Milton officials in shock, grief over apparent officer suicide

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Neil Johnson
Monday, October 21, 2013

JANESVILLE—City of Milton flags were at half-staff, and city officials were in shock and grief Monday over the death of Milton police Lt. John Conger, who was found dead of an apparent suicide Sunday, authorities said.

As detectives from the Janesville Police Department continued investigating the death late Sunday and into Monday, Milton officials grappled with the task of informing Conger's family and city and police staff of the tragic news.

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier said he was still at a loss over Conger's apparent suicide. By Monday, the “what” and “how” were clear. What was still unknown: Why.    

“I don't know what happened. I don't know,” Milton Mayor Brett Frazier said Monday.

Conger, 43, was a 21-year veteran of the Milton Police Department. He had been the small department's administrative lieutenant since 2009 and was actively involved in public programs focusing on Milton youths.

A jogger found Conger's body along a public trail about one mile north of the intersection of Kennedy Road and Highway 14 just before 5:30 p.m. Sunday, according to statements released Monday afternoon by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Rock County Coroner's Office.

Conger's body was on the trail in an area just west of Kennedy Road and south of Terapin Trail, near a residential subdivision.

An autopsy Monday morning at the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office revealed Conger apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Department of Justice said.

On Monday, state authorities and Janesville police continued to investigate.

Jerry Schuetz was Milton's police chief and Conger's boss from 2008 to 2010 before he became city administrator. By Monday afternoon, Schuetz's voice was raw from emotion and making phone calls all Sunday night and Monday.

Schuetz and Police Chief Dan Layber were trying to lead their own ranks through grief counseling as the news sunk in of the loss of the policeman who spent his whole career in Milton.

“There's so many unanswered questions,” Schuetz said.

As far as he knew, Schuetz said, there were no signs that anything was amiss with Conger before his apparent suicide.

“There was no indication that this would have ever happened.” Schuetz said. “He (Conger) had a tough-guy persona. If something would come up, he'd deal with it in his own way, and he'd process it and move on.”

Conger leaves behind a wife and two children.

Students and staff at Milton schools, where Conger was a fixture during officer visits and anti-bullying activities, had grief counselors available, although Conger's death was not being discussed openly in the classroom, Superintendent Tim Schigur said.

The city has called off all municipal meetings until Wednesday, and flags are at half-staff. Schuetz recounted Conger's place as a lawman and leader in the community.

“I speak from the heart,” Schuetz told The Gazette on Monday. “It's a very, very sad day for our city. John Conger was a tremendous community leader. If you were old or young, you looked up to him.”

In 1999, Conger witnessed a horrific Interstate accident near Milton in which 14 magazine salespeople were thrown from a delivery van and seven were killed. The van's driver had been trying to change seats with another person, according to reports.  

After the crash, Conger and a father of a woman killed in the crash pushed state legislation to tightly regulate traveling sales crews. 

In the last two years, Conger had spearheaded an anti-bullying campaign in the Milton School District and pushed a youth program that rewards students who wear bicycle helmets while riding.

After a rash of youth heroin overdoses at a park in Milton in 2009 and a Milton-area boy's fatal prescription medication overdose in 2010, Conger helped organize a countywide drug drop-off box network for unwanted prescription drugs.

Layber said Conger was heavily invested in making Milton a safer and more secure place for children.

“That was a huge focus of his. He was very dedicated to children, to protecting them. His education and prevention methods, he devoted a lot of time to it. He didn't do it because it was part of his job. He truly did believe in it and cared about it as a person.”

Mayor Brett Frazier acknowledged the difficulty that officials were having coming to terms with an apparent police officer suicide. Thought it seems more unusual in a small town such as Milton, suicide is a leading cause of death among police officers.

“This is the kind of thing we don't have a lot of experience with here. Unfortunately, in the police world, this is not uncommon. Far more common that you might think,” Frazier said.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the number of officers committing suicide in 2012 was twice as high as the number of officers killed during felony assaults or in traffic accidents.

Sixteen Janesville police officers and detectives responded to the trail where Conger was found Sunday, according to the department's call log. A fire department spokesman said firefighters responded, as well.

Police later called in the state Division of Criminal Investigation and began an hours-long joint investigation while officers blocked off a mile of Kennedy Road, Janesville Lt. Terry Sheridan said.

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