Unmaking a Murderer Chapter 11 (Revised June 2017)
Writing for the Daily Mail, Chris White referenced a Facebook poll of more than 1,200 people: 62% thought that Teresa’s ex-boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas, was guilty of her murder and 17% blamed Manitowoc law enforcement for the crime. In June 2017, Kathleen Zellner filed a 1,272-page notice for post-conviction relief. She named Ryan as the lead murder suspect and accused Ken Kratz of fraudulent conduct. In response, Kratz called Zellner deplorable for blaming Ryan.
Kathleen Zellner’s post-conviction relief motion opines that Teresa was not murdered at Steven’s property. After her appointment at Steven’s, Teresa had attended the Zipperer’s residence and returned home. Zellner believes that Teresa met her demise at the rear of her RAV4 where Ryan bludgeoned her to death. After burning her body, he planted evidence on the Avery’s property, while manipulating law enforcement into pursuing Steven as the perpetrator. Having found appointment details in the paperwork in the RAV4, Ryan learned that Teresa had visited Steven earlier that afternoon. From the local news, he knew that Steven was a famous exoneree who was suing Manitowoc County. To shield himself from becoming a murder suspect, Ryan devised a plan to move the body and the vehicle to Steven’s property.
Here are some of the main points in Zellner’s motion as to why she suspects Ryan:
1. Ryan was abusive towards Teresa and jealous
Having met as freshmen in high school, Teresa and Ryan had dated on and off for approximately five years in a farming community called Hilbert. During that time, Teresa had purportedly been subjected to both verbal and physical abuse. After she ended their relationship, Ryan continued to exercise control over her by living nearby and frequenting her home. In emails to friends, Teresa complained that Ryan was still checking her out years after they had broken up.
Ryan became aware of Teresa’s sexual relationships with a married man and her housemate, Scott Bloedorn, who was also one of Ryan’s closest friends. Just months before her disappearance, Teresa had become sexually involved with Scott. Jealousy was the motive for the murder.
After refusing to sit for an interview about false statements he had made to the police in 2005, Scott Bloedorn was informed that the post-conviction counsel planned to name a suspect in Teresa’s murder. Scott immediately blurted out, “You mean Ryan Hillegas.”
The married man Teresa had become involved with was a client of her nude photography business. Taking nude photos of Bradley Czech and his wife was the catalyst for the sexual relationship that ensued between Teresa and Czech. Teresa kept nude photos of the Czech couple in the bedroom of her home, which Ryan frequented. The discovery of the photos and the relationship with Czech may have been another point of jealousy for Ryan. Prior to her disappearance, Teresa had broken off her relationship with Czech. On November 3, 2005, Ryan called Czech for the first time. The reason for the call is unknown.
2. Ryan deleted Teresa’s phone records after she had disappeared
Deleting messages required someone to access Teresa’s voicemail from another phone by using her password. Her phone records show that her own phone was not used to access her voicemail after 2:12 pm on October 31, 2005. This means that the person who accessed her voicemail prior to the authorities realising that she was missing on November 3 had to be the killer who knew the password required to delete her voicemails. To know her password, the killer had to be extremely close to Teresa. Clearly, this was not Steven.
Ryan wanted to buy time before people noticed that Teresa was missing. After her death, Teresa received multiple phone calls, which filled the 20-minute capacity of her voice mailbox. Knowing Teresa’s password, Ryan deleted messages to prevent Teresa’s loved ones from noticing that her voice mailbox was uncharacteristically full, which would have alerted them to her disappearance. Although Ryan had delayed the inevitable, on November 3, Teresa’s loved ones discovered that her voicemail was full and contacted the police. At Steven’s trial, his lawyers asked Ryan how he had accessed Teresa’s phone records. He testified that he had guessed her username and password.
“There is evidence that voice messages were deleted from Ms Halbach’s voice mailbox after her death and before law enforcement initiated their missing person investigation,” stated McCrary – a retired FBI agent hired by Kathleen Zellner. “Mr Hillegas is one individual who knew Ms Halbach’s username and password and assisted law enforcement in accessing her Cingular Wireless account to obtain a list of her phone calls during the relevant time period.”
By deleting Teresa’s messages, Ryan had extra time to dispose of her body and personal items, and to frame Steven.
Familiar with the area, Ryan planned to put Steven’s DNA in the RAV4. As Ryan drove the RAV4 onto the Avery’s property, Steven – who was driving at the time – spotted the RAV4’s taillights, turned around and drove back to investigate. Ryan was forced to retreat to Kuss Road. Unable to ascertain the source of the taillights, Steven left the property.
Evidence from the scent and cadaver dogs indicates that Ryan drove the RAV4 onto the property from Kuss Road and across a field to the vicinity of Steven’s trailer. Finding a door to Steven’s trailer unlocked, Ryan entered with the intention of obtaining Steven’s DNA to plant in the RAV4. Inside the trailer, he noticed fresh blood on the bathroom sink. Due to his knowledge of science and medical training as a nurse, he knew that if the blood were found in the RAV4 then Steven would become the only suspect. After collecting the blood from the sink, he deposited it in several spots throughout the RAV4, mindful of having to plant it quickly before it coagulated.
In the late afternoon of November 4, Ryan drove the RAV4 into the Radandt pit, aided by an accomplice in a second vehicle, which was used to transport Ryan off the Avery’s property. Ryan planted the vehicle on the south-east corner close to the car crusher. A new witness saw the RAV4 enter the property followed by a white Jeep. Only the jeep left.
