February 20, 1976 in Franklin, Wisconsin…
John and Janice Zera and their sons had been living in the small town of Franklin for less than a year. They had moved from Milwaukee. Phil, Johnny and Mark were 13, 14 and 15 years old.
The two older boys went to Franklin High School.
Most of the students there had gone to school together all their lives. Johnny and Mark hadn’t really found their crowd yet, but the boys hung out with one another, and their little brother, often playing in the woods by their house.
On February 20, 1976 Johnny ate lunch and then went to study hall. What happened next depends on who you ask.
Everyone agreed that Johnny asked the teacher for a hall pass. After he left the classroom, some students said that they saw him walk out the front door of the school and get into a Ford Torino.
Other students say that he was skipping class in the school lobby. His next class was Drafting and some students said that they saw him outside of the Drafting Room, but he did not attend the class that day.
After school Mark walked home alone. It was unusual for Johnny not to come home right after school, and even more unusual for him to not tell anyone where he had gone. His parents were worried and called the police. They told John and Janice that Johnny was probably fine and to wait. He would be home soon.
When Johnny had not returned that evening, John took Mark and went looking for Johnny. Janice spent her evening on the phone with everyone she knew in the small town asking if they had seen Johnny.
Around dark it started to snow so John and Mark returned home.
The next day was Saturday, but the principal agreed to meet John and Mark at the school. They asked to look in Johnny’s locker. In it they found his school books and his green winter coat. The three men became even more concerned after finding Johnny’s coat and called the police again.
A search for Johnny commenced and the police began interviewing anyone that may have seen Johnny that day. For a little while the police focused on Mark, but soon realized that he really didn’t know where Johnny was.
The Zera home was base for the searchers who included cops, a snowmobile club, friends and relatives. Even a psychic showed up to offer services.
February 28, 1976 in Whitnall Park…
Whitnall Park is a park located across the border of Franklin and Hales Corners, Wisconsin. There is an entrance to the park 5 miles from Franklin High School and 8 miles away from the Zera home. A group of teenagers were exploring the woods when they discovered Johnny’s body. He was naked and laying facedown with his head resting on a log. It appeared to police officers that Johnny had not put up a struggle and that his body had not been dragged to that location. They found Johnny’s clothes 20 feet away. They found a white tshirt, jeans, boxers and his shoes with his socks inside. They also found his hall pass and a pen and pencil.
Oddly, they found that someone had written “hell” on Johnny’s wrist.
Police officers also found a rock with blood and hair on it. They believed that this is what the killer had used to murder Johnny.
Because the park is located in 2 different cities, there was a debate over which police department would handle the case. Johnny’s body was found in Hales Corners, but his missing person’s report had been filed in Franklin. In the end, Hales Corners would take the case.
Hales Corners Police Department was the smallest police department in the state and there had only been one murder in Hales Corners since the 1950s. A man killed his wife and was found waiting outside the police station for officers to arrive the next morning so that he could turn himself in.
When this case turned out to be more than they could handle, they asked for help from the Milwaukee FBI and the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Over 1000 people were interviewed in Johnny’s case, but the killer was never found.
Johnny’s autopsy reported that semen was found on the body and there was indication that he had been sodomized multiple times before his death. (Possibly for weeks or months prior.) His time of death was reported as 1 or 2pm.
An FBI profiler gave a description of the possible suspect. His profile included “sadistic male homosexual,” “Bi-sexual,” “Psychopathic behavior when it comes to sex,” “Peculiar sexual demands of females,” “Wife or girlfriend has left him,” “Strong religious background,” “Average intelligence or below average,” “has had relations with boy before,” “18-50 years old,” “60-70% of buggery committed by family members,” “Outgoing, makes a lot of noise” and “Heavy drinker” 
Despite the biased and opinionated nature of the profile, police began to question suspects that they believed fit. They even went so far as to go around town asking if people knew anyone that might be gay.
The first suspect that police officers focused on was a construction worker who was doing some work at the high school at the time of Johnny’s murder. When questioned, he originally told police that he had worked on a roof in a different location that day. Upon investigation, police discovered that he had worked on the roof the day before Johnny went missing and he had been off on February 20, 1976.
Later the construction worker, whose name has never been released because he was never charged with any crime, was able to provide proof that he had been at the doctor the afternoon of Johnny’s disappearance, but could not account for his whereabouts that morning.
The construction worker showed signs of mental instability in his interviews with police. He claimed that his girlfriend was psychic and could read his mind. He claimed that he could control the actions of animals. At one point he choked on his cigarette. He said that someone was using the cigarette as mind control.
The construction worker denied killing Johnny and a polygraph showed that he was telling the truth. Despite this, he remained a suspect in the murder for two years.
It was later determined that a detective on the case was having an affair with a friend of the construction worker. He had used the investigation as an excuse to spend time with this woman. The detective was suspended for two months without pay.
Next week, we will discuss another suspect in this case.
A video summary of this story: