SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Questions and theories about the 1966 death of 14-year-old paperboy Michael Fisher have swirled through the city of Superior for decades. The answer to one of them has been found. An interdepartmental team of investigators — Joe Krieg with the Superior Police Department and Jim Ohm with the Douglas County (Wis.) Sheriff’s Office — is hopeful more are on the horizon.
“It’s one of those cases that is just so ingrained in the history of this town, in part because it’s never been solved after 55 years,” Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf said. “We’d love to be able to give answers to a family that has been in anguish for 50-plus years dealing with this."
- PREVIOUSLY: Some unsolved murder mysteries still linger
A boy lost
Michael Dennis Fisher had bright blue eyes, something the photos of the day don’t show. He was full of energy, scrappy, curious and fearless, according to his sister, Valerie (Fisher) Blomquist. The family sometimes called the slight, 80-pound teen “Dennis the Menace.”
A year older than Michael, his sister recalled how they would spend hours rounding up a bat, ball and enough kids to play baseball with friends in Hammond Park, a block away from their home. By the time they got everything ready, it was almost dark.
He loved to be outside — climbing trees, riding his bike, sliding on Billings Drive, swimming at Lake Nebagamon, ice skating by Pattison School, picking blueberries in Iron River, although most of what he picked ended up in his stomach.
“One time he ate so many he got sick,” his sister said.
Michael collected baseball cards, read "Hardy Boys" books and was an avid moviegoer at the Beacon and Palace theaters. Westerns were his favorite. He played Army with his friends and, according to them, dreamed of serving in the U.S. Marines.
He had just completed the eighth grade at Cathedral School in Superior with Sister Mary Margaret’s class. In addition to Valerie, he had two younger brothers, Carl, 10, and Tim, 7.
Michael left home at 4 a.m. June 19, 1966, Father’s Day, to deliver the Sunday edition of the Duluth News Tribune. He never returned.
“You wonder, 'What would his life have been like?'” Valerie said. “It’s a part of your family that’s missing and our family changed that day, terribly.”
Subscribers on his route started calling the house to complain about not receiving their papers about 7 a.m. His sister fielded some of them from the extension phone in her room. She traced her brother’s route, looking for him. She remembers subscribers coming out to ask her about Michael's absence. Valerie found her brother’s wagon full of papers pulled up beside the steps to 1708 Ogden Ave. Only one paper had been delivered.
Michael’s body was discovered at about 9 p.m. in a ditch along then-vacant Hill Avenue, 2 miles from his paper route. A red sweatshirt was wrapped around his battered head. A preliminary report indicated the 14-year-old had died from massive skull injuries.
Fear struck the community. Newspapers of the day lofted theory after theory: Hit-and-run or murder? Accident or intentional?
"There's an old saying that 'opinions are like toothbrushes,'" said Ohm, who joined the sheriff's office in a part-time capacity after retiring from the state Department of Justice. "Everybody's got one, but you're not supposed to share yours."
For weeks, each new development in the case made the front page, from a search for missing tin snips Michael used to open his paper bundles to a three-state search for an automobile a witness said they saw Michael being put into. His sister said each one offered the family a burst of hope, which was then crushed. Businesses and organizations pooled funds to offer a reward of more than $5,000 for information leading to the apprehension of the person, or persons, responsible.
By 1971, all leads exhausted, the case went dormant, according to Krieg, and records indicate it was reexamined again in 1998.
When then-Capt. Chad LaLor of the Superior Police Department took a fresh look at the city’s cold cases in 2004, it led to convictions in the 1993 beating death of Myrna Clemons and the 1986 murder of Lynnea Gran. Nothing new was reported in the 1966 case.
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Michael Fisher was featured on the two of spades when the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators printed a deck of playing cards in 2011 that detailed some of the state’s unsolved deaths; no leads were sparked.
New information surfaced in 2017 that led Krieg to take another deep dive into the Michael Fisher case. The clue was nearly lost.
