Shereen Siewert/City Pages
“We do our jobs for the people. Yes, there is a lot of misery and grief. But in the end, someone has to speak for the victims.”
Each year in May, Wausau Police Detective Capt. Greg Hagenbucher gets a call from the father of the late Breanna Schneller, the 18-year-old girl found murdered in her apartment in 2009. Initially, police had few leads, few suspects. But a few days later, a signal from a stolen cell phone led police to identify the killer, who was later convicted of the crime.
“Breanna’s dad still calls me, every year, on May 2, the day she died,” Hagenbucher says. “You can never bring them back, but at least you can give these families justice.”
That case was one of many Hagenbucher worked on in his decades-long law enforcement career. And as Wausau’s lead detective, he’s the one who has investigated Wausau’s most serious crimes for more than 15 years.
After spending more than 30 years wearing a badge and carrying a gun, Hagenbucher retired, finishing his last shift this month. In those years on the force, he was never shot at, and never had to fire his gun in the line of duty. Though he was close, once.
Still, Hagenbucher has seen more than his share of grisly fatal crashes, terrifying assaults, tragic suicides and murders. He’s also seen an enormous transformation in the way police do their jobs and how new officers are trained.
Unlike many of today’s police officers, Hagenbucher didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop. A 1977 Mosinee High School graduate, he first attended Northcentral Technical College to prepare for a career in electronics. But some of his friends were police officers, and after listening to their stories and exploits, the would-be electrician changed his major to police science, graduating in 1982.
He began his career at the Wausau Police Department in 1984, first as a communications specialist, then as a sworn officer. His officer training consisted of a single night waking the downtown beat with Officer Craig Dunbar, and one night riding in a squad car with Officer Dennis Saager, both of whom have since retired.
On his third night, Hagenbucher was handed the squad car keys and sent out on the road alone.
“They just said, okay, now go do your job,” Hagenbucher says. “I can’t imagine training new officers that way now.”
Hagenbucher’s officer training consisted of a single night waking the downtown beat with an officer, and one night riding in a squad car. On his third night, Hagenbucher was sent out alone. “I can’t imagine training new officers that way now.”
Training has, indeed, changed significantly since Hagenbucher’s first days on the job. New hires now ride for months with senior officers before they’re ready to roll. And those new officers don’t always have degrees in police science. Today, officers hail from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have worked in sales or are former members of the military. Others have degrees ranging from psychology to public administration. Two current detectives are also lawyers.
“We can train the right people to be officers,” Hagenbucher says. “They just need to be good people who will work well in the department.”
It’s one of the most significant ways policing has changed in Hagenbucher’s era, but not the only one.
A changing profession
In the years since Hagenbucher was first sworn in as an officer, police work has become increasingly complex. Technological advances have had a significant impact, from DNA sequencing to the computerization of community policing. The Breanna Schneller case in particular stands out for Hagenbucher as an example of a crime that might never have been solved without today’s forensic technology.
In May 2009, the community was in shock after 18-year-old Schneller was found dead. The D.C. Everest High School senior’s violent murder mystified police. The entire community wondered: who would want to kill Schneller, who, by all accounts was a sweet, outgoing, popular young woman?
Investigators quickly zeroed in on a handful of suspects. They took a hard look at her fiancé, Jose Ramirez, then at Jose’s brother, both of whom shared the apartment with Schneller. They spoke with neighbors, friends, coworkers and family members. All roads were dead ends, at least at first.
Then police caught a huge break.
“It was a cell phone that solved that case,” Hagenbucher recalls. “Without being able to track that cell phone, we wouldn’t have found the evidence in the dumpster along with it, and we wouldn’t have had the surveillance video that identified our suspect.”
Hagenbucher says the suspect, Raul Ponce-Rocha, who worked with Schneller at a local restaurant, broke into her apartment, beat and stabbed her to death, then stole her underwear and cell phone. That phone, along with an iron handle used in the crime and a bloody glove, were all found in the dumpster only because police were able to track the cell phone using GPS technology. The discovery led to surveillance video that identified Ponce-Rocha as the prime suspect in the murder.
