- Views & Opinions
It is April 2, 2008. Madison college student Brittany Zimmermann walks home from an exam. In the middle of the day, in a neighborhood five blocks from the Capitol, the 21-year-old Marshfield native meets her murderer.
In broad daylight, the killer breaks down the outside door and then the inner apartment door. As she fights for her life, Zimmermann calls 911. The tape records screams and struggle, but the dispatcher hears nothing intelligible and does not follow up. Police are not sent. The line goes dead.
Zimmermann is beaten and strangled. She is stabbed repeatedly with “a weapon similar in nature to one possessing a blade length from 2 to 5 inches, blade width of 1.5 to 2 cm., and with a non-prominent hilt,” says Dane County Coroner John Stanley. Half the wounds extend through her rib cage and penetrate her heart. She dies of a “complexity of traumatic injuries.” Cellphone parts litter the crime scene.
No valuables are missing. There is no explicable motive. Sexual assault? “I don’t think I should comment on this for the sake of the investigation,” says Jordan Gonnering, Zimmermann’s roommate and fiancé. He found the body.
So began a drama played out in the national news: a murder made more tragic by the botched call center response. “Student’s 911 call falls on deaf ears,” reported ABC. “Slain student called 911, but no one came,” said CNN.
Authorities announced a $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Zimmermann’s killer or killers.
Within hours, unknown to anyone, Madison Police have a prime suspect in custody, held on an unrelated charge. A recently unsealed search warrant revealed a belated DNA test that links the man to Zimmermann.
Those closest to Zimmermann now consider the case a bungled investigation.
Gonnering has never before spoken with the press. He speaks to WiG now, he says, “for the sole purpose of putting more pressure on the Madison Police Department.”
“While I do not think that the police are acting maliciously, they have been extraordinarily incompetent throughout this investigation,” says Gonnering.
It’s understandable the murder remains an open wound, shared among those closest to Zimmermann. “I’m not going to lie,” Jean Zimmermann, Brittany’s mother says. “It takes over.”
Dane County’s 911 center was thoroughly reorganized. But as for the murder investigation — no charges, no arrests.
“There are always things that are being looked at,” Madison Police Chief Michael Koval says.
A Capital City native, Koval came up through the ranks and was made chief in 2014. He offers generalities; no one within the department will comment on the specifics of an open investigation.
“We are still very vigorous in our approach and hopefully can find those individuals who are responsible,” Koval says. “We feel that overriding sense of mission to give this family and our community the peace of mind that .…”
The chief pauses. “This is the most despicable of homicides,” he says. “We feel a necessity to close it.”
In the first year after Zimmermann’s death, more than 700 people were investigated. Agencies involved included the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Department of Criminal Investigation, Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory, FBI, University of Wisconsin-Madison Police, Wisconsin State Capitol Police and the Dane County Sheriff’s Department. More than 140 MPD officers work the case, writing 2,900 pages of reports. All remain sealed by court order. As a result, mystery surrounds much of the story.
“We don’t even know what happened that day,” says Jean Zimmermann. “I don’t think people realize that. We have never been told anything about the day she died.”
“Why won’t they take a kick at the cat with the evidence they have? It just doesn’t make sense,” says one of Brittany’s aunts, Lisa Zimmermann Walcisak. She has a unique perspective — she serves as a legal secretary in Price County’s office of the district attorney. “They should be able to create a timeline of when he was there and when she was murdered.”
It’s time for a fresh look.
WiG can now create a timeline of her murder from new interviews, available police and coroner records, UW-Madison archives and contemporary press accounts, especially those from student papers.
On the ground and intimately involved, UW’s Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald turned up a great deal of potential testimony, establishing background and taking us back in time.
In 2008, Zimmermann was 21 and a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She planned to get a doctorate in infectious disease — her dream was to find cures for the world’s worst illnesses.
She worked for three years at the university’s office of the registrar. At work, according to her boss, she discussed medical school, marriage and starting a family.
On Easter, she had announced her engagement to Gonnering.
Madison on that Wednesday in April got an unexpected gift: Snow closed schools in northern Wisconsin just the day before. But on April 2, 2008, the city exceeded the forecast and hit 50 degrees — balmy for so early in the year, drawing many outdoors. But Zimmermann had an exam.
