SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Woman's Body Found in Cornfield

By: Dana Brueck and Chief Photojournalist Curt Lenz Email
By: Dana Brueck and Chief Photojournalist Curt Lenz Email

Posted Monday, July 6, 2009 --- 10:20 a.m.

Twelve years ago, a man walking his dog one Sunday morning made a grisly discovery. He found a body decomposing in a cornfield near his home. Investigators worked the case but eventually, it went cold.

"The places that she used to hang around, I don't even like to go around because something comes over me."

Michelle Pedrero tries to escape memories that surface along some of Milwaukee's city streets.

"I don't go where she used to hang out."

It's not a city block... but a photo Bob Neuman cannot escape.

"If you look at this picture and you look at those eyes, and it's sitting in front of my phone, she's staring right at me... so she's haunting me a little bit."

Theirs are two lives intertwined by a 12-year-old murder.

"It was reported back on September 14th, 1997."

Detective Neuman was the first one on the scene - a scene miles from Milwaukee, in a remote part of Dodge county. A neighbor walking his dog went to check out a suspicious odor coming from a cornfield, near Roosevelt and Erin Roads.

"This is September so the corn is almost at its tallest."

But Neuman found a small trail, then a body.

"It was decomposed and had been there quite some time."

Within 24 hours, investigators determined the body was a woman reported missing in Milwaukee -- 37-year-old Christine Stenulson.

"My mom may have been doing what she did, but she didn't deserve to die. She was very loved."

Stenulson was a mother to three children - the eldest, Michelle remembers mornings, singing the family's song with her younger brothers.

"Everybody would go to bed with my mom and we'd sing our song."

But Michelle, who was 19 when her mother was killed, says life growing up was far from ideal.

"She was a very good-hearted person. She did the best she could with what she knew."

Christine Stenulson knew a life of drugs and of prostitution. This booking photo from Milwaukee County was taken days before her disappearance. Stenulson's lifestyle strained her relationship with her only daughter.

"If I would've known what I know now, I would have never said it, but I said it to her a lot of times before, but I didn't know it was going to be our last conversation."

The victim's troubled history also complicated the case.

"We just worked everything we could and just couldn't come up with any more evidence that would take us in a direction."

Now, the case is going in a new direction.

"It's literally looking for the needle in the haystack."

Rick Luell is a well respected death investigator with more than 30 years experience in law enforcement. He's retired, but an appetite for investigation -- and a federal grant -- brought him back to the state's Department of Justice to work cold case homicides.

"I can tell you 99 percent of the cases that I've had, the police have talked to or have a good idea or have the suspect's name in police files."

Neuman developed a suspect in the Stenulson case. His new partner says they will study the old files - dissect every detail... resolve every unanswered question... to answer the ultimate one.

"It's not the red lights and sirens on the streets. It's sitting in office going over paperwork, page by page by page," Luell says, "And I'm confident we'll get to the end of it, and we'll find out who did this."

... giving Neuman the chance to put away the unsolved case that haunts him...

"She says find him ... that's what it is ... just look at those eyes..."

... giving a daughter an unfamiliar sense of peace.

"I miss her. I always want to say, no, I don't miss her, and she's better off, whatever, but yeah, I do. I miss her a lot."

One of Neuman's theories suggests the suspect is from Dodge County, given where Stenulson was found is such a remote location.

If you have any information, call 1-800-78-CRIME, or go online at www.wetip.com.

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