Ultimately, a jury of seven men and five women from LaCrosse County convicted then-22-year-old Ponce-Rocha of first-degree intentional homicide in the death. He is currently serving a life sentence.
A string of investigations
Wausau Police Capt. Greg Hagenbucher receives a lifetime achievement award in January 2017, the day he retired from the force after more than 30 years on the job.
The list of major cases Hagenbucher was involved in is long and noteworthy. His first big case as a detective was in 1994, when Carl Steppert walked into a group home and shot five people, killing 7-year-old Allison Wallace. Steppert died in 2008 while serving a life sentence plus 200 years for the crime.
The next was in December 1999, when three early morning joggers found the body of 37-year-old Rhonda Mertes on a piece of abandoned, rubble-strewn land, an area that is now part of Wausau’s riverfront development project. Her murder remained unsolved for nearly eight years before a suspect, James Emerson, was arrested and subsequently convicted in her death.
This, too, was a case where technology made all the difference in solving the crime, Hagenbucher says. At the scene, investigators had to decide whether or not to store the likely murder weapon, a 40-pound rock that was covered in blood. “Back then, we were wondering what we’d even do with it, but we collected it anyway,” Hagenbucher says.
Several years later, it was the DNA on that rock, identified in 2005, that helped police identify a suspect, and would lead to Emerson’s later conviction.
Hagenbucher was also on the team that investigated a 2008 murder-suicide committed by Ricky Weinfurter, the 2012 beating death of Kerby Kniess, the 2013 death and dismemberment of Tong Hang, the 2014 fatal shooting of KC Elliot and, most recently, the 2015 stabbing death of 13-year-old Isaiah Powell.
The 1999 sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl on Wausau’s west side, which remains unsolved, still haunts Hagenbucher, as do many of the suicides, overdoses and accidents he’s seen throughout his career.
Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel says every major case since 2002 has been significantly influenced by Hagenbucher’s presence and his knowledge.
“He has set the bar extremely high for his bureau,” Hardel says. “Many of the current detectives have been strongly influenced by Greg’s work ethic and expectations.”
Accolades and accomplishments
Looking back on his career, Hagenbucher has a string of notable accomplishments and accolades, many detailed in a four-inch-thick binder his mother has meticulously kept for years. It’s filled with news clippings, letters of commendation and other notes about his work.
Among those accomplishments: In 1996, he and fellow officers Jim Wadinski and Cord Buckner were members of the Summer Olympics Security Team in Atlanta. It was an experience Hagenbucher says he’ll never forget.
Then, in 1999, following a string of gang-related incidents that had the entire community on edge, Hagenbucher became co-director of a multi-jurisdictional federal drug and gang task force. He was a finalist in 2000 as the Wisconsin Attorney General Executive Officer of the Year. And in 2002, he graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, after attending a 12-week specialized training program. Just four Wisconsin officers are chosen for the Academy each year; Wausau’s newly promoted Deputy Chief Ben Bliven will attend in February.
But Hagenbucher sees his most significant accomplishment to date as his role in designing a unique partnership between the Wausau Police Department and the Department of Corrections (DOC). The partnership not only transformed how Wausau police and corrections officials do their jobs, but also inspired the creation of similar programs now in place throughout the state.
The program was modeled after similar partnerships in Boston and in New Haven, Conn. Here, it’s called the Proactive Gang Resistance, Enforcement, Suppression and Supervision (PROGRESS). The PROGRESS program pairs Wausau police officers with DOC probation agents who together conduct surprise, nighttime home visits on high-risk offenders who are under court-ordered supervision.
While bringing a police officer along on a probation check might seem an obvious strategy, such partnerships were nearly unheard of before the late 1990s.
Hagenbucher says now-retired Marathon County Corrections Supervisor Mike Williams was a key contributor to the project, which not only helped keep offenders accountable for their actions, but also strengthened the relationship between police and the DOC.
