Brittany Zimmermann became nationally known in the spring of 2008, after the University of Wisconsin-Madison student’s 911 call went unanswered and she was found murdered in her Doty street apartment.
Perhaps overshadowed by the controversy surrounding that call is the mystery of who took her life.
“Ever since somebody broke into Brittany’s house, everything has gone wrong in this investigation,” said Zimmermann’s mother, Jean.
Brittany Zimmermann was attacked and murdered inside her apartment, five blocks from the state Capitol.
But exactly what happened to the 21-year-old Marshfield native is known only to her killer — and to mute feline witnesses.
“We have her cats,” Jean Zimmermann said. They are the “children” her daughter shared with fiancé Jordan Gonnering.
“They were there that day,” the mother said. “They were so overwhelmed with what had happened. So many times, we don’t have people over to our home because it upsets them. If it’s loud here or a doorbell rings, or someone knocks on the door, they are extremely upset and they will go hide. And you cannot get them out.”
The family has been frustrated with the lack of resolution in the case, especially since a DNA match became known this year.
“The truth is that the police had their current suspect the same day as the murder and released him soon after,” Gonnering said. “The DNA collected at the scene matches this suspect, but they cannot bring this to trial because of unknown issues.”
Zimmermann’s family is referring to David A. Kahl.
Kahl was born March 28, 1966. He has blue eyes, thinning gray hair and is right-handed. He stands 5-feet, 6-inches tall and lately weighs about 200 pounds.
Kahl is incarcerated at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, serving time for his seventh conviction for driving under the influence.
He formerly lived in Madison and his most recent address was in Oregon, Wisconsin.
Kahl has a long list of convictions going back to 1992, including for the manufacture and/or delivery of controlled substances and theft. He’s been registered as a sex offender since Sept. 16, 1993, following conviction for second-degree sexual assault.
A search warrant unsealed in June revealed that in December 2014, the Wisconsin State Crime Lab found Kahl’s DNA on the right sleeve of the shirt worn by Brittany Zimmermann when she died.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it was him, especially when he told the media he had contact with her the day she was murdered,” said one of Zimmermann’s aunts, Lisa Zimmermann Walcisak. She is a legal secretary in the Price County office of the district attorney.
‘I CAN’T REMEMBER’
On the day of the murder, April 2, 2008, Kahl was, by his own admission, looking for money in Brittany Zimmermann’s neighborhood to buy cocaine.
Barely three months earlier, he had been released from prison. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, “He looked for work while at a halfway house and was taking medication for paranoid schizophrenia. He said he quit taking the drug because he was doing well without it.”
Kahl had just turned 42.
Very early that day, at 1 a.m. and on the other side of the Capitol Square, neighbors of UW senior Rachel Krueger opened their front door and found a male asking for $40 to fix a flat tire.
It’s a story others would hear throughout the day. Krueger’s roommates also heard a knock on their door around 1 a.m., but they did not answer.
Eleven hours later, John Lange observed a “very intoxicated” stranger “getting in people’s faces” for money. Lange was a maintenance worker at the Mental Health Center of Dane County and he knew most of the homeless in Brittany Zimmermann’s neighborhood.
Krueger had a friend who lived on the odd side of the 500 block of West Doty Street, just like Zimmermann. At around noon, the friend went to her door after hearing a doorbell ringing incessantly. She saw an older male, lightly complected with gray hair, walking away.
At about that time, Zimmermann was returning to her home at 517 W. Doty St. after an exam.
Kahl later would tell Madison’s WKOW-TV that he and two other men visited Zimmermann. But, he said, “I never entered that house. I was at the door when all of us approached her and borrowed the money.”
Kahl also told the station his companions plotted a return. “They were going to go back, rob her or get the rest of the money,” he said.
So how was Kahl’s DNA found on Zimmermann’s clothing?
“I had a glass of water from her,” he told the station. “I can’t remember if I shook her hand, gave her a hug, thanked her for loaning me the money.”
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD BEFORE AND AFTER
If that visit took place, the three men almost certainly were the last to see Brittany Zimmermann alive.
Shortly after noon, the outside and inner doors of Zimmermann’s apartment were kicked in. She called 911 at 12:20 p.m. Though her screams and a struggle can be heard on the recording of that call, the dispatcher heard nothing intelligible and did not follow up.
Zimmermann was beaten, strangled and repeatedly stabbed. Half the wounds penetrated her heart. Gonnering, Zimmermann’s fiancé and roommate, found her body and called 911 at 1:08 p.m. Zimmermann’s body was cold and her fingers were stiff — signs of rigor mortis.
Kahl, according to witnesses, was in the neighborhood shortly after the murder.
Holly Davis was on the second floor of 525 W. Washington Ave., two streets away and nearly parallel to Zimmermann’s flat.
At about 1 p.m., Davis heard someone call “hello,” from the ground floor. She stepped out of her bedroom and saw “an older, white male” climbing the stairs. He told her he had a flat tire and needed $40 for repairs. She asked him to leave and he did.
Across the street, barely around the corner, at about 2 p.m., a man approached Matthew Plutschack at his residence, 119 N. Bedford St. The stranger said he needed money to fix a flat.
Plutschack gave $20 to the man, who left as collateral a Wisconsin Department of Corrections identification card. It was Kahl’s ID.
That evening, Davis worked with a police artist to sketch a composite drawing of the man she saw on the stairs.
The officer inadvertently walked Davis past a holding cell. Kahl was inside, having been taken into custody pending charges of criminal trespass and theft by fraud, and suspicion of violating probation.
Davis identified him as her intruder.
Kahl told police a story about two other homeless men, “Hank” and “Mitchell,” who were breaking into houses and “running scams” that day.
Kahl said he wasn’t involved in their crimes and he didn’t know their last names.
He was held as a material witness to the Zimmermann murder. In a police statement, he wrote that “Hank” and “Mitchell” used drugs “at a crack house on Wilson Street” and then separated.
“I also know they were going into houses that were unsecured and stealing things like cellphones and laptop computers,” he wrote.
Kahl helped police sketch one of the men and led police to a homeless shelter to search — another dead end.
Within a year of the murder, Madison police interviewed — and cleared — more than 700 people in the Zimmermann case.
Kahl, in prison, was not immediately available to WiG for comment, and the police will not discuss in any detail an ongoing investigation.
However, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval did recently note that any future prosecution of a suspect has to exclude reasonable doubt. “There are legal thresholds of burden that have to be met,” he said. “We have to find more evidence that pushes us to that case outcome, (to that) of a conviction.”
As in any investigation, “we want to make sure we’re open to all possibilities,” the chief said. “If you lock and load, so to speak, on only one modus operandi, per se, then I think to some extent, at least on a subliminal level, you’re creating blinders to the possibility that others may be complicit.”
The possibility of false confessions is one reason why police departments regularly hold back facts of investigation. The $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Zimmermann’s murderer also might inspire lies or, among convicts, demand for special treatment.
In 2014, a Wisconsin man in federal prison in West Virginia, Andrew Scoles, claimed Kahl once “broke down and told me what all happened.” But according to a search warrant, Scoles refused to say more “without getting some deal that would benefit him in exchange.”
And that’s where things stand.
Chief Koval said he is hopeful the case will be solved.
“Sometimes you exhaust the logical leads and you feel like you’re at a standstill,” he said. “And then you’ll get a line to a tip. You’ll have someone who speaks out of carelessness or out of intoxication. It gets heard by another and that provides yet another mechanism to follow up.”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part 1 appeared in WiG’s July 14 issue.