The abduction and murder of 15-year-old Mary Reker and her 12-year-old sister Susan remains one of the most heinous unsolved crimes in state history.
It happened on Labor Day 1974. The girls were missing for a month before their bodies were found, stabbed, at a rock quarry north of St. Cloud. The case has always stood out as much for the nature of the crimes as for the bungling of the investigation.
Newspaper headlines at the time — and for years afterward — detailed:
lost police reports
suspects identified but never interviewed
and allegations that one of the investigators actually left the department, taking evidence with him.
Now 31 years later, police say they're now working the case like it was yesterday. Despite all the years and the terribly rocky start of this case, investigators say their greatest clues may have been part of their file from the beginning.
One of the men police have talked to repeatedly is Michael Bartowsheski. He grew up just a few blocks from the Reker girls in St Cloud. Today he's serving time in Colorado for the murder of Michelle Talbott, another little girl, killed three years after the Reker sisters.
Bartowsheski was so drunk, and full of rage, when he murdered Michelle that he literally has no recollection of the crime. Talbott was the daughter of a family he was living with at the time.
In a prison interview outside Pueblo, Colorado Bartowsheski said "All I understand is that I was out of my mind."
Bartowsheski was identified as a suspect by policejust a few years after the crime. Old newspaper accounts, quote a former Stearns county sheriff saying the knife used in the Colorado murder, was the same type of knife used in the killing of Mary and Susan Reker.
All three of the girls were stabbed repeatedly in the chest. Bartowsheski also cut Michelle's throat.
"It was like something had taken hold of me, like I was in a nightmare when I was taking Michelle's life," he said. "I was trying to stop from doing it. And I just couldn't wake up from the nightmare."
According to the same former sheriff that same type of knife was also used in an assault on Bev Servio in St Cloud. She says she still fears the man who she claims kidnapped her, just two years after the Reker girls’ abduction and murder. Bartowsheski was charged with four felonies after his night out with Bev Servio.
The criminal complaint describes details of an aggressive sexual assault, with Bartowsheski stripped below the waist, armed with a knife and ordering his victim to drive. Police reports indicate Bev drove the car off the road and ran for her life with an infant daughter in her arms.
"I knew I would have been dead," she told us. "He would have killed me and my daughter."
Still, today, Bartowsheski says: "I don't think I would have killed her." When pressed by a reporter as to whether he was sure whether he would have killed her, he responded: "Not sure."
The charges in the Servio case were dropped after Bartowsheski was convicted of the Colorado murder.
The reason he says he's not sure is due, in part, to the fact Bartowsheski was very drunk on this night too. Just like he was drunk the night he murdered Michelle Talbott. Even the day after, police reports in the Servio case indicate he was too drunk to remember many details.
Still, Bartowsheski adamantly maintains he had nothing to do with the Reker girls’ murder. He says, it’s because in 1974 he was still 15 years old, and he insists he didn’t start drinking for at least a year or two later.
When asked of the chances that he might have killed the Reker girls – and failed to remember it – as he’s failed to remember even the homicide he’s serving time for today Bartowsheski responded, "It’s not possible."
Bartowsheski maintains it's been years since investigators have talked to him about the Reker crime. And he says he's passed a lie detector test in that case. Minnesota authorities aren’t commenting.
But Bartowsheski is only one person who has captured the attention of the investigators over the years. Another man they find every bit as interesting is now out of prison, having already served time for another crime against another Minnesota teenager.
When we showed up at his home to try to talk with him and he ordered us off his property in no uncertain terms.
We’re not naming this Mr. X because he's not charged in the Reker case. And, unlike Bartowsheski, he's clearly not keen on talking with us. But take a look at why police might want to talk with him.
Remember, investigators were looking at Bartowsheski because he used a similar weapon in a similar way against another young girl and he lived near the Reker girls.
These are among the parallels considered by investigators when they look at this other crime involving Mr. X and the murder of the Reker sisters.
Both Mary Reker and the victim of Mr. X were very close in age both were stabbed with similar small knives.
In each case the teenaged-girl's sweater was sliced up the middle and left on the body. And in each case her bra was cut and removed. In each case her panties were cut and removed. And in each case her under garments were thrown in a lake.
In the case of the Reker girls their bodies were hidden. Mary was dumped in a lake. Her little sister, Susan, was dragged into tall grasses.
Mr. X and his accomplice carried their victim to a place where she was covered with branches and leaves.
If there was one significant difference in the cases it was that the victim of Mr. X survived.
Fred and Rita Reker have known of this other case for decades. But they didn't know the details until they sat down with us. They were stunned.
Rita Reker says that’s been part of their on-going frustration with the case, "(It’s) like nobody was trained to recognize those things."
Fred called the historic difficulty with investigators over such things "frustrating, and maddening."
While they recognize that the parallels — which go on in more detail than we can share here — do not amount to fingerprints or DNA evidence, they say they understand that.
"But it's pretty strong circumstantial evidence," Rita said. The information, the details of this other crime, have been known and in public files for a very long time.
Current Stearns County Sheriff, John Sanner, says the momentum in the case today is very real.
"A lot of it comes from investigators themselves," he said. "And more from the information we receive (which) generates more interest in the case."
The family is optimistic, again.
It’s like a cycle they have gone through, up and down, for three decades.
As Rita Reker put it, "It’s taking a long time, but after thirty one years we've learned how to wait."
If you have any information about this case you are asked to call the Stearns County Authorities at: 320-251-4240
The interview with Michael Bartowshesk was conducted at the Crowley Correctional Facility, in Olney Springs, Colorado on October 6, 2005.
(Copyright 2005 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)