“When we started this thing, I didn’t know the difference between probation and parole, or really understand the job agents do,” Hagenbucher says. “They didn’t understand ours, either. In all those hours spent on the road together, we learned a lot about each other, and I think we all learned to do our jobs better along the way.”
The results were measurable. In its first two years, from 1999 to 2001, Wausau PROGRESS teams worked at least once a week, averaging about 30 visits per night and making about 4,000 home visits, Hagenbucher says. Of those contacts, the teams found roughly 200 offenders who were violating the rules of their supervision.
Then they began to see a sharp reduction in offenses. In the beginning, teams were reporting one violation out of every seven visits. After two years, violations were down nearly 43%, according to DOC figures.
“The idea is that if you hold people accountable for smaller things, the bigger things won’t happen,” Hagenbucher says. “And it worked.”
The program was just the second of its kind in Wisconsin (a similar, but not identical, program was also underway in Milwaukee), and it wasn’t long before the Department of Justice took notice of Wausau’s positive results. In fact, the program was so successful that the FBI asked Hagenbucher to write about the experience in their September 2003 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin magazine. After the piece published, interest in similar programs soared, and Hagenbucher was asked to help other agencies start their own partnerships. He did, and today, nearly a dozen agencies statewide have programs modeled after the one Hagenbucher helped create.
Locally, the program continues. Wausau teams are still out checking on high-risk offenders about once a week. “The program has evolved into an information-sharing partnership,” Hagenbucher says. That has substantially benefited both agencies and communicating daily about these released offenders helps create a safer community. “We are everywhere all the time, and what the agents know, the officers know,” Hagenbucher says.
“You have to have family”
Even after investigating thousands of assaults, overdoses, deaths, robberies and other crimes, Hagenbucher says the job has been worth the heartache.
“It’s not an easy job to do,” he says. “But we do our jobs for the people. Yes, there is a lot of misery and grief. But in the end, someone has to speak for the victims.”
Policing is a psychologically stressful work environment filled with danger, high demands, ambiguity, human misery and exposure to death. A 2012 National Institute of Justice study revealed what many officers already suspected: There are significant connections between the daily stressors of police work and obesity, sleeplessness, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Suicide rates for working officers are more than eight times higher than the general public. The work is anything but easy.
But through it all Hagenbucher has managed to keep a level head, coping in some surprising ways.
Greg Hagenbucher along with friends Tom Hagenbucher, Todd Mittelsteadt, Garrett Hagenbucher and Joe Nienow (left to right), roller skate down a portion of CTH NN in the town of Rib Mountain during a lengthy road trip in the late 1980s.
Early in his career it was roller-skating.
It started while he was an NTC student taking classes by day, and working nights spinning tunes at High Roller, the Schofield roller-skating rink torn down long ago to make way for a Kwik Trip. In his 12-year stint with the rink (part-time after he was hired as an officer), he learned to skate like a pro—so well, in fact, that he and four friends in 1981 skated the 56-miles from Wausau to Rhinelander by way of CTH X and Hwy. 17. They left Wausau at 7:30 am, arrived in Rhinelander around 3 pm, had a bite to eat, took a swim, then headed home (this time, by car).
In his early years working as an officer, Hagenbucher kept his night job working weekends at High Roller. There, long after the kids and couples left, he and a handful of friends and other cops would blow off steam with late-night games of roller hockey. In the summer months, the group met at Thom Field for games of broomball.
Later in life, he relied on family to keep him grounded. Hagenbucher’s stern, sometimes gruff demeanor changes when he talks about his family. The retired detective’s eyes light up and he smiles when recounting the many hours he spent—and still spends—shopping, scrapbooking and making jewelry with his now 31-year-old daughter.
“Family is what gets you through the hard stuff,” he says. “You have to have that.”
As for his own personal hero? Hagenbucher points to his father, who he says taught him both honesty and integrity.
“I always strived to be the best officer I could be so my family would always be proud of me,” he says.