Lewis Wilczek, a 21-year-old from Little Falls, had the kind of life some people would kill for. Did someone?
(page 1 of 3)
The truck was a silver 2004 Ford F-350 with an extended cab and chrome detailing. Red stripes stretched across the front of the hood, and oversized dual-exhaust pipes jutted from the back. Fitted with 33-inch all-terrain tires and a body lift, it rode high off the ground.
Norine Wilczek recognized it as her brother’s the minute she spotted the vehicle outside an apartment building in St. Cloud that Wednesday morning. Someone had backed the Ford into a parking space the same way Lewis Wilczek always did—to better show off the grill detailing. But something was wrong. The decals that Lewis had carefully affixed to the back window had been scraped off. Already edgy, Norine felt a chill run through her.
Three days earlier, Lewis had attended a barbecue at his parents’ home, a comfortable spread on 60 rolling acres just east of Little Falls, a half-hour’s drive north of St. Cloud. The 21-year-old seemed happy and at ease, leaving shortly after 4 to run some errands. But his mother, Sharon Wilczek, grew concerned when Lewis’s friends began calling later that evening, asking why he wasn’t answering his cell phone. It wasn’t like Lewis: He was responsible and reliable. He worked hard for the family business, Paul’s Firewood Place, often getting up at 3 a.m. to haul loads of ash, oak, and maple to customers in the Twin Cities. On the side, he ran his own business, fixing vehicle exhaust systems.
Sharon remembered her son saying he was going to St. Cloud to collect some money from a customer. She made some calls and discovered that Lewis had phoned his cousin, Rob, just before 6, saying he had gotten lost and needed directions to the St. Cloud Vo-Tech. But several hours had passed since then, so Sharon was grateful when Lewis’s close friend Josh Bue volunteered to go out to the shop where Lewis lived and worked, just north of Little Falls. Inside the shop, Josh found a note: Sorry, left town. Wish I’d had time to say goodbye. Lewis. The script was large and loopy. Everyone knew Lewis’s handwriting was small and neat.
Josh called Lewis’s brother, Paul Jr., with the news. Paul told Sharon, and on Tuesday morning, after waiting a day in the hopes that Lewis would turn up, Sharon called the police. On May 1, 2007, Lewis’s name was entered into state and national law-enforcement computer networks as a missing person. But Norine, a student at St. Cloud State, decided to take matters into her own hands: She got up early on Wednesday morning to drive the streets around the vo-tech, looking for Lewis and his truck.
Finding the Ford was a relief. But the lack of decals was puzzling. And when a lanky young man carrying a pit bull and a basket of laundry emerged from the apartment building, got into the Ford, and drove off, Norine’s surprise morphed into alarm. She tailed the truck and called the cops.
A few minutes later, two squad cars appeared. Norine watched from a safe distance as officers stopped the Ford and spoke with the driver. Eventually, they approached her car and showed her a driver’s license. They assured her that the guy in the car was her brother. He had the ID and paperwork to prove it.
But Norine insisted that the driver couldn’t possibly be Lewis. The officers returned to the truck and asked the driver to step out so she could see for herself. The fellow who emerged was in his early twenties, with a narrow face and short hair like her brother’s, but he was slighter and not as tall. “I knew immediately,”
Norine would later recall, “just by the way he was walking, that it wasn’t Lewis.”
Photo by David Bowman
The police eventually identified the driver of Lewis’s truck as Jeremy Jason Hull. Just 24 years old, he already had a long history of running afoul of the law: His record included dozens of citations for speeding and reckless driving, and even felony charges for check forgery. No fewer than five counties had issued warrants for his arrest, so Jeremy was placed under lock and key in the Stearns County jail until it could be sorted out which county would get first crack at him for prosecution.
But Lewis was still missing. So, following the only lead they had, investigators paid a visit to the apartment complex where Jeremy lived. The manager claimed she didn’t have any tenants named Jeremy, but when shown Jeremy’s picture, she recognized him as a renter who went by the name Chad Gombos. He had moved into apartment Number 8 a few weeks earlier.
Hoping to find someone at home, the police asked the manager to direct them to the apartment. They found the hallway outside the garden-level unit filled with a putrid odor, clearly emanating from Number 8. “It smelled like decaying flesh,” the property manager later recalled.
“I couldn’t believe the other residents hadn’t complained.” Fearing the worst, the police asked the apartment manager for her key: Inside, however, the officers found nothing remarkable. A later search would reveal the source of the smell—a heating pad in a cage containing a pet snake had been left on too long. The reptile had been roasted alive.
WITH EACH PASSING hour in a missing-person case, concerns of foul play escalate. And as Wednesday turned into Thursday, investigators were increasingly convinced that Lewis would not be found alive. In addition to questioning Jeremy, investigators were tracking down friends and family in their search for leads. Eventually, they located Jeremy’s girlfriend, Casey Jo Oldenburg, a 25-year-old from Clearwater.
Jeremy had met Casey while cruising up and down Division Street in St. Cloud. Petite and quiet, she wore a jeweled stud above her lip and parted her shoulder-length brown hair straight down the middle. They had been dating for several years, and Jeremy told friends he planned to marry her someday. In a letter sent to Casey from the Stearns County jail shortly after his arrest, he wrote, “I had a dream last night that I got out of jail and you were waiting outside for me. You were wearin’ black dress pants and the black top I bought you. You were so damn sexy! You gave me the biggest hug you could…. You told me you never wanted to be without me again.”
Actually, Casey first told police that she and Jeremy were just friends. Then she changed her tune. She admitted that she often spent the night at Jeremy’s apartment and, when pressed, she confessed that they’d rarely been apart during the previous week. Questioned by police multiple times in the days that followed Jeremy’s arrest, she talked, but her statements seemed cagey and calculated; the details came out slowly.
“She gave a little bit each time, but never told us the whole story,” says Little Falls police chief Mike Pender, who coordinated much of the search for Lewis.
Meanwhile, investigators were also combing the contents of Jeremy’s apartment and searching Lewis’s truck. They seized vehicle titles, business cards, insurance papers, voided checks, two shovels, several pairs of jeans, socks, a filet knife, a wallet, a necklace, three glass scrapers in a Wal-Mart bag, a set of keys with a Ford key ring, a receipt for a birth certificate for Calvin Leonard, and a bill of sale for a motorcycle, bearing Lewis Wilczek’s name and dated the day after he disappeared. In Jeremy’s garage, officers found a new Harley-Davidson V-Rod.
Acting on a tip from one of Jeremy’s relatives, investigators visited a rural address in Foreston, a small town that lies on the western side of Mille Lacs County, roughly 25 miles from St. Cloud. Jeremy had lived in a small yellow house on the outskirts of town while attending high school in nearby Milaca. The parcel was nestled in a bend along the west branch of the Rum River, and, at the far end of a long drive, beyond a marsh and hidden in the woods, was a small
clearing that contained a gravel pit. Investigators reaching the area on foot soon confirmed what a helicopter pilot had spied earlier from the air: a burn site and an area of fresh digging surrounded by tire tracks.
On Saturday morning—nearly a week after Lewis had vanished—investigators returned to the Foreston property to perform what everyone could only assume would be a grim task. They gathered charred wood from the burn site and placed the pieces in a metal can. They made casts of the tire tracks and interred them in cardboard boxes. And from a shallow grave of red dirt, investigators exhumed what would prove to be the cremated remains of Lewis Wilczek.