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20 years later, Jane Neumann's death remains a mystery, family suspects husband

Nov. 22 marks the 20th anniversary of Jane Neumann’s death in her Trout Brook Road home. Her husband, Jim, said it was a suicide. Her family believes she was murdered and suspect him of the crime.

The 30-year-old wife and mother of a 2-year-old son was found dead of a shotgun blast to her head in the lower level of their home by her husband just before 6 p.m. on Nov. 22. Jim Neumann, who now lives in Platteville with his wife, Heather (Hess), and their six children, first told police that he came home and found the door of his home forced open and his wife dead.

But St. Croix County Sheriff’s investigators questioned Jim Neumann’s intruder story from the start. Within days of his wife’s death, Neumann told police he had lied to them and that his wife had committed suicide. He said he told the lie to protect his wife and spare her family. He said he came home and found that Jane had placed the barrel of a shotgun through a hole she made in a wall and rigged the trigger with fishing line to kill herself.

Jim Neumann said he burned her suicide note, then got rid of the shotgun she used by wrapping it in a plastic bag weighed down with boxes of bolts, driving to the I-94 bridge, walking out onto it and throwing the gun into the St. Croix River. He then returned home and called 911.

Authorities accepted Neumann’s revised version of what happened and the Ramsey County medical examiner confirmed that Jane died of suicide.

But her mother, author and publisher Pat Johnston McDonald, never believed her daughter took her own life and suspected Jim Neumann was somehow involved. She said nothing in Jane’s behavior or demeanor on the day she died or in the weeks and months before her death would support that her daughter was depressed, let alone suicidal. On the day of her death, Jane called her mother to discuss dinner plans for Thanksgiving and stopped on her way home from work that day to exchange a purse at T.J. Maxx.

Enter Hudson attorney Mark Gherty. Jane Neumann’s parents hired him to sue their former son-in-law for the wrongful death of his wife. The June 1997 civil trial included testimony into the details of the couple’s marriage, his involvement with other women and bizarre stories Jim Neumann told associates in the days following Jane’s death that included his suspicions that the government was responsible for her death in an effort to silence him.

Investigators and the medical examiner held to their belief that the death was a suicide. But jurors didn’t agree and found that Jim Neumann was responsible for his wife’s death. In statements after the verdict, jurors pointed to the fact that no marks were found on Jane’s hand where she allegedly had wrapped the fishing line to pull the trigger, and her husband’s lack of credibility.

Jim Neumann appealed the verdict but it was upheld and close to a half million dollars was awarded to their son Jonathan to be held in trust until he was 18.

Shortly after the verdict, the cause of Jane’s death was changed from suicide to homicide and her family expected that James would be arrested and criminally charged. But that never happened.

St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson maintained at the time and does to this day that the circumstantial evidence in the case is not sufficient to bring criminal charges against Jim Neumann.

The investigation was referred by Johnson’s office to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for review and they agreed with the district attorney that there is not enough evidence to file criminal charges. 

Gherty disagrees and points to reviews that have been conducted by several groups of cold case specialists who say the case should be prosecuted.

In a Star-Observer story on the tenth anniversary of Jane’s death, Gherty said, “I firmly believed that when 12 people reached a unanimous finding that they would take action. And for the next year they kept assuring us they would prosecute, that something would be done, but here we are 10 years after Jane’s death and Jim Neumann has never been charged.”

The same is true 20 years later. The investigation into Jane Neumann’s death remains open.

Who killed Jane Neumann?

Hudson attorney Mark Gherty says he is as sure today as he was 20 years ago that Jim Neumann is responsible for the death of Jane Neumann in November 1993. But that isn’t enough. He wants a jury to decide.  One jury has already decided that Jim Neumann, Jane’s husband, was responsible for her death. Her parents had Gherty mount a civil action against their son-in-law for the wrongful death of their daughter. That jury unanimously agreed with them. Everyone thought the verdict would lead to criminal charges against Jim Neumann but that has never happened.

Gherty said that the evidence presented at the civil trial should have been enough to establish “probable cause” to bring a criminal case against Jim and he believes a jury would convict him based on that evidence, albeit circumstantial.

And he isn’t alone in his opinion. Gherty said in an interview with the Star-Observer this week that the case file including the investigation conducted by four separate investigators with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department and his own investigation has been reviewed by cold case specialists including a group of retired law enforcement professionals in Missouri who describe it as a “prosecutable case.” 

Gherty says some have called his continued interest in the case an obsession but he sees it differently. “I grew up with a father who was an FBI agent, a defense attorney, the district attorney and a judge. I have been a lawyer for 33 years. I have the upmost respect for the judicial system and I trust that it works. And in this case I did my job. A jury of 12 people decided this was a homicide, not suicide and that he (Neumann) was responsible…..I’m not confident it will ever be charged.”

Gherty said it is “crazy” to accept what Jim Neumann said he did on the day his wife was killed. “He said he threw the gun in the river but it was never found. After the civil trial his parents paid divers to scour the river bottom for it and they found everything but the gun. If there was a ring down there they would have found it…but nothing and that’s because it was never there.”

Gherty said there were also problems with how the crime scene and evidence in the case were handled. Much of it including Jim Neumann’s coat and his computer were returned to him in the weeks following Jane’s death. He says it is hard to know what evidence might be found 20 years later if those items were still being held. Jane’s clothes and other personal items are still part of the file.

The civil case brought out numerous inconsistencies with the suicide theory. Gherty has a mark on his office wall that is the same height as the hole the gun was placed through in the Neumann’s home. That hole would have been several inches above Jane Neumann’s head and the direction of the gunshot is inconsistent with her pulling the gun down to place in her mouth. 

One of Jane’s earrings, a French loop, was found behind a small table several feet from the body. At the civil trial, investigators speculated that the blast from the gun caused the earring to be dislodged and thrown off. But Gherty pointed out that the earring was on the side of Jane’s head opposite where the shot entered her head. The earring on that side was still there. And a diamond stud she always wore was never found.

Gherty said he isn’t sure of exactly who killed Jane. Phone calls from her husband’s office that afternoon appear to provide an alibi for him but it could be possible that the calls were computer generated. He also speculates that it may have been a murder for hire. Through his work, Jim Neumann did have contact with inmates at the Lino Lakes Correctional Center in Minnesota. Gherty believes he may have made a connection there. 

Gherty said he will continue to advocate to have criminal charges brought against Jim Neumann and he would like the D.A.’s office to refer the case to a special prosecutor. “If we can ask to have a special prosecutor assigned to a straight forward case like the Schaffhausen murders, I think this case warrants the same. At the very least the attorney general’s office should take another look.”

District Attorney Eric Johnson could not be reached for this story but he did comment on the case in a story that ran in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram last weekend. He said the decision not to prosecute the case was based on an objective analysis of the facts and evidence in the case and “not on emotion or public sentiment.” Johnson added, “I personally believe there is a lot more out there; that his (Neumann’s) version of the events is inaccurate. The problem with the case is developing evidence and facts that support a criminal case in which you can get a conviction.”

According to Jane’s mother, Pat Johnston McDonald, the family continues to hope that criminal charges will be brought against their former son-in-law. Gherty said that while he has not confirmed it, he believes Jane’s son Jonathan, now 22, is in the military.

Attorney Mark Gherty

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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