Who killed Fr. Kunz? Detectives detail top theories 25 years after death

This week marks 25 years since a south-central Wisconsin priest was found dead in the halls of Saint Michael’s parish and school. Decades later the most extensi
Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 9:48 PM CST
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DANE, Wis. (WMTV) - This week marks 25 years since a south-central Wisconsin priest was found dead in the halls of Saint Michael’s parish and school. Decades later the most extensive investigation Dane County history is still unsolved.

While rumors of who killed Father Alfred Kunz have been circulating through the tiny village of Dane for decades, current detectives say they have their own theories, hoping one of the storylines helps them solve the secret inside Saint Michael’s.


Warning: Some images that appear later in this story could be considered graphic for some readers.

The investigation

Back in 1998, just over 800 people lived in Dane. The village seemed the quiet, farming community kind of place where everybody knew everybody. But in March of that year, the quiet was quickly overpowered by the hustle and bustle of a full-blown homicide investigation.

“I think everyone was pretty shocked with it. It’s not often a priest gets murdered,” remembers Ian Padrutt.

A longtime Dane resident, Padrutt was in fifth grade when Father Kunz, a conservative Catholic priest, was killed. Possibly one of the last people to interact with Kunz, he remembers riding his bike outside St. Michael’s with friends the day before the killing.

This is a picture outside St. Michael's. The door leads to the school section of the building...
This is a picture outside St. Michael's. The door leads to the school section of the building where Kunz was murdered. The caution tape was put up while detectives processed the scene.(Dane Co. Sheriff's Office)

“We actually got chased off by him, Father Kunz, and we were interviewed by the FBI at the school,” recalls Padrutt. “They said, ‘what were you guys doing up there? What did he say? Was he mad? Is there any reason you’d want to hurt him?’ Of course, the answer was no.”

Back then, David Mahoney was the lead detective on the case. Mahoney stayed on the case for years, eventually taking over as Dane County Sheriff back in 2012.

“We put a lot of resources into that investigation in the first couple of months. We poured every resource we had into that case,” says Mahoney.

Kunz was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1956, and he served the parish in Dane for 31 years. Father Kunz was described as very controlling. Detectives say he had disbanded the church council and didn’t have a finance committee. Father Kunz taught sending children to public school was a mortal sin.

Detectives say someone came into St. Michael’s church and school on the night of March 4, 1998, and slit Kunz’ throat. Kunz was also stabbed and had bruises on the back of his hands, likely indicating he put up a fight. He bled to death. The murder weapon has never been found.

Investigators got to work, interviewing every resident in the village three times over, but in the tiny town where everybody knows everybody, it seemed nobody knew what happened.

Over the years, Dane County detectives have released some details about what transpired before Kunz’ death. In the months before Father Kunz’s death, financial records indicate large amounts of money were being moved from one church account to another. On the last day he was alive, detectives say a witness in the school office overheard Kunz speaking angrily into the phone. Later that day, Kunz and Father Charles Fiore drove down to Monroe to tape a radio show.

With a combined 50 years on the force, Detective Dane Co. Sheriff’s Detectives Tim Blanke and Gwen Ruppert have taken over the Kunz case.

“This is the hardest type of case. I call if the ‘whodunit’ without witnesses,” says Det. Ruppert.

They have scoured all 4,000 reports gathered in the past quarter-century, starting with the very first one when a teacher at the school found Kunz’ body the morning after detectives say he was killed.

Dane County Detectives Tim Blanke and Gwen Ruppert detail their theories into Father Kunz'...
Dane County Detectives Tim Blanke and Gwen Ruppert detail their theories into Father Kunz' killing.(NBC15)

Blanke and Ruppert say one of the biggest challenges in this case is not having the technology back then that they do now.

“DNA wasn’t really a thing in 1998. It was out there. But we didn’t swab for DNA like we do now,” Ruppert said. “The crime lab continues to make improvements, and so we continue to talk with them, reevaluate. We do have an assigned analyst at the crime lab who has been on the case for a very long time.”

