Collecting evidence

Barron County crime scene investigators gather the bones of what later proved to be a victim of homicide on Dec. 3, 2017, just off 10th Street in the town of Maple Grove in a strip of woods near a farm field. Three years later, a mother and her son from Minnesota have been charged with homicide. DNA research led to the identity of the victim and eventually to the alleged participants in that crime. Photo by Mark Bell

Two arrests have been made in connection with the death of a Minnesota man whose remains were found in Barron County in 2017.

Scott County (Minnesota) Sheriff Luke Hennen announced Thursday, Nov. 19, that two arrests were made regarding the death of 63-year-old Gary Albert Herbst of Elko New Market, Minnesota, a small town south of the Twin Cities.

At approximately 7 a.m. Thursday, Scott County Sheriff Detectives arrested Connie Lou Herbst, 62, of New Prague, Minnesota, and Austin James Herbst, 26, of Elko New Market, Minnesota, without incident. Both were booked into Scott County Jail on suspicion of aiding and abetting second degree murder-not premeditated.

Charging documents do not allege which of the two defendants pulled the trigger on Gary Herbst, whose remains showed a gunshot wound to the head.

Mr. Herbst was reported as a missing person to the Elko New Market Police Department in 2014, one year after his disappearance. His remains were later found in Maple Grove Township south of Barron in late 2017. His remains were finally identified in June of 2020 with the help of the DNA Doe project.

Body discovered 3 years ago

The long process of identifying Gary Herbst and how he died started when a then-Town of Maple Grove resident’s dog went into a wooded area along 10th Avenue and returned with a skull Dec. 3, 2017.

The property owner reported that the dog had apparently recovered the skull somewhere in the area and brought it home and was chewing on it when they recovered it. They put the skull in a bag inside a box and called the sheriff. The property owner told the deputies that the dog generally did not leave the property, according to a criminal complaint filed in Scott County District Court, Minnesota.

Deputies located human remains east of the residence, about 66 feet from the center of 10th Avenue, near a field drive along the edge of the woods and adjacent to a field to the east. The remains appeared to be part of human ribs, backbone, legs and other bones, some clothing, and a full set of dentures. There was a depression in the soil and a mound of dirt to the north side of the bones. The remains were devoid of flesh and only skeletal. Also recovered were pieces of clothing, including a tag for Wrangler brand jeans size 33X32.

The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that the skull had a contact range gunshot wound. The trajectory was from the decedent’s left to right, front to back and downwards, causing death.

In January of 2018, the Barron County Sheriff’s Department sent the bones to the University of Texas Center for Human Identification.

In March of 2019, the bones were sent to DNA Solutions Inc., in Oklahoma City for DNA extraction and forensic genealogy using familial DNA. On February 24, 2020, Barron County detectives received notification for the DNA Doe project, a nonprofit organization, which uses genealogical research to identify “John and Jane Does,” that the skeletal remains were believed to have an ancestral link to the State of Wisconsin. On Feb. 27, 2020, Barron County detectives received information from the DNA Does Project that a possible match for the remains was Gary Albert Herbst, who was originally from Butternut, Wisconsin.

Connie Herbst did not report him missing until July 6, 2014, at the request of Gary Herbst’s brother, who had been trying to contact him because their mother died and the family needed to settle the estate. The defendants claimed he had disappeared July 6, 2013, ransacking the house in Elko New Market, taking $5,000 cash, a .45 Sig Sauer pistol and Connie Herbst’s wedding ring. They said he left in a gray vehicle with an unknown person.

Police re-interviewed both defendants June 16, 2020. Connie Herbst was questioned on how the couple’s 2003 Chevy Impala was sold and retitled in Wisconsin in 2017 with Gary Herbst’s signature, nearly 4 years after he went missing. She claimed he routinely pre-signed and dated vehicle titles.

Police also interviewed neighbors, who reported seeing the defendants through a window scrubbing and cleaning the basement floor. They also saw them carry what appeared to be a rolled up rug or carpet out of the basement between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. one night and load it into Gary Herbst’s pickup. The next morning the truck was gone.

