This week back in 1927, a high school freshman named Helen Leng was brutally murdered in Portage, Wisconsin. She had been walking home from a friend’s house after seeing the matinee at the local theater. She walked through a tunnel that ran under the Milwaukee Road rail tracks around 6 p.m. and was shot in the back of the head. She was dragged into a field, beaten, raped and strangled. She never came home that night. It took until 8 a.m. the next day to find her body, although it had been dumped in a field just a few hundred feet away from the road.
Helen’s murder is still unsolved. Nearly nine decades have passed, but justice never came. It is one of the highest-profile unsolved murders in Wisconsin history. The crime is a compelling and chilling tale, since it might have been the work of a serial killer. The story is a good example of investigative history journalism, one of our specialties at Treasured Lives.
88 Years Later, Who Still Cries for Helen Leng?
By Joe Hanneman
©2015 The Hanneman Archive
PORTAGE, Wisconsin — The warm sun floods through the trees and splashes across the green grass and multicolored stone monuments on a manicured field on the north side of town. As on most days, it is quiet here, with only an occasional breeze rustling the changing leaves. Those at rest in this peaceful place include war heroes, mayors, farmers, judges, doctors, parents – and children. Children. Yes, their presence here in this holy ground makes it truly a special and blessed place.
Trails of tears have flowed at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery for more than 160 years. Processions of the bereaved have come and gone, leaving their loved ones to the earth — and eternity. Few, if any, were welcomed here with such pain, grief and sorrow as young Helen Leng. At her final committal, mourners stood shoulder to shoulder around her casket on a Wednesday in November 1927. Her parents, Harry and Alice, flanked by supporters, felt the ebb and flow of unfathomable grief and righteous anger. No one should have to bury their only child.
Just days before, on a Sunday evening at dusk, Helen was brutally murdered. The crime horrified this town of then 6,000 residents, not just because the victim was only 14, but because of the rape and extreme battery visited on the high school freshman. Despite a manhunt and widespread investigation, no one was ever tried for Helen’s murder. The case grew cold and left unsatisfied the community’s hopes and prayers for justice. Eighty-eight years later, Helen’s case remains one of the highest-profile unsolved murders in Wisconsin history. It may have been the work of someone police didn’t consider: a serial killer.
Helen’s understated grave marker sits in Block 33, Lot 6 of the cemetery, just feet north of where her parents are buried. Harry originally purchased five cemetery plots, perhaps an indication the couple once hoped for more children. He never wanted this space to be filled before he was laid to rest. Harry gave up his career as a railroad man to become a police officer and pursue his daughter’s killer. He rose to the rank of assistant police chief in Portage, bravely serving more than 15 years and several times being injured in the line of duty. He died in 1954, never able to fulfill his graveside pledge to bring the murderer to justice. Alice carried the pain of loss for nearly 50 years before she died at age 91. She had no immediate relatives; no one who would even make sure her headstone was engraved with 1976, the year of her death.