT THROUGH PLOT
As of Monday afternoon, the painstaking search had not turned up any remains, Capt. Todd Christiansen said. But the search was far from over.
“This is just very slow,” he said, “but you have to be meticulous.”
The crew of Rock County sheriff's deputies and Janesville police officers focused their search on a nearly 5,000-square-foot section at the back corner of the lot, farthest from either street.
Authorities split that section into a grid of 10-foot by 10-foot squares, and were hoping to dig 4 feet deep.
After nearly a day's work, crews had dug halfway down into two of the squares, with little to show for it but a growing pile of sifted dirt off to one side.
There has been talk of using excavation equipment to dig up the land, but Christiansen said he was concerned it wouldn't be as precise as sifting the dirt by hand, searching for the tiniest fragment of evidence.
Crews would break for the night before the sun went down, he said, and get back to work Tuesday morning.
Their search area is near the lot's property line and a home that records indicate has been there since the late-1990s.
Much of the land around the lot has been developed only in the past few years, turning farmland and woodland into a suburban neighborhood of homes and an assisted living facility.
Plans are in place to develop the lot soon, said Doug Marklein, whose company Marklein Builders, is involved in a construction project on the land.
Crews recently had cleared it of trees and heavy brush, which cover what other undeveloped parts of the neighborhood remain.
A FAMOUS, COLD CASE
According to Gazette archives, Georgia Weckler was abducted in daylight, within sight of her parents' farm six miles west of Fort Atkinson off Highway 12.
“Georgia Jean was given a ride to her farm lane by Mrs. Carl Floerke, whose daughter attended the same school,” according to a Gazette story from May 1, 1967.
“Mrs. Floerke saw the girl take the family's mail from the mail box along the highway and stroll down the lane. She was never seen again,” the story said.
The blonde-haired Georgia was last seen wearing a pink cardigan and jeans and had planned to pick flowers in the woods for May baskets.
The FBI was involved in the case, and despite what was then one of the most intensive hunts in the history of the area, neither the girl nor any abductors were found.
“No evidence ever turned up,” Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jerry Haferman said on Monday.
A Richland Center man, Buford Sennett, serving a life term at Waupun State Prison for a different murder and kidnapping, confessed to the Weckler abduction, but he changed his story several times.
Roger Reinel, who worked on the case and later became the Jefferson County Sheriff, considered Sennett the likely suspect, but told the Gazette in 1967 he checked out a half-dozen leads a year.
“I don't imagine it will ever be closed,” he said. “It will always be on file.”
The uncertainty over her disappearance tormented Weckler's family, according to the Gazette story published on the 20th anniversary of her disappearance. Her father, George Weckler, died in 1956 convinced she was alive.
Authorities continued to receive tips for the case, Haferman said. Until last week, the most recent was in 1999.
“But those never went anywhere,” he said.
LITTLE INFORMATION ON MAN WHO TIPPED POLICE
Authorities have been tight-lipped about the source that pointed them toward the lot where Weckler might be buried.
The Rock County man—police have not released his name or his age—told authorities he saw suspicious activity in the area around the time Weckler went missing. When he read news reports about her disappearance, he “put two and two together,” Haferman said.
“He had information about this person being missing and that they were possibly in this area,” Christiansen said.
When authorities took him out to the land, he showed them where he thought Weckler may have been buried. The dogs seemed to substantiate his claim, Christiansen said, indicating to police human remains were there.
What authorities won't say, though, is how the man knew where the burial site was—or why it took him more than six decades to come forward.
He is not considered a person of interest in Weckler's disappearance, Christiansen said.
In an investigation that has spanned 66 years, he said, this latest chapter has only just begun.
-- Reporter Gina Duwe contributed to this story