It was 1983 and Madison County hadn’t had much of a spring, but this particular Sunday evening in May, it was humid after the daytime sky alternated between hot sunshine and heavy showers.
Detectives Joe Lagojevich and Frank Panetta had been called out to an attempted murder and rape, but to them it was just another “domestic,” especially this side of town and this couple had a history of disturbances reported by neighbours.
Frank Panetta wandered around the lounge occasionally picking up a cheap vase or pulling his finger along a dusty table.
Joe Lagojevich sat opposite Jess in a beer stained and ripped armchair and could easily see the swelling around her left eye and small lacerations on both wrists.
“Detective,” she said. “Are you going to bang this bastard up?”
She said it in a manner that sounded strange to Detective Lagojevich, as though she knew nothing would happen. It came from a tightly drawn mouth and eyes that had as much life in them as marbles.
“I’m going to try, Jess,” Joe told her. “What happened here this evening? How’d you get hurt?”
She looked indignant and then tried to put on a brave face.
“We had a disagreement, then Tony started getting angry,” Jess paused for a moment as though composing herself, “then he got violent.”
Joe studied her. She seemed straight. For once she didn’t seem high and maybe that wasn’t the cause of the fight.
“If you don’t arrest him, then I don’t want to stay here anymore” she said.
“Where is Tony now?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know, don’t care, maybe The Ranch.”
The Ranch was a bar frequented by locals and biker’s, the few women who happened to be in there were staff or hookers.
“Look Jess if you want me to get you into a program then I’ll have to pass it on to the right authorities to help you.”
Her eyes drooped.
She shook her head; she looked lost.
“I can’t live like this anymore, I want him put away and I want another chance to start again clean.”
“Let’s talk about that when the time comes,” Joe said. “For now me and Frank we’ll go and have a chat with Tony.”
Jess looked at him with anger in her eyes.
“Look at me. He beats me then tries to rape me and you’re going to have a chat!”
She cut him off, “No one wants to bloody help me.” The muscles in her face constricted and she raised her arms over head, almost as if she was trying to protect herself.
“We will” Joe said, he waved his arm to Frank, it was time to go.
At that moment they heard a key in the front door, Joe stood up and walked into the hallway with Frank just behind him.
The door opened and the large frame of Tony De Santo stood in the doorway, his drunken and threatening demeanour suddenly changed as he saw the two detectives waiting for him. “Shit!” Tony suddenly turned and rushed back down the pathway and into his pick-up truck and sped off down the road.
Joe and Frank raced to catch him and screeched off down the road after him, but fate was to play her next card.
At high speed Joe felt himself losing control of the steering wheel and in a split second the car was rolling over and over and smashed into a brick wall. As the car spun out of control Frank Panetta was thrown out of the car and his skin was cut to ribbons as he slid across the gravel and the crack of bone was spine chilling as his head hit the concrete curb. Frank Panetta struggled to open his eyelids before they closed for the last time and a pool of crimson liquid quickly enveloped him.
Joe Lagojevich didn’t know how long he had been inside the wreckage of the car, the only thing he knew was he couldn’t move and had no sense of feeling. He drifted in and out of consciousness as he heard the sound of metal being cut and vibrations on the steering column.
The first week after the horrific accident was spent in intensive care, a fifty-fifty operation on a bone high the neck saved his life. A month later Joe was well enough to be transferred to a specialist spinal unit where he would face a long, emotional and frustrating road with intense physiotherapy. The struggle and teaching parts of his body he could move in trying to feed himself, wash himself and sometimes even trying to pick up a glass of water all seemed impossible at times.
One morning after a tough physiotherapy session in the hospital gym, Joe slowly pushed his wheelchair back to the ward, every effort drained him off more energy the muscles in his shoulders and arms began to ache. He made it back to his bed to find an official looking gentleman waiting for him.
“Mr. Lagojevich, my name is Jack Wolfson from Wolfson Solicitors.”
Joe nodded, to out of breath to speak.
“I have an envelope that Mr. Panetta left for you.”
Joe looked surprised as Jack Wolfson handed it to him.
“I’ll wish you all the best for the future Mr. Lagojevich,” and Jack Wolfson made a hasty retreat as though hospitals didn’t agree with him.
