In 1976, the town of Franklin, Wisconsin was a small suburb of Milwaukee with a population of about 15,000. It was also the new home of the Zera family, who had decided to move away from urban Milwaukee to the more rural Franklin the year before. John and Janice Zera had three sons: Mark who was 15, Johnny who was 14, and Phil who was 13. The three boys struggled to get along at their new school in Franklin, as small rural schools like Franklin High tend to be very closed off to newcomers. However, the boys enjoyed playing together, particularly in the woods near their house, which was big enough to allow each boy to sleep in his own room.
On Friday, February 20th, 1976, shortly after lunch at Franklin High School, 14-year-old freshman Johnny Zera obtained a hall pass and walked out of his study hall class. Reports of what happened to him next are conflicting. Some have said he was last seen walking out of the school where a Ford Torino was waiting for him in the parking lot. Others said he just hung out in the school lobby and was never seen leaving the building. Still others reported that he was seen outside of his next period class, but that he never went in. The only thing that is known for sure is that Johnny never came home from school and he was never seen alive again.
That afternoon, when Johnny failed to come home with his older brother Mark, his parents realized that something was wrong, as Johnny wasn't the type to just run off, particularly not without letting anyone know where he was going. They called the police, who assured John and Janice that everything was fine, and that Johnny must just be out playing. That evening, John Sr. Mark went out searching for Johnny in the town of Franklin and the surrounding rural areas. Janice stayed home and called anyone she could think of to ask if they had seen Johnny. Neither the search nor the phone calls turned up any information. When night fell and John Sr. and Mark gave up their search for the day, snow began to fall, and by the following morning, snow covered everything, surely to include clues as to what happened to Johnny.
The next day, John Sr. and Mark met the Franklin High principal at the school to see if they could find out any more information about what happened to Johnny. When they went to Johnny's locker, they found it stuffed with books. They also found his green coat. Because it was February in Wisconsin, they found this discovery to be alarming, so the police were called.
Emergency services and volunteers were called in to conduct a search of the area, while police interviewed people who may have last seen Johnny. The police also had a strong suspicion that Mark was hiding something and questioned him multiple times. However, they came to realize that Mark knew nothing about what happened to his brother.
Johnny’s body was found eight days later, on the morning of Saturday February 28th, 1976, Johnny’s dead body was found in a clearing at Whitnall Park by some teenagers who were out doing some exploring. He was found facedown and naked, with his head resting on a log. When police examined the scene, they found no clear evidence of a struggle or of Johnny’s body being dragged. Twenty feet away from the body, police found Johnny’s clothes: a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt, a pair of boxers, two brown shoes, with blue socks tucked neatly inside. They also found a pencil, a pen, and the hall pass Johnny had been given. On his wrist, the word “hell” had been written in block letters with a ball point pen. There was a rock found nearby with blood and hair on it, and police believed that this was the murder weapon that Johnny was bludgeoned to death with.
Now Whitnall Park was a pretty large area situated both in Franklin and the neighboring town of Hales Corner. The nearest entrance to the park was five miles away from Franklin High School and eight miles away from Johnny’s home. The questions the police were now tasked with answering was this: why did Johnny leave his school in the middle of the day? How did he get all the way to Whitnall Park? And, of course, who killed Johnny?
After Johnny’s body was found, jurisdiction in the case got a little hairy. Johnny’s missing persons report was made in Franklin where he lived, but because the murder had apparently been committed in Hales Corners, primary jurisdiction was granted to the Hales Corners Police Department, which happened to be the smallest police force of any Milwaukee suburb with just thirteen officers. In the twenty years prior to Johnny’s murder, the Hales Corners police had dealt with just one murdered, that of a man who called the police himself to report that he had killed his wife. This was going to be the first true murder investigation that anyone from Hales Corners had ever worked. They quickly realized that they were out of their depth, so they called in the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Milwaukee FBI. Hales Corners police interviewed over 1000 potential witnesses and dozens of suspects, however they were limited by the technology available as well as their inadequate training for such an investigation.
