Madison Murders

Date Published 04.20.08
Ann Arbor. Gainesville. Madison. They’re small college towns that summon images of soap-scrubbed co-eds leisurely walking to and from class. Crime is low. Local police spend most of their time issuing tickets for underage drinking and rarely, if ever, reach for their guns.

But even quaint college towns have their scary stories. In Ann Arbor, you have to go back a few decades, to the spring and summer of 1969; that’s when young women, all of them with long, brown hair, started vanishing. The killer liked to steal their shoes and dump their bodies in well-tread areas where they’d be found. John Norman Collins was eventually convicted of the “Michigan Murders” and is serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole.

Three days in late August 1990 still haunt Gainesville, home to the University of Florida. It was just before the start of fall semester when loud music, dripping water, and unanswered phone calls alerted officials that something wasn't right inside several off-campus apartments. Five students were found murdered and mutilated over the course of 72 hours. The killer, dubbed the “Gainesville Ripper,” initially eluded authorities, but several months later a drifter named Danny Rolling, who was in prison on burglary charges, was connected to the murders through DNA and other evidence. He ultimately pled guilty and was given the death penalty. Rolling was executed in 2006.

In Madison, the scary story is still unfolding.

Kelly Nolan, 22, had the kind of apple-cheeked beauty one associates with small town Wisconsin, where she was from. She hadn’t traveled the world yet, but she liked to meet new people, and Madison, where she was living last summer, seemed big and fun. On June 22, Kelly went bar hopping on State Street in downtown Madison with three friends. Near midnight the friends decided to call it a night, but Kelly, a free spirit, vowed to power on --- another drink, new friends to meet.

Kelly Nolan

Kelly was last seen among the crowd of people emptying out of the State Street bars at closing time. Her missing persons case received national attention, but nothing broke until July 9 when her decomposed body was found on densely wooded property ten miles south of Madison.

The Madison Police Department issued a statement saying they were not going to share details of Kelly's murder with the public. Unfortunately, their secrecy meant her story fell off the radar. It was impossible to know whether investigators were close to solving the case.

No news, it turns out, was bad news. The case went unsolved. Classes started up, and it seemed like Kelly's murder was probably just an aberration --- one of those things that jolt an otherwise tranquil college town every once in a long while.

Then came another jolt.

Monday, January 28 was a relatively nice day in Madison --- a mild interruption in an epic winter. The pleasant weather brought joggers and ice fishers out to Monona Bay.

Inside one of the bungalows overlooking the Bay a 31-year-old man named Joel Marino was working from home. Marino was a technical representative for Guidant Corp., which sells pacemakers to hospitals. He often traveled for his job, visiting hospitals and doctors’ offices, but on this day he was making phone calls and doing paperwork.

Marino liked his work; pacemakers are a serious business, but he had a knack for keeping things light. It helped that he had other interests, namely playing music. He played the guitar and piano well enough that he sometimes sang and played at friends’ weddings.

His own wedding was probably not far off. Two years ago, while in Iowa for work, he fell for a nurse named Amanda Miller. They dated long distance for a while, until Amanda finished nursing school. Seven months ago she moved to Madison so they could finally be together. She kept her own apartment, but spent most of her time at his house at 714 West Shore Drive.

In fact, they were together Monday morning. Amanda said good-bye to Marino around 11:30 a.m. and left to cover a nursing shift for a co-worker.

E-mails and phone calls indicate Marino was fine for the next hour and a half. It was business as usual. The West Shore Drive bungalows along Monona Bay reported no disturbances. It was a typical afternoon in a low-key area.

That all changed at 1:20 p.m., when Marino stumbled out of his house and staggered in the direction of St. Mary’s Hospital, just a block away. He didn’t make it very far. Witnesses saw him in distress and called police; he was pronounced dead a short time later. The cause of death was multiple stab wounds, including one fatal wound to the heart.

