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DNA cracks Wis. case from 1976

By Todd Richmond
Associated Press

FOND DU LAC, Wis. — A DNA match has helped detectives arrest a man in the stabbing death of a 19-year-old woman more than three decades ago, apparently clearing a case that has haunted this central Wisconsin city for a generation.

Police arrested Thomas Niesen, 53, of Ashwaubenon, last week in the 1976 death of Kathleen Leichtman. Prosecutors said Monday they expect to formally charge him Tuesday morning.

Leichtman's death was the only unsolved homicide in Fond du Lac, and the case dogged detectives and the victim's relatives for years.

"This was their nightmare," Fond du Lac Police Chief Tony Barthuly said at a press conference Monday.

Barthuly's own uncle, Alexander Semenas, was district attorney when Leichtman was killed. "Last week was one of the happiest moments of my career," he said. "I'd be remiss if I didn't tell Kathleen's family I hope this resolution allows you to sleep comfortable at night."

Fond du Lac, a city of about 42,000 people, lies at the south end of Lake Winnebago about 70 miles from Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay, the state's three largest cities.

Leichtman, who was from Milwaukee, came to Fond du Lac on July 14, 1976, to work as a go-go dancer at a nightclub called The Other Place. A motorist discovered her body in the road across from a golf course about 2 a.m. the next day. Someone had slit her throat and stabbed her multiple times.

Police put together sketches of two men who left the nightclub with Leichtman, but no arrests were ever made.

Detectives sent DNA evidence from Leichtman's death to the state crime lab in 2001 but received no matches. The sample went into the national DNA database. There were no results for seven years.

"This is the one everybody looked at as the one that was going to get away," said Capt. Michael Frank, the Fond du Lac Police Department's detective supervisor.

Then, in October 2008, the lab matched the Leichtman sample to Niesen, who had to submit DNA after he was convicted of felony child abuse in Brown County earlier that year. Niesen gave his sample in August, Frank said.

The department assigned two detectives to work exclusively on the case. Frank estimated the agency has spent about 1,000 hours on the case since the DNA hit came back.

Detectives interviewed Niesen at his home Wednesday and took him into custody. He remains in the Fond du Lac County Jail, police said.

District Attorney Dan Kaminsky declined comment on the investigation before filing charges. He said only that investigators have a working theory about what happened to Leichtman and believe they have the right man.

Leichtman's family issued a two-sentence statement through police, asking the media to leave them alone and thanking detectives for their work.

They said they "would like to express their special appreciation and gratitude to everyone working on this case and to their dedication."

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