A Cold Case Solved?: New developments in Taylor Co. death investigation

By  | 

MEDFORD, Wis. (WSAW) -- "Look where we end up, now. Now we're every night like... my God I can't even believe... how did we get to this point?"

Feb. 21, 1999, Val Monte and her family’s lives changed forever. Her husband of 25 years, Eugene Monte, 43, was found dead in his cabin in Taylor County. His death was investigated as a homicide for the last 20 years.

This year, their lives flipped again. They were told his death was more likely suicide than homicide.

"Don't tell me when my husband that, that Friday that he was in any kind of trouble,” Monte berated. “I would have said 'whoa,' a wife would know I again, you know, every breath every... being with the person that was, so don't tell me that. If that was what I really felt, I, I'd accept it, but it's not."

It was Friday, Feb. 19, 1999 Eugene Monte went up north to his cabin in Hannibal. That Sunday, he was found lying face down in the living room.

His brother-in-law, Elroy Shilts discovered him late that morning. His wife at the time and daughter were there with him. They went back to their home a few miles away and Elroy called 911. The call lasted 56 seconds.

“911,” answered the dispatcher.

“Yes, I need an ambulance at -- it’s in Hannibal, Wis. here,” replied Shilts.

“Okay, at, at where you’re calling from,” she asked.

“No, not where I’m calling from. I’m calling from my place,” he said.

The two go back and forth giving the location of where to send the ambulance.

“My brother-in-law’s pass-- I think he’s dead or passed out or something. I don’t know,” Shilts stated.

“Okay, do you have a pulse on him,” she asked.

“Huh,” he questioned.

“Can you feel a pulse at all, at all on him,” she repeated.

“I just come back in here to get-- do the phone to call the ambulance,” he said.

They repeat the location, he gives his name, and an ambulance is dispatched.

No one saw the bullet hole in Monte’s chest until the coroner arrived. There was no gun in sight.

"We worked that case very vigorously."

Current Taylor County Sheriff Larry Woebbeking was the lead detective on the case. It took him more than a month to find the gun that led to Monte’s death.

"I wanted to look behind this chair at something and I grabbed the back, like this, and I just tilt it forward so I could look behind it,” he demonstrated, “and I could hear something slide inside the chair thunk."

He sliced open the fabric on the bottom of the chair and found a .22 caliber handgun with a jammed bullet sitting inside the chair. That happened on March 30, 1999.

During the demonstration, he flipped the chair back in place, keeping the cushion off. "There's a hole there that you could slide the gun in and have it drop in,” he indicated in the far back corners of the chair where the arms and back meet. “There's no way for it to accidentally get in there."

7 Investigates felt the holes too, it would take a deliberate effort to put a gun, even one that small, in either gap, not to mention returning the cushion neatly back in place.

A year went by with little progress and autopsy results left a major question hanging: was this a murder or was this suicide?

"The suicide aspect of this case has really been kind of a nemesis," Woebbeking said.

The autopsy showed Monte lived for several minutes after being shot; not more than 10 minutes, Michael Chambliss, the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy noted. He said below that, it is hard to say.

Chambliss considered homicide and suicide as a manner of death, so he did not list a manner of death in his report. The county coroner, however, listed homicide on the death certificate.

So in December, 2000, investigators held what is called an inquest; a jury comes together, is presented the evidence investigators have so far, and helps to determine a manner of death or at least a direction for investigators to go.

Woebbeking said the sheriff’s office has been investigating Monte’s death as a homicide ever since the inquest, saying their main suspect was Elroy Shilts.

"He made questionable comments throughout the investigation," Woebbeking said.

According to a report of a telephone conversation Woebbeking had with Val Monte, on April 8, 1999, Shilts visited her. She asked Shilts how he wanted his stuff back from the cabin, as Shilts once owned the cabin before Monte and left some things there. She told Woebbeking that Shilts told her he wasn’t worried about getting his things back, but did mention the chair in the living room was his and it could just be thrown away.

