Fatal Collision

Lewis Wilczek, a 21-year-old from Little Falls, had the kind of life some people would kill for. Did someone?

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.

 

PICKUPS ARE BUILT to take a beating, and there’s no surer test of a truck’s toughness than its performance in a mud run. Held in the spring, when swampy fields can mire even the biggest vehicles, mud runs are the highlight of the year for off-roading enthusiasts in Minnesota—and a magnet for rural kids like Lewis.

Lewis collected old Fords, especially models from the 1970s and ’80s. He bought them cheap, fixed them up, and tricked them out with fat tires and slick accessories. Outside his shop in Little Falls were nearly a dozen trucks in various conditions. Occasionally he entered one of his pickups in a weekend competition. He loved the crowds and camaraderie, and it was at a mud run in the spring of 2006—roughly a year before he disappeared—that Lewis was introduced to Jeremy Hull, a 23-year-old St. Cloud resident with no steady job and a passion for cars, trucks, and cycles.

Jeremy owned a black Mustang, and a few weeks after the mud run he brought it to Lewis’s shop to have some work done. When the bill for the job came due, however, Jeremy was short of cash. So Lewis arranged a payment plan: Jeremy could work off the debt doing odd jobs and running errands for his business. When Jeremy indicated he’d also like to buy one of Lewis’s trucks but, again, didn’t have the funds, the arrangement became semi-permanent. That
summer and into the fall, Jeremy was at Lewis’s side nearly every day. He was quiet, sometimes barely noticeable. Friends joked that Jeremy had become Lewis’s “gay shadow.”

But the similarities between Lewis and Jeremy began and ended with their interest in cars and trucks. Lewis’s parents ran a successful business and were well-known in Little Falls. The Wilczeks were a family of athletes: In the late 1970s, Lewis’s father, Paul Wilczek Sr., had taken second place in wrestling at the Junior Olympics, and Lewis, too, was a skilled grappler. In school, Lewis consistently earned high Bs and low As, and, in 2004, he graduated with honors from Central Lakes College in Brainerd. He dressed conservatively: Most days he wore jeans and a beat-up Carhartt jacket, but never baseball caps. He was friendly, respectful of his elders, and often helped Father Nick serve communion mass at St. Mary’s during Holy Week. He got along with almost everybody.

“He made other people feel comfortable,” recalls Doug Ploof, an ag teacher at Little Falls Community High School. “He was comfortable with himself.”

Lewis also had the mind of a mechanic. He once fashioned a tool out of Legos to help his mother split green beans. When the family computer needed fixing, Lewis was on the job, and, as a teen, he built a phone from a kit so he could have a private line in his bedroom. Tutored by his father, he learned to fine-tune engines and make vehicle repairs, eventually developing an expertise in exhaust systems. “He could make the vehicle sound the way people wanted,” says Paul Sr. “People liked that crackle, that pop.” Lewis began doing custom jobs for friends, then launched his own business, Performance Exhaust and Metal Fabrication.

“Lewis was just a worker,” Ploof says. “He got stuff done. He made money. He had a carrot there that he wanted to work for.”

Customers admired his meticulousness. Local dealerships liked his cheap rates and offered him subcontracting jobs. Soon, Lewis had more than $50,000 in the bank and a shop that any mechanic would envy. It housed a hydraulic lift, a tire changer, and more than $10,000 in hand tools. It was immaculately kept: no greasy wrenches, no oil spots on the floor. Glass bottles and cigarettes were banned from the premises. Above the small business office was a loft where Lewis lived—the kind of bachelor pad that every young man dreams of owning, complete with sagging couch and large TV. At the foot of the stairs leading to the space, Lewis had posted a sign: Please take your shoes off when going upstairs. Thanks. Lewis.
JEREMY’S PARENTS HAD divorced when he was a teen, and he had stopped communicating with his father. A lackluster student, he dropped out of school after his junior year, left Milaca, and went to live near his mother in Little Falls—until he was evicted for failing to pay rent. He moved to St. Cloud, never staying at the same place or keeping a job for long. Construction work, roofing gigs, automotive repair—nothing lasted.

