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The house where a tragic memory lives

Crime, Law and JusticeHomesFamilyJuvenile DelinquencyPropertyTrials and ArbitrationCrime

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.

The families tried to make the exterior less grim. At Christmas, they hung a plastic wreath with six tiny portraits. Friends placed an angel banner on the white siding, and parents put laminated signs with their children's names on the oak tree out front.

After that, 201 N. Hazeldell Ave., with cotton drapes in faded floral prints covering the windows, sat deserted.

The parents, desperate for a reason to get up in the morning, started to raise money.

The sister of one of the memorial fund members, funeral home owner Sue Hill, was a regular on the local craft show circuit, selling jelly jars filled with scented candles. Sue and Jordanne's cousins found a craft show being held nearby at a middle school and set up a card table just big enough for the candles and a banner with all the victims' portraits.

They figured they might sell a dozen candles at $10 apiece. At day's end, they returned home with $530 in cash, and orders for more candles.

The next batch, along with red wristbands, sold at the paper mill for $566.

Across town, residents snapped up T-shirts and sweat shirts with the young people's names printed on the back. And cash donations poured in: Some were checks for more than a thousand dollars. One worn envelope, covered with recycled stamps, held a single dollar bill and a condolence note.

When committee members started hearing that Paul was worried about their ability to raise money to buy the house, they began paying its property taxes and, later, the insurance premiums as a gesture of good faith. They covered the mortgage for four months.

Dianne, a former bank bookkeeper who is on disability because of her blindness, worked day and night selling candles and shirts and bracelets. She worked weekends, putting off chores, sitting in the lobby of the high school gym during her son Schyler's basketball games to sell the merchandise.

Lee Smith, Aaron's mother, started making bracelets with six different birthstones -- one for each of the victims.

"I worry about the day we raise enough money and pay for everything," Lee said last month, pausing while stringing beads. "I worry about the day I won't be able to focus on this, especially on the bad days."

Nowhere to hide

On a warm April morning, Dianne Schultz and Jenny Stahl, Lindsey's mother, sat side by side on metal folding chairs outside Schaefer's Food Mart, hunched over the edge of a pastel-blue table.

The two had become close in the wake of their loss. Some investigators surmised, based on the positions of the bodies, that Bradley had tried to jump in front of Lindsey to shield the pixieish girl from harm.

The mothers fidgeted with 2-inch stacks of yellow raffle tickets for a flat-screen TV. They greeted the shoppers who walked by. A few stopped to chat.

Then Laurel Peterson walked out of the grocery store, gripping a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. Such a trip was unusual for her. The Petersons had spent months trying to avoid townsfolk, according to friends. But recently they'd begun easing back into local daily life.

Laurel slowed down as she approached the table, where several other shoppers were chatting with Dianne and Jenny, and quietly greeted the women.

The group stopped talking. They ignored her.

Laurel lowered her head and hurried past.

"I can't believe she said anything," Dianne said later. "It's her son that's to blame. And she hasn't even done anything to help us get rid of the house."

Victory -- and defeat

Over the months -- with $10 T-shirts, $7 bracelets and $4 bottles of homemade dill pickles -- the fund grew to nearly $44,000. When added to donations, it was enough to buy the house and have money left over to start planning for a memorial on the land.

On April 25 the group closed on the house and picked up the keys.

But doubts had begun to surface.

At recent high school graduation parties, Dianne and her sister Rose Gerow were asked: Why don't you let it go? Why won't you let the community heal?

Neighbors grumbled about the burning plans. At the gas station, where the marquee once offered condolences to the victims' families, residents peppered Jenny Stahl with questions that made her flinch: Erasing the building won't obliterate the memories -- you know that, right?

The worst was an anonymous letter, ridiculing them for their plan to replace the house with a memorial -- a stone gazebo with six benches, surrounded by six trees and forget-me-not plants: "Will this ever end? We are trying to move on, and this will just keep it alive."

Then, as the committee members were finalizing the details of the house burning, Crandon City Atty. Lindsay Erickson called late last month and broke the news: The city won't let you burn the house, she said. Neighbors feared their own homes might be damaged.

And given that four of the six families -- who believe that local law enforcement agencies should have taken more precautions in vetting potential police officers -- were considering filing lawsuits against Crandon, or Forest County, or both, local officials decided the city couldn't be involved in destroying the house -- which, in a civil suit, could be considered evidence.

It didn't matter that the criminal case was closed or that evidence related to the crime had been removed, Mayor Gary Bradley said Friday. He said it also didn't matter that the local volunteer Fire Department had handled at least one such house-burning in the past year, with no concerns voiced by neighbors.

"It's hard to be benevolent when you're looking a lawsuit in the eye," the mayor said.

'Let's just get this done'

The day after the city attorney called, the parents met in the same funeral home where nearly eight months earlier they had gathered to plan their children's services. The owners, Greg Weber and Sue Hill, helped head up the memorial fund. Sue took a deep breath to calm her nerves and settle her frustration.

"Is it more important to burn the house?" she asked them. "Or is it more important that the house be gone? If we're just wanting to get rid of it, it can be done in the next week, two, a month tops."

The room sat silent. Dianne gritted her teeth.

"We own it," she said. "How can they tell us what we can do with it? It's not what I want -- tearing it down."

Jenny Stahl wrapped her arms tighter around her body. "Me either."

Dianne's eldest son, Cody, 22, leaned toward his mother.

"Sometimes you get what you want," he said. "Sometimes you got to make a sacrifice. To be honest, I'm surprised that it hasn't been burned down yet."

There were murmurs of agreement.

I can't do this anymore, a parent said. Let's just get this done, another said.

"We can haul it away," Sue said. "Bury it somewhere else. Somewhere that no one will ever see it or ever be able to touch it."

Dianne felt exhausted. Resigned, she agreed.

There was nothing else they could do.

More to do

The painful reminder will finally be erased June 21. Bulldozers are scheduled to start their work at 6 a.m. In three hours it will be over. Dump trucks will carry the rubble away, to Michigan.

Only a select few will ever know exactly where the past is buried.

For Dianne, that morning cannot come soon enough. She hopes that, for a moment, she will feel peace.

But there is still so much to be done, more money to be raised. The memorial must be built. Bradley and his friends must be remembered.

She's already making calls, exhorting friends and volunteers to stop by a pancake-breakfast fundraiser next weekend.

It's a bargain. Only $6 a plate.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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