It’s always struck me as peculiar that Wisconsin—such a wholesome potpourri of Holsteins, Scandinavians and snowflakes—somehow managed to produce not one but two of our nation’s grisliest serial killers:
Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer and Ghoul of Plainfield Ed Gein.
The deeper I delved into the criminal history of America’s Dairyland, however, the clearer it became:
there are no coincidences.
The evildoers of Wisconsin are a twisted breed;
scrape away the Midwestern courtesy and melted cheese and behold hearts and minds
grotesque as Green Bay Packers’ merchandise and frozen as the tundra of Lambeau Field.
“I think he’s got a good heart and a (expletive)-up head.”
———–Daniel Acker grooming victim as quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It’s a scenario that’s played out in the media countless times:
beloved school employee is unmasked as a lifelong sexual predator,
and no one saw it coming despite decades of behavior
that raised more red flags than a University of Madison homecoming parade.
On March 23rd, 2009,
sixty-one year old Milwaukee-area swim coach Daniel Acker was arrested for criminal sexual contact with a child.
Nicknamed Mr. Dan by his students, Acker had worked for the West Allis Recreation Department since 1971;
adored by pupils and parents alike,
the Waukesha resident had used his position of authority to identify, groom, and ultimately molest
vulnerable teenage boys for nearly forty years.
Acker’s official victim tally would eventually reach twenty-eight,
although authorities suspect the true number is much higher.
in March of 2009 a forty-seven year old Greenfield man was motoring past Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School
when he espied a familiar face in the doorway: Mr. Dan,
the swim coach who had assaulted him “hundreds” of times in the 1970s between the ages of eleven and fifteen.
Aghast to learn his childhood boogeyman was still working with minors
the man conveyed the details of his abuse to the recreation department, who then notified authorities.
After Acker’s arrest the Greenfield Police Department set up a special tip line for the coach’s victims;
as Detective Chuck Fletcher told radio station WTMJ, “[t]he phone was ringing every few minutes.”
Acker’s rationalizations and the community response to his arrest are classic;
if we were to create a sexual predator bingo card all spaces would be covered:
• The community professed shock at Acker’s arrest even though his grooming machinations—gifts, trips, and boundless attention lavished solely on pubescent boys—were so blatant Joe Paterno would’ve looked askance at his behavior.
• According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “[Acker] stated he would never hurt a child.”
• When confronted with his crimes, Acker claimed the behavior was consensual—he was “pleasing and pleasuring [his victims] sexually in gratitude for their friendship.” Because if there’s one thing a ten-year old boy deserves in exchange for his friendship it’s sodomy.
• “I am not a predator,” Acker told a reporter from Greenfield Now, as if nearly a half century of pederasty could be wiped away with mental gymnastics and a firm denial.
Although Acker’s misdeeds seemed to follow a well-worn path a search of his Waukesha condominium pivoted the Greenfield Police Department’s investigation from workaday to outré.
Obsessively neat, the residence was well stocked with all the stereotypical pedophile lures,
toys, games, and boy-centric fripperies abounding.
Tucked away in the basement,
an elaborate model city caught an investigator’s eye—it was when the detective unhinged the roof of the tiny town’s police station that the inquiry into Acker’s crimes left the banality of evil in the dust.
Inside, bedecking the walls like a miniature scorecard were a dozen photos of missing and murdered children.
Further investigation revealed vintage car models inscribed with victims’ names,
the year of the vehicle’s manufacture corresponding with the year of the child’s abduction.
“It’s bizarre,” Greenfield Deputy Inspector Bradley Wentlandt told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“No agency has seen anything like it before.”
Acker’s little cop shop of horrors wasn’t the only surprise lurking in his oppressively tidy abode;
detectives unearthed a handwritten journal, hundreds of pages long,
which allegedly chronicled the confirmed bachelor’s abiding obsession with missing and murdered children.
