The “Capital City Killings” Part 1: Campus Coeds

[] Madison, Wisconsin is filled with energy, people from all walks of life, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is the capital for the state of Wisconsin. From the college, to the local taverns, many people flood the sidewalks and shops and other areas. With such a lively, bustling city, it is easy to overlook the shadows and evil that sometimes unfortunately come out at night. I have always been interested in forensics and true crime cases, and am always left wondering how can a person take another person’s life in such a rage, especially if there’s no reason and the killer doesn’t even know the victim.

The underbelly of any city is not usually seen by many. If you are lucky, you will never see this part. If you are lucky, you won’t ever fall prey to what several women faced years ago. From the years 1968 thru 1984, eight young women were murdered in and around Madison, and since then the murders have been dubbed the “Mad City Murders” or the “Capital City Killings.” Many thought there was a serial killer on the loose because of the fact ALL of the girls had some connection to the college, two of the victims were found dead on the university grounds, most of the women had long brown hair parted in the middle, and to this day, they are all unsolved cases.

Christine Rothschild playing card, issued by Wisconsin State Police

Christine Rothschild playing card, issued by Wisconsin State Police

It all started on May 25, 1968 when 18-year-old Christine Rothschild was heading back to her dorm in Ann Emery Hall, room 119. Christine was a pretty woman with long dirty blonde hair, and at times spent her summers modeling for various department store catalogs. She was an aspiring journalist and eager to make her mark in the world.

A gentleman by the name of Phillip Van Valkenberg was making his way through some bushes, heading towards Sterling Hall so he could knock on his friend’s window and be let in. He stopped dead in his tracks when he came across Rothschild’s lifeless body sprawled before him. She had been stabbed 14 times in the neck and chest, several of her ribs were broken, both her upper and lower jaws were broken, and she had also been strangled by a strip of lining from her coat. The killer had also shoved her mittens down into her throat.

Needless to say, this must have been such a shocking and brutal scene. Christine was not sexually assaulted, so obviously that was not the reason for her murder. But what was? We may never know because most of the evidence collected at the scene which could possibly have contained the killer’s DNA such as a bloody man’s handkerchief and also a broken black umbrella, were all lost and have never been located.

Debra J. “Debbie” Bennett

Debra J. “Debbie” Bennett

On a warm summer day, July 21, 1976 the burned and decomposing body of a 20-year-old woman named Debra J. “Debbie” Bennett was discovered by land assessors in a gully along the Old Sauk Pass Road, just outside of Cross Plains, Wisconsin located in Dane County. Ironically, her brother had reported her missing the day her remains were found. She had last been seen July 10 around 7:15 p.m. walking barefoot on the west side of the 1400 block of Loftsgordon Avenue (where she used to live and was evicted from) in Dane County.

After an autopsy was conducted, it was determined that Debra had been dead for about 10 days but the exact cause of her death was unknown. Shortly after her body was found, local authorities discovered from some of her friends that she had been evicted from her apartment and as a result, she was staying in a room at the Cardinal Hotel in downtown Madison.

Debra had only lived in the area for a short stint and was originally from Ridgeway located in Iowa County. This is one of those stories where a young free-spirited woman who grows up in a small town feels that there is something bigger and better out there. They then move to a bigger city and tragedy befalls them. Bennett had fallen on hard times with being evicted and quitting her job only to apply for welfare.

A woman who had worked with Debra at one time stated that the victim was intro drugs and “a few other things.” She had also been arrested the month prior to her death by Madison police as a suspect in a burglary, but was not convicted of this crime. She was the type of girl who trusted everyone and was truly a good-hearted person. She just met the wrong person and paid for it with her life.

Cardinal Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin

Cardinal Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin

Her friend Karen also stated in The Capital Times newspaper from July 24, 1976, “Debra was really concerned about dying…she was scared to die.” Was there a reason for this fear? Most of us have the general fear of dying, that’s to be expected. But oftentimes, murder victims will almost foresee their own deaths, or somehow sense some extra fear but not sure why they feel this so strongly.

When the hotel manager of the Cardinal Hotel was asked about anything they might know, they said that Debra didn’t stay there at all. The day after she checked in no one ever saw her again. Perhaps this young woman met with foul play due to hitchhiking? This form of transportation was very popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and many individuals met with foul play because the “wrong person” picked them up. Debra’s father was terminally ill with cancer at this time and authorities questioned suicide because of her worry and depression she had expressed over her father’s failing health.

Now here’s the eerie part: about three weeks after her body was discovered, the key to her room at the Cardinal Hotel was mailed back to them! There was no note with it, nor a return address or any other marks that could be used for identification. Did the killer send it back? Was it returned by someone who found the key by accident? Sadly, days after Debra’s body was identified, her father passed away from his illness. Joint funeral services were held for both father and daughter. Such a tragic strand of events.

Debbie’s sister Sharon remembered her sister as having lots of friends, not keeping secrets, and was restless after she graduated high school. Sharon also stated that her sister was sort of a little girl who never really grew up. There is one detective who has never forgotten this case and continues to search for any clues as to what happened to young Debra Bennett. Dane County Sheriff’s Detective Bill Hendrickson remains open to any and all information and remains convinced that there are people still in the area who know more about the cold case murder than they are letting on.

19-year-old Julie Ann Hall worked as a library assistant in the archives section of UW-Madison. Weeks later, on June 21, 1978, her nude body was found in a shallow grave along Woodland Road about fourteen miles from the city of Madison. She had been dead for about three days and the cause of death appeared to be that of blunt force trauma to the head. She had last been seen by some friends at a local pub called the Main King Tap and everything appeared to be completely fine. Like the other victims, she had long brown hair parted in the middle, and just like the others, her murder was never solved. [Continued in Part 2…]

Devon Bell currently resides in Wisconsin with her husband Tony. Devon and Tony own a paranormal film company called The Haunting Experiments. She has published five books on the ghostlore of Wisconsin and her latest, Haunted Summerwind: A Ghostly History of a Wisconsin Mansion, will be released by The History Press in Spring 2016.

Sorry guys, this page is copyright, 2015. You do not have permission to copy this for any reason. Please learn how to cite your work.



  1. […] Continued from Part 1… On March 27, 1979, a local woman named Julie Speerschneider mysteriously vanished without a […]


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