In Movies & TV

Downtown Manitowoc's Courthouse Pub, which has an ironic WiFI password. (PHOTO: Jimmy Carlton)

Manitowoc wants to be known for more than "Making a Murderer"

MANITOWOC – To try and understand what all of this has been like, take a trip to Manitowoc County.

About an hour and a half north of Milwaukee but still 30 minutes shy of Green Bay, on a flat and flavorless stretch of Interstate 43 where – on this January day – the drab, white-and-brown landscape of snowy farmland is touched up only by red barns and blue flashing police lights going the opposite way, past the adult book store and the anti-abortion billboard in seeming juxtaposition, past the fireworks shop and the Kellnersville sign with no options listed under gas and attractions, and just south of the county line, there's an exit for State Highway 147 toward Maribel/Mishicot.

Take it.

About five miles east of I-43, on an unremarkable and until-recently uncongested stretch of WI-147, past the archery range at Maribel Sportsman's Club and the leafless trees of the Richard J. Drum Memorial Forest, over the bridge spanning partially frozen West Twin River but not as far as that of East Twin River and between two Christmas tree farms, with black smoke billowing from some bonfire too distant to send a smell and only the sounds of tires on asphalt and the whoosh of passing cars, there's an intersection with a wooden post and two chillingly non-ironic signs bolted to it: Avery Road, Dead End.

Take it.

About 400 yards down the road, past the black-and-yellow "Avery's Auto Salvage" billboard, adjacent to a great gravel quarry with its menacing DANGER warning that reads "Active Pit: Keep Out!" and onto an unpaved path behind a row of dense pine trees that, unlike their counterparts naked in winter, hide everything beyond them, there's a green trailer with peeling paint and, parked in front, Dolores Avery's Hyundai Elantra with its handicapped permit and a candy cane hanging from the rearview mirror.

A meeting here was mutually agreed upon 64 hours prior, but now there's no answer at the door after numerous knocks. The Avery's Auto office is closed, and two dogs – one tiny mongrel inside the home and a squat basset hound outside – are barking hostilely, knowingly, because this isn't the first time they've encountered an interloper. And then, suddenly, there's a red sedan speeding down the driveway straight at the visitor, drawing alongside at the very last second, spitting out an angry Charles Avery shouting through his cigarette that, "We ain't doing no interviews!" and offering a very severe suggestion to get the hell off the property.

Definitely take it.

Back at the entrance to Avery Road, there's a minivan pulled over with a cell phone pointed out the window snapping pictures of the signs. In front of the infamous "Avery's Auto Salvage" display, there are dozens of footprints in the snow, where locals grumble that looky-loos take smiling selfies to post on Facebook. And just a quarter-mile down the highway, an out-of-place Prius pulls a U-turn on two-lane 147, narrowly avoiding getting stuck in the icy ditch to double back and check out the notorious property belonging to the junkyard family that for so long wanted to leave the world alone – but now can't get the world to let it be.

It is here, amid the farmland and the fields and the forest and the fires, in this barely corporated, backcountry no-man's-land – the remote reaches of the 21st-most-populous county in Wisconsin – where humble is the default persona and everybody knows everybody, that internet curiosity has found its epicenter. It is here that a grisly tragedy a decade ago recently spawned a sensationally engrossing documentary that's become an instant phenomenon and, in the process, made Manitowoc the current capital of popular culture.

A few miles east of the property on WI-147, which becomes Main Street in Mishicot (population: 1,442), regulars at a local bar disdain the lurid limelight cast on their hometown. In nearby Two Rivers, they say the unwanted attention will get worse before it gets better. And in the city of Manitowoc, the county seat with that courthouse and that sheriff's department, nearly 14 rural miles south of the Averys, they're already sick and tired of this whole thing.

While true-crime fanatics obsess over every possible theory, piece of evidence and alternative suspect, and a nation of Netflix-viewers calls for pardons, new trials, punishment for law enforcement (including, disturbingly, death threats to sheriffs) and a revamping of the entire U.S. justice system, the people in the place where everything actually happened are simply not interested.

Manitowoc County residents, caught in a murder-made media maelstrom they never asked for and are not benefiting from, just wish it would all go away.