This was days after the gun was found and Woebbeking said the information about the gun being found had not been released to the public.

Circumstantial evidence accumulated as the years went on. According to Woebbeking’s report of an interview with a source, Shilts told a friend “I killed one guy and got away with it; I can do it again." However, there was no real break in the case.

“Over the course of these years, we've re submitted evidence to the crime lab as technology, like DNA technology has really advanced, back in 1999 when this happened, that was just that was science fiction almost,” Woebekking said.

Monte’s daughter, Sheila, has been the point of contact for detectives, specifically Woebbeking, since the investigation began. She was 23 at the time her dad was found dead.

“He was a Marine, my dad. So he always had that, you know, the Marines are faithful and loyal to the ones they love and it's to help anybody out and do what you can. So I'm trying to do what I know my dad would do for his family and anybody else, any other friends,” she said. “So I'm just trying to get justice for him.”

After 17 years and seemingly no closer to finding that justice, Shelia reached out to the Oxygen Network murder mystery show, ‘Cold Justice’ for help in 2016. The show is made up of former prosecutors and detectives who work with local law enforcement agencies around America to help provide resources and a new perspective to solve cold cases.

Recently, the team assisted the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office with the unsolved 1982 murder of Barbara Mendez. Her husband, Robin Mendez is now spending the rest of his life in prison.

Shelia reached out to Woebbeking, to see if the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office would be willing to work with the team.

“It was a long process to get all the necessary clearances to move forward that, because obviously, it's an active open case and considered a homicide case,” Woebbeking said.

He worked with the sheriff at the time, Bruce Daniels, District Attorney Kristi Tlusty, and the Division of Criminal Investigation who all eventually approved the Cold Justice team to have complete access to the Eugene Monte case files.

“I was very skeptical, I must admit, on the front side of this,” Woebbeking added. “I was skeptical that the show would come in, and they have a very tight deadline. And I looked at the things they wanted to do, which I thought just was not possible in the time frame, but we got it done.”

The team arrived in February, 2017 and stayed for about a week. They retested evidence, brought in new experts, and reinterviewed more than 50 people.

The episode aired that September, leaving viewers and the Monte family with higher hopes than they’ve had in nearly two decades.

According to the show and Woebbeking, they narrowed the suspect pool from two to one. They confirmed the weapon that caused Monte’s death. They learned of a Department of Natural Resources’ ATV route that runs near Shilts’ home and the cabin, and a relative that confirmed that’s how Shilts would visit Monte. They gained new testimony from key people, including Shilts who told investigators, “I did not kill him. I did not go over there and I had nothing to do with it. And if I did, there's nothing I can remember if I did."

Woebbeking believe there was enough circumstantial evidence to present it to the district attorney for possible prosecution.

"I wouldn't call it a solid case, it would still be in the iffy range, if I can say it that way,” Woebbeking said. “Whether it was strong enough to go forward, certainly when you read it, I think the reader says, ‘I think I know what happened here,’ but I don't think that that always translates to a conviction in court."

“They came back and said yeah... we have strong circumstantial case,” Shelia said. “That's where they left it the last time we seen (sic) them and that's what we are expecting. Then all of a sudden ‘Cold Justice’ is out of the picture and now everything's turned around.”

Taylor County District Attorney Kristi Tlusty began reviewing the case summary and case files, but there was a complication. She said she had a conflict of interest and would not be able to prosecute the case.

She reached out to the Department of Justice for recommendations to appoint a special prosecutor. They recommended Mark Williams, a retired Milwaukee County prosecutor who specialized in homicides. He covered more than 700 cases in his 37 years on the job.

"He's probably the most experienced homicide prosecutor that I'm aware of in the state of Wisconsin," Tlusty said.

He and another retired prosecutor, Norman Gahn, reviewed the case and talked with outside experts, including Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Peterson.

