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hunting a killer

Long-ago Bad Route rest stop murder still puzzles Dawson County law enforcement

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Stefonek car

A photograph in the investigative file shows the burned car belonging to Dexter Stefonek, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Stefonek was killed near Glendive in 1985.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Clyde Mitchell had an eerie feeling about the abandoned pickup at the Bad Route rest stop west of Glendive.

The 1980s model blue and white Chevy had a topper. There was enough bedding and clothes in the back to suggest someone was living in it. A state highway worker in charge of looking after Bad Route from time to time, Mitchell, circled the truck looking for signs of life, noting the truck’s Arizona license plate.

“I just got a bad feeling walking that close to it,” Mitchell recalled. “I didn’t know if someone was laying in there with a handgun watching me.”

Turns out Mitchell’s instincts were right. Nearly 32 years after Mitchell approached that vehicle at the Bad Route rest stop, a murder mystery linked to the vehicle remains unsolved. It’s a homicide that investigators say might have been solved quickly had the timing of events on that frigid November day in 1985, been slightly different.

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Stefonek investigation

Dawson County Sheriff Ross Canen is investigating a cold case, the Nov. 19, 1985, murder of Dexter Stefonek, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, near Glendive. 

As it is, the driver of the Arizona truck is believed to have driven off in the car of his murder victim when Mitchell pulled into the rest stop. The highway worker had stopped by to check in on a rest stop janitor. Mitchell then got back on the highway and headed to his next stop.

In the minutes that followed Mitchell’s departure, the killer returned to the rest stop driving the car of his victim, Dexter Stefonek. Investigators believe the killer then lit the car on fire and drove away in the truck, never to be seen again.

“Nov. 19, 1985, is when the fire was discovered,” said Ross Canen, Dawson County sheriff. “The body wasn’t discovered until 110 days later. They didn’t know if the guy got mad, hopped in with a trucker. He wasn’t around, obviously, but his car was on fire.”

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Stefonek drivers license

Dexter Stefonek, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin was killed near Glendive in 1985. His drivers license was found near the body.

The last time anyone reported seeing Dexter Stefonek alive, he was fueling up his brown Plymouth Horizon at a gas station in Park City, Montana. A retired paper mill worker, and recently widowed, the 67-year-old Stefonek, from Rhinelander, Wis., was on his way home from visiting his son in Oregon.

Stefonek had made it known that as he hurried home he intended to pull over at rest stops just long enough to nap.

There was no sign of the Plymouth, or foul play, when Mitchell arrived at the rest stop. Just the pickup, parked far enough away from the bathrooms to seem suspicious. Bad Route rest stop on U.S. Interstate 94 is a sprawling rest area with room for a dozen or more freight trucks and a few dozen cars. The manicured lawn rolls out like a park. It isn’t uncommon to find a weary traveler sleeping in a car.

When Mitchell spotted the blue and white Chevy pickup with Arizona plates, he thought he’d found a rest stop squatter. He noted the truck’s Arizona plates because it was freezing outside. Certainly someone from the sunny Southwest would be cold, Mitchell reasoned.

Mitchell asked the rest stop attendant, Frank Siegle, what was up with the truck. The attendant didn’t know, but said it had been there all morning, parked a good distance from the beige colored brick restroom building that anchored the Bad Route facility.

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Stefonek murder scene

Dexter Stefonek, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin was killed at a rest area at Bad Route Road near Glendive in 1985.

Mitchell drove on a few miles west to Terry, then turned east and headed for home. On his way back, there was a column of smoke rising on horizon where rest area was. Mitchell’s first thought was that Siegle, who smoked, had set the place on fire.

But when the highway worker arrived at Bad Route, the Arizona truck was gone and in its place was Stefonek’s Plymouth Horizon, engulfed in flames.

Mitchell tried to shovel some snow on the burning car, but gave up as the rear tires began to pop. He called the fire department, which was several miles away. There was no one inside the car. He checked the bathrooms for an owner, but no one was around.

Before the fire, Siegle had by chance spotted the Plymouth parked a couple spaces away from the truck, where a man, about 6 feet tall, was carrying two jugs of fuel. They looked like milk jugs.

“He’s clean. He’s a Caucasian, clean shaven with a parka. He’s about 30 feet away” from Siegle, Canen said. “Siegle asks ‘Do you need any help?’ The guy says ‘Oh no, I’m fine,’ not very chit-chatty. In essence Siegle talked to the guy, unbeknownst.”

The theory goes that the man in the Plymouth doused the inside of the car with gasoline, waited for Siegle to leave, and then lit the vehicle on fire and drove away in the other vehicle. An arson specialist confirmed that gas was used to destroy the car. The sheriff at the time, Jim George, noticed that the driver’s seat of the car was pushed all the way back, too far back for Stefonek, who was a much shorter than 6 feet tall.

The backseat of the car and the trunk burned the hottest, which Canen takes as a clue about where Stefonek was in the car when the killing took place.

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Stefonek case box

A box at the Dawson County Sheriff's office contains the cold file case of the November 19, 1985 murder of Dexter Stefonek, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin near Glendive. 

“I think he shot him in the backseat, my theory. Then he took Stefonek’s vehicle because his was out of gas and drove to Glendive and on the way, ‘uuuh, I got the river on my side.' He takes the Whoop Up exit. If he takes a right to the river, there’s a lot more houses here, but if you take a left off the interchange you go up on the flat and it’s all gravel and farming, not many vehicles there.”

From the gravel bench, you can see the landfill, 150 feet off the road, where Stefonek was found.

“So, you dump the body, you throw out his luggage. You try to hide him to buy you more time. You go into Glendive, you buy gas,” Canen said.

There was no sign of Stefonek until the following March, when a couple dumping trash at a farmer’s private landfill found the Wisconsin man partially hidden beneath a mattress. They found Stefonek’s wallet with cash still in it. The victim had four postcards in his wallet. He had been writing a Wisconsin woman as he drove across the country.

Investigators had a body, a burned car and the description of a white and blue Chevy truck with a white topper. They didn’t have much else, no weapon, no spent shells. This was 1986 and DNA evidence wasn’t an investigative tool in Montana. The state’s first murder conviction based on DNA evidence was still four years away when Larry Moore would be convicted of murdering former Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputy Brad Brisbin.

The description of the license plate on the truck was vague. Mitchell remembered the plate being from Arizona, but he wasn’t firm on the plate number.

Trying to get a license plate number, the sheriff at the time, Jim George, sent Mitchell and Siegle to Denver to meet with an FBI hypnotist. Mitchell identified the first numbers, 147.

“In the case file, someone had run through the DMV of Arizona all plates that started with 147 on pickups and that got 279 responses,” Canen said. “I whittled it down to 60.”

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Vehicle suspected in murder of Dexter Stefonek

Canen used the 13 digit Vehicle Identification Number of each truck to get a better match. The blue trim on the side of the truck, was Hawaiian blue, he learned from Chevy. He wrote law enforcement officers across Arizona, making sure the trucks were the right color scheme. He was also looking for criminal activity related with any of the vehicles. There was some, but the leads didn’t get back to the suspected pickup.

The cold case made “Unsolved Mysteries,” a TV show featuring Robert Stack that looked at cold cases across the nation. After the television episode, there were psychics calling with tips, but nothing worthwhile.

“If you’re going to kill over gas, you’ve killed before,” Canen said.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.