Although authorities have never released Acker’s manifesto
or provided a complete list of the victims enshrined in his mini-momento mori
one of the slain boys in the pantheon was reportedly John Zera,
a Franklin High School student who disappeared on February 20th, 1976.
Last spotted at 1:30pm in a hallway between classes, the fourteen-year old freshman apparently hadn’t been planning to travel far—despite the wintery Wisconsin weather his coat had been left behind in his locker.
and area citizens
began a massive search
shortly after his disappearance
John Zera’s fate remained a mystery
for eight anguished days.
On February 20th his nude,
badly bludgeoned body
in Whitnall Park in Hales Corner,
five miles north of Franklin High.
Found face down in mud,
his head resting on a log,
the teen’s skull
bore four mighty gashes
and the word “HELL” had been inked on his wrist
with a ballpoint pen.
Next to the corpse
lay a bloody rock,
presumably the murder weapon;
the victim’s clothes,
shoes and notebook were
found in a pile nearby,
the clothing crumpled but untorn.
An autopsy later revealed evidence of sexual assault
and traces of semen—a murderous pedophile prowled the Cheeseheads, Midwestern politeness masking vile yearnings and a diseased mind.
As the Zera family digested the magnitude of their loss a stranger appeared at their doorstep;
Daniel Acker, local aquatics instructor, had stopped by to proffer his condolences.
Though he’d never met their son
Mr. Dan told the Zeras he felt compelled to personally solve the teen’s murder:
Acker had been planning to bicycle in Whitnall Park the day of John’s slaying—or that was his story, anyway—but he’d ultimately opted to nap instead.
He was wracked with guilt, he told the grieving family,
because his ill-timed siesta
had foiled his opportunity to be present in the park at the time of the murder and possibly save John’s life.
Despite residing in Wisconsin John’s mother Janice Zera was Minnesota nice;
Mrs. Zera struck up a cordial relationship with the odd interloper,
inviting Acker in to view John’s room
and pull up a chair at family dinners.
Not all members of the Zera clan were as receptive to Acker’s advances,
however; John’s brother, fifteen at the time, sensed something sinister
beneath the coach’s smarm:
“I didn’t like the guy from the get-go,” Mark Zera later told a reporter
from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I thought he was a creep.”
Although Acker invited him to sporting events the youth always demurred,
and Acker’s ghoulish attempt
to groom the sibling of a recently-deceased murder victim
was blessedly unsuccessful.
Mr. Dan’s pledge
to bring John’s killer to justice was more than an idle threat.
In addition to his job with the recreation department
Acker was moonlighting at the Milwaukee County
Mental Health Adolescent Treatment Center at the time,
and with crime scene tape still beribboning the trees
he took a cadre of emotionally-disturbed boys to Whitnall Park
to search for clues—recreational therapy at its finest.
Not content to flitter about on the periphery of the action,
the coach’s next caper
launched him directly into the investigation’s nexus:
in a bid to “solve” the crime Acker convinced a Treatment Center patient
to confess to the murder, implicating as accomplices
two Franklin High School employees—persons of interest to authorities at the time—in a bid to lend veracity to his claims.
Authorities were eventually able to establish the falsity of the confessor’s allegations, but as Hales Corner Detective Kent Schoonover told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The investigation kind of centered on this for a couple of years—a lot of time and resources were wasted on this whole thing,
which was bogus.”
Unfortunately Acker’s justice-obstructing shenanigans weren’t the only tribulation the Zera investigation endured;
six months after John’s murder
tenants moving into a vacant home on Milwaukee’s East Side discovered a surprise tucked away in the basement—the entire Zera homicide file, complete with witness statements, autopsy findings and crime scene photos.
The documents were eventually traced back to the District Attorney’s office,
but the exact path the file had traveled to the abandoned house—and the identity of those who had viewed the information in the interim—was never definitively ascertained.
The mystery of the errant homicide file was not the investigation’s only debacle.
