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Cold case breakthrough: UWO professor helped ID remains of Starkie Swenson

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A stunning announcement Wednesday confirmed the human remains found at High Cliff State Park Sept. 29 are those of Starkie Swenson—a Neenah man who disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1983.

“I was there and helped identify him,” said University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Anthropology Professor Jordan Karsten, who has been working for nearly a year to locate Swenson’s remains. “I knew it was an older male skeleton and saw the clothes and personal effects.”

Starkie Swenson

The Calumet County Sheriff’s Office said DNA tests were used to confirm Swenson’s identity.

Karsten said he determined the skeletal element turned over to authorities was from a human. Initially, there was a question of whether it was part of an archeological burial site, but that possibility was quickly discounted due to modern items found with it.

“It feels great. It feels so nice the know the family can have this closure,” Karsten said about discovery 38 years after Swenson’s disappearance. “We had been searching for the better part of the past year.”

A pair of hikers using the High Cliff trails discovered the remains but no specific information about the finding has been released.

Karsten and a team of his anthropology students searched earlier this year for Swenson’s remains in a field and wooded area in Omro.

Eric Tillman, grandson of Swenson, was 4½ when his grandpa disappeared. He now lives in north-central Wisconsin.

“I’m immensely grateful to the University,” he said. “I’m grateful to Professor Karsten and the students for their tenacity and never-ending hope.”

Tillman was part of the effort in Omro.

“It was something really special—their hope and commitment to it,” he said. “It was a personal thing for Jordan (Karsten) and the class.”

Karsten said he considers Tillman a good friend.

UWO students look for remains of Starkie Swenson in Omro earlier this year.

Seeking closure

John C. Andrews of Chilton plead guilty to the August 1983 murder of Swenson—even without recovery of Swenson’s body.

According to historical accounts, Swenson, who was 67 years old in 1983, was romantically involved with Claire Andrews, the ex-wife of John Andrews, and was murdered.

When the case was prosecuted in 1994, the first degree intentional homicide charge was amended to homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle. Andrews halted his trial by accepting a plea to the lesser charge. It was believed Andrews ran over Swenson, who had been riding a bicycle near Shattuck Middle School in Neenah. Andrews was convicted and ordered to 24 months in the county jail.

UW Oshkosh and a number of investigative agencies were thanked today by the Calumet County Sheriff’s Office for assistance in the Swenson case. Karsten said UWO alumni and archaeology lab employees Trisha Jenz and Hayley Hintz assisted with excavation and analysis.

Calumet County Sheriff Mark Wiegert said he is hopeful the identification will bring comfort to Swenson’s family. Results of the investigation are being turned over to the Calumet County District Attorney’s Office.

Karsten, who said he is happy to have played a small part in the Swenson case, said he’ll assist if he is needed going forward. Earlier this year he created a podcast, Cold Case: Frozen Tundra, about the Swenson disappearance, but there was not an ending to the series after months of searching in Omro. He said he plans to add another segment about the discovery at High Cliff.

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