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The house where a tragic memory lives

Families of six rampage victims are thwarted in trying to burn down the crime site.

June 08, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CRANDON, WIS. — There were seven wakes. Seven funerals.

For nine days in a row, residents of this town of nearly 2,000 wore the same suits and black dresses each day, and carefully hung them up at night to wear again the next.

They all knew -- or were related to -- the six young people slain here at a homecoming house party in October, a fusillade of violence that changed this logging town forever.

At the service for 20-year-old Bradley Schultz, his mother, Dianne, hugged husbands and wives, neighbors and out-of-towners. Everyone in town was welcome. Even Laurel and Steve Peterson went -- the parents of Tyler Peterson, the spurned boyfriend and local law enforcement officer who shot the six young people and later turned a gun on himself.

Five days later, the Petersons returned to Praise Chapel Community Church with Tyler's casket.

His was the last funeral and the last burial in Lakeside Cemetery. A few relatives of the victims had stopped by before the service to comfort Laurel and Steve. They were joined by hundreds of other townsfolk, who came to find reason amid the unthinkable.

"We're all parents," said Lee Smith, mother of shooting victim Aaron Smith. "We were all in pain."

As the weeks passed, the community gradually learned to live with the loss. But in a town so small, it was impossible to get much distance from the horror of that night. Especially with the scene of the tragedy, a weathered, 108-year-old wooden house, sitting catty-corner from the post office, a block from the local newspaper and less than three blocks from the library.

Dianne Schultz, and everybody else in town, cannot avoid it. Though Dianne is legally blind, she can make out the shadowy white outline, the sag of the porch's wooden slats, even the gray rectangle of a new front door, replacing the one Tyler kicked in.

As the parents and families of the slain young people slowly learned to talk to one another about their common pain, they found solace in a common desire: to destroy the house where it all happened.

Seeking catharsis

There was plenty of precedent. An apartment building in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed many of his victims. A McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif., after James Huberty fatally shot 21 people and injured 19. An Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., where Charles Carl Roberts IV shot 10 young girls, killing five. All three were torn down.

But for Dianne Schultz, a backhoe wouldn't do. She felt the house needed to be burned down in a catharsis of fuel and flame, leaving nothing behind but the smell of smoke and a pile of ash.

The other families felt the same. Once it burned, they would no longer fear passing the house. They would no longer worry that someone would take some dark memento of this town's worst moments and their haunted memories.

Asking a team of local firefighters to intentionally torch a house is a fairly common request in certain corners of the Midwest. Since July 1, 2007, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been notified of 155 residences slated to be burned down this way.

And few people would miss 201 N. Hazeldell Ave. For as long as anyone in town can remember, the house built in 1900 has been a rental property -- a place to flop, not a home to cherish. By the time Paul Murray, a local real estate speculator and aspiring musician, bought the place in 1991, the house had been cut into three apartments and a second story had been added.

Paul lived in the studio upstairs. When his daughter Jordanne graduated from Crandon High School last year, he offered a downstairs apartment to her.

Unit B was close. Paul thought Jordanne -- Tyler's ex-girlfriend -- could holler upstairs if she needed anything. Money. Food. Help.

It was Paul who discovered the bodies: his 18-year-old daughter, in the kitchen; Katrina McCorkle and LiAnna Thomas, both 17, in the bedroom; Bradley and Aaron, 20, in the living room; and 14-year-old Lindsey Stahl, crouched between them.

Their grieving families formed a nonprofit organization, the Fountain of Youth Memorial Fund. Headed up by local community leaders, all of whom had strong ties to the victims, they would help handle the details of buying the house and arranging the burn.

But first they had to raise the money to buy it. The price tag: $71,341, a princely sum in Wisconsin's second-poorest county.

Paul had moved out of the house the day after the shooting. He asked the committee to pay what property assessors had estimated the house would sell for before the shooting occurred.

There was little interest from others, especially given the condition the house was in.

Blood had soaked through the living room and bedroom floors. It seeped into the plaster walls, staining the wooden studs behind them. There were even drops in the back corner of the bedroom closet.

State criminal investigators, before closing the case, had sent crews to remove every shred of evidence from the scene. They cut away holes in the flooring and stripped down the walls to the house's bare bones.

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