The case, the documentary and now the fallout. This is the story about the story about the story.

A county fatigued

"Making a Murderer" chronicles the surreal story of Steven Avery's exoneration of a rape for which he spent 18 years in prison and his subsequent conviction of the murder of Teresa Halbach, for which he's now serving life in prison. It particularly focuses on Avery's trial, raising serious questions not only about police procedure and suspect investigation, but also about the systemic, socioeconomic issues of criminal defense. By now, though, everyone knows that.

The web television series appeared on Netflix last month, one week before Christmas. What took documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos 10 years to fastidiously film and painstakingly produce was, within days, binge-watched by millions, thanks to critical acclaim and breathless word-of-mouth and social-media buzz. America collectively injected itself with the compelling thriller, streaming the 10 hour-long episodes and then satisfying cravings by discussing the show on social streams and consuming all content that concerned it.

This website provided plenty; it was often the vanguard of original information in the wake of the documentary. And while countless hours spent poring over courthouse records and interviewing jurors unearthed more shadiness than even "Making a Murderer" had portrayed, three days in the county also revealed other details – strong distrust of the media, sad weariness of the story, a sense that the area wasn't fairly depicted and, most fundamentally, the feeling that the series was a work of fiction that didn't change many minds in Manitowoc of Avery's original, enduring guilt.

Across the street from where Avery was convicted of the 1985 first-degree sexual assault of Penny Beerntsen – and freed in 2003 through DNA testing – is the Courthouse Pub, an upscale restaurant where men in suits drink bourbon, women wearing scarves sip red wine and the dinner entrees are all at least $20. The Wi-Fi password is "innocent" (the staff insists it's been such since before the documentary) and the bill comes in a parking-ticket envelope that gives out-of-towners a brief scare.

Eventually, after phone numbers are looked up and dialed and voicemails reveal "memory full," a couple of reporters decide the only recourse is to drive out to the Avery property at night and knock on the door, a last-resort journalistic tactic that's detested even by people who haven't had to deal with unrelenting press for a decade. They also decide that a Swiss Army knife will be brought along.

The drive from downtown Manitowoc (population: 33,736) to the property is 25 minutes – a distance that doesn't really come across in the documentary, which presents a meddling sheriff's department and a troublemaking family as constantly tangling in each other's close-by affairs. In reality, the reclusive Averys live 15 miles away and, while deputies do have jurisdiction in Mishicot, there are only a few to patrol a vast area; it's not as though they're waiting in squad cars down the block to ambush a lingering, preying Avery. Spatially, Manitowoc is larger, more developed and much more spread out than it's depicted in the documentary – not surprising since most of the series' action takes place in just a few locations.

Eventually turning onto Avery Road, past the Auto Salvage sign that's become a destination point for sight-seekers and proceeding toward the cluster of meager buildings, headlights vaguely illuminate a line of broken-down vehicles, giving the place a graveyard feel unrelated to its violent past. Parking in front of the home of Allen and Dolores Avery, Steven's parents, a fingers-crossed knock on the trailer door brings an unexpected sight. Rather than an angry rebuke or no answer at all, it's Mrs. Avery standing in the entryway, surprised to see visitors at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, but not actually upset.

She looks exhausted, more worn than in the documentary, and doesn't say much – watching and nodding as reporters hastily, apologetically explain why they're at her door. After mentioning that she's about to go to sleep, Dolores Avery listens to a pitch for a sympathetic interview and agrees to meet on Saturday, after the business closes. But the next day, Steven Avery will get a new legal team that forbids the family to talk to the press, thus leading to Charles Avery saying his mother "must've misunderstood" and sternly instructing the visitor returning on Saturday to "hit the road!"

Upon leaving, the next trip is to the residence of Barb Tadych, Steven Avery's sister and the mother of Brendan Dassey, who was convicted of assisting his uncle in Halbach's murder but whose case is now in federal appeals court. The house is completely dark, so a call is made instead. Unexpectedly, Tadych answers and, after initially saying she can't talk about legal proceedings and also has to wake up early, remains on the phone for a poignant 10-minute conversation.

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