Marino's murder was both perplexing and full of evidence. There was no sign of forced entry; he didn't have any known enemies, or history of risky behavior. The killer's motive was unclear, but he wasn’t entirely a ghost. He left the murder weapon behind in the living room --- an OXO brand paring knife with a silver blade. He discarded a white stocking cap with a motion “W” and a gray Puma backpack as he fled the scene. Male DNA on these items matches DNA found on the murder weapon.

Best of all, witnesses saw him. He is described as tall and thin, in his 20s, with sandy-colored hair and a long, oval face. He wore a tan sheepskin jacket that resembled one made by Carhartt.

Jacket like the one worn by Marino suspect

Sketch of suspect

Detectives were even able to determine that the suspect bought the Puma backpack at an unnamed State Street business the previous Friday.

Joel Marino’s murder was strictly local news until another seasonably warm day nearly two months later. Wednesday, April 2 was “the nicest day of the year so far,” according to a source in Madison. Brittany Zimmerman, 21, spent the morning taking a test at the University of Wisconsin, where she was studying microbiology and immunology. An excellent student, she planned to attend medical school.

After her test Brittany returned home to the ground floor apartment at 517 W. Doty Street that she shared with her fiancé. The apartment is a mile from Joel Marino’s house. At 1:00 p.m., around the same time of day Marino had been murdered, Brittany’s fiancé came home and found her body. The coroner says she died from a “complexity of traumatic injuries,” but sources are more specific: like Marino, she was stabbed.

Brittany Zimmerman

For a small city that rarely sees homicides, two seemingly random daytime stabbings of young people inside their homes, just two months and a mile apart, caused a stir. The specter of Kelly Nolan’s unsolved murder added to the fear.

Still, early leads in the Zimmerman case looked promising. A neighbor reported that around the same time Brittany was murdered a man had walked into her house and asked for money to fix his flat tire. Other people recalled the same panhandler around the neighborhood. Madison police cracked down on transients. Dozens were arrested, including the man who walked into the neighbor’s house.

Days went by. No arrests were made in Brittany’s murder. Police issued a press release saying that her killer had forced his way into her apartment. That didn’t jibe with the transient angle.

“No one I know thinks it’s a transient,” said a source in Madison.

After a while, police stopped trying to pretend they didn't have a crisis on their hands.

Is Madison, like Ann Arbor and Gainesville before it, in the grip of a serial killer?

Sources in Madison have provided the following unreported observations; some of the information supports the serial killer theory, but some of it doesn’t.

1) According to a source, Joel Marino had good quality electronic equipment that was visible from the street. He also received frequent deliveries. It’s possible an intruder cased the house and intended to rob him, but a fatal struggle ensued.

2) But would a home invader own items like a brand new Puma backpack and a Carhartt jacket? Carhartt jackets like the one the Marino suspect was seen wearing retail for over a hundred dollars. A source familiar with Wisconsin winter apparel says such jackets are normally associated with hardcore winter activity --- construction, hunting, that kind of thing.

Interestingly, Brittany Zimmerman lived less than 500 feet from a busy commercial construction company.

3) Marino was a pacemaker representative who often worked with both heart patients and doctors. It’s possible that, as in the Dr. David Cornbleet case in Chicago, a former patient or someone associated with a former patient decided to take misguided revenge.

4) The Madison Public Library has been alerted to be on the lookout for a middle-aged man whom detectives wish to speak to about the Brittany Zimmerman murder.

5) Joel Marino’s girlfriend is an attractive brunette, not unlike Kelly Nolan and Brittany Zimmerman. In an interview about her routine with Joel, she mentions that on the morning of his murder she left to cover a co-worker’s nursing shift.

Was she normally home at that hour, and, if so, was she the killer's intended target?

In Madison, they wait for answers, but that doesn't keep people from speculating on local message boards, where the tone, as evidenced by one poster's brief message, has turned grim.

There's a killer loose in Madison, people. Wake up.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.