Dairy princess convicted in 1989 murder released from prison

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UNION GROVE, Wis. (WSAW) -- The Wisconsin Parole Commission has granted release for a woman convicted of killing another young woman in Rib Mountain in 1989.

Lori Esker, now 50, was convicted at trial in June 1990 of first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Lisa Cihaski, 21. She was released Tuesday morning from Robert Ellsworth Correctional in Racine County.

On June 19, Esker was recommended for a discretionary release. It was approved on June 27. Her release date was set for on or around July 16, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Cihaski was found strangled in her car in the parking lot outside the former Howard Johnson motel. She worked there as an assistant sales and catering manager. She was found by her mother after she failed to come home after work on Sept. 20, 1989. Investigators said she had been strangled with a belt. Esker was arrested eight days later.

Cihaski was engaged to Esker's ex-boyfriend. Witnesses said Esker still wanted a relationship with her former boyfriend, describing her as “obsessive”. Court documents state Cihaski had gotten engaged just one month before her death.

Trial transcripts state, Cihaski's mother, Shirley Cihaski described Lisa as an optimist. She said she had planned to get married in the spring of 1991.

“Lori Esker took something that was very precious to me,” she said to the court more than 27 years ago.

Investigators said Esker and Cihaski had been friends when they attended Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, where Cihaski graduated in 1986 and Esker in 1987.

Esker had been named Dairy Princess of Marathon County and at the time of the crime she was a student at UW-River Falls. Esker resigned as dairy princess after being charged.

In 1992, Esker asked for a new trial, claiming her confessions to the crime were involuntary because authorities used coercive tactics and jury instructions were confusing and misleading. The 3rd District Court of Appeals rejected her arguments.

Esker was sentenced to life, however, state statue governs parole eligibility for inmates who received life sentences between July 1, 1988 and Dec. 31, 1999. In accordance with state law, an inmate receiving a life sentence must serve a minimum of 13 years, four months before they are eligible for parole. However since that date, the law requires convicts to serve every day of their sentences. The truth in sentencing law eliminated time off for good behavior. A 2016 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article states the Legislature eliminated the parole board's role for truth-in-sentencing cases. For earlier crimes, the board can release inmates it believes have been rehabilitated after serving at least 25% of their sentences, and inmates must be released after serving two-thirds of their terms.

The case inspired the made-for-tv movie, "Beauty's Revenge,” also known as “Midwest Obsession,”. The movie aired on NBC in 1995. The movie has also aired on Lifetime.

Esker will continue serving her life sentence on parole and will be supervised by a probation and parole agent. If parole is revoked, she would be returned to a DOC facility to resume serving her life sentence and a new parole eligibility date would be established.