Because Johnny’s body was found completely naked even down to his socks, it was suspected that there was a sexual element to the murder. Semen was found on the body, and the medical examiner concluded that Johnny had likely been sodomized on multiple occasions in the weeks or months leading up to his death, but that his anus showed no signs of recent injury. His time of death was also determined to be around 1 or 2 pm, which would have been pretty shortly after he left the school. Now, I will say that the medical examiner was a goofy goober with a history of muddling things up, and this case is no different, so we do have to take the information from the autopsy with a grain of salt. However, we press on.
An FBI profiler was called in to advise on the case. While profilers are portrayed as superhuman investigators in Criminal Minds, the science of criminal profiling was in its infancy in 1976. Here is what the profile said, verbatim: “Battering of head is a sadistic male homosexual act. Bi-sexual, likes women and men. Very Sadistic, Psychopathic behavior when it comes to sex. Peculiar sexual demands of females. Wife or girlfriend has left him because of his desire for anal intercourse. Women he likes, slight build, boyish figure. Dominant father. Docile, quiet, protective mother. Strong religious background, does not practice it now, expect him to seek help. Average intelligence or below average. Not known to be a homosexual by anyone other than another homosexual, wife may have inkling. Probably has known boy for a few months. Probably has had relations with boy before. 18-50 years old, probably 18-35. Reason he killed boy was because anal sex is very sadistic. Probably killed boy during act because of frenzy. 60-70% of buggery committed by family members. Outgoing, makes a lot of noise, braggart, masculine appearance, indicates he is town stud. Heavy drinker, may have been arrested for some assault act.”
Based upon this very politically incorrect profile, the police began to identify suspects, often by just asking people who they knew who was gay. However, unlike some of the cases we’ve discussed previously, investigators were actually able to come up with some pretty good suspects, all of them just stand-up guys, pillars of the community, the kind of men you’d kill to share a beer with.
The first suspect I want to talk about is the first one the police identified. Now, I would love to tell you his name, but unfortunately, his name has never been released. However, I don’t want to call him the unnamed construction worker, so let’s just call him Teddy, since that’s the name of David Wallace’s son and I was watching The Office while doing research for this case.
In 1976, Franklin High School was having a new addition built onto the school, meaning that there were construction workers all over the police. There were two construction workers in particular who caught the attention of the police. According to FHS students, these men would try to sit with the kids at lunch, and were suspected by police of selling marijuana to the students. There was also a rumor that one of the construction workers—Teddy—was bisexual, which of course made him skyrocket to the top of the police’s suspect list.
Teddy was called in for questioning with the police, and according to the police report I read regarding this interview, Teddy seemed to be under the influence of some sort of drug. He told the police some bizarre things, such as the fact that he was concerned that his girlfriend and her mother were telepathic and could control him with their minds. He also stated that he could control animals with his mind. When he choked on his Winston cigarette, Teddy said that someone was trying to control his behavior through the cigarette.
Teddy gave the police a pretty good alibi, saying that he was not at the school on the day Johnny went missing because was working on a flooded roof at a factory elsewhere. He said he knew the date was correct because the night before he had attended an orgy at the home of a male stripper. The only problem is that Teddy did, in fact, get his dates wrong. Records showed that he had worked on the flooded roof on February 19th, the day before Johnny went missing. Even more damning, it was shown that Teddy didn’t even go to work on that Friday.
At one point during the interview, the detective conducting it handed Teddy a picture of Johnny, I guess to gauge his emotional response. Teddy held the picture in both hands, made strange faces at it, and said, “He was a beautiful boy. He was one of God’s children.”
