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1 year later, search continues for suspect in murder of Tosa native at Devil's Lake

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Posted at 5:59 PM, Oct 14, 2021

BARABOO — Thursday marks one year since 24-year-old John Schmutzer was murdered while hiking at Devil's Lake State Park. Who did it still remains a mystery.

Schmutzer was really just starting life when he was fatally stabbed during a visit to Devil's Lake.

The Wauwatosa West High School and UW Madison grad was just 24 years old.

He was a son, brother and friend, and sadly for all those who loved him, in the 12 months since his death, no one has been brought to justice for it.

John Schmutzer
John Schmutzer

In fact, some evidence is still being evaluated at the Wisconsin State Crime Lab.

"There's limited crime lab personnel and this is a tedious scientific project," Lt. Chris Zunker with the Sauk County Sheriff's Dept. said during a press conference marking 1 year on Thursday. "We don't want to start reaching out to other crime labs until we've received the full report from the Wisconsin State Crime Lab and understand exactly what it is they found or did not find."

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Chris Zunker

Investigators have dubbed the prime suspect, who's identity remains a mystery, as "the runner."

He's a man wearing dark clothes, as seen by 15 different witnesses that day, running frantically through Devil's Lake State Park, acting erratic, and falling down on several occasions. He was not caught on any park cameras.

"There may have been a camera that was in place that had not worked in some time," said Zunker.

Schmutzer was walking along a path, the Grotto Trail at Devil's Lake, when the crime happened.

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For his family and friends, and even investigators, the most difficult part of this is how random this crime appears to be.

"We just simply think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was alone, it was probably an attack that he did not see coming," said Zunker. "We believe that John and the suspect literally probably ran into each other."

Zunker listed off what has been done: they've investigated 150 tips; hundreds of people across the U.S. have been contacted and interviewed; they sent more than 30 pieces of evidence to the state crime lab, of which six remain to be analyzed; they obtained and served 30 different search warrants, subpoenas, and other court orders, the results of which continue to be analyzed; and they collected 8 DNA samples from potential persons of interest, two of whom have been ruled out, while six are still under review.

None of them are officially considered suspects.

"If somebody calls us and says I think the person may have done something, and we go talk to that person, it's just as important to rule out innocent people as it is to locate the suspect," said Zunker.

And while this case has technically gone cold, Zunker says they still consider it very active.

"What you can do with DNA now we couldn't do five years ago. So in five years, or three years or two years or whenever - leaps and bounds science can make over the next two to three years. That may make an enormous difference in how our evidence is evaluated. And I'm very confident. We're not going to put this on a shelf and forget about it," he said.

You can contact the Sauk County Sheriff's Office at 608-355-3210.

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