Video: A missing friend

By Rob Stafford Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/28/2006 9:23:56 PM ET 2006-07-29T01:23:56

This report aired Dateline Friday, July 28

A man was following the dream of a lifetime when he suddenly disappeared. For police, this became more than a missing persons case. As they began their investigation, the questions grew: Not just "Where is this man?" but "Who is this man?"

Tom Neary: Tim was a great guy. He actually had a passion in life.

Beth Neary: He always loved music and always was in a band.

Timothy Wicks attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music and returned to his hometown of Milwaukee determined to be a jazz drummer. He played at clubs and bars at night and painted houses by day to support himself. His family says Wicks was driven by his passion for music but also his devotion to friends.

Tom Neary: He would do anything for you. He would never hurt anyone or be malicious in any way.  He always wanted to do good. He would just take everyone’s word as face value.

In late 2001, Wicks, 48 years old, told his friends he’d gotten the offer he’d been waiting for: a music gig in Canada that paid $800 a week.

So on the day after Christmas, he set out with his drums and his dreams to drive north across the border with a fellow drummer who’d arranged the job. His hometown buddies wished him well.

Jim Koehler, friend: I knew that all he really ever wanted to do in life was play music for a living as opposed to painting, so I figured he might as well give it a shot. I thought, “Well, what the heck? The worse that can happen is that it doesn’t work out for him and he can always come back.”

But a few weeks later, neither his family nor friends had heard from him. Some of his buddies had a bad feeling so they called the police in the suburb of Milwaukee where Wicks lived. Kent Schoonover is the detective there.

Kent Schoonover, Milwaukee detective: My first impression is that we don’t have a case.  An adult citizen, at least here in Wisconsin, has a right to disappear if they want.

Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent:  He’s 48 years old.

Det. Schoonover: Yeah. He’s just missing. He can be missing if wants to be missing, and there was no indication that there was anything wrong.

After all, there are people who leave behind family and friends every year who simply go missing to escape problems at home.

Stafford: But Timothy Wicks’ friends are persistent.

Det. Schoonover: Oh, yes.

They convinced the Milwaukee detective to help.

Det. Schoonover: Maybe we can find him, put him in touch with his friends, put them at ease. We’ll invest a little effort to do that.

Stafford: So where do you start?

Det. Schoonover: We went over to his apartment building and we spoke with the apartment manager, and Tim left a note with her. And he left a phone number with her saying, “If you need me for some reason, here’s a phone number.”

The number was eventually traced to Fargo, North Dakota, but it did not lead to Wicks, so the Milwaukee detective called the Fargo police for help and surprisingly Tim Wicks was a name they already knew— but not for his drumming.  He was under investigation for embezzling from a business where he worked as an accountant. By sheer coincidence investigators were scheduled to question him that day.

Why would a Milwaukee drummer give up his dream to be a bookkeeper in Fargo? Was it possible Wicks was leading a double life his family and friends in Milwaukee knew nothing about?

Paridon, boss of "Timothy Wicks": I liked him.  He was a very personable guy.

His Fargo bosses say Wicks was a well-qualified accountant they hired through a placement service.

Stafford: What kind of recommendation did the placement service give him?

Paridon: They had told us that he passed all his tests with flying colors. Seemed to know everything we needed him to do as far as our business was concerned.

They say he also played drums.

Paridon: So I took him out one night to a club where they had a jam night going on and Tim got up. He could keep a beat.

But quickly there’d been trouble at work.

Stafford: What was the first sign that something was off?

Employee: Like a $20 petty cash check. Where did it go and where are the receipts? Just some real minor things.

Then his bosses noticed some major things.

Paridon: Well, I’m thinking it’s awful odd that there’s a $4,000 check written to petty cash when we don’t keep a petty cash account.  We found that they were indeed deposited to an account belonging to Tim Wicks.

They also discovered “Wicks” gave himself a Christmas bonus he was not entitled to. His bosses were furious and called Fargo police—who started investigating Wicks for embezzlement. It was about this time that Wicks was reported missing back in Milwaukee.

While at first it seemed to the Milwaukee detective that Wicks had simply relocated to Fargo and reinvented himself as an accountant, perhaps even a dishonest one, it soon became clear something far more sinister might have happened when the detective asked a simple question of a female investigator in Fargo.