Teddy maintained that he had never met Johnny before in his life, and agreed to take a polygraph test. Back in the 70s, polygraphs were considered miracle machines that could never be wrong, and the evidence gained from them was still admissible in court. When Teddy took the polygraph test, it showed that he was being completely truthful when he stated that he had nothing to do with Johnny’s death.
Later, after the interview, Ted was able to prove to police that the reason he hadn’t been at work on February 20th was because he had been to the doctor for a 3:00 turn-your-head-and-cough. Police did confirm this with the doctor’s office, but his whereabouts earlier in the day are still unknown. Johnny’s time of death was estimated to have been 1 or 2 pm, so it’s conceivable that Teddy could have killed Johnny in time to make it to his hernia check, but it’s probably a bit unlikely.
Teddy remained a suspect for two years, but was never charged with the crime.
Our next suspect is a real wacky-jacky, a bit of a screwball, and maybe a cold-blooded killer. This man’s name is Dan Acker. In the 1970s, Acker was an aide at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, as well as a swimming coach and a lifeguard. Oh, and I should mention that he was also a pedophile. Dan Acker loved—I mean, loved—naked teenage boys, particularly those between the ages of about 13 and 16. He also rocked the old business-up-front-party-in-the-back which made him look extra trustworthy.
After Johnny went missing, Acker was the only person to lead searches through Whitnall Park, where Johnny’s body would eventually be found. He later explained that the reason he was so invested in the search and subsequent investigation was because he felt guilty for not being in the park to stop the murder, as he usually rode his bike through Whitnall Park, but on that day he went to sleep after an overnight shift.
Police first noticed Acker the day after Johnny’s body had been found. An officer patrolling the crime scene saw Acker making his way through the trees toward the clearing where Johnny’s body had been found. When confronted by the officer about what he was doing there, Acker stated that he was looking for the place where the body was found. And then he looked down on the ground, saw some drops of Johnny’s blood, and said, “Apparently this is it.” That is…chilling.
Acker became a serious suspect later, after the police receive a tip regarding Acker’s attraction to teenage boys. Apparently, Acker had been asked to move out of an apartment after an inappropriate amount of teenage boys were seen coming into and leaving his apartment. There were also some credible allegations that Acker would convince the boys coming into to let him take nude photos of them. However, Acker was only briefly considered a suspect in the 70s because he passed a polygraph, even though his alibi of being asleep when the murder happened was really shaky.
Over the years, Acker developed an unusual interest in the case. Upon deciding that the official police investigation wasn’t doing enough to solve the case, Acker announced that he was going to conduct his own investigation. He informed the police that he had learned that three men forced a man with a developmental disability named Joe to be involved in the assault and murder. While police did look into this theory, they found that it was nonsense, since the man couldn’t even pick Johnny out of a photo lineup. Acker even became family friends with the Zeras, telling them that he knew for a fact that this man with an developmental disability had been involved in Johnny’s murder. Police weren’t sure what to think of Acker, but mostly they just thought he was a walking eccentricity.
In 2009, Dan Acker was arrested and pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree sexual assault. In fact, not only was Acker happy to speak with detectives for hours, but he willingly admitted to sexual encounters with at least twenty underage boys over the years. However, he consistently denied killing Johnny Zera or even knowing the boy. After a long interview with detectives, Acker let them search his condo in Waukesha.
Now, I need to pause here for a correction and apology to all our loyal listeners from Waukesha, Wisconsin. In our episode about Little Lord Fauntleroy, I unknowingly mispronounced the town’s name, saying it as Wah-kee-shuh instead of Wah-keh-shaw. So my sincerest and utmost apologies to all of our listeners for the horrendous offense I perpetrated on all of you. Now back to the mystery.
At first, they didn’t really find anything noteworthy or unusual in Acker’s apartment. When they went into the basement, they found models of classic cars, ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks. They also found a miniature police station and fire station made of balsa wood. While this stuff may have been fairly unusual for a grown man, none of it was particularly incriminating. That is, until they lifted the roofs from the model stations.