What’s more, with each passing year, Jeremy’s legal and financial problems seemed to mount. In March 2005, Citifinancial of St. Cloud sued him for $7,500. Four months later, a Morrison County judge ordered him to pay nearly $400 for speeding and driving without a valid license. That fall, he was charged with stealing a Bobcat skid loader from a construction site in Sartell and selling it on eBay for $21,025. (Though eventually nabbed by police, Jeremy posted $1,000 in bail and then skipped his court date.) In mid-November, the owner of an auto-repair shop called the St. Cloud police to report that someone had forged two checks on company accounts, a theft of $7,250: Both were made out to Jeremy Hull.

Still, he eluded the law. In the spring of 2006, when he met Lewis, there were outstanding warrants for Jeremy’s arrest in Goodhue, Stearns, Wright, and Sherburne counties. The job that Lewis offered Jeremy must have seemed like a godsend. No background checks. No tax forms. It was barter, pure and simple: free labor in exchange for repair services and a vehicle.

The agreement must also have suited Lewis, an avid penny pincher. “Lewis didn’t borrow money,” Paul Sr. says. “If he couldn’t do it without a loan, he didn’t do it.” His thrift extended to every aspect of life: If one can of soup was a few cents less than another, he bought the cheaper one. (“And if it didn’t come out of a can, Lewis didn’t cook it,” says his uncle Tom Wilczek.) If he could buy slightly used tires for less than new ones, he did. Lewis was “tighter than a crab’s ass,” jokes one longtime friend. Sharon recalls Lewis returning from a trip to Florida with a tattoo that stretched three-quarters of the way around his bicep: “He said it would’ve taken too long to go all the way around. But I knew it was because he was too cheap. It didn’t cost as much.”

Frugal perhaps to a fault, Lewis was furious when he discovered that $6,000 in cash and checks had vanished from his business in September 2006. The funds had been taken from a locked desk drawer, but there were no signs of forced entry. Eventually, Lewis came to suspect his former helper: Lewis had dismissed Jeremy a few weeks earlier for doing slipshod work.

One night shortly after the theft was discovered, Lewis, some friends, and his sister Lori were hanging out in a field outside his shop when they heard an engine roar. They turned to see one of Lewis’s pickups racing away. It was a vehicle that Jeremy had openly coveted, and when the police finally caught up with the truck outside the Falls Ballroom, they found him at the wheel. But Jeremy took off running, jumped a barbed-wire fence, and vanished into a thicket of trees. “The defendant remains at large,” a report later noted, “and his whereabouts are unknown.”
A WARRANT WAS issued for Jeremy’s arrest, but it didn’t matter. By that time, he was safely across the county line and unlikely to be apprehended unless he caused additional trouble. He worked odd jobs, hung out with Casey in St. Cloud, and, in April 2007, found an apartment near the vo-tech. The lease must have seemed too good to be true: The first month was rent-free—only a $150 deposit was required—and he could move in right away. True, there were restrictions on some kinds of pets, but that policy was easy to ignore: In short order, Jeremy’s pit bull was running around the apartment and he’d set up a reptile cage in the bedroom. To his neighbors, Jeremy was known as Chad Gombos—the name he had signed on the lease. In fact, it was his cousin’s name.

It wasn’t the first time that Jeremy had pretended to be someone else. His criminal record and lack of a driver’s license (revoked in 2004) had made it increasingly difficult to get loans, land jobs, and secure housing. Forgery became a way to survive. When a buddy joined the Air Force and got shipped overseas, Jeremy reportedly siphoned funds from his bank account. After another friend, Keith Ransom, died in an auto accident in 2005, Jeremy tried to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. The effort failed, but he did eventually manage to get a birth certificate and high-school transcript for Calvin James Leonard, a Little Falls resident who had died in 1999. On more than one occasion, Jeremy signed checks or documents with the names Cory Smith, Jeremy Smith, or Jay Kober. But even these aliases couldn’t liberate him from his criminal past and financial problems. He began to formulate a plan.

One Sunday night, roughly three weeks after he’d moved into the apartment near the vo-tech, Jeremy met up with Casey at his apartment and announced that all their problems were solved. According to court documents, he told her she didn’t have to worry anymore. He had a new identity.

