Former Madison County sheriff’s lieutenant Conrad “Pete” Baetz says he developed a gut feeling about Steven Avery during their jailhouse meetings.
Baetz recalls meeting “numerous times,” face-to-face, with Avery, the murder defendant whose case has gone viral, thanks to a new Netflix documentary: “Making a Murderer.”
During those eye-to-eye interviews, Baetz — with more than 30 years of experience as a cop and private investigator in Madison County — formed an impression of Avery.
“Just as a personal opinion, I think there’s a very good possibility he’s innocent. Just from the way he talked and the way we talked. You get a feel for these things, and I would have picked up some indication,” Baetz said in a phone interview from his current home in Wisconsin.
He added: “I don’t think he did it. He is just adamant that he’s innocent.”
Baetz joined the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in 1970 and retired in 1996. He then spent eight or so years doing investigative work for criminal defense lawyers in Madison County.
In about 2004, he decided to move from Illinois back to Wisconsin, where he was raised. That’s where his path would cross with Avery’s.
In 2003, Avery, of Manitowoc County, Wis., was exonerated and released after serving 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. DNA proved that another man committed the rape. After his exoneration, Avery filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Manitowoc County and its investigators who handled the rape case.
But then, in 2005, a young woman who worked as a photographer for an auto trader-type publication went missing. The disappearance of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach drew even more media attention when it was revealed that one of her last scheduled appointments was to take a picture of a vehicle at a salvage yard, operated by none other than Steven Avery and his family.
In the ensuing days, searchers found Halbach’s vehicle on the sprawling Avery Salvage property. Charred pieces of her bones were found in a burn pit near Avery’s mobile home.
And police arrested Avery on murder charges.
“When I came back to Wisconsin, right around that time is when the Avery case broke,” Baetz said. “The people around here were going nuts as to whether he was guilty or innocent.”
Baetz contacted the Avery defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, and offered his services.
“I said, ‘Look, I’m up here and this is going crazy. Do you need any help? I would be more than happy to assist — I’ve done this kind of work before,’” Baetz recalled.
The defense attorneys hired Baetz.
“I interviewed everybody we thought was a potential witness, plus the prosecution witnesses — if I could get to them. I talked to them and reviewed every document that was released to us in discovery,” Baetz said. “And I was kind of a consultant on police procedures and the way things usually and generally operate in police departments during an investigation like that.”
For their trial strategy, the defense attorneys suggested that members of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department planted evidence against Avery. The evidence included a key to Halbach’s vehicle, found in Avery’s mobile home, stains of Avery’s blood in Halbach’s vehicle, and a bullet found in Avery’s garage.
Baetz said he was on hand during one of the series’ dramatic moments: when a vial of Avery’s blood was inspected. The vial was in the office of the court clerk, inside a box containing evidence from the old rape case. The evidence seal on the box containing the vial appeared to be retaped, and there appeared to be a pin-size hole in the vial’s lid.
“I looked at it, and it’s got a hole in it,” Baetz said. “It convinced me that you couldn’t count on the blood smears in the vehicle being left by Steven Avery himself. There was blood available to other parties. Somebody got to that box.”
Baetz said he found it troubling that the key and keychain contained DNA from Avery, but no one else, not even Halbach.
“Now, that’s got to be bullshit,” Baetz said. “It’s her key, she’s been handling it for years.”
Ken Kratz, the special prosecutor in the case, said the filmmakers never gave him a chance to answer the defense attorneys’ allegations. He said the documentary ignores up to 90 percent of the physical evidence that links Avery to the homicide.
He said Netflix should give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
“Anytime you edit 18 months’ worth of information and only include the statements or pieces that support your particular conclusion, that conclusion should be reached,” Kratz said.
The prosecutor, in an interview with the New York Times, said the film “really presents misinformation.”
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos condensed hundreds of hours of footage into 10 one-hour episodes of the “Making a Murderer” series.
Demos said, “We believe the series is representative of what we witnessed. The key pieces of the state’s evidence are included in the series.”
Baetz said he thinks the documentary is a fair and accurate representation of the case.
“I really do. They go into a lot of detail,” he said. “The other thing that makes it different from a movie retelling of a case is that everything on there was taped as it was happening.”
Baetz said the filmmakers were “nice, competent, very professional women. I saw them trying to talk to the prosecution. They tried to talk to Kratz, to the sheriffs’ department, but they were just dismissed.”
Baetz’s impression of the prosecutor, Kratz, isn’t as favorable.
“He was an arrogant, snotty, son of a bitch, and you can use that as a quote if you want,” Baetz said.
Baetz said the filmmakers interviewed him for hours, but his appearances in the final product make up a total of only about 3 minutes.
“They must have filmed 50 hours of interviews of just me over the years,” he said. “They cut down my appearances in the film. I guess that’s not a ringing endorsement for my movie career.”
Baetz said one of the problems with Avery’s trial, in his mind, is that the judge prohibited the defense from pointing to other potential suspects.
“That’s just crazy — it’s used in cases all over,” he said. “We had people who we thought looked pretty good.”
In the film, Baetz criticizes the continued involvement of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department in the murder investigation, despite being advised by that county’s district attorney that other police agencies should handle the case.
“Well, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department decided to do it its own way, or at least a couple of people in the department did,” Baetz said.
Baetz argued that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department had a conflict of interest, due to Avery’s lawsuit, which ended up being settled for $450,000 after Avery’s murder arrest.
Also in the film, Baetz questions why no physical evidence or DNA from Halbach was found in Avery’s trailer or garage, except for the keychain and bullet.