Det. Schoonover: I asked, “What did Timothy Wicks look like?” She described her Tim Wicks as over six foot, over 300 pounds. And Timothy Wicks is smaller than you are.

There was a big difference in the two Timonthys which raised even bigger questions: Who was that man in Fargo and where was the real Tim Wicks?

Police in Milwaukee and Fargo were quickly unraveling the story of two Timothy Wicks, one a missing musician on his way to Canada for a drumming gig — and the other an accountant whose real name was Dennis Gaede, a con man who specialized in identity theft and charming just about anyone he met.

Diane Fruge: He was like so funny. I mean just he could make anybody laugh.

Diane Fruge had met Gaede in Milwaukee in 2000 when he leased a storefront accounting office in the building she managed.

Fruge:  He seemed to be this jolly, jolly friendly guy, you know. Then he sent me roses on Valentine’s Day and asked me out to dinner. 

Soon, her young son was calling her new boyfriend “Daddy Dennis” and a few months later, they married at the county courthouse. She was hoping to escape her life as a single mom scrambling to pay the bills.

Fruge: I just wanted to be comfortable and raise a family. I thought it was the first day of my new life. 

Around this same time, she met Timothy Wicks, who had come into Gaede’s accounting office to get his taxes done. Gaede was a drummer too, and the men became fast friends.

Fruge: Dennis and Tim used to sit downstairs and just talk for hours sometimes.

But before long, Gaede’s long-standing legal troubles caught up with them.

Fruge: He was just a really smooth talker, right, he had told me about some felonies that he was facing and he had like all these excuses how all these other people set him up, so he had me totally convinced that those charges were gonna be dropped.

But in July 2001, a Wisconsin court convicted Gaede and before he was sentenced, he jumped bail and fled to Fargo. Fruge went along with the plan even though it meant violating the custody agreement for her son, Joshua.

Fruge: I just couldn’t see not being with the new husband that I just married.

Once in Fargo, Gaede hid his identity by using the name of his trusting friend in Milwaukee, Timothy Wicks. Fruge says she wanted her new life so much that she went along with the whole thing— pretending to be Tim Wick’s wife— calling him her husband “Tim” in public. But Fruge insists her deal with the devil went way beyond anything she ever bargained for.

She says things went from bad to worse when Timothy Wicks called Dennis Gaede that fall just to chat as friends.

Fruge: During that conversation Tim had told Dennis he found out someone was fraudulently using a credit card or some kind of credit line and that’s when Dennis panicked.

Rob Stafford,  Dateline correspondent: ‘Cause Dennis was the man who was doing it.

Fruge: Right.

Stafford: But Tim didn’t know yet.

Fruge: Correct.

Stafford: What was the look on Dennis’s face?

Fruge: One of those looks where the heart sinks to the floor, just kind of pale and, “um, um, um” and started stuttering.

But he composed himself and made Wicks an offer he obviously didn’t refuse.

Fruge: Dennis had made arrangements telling Tim that he was gonna get him this gig playing music up in Canada. And I’m not sure what his intention was at that time. He told me that if he gets Tim up to Canada, that no one will ever miss him.

Right after Christmas, Wicks arrived at their house outside Fargo expecting to spend a few days before heading to Canada. He played with Fruge’s son, Josh, and seemed excited about the upcoming job. It was the next night that everything changed.

Fruge: About 8 or 9 o’clock I gave Joshie a bath and took him upstairs and Dennis and Tim were like drinking and partying and stuff downstairs. And me and Josh went to bed.

Stafford: And are they hitting it off like old friends?

Fruge: Oh, yeah, drinking, smoking pot.

Stafford:  What’s the next thing you remember?

Fruge: Dennis waking me up in a panic. I couldn’t figure out what was happening ‘cause, you know, I was just coming out of a sleep and I didn’t hear anything. And he’s like, “Come downstairs.” And we went downstairs and Tim’s laying on the kitchen floor. There was no signs of blood or anything. So I said, “What did you do? Party him out? You know, cause I thought he passed out. And he said, “No, I shot him.”

Stafford: I shot him.

Fruge: I shot him. I’m like, “Oh my God.” Just to have someone say that and see someone on your kitchen floor was - was like something you can’t even imagine. Dennis put a bag over his head till he stopped breathing.

