“A friendly town that bands together.” Such is the motto of Athens, a quaint, sleepy village totaling less than two and a half square miles in north central Wisconsin. Located about 30 miles from Wausau, the largest city in Marathon County, just over 1,000 people call Athens home, reveling in it’s small town atmosphere and close sense of community.
This old-fashioned town, however, holds secrets. Secrets of the most vile nature, many of which were ripped open for the world to see on a hot, July 4th night in 1987. A night when five members of a family were murdered, all shot in the head with a .22 caliber rifle in their own home.
Sometime after the various area fireworks celebrations that evening, somebody walked into the Kunz home, a dilapidated old farmhouse, and murdered siblings Clarence Kunz, 76, Irene Kunz, 81, Marie Kunz, 72, and a nephew Randy Kunz, 30. Another sibling, and Randy’s mother, Helen Kunz, 70, was missing from the home.
Suspicion quickly fell on the man who found the family and alerted police in the early morning hours of July 5th. Kenneth Kunz, Randy’s brother and also Helen’s son, lived in a trailer on the property, but not in the home. Police soon figured, however, that Kenneth was most likely not responsible. They needed to find Helen.
The community, quite obviously, was shocked by the gruesome murders. Also shocking, was how nobody seemed to know anything about this reclusive family. No friends. No real acquaintances. Nobody seemed to have any answers. Why were four elderly siblings all living in the same small house?
Sadly, the story about the Kunz murders became less to do with the actual murders than who this family was and how they lived.
The Kunzes lived on a 108-acre property 6 miles west of Athens. The house was old, and in terrible shape. It was horded. There was no running water. There was no furnace. All food was seemingly cooked on an old wood-burning stove which also heated the house. An outhouse was in the woods. Old cars littered the property. $22,000 in cash was found throughout the house, in drawers, boxes, and out in the open
Also littering the inside of the house was pornography. Lots of pornography. Mail-ordered VHS tapes and magazines were strewn about. Clarence, Marie, and Irene all slept in the living room together. Randy and his mother, Helen shared another room – and a bed. Incest, it seems, was part of the Kunz family dynamic. Kenneth was born to Helen when she was 15 years old. A neighbor at the time was tried and convicted of impregnating her and was sent to prison. Kenneth, however, didn’t believe that. He stated he was told Clarence was his father. He also believed Clarence was Randy’s father – but he didn’t really know for sure who either of their fathers were. Kenneth talked about seeing Helen and Clarence engage in sexual activity when he was a child.
None of the siblings or Randy had any work history. Kenneth did work at a local mill, the only member of the Kunz family to have a job. Kenneth was of low IQ. He had trouble answering questions from detectives and was painfully shy, even at 55 years of age.
All of the answers to the secrets of the Kunz family household were with Helen – and they also died with her. Her body was found nine months later in a frozen creek several miles from the home, also shot in the head.
The murder investigation turned to a 22-year-old local car thief and all-around troublemaker named Chris Jacobs III. Jacobs had purchased some old cars from the Kunzes in the recent past. The police felt they had enough evidence against Jacobs based on a robbery motive and brought the case to trial. The evidence, however, based on tire tracks and shell casings, was purely circumstantial and Jacobs III was acquitted on all five counts.
In a surprise twist in his case, a jilted ex-girlfriend later came forth to say that Jacobs confessed to her of the murders. He was then brought up on new charges. He could not be brought up on murder charges, however, based on Double Jeopardy. He was therefore brought up on kidnapping charges regarding the alleged abduction of Helen Kunz. For this, Jacobs was convicted and remains in the midst of a 31-year sentence.
He maintains his innocence and the Kunz murders are still officially unsolved.
In the only comprehensive study of the tragedy, author Crocker Stephenson was able to identify the lineage of the Kunz family in his book, Blood Relative: Portrait of a Mass Murder. This lineage does shed a bit of light into this family and why they lived as they did.
The Kunzes were the children of Ignatz and Anna Kunz. In December of 1905, Ignatz and Anna were living with Ignatz’s mother, Mary in her home in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Anna came home one evening, while Ignatz was away for work, and found her mother-in-law dead in her bed, bludgeoned to death by her other son who also lived in the home, J. Wenzel Kunz. Wenzel Kunz, lived out his days in an insane asylum, as did a third brother who was institutionalized before the murder of Mary occurred.
Soon after, Ignatz and Anna moved to Marathon County where Ignatz worked for a logging company. Their children were raised in an 18 x 20 crudely built log cabin. Isolated and poorly educated, with mental illness running pervasively in the family, the children only had themselves.
They stayed that way until a summer night in 1987, when their lives were brutally taken from them, together.
Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler. More of his work can be seen at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.
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