Editor, investigators recall tragedy
It was supposed to be a down time in the Waupaca County Post newsroom.
School was back in session, local football teams had kicked off another season and the Waupaca County Fair had just set a new attendance record.
Then came the news of Cora Jones’ disappearance.
“I don’t recall how I heard about it,” said Loren Sperry, the newspaper’s editor on Sept. 5, 1994, the day Cora was abducted while riding her bicycle near her grandmother’s town of Dayton home. Her body was found five days later in Langlade County.
Although Sperry had never met Cora personally, he spent the next four months covering the case, which included the search for Cora, the hunt for her killer and the eventual arrest and sentencing of David Spanbauer.
“Everybody was thinking, ‘This is bad, something terrible happened to that girl,’” Sperry said at his rural Markesan home. “It was a horrible, sinking feeling. Parents were shocked to think that this could happen.”
“Very stressful,” Al Kraeger, chief deputy for the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department, said about the case. “The family is wondering and you’re pulling your hair out asking why and what for and what kind of person would want to hurt a young, innocent child.”
Kraeger knew Cora’s parents, Rick and Vicki Jones, as both families belonged to Trinity Lutheran Church in Waupaca.
“You could relate it to your own kids,” Sperry said. “There was a tremendous amount of anger. This was a really nice little girl.”
Sperry covered the case for the County Post with help from publisher Scott Turner, associate editor Rick Patzke and Weyauwega Chronicle editor Ken Hardwicke.
It didn’t take long for word of Cora’s disappearance to spread, as hundreds of people showed up to help search for the 12-year-old rural Weyauwega girl the day after she vanished.
“There were volunteers from all over the state,” Sperry recalled. “If there was a way they could help, they wanted to.”
Less than a week after Cora disappeared, two hunters discovered Cora’s body in Langlade County, about 90 miles north of where she disappeared.
‘Thousands of tips’
Tips quickly started coming into the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department as word of Cora’s disappearance spread.
“We had a very good relationship with the sheriff’s department,” Sperry said. “Those guys were good at getting us information.”
“We probably had thousands of tips,” Kraeger said. “Those had to be separated and taken one at a time. That’s what we were doing.
“A lot of people don’t have a law enforcement mentality and don’t get a license plate number,” he added. “I’m sure there were probably hundreds of tips that hadn’t been looked at yet. We probably had to bring special people on dispatch just to take tips.”
Kraeger was looking into one of those tips in Rural Sept. 10, five days after Cora vanished.
“We were going home-to-home in Rural talking to people,” he said. “I was on the front porch talking to people and got a call from the chief deputy and he said she had been found. We all got together, came in and drove up there. It would’ve been the afternoon.”
Two hunters setting up deer stands found Cora’s body in a ditch along Forest Road, about 15 miles northwest of Antigo.
“You wonder how he picked that spot,” Kraeger said. “It’s almost like he wanted somebody to find her.”
Larry Shadick, now Langlade County’s coroner, investigated the case as a detective with the Langlade County Sheriff’s Department.
“All of a sudden, it was put in our lap and we had to solve the case,” he said. “A young girl is found dead in your area. It was one of those cases where you had to solve it.”
Shadick said he and Waupaca County investigator Gary Schmies realized the similarities behind Cora’s disappearance and a July 3, 1994, attempted abduction near Hartman Creek State Park, about five miles from where Cora disappeared. Spanbauer later confessed to both crimes.
Sperry eventually interviewed Gerald Argall, the Combined Locks man who caught Spanbauer trying to break into Argall’s home in November 1994, more than two months after Cora’s disappearance. Spanbauer soon confessed to kidnapping and killing Cora and Ronelle Eichstedt of rural Ripon and killing Trudi Jeschke of Appleton.
Argall had worked with Sperry’s wife, Mary, in Appleton.
“You didn’t know at first this was Cora Jones’ killer,” Sperry said. “A wire story comes out the next day saying this is the guy who confessed to killing Cora Jones.”
“I talked to (Spanbauer),” Shadick said. “His whole reaction to me was, ‘Those girls were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just do what I do.’”
Sperry, Shadick and Kraeger attended Spanbauer’s initial court appearance in Appleton, as well as his sentencing, in December 1994.
“He just sat there like a lump, like ‘Let’s just get this over with,’” Sperry said. “You can’t let your emotions get out of control when you’re covering a story, but when the judge is going after him, I’m going, ‘Give it to him, give it to him.’”
“It was a very sad feeling, but a very satisfactory feeling,” Shadick said.
“I was at every one of his hearings,” Kraeger said. “I’ll never forget the judge’s quotes when he sentenced him. It was finally over, but it’s not over. It was a big relief that we were able to find him and that he couldn’t hurt anyone else.”
20 years later
A memorial marks the remote spot where the hunters found Cora’s body. Although 20 years have passed, Shadick still thinks about the case.
“I go by that memorial quite often and it all comes back,” he said.
Kraeger keeps a photo in his office he took in 1994 of a picture of Cora and a reward poster nailed to a street sign in Rural.
“This case was very personal,” he said. “Anytime there’s a case where children are involved, it tears you apart. Is it going to happen again? I’m sure that was a constant thought in everybody’s mind.
“There’s fear and a lot of sadness for the family,” he said. “Everybody’s very guarded and heartbroken. You hope and pray it doesn’t happen to you.”
Cora’s disappearance wasn’t the only story Sperry covered that made national headlines.
A train carrying a large quantity of hazardous material derailed and caught fire in Weyauwega March 4, 1996, The fire burned for more than two weeks and resulted in the emergency evacuation of 2,300 people for 16 days, including the entire city of Weyauwega.
Sperry said he will never forget Cora’s case and how it affected the community.
“It was a sensational case,” he said. “I’d covered murder stories in Sheboygan before I came to Waupaca. The gruesomeness, that’s the thing I remember. A cute girl grabbed off of her bike when she was visiting her grandmother. Wow.”