Editors Note: Updated to include the correct contact information for the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was 3 at the time,” Alex Poupart said. “It happened in May of 1990.”
Alex doesn’t really remember her mother, Susan Poupart. “I had dreams about her that I think were memories,” Alex said. “Maybe it could have been a memory of when I was little.”
Her older brother, Jared, was old enough to remember when their mom disappeared. “He was 9 when it happened,” Alex recalled. She told Dateline that Jared told her a lot about their mom. “A lot of other people told me about her, too. I actually got adopted by a couple of her friends,” Alex said. Jared stayed with their grandmother.
Alex told Dateline that everyone always told her the same thing -- that Susan was “very outgoing” and that she “liked to have fun. She liked to go out.”
The 29-year-old mother of two was from Wisconsin. “She grew up here her whole life,” said Alex, who still lives there. Susan was part of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians tribe.
And in May of 1990, she disappeared.
Susan was last seen at a house party in Lac du Flambeau on May 20, 1990.
She was living with her sister at the time, and was reported missing days later when she hadn’t returned home.
Alex said that she didn’t learn the extent of what happened to her mother until she was older. “My brother told me. My brother, like, he had it really worse growing up,” Alex told Dateline. “He kinda, like, sat me down on the porch and just told me. And I was just like --it took me a long time to, like, understand.”
As she got older, Alex heard more about her mother’s case. “We mostly, like, heard rumors. It was always rumors that she was abducted from that party.” According to Alex, the gathering on May 20, 1990, was a going away party for the younger brother of one of Susan’s friends and multiple people saw her leaving with two men.
Alex said her mother likely knew the people she left the party with that night. “A reservation is a small town, everybody knows everybody,” she said.
“I was 18 when I first met the detectives,” Alex told Dateline. “I just wanted to know, like, what they were doing case-wise.” Alex has tried to stay in touch with the detectives ever since.
Dateline spoke with Sheriff Joe Fath of the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office. He has been working on Susan’s case with a team of detectives since 1990.
“She really wasn't reported right away to us. I think it came in at least two days after she did not return home,” Sheriff Fath told Dateline. “Initially, our patrol deputies that were working responded and obtained information and they coordinated a search of the area -- a foot search with, I think, the fire department personnel and some community members helped us back then.”
This search occurred at least two days after the party. “And then that's when some of our-- myself and some of our detectives got involved,” Sheriff Fath said.
Susan disappeared in Lac du Flambeau, which is a reservation. Sheriff Fath explained that the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office was the primary law enforcement agency that handled anything on the reservation. “Lac du Flambeau is a Public Law 280 reservation, which means that the sheriff has a jurisdiction on crimes within the boundaries of the reservation,” Sheriff Fath said. “So we patrolled the reservation back in 1990 on a regular basis.”
Sheriff Fath confirmed the story about Susan leaving with the two men. Witnesses say that they left the party between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. Sheriff Fath confirmed that the pair told officers that they had all gotten into an argument and dropped Susan off.
“It's a small community and in the early days, rumors ran rampant,” Sheriff Fath said. “We, obviously, chased down those rumors as leads and tried to dispel them or move forward with them. So it's -- it's been a long process.”
The sheriff said that the two men, whom he identified to Dateline as Robert Elm and Joseph Cobb, “are still probably our main people of interest because they have not been able to prove that they were not involved in her disappearance.” He said that Elm and Cobb have been interviewed by the sheriff’s office numerous times. Dateline attempted to contact both Elm and Cobb for comment but was not successful.
Sheriff Fath said that a third name came up in the investigation, as well. “A third person has come up over the years and he knows that we continue to talk to him, as well. But we've talked to hundreds of people in Lac du Flambeau since she went missing,” Sheriff Fath said. “It’s not only the two or three people that we've interviewed or focused our efforts on.”
After six months of searching for Susan Poupart, her remains were found.
According to Alex, Susan’s remains were located by hunters, right around Thanksgiving of 1990. Officers responded to the scene in Price County which, according to Sheriff Fath, is about 12 miles away from where the party was held the night Susan disappeared. “It was ruled a homicidal death,” Sheriff Fath told Dateline. But, he noted, “There wasn't enough of the remains for the pathologist to make a specific cause.”