Inside the models, they found pictures of children, each one illuminated by an LED light. But they weren’t just any children—they were missing and murdered children, some of them noteworthy, such as Etan Patz (Ay-tawn Paytz), Jacob Wetterling, and Konerak Sinthasomphone, who was the youngest victim of the hometown serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. One officer picked up a Matchbox car and found two names printed on the bottom. One was Carl Galbraith, who was a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin whose 1977 murder was never solved. The other name was John Zera. When Acker was asked about this, he stated that he wanted to dedicate his hobby to honoring kids—specifically boys—who no longer got to have hobbies.
And more harrowing than that, police also found a combined photo album and 173 page journal that was completely dedicated to the Johnny Zera case, beginning a few months Johnny went missing and continuing for decades. There were maps and pictures of Whitnall Park and Franklin High, as well as pictures of the Zera family. Some of these pictures of the family were staged and therefore taken by family members, while other photos looked like they had been taken in secret, like surveillance was being conducted. Some of the pictures of Mark and Phil Zera looked like they were taken years after Johnny was killed.
Now, this journal seems to be more of a historical record than an actual journal. So, for example, the entry with the heading February 20, 1976—the day Johnny disappeared—is about what happened that day, but wasn’t necessarily written on that day. I want to read a little excerpt from the preface Acker wrote to the journal, just so we can all get a feel for Dan Acker’s bizarre thought processes:
“For John Christopher Zera. 1962-1976. Aug ’62-Feb 20th ’76. The following is an account of a tragedy that passed so close to me, yet I was kept so far away. Despite this, I became involved because I took the time to care and because this crime was so appaling [sic]. My efforts are for a young youth now gone so early in his life and for his family who now lives on after such a wasteful and terrible loss. Fate played a strange hand in this event and kept me away. I do not understand why and I feel poorly I did not follow my plans as I had set for the day. Maybe I could have done something to have prevented or interfered with this crime. Even if I failed to do so, at least the young man whould have had someone else with him to try and stop this cruel crime. Not looking to be a hero, nor seeking any recognition, I just want this evil person off the streets and unable to assault or kill again. To this end, I dedicate my efforts for John Christopher Zera and his family.”
I read a lot of Acker’s journal, and it’s weird. It’s more than just a well-intentioned trying to help solve a crime. Acker is completely obsessed with this case, and contrary to what he claims, fancies himself some sort of Messiah for the Zera family, believing that he alone can solve the case. It’s a pretty unsettling thing to read, even if Acker didn’t commit the crime. Assuming that Acker wasn’t the killer, I still think he got some sort of weird sexual gratification out of completely investing himself in the case.
Acker is serving a twenty year sentence the state prison in Osh Kosh for the sexual assault charges. He has never admitted to killing John, even though he pretty much has nothing to lose since he was already 62 when he was sentenced for twenty years. No murder charges have ever been brought against him either, as botched handling of the DNA evidence in the case couldn’t link him to the crime scene and the only evidence against him was so circumstantial that it was described as a “defense attorney’s dream.”
Our next suspect is a man named Michael Uporsky. He was a full-time substitute teacher, hall monitor and girls’ basketball coach at Franklin High in 1976 when Johnny was murdered. Police questioned all the teachers at the high school, and Uporsky told the police he was most likely on his lunch break reading a newspaper when Johnny left his study hall period. Uporsky said that he didn’t remember seeing Johnny at all that day, and that his only interaction with Johnny had come about a week earlier. Johnny had attended a swimming class taught by Uporsky, and Johnny only stuck out in Uporsky’s memory because Johnny had been reluctant to get in the water for some reason. Uporsky was actually more familiar with Johnny’s older brother Mark, because Mark was involved in school sports.
