Decades After a Couple Was Killed on a Hiking Trail, a Sealed Envelope Leads to an ArrestDecades Aft

Law enforcement called on March 6, crunching up the dirt driveway to the baby-blue single-story house in Lakewood, Wisconsin, an isolated town of around 800 people about one and a half hours northwest of Green Bay.

Pulling open the door was Ray Vannieuwenhoven. An 82-year-old widower, he was known around the area as "old Ray," according to the Associated Press, an affable Mr. Fix-It who helped neighbours repair their snowblowers and lawn mowers. He was often spotted digging through the local dump for machine parts. Besides a reputation for having a temper when he drank alcohol, not much smudged Vannieuwenhoven's standing in Lakewood - and he hadn't touched a bottle for years due to his health.

According to a criminal complaint later filed in court, Vannieuwenhoven invited Oconto County Chief Deputy Darren Laskowski inside his home. The lawman explained he was asking residents to fill out a survey about local policing. Vannieuwenhoven complied. Then, Laskowski asked him to seal the form in an envelope, and after the handyman licked the flap, the officer left.

Vannieuwenhoven did not realize he was sealing much more than a simple public service questionnaire. The survey was bogus, a ruse cooked up by investigators to get a sample of Vannieuwenhoven's DNA. The evidence would put him on the hook for a brutal 1976 double murder and rape that had stumped investigators for decades.

Vannieuwenhoven was arrested within days, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported. He has since been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree sexual assault. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, but with his next court appearance scheduled for later this month, new details about the alleged crime and the defendant's criminal history are now coming out - and shocking his former neighbours.

"People had the impression that he was a very good, normal person, just a retired guy," neighbour Wayne Sankey told the AP. "No matter where you went you'd mention Ray and they'd say, 'Oh yeah, old Ray.' That was basically about it. It's still hard to believe." Vannieuwenhoven is due back in court on June 19.

The crime occurred on July 9, 1976. David Schuldes was 25 and worked in the Press-Gazette's circulation department. Ellen Matheys was 24 and had a job at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay library, according to the AP. The couple, who were engaged, were camping that weekend at McClintock Park, northeast of Lakewood.

According to the criminal complaint, after setting up their tent, the couple headed for a nature walk. Before setting out, Matheys used a bathroom at the campground. While Schuldes waited outside, he was gunned down with a blast from a .30 calibre rifle. The bullet entered his neck, killing him immediately.

Matheys either fled or was ordered into a wooded area 100 yards from the bathroom area. She was sexually assaulted, then shot twice in the chest. Around 2:30 p.m. on July 9, 1976, Schuldes's body was discovered. After an extensive search, his fiancée was found the next morning. According to the AP, investigators immediately ruled out robbery. None of the couple's cash was taken, and Schuldes had a camera still slung on his shoulder.

Semen was recovered from Matheys's body, according to the criminal complaint. A sample was preserved.

Without a clear motive or viable suspects, the case was stranded in limbo. Decades would pass before technological advances in the 1990s allowed investigators to return to the DNA sample discovered on the victim. But running the DNA sequence through a national database provided no fresh suspects.

In March 2018, investigators sought assistance from Parabon NanoLabs, the Virginia-based company that has revolutionized cold-case investigation by combining suspect DNA with genealogical databases.

In December 2018, the company "was able to narrow down a suspect pool to a specific family with ties to the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area," according to the criminal complaint, identifying "the family of Gladys M. Brunette and Edward K. Vannieuwenhoven as possible suspects in the homicide." The couple had four sons and four grandsons - all possible suspects in the 1976 slaying. Investigators started hunting down DNA samples from the sons. The first son was eliminated after police went through his trash and found an Advair inhaler to test against the crime scene sample. A coffee cup recovered from a neighbour eliminated the second son.

For the third son - Ray Vannieuwenhoven - police concocted the fake police survey. With the licked envelop, investigators say they matched him to the DNA taken from Matheys.

At his first court appearance on March 22, Vannieuwenhoven denied the charges. "Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty," he told the court, according to the AP. The judge ordered him held on a $1 million bond.

In subsequent weeks, however, a deeper picture has emerged of the suspect, one that complicates the image held by many of his small-town neighbours.

According to an obituary, Vannieuwenhoven's wife, Rita, died in February 2008, months after the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. The couple had three daughters, three sons and nine grandchildren.

But Vannieuwenhoven also has a past criminal record. In 1957, a 20-year-old Vannieuwenhoven - then using the first name Lawrence - was arrested for attacking two girls, 17 and 16, the Press-Gazette reported. Neither were seriously injured, but he was charged with battery and sentenced to six months in jail. According to the paper, Vannieuwenhoven claimed he was only trying to scare the women.

Three years later, in 1960, Vannieuwenhoven pleaded guilty to failing to provide financial support for his wife and 1-year-old baby, the AP reported.

But according to the AP, the suspect's only recent behaviour to strike his neighbours in Lakewood as odd was the way his personality shifted when he had been hitting the bottle.

"I know this much - when he was drinking he was one son of a b-," one acquaintance told the AP. "You didn't want to be anywhere near him when he was drinking. Not just me, a lot of people."

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