Approximately a year after John’s murder a woman came forward alleging the case’s lead detective,
Harold Hingiss, had been derelict in his investigatory duties;
instead of running down leads in the homicide probe, Christine Wiedemann claimed,
Sergeant Hingiss was preoccupied with an unwelcome campaign to harass her into a romantic relationship.
Hingiss, twenty years Ms. Wiedemann’s senior,
was subsequently suspended for sixty days without pay for “indiscreet conduct.”
At this juncture the Zera family,
certain the Hales Corner Police Department had irreparably botched the investigation,
requested to view the homicide file themselves but were denied.
Daniel Acker and his tribe of Lost Boys from the Adolescent Treatment Center probably had as good a chance of solving the crime as law enforcement, sad to say.
Even as the investigation into John’s murder went cold Acker kept the crime close to his heart;
he sent the Zera family yearly greeting cards to commemorate the date of their son’s death,
and he continued to make pilgrimages to the crime scene—no longer looking for clues, Whitnall Park became instead a favored place for al fresco sexual romps with his juvenile rape victims.
Decades later one of these violated boys—-now an adult—-began bombarding Acker with subscriptions
to gay porn magazines,
presumably in an attempt to unnerve his molester;
for maximum impact, the victim sent the mailings under a pseudonym: “John Zera.”
Although the link is tenuous, John Zera had a connection with another murdered Milwaukee youth:
Marvin Allen Bruton, age seventeen, who disappeared on December 8th, 1972.
Five months later, on April 25th, 1973,
a torso subsequently identified as Marvin’s was found in a plastic bag in the village of Hustisford,
fifty miles north of the city—the teen had been stabbed a total of nine times,
three times in the chest and six in the back.
Other body parts would follow:
on May 21st a passerby spotted a plastic bag floating in Wild Cat Creek containing Marvin’s severed head,
and on August 11th a bright yellow bag with a right leg and upper portion of a left arm
was discovered at the water’s edge—although divers scoured the creek the rest of the teen’s body has never been located.
Authorities have never released Marvin’s estimated date of death,
but it appears he may have been kept alive for some time—the Brutons were summoned to identify their son’s decapitated head at the pathologist’s office,
an unlikely occurrence if the remains were six months decomposed. Marvin’s mother worked at a bar owned by John Zera’s grandfather,
but the boys had never met and investigators were unable to develop any further connection between the pair,
who attended different high schools.
Furthermore, it’s unclear if Marvin Bruton’s photo was featured in Mr. Dan’s murder memorial;
besides John Zera the only other boy
in the gallery has been confirmed
is Brad Allen Machett, age ten, nicknamed
“Peanut” for his short stature.
Like John Zera,
Brad Machett’s grandparents owned a tavern;
and at 6:30pm on October 25th, 1980
Brad separated from companions
in front of St. Casimir church
en route to meet his grandmother
at the family saloon
at 833 East Burleigh Street.
Although his intended destination was only five blocks away Brad never arrived; his mother Sandra Morrical reported him missing at 10:30pm that evening.
For Brad Machett’s loved ones Halloween brought neither tricks nor treats but terrible answers.
On October 31st Brad’s body was found discarded in a cornfield in Grafton,
a rural town twenty miles outside Milwaukee.
When informed of the grim discovery his mother Sandra Morrical reportedly said,
“At least I know where Brad is now,” and burst into tears.
Mrs. Morrical was five months pregnant when her son disappeared—the baby she carried during this stressful time would live only a few days,
compounding the family’s loss.
An autopsy revealed Brad had been beaten and strangled;
still clad in the nylon jacket and tan pants in which he’d last been seen,
his trousers were reportedly unfastened,
although the existence of semen or other indicia of sexual assault has never been made public.
Brad’s body had been only recently placed in the uncut corn—his corpse was visible from the road,
and a dog walker had passed by the dumpsite the previous evening.
According to retired Milwaukee homicide detective Steve Spingola the murder scene provided a wealth of evidence:
in addition to tire tracks and footprints
investigators retrieved a hair of unknown origin from Brad’s chest—the root intact,
a DNA profile was developed as technology improved.