Joe stared at the envelope for a moment wandering what on earth Frank had written inside. Joe put the envelope up to his mouth and placed it between his teeth before ripping the top of the envelope open, and shook the letter out onto his lap. He opened his mouth and let the empty envelope drop to the floor, picked up the handwritten letter with his stronger right hand and began to read…
It took Joe back to 1976 and the first day he met Frank Panetta, the world seemed a predictable place until that day on June 21st…
Detective Joe Lagojevich propped his feet on the desk top and laced his hands behind his head it was another normal day for him, in Madison West Dane County.
“Lagojevich!” was the booming shout from across the room.
Captain Rudi Vetorri was escorting a small scruff of a man in Joe’s direction.
“Joe, this is Detective Frank Panetta” Vettori said, introducing him with a flick of his hand in Frank’s direction.
They shook hands, Joe looking slightly surprised at Frank being a Detective, now he knew where television got the idea for Colombo. Frank Panetta was of small stature, dishevelled looking with a thick mop of black hair and a wicked glint in his eye.
“Joe, Frank’s just transferred from Wisconsin, I want you to show him the ropes” Rudi smiled and quickly walked away.
“Is that mine?” Frank asked, pointing to the empty desk opposite Joe’s.
“Yeah, please sit down and make yourself at home.”
They sat at their facing desks.
“Can I get you a coffee?” Joe asked.
“No thanks,” Frank opened each drawer down the right hand side of his desk in turn. They were all empty. “Okay if I smoke?”
“Go ahead” Joe answered.
Frank looked around his desk, “ashtray?”
Joe shook his head, “don’t smoke.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’ll have one later.”
“So how come, you transferred over to us?” Joe wanted to know.
Frank hand gestured, “You don’t want to know.”
“Of course I do, hey if we’re going to be partners.”
“Personal reasons, my mother died, I wasn’t getting on with the boss.” Frank shrugged his shoulders, “I suppose lots of little reasons blown up into one.”
Even though Frank Panetta was barely forty, he was a few years from total burnout. He wasn’t even sure himself if he’d already crossed that threshold.
He’d started out as a young recruit, devout Christian and that every criminal was merely a misguided victim. Five years later after dealing with drug dealers, gang related crime, murderers and rapists he became a cynical agnostic and the death penalty was the only answer to these “scumbags.”
Soon the files about creeps slashing throats of anyone who got in their way of their next cocaine hit became the norm. He just became a part of the system that paid his wages, only for the guys he was trying to put away back out on the streets through a misdemeanour or spending only a few years inside due to good behaviour.
Frank studied Joe for a moment, late twenties, blonde hair, blue eyes, over six feet tall and probably the college team quarter-back. “So how did you get into this game Joe?”
“Oh, my father was in the force, so I just followed in his footsteps.
“You?” Joe asked.
Frank hesitated for a moment before his face took on a serious look, “Just wanted to do my bit.”
Frank suddenly changed the subject and clapped his hands, “Okay so what action we got going down at the moment?”
“I’d been called out on a probable homicide four days ago. The bedroom was covered in blood, drunken husband with a history of abuse and assault, and a missing woman who has a restraining order against the dirt bag.”
“So what’s the latest?” Frank was keen to know.
“Well Mrs. De Santo was staying at her mums, so false alarm.”
Frank rolled his chair around and faced the window, stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Just to let you know Joe, after tomorrow I’ve got a bit of compassionate leave.”
He turned back around and faced Joe, “Funeral and sort out my mother’s belongings, maybe a bit of house hunting in this area.”
Joe awoke in the morning to water streaking down the window, the long promised rain had finally arrived.
The telephone suddenly sounded, Joe answered, then held the receiver in disbelief and stared blankly at it for a few seconds.
The charred and decomposed remains of 20-year old Casey Masko were discovered by land assessors in a gully along a road that had farmer’s fields either side.
The autopsy conducted revealed that Casey had been dead for at least ten days, but the exact cause of death was unknown. A fractured collarbone and dental records had enabled her identification.
Lagojevich and Panetta’s investigation learned from her friends that she had recently been evicted from her apartment and had been staying in a room at a hotel in downtown Madison. They had no suspects and very little to go on, and in a mysterious twist, three weeks after her body was found, the key to her room was mailed to the hotel. There was no note, return address or any identifying marks.