In a letter from Williams to the Taylor County judge in January, 2019, Williams wrote "Though there is evidence that Elroy Shilts, who found the body, may have committed the homicide, there is also strong evidence that Mr. Monte committed suicide."

The letter also included Dr. Peterson’s opinions and review. He presented two suicide scenarios and noted he favored the first suicide theory.

Shelia and Val Monte took that as a suicide ruling.

"I was blown away by that,” Sheila shook her head. “I thought it's either going to be yes, we're going ahead with the case, or we just don't have enough, enough evidence, which we knew, but those were the only two options I was expecting to hear."

7 Investigates spoke with Williams, Gahn, and Dr. Peterson. They all said it is anatomically, physiologically, and physically possible that Eugene Monte died by suicide.

"It really wasn't ruled a suicide it was essentially determined undetermined,” Williams responded after I asked why they would determine the death to be suicide over homicide. “It's just we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was a homicide."

"My advice to him was, ‘Well, gosh, if you're going to present this to a jury, and potentially put somebody in jail for a long time, this would be perfect fodder for the defense to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we've got Reasonable Doubt here,'" Dr. Peterson explained.

When pressed about specific conclusions in the letter, Dr. Peterson said with no witnesses to the death and without examining the actual body, his opinion is less certain, but his experience means if he can see suicide as a possibility, likely so can a jury.

"You're probably already thinking is, ‘Well, how about how about if somebody had been forcing to kind of get him in their hand? And he's trying to fend it off with his off hand? That's possible, of course,” Dr. Peterson said, “But I think in that case, there wouldn't have been any reason for the jam."

"No matter what we feel, of course, no one wants to believe that their family members would do something like that, but put that all aside. I'm looking at other people's views," Shelia said.

She is talking about the inquest jury ruling homicide over anything else, the coroner listing homicide on the death certificate, the original investigators, and ‘Cold Justice’ all pointing at murder.

Sheriff Woebbeking said he has his thoughts, but must rely on the experts.

"This case has always been plagued with could this possibly be a suicide,” he stated. “I must say I thought we were beyond that as did everybody in the case, but it was looked at again, with a fresh pair of eyes and a very, very knowledgeable person and an expert, who still believes it's a suicide.”

He continued, “At the end of the day, when you hand that, that report over to your district attorney or your prosecutor, you think you know who did it, or what happened, but that doesn't matter anymore. You've handed that information over and now it's, it's their time to decide is there a case here to go to court?"

Shelia said her biggest issue is how the opinions and the language in the letter to the judge essentially closes the case. It is a finality Tlusty expressed in an email in Feb., 2019 to Shelia, saying “Even if I was able to resume control of this case, the report by Dr. Peterson makes it impossible for anyone to prosecute.”

"How are you going to prosecute a case when Dr. Peterson had that conclusion," Williams echoed.

"I look at it some days where I'm tired because we've been we've been doing it for 21 years,” Shelia paused. But then there's some days where it's, it's wrong, it's wrong what they did. And that, that I can't let go."

7 Investigates reached out to Elroy and did not hear back.

Williams and Dr. Peterson said if new evidence is found, they would review the case again.

Shelia and her mother told 7 Investigates in addition to the reasons they already mentioned, there is another reason they cannot accept this determination. That reason is the ongoing felony case against then-Taylor County detective sergeant, Steven Bowers.

While working on the Monte case alongside ‘Cold Justice,’ he gave them two more cold cases to look at without prior approval from the sheriff.

7 Investigates has reported on this piece of the story over the last year. Bowers was double demoted to deputy, the Department of Justice filed felony charges of misconduct in office against him, and he filed a criminal complaint with the Medford Police Department against the sheriff, district attorney, and two others for how they investigated him.

Bowers is currently still employed as a Taylor County deputy, but he has not done that job in more than two years.

"I have gotten my substitute teaching certification and I've been teaching in a couple of local school districts," he stated.

He has been on paid administrative leave since March, 2017.

"I felt at the time that ‘Cold Justice’ was a public service agency, or a fellow law enforcement agency that could assist us in solving some homicides," he explained.

