A Closer Look at The Eleanore Robert’s Murder

Photo courtesy of Roberts family, via Wood County Sheriff

Jerome Lippert Shares Insight into Wood County Case

Submitted to OnFocus – Saturday Nov. 26, 2022 is the 38th anniversary of the brutal murder of 73 year-old Eleanore Roberts in the Town of Saratoga in Wood County. Less than a month earlier on Nov. 2, 2022, in Branch Two Wood County Court a guilty verdict was finally rendered in that Cold Case. John A. Sarver was convicted of this heinous crime, and he will be sentenced on Jan. 23,2023.

I wrote an article that was published in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune on Dec. 16, 2016, asking for renewed interest in this case. In that article I noted that there had long been a chief suspect. At the time I was not at liberty to name the individual, for obvious reasons, but that person was Mr. Sarver. I also indicated that the ‘whole story’ was not being told. Indeed, the trial proved that this assertion was also correct.

The trial itself was riveting in many regards. The prosecutors from the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) did an excellent job of methodically building their case. The lead defense attorney did his job in fine fashion as well, working to cast doubt whenever he could. Ultimately however he was not successful, because from my perspective the facts were just too much to overcome.

While the case has been widely reported in the media, I still don’t believe the whole story has been told; nor has the ‘story within the story.’ I believe that is an oversight that needs to be corrected.

I sat with the Roberts family during the entire trial and heard all the testimony. The whole story, as I see it, must include praise for Sheriff Shawn Becker, who from the time he took office in 2019 until the verdict came in, stayed on this case, supported the officers who worked on it, and worked to get the Wisconsin DOJ involved, and to bring closure for the Roberts family. Praise is also due three retired Wood County Detectives who worked on the case: Bob Levandoske, Dave Laude, and Jay Shroda. Their dedicated, persistent, and excellent work established the groundwork that culminated in the guilty verdict. After the verdict Det. Laude said: “It’s almost as if our careers are finally over.” Yes indeed, well done gentlemen!

Also deserving of praise, I believe, is the brave man who finally came forward in 2020, after 36 years of suppressing his memories, primarily due to fear. He was the one who confirmed at trial that there were in fact three people at the crime scene in 1984. Calling Mr. Sarver on the stand a ‘scary dude’ who had connections with the police that caused him to fear coming forward and in fact fear for his life. He finally did come forward in 2020 because he feared going to his grave with his horrible memories more than he feared John Sarver. That truly was riveting testimony; one literally could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom!

Which gets me to the ‘story within the story.’ Unfortunately, not all police officers involved in this case deserve praise. It can now be openly stated that John Sarver was a Citizen Informant for the Wood County Drug Enforcement Unit in the late 1980’s. The officer in charge of him and his work was one Det. Brian Illingworth; or as he was known when he was working with Mr. Sarver in the field, ‘Big Al.’ Retired Detective and former Wood County Sheriff Illingworth testified during the trial. While he tried to put a ‘happy face’ on his work with Mr. Sarver, it was readily apparent that the former sheriff had gotten too close to his informant. Facts that came out in the trial illustrate this point. First, Mr. Sarver was not fingerprinted when he started his work. This should have happened, but in Sarver’s case it was another officer who fingerprinted him two years later. Secondly, Det. Illingworth attended Mr. Sarver’s wedding which is not standard procedure either. Also, a question was asked at trial about Mr. Sarver getting ‘black out’ drunk while being supervised by Illingworth; clearly this would be against departmental policy as well.

And finally, when Mr. Sarver was being scrutinized in 1988 about his possible role in Eleanore Roberts murder there was this interesting meeting at a cabin in Adams County where apparently Sarver and Illingworth were alone before other officers arrived to question Sarver. What, if anything, was discussed at that private interaction has never been revealed.

Additionally, I am aware of one other pertinent fact that didn’t come up at the trial. In the 1990’s a member of the Roberts Family went to then Sheriff Illingworth with a copy of a Reader’s Digest that contained an article on new improved DNA tests and asked if this might help in the case. The Sheriff looked at the family member and tossed the Reader’s Digest back to them saying, “The suspect is a friend of mine.” That is an answer no officer should ever give to a victim’s family member!

This attitude/conflict might be part of the reason justice was so long delayed in this case. Possibly related to this is a rather strange incident that occurred near the end of Sheriff Illingworth’s career in Wood County. Longtime residents of this area might recall that in 1997 Sheriff Illingworth was institutionalized in Rock County; indications being that it was possibly related to depression and issues with alcohol and drugs. For a long time, this information was kept from the public, but it finally was revealed, and the Sheriff didn’t run for reelection in 1998. He quietly ended his career in law enforcement the following year.

So now after 38 long years the Roberts murder has led to a conviction. On this 38th Anniversary I ask however if all the questions about the former Sheriff’s role in this investigation, and other investigations, that occurred during his ‘service’ to the county have been adequately answered. I would submit the answer to that question is — NO!!

In my 2016 article I asked for a John Doe Investigation to get to the bottom of the Roberts Case. Thankfully that was not necessary; due to the good work of the present sheriff and some dedicated investigators, as well as the excellent efforts of the state Crime Lab, DOJ, and the state’s prosecuting attorneys assigned to this case. Now I ask that this not be the end, but instead a springboard to soliciting questions and answers as to the former Sheriff’s role in this case and others that occurred under his watch. I would submit that justice requires that.

Jerome C. Lippert

Jerome C. Lippert is a retired Business Executive who lives in the Pittsville area, and studies local history and events. He has a degree in History and English from UW-Eau Claire. 

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Jerome Lippert
Author: Jerome Lippert

Jerome C. Lippert is a retired Business Executive who lives in the Pittsville area, and studies local history and events. He has a degree in History and English from UW-Eau Claire.