OMRO, Wis. (WFRV) – The assumed murder of Starkie Swenson is a longtime mystery in the Fox Valley, but there might be a break in the case.
The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office finally got the go-ahead to conduct a search on a piece of private property in Omro where authorities believe his killer hid his body 38 years ago.
“Back in 1983 Starkie Swenson, who lived in Neenah, Wisconsin, went missing after he left home on bicycle and at that point there was very little that came out about the case for 10 years,” said Jordan Karsten, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UW Oshkosh.
Eventually authorities arrested John Andrews.
Officials believe Swenson was having an affair with Andrew’s ex-wife, Claire.
“A witness came forward to describe an encounter between Starkie Swenson and John Andrews that she heard, that she overheard,” said Karsten.
This new testemony helped the case but without a body prosecutors could only convict Andrew’s of homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle.
“Starkie Swenson’s body was never found and that is the reason why we’re out here, to help find Starkie Swenson remain’s,” said Karsten in reference to the search for Swenson’s body that he is leading alongside investigators from the Winnebago County Sherriff’s Office.
And because Jordan Karsten is a Professor at UW Oshkosh he is able to bring in reenforcements to help in this massive undertaking.
Karsten said, “So my students are out here today with me along with some law enforcement from Winnebago County Sherriff and we are attempting to use some technolgy to search for starkie swenson’s remains.”
Over the past few months he and his students have done preliminary work to prepare for this three week dig.
Back in April students dug a grid of holes in order to confirm the body was not in the cornfield on the property.
“We’re digging out here in the actual agricultural field on the site and so we’re doing that to dig before the corn gets planted so we’re out here for the week,” said Karsten.
“Right now we’re just digging a whole bunch of test pits and we laid out a grid and here there is a certain amount of distance between each one,” said Jordan Payne, a senior at UW Oshkosh. “I believe we are doing about every two meters, so that allows us to look for an individual that’s about 5’10” to 6’2″ and that way we can’t miss him.”
Now, in May, they are continuing the search in the adjacent wooded area using ground-penatrating radar or GPR to indentify anything that is burried in the soil so they know where to start digging each unit or large hole.
“That ground penetrating radar is really accurate,” said Karsten. “I mean every time it hits we excavate the area, we sift through the soil to make sure we leave nothing behind and then we find what set it off and to date that’s been rocks essentially.”
The students also study the stratigraphy of the soil to determine when they can stop digging.
“We’re looking at the layers of the soil that make up the earth,” said Karsten. “In an area that’s not disturbed you can actually see these different colors of soil that are basically like a layer cake and we can see them really clearly in places where there’s no disturbance.”
Once the students confirm the stratigraphy of the soil is undisturbed, they can move on to the next unit in their search.
“So you have to take off about ten centemeters of the first layer with just shovels, and shovel work’s a lot,” said Delaney Rueckl, a senior at UW Oshkosh. “But then once we get past that ten centemeters we all have small shovel’s, little trowels, that we’re going, scraping small amounts of mud and dirt until we can put that into a bucket and then others are going to sift through that.”
This experience is important for students at UW Oshkosh because it furthers their education in ways many other students do not get when they are just in a classroom setting.
“To come out and actually put it into practice is really useful,” said Karsten. “I think it’s useful because you can really master the concepts you use in class and probably just as importantly for students who have never really done long term field work they get to understand just how hard the physical labor part of it can be.”
Karsten and his students said that while this is tedious hard work it may also help solve the mystery of what happened to Starkie Swenson.
“My students are doing a great job. I mean they’re out here working really hard all day, every day and they’re really committed to both the scientific aspect of this and to try to bring some closure to this case of Starkie Swenson,” said Karsten.
Karsten is also releasing weekly episodes of his podcast Cold Case: Frozen Tundra where he does a deep dive into the case in real time during the excavation.