On the evening of November 4, Ryan told the police that he was willing to search the Avery’s property. As the police did not yet have a warrant based on probable cause, they could not perform a search. Accompanied by law enforcement, Ryan went to the property and led the police to the vehicle in the south-east corner of the salvage yard. After looking into the RAV4, he yelled, “It’s hers.” He claimed to have recognised the vehicle and Teresa’s personal items inside it. The discovery of the vehicle focused the investigation exclusively on Steven. Having being duped by Ryan, the police felt justified in planting additional evidence to frame Steven.
5. Ryan volunteered to lead the citizen search
To further steer the investigation towards Steven, Ryan volunteered to run the citizen search. To make his role credible, he did not initially tell law enforcement that he had been in a relationship with Teresa. He gave the impression that he was only a concerned friend. “Mr. Hillegas injected himself into the police investigation by taking an active role in the volunteer search,” McCrary wrote.
On Saturday morning, November 5, Ryan coordinated a volunteer effort and sent dozens of people into the surrounding area to search for Teresa and her vehicle. After most of the searchers had left the property, a former private investigator and second cousin to Teresa, Pam Sturm, arrived. Pam spoke to Ryan and Scott Bloedorn. “He [Ryan] gave a female volunteer searcher (Pam Sturm) a camera and a direct phone number to the sheriff (Jerry Pagel),” McCrary wrote. Clearly, he knew that Pam would discover the RAV4.
Pam drove to the Avery’s property and – in less than 30 minutes – located the RAV4 sparsely covered with branches and debris. Finding it was a true statistical improbability considering it was amid 4,000 other vehicles on 40 acres of uneven topography. “It appears that he [Ryan] directed her to the area where the victim’s vehicle was located,” McCrary stated.
Heading the search team gave Ryan unlimited access to the Avery’s property, which was closed to the public. This enabled Ryan to plant Teresa’s burned bones and electronic equipment in Steven’s burn pit and burn barrel.
6. Ryan used a fake name to access the salvage yard
“On at least one occasion,” McCrary stated, “Mr Hillegas had misidentified himself as Mr Kilgus to gain access to the Avery property. Regardless, the authorities allowed Mr Hillegas multiple entries to the Avery property while it was under police control.”
During the weekend of November 5-6, law enforcement officials recovered no major physical evidence to suggest that Steven was the killer, despite a massive police presence meticulously canvassing the 40-acre property soon after the RAV4’s recovery.
“On November 7, 2005, the day before the victim’s burned bones and electronic devices were found in Mr Avery’s burn pit and burn barrel, Mr Hillegas entered the property without signing in at the command post,” McCrary stated. “There is no way to know exactly when he entered the property, or how long he had remained, but it might explain how, despite previous searches of that property, that the victim’s bones were not discovered until November 8, 2005. At the very least, this type of unauthorized entry to a restricted crime scene violates proper police practices and risks contaminating the scene.”
7. Ryan gave the police and the court false information
On November 3, during his police interview, Ryan learned that law enforcement was entirely focused on Steven. He was not asked about his relationship with Teresa, why he had scratches on his hand or why he knew Teresa’s voicemail password. He wasn’t even asked for an alibi.
The discovery of a broken blinker light on the driver’s side of the RAV4 became an overlooked clue due to false information provided by Ryan. McCrary wrote that Ryan “also appears to have misled police when he told them that Ms Halbach had damaged the front driver’s side of her vehicle months before her disappearance, had filed an insurance claim for that damage and had taken the cash pay-out without repairing the vehicle.”
Zellner ascertained from Teresa’s insurance company that she had never filed an insurance claim for the front-end damage. It seems that Ryan had fabricated the story to hide that he had caused the damage while attempting to plant the vehicle on the Avery’s property by hitting a 2½-foot metal post protruding from the ground between the Avery’s property and a cul-de-sac at Kuss Road.
At the trial, Ryan committed perjury by claiming that Teresa’s relationship with Scott Bloedorn was platonic and never sexual or romantic.
Dr Blum, a pathologist from Rockford, Illinois, reviewed television footage showing Ryan with several scratches on his hands as he was organising the citizen search. “It is my opinion, to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty in the field of forensic pathology that Mr Hillegas’ right hand… appears discoloured… the abrasions I observed on the back of Mr Hillegas’ left hand are consistent with scratches inflicted by fingernails.” Dr Blum used photos of Teresa to confirm that her fingernails were long enough to have caused such scratches.
9. Ryan has no alibi
Trained as a nurse, Ryan was unemployed in October and November 2005. He testified that he last saw Teresa on October 30, when he dropped something off for her at her house. Suspiciously, he could not recall what he had delivered nor could he remember what time of the day it was when he had supposedly last seen Teresa alive.
“I have seen no evidence that he offered an alibi or any sort of statement regarding his activities from October 31, 2005 to November 3, 2005. Nor have I seen any evidence that the authorities ever asked him to do so,” McCrary stated.
Ryan’s cell-phone records show suspiciously large gaps during time periods in question. From 9:41 am to 3:48 pm on Halloween, there were no incoming or outgoing calls. It is most likely that Teresa was killed during this time. After she had departed the Avery’s and the Zipperer’s, she would have arrived home at approximately 3:45 pm. Teresa’s day planner indicated that she wanted to “get Sarah’s stuff from mom,” at about 3 pm, and, “do biz paperwork,” at approximately 4:30 pm. From 3:50 pm to 6:01 pm, there was another gap in Ryan’s phone activity. A gap of over 17 hours, from 7:47 pm on Halloween until 1:31 pm on November 1 corresponds to when Teresa’s body was transported and burned.
To get Steven released, Zellner does not have to prove that Ryan committed the murder. Her motion shows that Ryan had a motive, opportunity and a connection to the crime. Such evidence would cause a jury to doubt that Steven had committed the crime.