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Cold Case Wis.: Jack Howell's '76 murder has few leads, evidence

By Jennifer Hoff, jhoff@wisctv.com
Published On: Feb 06 2014 07:14:40 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 06 2014 07:36:36 PM CST

Authorities are reviewing a 1976 murder again after family members contacted News 3.

LANCASTER, Wis. -

Authorities are reviewing a 1976 murder again after family members contacted News 3.

Sharon Johnson hopes news coverage will help lead cops to her brother’s killer.

On June 15, 1976, a passerby saw Jack Howell’s car in a cornfield, the lights on and engine still running.

Grant County Sheriff’s Department detectives always thought there were two possible suspects -- one who drove up beside Howell’s vehicle, another who pulled the trigger. But long after retirement, the lead investigator explains the problems with the case.

“It was certainly weird,” said Perry Ahnen, who retired from the sheriff’s department nearly two decades ago. “In fact, I’ve never heard of a homicide quite like that before.”

Ahnen said there was little evidence left at the scene, and what’s left is boxed up in the sheriff’s department basement and at the Department of Criminal Investigation, the agency that took over the case shortly after Howell was murdered.

“I wish we had the manpower to dedicate to this case, but unfortunately we don’t,” said Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman, who said the staff was even smaller in the '70s.

Howell’s sister said he was a truck driver who didn’t have any enemies, and that he had a girlfriend and some friends in Grant County.

“He was last seen on Main Street talking to some people,” Johnson said.

Howell was hanging out at what used to be the Peanut Pub until 12:30 a.m. when he left for home.

“Even if you were looking over your shoulder looking for something and somebody pulls up as if to pass you, there’s nothing there to alarm you until it’s way too late,” Ahnen said.

A gunman pulled up beside Howell’s 1966 Cadillac and fired, sending the car careening into a cornfield off Highway 18 near Preston.

“I think he was just plain bushwhacked, I mean, he was,” Ahnen said.

Investigators then and now couldn’t comment on a motive, but robbery seems unlikely since Howell’s car, loaded with belongings, was untouched. Only part of a shotgun shell was left behind.

“We had several people that we polygraphed,” Ahnen said. “But they all passed the polygraph, that was our problem.”

Nearly 40 years later some of the possible suspects are dead.

“Somebody knows something, somebody is going to talk to somebody,” Johnson said. “They may find out who did this and it would put me at peace.”

“I’m glad this is being brought out because hopefully it will generate something for us to go on,” Dreckman said. “One tip can break a case wide open.”

The sheriff’s department recently solved another one of its cold cases, but Ahnen isn’t quite as confident this time.

“It would have been nice to have some good leads on that thing, but nobody was giving up anything,” he said.

Johnson remembered her brother built model airplanes, loved electronics and lived with her for a short time before he died. She hasn’t forgotten him and neither has Ahnen. And for this Wisconsin Cold Case to be cracked, they both hope someone else still remembers him, too.

“Maybe somebody that talked about this back then will see this now and say, 'Maybe it’s about time I say something,'" Ahnen said.

Two years after Howell died, Julie Ann Hall was murdered. She was left in a ditch near Waunakee. Hall was the daughter of Donne Hall, a friend of Howell’s who saw him the night he died.

Her case hasn’t been solved, but authorities say the two aren’t related.

The sheriff’s department has reached out to DCI to look over the evidence in Howell’s case again, in hopes of cracking it for good.

If anyone knows something, they can submit anonymous tips online.

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