Murder case on slow pace
Prosecution of the worst murder case in Rock County history might hinge on analysis of potential evidence at an East Coast lab.
Nearly 10 months ago, Danyetta Lentz and her teenage children, Scott and Nicole, were found murdered in their mobile home just south of Janesville.
Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary now refuses to talk publicly about the case.
Sheriff Bob Spoden maintains that his department did all it could and arrested the right man: James C. Koepp—a neighbor of the Lentzes in Janesville Terrace, a mobile-home park on Highway 51.
But O'Leary did not file murder charges. He said then—and has said monthly until now—that he did not have enough evidence to prove Koepp's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
He has said repeatedly that he was waiting for evidence to be analyzed.
People familiar with the investigation said the state crime lab could not analyze a potentially crucial piece of evidence found at the crime scene. It sent the evidence to the FBI, which, in turn, farmed it out to a private lab somewhere on the East Coast.
That was about four months ago.
O'Leary said then he anticipated getting a report in four months.
It's anybody's guess how much urgency Rock County's worst crime in history has at an out-of-state laboratory.
The evidence might be the thread that neatly ties up the rest of a messy, perplexing case.
If it doesn't, O'Leary still faces the tough choices he now has: Whether and how to charge Koepp in the murders of Danyetta, Scott and Nicole Lentz.
Meanwhile, Koepp, 48, is in prison on a four-year sentence for recklessly endangering safety and third-offense drunken driving. The convictions stem from a chase on which he led deputies when he was supposed to be talking to detectives about the Lentz murders.
Other factors might be affecting the prosecution of the case:
Koepp's prison sentence on the chase convictions gave the district attorney breathing room in filing murder charges. Once a criminal case has begun, a defendant can demand a speedy trial, forcing the prosecution to trial within 90 days.
If a defendant is acquitted at trial, he or she cannot be tried again for the same crime because of the constitutional ban on double jeopardy.
Koepp's guilty pleas gave O'Leary time to wait for analysis of every bit of evidence and build the best case possible, but some observers think the delay also removes the case's sense of urgency.
Besides sheriff's detectives, the crime lab sent its own team of investigators to the murder scene. Two investigating agencies and the DA's office have been communicating among themselves, raising the possibility of miscommunication.
Most of the crime lab's analysis and many reports have come back to Rock County, but O'Leary apparently still is waiting for the lab's summary report.
When prosecutors file criminal complaints, they write a narrative of how they think the crime occurred and what the defendant's role was in the crime. The prosecution must prove the elements of a criminal complaint beyond reasonable doubt to win a conviction.
How one man killed an adult and two teens in the relatively cramped interior of a mobile home is one of the case's perplexing mysteries. The victims were stabbed and strangled. No gun was involved.
Koepp once was convicted of the simultaneous sexual assaults of two women at knifepoint.
Narratives in criminal complaints often report that the defendant admitted his or her role in the crime. Or they cite witnesses who put defendants at crime scenes and/or ascribe motives to defendants. Criminal complaints regularly cite physical evidence incriminating the defendant.
The Lentz murders apparently have no witness, so the crime lab's theory of how they were killed—based on professional analysis of the crime scene and physical evidence collected there and elsewhere—appears crucial to writing the narrative for a criminal complaint.
Spoden knows what the lab's analyses and reports have been so far, and he hasn't changed his opinion that Koepp is the killer, so apparently there's no evidence clearing Koepp.
The sheriff has said repeatedly that Koepp is the sole suspect, but convincing a jury that one man killed three people without a gun could prove difficult.
O'Leary lost a murder case in 1997 against Nathan Briarmoon and Joseph Bequette in the beating death of Russell Miller. It was a case the community thought would be a slam-dunk.
The prosecution had a witness who told the jurors she sat in the car while the defendants went into Miller's home and bludgeoned him to death. They bragged of what they did immediately after the killing, the witness told the jury.
The jurors didn't believe her. The defendants went free.
Earlier this year, O'Leary was ready to try Shawn Brooks for the first-degree murder of Julienne McGuire, a Janesville resident found slain in her office in downtown Beloit in March 2006.
DNA evidence found on McGuire's body led investigators to Brooks. A murder conviction again looked like a lock.
But just minutes before picking a jury, O'Leary and Brooks' defense attorney reached a plea agreement. Brooks pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide, attempted first-degree sexual assault and armed robbery by use of force. He faces a maximum of 130 years of prison and extended supervision when he is sentenced Dec. 21.
"That was the hardest decision I had to make as district attorney," O'Leary said at the time. "I had to weigh the desire to take the case to trial for vindication and closure for family members against the responsibility I have to protect the community.
"It was too great a risk to take a chance on a jury verdict," the district attorney said. "There's always a risk with a jury trial."