Testifies in Texas 6 years after local ordeal
By Scott Bellile
The night when Taylor Roehl was kidnapped as a high school senior, she did not know if she would come out of the ordeal alive.
When she did survive, she had the crushing experience of watching her kidnapper walk away without prison time.
To make matters worse, she would learn years later that another woman across the country was later victimized by the same man because he was not behind bars.
Fortunately for 24-year-old Roehl, there is a bright side. This fall she had the opportunity to retell her story on the witness stand in a courtroom down south. In doing so, she and the other victim helped deliver serious justice to their kidnapper, this time ensuring he will never harm another woman.
“It took seven years, but altogether he got what he deserved,” Roehl said.
Taylor (Krolow) Roehl, who now resides near Shawano, is originally from New London. She started school there before moving to Clintonville for most of her childhood. She finished her junior and senior years of high school in New London, graduating in 2011.
In 2010, Roehl met Justin E. Panus. He had come to Wisconsin from Texas. Roehl never learned much of his back story, but she became interested in him and soon they were dating.
“He was normal – well, it seemed normal – but turned very possessive and controlling fast,” Roehl said.
Many conflicts arose between the two, Roehl said. Soon, he forbade her from going places or talking to other people, she said. When they fought he would grab her by the wrists.
She sensed this behavior was wrong but also believed she could change Panus for the better, so she stuck with him. Three months passed and nothing improved. A sweet side of him desired to marry and have kids, but Roehl said she just found these comments off-putting because she was 17 and he was 23.
Roehl broke up with Panus in May 2011. He asked her for an opportunity to get together and talk, so she agreed.
They met at Franklin Park in New London the night of May 12, 2011. Roehl said they talked inside Panus’s vehicle. Things escalated, he locked the doors and sped off with her in the car.
“I was begging for him to pull over and let me out, but he refused,” Roehl told police at the time, according to a 2011 news article in the Waupaca County Post East.
He sped through town and onto U.S. Highway 45 where he kept deliberately weaving into traffic, Roehl said. He reached speeds up to 90 mph and at one point Roehl had to yank the steering wheel away from him to keep them alive.
Panus was headed to his home in Clintonville. Roehl recalled that as he entered town, he kept aiming his car at the new light poles near Fleet Farm. He repeated to her that he would make her life miserable, Roehl said, and if he could not have her, then nobody could.
They arrived to Panus’s home on Waupaca Street. Panus told her if she did not come in with him, he would hurt her and her family, Roehl said. He pulled her inside by the arm, screamed at her and threatened to beat her new boyfriend with a bat.
“My fight or flight froze up and I was just kind of like a sitting duck,” Roehl said.
Roehl wept on the couch. She said Panus told her that he didn’t understand why she was crying because she was acting as if he would take the knife from a nearby table, chop her into pieces and bury her in his backyard. Then he slammed her arm in the door.
A roommate came home unexpectedly and Panus panicked. He assured Roehl that he would let her go if she hugged him, kissed him, said she loved him and agreed to see him again. She obliged.
Roehl then fled the house for a nearby laundromat. It was now late at night. She huddled in the back in fear for a half-hour as she waited for a friend to pick her up and drive her back to New London. She remembers Panus called or texted her and told her, “There better not be any pigs coming,” referring to police.
Panus was questioned by police shortly after. A County Post East story states that he denied Roehl’s allegations that he drove erratically and wouldn’t let her leave his house. He said he was tired and had to work in the morning, so he asked her to find a ride to New London.
Panus was charged in Waupaca County Circuit Court on May 16, 2011, with four felony counts: kidnapping, second-degree recklessly endangering safety and two counts of false imprisonment.
On June 8, 2011, Judge John Hoffmann granted Roehl a four-year restraining order from Panus. He was red-flagged for trying to buy a gun at Scheels during a time when he had been threatening her.
While the kidnapping case was still open in court, Roehl came to the police department on Aug. 9 looking for help. A man under the name of Kyle Duran reached out to her over Facebook and started asking her about her work, family and Panus’s pending court case.
The two had planned to set up a meeting, but a “gut instinct” told Roehl it was a bad idea, she said.
Officers Joshua Wilson and Chase Schroeder obtained search warrants and began investigating. They determined Kyle Duran was Panus, who at this point was living in a mobile home in Bear Creek.
Wilson said Panus eventually admitted to creating the fake profile and communicating with Roehl.
“I remember he kept asking me like [to] go on his boat with him,” Roehl recalled of Panus’s Kyle Duran alias. “And I remember telling my mom if I would have went, I probably would have been at the bottom of the lake.”
Panus’s violation of the restraining order landed him a bail jumping charge in Waupaca County Circuit Court on Sept. 29, 2011.
On May 8, 2012, Panus pleaded no contest to bail jumping.
On June 29, 2012, the charges associated with the kidnapping were dismissed but read into the court record for sentencing purposes.
On Oct. 10, 2012, Judge Philip Kirk sentenced Panus to nine months in jail for bail jumping. Kirk imposed and stayed the jail sentence and placed Panus on three years of probation with one month in jail.