Later, Gary Herbst’s clothes and tools were sold in a garage sale at the residence, neighbors said. A few months later the home was sold.

On June 29, police interviewed the current owners of the Herbsts’ former residence. They reported finding an unusual stain while remodeling the basement floor.

Officers had a cadaver dog search the house. The dog indicated the presence of human decomposition near the sliding glass door of the basement and in the garage. Further testing indicated the presence of blood in the drywall and studs next to the stain on the basement floor, in the sliding track of the basement screen door, on rubber mats and in the garage.

Police interviewed Gary Herbst’s employer, a machining business, who said he last worked Monday, July 8, 2013, and then was never seen or heard from again.

June 16, 2020, Austin Herbst was interviewed by police. He said he would not commit patricide, saying he knew the term from online gaming. He also said he knew the truth about what happened to his father, but refused to divulge it.

Austin Herbst was interviewed again July 28.

When asked about the .45 pistol, Austin Herbst allegedly said it was in “60 feet of water” of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. When asked if he threw it in from shore or the side of the boat, he said he needed to talk with his mother before answering further. He further stated he needed to speak with her to ask what would happen to his job and the dogs. Throughout the interview, Austin Herbst never denied involvement in his father’s homicide, according to the complaint.

An examination of both DEFENDANT 1 (Connie) and DEFENDANT 2’s (Austin) cell phones revealed that:

On June 24, 2020 at 10:33 a.m., DEFENDANT 1 texted DEFENDANT 2, “It was on Channel 9 News last night.” (On June 23, 2020, Barron County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release on the remains being identified and investigated as a homicide.)

On July 18, 2020, at 3:03 p.m., DEFENDANT 1 texted DEFENDANT 2, “You need to call me ASAP, actually right away.”

On July 18, 2020 at 3:37 p.m., DEFENDANT 1 texted DEFENDANT 2, “Might have a problem, they are searching [the former residence]. Don’t mean to f*** up your vacation just wanted u to know. It’s in the paper.” The investigation showed that on July 18, 2020, DEFENDANT 2 was on vacation with friends at the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Wisconsin. Interviews with DEFENDANT 2’s friends confirmed he took a phone call from his mother.

According to the criminal complaint, both defendants said Gary Herbst was verbally and physically abusive to them. Austin Herbst said the situation had become worse in 2013, and he intervened several times to protect his mother.

Both defendants face single counts of Aiding and Abetting Second Degree Intentional Murder - Not Premeditated, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 40 years imprisonment.

“These arrests in this cold case were the result of tremendous multi-agency teamwork, spanning across state lines,” said Sheriff Luke Hennen.

The Scott County Sheriff’s Office was assisted by the Barron County Sheriff’s Office, State of Wisconsin Department of Justice Division and Criminal Investigation, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, New Prague Police Department, and the Elko New Market Police Department.

Second John Doe case

In recent years, the DNA Doe Project has twice helped identify human remains found in Barron County.

In January of this year, decomposed human remains found near Ridgeland in fall 1982 were positively identified as Kraig King, a White Bear Lake, Minn., man who disappeared in spring 1982.

King’s death remains under investigation as a homicide.

On Sept. 21, 1982, loggers found a pile of clothes in the woods on private land about 100 yards from the tree line near Wisconsin Hwy. 25, about four miles north of Ridgeland.

Upon closer inspection, they discovered it was—in reality—badly decomposed human remains. It was reported at the time that the victim had three puncture wounds to the chest.

According to the White Bear Press newspaper: “The 1979 White Bear Lake High School grad suffered from mental illness, said his parents Judy and Paul King. They don’t know how or why their son was in western Wisconsin, but they knew he didn’t have a car and he was carrying a couple thousand dollars when he was last seen.

“Kraig was so well liked,” said his father Paul, a retired physical education teacher in the district. “He was a hockey and golf athlete and an excellent student. He was very personable. He must have talked to the wrong people.”

In 1982, authorities stated that they suspected that the victim was not killed at the scene.

The Barron County Sheriff’s Department is seeking the public’s help as the investigation of King’s homicide continues. Anyone with information on this case should contact the Barron County Sheriff’s Department at 715-537-3106.