Blood evidence on scene did cut their suspect list in half early on. The crime lab determined partial DNA found on scene is from a male.

Detectives say the man who did it most likely had visible injuries after Kunz’ death. The 67-year-old priest was a Golden Glove Boxer who didn’t go down easy.

“This was a fight, and he fought back,” says Ruppert.

This image is of blood left behind at the crime scene. Detectives say the scene was...
This image is of blood left behind at the crime scene. Detectives say the scene was particularly bloody because Kunz' throat was slit. While there is blood DNA from the suspected killer there too, detectives say back in 1998, technology wasn't as advanced and how investigators processed crime scenes was different. They say the likely killer's blood was also covered in Kunz' blood, so they could only get a partial DNA sample of the killer.(Dane Co. Sheriff's Office)

In the past 15 years, the detectives say crime-solving tools have evolved, but limits still remain. Their Kunz evidence vault only contains partial DNA of the killer. Ruppert explains partial DNA cannot be put into either a nationwide database nor a genealogical search to try and link it to the killer. They need a full sample, which, they say, they don’t have. But that’s not stopping them from re-testing evidence in the crime lab. But the question remains, what are they testing?

“I wouldn’t be comfortable saying what we are testing, just that we are testing,” says Blanke.

The theories

Even with holes in the storyline and no suspect named, this investigative pair has their own theories they aren’t ruling out.

“That it was a burglar or someone like that who surprised him. They got into the church or he for whatever reason opened the door for him, asking for money looking at something in the hallway to steal,” theorizes Ruppert.

At the time, there were known church burglars in the area who would steal church artifacts and valuables, Ruppert continues, but detectives still to this day can’t confirm if anything was actually stolen the night of Kunz’ murder. Additionally, a number of known church burglars have been ruled out.

Ruppert has another theory too that stems from rumors that Kunz had relationships with women, sometimes married, in the church.

“The other theory has always been he angered someone within the parish or community perhaps because they didn’t like the way he was paying attention to their wife or significant other,” says Ruppert.

Investigators were told of rumors concerning Father Kunz’ romantic relationships with women of the congregation and about parents who were unhappy about the treatment of their child in the school.

Then, there’s a motive that’s never been made public by law enforcement until now. Blanke confirms there are allegations into clergy sex abuse against Kunz. One report currently sits on his desk.

“I can’t go any further than that at the moment. And that’s certainly a possibility as well,” says Blanke.

Kunz has never been named by the Catholic church as a credible abuser, but many believe the disclosure lists provided by the Wisconsin dioceses are incomplete.

Besides theories, Ruppert and Blanke also have questions.

“We kind of have an idea of where this took place. But what literally happened? Who turned around? Who hit first, that sort of thing. Those are details that, what we do know of, it we haven’t let out much of that because that’s something only the person that did it is going to know,” says Ruppert.

“For me it’s definitely the why. Is it a simple burglary interrupted? Or is there more to the story? I want to hear the whole story,” says Blanke.

Call to action

The case has now left generations of detectives searching for answers. But these detectives say they could be getting close. Both Ruppert and Blanke say they’re optimistic, and they say while they have bridges to cross, they’re making forward progress. Ruppert says solving this case is something she is determined to do even if her time on the force is winding down.

“I am very close to retirement age, and I don’t want to leave yet until we solve this case,” says Ruppert.

Hope is still on the horizon at the scene of that deadly crime in Dane. Maybe, just maybe, in the tiny town where everybody knows everybody, someone also knows and is ready to confess the secret inside Saint Michael’s.

Detectives say at this point, no tip is too small, and don’t assume police already know something you know. They say think back to 1998 and try to remember if someone you know was acting out of the ordinary in the days following Kunz’ death. They say the man who did it most likely had defense wounds, and maybe bruising to the face.

Anyone with tips can contact the Dane County Sheriff’s Office at 608-284-6800.

The murder of Fr. Alfred Kunz is unsolved 23 years after it happened.
The murder of Fr. Alfred Kunz is unsolved 23 years after it happened.(WMTV)

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