“Most officers who were aware of this case weren’t around anymore,” the detective said.
The officer who collected the information mentioned it to a longtime officer, however, and he brought it to Krieg.
Partnering with Ohm, he looked through the case backward and forward. Questions jumped out at them, and they set out to find answers.
“Joe and I put on thousands of miles, from California to Texas, and have interviewed 120 people,” Ohm said. “And we’re still going.”
Evidence is being scrutinized with a new, cutting-edge lens.
“With technology, advancements in DNA, genetics, there are still ways to interview someone who is deceased,” Ohm said.
Michael’s family gave permission for his body to be exhumed in January 2020. Meticulously planned, the operation took place on a morning when Krieg said temperatures hovered well below zero degrees.
“It was quite a coordinated effort between a lot of different agencies and something that doesn’t happen very often,” he said. "Out of respect for the family and Michael, the exhumation was done quietly and the scene was controlled. We did not want this to become a media event."
The forensic pathologist who examined Michael found that, to a degree of medical certainty, the boy's head injuries were consistent with two or more impacts. It put to rest theories of a hit-and-run, an accident or something being dropped on the teen, and helped narrow the focus of the investigation.
“This boy was beaten to death,” Fruehauf said. “This boy was murdered.”
Picking up speed
Momentum is building on the case:
The Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators has reviewed the case, offering new perspectives and possible avenues to pursue.
A piece of physical evidence recovered at the scene was tested at the Wisconsin State Crime Lab. Although the results didn’t answer any questions, Ohm said, they proved that DNA evidence could be extracted after more than 50 years.
The FBI’s behavioral analysis unit is currently combing through the reams of case interviews, looking at what was said and what wasn’t.
A forensic radiologist is examining X-rays of Michael’s bones.
Knowing this is a case of murder may jog some memories, change perspectives or prompt a new witness to step up. It may uncover the piece of the puzzle that can bring the case to a resolution, Krieg said.
Time is their biggest challenge. The investigators have occasionally gotten a fresh name — one that hasn’t been interviewed and re-interviewed — but find the person has recently died.
“This has been a continual event for us. … So it’s like any moment that piece of information is going to be gone from us, too, so we’re struggling with time,” Krieg said.
What would it mean to the family to find out exactly what happened to Michael?
“I think it would really just allow us to heal,” his sister said.
Fear lurked right under the surface for those he left behind.
“For a long time, we did live with wondering, is there someone out there that wants to harm someone else in our family,” Valerie said.
She found resilience through her faith in God, but hopes to find answers to the questions that remain.
“A lot of the other cold cases around town have been solved when things came to light, and we believe someone could come forward with information,” said her daughter, Amy Warring.
“If I find out what actually happened, I don’t know how I will handle some of it, because the truth is not always easy to take. But we aren’t really after revenge so much as we are for closure. … We just want closure,” Valerie said.
Carrying the torch
Both investigators have an emotional, as well as a professional, connection with the case and are determined to find answers.
“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Krieg, a 38-year veteran of the Superior Police Department. “It’s not about me, or Jim, or anybody else, but it’s just about their family, and they deserve to have an answer. We’re so close to having it. We’d like to give it to them.”
Michael's father, George, will turn 97 next month. His mother died 12 years ago with no answers about their son’s death.
“I like to think they’re together,” Valerie said.
Answers would lay to rest the theories that continue to swirl around the city.
“We certainly know that it wasn’t an accident,” Krieg said. “That’s the thing that’s very disturbing is this is a young child and somebody just killed him. What was the point? That’s another big question. Why did this happen? There’s always been theories: What did Michael stumble across that morning? What did Michael see that morning? We don’t have all the answers yet.”
The pair continue to search.
“It’s important because it’s the right thing to do,” Ohm said. “You see the impact on people, families, communities. Kids so scared they can’t go out and ride their bikes at night. It’s important because it needs to be done. Not by me.
"If I tip over tomorrow, somebody else will pick up the torch. It will keep going.”