UNSOLVED MYSTERY - A GRANT COUNTY DRIVE BY MURDER
GRANT COUNTY'S ONLY UNSOLVED CASE
Usually when I write about the events of the past I reach back so far that it is "beyond caring". There is no one guilty and no one harmed who has not long ago traveled beyond the pale of this earthly life. I am not so sure this time.
There is something in human nature that finds the bushwhacker repulsive. That creature, which often uses the curtain of night to hide his cowardly act is both feared and loathed. Not being city dwellers, the sort of crime this story recalls is almost unheard of. A man drives home in the night; a flash; glass shatters and a dead man’s body coasts 850 feet in an unpiloted car, until it drifts off of the road. Then all is quiet. There is only the hum of a motor idling amid the far off barks and calls of animals in the dark country night. Only shadows cast by headlights still burning.
Jack Howell was home after six days spent on the road to and from California as a long haul trucker. After delivering a load of meat for a Madison Packing company he was relaxing at the Peanut Pub in Fennimore. It was past midnight, in the early morning of June 15, 1976. He had been with a friend, Donne Hall of Lancaster and a woman named Rosie Kovars, a close friend. Kovars said she left the tavern at midnight, and saw Howell outside the bar talking to Hall as she left. Hall said he had driven directly to his home and had arrived about 12:30 a.m. At about 12:45 a.m. Dennis Braudt, driving home on Highway 18, saw lights from a car in a field on the Delbert Gildersleeve farm. Assuming there had been an accident, he knocked on Gildersleeve’s door, explained the situation and the two called the Grant County Sheriff’s Department. When officers arrived they found Howell lying dead on the front seat, mortally wounded in the neck by a shotgun blast that had blown out both windows in his 1966 Cadillac.
Sheriff Percy Stitch examines Howell’s Cadillac
Howell’s body was removed from his car and taken to the Larsen Funeral Home. Later it was transported to Madison for an autopsy. A month later investigators were still nowhere near a solution to the heinous crime. “We’re still as much in the dark today as we were on the 15th day of June” said Sheriff Stitch. He pointed out that the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory, based on its examination of the evidence found, believed two people may have been involved - one who drove the vehicle alongside Howell’s car, and another who fired the shot or shots which killed him. An investigation into Howell’s life during the months and years before his death pointed to no clear suspect or motive. Investigators traveled as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Howell had previously lived in search of some evidence that might crack the case. Dozen’s were questioned. By December of 1976 the case was cold, and Frank Meyers, Chief of the State Division of Criminal Investigation was telling the press “those crimes, the ones without any eyewitness and where the victim’s (did he mean “murderer’s”?) identity and motive are lacking, are the ones that go unsolved.” He was right. The case was never solved.
People who were questioned said Howell had no enemies. No one could explain why anyone would want to kill him. His mother, Mrs. Morris Hanson of McFarland, Wisconsin said: “I know they’re working so hard on the case, but you just get so frustrated. They’ll solve it someday and then we can all feel better.” Thirty-seven years later, no one feels better. Perhaps the murderer or murderers have gone now to the judge who has all the evidence. If not perhaps the day of justice will yet arrive if someone decides not to take the truth to the grave. Perhaps it will remain as it is, a question mark among many in the history of Grant County.
Addendum: It was almost two years to the day after the murder of Jack Howell that the daughter of Donne Hall, Julie Ann Hall, age 19, was found murdered in a field near Waunakee, Wisconsin. She worked as a librarian at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. She was last seen alive on the night of Friday, June 16, 1978 at the Main King Tap in Madison. Despite the fact that a special task force of 14 police officers was formed to investigate the murder, her case, like Jack Howell’s was never solved.