“Mystery girl” injured in 1978 lives life of tragedy, triumph

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Janet Kleser was called "the mystery girl." The 18-year-old was found on the side of a country road in Washington County back in 1978, with no identification and traumatic injuries that would change her life forever.

Treasured snap shots from the winter of 1978 capture Janet Kleser's spirit. One picture shows Janet kissing her mom on the cheek.

The pictures provide stark contrast to those taken six months later, showing Janet fighting for her life in the hospital.

"They said an unidentified girl had been found," Janet's mom, Geraldine Kleser said.

Sheriff's deputies responded to Pioneer and Mayfield Roads in Washington County after midnight on an August day in 1978.  A woman was lying face-down near the road.  Reports from the sheriff's department say she had a "laceration to the left forehead at the corner of the left eye."  

Deputies first suspected she had suffered a fall, but later reported she may have been struck with a blunt object and thrown from a vehicle.

Geraldine Kleser learned of the incident from news accounts.  Headlines in local newspapers sought an identity for "the mystery girl."  At the hospital, doctors told Geraldine her daughter might spend the rest of her life in a vegetative state.

"I cried an ocean of tears," Geraldine Kleser said.

Janet was a fighter. 34 years later, she's still fighting to improve her mobility and speech.

"I used to really, really get angry, but no more," Janet said.

Janet says she doesn't dwell on the violent incident she can't remember.  Instead, she thinks about her progress.

"How much I improved.  That makes me really happy now," Janet said.

Janet takes part in painting at the Donna Lexa Community Art Center in West Milwaukee. Her mother calls Janet's discovery of painting nearly 20 years ago "a rebirth." Janet is taught by Kurt Meinke and has grown more skilled. She puts her own unique twist on famous works of art.

"She is a very hard worker and she's very committed to art.  She's very, very serious," Meinke said.

Recently, Janet has turned her life's passion into profit.  Her paintings have sold for as much as $250.

John McCarthy is one of Janet's customers.  He proudly displays one of her paintings in his financial group's offices.

"To think that she's overcome all that to produce these beautiful pieces is just an amazing story," McCarthy said.

Janet's case has never been solved.  The only suspect was dismissed back in 1979 when he passed a polygraph test.  Now, the statute of limitations has passed.

CLICK HERE for more information on the Donna Lexa Community Art Center. The center is currently accepting students with disabilities at its three locations in West Milwaukee, Waukesha and West Bend.

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