Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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With killer possibly on loose, students must stay alert

I’m the average UW student. Less than a month has passed since the horrific murder of fellow student Brittany Zimmermann, but I’ve returned to normalcy. The self-bans on walking home alone at night, the vigilant locking of doors, the incessant checking of university and Madison Police Department websites for leads or arrests — these all have passed.

It’s not that I’ve bought the line the university and city have been feeding me — that, because the total crime rate is generally low, the campus area is still safe. This ignores the unique terror presented by the random, unsolved murders of Zimmermann, Joel Marino and Kelly Nolan all within the past year. Most crimes included in such statistics offer the cold comfort of logic: They happen for a discernable reason and are solved.

Instead, I tell myself that the murders — not only of Zimmermann, but also those of Joel Marino and Kelly Nolan — just can’t happen to me, and that I can live as I did before without much worry.  

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The Zimmermann murder was different — it really shook me. A UW student with an apparently angelic existence, killed in the middle of the day inside her own home in a student neighborhood — you couldn’t have invented a crime more terrifying to me as a student. But the terror I felt in the days that followed has all but disappeared now.

It’s been more difficult to get past the Zimmermann murder, but the MPD’s public insinuation that they’re closing in on a homeless culprit has helped. First they revealed an aggressive investigation of the “transient population,” then the arrest of several such individuals on unrelated charges, then the detention of a particularly suspicious panhandler/former sex offender, and finally, on April 15, Lt. Joe Balles called the case a “game of DNA,” presumably, from the sequence of statements, one involving the DNA of a homeless person in custody. Given the possible alternatives, the homeless theory is comforting to me. I’d much rather attribute the boldness of Zimmermann’s slaying to a person of deranged or desperate behavior than, say, the daring psychopathic behavior common to serial killers. And Mr. Balles says the MPD knows every transient in the city, so they shouldn’t have trouble monitoring them or, eventually, finding the perpetrator. So, though the police and university warn us to remain cautious, my tendency is to proceed with an increased distrust of transients and assume that nothing else is needed to ensure my safety.  

Judging from conversations I’ve had, it seems as though this thought process is pretty common among the UW student body. But there are many reasons why it’s far from time to put our guard down.

Even if the Zimmermann killer turns out to be a homeless person already in custody, the murderers of Marino and Nolan would remain at large. Neither Marino’s killer, who the MPD describes as a 20-something male who wore a new UW hat and Puma backpack during the crime; nor Nolan’s killer, who probably owned a car, fit the bill of a homeless individual. Consequently, it’s unlikely a homeless Zimmermann murderer is also the culprit in the other cases. And those crimes are very relevant to the campus community.

Furthermore, the manner and geographic proximity of the Marino and Zimmermann crimes, as Herald columnist Gerald Cox has noted, are highly coincidental. Mr. Balles also said, “While we have no direct evidence to link the two together, certainly the … person of a reasonable mind has to question [the relation of] such events.”

The strength of the homeless theory is called into question by this admission. For if the Marino killer is the Zimmermann killer, the Zimmermann killer probably isn’t one of the homeless. And, of course, then we’d have a serial killer in our midst — the theory that has been the proverbial elephant in the living room since the day Zimmermann died. Aside from such speculation, though, we should be worried because of the simple fact that three brutal murders that have occurred in the vicinity of campus within the year remain unsolved, all seemingly random. It is horrifying to think that people in the campus community can minimize or eliminate lifestyle traits that could lead to violence and still be vulnerable to the worst of crimes.

Our need for vigilance is not a criticism of the university or the Madison Police Department. The response of Dean of Students Lori Berquam and others was rapid and comprehensive, as it needed to be.

The MPD’s lack of progress is frustrating, but they’ve visibly stepped up campus patrolling efforts and are devoting a large part of the force to solving these crimes.  Maybe they’ve even made progress they can’t yet reveal. In the end, though, because we give the police sole authority to pursue offenders and the veil of secrecy in doing so, we have no choice but to rely on them to do their best, and for their best to be good enough in times like these.

But until these murders are solved — and especially, until it has been determined that they aren’t connected — living on our once-placid campus can feel a bit like playing a giant game of Russian roulette. So please, Badgers, make sure to follow the safety guidelines provided by the university, and look out for one another.

John Sprangers ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in international studies and political science.

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