Student death remains mystery after 56 years

Bethanie Gengler, News Reporter

This series includes interviews with the late Stephen Kappell’s best friend, sisters and the Oshkosh Police Department. The case files and evidence were unable to be located or were destroyed by authorities. Numerous news articles as well as autopsy and crime lab reports were examined to gather information.

On an afternoon more than 56 years ago, the body of an 18-year-old Oshkosh college freshman was found floating in Lake Winnebago at Menominee Park.

The man was found nude and beaten, with his hands and knees bound, with a 30-pound rock attached to his feet. A coroner’s inquest could not determine whether the man had died by suicide or homicide.

Over half a century later, the victim’s family still hasn’t received closure or answers to who or what caused the violent death of Stephen Kappell.

Who was Stephen Kappell?

Stephen Kappell was a freshman in September 1965 at what was then called the Wisconsin State University at Oshkosh where he played backup center for the Titan football team.

His sister, Mary Jo Suppala, said he was smart, caring and a lot of fun.

“He taught me things like how to swim; we both were lifeguards when we were teenagers,” Suppala said. “He taught me how to fish because we had a cottage on a lake in Wisconsin, so we spent a lot of time doing that, and he was really just a kind, nice person. Somebody that you’d want for a friend.”

Stephen was born on Jan. 17, 1947, the first-born child of Clifford and Eunice Kappell of Kaukauna. The 6-foot-2 inch, 210-pound freshman loved the water and was an avid fisherman and hunter who enjoyed spending time with his family.

Stephen’s youngest sister, Martha Kemp, remembers him as a playful brother who liked to use her hair to tie flies for fly fishing. She said he was laid back, intelligent and kind. He was involved in volleyball, wrestling, football, baseball, track, forensics and creative writing at Kaukauna High School.

Stephen’s best friend, Timothy St. Aubin, was also a freshman at WSU-O. He described Stephen as an all-around good guy.
“He was thoughtful; he’d listen to you, he was concerned,” St. Aubin said.

Kemp said her childhood memories were happy ones.

“Our family was so much fun,” she said. “We always had meals together, we went sledding. We went ice skating.”
Stephen had a high school sweetheart named Margery Mayo. Stephen’s relationship with Mayo ended in April 1965 and Stephen, apparently distraught from the breakup, was arrested in Milwaukee after stealing a car and several items of merchandise, according to the Daily Northwestern.

Stephen’s father, Clifford, said the incident was a cry for help. Clifford said Stephen was “low” over the breakup, but soon after, Stephen was back to his old self.

“It was one of the most enjoyable summers we ever had with Steve,” the Northwestern reported Clifford saying.
In September, Stephen’s life was back on track and he was enrolled at WSU-O where he aspired to be a high school teacher. He “loved every minute” of college and had only been at school for two weeks when he disappeared on Sept. 30, 1965.

What befell Stephen Kappell?

Before school began, Stephen attended a school dance at WSU-O during the enrollment period and was introduced to Jill Falk. Falk was also beginning fall classes and the pair started dating, according to the Appleton Post-Crescent.

The Daily Northwestern reported Stephen and Falk met nearly every day and walked to class together. The two often ate dinner together and had spent time off campus at the movies.

Falk said Stephen was moody and had expressed disappointment in not making the football team as well as concern over the possibility of flunking his classes.

However, the possibility of Stephen not making the football team was surprising to St. Aubin.

“He was one of the largest and strongest on the team,” he said. “He had to have made the team at [WSU-O].”
During Stephen’s senior year at Kaukauna High School he received honorable mention as all- Mid-East Conference tackle.

“On the Titan frosh squad he made no immediate impression,” the Northwestern reported. “He was just another one of the many young men who must strive to prove themselves in the tougher competition of college playing.”

Faculty at Kaukauna High School said Stephen was a B student who never got into trouble.

“It’s hard to get Steve angry,” one Kaukauna High School faculty member told the Post-Crescent. “He was well behaved and spent a good period of time reading.”

Two days before Stephen’s disappearance, Falk brought him home to meet her family and he told her that he had a good time, the Northwestern reported.

An incident that occurred the day before Stephen’s disappearance was described differently by various news sources. The Northwestern reported Stephen and Falk had disagreed on what route to take to class and Stephen tugged Falk, causing her to trip on some stairs. The Post-Crescent reported Stephen “forced her to walk to class by pulling her down a flight of steps in Reeve Memorial Union.”

Later that day, Falk wrote Stephen a note scolding him for being pushy, according to the Northwestern.
St. Aubin said he was talking with Falk in the student union when she gave Stephen the note and Stephen immediately left the student union, without saying anything.

Falk told him, “Something’s bothering Steve and he won’t tell me.” St. Aubin followed Stephen out of the union, but Stephen refused to talk to him.

“What happened with Jill, that was a misunderstanding,” St. Aubin said. “He wasn’t a mean person or an angry person. He was a serious, solid guy. Kind and serious. He treated everybody kindly.”

The Northwestern reported: The day of his disappearance, Stephen called Falk and apologized for tugging her. He also met her at her dorm room and gave her four letters and a book of Freud saying that maybe the book would help her understand his behavior.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality argues that interactions between three parts of the mind — the id, ego and superego — are what cause human behavior.