Sheriff Fath told Dateline that the crime lab field response team came, too. “We did find clothing. We found her lower jaw bone which -- we were able to identify it through a forensic dental examination,” Sheriff Fath detailed. “And I think there was trace evidence that the crime lab recovered.”
The sheriff told Dateline that since so much time had passed from May to November 1990, there was not a lot they could preserve. “It was outdoors. It was in a pretty thick cedar swamp where her remains were found,” Sheriff Fath said. “The crime lab did its best to process things and identify things of evidentiary value. But it's not like an indoor scene where things were protected and more of a pristine environment.”
After many years passed with little movement in the case, officials tried something a bit unconventional: a John Doe proceeding.
“They had something called a John Doe trial,” Alex told Dateline. She believes it was in 2007. “It wasn't a trial, but it was like hearings they held and they got those guys on the stand,” she said.
According to the Wisconsin State Legislature, a John Doe proceeding is where a “district attorney requests a judge to convene a proceeding to determine whether a crime has been committed in the court's jurisdiction.” The legislation continues to state that the “judge shall convene a proceeding… and shall subpoena and examine any witnesses the district attorney identifies.”
Sheriff Fath confirmed this, too. “The John Doe hearing started as a secret, where it was not made public. We had people testify at the hearings in -- in a closed environment and then the district attorney opened the John Doe.”
The sheriff added that they had four or five witnesses testify during the open session. “But the D.A. at the time did not close it or refer it to the judge to make a probable cause ruling on the evidence,” Sheriff Fath said. “So it's still an open file, or open case.”
Sheriff Fath told Dateline that Susan’s case is one that he and the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office continue to investigate. “Susan's case is one of, at least, my primary cold case investigations on the reservation,” he said. “We've been working with our surrounding agencies as well as the State Department of Justice, the Division of Criminal Investigations.” In fact, “there's been several DCI agents assigned to help us and coordinate our efforts,” the sheriff noted. “We've been very active with them and they help us with dealing with the crime lab and the FBI lab for evidentiary purposes.”
At the end of the day, Sheriff Fath told Dateline, “It's a team effort.” He said that in addition to following up on any leads that may come in, his office has “resubmitted evidence a couple of times for DNA and trace evidence, but it's not been successful.” The sheriff is hopeful that as technology improves, the chances of solving the case will, too. “Who knows if there will be something that changes, where the evidence that we have in our evidence room may be able to be resubmitted and tell us something down the road,” he said.
Alex says it hasn’t been easy letting go of the feelings surrounding her mother’s death because there are constant reminders all around her, starting with where she lives. “Where she got abducted from is right down the road from my house,” she said. “It's like three doors down. I live on the same street -- the place she was last seen.” And then there is Alex, herself. “I am the spitting age of my mom. Sometimes when I talk to people they get all teary-eyed and tear up and, like, won't look at me,” Alex told Dateline. “Sometimes it just gets to me, emotionally.”
Alex tries her best to shield her own children from the pain she felt growing up. “My oldest is 12 and my other one is 10. And there's a billboard of my mom on the highway,” Alex told Dateline. She said that she would try to distract them from seeing it as they drove past, but that they’ve caught a glimpse a few times. “That's the hardest part for me now -- is explaining that to a bunch of little boys.”
Sheriff Fath told Dateline the billboard about Susan’s case has been up for more than a decade displaying her picture, “stating that she was murdered in 1990, asking people if they know anything about the case,” he said. “I mean, they see her face every time they come into Lac du Flambeau.”
Alex feels that some people in Lac du Flambeau just want to forget about her mother’s case. “It's really hard around here because, like, everybody knows,” Alex told Dateline. “They just wanna sweep it under the rug, more or less.”
Sheriff Fath vows not to let that happen, telling Dateline he will not forget about Susan Poupart. “I'm confident that there's people in Lac du Flambeau that know what happened,” he said. “They just have not come forward. That's what we need, is -- we need that tip. We need that assistance from the community to solve this case.”
If anyone has information regarding Susan’s case, please call the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office at 715-479-4441. You can also leave an anonymous tip on the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office app or tip411 line.