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#WhoKilledFatherKunz? Wisconsin detectives dedicated to solving 1998 murder of priest Alfred Kunz

Father Kunz was murdered inside St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Dane, Wisconsin in March 1998.
Father Alfred Kunz
Father Alfred Kunz

Churches are often considered safe havens. Quiet, peaceful, a place to worship. 

But in the early morning hours of March 4, 1998, St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Dane, Wisconsin was anything but. 

St. Michael's Catholic Church
St. Michael's Catholic ChurchDane County Sheriff's Office

That morning, deputies responded to a report that there had been a death in the church. “We were the first agency on the scene,” Detective Timothy Blanke of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office told Dateline. “We got involved right away.”  

Blanke said that according to the police reports at the time, the responding deputies did a quick assessment of the scene to determine if the victim could be saved. “Quickly determined they weren’t,” he said. “From there, the scene was preserved.”

The detective noted that while DNA technology was still pretty new, the deputies on the scene collected everything they could. “DNA, fingerprints, things like that were being processed,” he said. 

The victim was determined to be 67-year-old Father Alfred Kunz, a priest at St. Michael’s. At autopsy, it was determined that Father Kunz had been cut with an “edged weapon.”  

Father Kunz
Father KunzDane County Sheriff's Office

Detective Blanke told Dateline that Dane is a “very small, very rural community where pretty much everybody knows everybody.” And with Father Kunz being the priest, most people knew him, even if they didn’t attend St. Michael’s. According to the detective, the population of Dane was about 1,000 in 1998. St. Michael’s has since been renamed Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish.

“I think nearly every man, woman, and child in the village of Dane was talked to at some point back then,” Det. Blanke said. “So a lot of information was developed, and some of it was valuable, and some of it was less valuable.” 

The entire village was on edge after Father Kunz was murdered. “From what I’ve gathered, this kind of went from the type of town where people didn’t lock their doors at night to the type of town where they do,” he said.

Detective Blanke told Dateline the Dane County Sheriff’s Office believes the person who killed Father Kunz was a man and that there was a struggle at the scene. Whoever killed Father Kunz would have had to be able to overpower him, because, according to Det. Blanke, “he was in pretty good health. He was in pretty good physical condition.”  

In 2018, 20 years after Father Kunz was murdered, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office ran a social media campaign in which they shared more details about the homicide and posed the question: #WhoKilledFatherKunz? They created a Twitter account and posted on the Dane County Sheriff’s Office Facebook account

“It was modeled after another campaign another agency did,” Det. Blanke said. The posts listed details about Father Kunz, like how he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1956, and served the parish in Dane for 31 years. 

Detective Blanke said he got assigned to the case in 2018, shortly after the social media campaign began, to follow up on the new tips that had come in. By 2020, he was one of the lead detectives on it.

In the social posts, some theories about what might have happened to Father Kunz that fateful March morning in 1998 were detailed. Detective Blanke agreed to go through them with Dateline.

One is that the church was targeted for a robbery. “There had been some church burglaries at the time,” Blanke said, which resulted in several arrests. However, nothing appeared to have been stolen from St. Michael’s. Those involved in the other church burglaries were investigated. “We’ve eliminated all of those people as suspects,” Det. Blanke said.

A second theory had to do with Father Kunz himself. Some people in the area found his teachings and beliefs to be polarizing.

“It’s an interesting situation, and I think it would apply to any of us, depending on who you talk to, is what their perception of them is,” Det. Blanke said. “So we’ve talked to some people that had wonderful experiences with Father Kunz and believed he was a great leader in the church, but we’ve talked to other people that were not as happy with how he was running his parish or just bad personal interactions.”

A third theory the Dane County Sheriff’s Office was looking into was that Father Kunz could have been targeted because he was investigating some of the other priests at St. Michael’s. “We’ve looked into some of that,” Det. Blanke said. “He was definitely looking into clergy sexual abuse and did not condone it.” 

“There’s been rumors and innuendo over the years that someone within the church wanted him gone, but we have not found anything to corroborate that,” Det. Blanke told Dateline. 

The detective also said that officials have developed persons of interest in the case but they have not publicly named anyone at this time. 

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office ended each post of their 2018 social media campaign by saying that it was their hope to “re-invigorate the investigation of this case.”

Six years after that social media campaign, that sentiment remains true.

Detective Blanke said his office still gets about one or two tips a month on Father Kunz’s case. “Me and my partner are working on this. When something comes in, we definitely work on it, but we still maintain a regular caseload,” he said. And they aren’t the only ones trying to solve the murder.

“The state crime lab has been great -- has been a great partner in this case,” Det. Blanke said. “They frequently reach out to us when they have new techniques, new items available. And then we do go back through our evidence list and see, ‘Is there anything we can send back out? Is there things we should retest?’ So that’s just an ongoing process.”  

Father Alfred Kunz
Father Alfred KunzDane County Sheriff's Office

And even though it’s been 26 years since Father Kunz was murdered, Det. Blanke said the sheriff’s office will continue to bring attention to it. “Every year on or around the anniversary, we definitely do a big social media blitz,” he said. “We are lucky, most of our local media outlets are still very interested in it, as well. And so they typically want to run stories around this time of year, too, which is great. It helps us keep the attention up and keep the tips coming in.”

The detective is hopeful that getting a national audience will help bring even more attention to Father Kunz’s case. 

Anyone with information about Father Kunz’s murder is asked to call the Dane County Sheriff’s Office at 608-284-6900. You can also submit an anonymous tip online or email tips@danesheriff.com