That ‘Cold Justice’ was acting as an assisting agency is one point he is trying to prove to the judge. The major point he is trying to prove is that he did not break any laws.

"If I had violated a law, or somehow if Cold Justice had been paying me to find cases for them and I was personally benefiting, I could understand this, but I was trying to do the right thing,” he argued. “I'm getting charged for it and that just doesn't seem fair."

He tried to appeal the charges with the circuit court judge. The judge denied it, saying the prosecutors have met their burden to find probable cause of a crime to charge him.

He tried to appeal with the State Court of Appeals. That court denied it.

He tried to appeal with the State Supreme Court. They denied it too. That means his case will go to trial.

Bowers freely admits, he broke a policy rule.

I did, and you know what, the county punished me and I got a significant, significant punishment,” he pushed. “I was suspended for three months. I was demoted from detective sergeant all the way down to patrol deputy. Financially, that's a, I think, $3 an hour cut; that's a $6,000 a year pay cut over all the years I'm working. I mean, that's a fine that people don't get for committing real crimes. So I believe I've been punished as much as I should."

He said he believes he has been unfairly targeted for punishment on two fronts, though when his attorney tried to use that argument, called selective prosecution, to appeal the charges, the courts did not believe he met his burden of proof.

Bowers said then-Sheriff Bruce Daniels was the first to target him.

"He was constantly threatening people with having their jobs,” he said. “The one thing he always used with me is when I was a detective is, 'he'll be back in uniform,' meaning he's going to demote me and get me back in uniform."

That is not the first time one of Daniels’ employees made that kind of accusation. In a 2012 investigation against Daniels, Wisconsin’s Division of Criminal Investigation looked into a complaint another one of his deputies made accusing the sheriff of asking the deputy to destroy a report about his son’s car crash.

The attorney general’s office ultimately decided not to charge Daniels, but in a report of the interview agents had with that deputy, the deputy said, "he has been told by the Sheriff on several occasions that he is an 'at will' employee of the Sheriff."

The deputy was also noted in the report suggesting the sheriff said employees were "not to disagree with him at any point, even 'behind closed doors.'"

In Bowers’ case, Bowers said Daniels went to great lengths to have a reason to fire him after the cold cases were handed over, including having the IT director hack into Bowers’ personal Dropbox account, where Bowers kept some of the case files, without a warrant. Bowers said, and it was noted in Bowers’ disciplinary hearing transcript, that this was done under Daniel’s and Tlusty’s direction.

As 7 Investigates reported last year, Daniels stood by their decision, as the account was tied to Bowers’ county email address. While Bowers had personal documents in the account, Daniels understood county files were in there too, files that Bowers’ girlfriend also had access to.

Daniels declined to comment on any of Bowers’ statements, saying he did not believe he could comment with an active case, even though he is no longer sheriff.

Bowers filed a complaint with the Medford Police Department about how Daniels accessed and locked him out of his Dropbox account, which he pays for. Medford Police Chief Bryan Carey determined it would be a conflict of interest for them to investigate the case and searched for an agency around the state to take the case. Several departments said they could not take it due to a shortage in staffing.

Ultimately, Carey reached out to the FBI and according to his reports about the complaint and Bowers, the agency took the case. The FBI told 7 Investigates they will not confirm or deny whether they are doing any kind of investigation.

"The FBI agent called me back and said that they talked to the US Attorney, the US attorney said we're not going to waste any more resources on this," Bowers said.

The FBI denied 7 Investigates’ request for those investigation documents and 7 Investigates is appealing that decision. Bowers obtained the records after first being denied and shared the documents with us.

In that FBI report is a copy of the Information Technology policy that Bowers signed, acknowledging in part that he had "no expectation of privacy for any material on Taylor County equipment, even if that material was generated for my (his) personal use."

The FBI agent also noted in the report that Bowers was terminated from the sheriff’s office, but currently, he is still technically employed as a deputy. In the disciplinary hearing the sheriff requested, the county’s personnel committee determined Bowers should be demoted, not fired.