Uporsky became a suspect in December of 1978, when the Franklin police received an anonymous tip about that point. By that point, he was a scout for the NBA basketball team, the Seattle SuperSonics, and while on a scouting trip to Milwaukee, Uporsky allegedly invited a young man to his hotel room, presumably for sex. The caller said she didn’t know what happened after that, but she told police that they should investigate Uporsky in connection to Johnny’s death.
When the police looked into Uporsky’s background, they found that he had a record for some bizarre behavior. When Uporsky was twelve, he lured a six-year-old boy into his house, promising the boy there was a puppy inside that he could play with. When the boy came inside, Uporsky took off the boy’s shoes and socks and began to play with the boy’s feet. Two years later, Uporsky’s tackled a twelve-year-old boy, took off the boys shoes and socks, and twisted the boy’s toes. As a result of these attacks, Uporsky was sent to youth court and required to receive mental health treatment. However, less than a year later, police received a report that Uporsky had played with a nine-year-old boy’s bare feet. It happened again when Uporsky was 22, this time the feet of an 18-year-old hitchhiker, and then the feet of a 12-year-old delivery boy, and then the feet of a 14-year-old boy. After three arrests as an adult, Uporsky was required to receive mental health treatment again.
Now, if you’ll remember, Johnny’s feet were bare when he was found, which could have indicated that the killer was attracted to boys’ feet. I think the theory was that the socks might have been an afterthought to anyone who didn’t have a particular interest in Johnny’s feet. If this theory was to be accepted, it made Uporsky look pretty guilty.
Uporsky always denied any involvement in the murder of Johnny Zera. He explained that his prior arrests had not been sexual or violent in nature, unlike the sexual assault and murder of Johnny Zera. He wrote to the Franklin police, admitting his prior mistakes and stating that he is now a “rational heterosexual man.”
In January 1979, Uporsky flew to Wisconsin to take a polygraph test. The first one was inconclusive, while the second one indicated that he was lying when he said that he was not involved in the Johnny Zera murder. However, there was not enough evidence to detain him, so they let him go back to Washington.
Over the years, the police’s strong belief that Uporsky murdered Johnny weakened, particularly after the 2009 arrest of Dan Acker. However, the thing with the boy feet and the failed polygraph test still make him an interesting suspect.
Our next suspect is not a nice fellow. His name is James Lee Crummel, and in August of 1967 Crummel attacked a 14-year-old boy from Mequon, which is just on the other side of Milwaukee from Franklin. Crummel, who was a Laundry truck driver, sexually assaulted the boy, strangled him until he passed out, and then beat him with a tree limb. Shockingly, the boy survived.
Crummel was arrested and convicted for this crime. While he was expected to serve at least 30 years for the assault, for some unfathomable reason, Crummel was released on parole after five, meaning that he was a free man when Johnny was killed.
There were strong similarities between this attack and the murder of Johnny Zera, such as the age and sex of the victim, the sexual assault, and the brutality with which it occurred. Crummel also caught police attention because he had a tattoo of a devil on his right wrist with the words “born to raise hell.” If you’ll remember, Johnny had the word “hell” written on his right wrist.
Because of the similarities between the two cases, police decided they wanted to talk to Crummel. However, when they went to find him, he was gone, which was a direct violation of the terms of his parole. When he was found in August of 1976, Crummel was confined to the state hospital for the criminally insane. Crummel was questioned by the FBI, and he stated that he had been in California on the day that Johnny disappeared, although he refused to take a polygraph test.
After Crummel was released again, he would be charged with violent assaults in four different states, including two that ended with the deaths of children. He was convicted of both homicides, and was also charged with the molestation of three teenagers in California, and questioned in connection with a murdered boy and another missing boy. So, QED, not a nice fellow.
In 2012, while he was on death row for one of the two homicides he was convicted for, Crummel hanged himself. Near as I can tell, he was never further questioned regarding the Johnny Zera case, and DNA never linked him to the crime.