His estimated time of death has never been released,
but apparently Brad wasn’t slain immediately upon his abduction;
as Mrs. Morrical told The Milwaukee Journal, “Whoever had him must have been feeding him because there was food in his stomach.”
Although his family apparently never received a visit from Daniel Acker, professional grief tourist,
detectives in the 1980s did have a person of interest in Brad Machett’s murder:
notorious pedophile Raymond Matzker, a blight on area boys at the time.
Matzker, on the run from child molestation charges in New York,
adopted the name of a family friend and managed to secure a job as the head of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute.
(Yes, you read that correctly:
a wanted kiddie fiddler not only managed to get a job with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
he was hired as hospital director, beating out thirty other candidates for the job.)
Matzker, who later became Wisconsin’s first civilly committed sex offender,
was later eliminated as a suspect in Brad’s murder via DNA testing.
The presence of Brad Machett and John Zera in Daniel Acker’s shrine to slaughtered innocents appeared to indicate the boys’ murders had at last been solved,
more than thirty years after their deaths.
Though the existence of testable forensic evidence from the Zera crime scene is unclear,
DNA from the hair found on Brad Machett’s chest has been entered into CODIS—it was only a matter of time,
it seemed, before at least one murder indictment was added to Mr. Dan’s pending molestation charges.
A press conference held by the Greenfield Police Department buttressed this theory:
citing Acker’s “strange infatuation with child murders,”
Deputy Inspector Bradley Wentlandt announced that federal investigators had been asked to examine the coach’s ties to area homicides,
and then . . . nothing.
Acker eventually pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child
and was sentenced to a mere twenty years in prison—the statutes of limitation had expired on most of his crimes,
and many of his victims were reluctant to press charges,
unwilling to reopen old wounds.
As a convicted felon, Acker’s DNA is statutorily obligated to be swabbed:
he was sentenced in 2010,
so even with a sizeable crime lab backlog his sample has almost certainly wended its way into CODIS by now.
The only law enforcement officer who’s spoken publically about Daniel Acker’s status as a murder suspect
is Detective Kent Schoonover of the Hales Corners Police Department;
as he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
“He’s basically a predator pedophile, but Acker did not kill John Zera.”
It’s unclear, however, exactly how Acker was ruled out as a suspect in John’s murder,
and his status as a person of interest in the Machett case remains a mystery.
Yet even if Acker’s mini-shrine is the reddest of herrings there’s still a welter of blood on Mr. Dan’s hands;
two of his molestation victims committed suicide,
and one died from complications from drug abuse—when it comes to child rape, not all murders are instantaneous.
while researching the criminal history of Daniel John Acker
I stumbled upon a second pedophilic Daniel Acker:
Daniel Montague Acker,
a fourth-grade teacher in Alabaster, Alabama,
who was sentenced to seventeen years in prison
for child molestation in 2012.
The discovery of a second child rapist
with the same name and modus operandi
clear across the country from Milwaukee
occasioned a startling realization:
I can crack wise about the cheesy weirdos of Wisconsin,
or Florida Man, or rootin’ tootin’ Texans,
but the geographic accoutrements
are merely window dressing—human beings’ propensity
to do terrible things is ever present,
regardless of whether the assailant lays his head
in a backwoods doublewide or a Williamsburg loft.
There’s a common denominator in every crime, and the common denominator is us.
That said, if your child attends an educational institution that employs a Daniel Acker in any capacity
it may be time to consider switching schools—lightening’s already struck twice,
so all bets are off.
And I don’t care if it’s in a daycare, a toy store or your very own playroom: every time you see a toy police station you’d best pop off the roof and peer inside—you never know what you’ll find.
Coda: The Journal Sentinel has launched a reinvestigation into John Zera’s murder; perhaps the questions surrounding Acker’s connection to the crime will finally be answered.