 

IN EARLY MAY of this year, Jeremy Hull appeared before Judge Steven Anderson at the Mille Lacs County courthouse in Milaca. (When Lewis’s body was unearthed near Foreston, it fell to that county’s authorities to investigate and prosecute the case—a task that they quickly turned over to the state attorney general’s office.) Jeremy had been transferred to the Mille Lacs County jail, and shortly after 9 in the morning on May 9, a bailiff escorted Jeremy into the sun-bathed courtroom for a pre-trial hearing. Exactly one year had passed since Jeremy had been charged with Lewis’s murder.

Shackles bound Jeremy’s hands and feet. He was clean-shaven, with his brown hair cut short and swept straight back. Sitting alongside his lawyer in an oversized orange prison uniform, pink socks, and a pair of brown sandals, Jeremy was attentive and alert, carefully following the discussion as the attorneys and witnesses volleyed exchanges like players in a tennis match.

Family members say Jeremy has written several letters from jail. In one, according to his cousin Chad Gombos, Jeremy claims that Lewis’s death was an accident—that Lewis came to his apartment, an argument ensued, the two men began fighting, and they were wrestling when Lewis tripped over Jeremy’s dog and broke his neck—a fatal fall. Paul Wilczek Sr. says Jeremy made similar claims in a note sent to his family. Jeremy’s lawyers declined to comment for this article and an interview request sent to Jeremy at the Mille Lacs County jail went unanswered, but a letter he mailed to Casey shortly after his arrest seems to confirm that this is Jeremy’s view: “They can’t convict an innocent man,” he wrote.

The trial of Jeremy Hull is expected to begin in October, and when it officially gets underway the star witness is likely to be his former girlfriend. In June, Casey waived her right to a trial and pleaded guilty to aiding a criminal in concealing evidence of a crime. Building on her testimony and the accounts of dozens of others, prosecutors will paint a picture of a killer who plotted his crime, detailed his plans in dozens of notes and letters, and left an astonishing trail of receipts and other clues in his wake. “We can account for every step and action that he took,” says Chief Pender. “I can’t see any holes anywhere…. He could’ve kept a frickin’ diary and it wouldn’t have been any more incriminating.”

Prosecutors have declined requests to talk about the case, but court documents filed in advance of the trial suggest that their theory goes something like this:

A few days before Lewis went to St. Cloud, he got a call from Jeremy. Jeremy told Lewis he was tired of running from the law, says Sharon, and he planned to turn himself in. But before he did, Jeremy wanted to make things right. He wanted to give Lewis the $2,500 that he’d made from the recent sale of his Mustang.

Shortly after arriving at Jeremy’s apartment to collect the money, Lewis found himself with a noose around his neck—probably a dog leash. And, despite his larger size and his wrestling skills, he couldn’t free himself. Jeremy would later tell Casey that he pulled the ligature “until his arms began to tingle,” says a source familiar with her statements to police. Then, the story goes, Jeremy drove to Little Falls, took a handful of documents from Lewis’s shop, planted the note that Lewis’s friend Josh would later find, and returned to St. Cloud to give Casey the news.

The next day, Jeremy visited a branch of the Wells Fargo bank in St. Cloud and opened a checking account in Lewis’s name. He called the St. Francis Credit Union in Little Falls, where Lewis had kept his money in savings for more than a decade, and transferred $50,000 into the new account. He stopped at Wal-Mart and purchased several glass scrapers. He ate lunch at Arby’s.

In the afternoon, Jeremy dropped by the Donohue Harley-Davidson dealership in Sauk Rapids, where he bought a motorcycle. He registered the vehicle in Lewis’s name, met with an insurance agent to take out a policy on the cycle, and then—feeling suddenly flush—returned to the dealership to purchase a pair of chaps, two vests, and two leather coats. One of the jackets would be a gift for Casey.

But Jeremy still had one problem: How to dispose of the old Lewis? Getting the body wrapped in a bedspread, out of the apartment, and into the bed of the silver Ford must have been relatively easy.

“College kids were moving out, so if someone was carrying something out of the building, it wouldn’t have attracted attention,” observes Pender. But getting rid of it altogether would take some work. The day after Lewis disappeared, Casey drove Jeremy to the local Target, where he bought two shovels. After dark, she would later recall, they set out for Foreston.