“She was shot a number of times. There would be massive pools of blood. It wasn’t there,” Baetz told the interviewers.
He added: “Steven, I don’t believe, is capable of sanitizing that house. Very few evidence technicians would be capable of fully sanitizing an area like that. And they know what to hide and how to hide it. I don’t think Steven could do that.”
Avery and his learning-impaired nephew, Brendan Dassey, were convicted, in separate trials, of Halbach’s murder. Avery is serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. Dassey is eligible for parole in 2048.
Since the Netflix series, online petitions calling for Avery and Dassey to be pardoned have collected hundreds of thousands of digital signatures.
Baetz, who resides in Manitowoc, said the community’s attitudes about the case have shifted since the Netflix series.
“Back in 2005, when it started, I’d say the majority of citizens in Manitowoc County were a lynch mob that wanted him convicted right away. Now, I’d say it’s probably totally reversed after they watched this Netflix thing,” he said.
Though Baetz’s on-screen time is limited, “it was just enough that some of my friends recognized me.” He said a number of his old co-workers and others from the metro-east have contacted him about the series.
“I’ve gotten a lot of messages from them. It’s nice to hear from them,” he said. “They’re mostly cops, too, and apparently, a lot of them have kind of decided this was a fixed case, too, from what they’ve seen.”
Though he thinks Avery is innocent, Baetz declined to offer any alternative suspects by name, saying he fears lawsuits.
“I’ve got my own ideas about who killed her,” he said. “The one thing I will say, I’m satisfied from my investigation that she was not killed on that property.”
Petitions for pardon
An online petition has collected hundreds of thousands of digital signatures seeking a pardon for a pair of convicted killers-turned-social media sensations based on a Netflix documentary series that cast doubt on the legal process.
The 10-part “Making a Murderer,” which portrays the case of Steven Avery and his then-teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, has prompted celebrities and armchair sleuths to flood message boards and Twitter feeds.
Authorities involved with the Wisconsin case are saying the series was slanted and omits crucial facts that led to Avery and Dassey being found guilty in the death of photographer Teresa Halbach.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, have stood by their work that spans nearly a decade and largely concentrates on the defense and perspective of Avery’s and Dassey’s relatives.
The rush of attention has left many wondering: How did we get here? And what’s next?
Q: So what’s the big deal?
A: Avery made national headlines in 2003 when he was released after spending nearly two decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of rape. Two years later, Avery and Dassey were charged with killing Halbach, who visited the Avery family salvage yard to take photos of a minivan on Halloween. Her bones and belongings were found burned near Avery’s trailer. Both were convicted and sentenced to life terms, but only Dassey is eligible for parole — in 2048.
Q: Why has the documentary been so popular?
A: The series’ release was impeccably timed. It was released before Christmas, while much of the nation was on holiday break and had time to delve into a 10-hour series. Also, it comes on the heels of the popular podcast “Serial,” which lays out a complex legal case and has generated intense social media participation.
Q: So what exactly is in the documentary?
A: The documentary strongly suggests the possibility that Manitowoc County sheriff’s deputies planted evidence against Avery, including a key found in his bedroom and blood found in the victim’s vehicle. But Sheriff Robert Hermann denied that Tuesday. “They did not plant evidence,” Hermann said. “I trust them 100 percent. Quite frankly, I think justice was served in this case.” He said he watched the series, and “I call it a film, it’s missing a lot of important pieces of evidence.”
Q: Why do authorities say it’s biased?
A: The series spends much of its time detailing the perspective of Avery and Dassey family members. The case’s special prosecutor, Ken Kratz, has said the documentary ignores the majority of the physical evidence. The omissions include the fact that Avery’s DNA was found on the hood latch on Halbach’s SUV, which was hidden on the salvage lot. Kratz has also said a bullet fired from Avery’s gun was found in his garage with Halbach’s DNA on it.
Q: What do the filmmakers say?
A: Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have stood by their work. They said in an email that critics who might say they intentionally omitted or underplayed key evidence to make the series more entertaining or tragic are wrong. “Those accusations are untrue and unfounded,” the statement read.
Q: What about that online petition? Is it going to work?
A: It seems unlikely for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it started by petitioning President Barack Obama, who has no such authority in this type of case, since it’s not a federal matter. The request posted to Change.org, which has generated nearly 280,000 digital signatures, was recently rewritten to include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and remove the word “presidential” from the text of the appeal. However, Walker hasn’t granted a single pardon since he took office five years ago. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Tuesday that the governor hasn’t watched the series and that “early in his administration, Gov. Walker made the decision not to issue pardons. Those who feel they have been wrongly convicted can seek to have their convictions overturned by a higher court.”
Q: What about the victims?
A: Halbach’s brother Mike Halbach has declined comment since releasing a statement from the family before the documentary became public. “Having just passed the 10-year anniversary of the death of our daughter and sister, Teresa, we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss,” the statement read. “We continue to hope that the story of Teresa’s life brings goodness to the world.”
The victim from the 1985 rape case has declined comment.
Q: What has the reaction been like?
A: It’s been all over the map. Celebrities have tweeted about how into the series they are, late night talk show host Seth Meyer spoofed it and fake Twitter accounts have been set up for some of the main players in the case. However, Sheriff Hermann said some of his officers have received threats in emails and voicemails. He said one was from a convicted felon who said an officer should “take his own life, or else he’d come up there and take it for him.” Hermann said Tuesday that threat was passed along to Florida authorities to investigate.
— The Associated Press