For Joe and Frank the investigation was hampered and a lot of time wasted with the usual weirdo’s taking credit for the murder. The weeks and months pass and Casey became a distant memory and added to the cold case pile.
Two years would pass until another brutal discovery rocked the area. It was once again a summer day on which another young woman was found in a shallow grave in a woodland just 14 miles from the city. The victim had been dead for at least three days and had apparently died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head. It took nearly two days to identify the body as that of 18-year old Kathleen Chalfant, just weeks earlier Kathleen had secured a job as a library assistant on the university campus. She was last seen on a Friday night when she went out to a local pub.
The next morning bought no new breakthroughs. Joe and Frank stared at each other, a strained silence filled the room, a strange void begging to be filled by a telephone call, lead, tip-off …anything.
Two weeks later they got a sniff of a lead they had been praying for…
They latched onto a 55 year-old Jordan Despovitch, who had recently been sacked as the caretaker at the University for watching pornographic movies while at work.
A gravel drive led to a dark brick house with garish pink mortar, to the left was a lawn covered in shadow by a large dead oak. Joe and Frank slowly walked down the drive, each crunch of gravel sounded like an explosion. As they neared the house they stopped cold, two huge Doberman’s attached to bolts clasped to the wall grew frenzied, snarling, eyes that desired to attack.
“Shut!” was the loud command from Jordan.
The two dogs stopped immediately and both dropped to the ground.
The detectives flashed their badges.
“Come to ask you about a Kathleen Chalfant,” Frank said.
The next day passed without word, they both slogged through the mess on their desks, the more detail they revealed about Despovitch the more puzzling the picture became.
Eventually, the investigation had produced very little linking Kathleen to Despovitch.
When a sealed down brown unmarked envelope arrived at Frank’s desk, not much notice was taken until he pulled out the letter and began to read;
“In my opinion those who beg for mercy seldom receive it, this is true of Terri Kressel, Casey Masko and Kathleen Chalfant. All young, smart and starting out in life, long hair, pritty but all treated me with contempt. They never suspected I would do anything to them, was they surprised when I did! You should have heard them plead for their life, but I hate that! There will be more victims soon: From Harbinger …of bad news!”
There was jaw dropping silence and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife, but who was Terri Kressel?
The office all of a sudden burst into manic activity, the press were going to have a field day and then Frank dropped another bombshell he knew who Terri was. A student at the University of Wisconsin, attractive woman with long blondish-brown hair, often spent her summers modelling. Frank said he was on vacation at the time, but back in his own jurisdiction;
During spring of 1974, the weather was miserably cold and wet, but Terri kept upbeat by looking forward to along awaited visit with her family in Chicago. Unfortunately fate intervened and the 18 year old Terri likely became the first murder victim of Harbinger. On a dreary May evening a male student discovered her body hidden behind some shrubbery outside a mathematics building. After going over the crime scene, investigators theorized she had been killed early that morning while out jogging.
The coroner ruled that she had died as a result of at least 12 stab wounds to the chest. As the summer wore on several suspects emerged, but none proved to be the killer. With no new suspects, a murder weapon, or any further leads, the investigation was placed into a cold case folder.
Joe and Frank acquainted themselves with the ‘Terri file’ had they missed anything in the original investigation, they studied all the notes, photos and evidence packet…but nothing. But both were convinced it was the same murderer, they had a serial killer to catch…
Dan Sirota was an ageing professor in the faculty at Harvard and was consulted by forensics, cops and lawyers in need of expertise. Joe checked the American Academy of Forensic Sciences membership directory. Dan was listed and the letter was sent for his analysis.
During the endless weeks of waiting for a response from the professor they were called to the residence of the Connell family. 15 year old Christine Connell hadn’t returned home after a night out with her friends.
Mrs. Connell’s eyes crawled to the Detective’s, she shook her head sadly, “I remember her taking her first steps, just over there,” she started to sob uncontrollably.
Mr. Connell hugged his wife, “please find her” he said.
Joe looked down at the photo he had been given, a classic school portrait. The young girl’s eyes were green and mischievous her hair centre parted and pulled into shoulder length braids. A great sadness overwhelmed him.
