UWO professor helps close Starkie Swenson cold case

After news of the discovery of human remains by two hikers at High Cliff State Park on September 29, UW Oshkosh Associate Professor of Anthropology Jordan Karsten was able to identify the remains of Starkie Swenson, a man believed to be murdered August 13. 1983, which UWO anthropology students were looking for during the spring 2021 interim.

“It’s miraculous,” Karsten said. “Cold cases are hard to solve. When someone’s been missing for decades, the chance that you’ll find and identify them isn’t impossible, but it’s not great either. It is an unlikely event. »

Shortly after the remains were discovered at High Cliff State Park by hikers, the upper portion of the park was closed to the public. Karsten received a message from a DNR officer who asked him to examine a bone to determine if it was human or not. After discovering that it was a human, he was further asked to help in the search for other bones in the area.

Jordan Karsten, a UWO student and associate professor of anthropology, works at a site in the town of Rushford near Omro, Wisconsin, looking for Starkie Swenson.

Karsten identified the remains as those of an older man. Clothing and personal items found that belonged to Swenson include keys on a key chain, wedding ring, pants matching the description and more.

DNA identification tests confirmed that the remains found belonged to Swenson. Calumet County Sheriff Mark Wiegert announced DNA confirmations Dec. 22 after Swenson’s family announced in November that they believed the remains were his.

Karsten met some of Swenson’s family, including Swenson’s grandson Eric Tillman, who helped with the effort, as he and his students dug in the town of Rushford, just outside ‘Omro, in the three-week interval in May and June 2021.

“The fact that we’ve been able to bring some sort of closure to the family that’s been waiting for decades is really great,” Karsten said. “I was happy to be able to play my small role there.”

Karsten says the whole search was a team effort. The excavations at Omro, although no remains were found, were not a waste of time. It was the best information they had at the time, and when faced with these types of cases, you do what you have to do with your due diligence.

Photo by Starkie Swenson
Starkie Swenson

“We went out and completely dug this place,” Karsten said. “We were able to verify it on a list. We were lucky to find [Swenson] shortly after. Although [the students] made a lot of effort and we did not succeed in Omro, all these efforts have certainly been significant. It was hard work and they all kicked.

Swenson’s lover’s ex-husband John Andrews pleaded guilty to “negligent operation of a motor vehicle” in 1994, prosecutors say. Swenson and Andrews were in a love triangle with Claire Andrews, and it was believed that John Andrews ran over Swenson while riding his bike near Shattuck Middle School in Neenah, and killed him.

The case continued without a body being found, which is extremely rare. Andrews ended up accepting a plea deal, called an Alford plea, which allowed him to reduce his sentence to 24 months.

Karsten said he would like to plan another excavation with the students for a future semester or interim.

“I have a few things I’m looking into,” Karsten said. “There are a few cold cases in the area where someone went missing and was never found. I’d be interested to see if there’s anything I can do to try and help with these cold cases, but we’ll see.

“There will be more specific updates to come [on the podcast]”, Karsten said. “We will, when appropriate, provide an update and talk in detail about what happened. We just can’t do it yet.
The case remains a mystery in many ways. Karsten, along with the UWO, Swenson’s family and support communities are waiting for more details to be revealed.
“DNR, police, family, students…all of these people got involved in an effort to try and see this,” Karsten said. “Fortunately, we did. Frankly, it’s amazing.”

About Mark A. Tomlin

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