Police: 78-year-old man arrested in Florida in 1979 murder of his wife in Muskego

John Bayerl

MUSKEGO -- Muskego police confirmed Thursday, Feb. 21 the arrest of a 78-year-old man in Fort Myers, Florida -- a suspect in a cold case murder from 1979. Police said John Bayerl was arrested on a first degree murder charge in the May 6, 1979 disappearance of his wife, Dona Bayerl, who was 38 years old.

According to police, detectives from the Lee County Sheriff's Office's Homicide Unit met with detectives from the Muskego Police Department in Feb. 19 on this case. It was learned that Bayerl was residing on Summerlin Road in Fort Myers, Florida. Police, Florida deputies and Florida homicide detectives arrested Bayerl without incident.

He made his initial appearance in court Wednesday morning, Feb. 20 -- and was being held without bond. He waived extradition and was set to return to Wisconsin.

The felony count of first degree murder was filed on Feb. 15 out of Waukesha County. He made his initial appearance in court in Wisconsin Thursday afternoon -- where the court commissioner set $500,000 cash bond.

John Bayerl's Florida home

Bayerl home in Muskego

Dona Bayerl

"This is a homicide. It's a rather unique homicide in that there is no body that has been recovered," said the court commissioner. "The state has detailed that there has been no evidence the alleged victim here has been known of through financial records. She has not turned up anywhere. There is also evidence that's alleged she was devoted to the children she had and the children have not had contact with her either."

Police said Bayerl lived with his wife and their children, ages 7 and 4, at a home on Fennimore Lane in Muskego. On May 9, 1979, Bayerl stated that his wife stormed out of their home after an argument and had not been seen since. She never returned home. Police said an investigation revealed blood in the garage of the Muskego home, determined to be Dona Bayerl's, which John Bayerl had no explanation for, prosecutors said.

Rose Crnkovich lives a few houses away and remembers the day Dona went missing.

"The police came around and just asked if we knew anything, we heard anything and we had no idea that anything had happened," said Crnkovich.

Through the years, Crnkovich's daughter became close friends with his.

"The girls are in my thoughts and prayers and I hope they can heal from all of this," said Crnkovich.

Dona Bayerl and children

Police said a circumstantial case was developed against a suspect, but no charges were issued because of lack of evidence.

During the exhaustive investigation Muskego police, numerous leads were followed and countless people were interviewed. Family and friends of Bayerl's wife were adamant that she would never leave her daughters, and they feared something had happened to her. While all leads and tips were followed, John Bayerl remained a person of interest in her disappearance.

John Bayerl

On May 20, 1980, John Bayerl was granted a divorce from Dona Bayerl.

On August 5, 1986, Dona Bayerl was legally declared dead.

While the case ran cold, the Muskego Police Department never closed the investigation, and officers continued to be assigned to the cold case. John Bayerl continued to be a person of interest, and the case was reclassified from a missing person to a homicide.

As a result of the continuing investigation, police said a warrant was issued Feb. 15 for the arrest of John Bayerl for first degree murder.

Detectives from the Muskego Police Department traveled to Fort Myers, Florida and took Bayerl into custody.

A criminal complaint said John Bayerl told investigators his marriage to Dona was "a bad one." He admitted to fighting with his wife "on several occasions" and said he had "struck or pinched" his wife previously. He also admitted to having a girlfriend. The complaint said police interviewed John Bayerl's first wife, who indicated he struck or pushed her 15 to 20 times in their last two years of marriage. She said when she told him she filed divorce papers, he choked her and said he continued to harass her after their divorce.

Dona Bayerl and children

Dona Bayerl's sister noted the day after her disappearance, John Bayerl did the laundry, which Dona Bayerl's sister thought was odd because he had never done the laundry, even after Dona Bayerl hemorrhaged after giving birth to her second child. The sister reported she had to come over and do it. A rug and quilt that he hand-washed were taken to the Crime Lab for analysis. The sister also reported one of the children told her: "I don't want to be a nurse anymore, because when people fight, their faces get bloody." The statement was made in the days after Dona Bayerl's disappearance, according to the complaint.

The complaint noted John Bayerl's third wife contacted authorities in July of 1981, "seeking information about the case because John had changed in several ways since the day of the wedding, and had subjected her to physical violence." She said she "no longer felt comfortable with John and was fearful of another beating in the future."

John Bayerl

One of the children, in 2009, had a conversation with John Bayerl about Dona Bayerl, the complaint said. According to prosecutors, John Bayerl said "Something happened and I, it, I, I'm sure that her heart's not beating. Because if it was, she would have found her way back, whatever. You know what I mean? I don't think she's alive."

Investigators spoke with John Bayerl again in July of 2018 to update him on the investigation. During the interview, the complaint said Bayerl admitted he cheated on Dona with a girlfriend and "he was not a good husband." He said "he could not blame her for anything he did and she was a perfect wife and mother." He "admitted that he did not treat her right and she had to put up with things that she should not have had to." He said "he could see why she would leave." He said he "blames himself for whatever happened because he was a bad husband." When asked about the physical allegations regarding his wives, he said "(if) they were coming at him, he would fight back." When asked about any investigative leads he was interested in pursuing, he said "it has been 30 years, and he wrote it off in his mind a long time ago." He said "he knows in his mind he is not guilty of anything other than being a bad husband," but said "in his gut, he thought Dona was no longer alive."

The complaint said there were multiple aerial and ground searches for Dona Bayerl after her disappearance. She was never found. It said there was no known consumer debt incurred by Dona Bayerl since May 6, 1979, no arrests and no use or activity on her Social Security account. A DNA profile for Dona Bayerl was created, and no human remains have matched it.

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