Finding Georgia Jean: New lead in 70-year-old cold case

Posted at 10:22 PM, Jun 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-14 19:21:50-04

Seventy years ago life in a small, quiet Wisconsin town was shattered after a young girl never made it home from school. It's one of the state's oldest unsolved cold cases, and now a possible new lead.  The I-Team has an exclusive on finding Georgia Jean.

In 1947, 8-year-old Georgia Jean Weckler got a ride home from school. No one has seen her, or any trace of her, since.  Now the detective on this cold case hopes a new tip will move the case forward.

It was around 3:15 p.m. on May 1, 1947.  Georgia Jean got a ride home from school with a friend's mom and is dropped off on the south side of the road. The young girl grabbed an armful of mail from the mailbox and crossed Highway 12 headed to her rural Fort Atkinson home.  It was the last time anyone saw 8-year-old Georgia Jean.

Detective Leah Meyer is with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. She's now handling this historical cold case.  Detective Meyer walked us through what happened that day, 70 years ago, "nobody realized she was missing for hours."  At 6 p.m. the family discovered Georgia Jean never came home from school and called police.  Detective Meyer showed us the hand-typed bulletin that went out to law enforcement and the media. A massive search for the young girl got underway.

"It was initially thought that she was out picking flowers for May Day," Detective Meyer explained. The Weckler driveway ran a half mile back to the farm; at first the family thought she was hurt in the woods and couldn't get home.

The search for Georgia Jean is one of the largest in the history of Jefferson County and Wisconsin.  After a few days investigators adopted a new theory.  She had been kidnapped for ransom.

This cold case is a massive undertaking for Detective Meyer; the paperwork alone is overwhelming.  Different suspects were looked at over the years, even as recently as the 90's.  But Detective Meyer is focused on one man.  Then 22-year-old Buford Sennett, "he was known as a bad character."

His pattern of crimes makes him a key suspect.  "Extremely violent sexually based offender, that I think would fit the M.O. for a crime like Georgia Jean's," Detective Meyer explained.

Arrested in northern Wisconsin for murder and rape in late 1947, Sennett confessed to abducting Georgia Jean for ransom.  He shared details about the case that were never released to the media.  And the physical description of the suspect in the case matched Sennett.  Also witness accounts of a car seen in the area where she disappeared lined up with the vehicle he drove.

Sennett claimed he and an unnamed accomplice took Georgia Jean to a local hideout, but she reportedly died from an overdose of sleeping pills. Sennett said he threw the young girl's body in the Wisconsin River. Detective Meyer isn't sold on that story; telling us she thinks it's a mix of truth and fiction. 

A recent tip helped Detective Meyer find Sennett's hideout.  The case file never gave an exact location, and for the first time she's talking about the hideout. "It was nothing more than a giant fox hole," she told us.  She also shared pictures of what it looks like today.  "I think it would be important to search that vicinity, finding any new leads or possibly discovering her remains."

Donna Peterson and her brother, Roger Dreager, are Georgia Jean's cousins.  They met us at the family cemetery.  Donna described her cousin as a sweet girl and said life changed when Georgia Jean was taken. "We couldn't walk to school anymore.  People were so frightened; how could it happen?"

Roger was 10 at the time and became emotional looking back.  "I think about my cousin, or Georgia Jean's sister, Joanne.  Every Christmas she always had an ornament on her Christmas tree for Georgia Jean."

Georgia Jean's parents and three siblings have all passed on still with so many unanswered questions, and the burden of what happened on May 1, 1947.

Detective Meyer knows it will be next to impossible to solve this case, because it's so old and the fact so many people are no longer alive. In the end she doesn't believe this crime was planned.  The offender just happened to be driving down Highway 12 when Georgia Jean was dropped off after school and decided to take her.

Buford Sennett was paroled after his 1940's conviction. He reoffended in the 80's and was sentenced for the sexual assault of two young girls.  Investigators questioned him again about Georgia Jean, and Sennett recanted his previous confession.  A confession he never actually signed.

Sennett died in 2008; he was 82. 

Detective Meyer hopes by sharing more details of the crime someone will come forward.

To report information on the Georgia Jean Weckler case contact Detective Leah Meyer of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office at 920-674-7365.

For more information, you can read these old newspaper articles, compiled by a family member in Indiana.