During his probation, Panus left Wisconsin. Having had no idea where Panus went, New London Police Department could not alert Panus’s local police department that he was a wanted man, Wilson said.
Roehl would not hear news on Panus’s whereabouts for half a decade.
Trouble in Texas
This past fall – five years after Panus’s court cases were closed in Waupaca County – Roehl received word that she needed to come to Texas.
Panus was going to be on trial in Georgetown, located 30 miles north of Austin. The prosecution requested to hear her account of the 2011 kidnapping.
According to Texas court records, Panus, now 30, was charged on Sept. 27, 2016, with five felony counts: aggravated kidnapping, burglary with the intent to commit a felony, unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Having been out of the loop on Panus’s whereabouts over the years, Roehl had no idea he was being tried.
“I didn’t know nothing,” Roehl said. “The fact that everything happened wasn’t a surprise, but the extent of everything was. He was just the kind of person that you knew wasn’t going very far.”
A Texas mother named Christina Cooper met Panus online and had some interactions with him. He was a car detailer living in Austin.
According to Roehl and Wilson, Panus appeared to be expecting a relationship and became frustrated after Cooper stopped talking to him.
Panus visited the home of Cooper and her fiance early morning on Sept. 25, 2016. Panus slashed the tires of the vehicles. Then he knocked on the door and pointed his gun at the fiance to force himself inside. In the living room he pointed the laser of his gun at the fiance’s adolescent daughter sleeping on the couch.
Panus escorted Cooper out of the house at gunpoint at about 2:30 a.m. She was dressed in just a tank top and underwear and was barefoot.
As Panus drove Cooper to an apartment complex in Austin, she dialed 911. Dispatchers heard Panus threatening to kill Cooper.
Panus struck Cooper’s face with the butt of his gun and took away her cell phone before she ran away and hid in a carwash.
After failing to flag down a vehicle, she managed to stop a taxi that she believed was a police car. Inside the cab she called police. She was taken to a hospital that was placed on lockdown because authorities did not know where Panus was or what he was capable of.
Authorities sent Cooper and her family into hiding until Panus was arrested two days later, Wilson said.
Panus was arrested while getting the mail and was armed, Wilson said. Officers subdued him with a stun gun.
Inside Panus’s residence and his truck, Wilson said investigators would find five long-armed rifles, three handguns, 1,000 rounds of armor-piercing ammo and a bulletproof vest. The guns were modified to shoot more quickly.
According to the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, Cooper testified that she felt “[p]issed off, upset, mad, angry and defeated” after the kidnapping, and she often suffers from nightmares.
Roehl takes the stand
Roehl, Wilson and Schroeder went to Texas on Oct. 25, the day that a Williamson County jury found Panus guilty of aggravated kidnapping and unlawful possession of a firearm.
The jury deliberated for three minutes before delivering a guilty verdict. Given the choice, Panus opted to allow Judge Rick Kennon to sentence him rather than the jury.
Before sentencing, Roehl arrived to the courtroom on Oct. 26 to offer testimony. She testified for close to an hour about what happened in 2011 and how it made her feel.
“I was excited because I was finally going to be able to say my piece with the whole situation and be able to contribute to Christina getting the justice she deserved,” Roehl said.
It sickened Roehl to learn that Cooper endured more than she did, in the sense that guns and children were involved. A mother of three kids herself, Roehl said she could not fathom how Panus could point a gun at a sleeping child.
She said she did her best not to cry during her testimony, but when she recalled the events of May 12, 2011, she could not help feeling emotional.
“I tried to collect myself because I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me like that again. I tried to make it short-lived,” Roehl said of her tears.
On the witness stand, Roehl remembered the way Panus smiled at her in a Waupaca County courtroom back in 2011 when her first request for a restraining order was denied
In response, she offered him an intense expression of her own from the stand in Texas.
“I stared at him until he put his head down,” Roehl said.
Schroeder and Wilson testified, too. Wilson said he was asked if he knew why Waupaca County convicted Panus of bail jumping in 2012 and dismissed the other charges. Having no decision in the sentence, Wilson told the court he did not know.
Roehl and Cooper both told the court that had Panus been put behind bars in 2012, they believed Cooper would have never been kidnapped.
Wilson said he took the comment personally having worked on the case, but at the same time he “absolutely did agree with that statement.”
Judge Kennon delivered his sentence: Life in prison for the kidnapping and 10 years in prison for the firearm possession.
Wilson said it was personally satisfying to see Panus receive a life sentence following Cooper’s tearful, “gut-wrenching” testimony about how life would be different had Panus gotten prison time in Wisconsin.
As for Roehl, she shed a tear as she explained that back in high school, she lost many people in her life because few believed the facts of her kidnapping case.
In revisiting it six years later, Roehl said she was happy to make a new friend in Cooper, whose bravery helped back up Roehl’s story, brought justice to Panus and perhaps helped others understand the trauma both women went through.
“He’s Texas’s problem” now, Roehl said. “Hopefully he’s never back here ever again.”