Our final suspect is a bit of a dark horse, but I think he’s a pretty interesting suspect. He’s checking it at 5 feet 8 inches and a hefty 230 pounds from Des Plaines, Illinois, ladies and gentlemen, get on your feet for Mr. John Wayne Gacy! For those of you who don’t know, John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer who raped and murdered at least 33 boys and young men during the 70s.
Gacy was arrested in 1978, meaning that he was actively killing boys just like John Zera in 1976. While he killed boys from his hometown in suburban Chicago and buried them in his crawlspace, he was known to spend time working on construction jobs in southeastern Wisconsin. If you’ll remember, there was construction work being done on Franklin High School when Johnny was killed, although Gacy has never been linked to the work being done on Franklin High.
While I think it would be fascinating if Johnny were a long lost victim of John Wayne Gacy, this is pretty unlikely. For one thing, he killed all but one of his victims by strangling, and the other one was stabbed to death. Johnny, meanwhile, had been bludgeoned to death. Also, all of Gacy’s known victims were either buried on his property or in the Des Plaines River, so it seems unlikely that he would kill Johnny and dump him in plain sight. Although, I don’t know, I’ve never been a serial killer on vacation, but I guess maybe there comes a time when you really just need to kill a boy, even if you can’t do it exactly the way you normally prefer to. I guess it’s kind of like when I didn’t have a car for awhile and I really wanted Chipotle, but only Qdoba was within walking distance. You take what you can get, whether that’s a fat meaty burrito or a fat meaty boy.
So, Willy, who did it?
I think that, of the five suspects we discussed, the most likely is Dan Acker. I think we can easily cross John Wayne Gacy off the list, and I think that Teddy the construction worker was just an innocent gay man who happened to be under the influence when he was interviewed by the police. I also don’t think it was Uporsky. There was no physical evidence against him, and his arrests were never for violent or sexual attacks; he just liked to suck on boy toes. While that may be a little unusual, creepy, and disgusting, it certainly doesn’t mean he is a killer.
For me, that just leaves Acker and Crummel. The piece of evidence that leads me to choose Acker was the note the medical examiner made that it appeared as if Johnny had been sodomized multiple times in the weeks leading up to the murder. Now I’ll admit that the autopsy done on Johnny’s body was somewhat suspect, but if that fact can be believed, it makes me think that perhaps Johnny was a victim of grooming by a pedophile, who manipulated Johnny into a sexual relationship. This sounds like Acker to me, because he seemed to be interested in developing relationship with boys, whereas Crummel seemed more interested in killing them. The circumstances of Johnny leaving school early makes it seem more like he was meeting up with someone—perhaps for some illicit sexual tryst and eventual murder—rather than being a victim of an opportunistic killer. The use of a rock as a murder weapon suggests to me that the murder was not premeditated, but that it was something that just happened for one reason or another. And finally, the fact that the murder weapon and the body were left at the scene might suggest that the unexpected murder caused the killer to panic and flee the scene frantically.
The biggest question I have is, Why would Acker kill Johnny? After all, he doesn’t seem like a cold-blooded killer, and if you read the journal about Johnny, it seems like Acker really loved Johnny—as weird as it is to say about a grown man and a 14-year-old boy. Maybe Johnny said he was going to spill the beans about Acker’s exploitation of him, and Acker acted impulsively by bashing him over the head with a rock. But for whatever reason, I think Acker purposely inserted himself into the aftermath of the murder—either because of his immense guilt, or because he wanted to get off on his crime again and again. Either way, I think the journal and the shrine to dead kids casts a hell of a lot of suspicion on Dan Acker.
The Hales Corners and Franklin police departments are still investigating this case, but the medical examiner pretty much lost all of the DNA evidence from Johnny’s body, making it all but impossible that the police would be able to make a DNA link to any of the suspects. It really sucks because semen is great for DNA evidence, but the medical examiner’s negligence ruined that. I find it ironic that she lost super important semen evidence, but she was also caught keeping human testicles from past autopsies in a jar in her office.