Will stagecoach roll-out help crack unsolved St. Croix County murder after 25 years?
A simple misinterpretation might well be the difference between justice being served and an unsolved murder that's vexed St. Croix County investigators for 25 years.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to solving the April 25, 1993, shooting death of William "Junior" Clapp came when it was reported as a medical call. St. Croix County Sheriff's Office investigator Cary Rose said the man who discovered Clapp in his town of Warren home told dispatchers what he observed at the time — that his friend had injured his head.
Accurate but incomplete, that report triggered a response from medics and first responders who rushed to the scene before a deputy determined Clapp's injury came from a single gunshot.
Had the call initially come in as a gunshot wound, the response would have been much different, Rose explained. Instead, those earnest initial responders, unaware a violent crime had been committed, likely disturbed whatever tracks or footprints the killer left behind.
Rose lays no blame at the feet of anyone who rushed to Clapp's aid. The only blame, he said, rests with the killer.
"This person is cold-hearted," he said.
And, for now, anonymous.
But bolstered by a strong belief that the killer remains alive, sheriff's officials are turning to a very public display in hopes of turning anonymity into identification as the case marks a quarter century.
The department will be pulling Clapp's iconic stagecoach in its unit during parades this summer in the county. The stagecoach, in which Clapp gave countless children rides before his death, will display a banner soliciting the public's help in gathering information about the unsolved murder.
"It's time for people — if they know anything — now's the time to come forward," Rose said.
Rolling out the replica Concord stagecoach, once a staple in parades from western Wisconsin to the Twin Cities, isn't just about collecting tips. Rose said it's a way to resurrect the memory of Clapp, the bachelor farmer known for his devotion to the horses and animals he raised and the communities he interacted with.
"It's a way to bring him back to life," Rose said, recalling rides he and his sister took on the stagecoach as children.
The stagecoach rolls out for its first parade this year on Sunday, June 3, in Roberts.
St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson is hoping the sight of the stagecoach rekindles conversations among community members who remember it and Clapp, who was 76 at the time of his death.
"We may even put that stagecoach in front of the person responsible," he said.
Remembering 'a legend'
Don Linehan hopes the stagecoach display makes a difference.
His memories of Clapp driving a team of four horses atop the carriage remain vivid and are chronicled in family photos. The Linehans did, after all, consider Clapp extended family.
Linehan grew up on a nearby farm, where his family came to know Clapp as "Uncle Junior."
"He was a legend in the family," said Linehan, whose memories of Clapp are included in his 2006 "Off the Farm Into the World" book.
The book chronicles memories from his youth, including Clapp's prized possession — the bright-red stagecoach built in 1976 for him by Everett and Gladys Cincoski of Menomonie.
"With a smile on his face, he loaded his classic stagecoach with excited, happy cheering and waving local kids," Linehan wrote. "Junior led the parade down Main Street wherever he went in the Midwest."
The Clapp family donated Junior's stagecoach to the New Richmond Heritage Center in the early 2000s before it was moved to a building in the town of Warren.
Linehan said the stagecoach was something of a symbol for the "cowboy, Will Rogers-type" who put his brothers to work as farmhands. Clapp's two-story limestone house was adorned with ribbons and awards from horse-riding contests. Eau Claire author Robert Dudley notes in his upcoming book "Cold Cases of West Central Wisconsin" how Clapp was an accomplished horse rider in pole-weaving competitions.
The house, Linehan said, "was like a country museum."
Still, the unique customs of Clapp's bachelor life shined through in memorable ways. Linehan recalled how Clapp would sop up whatever was left on his dinner plate with a piece of bread. He'd finish up the bread, turn the plate over and announce with a laugh, "I'm ready for the next meal."
Clapp had a serious side, too.
Linehan recalled him as an engaged St. Croix County citizen who fiercely protected his 800 acres while the federal government sought to acquire portions for the expansion of Interstate 94. Others wanted that land as well, Linehan said, and Clapp wouldn't budge.
Linehan suspects what many in the area believe — that Clapp's defense of his land led to his demise.
"He loved his land and he would protect it ferociously," Linehan said. "His life, he gave up for it."
'A whole lot was happening'
Investigator Rose said contentious land negotiations were "pretty well-known," but just what the motive was for Clapp's killing remains part of the mystery.
Suspects in the case have been questioned and are among the dozens of interviews conducted over the years.
The case remains very much open; investigators interviewed "someone really close to the investigation" earlier this year, Rose said.
Former St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead told the Hudson Star-Observer in 2009 how a John Doe hearing had been convened in the case but didn't yield an indictment. He told the paper at the time that evidence at the scene suggested Clapp knew his killer.
The case made headlines again in 2012 when authorities from Minnesota and St. Croix County searched the pond on Clapp's former property in pursuit of a tip that the murder weapon had been tossed there.
More recently, evidence from the case was submitted to the state's crime lab — the results from which are still part of the puzzle, Rose said.
Yet for all the years spent scouring the case, investigators remain as tight-lipped on their revelations as they did in 1993. They continue to keep certain information close to the vest, choosing to play those cards once the time is right.
"Somebody was there and a whole lot was happening," Rose said.
The oft-told tale of Clapp's murder involves a 12:30 a.m. distress call from the farmer to his friend Jack Larsen, whose mother answered the phone. She called for her son, asleep at the time, to take the call. By the time Larsen got to the phone, the line was dead.
Rose believes the suspect "absolutely" was there when Clapp placed the call and likely killed him in those intervening minutes.
Knudson said the murder has left a foul, lingering taste in the community, especially since the killer has yet to be brought to justice.
"Many people remember the incident, as well as (Clapp), and the community is still waiting for this to be solved," he said.
Dudley, the Eau Claire author whose previous work honed in on Jacob Wetterling's killer, said the stagecoach display could be just the thing to crack the Clapp case.
"It's just going to take a confession or the right person coming forward," he said.
Rose said he thinks Clapp, a former town of Warren constable, would tip his cap at the notion of his stagecoach being rolled out again.
"I think he'd be real honored that we're going to bring it back to the parades," he said. "At least we didn't forget about him — and we're not going to forget about him."
The first parade featuring William "Junior" Clapp's stagecoach will be Sunday, June 3, at Roberts Good Neighbor Days.