They took two vehicles and drove fast. They flew along Highway 23, her car following Lewis’s truck through the towns of Parent, Foley, Ronnesby, and Oak Park, stopping only briefly at a service station to buy a sub sandwich and fill a container with diesel fuel. At Foreston, they turned south, slowing only as the road twisted past the old school, the baseball diamond, the cemetery, and a new real-estate development, Foreston Oaks (“New Homes Starting at $160,000”). A mile south of town, they turned off the road into a driveway marked by an antique threshing machine. It was Jeremy’s old place. Casey got out of her car and into the pickup.

On the far eastern end of the property, down an old rutted road that crossed a field, skirted a junk yard, traversed a marsh, and passed through a thicket of trees, lay an old gravel pit. At one end were the hulks of two gutted speedboats, filled with Miller Lite cans and Mountain Dew bottles; at the other end, stood an old Frigidaire, used for shooting practice.

During high school, Jeremy and his friends had often come here late at night to get drunk, make out, race four-wheelers, and tell ghost stories as unseen creatures hooted and trilled in the shadows around them. There was a huge pile of wood on the premises—perfect for making fires.

Jeremy removed Lewis’s body from the back of the truck. It was shoeless, Casey would later recall, and bound with tape and electrical cord. Jeremy dug a small grave, dumped the body in it, chopped at the hands and feet with a shovel, and poured on the diesel fuel. While he stoked the fire, she made trips to the woodpile. Casey would later recall him saying it smelled “like a barbecue,” says a source familiar with the case.

But a body is not an easy thing to destroy. Even burning fuel can’t incinerate bones. So Jeremy covered the remains in dirt and they left for the night. Early the next morning, he rented a Bobcat and returned to the site to finish the job. He sent Casey a text message: “LOL he is deep!”

Pender shakes his head in disbelief as he recounts the story. “I think that he lived in fantasyland,” he says of Jeremy. “He thought he could change his life for himself and his girlfriend. It’s money, but it’s not a lot of money. You don’t assume someone’s identity, go 30 miles down the road, and expect that you’re going to get away with it.”

He pauses, then adds, “Everything that Lewis was, he wanted to be.”
ON A SUNNY but windy afternoon this past April, more than 200 people gathered at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Little Falls to bury Lewis. It was the first anniversary of his disappearance, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had only recently released the remains of Lewis’s body after processing them as evidence. The assembled included a few cops, a detective from St. Cloud, and dozens of teenagers and twentysomethings. Many wore specially made T-shirts that read: “Show them angels what a real Ford sounds like.”

A murmur went up from the crowd as the funeral procession arrived. Following the white hearse were four Ford trucks in different colors. Three of them had once belonged to Lewis. At the wheel of the last vehicle, an old orange four-door, was Paul Sr. He helped Sharon from the passenger side and they joined Norine, Lori, and Paul Jr. under a red canopy as the pallbearers pulled the casket from the hearse. The coffin was metallic blue with silver trim—shiny as a sports car.

After the service, Sharon had everyone over to the house for sandwiches and coffee. The mood was almost festive. Adults reminisced and ate bars at tables set up in the garage, while Lewis’s friends chewed tobacco and talked out in the yard. There was a table with pictures of Lewis at every age. There were scouting awards and high-school diplomas. One girl had even painted a picture of Lewis’s truck at a mud run.

Midway through the evening, Sharon went down into the basement and opened the door to Lewis’s old bedroom. He hadn’t lived there since high school, and storage boxes filled half the space, but the room still contained mementos of his childhood: There were boxes of Legos, drawings of monster trucks, a picture of the Little Falls wrestling team circa 2000, and a closet full of T-shirts and polos carefully arranged by color.

Just outside the room was a framed poster: a series of photographs pasted on tag board. Sharon explained that it was something Lewis had made in elementary school. His fifth-grade teacher had instructed the students to construct a visual chronology of their lives, beginning with a baby photo and ending with a picture of the person they most wanted to be someday: Michael Jordan, the president, a movie star, a NASCAR driver.

Lewis and Sharon had spent several evenings working on the project, sifting through old albums to find images of him as a baby, as a toddler, as a kinder-gartner. He selected snapshots of birthday parties and wrestling meets, pictures from a scouting trip to Fort Portage and a family vacation to Disneyworld. Lewis had arranged the photos in order and, above them, written his full name in cursive script. He had added stickers to the mix, and handmade drawings, too. And at the end of the series, where others had put images of actors and astronauts, singers and sports stars, Lewis had pasted a picture of himself.

Facebook Comments

Joel Hoekstra
Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.