She says it was a plastic garbage bag.

Fruge: I don’t know if I was more panicked or more sick, but I was very, very sick to my stomach. And I just thought: What am I supposed to do?  Now Tim Wicks, that’s supposedly my husband, bought this house. But yet there’s a dead Tim Wicks on my kitchen floor. How am I gonna explain this to the police? I was just in shock, I think.

Fruge: Well, Dennis really started getting crazy like just with his pacing and stuff. And I said, “Don’t freak out on me now. There’s a dead man on my kitchen floor.”

Fruge says they dragged Wicks’ body into the barn. The next day she says Gaede rented a back hoe hoping to bury Wicks on the property. But the ground was too frozen, so he went to Plan B.

Fruge: He planned to take him to his cottage in Michigan. And he said there was some kind of cement sewer type thing he could drop him into and nobody would ever find him.

Plan B involved using Wicks’ credit card to rent a U-haul, go into this store to buy an ax, gloves and other items. With Wicks’ body in the back of the truck, she says they drove to the upper peninsula of Michigan to bury the body where Gaede’s relatives had a cabin but  he couldn’t find the sewer so he went to Plan C. A gruesome sceme to cover his tracks.

Fruge: That’s when he decided to dismember him. Take off his head and his hands so that dental records or fingerprints wouldn’t identify the torso. And you could just hear bang, bang, bang. It seemed like it was never gonna stop.

After driving through Wisconsin and Michigan, she says Gaede suddenly stopped here and asked her to help dump the body, just over this guard rail. She says he later disposed of the head and hands.

Then she and her young son went with Gaede to Milwaukee where he cleaned out Wicks’ bank accounts and bought an R.V. for their getaway. By that time a body and head had been found along the Wisconsin-Michigan border and identified as Wicks. Now the police were not just after a suspected embezzler but also a possible killer. Gaede was on the run for seven weeks, until finally he and Fruge were arrested at a Nebraska campground.

Fruge: Joshua was screaming at the top of his lungs. And he said, “Mom, were you bad?” I said, “You know, the law says I did something bad.” “But,” I said, “Please don’t let anybody tell you I’m a bad person.”

Stafford:  Did you have anything to do with the murder of Timothy Wicks?

Fruge: No, Sir.

Stafford: Any of the planning for it?

Fruge: No, Sir.

Stafford: I’ve heard, “I’m worried I’m gonna get caught. I’m in trouble, I’m scared.” At no time have I heard anything about Timothy Wicks, what he went through.

Fruge:  The man didn’t deserve to die. I don’t know what I could have done at the time. Maybe I could have made a difference, maybe not; I don’t know.

Stafford: Right after Tim Wicks was killed when your husband goes to get the backhoe to bury the body. You could have grabbed your son and left then. Why not?

Fruge: Where was I going to go?

Stafford:   Back to Milwaukee. Back to your mom.

Fruge: I think I was in a state of shock then. I just closed up. I totally clammed up.

Stafford: How much responsibility do you feel for what happened to Timothy Wicks?

Fruge: I don’t know how I could have changed anything that happened, but I feel a lot of guilt for being part of the disposal. I think Dennis could have stayed living under the Timothy Wicks name without Timothy ever finding out.  I don’t think it was necessary for him to kill him.

While Fruge served six months in prison for violating a child custody order by taking her son out of state, she’s not been charged in the Wicks case. More than a year after Wicks’ death, she finally told police her eyewitness account.

Fruge: I want to apologize to the Wicks family that it’s taken me so long to come forward, but hopefully, the end result will be what we all hope for. Tim was a good man and he didn’t deserve what he got.

Almost two years after Fruge came forward, Gaede was finally charged with Timothy Wicks’ murder. He pleaded not guilty and stood trial in April of this year. Fruge was the main prosecution witness. Gaede’s lawyers tried to pin the murder on her, although Gaede himself did not take the stand. The jury deliberated less than fours hours before convicting him. In June, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is appealing.

As for Wicks’ long-time friends, who first called the police, they’re still haunted by the violent way their gentle friend died.

Jim Koehler, friend: We rehash this whole case from beginning to end. It’s terrible. It’s a travesty. Such a great person had to have their life ended like this.

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