One of my favorite movies is Clue the movie based on a board game and has a group of six dinner guests trying to find a murderer based on very random clues presented after dinner by the butler. After we uncover more and more murders in a locked mansion, we are finally told how it all happened by no other than the butler. But wait, it could have happened that way, but what about this second option. And we are told yet another probable solution to the crimes but wait there is one more final option that was actually how it happened. This case in Wisconsin reminds me of that movie where it has multiple solutions, but no title card saying this is how it actually happened.
Madison Wisconsin, 1970’s, you wouldn’t have to look far to find a selection of massage parlors in the capital city. They had names such as “This is Heaven”, “The Geisha House”, and “Genie’s Magic Touch”. They all hinted at the types of massages they offered, dicks and balls and happy endings. One parlor that was located in a strip mall, Jan’s Health Studio, had more of a clinical name, but it was offering the same services as the other studios with less discreet names.
Jan’s Health Studio had a masseuse named Barbara Hoffman, and she had a regular client, a shipping clerk named Gerald Davies, and Gerald was in love with Barbara.
Barbara had been a student at UW-Madison, majoring in biochemistry and had a 3.9 GPA and was a National Honor Society scholar. She spoke three languages and was trying to leave the skin trade as that industry attracted some unsavory characters like a cocaine kingpin, Sam Cerro.
Does this story seem invented to garner sympathy from her clients? Everything up to this point is 100% true. Being hired by an insurance company, Barbara was able to leave the Health Studio. Oddly enough, Gerald and Barbara kept a relationship going after she left.
Here’s How It Could Have Happened
December 23, 1977, when Gerald was at Barbara’s, she told him about an odd occurrence in her home the day before, she stated that when she had returned home there had been a dead body in her bathtub. She didn’t know who it was and assumed it was left there to frame her for murder from the organized criminals from the Studio. body
Barbara claimed she panicked and dragged the nearly nude body outside and hid it in a snowbank. She said she needed Gerald’s help and he informed her “What you need is to call the police.” Barbara said she couldn’t do that, there was no way they would believe her. He agreed to help her, and they took the body from the snowbank and put it into Gerald’s car. They ways to dispose of the body came full circle back to being placed into another snowbank. But this time they found the largest one they could, and it happened to be at the entrance to Blackhawk Ski Club, about 20 minutes away. The couple agreed to keep their adventure secret and planned to spend Christmas with their respective families.
Gerald kept secret the adventure on December 23 for approximately 30 hours. On Christmas Day he went to the police and told them everything. The story was less than believable coming from Gerald, but they did go to Blackhawk to check the burial site. When they dug into the snowbank, they found a dead man dressed in his underpants and tied up with rope. Gerald had told the truth about the body. However, it was possible that Gerald had killed the man himself and made up a crazy story about it appearing at his girlfriend’s house.
The police issued a warrant and examined Barbara’s apartment. There was no evidence of a corpse but there was evidence of bleach having cleaned up the bathroom floor. Crime scene investigators searched the snowbank where Gerald said the body was before they moved it. They were able to find blood and hair in the snowbank.
But who was the dead man who was only clad in his underpants?
The police discovered the man was Harry Berge, a 52-year-old single man who worked at a tire company in Stoughton. He lived alone after his mother passed away a few years before. He had a life insurance policy for $30,000(approximately $140,000 today) and the beneficiary was Linda Millar. The police didn’t know who Linda Millar was. But Gerald did. Gerald stated that Barbara was Linda Millar.
Gerald continued by stating that after she left the massage parlor Barbara tried to cut all ties to her former life and used the new name, Linda Millar. Barbara now had a motive for killing Harry Berge, who she claimed she didn’t know.
Prosecutors went forward with a case against Barbara Hoffman. Their chief witness was Gerald and since he had been lied to by his girlfriend as she was carrying on with another man, he had good reason to testify against her.
But then letters were received by the police, the defense lawyer, and the local paper. The handwriting was authenticated as being written by Gerald Davies. In his letter he stated that “Barb is innocent and I wrecked her life,” he wrote. “All those stories I told about Barb are false.” However, he never stated what the true story was. Before anyone could question Gerald Davies, he was found dead in a bathtub after Easter. His cause of death was unclear but suspected he had overdosed.
Here Is Another Way To Look At It.
If we believed Gerald’s dying confession that Barbara was not guilty, then there is only one other suspect who killed Harry Berge, Gerald Davies himself, the man the police suspected initially.
Gerald made more sense than Barbara. If Barbara did want to kill Harry for the insurance money, killing him while he was in his underwear, hiding his body in the snowbank so nobody could find it was a poor way of committing the crime.
The medical examiner said that Harry Berge died from trauma to the head, and although a woman could be responsible it was more of a man’s handiwork. The police postulated that Gerald entered Barbara’s apartment, caught the two of them together and immediately killed Harry to death. But something didn’t make sense.
