30 years after slaying
Every now and then someone confesses to killing Billy Wolf Jr.
The problem is the real killers - the ones authorities say actually murdered and severed the body of this 21-year-old Fargo man - haven't come forward.
It was 30 years ago today that Wolf's body was found inside two green garbage bags by a canoeist on the Red River.
The case remains one of the most gruesome unsolved murders in local history, though local investigators say they know who committed the crime. They just don't have enough evidence to bring their case to a jury without a real confession.
The case was highly publicized with several details depicted in Forum articles - such as the color of Wolf's clothing, the six pennies in his pocket and the way his upper torso was placed headfirst into a bag.
Such details sometimes work their way into confessions authorities receive, but mostly the admissions are ruled out.
"We've looked into each and every one of them in depth so as not to have anybody say that somebody came forth and you didn't even bother," Cass County Sheriff's Detective Steve Gabrielson said.
Often confessions come from people who are mentally unstable - especially around the Aug. 20 anniversary of the discovery of Wolf's body, according to Clay County Sheriff's Lt. Bryan Green.
"Most of them you can pretty much eliminate right away," Green said.
Just last year, authorities finished a roughly two-year inquiry into a convicted burglar serving time in a Nebraska prison who claimed to have killed Wolf.
"He had some information that piqued our interest," Green said. "But then after we checked everything out, he had to have been like 12 years old. (And) at the time he was not here."
Authorities think the man, originally from the Fargo-Moorhead area, made up the confession using prison gossip and secondhand information available to gain attention.
He has falsely confessed to other homicides as well, Green said.
But there are others who know what really happened to Wolf and now it's just a matter of patience, according to Green.
"Somebody needs to clear their conscience before they die," Green said. "They've had hard lives and they'll have to face their maker."
A grisly discovery
Aug. 20, 1978, was a typical summer Sunday. The afternoon sky was partly cloudy, it was warm and there was a subtle wind as David Wambach canoed the Red River.
About three miles north of Kragnes, Minn., Wambach came across two garbage bags floating in the river. The Fargo man partially opened one bag and immediately alerted authorities.
Investigators found half a man, who later was identified through dental records as Wolf, in each of the bags. His mother, Bette, had reported her second of four children missing three days earlier.
One bag was caught in a downed tree on the Minnesota side of the river. It contained Wolf's upper body, head first in the bag.
His lower half was discovered in a second bag caught on a tree trunk about 200 yards downstream on the North Dakota side of the river.
He was clad in a tan T-shirt, green work pants and work boots. He had been cut at the waist and had a long gash across his face, slashing his throat.
It "had to be done with some type of a band saw or something that made one swatch when it went through," former Clay County Sheriff Larry Costello said three days after the body was found. Costello was a deputy sheriff at the time and worked the case for years.
Authorities estimated Wolf had been dead about 72 hours.
Thirty years later, Wambach still remembers looking around to see if he really was alone when he found Wolf's remains. He feared for his own safety.
"You don't know if somebody saw you," he said.
Wambach is still reluctant to talk about the discovery or what he saw.
"I didn't realize what all was taking place at the time," he said, calling the whole incident a "scary moment."
He admits that he kept an old newspaper clipping about the incident, but he rarely thinks about it.
"It was just something in my life," he said.
Gossip spread quickly about the case - especially after Wolf's father, whom the victim was named after, was charged with the killing. Investigators have since cleared him of any involvement, but won't divulge more about the initial case against him.
The charges came three months after Wolf's body was discovered and "confirmed rumors that have been afloat for some time," a Nov. 30, 1978, Forum article stated.
But three months after that the charges were dismissed. Prosecutors said the case against Wolf's father wasn't strong enough.
Investigators reopened the case in 1987 and embraced a different theory. They now believe Wolf's death was drug-related and involved more than one killer.
They now believe Wolf was killed somewhere in Cass County and that three or four people were involved.
Investigators deduced a message was being sent based on the gruesome nature of the crime.
"They were trying to get some information out of him that he didn't have and it went too far and he ended up dead," Green said.
Investigators also believe Wolf was a low-level player in the local drug scene and may have sold some drugs. They say he likely became enmeshed in something and died as a result. But they don't know why Wolf was killed.
"When it comes to drugs, it's either you didn't pay for them or you took them," Gabrielson said.
Authorities over the years have cleared some people originally believed were connected to the case - including Wolf's father.
Charging him might have been a way to try to straighten out early statements made by William Wolf Sr., Green said.
"When I went through it, there was absolutely nothing there," Green said, referring to a potential case against Wolf's father.
Investigators still keep in contact with the Wolfs, who have since left the area, but, "There's still some bitter feelings," Green said.
Forum attempts to contact the family, believed to be living in Alexandria, Minn., have been unsuccessful.
Investigators also have narrowed their focus toward a tight-knit drug ring active in the 1970s and 1980s, Green said.
"We're pretty certain we know who did it; ain't no doubt about that," he said. "We have to have enough to convince the jury and we don't quite have that yet. It's still being worked at but you need that one solid bit of proof."
Several persons of interest have been in and out of prison over the years.
Investigators remain watchful of at least two people in the Fargo area.
Still hope for closure
In 30 years, investigators from several agencies have interviewed hundreds of people and amassed nearly a 2,000-page case file that fills four fat binders.
"But nothing that can tell us that here's the individual involved," Gabrielson said. "It sits at my desk and I look at it every day."
Green said he has visited Wolf's grave to reconnect with him.
"It's different when you're doing an active one and you see the body," he said.
Green said he is certain the case will be solved someday; he just hopes it happens before Wolf's parents die.
"Somebody's going to finally 'fess up to what actually happened," he said.
But the family has publicly twice expressed concern that the case will never be solved, first a month after Wolf's death and again seven years later.
"You wonder when it takes so long, and all the clues are getting colder and colder and colder," Wolf's mother, Bette, said in September 1978. "And, how are people gonna remember, the longer it takes to find somebody who is gonna talk. How are they gonna remember the details of something that happened one month or two months ago or a year ago?"
In 1985, Wolf's younger brother, Michael, said his family tries not to think about the case.
"We figure it's probably one of those things, that it'll never be solved," Michael Wolf said.
Billy Wolf Jr. Killing
- Aug. 15 - The last time Bette Wolf talks to her son Billy.
- Aug. 17 - Bette Wolf reports her son missing.
- Aug. 20 - A Fargo man canoeing on the Red River discovers two plastic garbage bags floating three miles north of Kragnes, Minn., with half of a man's body inside each bag.
- Aug. 22 - Authorities identify the body as 21-year-old William "Billy" Wolf Jr. of Fargo.
- Nov. 29 - William Wolf Sr. - Billy Wolf's father - is charged with killing his son. A Clay County grand jury indicts the West Fargo man on first-, second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter.
- Jan. 30 - William Wolf Sr. pleads not guilty to the charges.
- Feb. 26 - Charges against William Wolf Sr. are dismissed at the prosecution's request, who said there was not a good case beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Feb. 27 - The prosecutor says an ongoing investigation has produced some evidence that indicated Wolf Sr. was innocent. The prosecutor also states the murder weapon has not been located and the actual site of the murder has not been determined.
- A team of investigators reopens the case and generates fresh leads. A new theory is developed, leading authorities to believe Wolf's death was drug-related.
- Authorities combine entire case into one file. Previously, material was included in various files possessed by several law enforcement agencies.
How to help:
- Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact the Fargo Police Department at (701) 235-4493, the Cass County Sheriff's Department at (701) 241-5800 or the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation at (800) 472-2185 or (701) 328-5500.