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Cushing, Wisconsin is known for its pine forests and low crime rates. But in the spring of 1991 the community faced a shocking quintuple family murder.
On April 24, Alice Anderson, the mother of 15-year-old Bruce Brenizer, called the Polk County Sheriff’s Department. Bruce had told her that her ex, the teen’s 35-year-old father, Rick Brenizer, his girlfriend Ruth Berentson, 31, his two stepsisters, Mindy, 7, and Heidi, 10, and half-sister Crystal, 5, had gone missing.
The family had gone on a trip to Minnesota on April 22 and never came home. Investigators considered various explanations, including Bruce’s job doing fencing work wherever he could, they told “Family Massacre,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Investigators turned to Bruce for more info. He told them that his family had piled into their station wagon and headed to a building supply store in the Twin Cities area. He stayed behind at the family’s mobile home outside Cushing, though his dad had wanted him to go. The group planned to return that night but never did.
“Five people just don't vanish with no trace,” said Rodney Pevytoe, Special Agent, WI Dept. of Justice.
Members of the Polk County Sheriff's Department searched on the ground and in helicopters for the Brenizers along with their station wagon.
On May 11, a local fisherman found a burned-out car without license plates in a wooded area three miles from the Brenizer home. It was incinerated and appeared to be the family’s station wagon. There were shovels in the back of the car. The car and area around it was painstakingly scrutinized for evidence.
“We suspected that it was arson because of … gas cans inside the vehicle,” said Thomm Smith, former deputy, Polk County Sheriff’s Department.
Pevytoe observed what he believed to be bone fragments. Anthropology experts from the University of Wisconsin joined the case to help collect and analyze bone fragments. The anthropologists concluded that the remains in the vehicle were human and appeared to be that of two adults and at least two juveniles.
No remains were found in the front seats, suggesting that bodies in the back of the car were transported to the site and burned to a crisp.
“At that point, we sought the assistance of a dental expert to analyze tooth fragments that were found in a vehicle,” said Steven Moe, former deputy, Polk Co. Sheriff’s Department.
The expert identified dental fragments from Rick and Ruth, but was unable to determine if any came from the three girls.
“Some of Rick's fragments showed the presence of lead,” said forensic dentist Don Simley, adding that it suggested Rick had been shot and the bullet left trace evidence on the tooth.
It was no longer a missing persons case.
“We are now investigating the homicide of five members of the same family,” said Smith. “The deaths of the Brenizer family were as horrific a crime as had ever happened in Cushing before.”
Investigators turned to Bruce for leads on anyone who might want to do his family harm. Bruce said he believed that someone entered the home and searched it on April 23. He also claimed a man visited the home and suggested his father owed him money.
The lead was investigated, using Rick’s financial records. It proved to be a dead end.
The investigation took an unexpected turn with the discovery of satanic graffiti scrawled in a nearby community. The fact that the bodies had been severely burned had raised rumors of a ritualistic killing, investigators said.
“The question everybody was asking is:‘Do we have some crazy satanic worshipers running loose in Polk County?’” said Jeff Crilly, former reporter, KSTP News. Detectives found no credible evidence to support the theory that satanic rituals were linked to the Brenizer massacre.
Investigators returned their focus to people who knew the Brenizers. The girlfriend of Bruce’s step-brother Jessie Anderson told authorities that she suspected that Bruce and Jesse knew more about the murders than they’d admitted.
Detectives also learned that Bruce had been removing items including collectible coins from the family home and selling them. He was also giving away electronic equipment to friends.
Authorities interviewed Jessie Anderson with his father, Ron, present. When asked about the Brenizer family, Jessie repeated the same story Bruce had told them. But at a point, Jessie and his father left the room to confer.
When they returned, Jessie’s dad said before his son said anything else, they wanted to consult a lawyer. On May 18, investigators met with Jessie, his attorney, and his father at the Amery Police Department in Amery, Wisconsin, said Smith.
Jessie expressed his decision to cooperate with authorities. According to investigators, Jessie told them that Bruce, who disliked his living conditions at home, confided to him on April 21 that he planned to kill his whole family. Jessie didn’t believe the threat. But on April 22, Bruce called Jessie and said, “I did it. I killed them all.”
Jessie gave a detailed account of what Bruce told him about the ambush and slaughter. He tied up and shot Mindy and Heidi outside the trailer first. When Rick, Ruth, and Crystal arrived home, he executed them one by one outside the home.
Bruce asked Jessie to help him clean up the crime scene and dispose of the bodies. They used shovels to clean up blood that had pooled from the fatal gunshots. Bruce drove the bodies to the wooded area, while Jessie followed in another vehicle.
Bruce pulled large bone fragments from the car and stuffed them into a duffel bag. Then the car and bodies were set ablaze in an inferno. The teens buried the bones on Jessie’s property.
“After Jessie's statement, a search warrant was obtained for the Alice and Ron Anderson residence in St. Croix Falls,” said Smith. Detectives also searched Bruce’s mother’s home. They found a journal where the teen recorded his contempt for living with his family and his hatred for his father.
Bruce was arrested for the murder of his five family members.
After he was charged Jessie was informed that if he assisted officers in recovering evidence he would not be taken into custody. Car license plates and bone fragments matching members of the Brenizer family were recovered. With Jessie’s help, the rifle used to kill the Brenizers was recovered from a nearby pond.
Two years after the massacre, Bruce Brenizer appeared in family court and pleaded guilty to all five counts of murder, three of them by reason of insanity.
Bruce Brenizer is currently serving his consecutive life sentences at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. He will be eligible for parole in January 2023.
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