The body had been kept in the snow near Barbara’s apartment dumpster, the blood confirmed this. Originally this was as far as Barbara could drag the body. IF Gerald had killed Harry and then was responsible for taking the body to Blackhawk, there was no reason to keep the body near the dumpster.
But then another possibility became apparent. What if Gerald entered Barbara’s home, found Harry there alone, and then Gerald killed him but left the body in the tub for Barbara to find. That would explain why Barbara would drag the body to the dumpster and buried under snow. And she did wait a day before talking to Gerald about it. Gerald helped her move the body, and she never suspected her boyfriend had killed her lover. She claimed she feared being framed for murder from the massage parlor criminals, when really it was Gerald.
When the court trial came, the district attorney announced they were dropping charges against Barbara as they were missing their main witness. Barbara’s lawyer was triumphant and accepted this. As she was walking out of the courtroom, police arrested her again, this time for double-murder. She was now accused of killing both Harry Berge and Gerald Davies.
But wasn’t Gerald’s death an overdose? Police learned that Gerald had a life insurance policy, and the beneficiary was Barbara Hoffman. This policy wasn’t for $30,000, it was for $750,000 (over $3,325,000 today). This was a reason to consider Gerald’s death a murder, not to mention him being the star witness on a different murder trial.
Medical examiners ran more tests than usual on Gerald and discovered that he did not die of an overdose but from cyanide poisoning. Knowing this they reexamined Harry Berge and discovered that he too had died from cyanide poisoning and not head trauma as originally believed. Harry Berge had over 40 times the lethal dosage in his system.
Police were looking into some of the organized criminals that frequented Jan’s Health Studio, like Sam Cerro. When police arrived at the studio they met an associate of Sam’s, the manager of Jan’s Health Studio, William Grover Garrott. William eventually would state that when Barbara worked at the studio, she had planned to marry a man, put a large life insurance policy of $750,000 on him and the take a Mexican honeymoon, and then poison him. She planned to then cremate his remains and return with his ashes leaving nothing for the police to analyze.
William agreed to testify against Barbara.
Barbara’s trial is the first one to be fully televised. Barbara’s lawyer, who had previously worked with both Sam Cerro and William Grover Garrott but chose to continue defending Barbara even with a conflict of interest, for which he would be disbarred and reinstated in 2000. Her lawyer had hoped to have two separate trials as he wasn’t confident that he could defend her against both murders together, separate he was confident he could win.
During the trial it was learned that with her biochemistry knowledge, and that she had purchased enough cyanide to kill both men, she was only convicted for murdering Harry Berge. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Since 1978, Barbara has not given an interview or any other statements besides one; “I did not commit the crime of which I have been accused and for which I have been convicted. And that’s all I have to say.”
Even though she has been tried, convicted, and sentenced, the police still question the finality of the case as their earlier misgivings remain.
But How About This?
We know that Barbara wanted to poison a man during a honeymoon and cremate him for a large insurance payout. Harry’s death lined up poorly with this. It is possible that William was trying to get a plea deal for Sam Cerro and told the police whatever they wanted to hear. If that is true, then the organized criminals really did frame her as she suggested.
What if William told the truth? Gerald and not Harry was the one with the large insurance policy, if she was looking to kill someone it would have been Gerald. Getting away with two similar crimes and benefitting from them would have attracted suspicion. And it’s less likely that Gerald killed Harry, since he had died by cyanide poisoning, Barbara’s weapon of choice.
But then the question is posed with her knowledge of cyanide poison, why did Harry have such a high amount in his system? Nobody would use that much if they knew anything about poison, it too would raise questions if detected by the coroner. The victim as well would detect the bitter almond smell and reject whatever you were giving them.
Here’s The Theory Of What Really Happened
On December 22, Harry had attended his Christmas Party and then went over to Barbara’s apartment. As was normal he brewed some instant coffee and taking a tin from the cabinet added several spoonsful of sugar to the coffee. It wasn’t a sugar tin. It was crystalized potassium cyanide. After taking a sip, Harry collapsed and died.
Barbara did panic and drag Harry to the snowbank before Gerald came and agreed to move it. Then he betrayed her to the police. Later when she was released on bond, Barbara went to visit Gerald and fed him something laced with the correct dosage of cyanide while he was in the bathtub.
Barbara didn’t know or didn’t believe that Gerald had loved her and recanted his statement and no longer planned to testify against her. Barbara killed Gerald to save herself from being convicted for Harry’s murder. Instead, this ensured she would be convicted even though Harry was not the man she intended to kill, nor did she directly poison him.
She herself even said, “I did not commit the crime of which I have been accused and for which I have been convicted,” after all.
Stay Weird Wisconsin