Cold Case: The Rhonda Mertes Murder

The anniversary of a deadly attack on a Wausau woman is about a week and a half away, and even as time goes on since someone robbed Rhonda Mertes of her life, investigators say science and determination will still help them get this mystery solved.

If a murder was committed say 20 years ago, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn improvements in CSI style forensic tests were giving new hope to the investigation, but that's exactly what's happening in the case of Rhonda Mertes, who was killed seven years ago.

The year and the decade could not possibly have come to a worse ending in Wausau. Thirty-seven-year-old Rhonda Mertes was found beaten to death on December 4, 1999. She had been out partying at several bars the night before and was discovered by joggers early that morning in an abandoned area near the river and Bridge Street on the city's east side.

Wausau's police chief, Jeff Hardel, says they took a lot of items from the scene and sent them to the state crime lab.

"They received it and processed it, but there was no evidence they could come up with at that time."

Investigators had plenty to follow up on at first, but as with all aging case the tips and leads started to dwindle after some time passed.

In 2002, the department brought in a retired FBI agent to look it over, and later the police were actually forced to give the Mertes murder investigation less time, as they had to hunt for the man who was setting Wausau garages on fire.

Then last year the state Department of Justice Cold Case Unit was brought in to help, and three new investigators within the Wausau PD took the Mertes case over.

"New people might see something that everyone has overlooked," said Matt Barnes, Wausau P.D. Detective

Science is helping them see something new as well. Some of the items that were thought to be useless in the investigation at first have been tested with CSI style techniques that have been developed since Rhonda's murder and may now be leading to new clues.

"It's a tremendous find for us and I really think it will help us conclude with an arrest." Barnes said.

He says they've even taken DNA samples from people they've questioned in the past and they've only just begun.

"Until we've ID’d a suspect we'll continue to go over hundreds of names and eliminate people as people of interest."

But even as science moves forward, detectives say the final piece of solving the puzzle of Rhonda's murder could still come the old fashioned way.

With new information that seems to come in every year when the terrible anniversary come around, Wausau PD Detective Captain Greg Hagenbucher said, "We'll get tip calls starting around the first of December, and that's just what we want to have happen."

The chief and the detectives say every tip call they receive gets followed up on. The numbers to call are (715) 261-7883, 261-7878 and 261-7857.


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