Stephen’s roommate last saw him about 5:30 p.m. Sept. 28. He said he got along well with Stephen, but said Stephen seemed depressed that day. Another WSU-O student verified Stephen seemed to be in a low mood.

Falk later met Stephen for supper that day and he asked if she had read the letters he gave her and she told him she hadn’t. Falk said she last saw Stephen at 6:30 the night he disappeared.

Falk read Stephen’s letters an hour later and was surprised by what Stephen wrote. Stephen expressed feelings of unworthiness and strong feelings of affection for Falk.

“I never realized the extent of his affection,” Falk said.

St. Aubin’s last memory of Stephen was having a cup of coffee with him in the commons. Two days later, on Sept. 30, St. Aubin reported Stephen missing to the Headmaster at Breese Hall.

“I was used to seeing him and when I didn’t see him anymore, I started inquiring,” St. Aubin said. He said he’s unsure why Stephen’s roommate didn’t report his disappearance.

When St. Aubin and the Headmaster checked Stephen’s room, they found a Bible left open to a page in Exodus. The page contained a passage that said “something about punishment.” The Headmaster called police.

St. Aubin said the Bible being left open could have been a coincidence. Stephen had also left open a partially completed speech about “knowing thyself.”

That same day, former girlfriend Mayo received a “jumbled” letter from Stephen. Stephen wrote about his girlfriend, Falk, and how nice she was. The letter included a picture of Falk and the note she gave Stephen Sept. 27.

The letter also allegedly contained statements saying Stephen was going away again and “this time I know where I’m headed.”

Mayo’s roommate verified the contents of the letter.

“This happened early on in our freshman year,” St. Aubin said. “Stephen was not suicidal. Something went wrong. Stephen did not commit suicide.”

What fate befell Stephen Kappell may be uncertain, but what is known is that on the evening of Sept. 28, 1965, Stephen left his dorm room in Breese Hall on the WSU-O campus and was never seen alive again.

The discovery

Eighteen days after Stephen disappeared, Oshkosh resident Harold Arentsen was fishing around 1 p.m. Oct. 16 when he spotted a body floating in Miller’s Bay about 29 feet off the east side of the breakwater.

Arentsen contacted police who used the Oshkosh Fire Department’s boat to tow the body to shore, according to newspaper reports.

It took three days for the body to be identified.

The Post-Crescent reported: The victim pulled from the water was naked and brutally beaten with two black eyes. Winnebago County Coroner Arthur Miller said the man had been beaten around the head with a blunt instrument, but he didn’t discount that fists could have been used.

“It appeared the man had been in some sort of scuffle,” Miller said.
Cloth bindings were used to tie the victim’s ankles, knees and wrists together. The bindings left 18 inches of space between the two wrists and were knotted with a granny-style knot, a type of knot known to release unpredictably. The bindings that held the victim’s wrists together came loose during the removal of the body from the water.

A size 38 athletic belt, commonly used by the Oshkosh football team at the time, was used to attach a 12-inch diameter 30-pound rock to the victim’s legs.

Authorities discounted the possibility of suicide. After examining the bindings used, they determined the victim could not have tied himself in such a manner.

“It could not be anything but a murder,” authorities said on Oct. 18, 1965.

Oshkosh Police Chief Harry Guenther said he believed the murder occurred in the city, possibly on the shoreline, not far from where the body was found. Chief Guenther said it was unlikely the body was put in the water at another location and he didn’t think the body moved far after being dumped, the Northwestern reported.

Media reports indicate the portion of the breakwater where the body was found is about four feet deep and gets as shallow as two feet and is only accessible by boat, indicating a boat was used to dump the body.

A Post-Crescent article later reported a boat was found in Menominee Park two days after the body’s discovery. However, authorities were unsure if the boat was involved since it was rotten and they didn’t think it would be seaworthy enough to carry a body.

Documents indicate a jar of scrapings from an aluminum boat was admitted into evidence at the State Crime Lab, but it is unclear whether the scrapings were from the boat found in Menominee Park.

Authorities discovered a spot near the sailboat launch site with a depression, indicating the rock used to weigh down the victim was taken from that location, according to the Northwestern.

The autopsy

Dr. Helen Young of the Milwaukee County Morgue performed the autopsy. Young reported finding sediment including silts and clays “packed with a paste-like black muck” in the victim’s bronchial tubes.

According to the Post-Crescent, sediments collected from the area where the body was found were compared to sediments in the victim’s lungs. Based on that comparison, officials determined the victim did not drown at the location he was found.

The left eye, cheek and neck of the victim were swollen and the upper right shoulder and wrist were bruised, but no bruising was found under the bindings used to tie the victim.

The coroner’s report said, “At the present time the findings suggest that this white male was probably unconscious when he entered the water and that he inhaled several times black muck from the bottom of the lake and died as a result of the drowning.”

Coming next week: The body found in Lake Winnebago is identified and a coroner’s inquest is held to determine what could have occurred after Stephen Kappell left his dorm room that Tuesday evening in 1965.