What had happened to Christine? Was she out there on the streets, alone but stubbornly following her own play? Or was she being held in some dark place, helpless and terrified? Was she even alive?
Detective Panetta wasn’t rattled by violence or death, he had seen both frequently but those powerless to protect themselves affected Lagojevich deeply, keenly aware of his feelings, having spent the last hours with the parents of Christine.
As they began conducting her last known movements, Professor Sirota’s analysis of Harbinger’s letter had been sent back.
It concluded the author of the letter was English speaking, punctuation is correct but he can’t spell ‘pretty’ but he can spell. So if he can spell why does he spell pretty with an ‘I’, to throw the police off? He is well educated, so he’s trying to conceal it. Also controlling and gains pleasure from inflicting cruelty to others. Possibly bullied or abused as a child, loner and now as an adult works with or has contact with children.
Joe looked at Frank, “The underlying trend is the University, our killer must be linked to it…maybe a teacher!”
During the endless visits to the university, talking with students and teacher’s alike another dead-end loomed.
In April 1980, Christine Connell was still missing when the body of 24-year-old Joanne Carter was found lying in the weeds, her concept of life ‘happy’ motto printed on her t-shirt. An autopsy determined that she had died as a result of multiple stab wounds to the chest.
One year after the discovery of Joanne Carter, Charlie Bird was hiking along the Yahara River when he came across the skeletal remains of Christine Connell. Because of the decomposed state in which she was found, the autopsy was unable to determine the exact cause of death.
Three months later in July 1981, the body of 17-year-old Donna Stewart was found in a wooded area north of Madison, she was stabbed repeatedly, the killer had left behind her pay-check, money and keys. Thankfully she would be the last victim of Harbinger.
Joe Lagojevich finished reading the letter as a single tear fell from his right eye and let his right arm drop to his side, the letter still clamped in his hand. He sat in his wheelchair motions battling inside him. “Had he let the killer go?” That question had tortured him over the years, but now he knew…Detective Frank Panetta was Harbinger all along.
His memories of that time and throughout those years he never suspected his partner and never had reason to do so.
Panetta didn’t try to justify the murders in his letter it would have been insane to do so, he just wanted to make Lagojevich understand his background and why he turned into the monster he wasn’t able to control.
When he was born, his father had already left his mother and eight year old sister. He was often given his sisters cast offs when he was young, when Frank was five, he found it hard to communicate with other children and was teased. As he got older he was forced to play with his sister and her friends when they came to the house. He was often locked in cupboards or tied up, a couple of times he was stripped naked, laughed at and ridiculed as they stubbed out cigarette butts on him. One day he just flipped and stabbed his seventeen year old sister to death in a blind rage when they were at the family trailer, stationed at a trailer park they used to vacation at in the summer. Their mum had left them alone as she had to work and Frank had plenty of time to bury his sister under the trailer. He told his mum, that his sister Charly had wandered off around mid morning and she never came back.
His mother since that day never let him out of her sight, always held his hand when they were out, wasn’t allowed out to play and school lessons were done at home. His sister eventually became just another missing child statistic.
Frank joined the police in a sense of atoning for what he had done, he didn’t feel deep down he was a bad person and the force was his release to put things right.
Until one fateful morning while out jogging he ran into Terri Kressel, it was the spitting image of his sister, the way she looked at him as though he was a piece of garbage. He couldn’t get her face from his mind, he agonized over the thought of killing this girl, he became overwhelmed with guilt, rage and it bought all the memories and images of Charly flooding back. The following morning he deliberately ran along the same spot carrying a knife…
His mother died of cancer never knowing the evil secret that Frank had kept from her, but now Charly could be laid to rest as Frank had given precise instructions of where the body was buried.
Joe Lagojevich sat in his wheelchair the quiet of the surroundings enveloped him. The air was hot, the humidity just below rain. The CSU truck was there, so to the coroner’s van. Panetta’s trailer hadn’t been touched for years it was a rectangular box with yellow siding. A makeshift porch had been nailed around the entrance and the yard was cluttered with the usual trash, larger items included a boat trailer and an ancient Mustang.
Threads of light cut the foliage casting strange patterns on a mound of earth. The sun was low when they finally lifted Charly Pannetta from her shallow grave, no one spoke. No one had to.