Chief Carey’s report on the complaint, which was referenced in the FBI’s investigation, also showed Daniels was made aware of the complaint and could potentially gain access to the investigation documents.

Bowers said he does not believe his complaint was investigated well by the FBI.

That brings us to the second place Bowers believes he is being targeted, by the DOJ. That is the agency that investigated and is currently prosecuting him for his felony charges. Again, the courts ruled he did not meet his burden of proof.

"Early on in this, they asked me one time to be interviewed for their investigation. I said I'd be more than happy to do that, but I wanted my employment case to get done first,” Bowers said. “They filed the criminal charges against me, prior to the employment case being done. I've, I can't believe that any prosecutor would do that without, you want to have the quote, unquote, suspect’s version of things. And they asked me once I said I'll do it later, and they never got back to me."

Bowers said the prosecutor in the case, Annie Jay, told his lawyer something to the effect of ‘I'm going to make sure he never works in law enforcement again.’

7 Investigates called his current lawyer, Rick Cveykus, who said he remembers her saying something like that and that she made it very clear she did not like Bowers and had no intension of negotiating a plea deal and settling the case. He also said he thought her negative feelings towards him was strange, that there was no clear reason as to why she felt that way other than that he is a defendant in the case.

Another one of his lawyers, however, says that type of comment is typical of prosecutors.

7 Investigates asked the DOJ last year about this and its communications director at the time, Johnny Koremenos responded saying the prosecutor "has never made the statement Bowers alleges."

He said about the shared cold case files, that case files aren't released during the course of investigations because they contain sensitive and private information, information that only the perpetrator knows, as well as investigative strategies.

7 Investigates talked with current Attorney General Josh Kaul, but he said, "Because that's an ongoing prosecution. I can't comment about the details of that case."

According to testimony during Bowers’ disciplinary hearing, DCI agents assisted Taylor County in at least one of the two cases Bowers gave ‘Cold Justice.’ Sheriff Daniels even said in that hearing it would be a "slap in the face" to allow ‘Cold Justice’ to have one of the cases the DOJ was working on, he added, given that the DOJ does not like these types of programs.

The Eugene Monte case also had DCI involvement, but Daniels said that case and ‘Cold Justice’ were thoroughly vetted before they were given complete access.

"Bruce Daniels said that we had to let the attorney general's office and DCI know about this (the other cases) before we'd let them look at it,” Bowers recalled. “That's not the case at all. It remains our case. DCI comes in all the time and says we're not here to take over your case."

When asked if he believed any of the cases he had given to ‘Cold Justice’ or their information had been compromised because of that act, he said he did not.

7 Investigates asked the same question to current Sheriff Woebbeking and Tlusty, but they both said they could not comment because of the active case.

So, let’s loop back to the Eugene Monte case. The Monte family said they just cannot accept the finality of the report of “more-likely suicide” brings to the case because of Bowers’ case.

In reaction to Bowers handing over the documents, Tlusty said in the disciplinary hearing that Bowers is untrustworthy. On top of that, Bowers files a criminal complaint against her.

Tlusty said she has a conflict of interest in the Monte case and cannot prosecute it, but she said the DOJ would not prosecute it because the DOJ now has a criminal case against Bowers too.

While having different prosecutors and medical examiner review the case may not have changed whether the Monte case would be prosecuted, the special prosecutor, Williams acknowledges the case is essentially closed because of Dr. Peterson’s report.

"I think they can use this both to get rid of the case, to make me look bad, to wrap up all the loose ends from the whole thing and just move on," Bowers concluded.

7 Investigates talked with the original forensic pathologist, Chambliss. Twenty years later, he is essentially seeing the case through the same eyes as Dr. Peterson, just going off of pictures and reports. He said Dr. Peterson’s opinions are sound.

7 Investigates will continue to follow these cases and bring any updates as they develop.