After her exam, her fiancé saw her from afar, at about 11:30 a.m. They spoke by cellphone. “I was on the balcony of Van Hise (Hall), Brittany just below on the sidewalk,” Gonnering recalls today.
Zimmermann was wearing a lime green wool coat, jeans and black Puma sports shoes. She carried a blue-and-navy backpack. She was walking to her home in the Bassett neighborhood, southeast of campus. The most direct sidewalk route is 1.1 miles. Walking time is 26 minutes, though a knowledgeable Madisonian can knock off some time with shortcuts. Zimmermann might have been seen between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on any or all of the following streets: Bedford, West Johnson, West Main, State and University Avenue.
Home was on West Doty Street, in the heart of the Bassett neighborhood. It’s not a bad neighborhood — Madison’s current mayor lived on Zimmermann’s block when he was young.
Still, “You see more and more homeless people hanging out there,” Kristy Ludwig said later. The UW-Madison junior lives a block from Zimmermann’s apartment. “It’s something that has become normal, but it’s not something you want to get used to.”
Zimmermann arrived outside her home at 517 W. Doty St. She and Gonnering lived on the first floor of the 1921 house in a 756-square-foot flat.
Across the street and on both sides of the house are apartment buildings, full of potential witnesses. The set of three front windows are just a few yards from the sidewalk.
Four minutes before noon, Zimmermann was just 24 minutes away from being attacked. If she was being followed, she apparently did not notice. She took out her phone.
“She tried to call me a little before 12 o’clock and I had missed the call,” says her mother.
Outside the house, Zimmermann saw a rabbit on the lawn. She paused to photograph it with her phone. “She was a typical girl, OK? Very simple,” her mom says.
At noon, John Lange, a maintenance worker at the nearby Mental Health Center of Dane County, saw something odd. He knew most of the homeless people in the area, but that day a “very intoxicated” stranger was “getting in people’s faces” for money.
Zimmermann continued through three doors, the first of which was about to be forced open. Her fiancé had repeatedly complained to the management company about locks and doors, verbally and in writing.
Next was the inside entrance to the apartment. Zimmermann could have left it unlocked because the management company was sending over a potential tenant around noon to sublet the flat.
But at some point she locked that door.
She continued through a third doorway, leading to the rearmost room — the bedroom. That is where her fiancé would find her body, “lying in the entrance between our bedroom and hallway,” Gonnering says.
Zimmermann began to work on her computer, filling out a grant application for next year.
A friend of UW-Madison senior Rachel Krueger lived on the odd side of the 500 block of West Doty Street, the same as Zimmermann. She later told Krueger someone rang her doorbell excessively at noon and she saw an “older white male with gray hair walking away.”
Zimmermann’s front door was kicked in. The inner ground floor door gave way next.
“Upon entering the hallway, our apartment door was ajar with damage to the door frame,” Gonnering recalls.
“We were told (by police) that the trouble began in the living room,” says Jean Zimmermann.
Brittany Zimmermann phoned 911 at 12:20 p.m. She would be dead within 10 minutes, according to the coroner. The recording of her last minutes has been released only to family.
“You can definitely hear her screaming. I’m not going to lie. And then someone else talking,” says Jean Zimmermann. “That’s literally all I know of the entire day.”
But the emergency center mishandled the call.
By the time Gonnering returned home, he told a student paper, “She was cold, her fingers were stiff.” He phoned 911 at 1:08 p.m. “Ambulance is needed,” he said, barely able to speak. In shock, he misinterpreted the injuries. “I just came home, the door was busted in and my girlfriend’s been shot.”
According to the Herald, “Police arrived within seven minutes to find Gonnering trembling and weeping, with Zimmermann lying on the ground next to him.”
It rapidly became an “all hands” law enforcement response. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, experts examined the scene and collected a pair of bloody slippers, computer paper with apparent blood drops, hair and 18 blood samples, “10 fingerprints,” nine partial footwear prints and 23 DNA swabs.
One of the swabs would lead to a suspect who has yet to be charged.
Anyone with information in the 2008 death of Brittany Zimmermann is urged to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014 or madisonareacrimestoppers.org.
PHOTOS: Courtesy, AP, courtesy, Jeff Miller/UW-Madison
UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann. The crime scene at the house on West Doty Street. Brittany Zimmermann and her mom, Jean. A vigil takes place at the UW-Madison campus.