Her Photo Was Found In The Wallet Of A Convicted Murderer, But She Hasn't Received Justice

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Scary Mommy and KGUN9/Youtube

Brenda and Bill Gerow were foster children, Bill Gerow told the podcast Anatomy of Murder, but their favorite times were spent together. Despite their few years difference in age, they loved the same music: that same good old rock and roll. In 1977, when Bill was 14, Brenda took him to see Led Zeppelin, his first concert. It blew the Nashua, New Hampshire teen’s mind. Brenda was “a flower child,” her brother says, smiling and outgoing. She had a lot of friends, and a lot of people who wanted to be her friend.

Those people included Jack Kalhauser.

In 1980, when Gerow was twenty, she was working at local biker bar OJ’s. “Everyone’s seen the movie ‘Roadhouse’… this was very dark and very dirty… full of bikers,” her brother says. It wasn’t a great place to meet guys, but one guy kept showing up again and again to flirt with Brenda: Jack Kalhauser, who looked like Rick Springfield with his shoulder-length black hair. He was “a wannabe,” Bill remembered, an outsider wanting to be in, wanting to be tough. He’d seemed nice when Bill had first met him. But friends of friends of had warned Bill about him. “I’d try to tell her,” he said. “But she’d say, ‘Oh, you have to get to know him.'”

Little did Gerow know, she didn’t know Jack Kalhauser. She didn’t know him at all.

Gerow Didn’t Know Kalhauser Was A Wanted Man

She didn’t know, when she told her beloved brother that she was heading out west with him in 1980, that he was jumping bail.

John Joseph Kalhauser, Bill would later find, was a womanizer. And in May of 1979, when he’d discovered that his former fiance was seeing Michael Renk, he’d shot Renk three times, hitting him in the cheek, neck, and shoulder. Renk had survived, and Kalhauser had been charged with armed assault with intent to murder in August of 1979. He bonded out on $1,200 in 1980. When he asked Gerow to head west with him, he wasn’t inviting her on a romantic road trip. He was escaping the cops.

Neither did Gerow know that Kalhauser was already a convicted murderer. In December 1971, at age 17, Kalhauser shot and killed 52-year-old Ronald Chapman. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years. He served only one before being released.

But Gerow said to Bill she was headed to the Southwest with her boyfriend Jack. Hair in a ponytail, wearing a blue and white shirt, she told her little brother, “I love you and I’ll be back.”

Then she jumped on Kalhauser’s motorcycle and road off into the sunset. Bill never saw his sister again.

Gerow Called Twice From the Southwest

Two months later, she called her angry little brother collect from New Mexico. Bill felt like he’d been abandoned by the sister he loved so much. “It wasn’t a very long call,” he said. “She was like, ‘I’ve got some turquoise, I’m going to mail it to you’… that was it for 5, 6, 7 weeks. And then I got an envelope with turquoise in it from New Mexico.” She’d mailed him a large choker and loose stones. “I thought it was the coolest thing… [and] she kept saying, ‘I’m going to come back for you.”

Gerow called him one time a few months later (Bill remains hazy on the timeline), this time from Arizona. “It wasn’t a joyful phone call. She said, ‘I’m coming home.’ I said, ‘Is everything alright?’ She said, ‘No, I’m coming home and I’ll see you soon… I can’t talk right now.’ She told her brother she loved him and she had to go.

He never heard from her again. He tried filing missing persons reports, but was told she might not want to be found. He tried sending a letter through the Social Security Administration; they claimed it had been delivered and she simply didn’t want to contact him. He believed his sister was alive, but didn’t want to contact him.

He didn’t know what had happened to Gerow. Neither did anyone else, not until 2015.

Kalhauser Marries

Brenda’s last phone call was from Arizona. In 1986, under the name Donald Stecchi, Kalhauser married pretty 26-year-old Diane van Reeth, a native of Tucson. They had two sons together. But something went very wrong —with their marriage, with his cover, with something. There is no indication that van Reethe knew Stecchi was an assumed name; maybe she found out. Or maybe he feared she’d tell. But in 1995, she was filing for divorce and custody of their young sons. It was “nasty.” And on August 10, 1995, she never showed up for work. Her minivan was empty, two blocks from their home, without keys or signs of a struggle.

Then it fell apart.

When the police investigated, Donald Stecchi was discovered to be John Joseph Kalhauser, wanted on an outstanding warrant pertaining to his indictment in Massachusetts for attempted murder. He was arrested and extradited. But when police searched his possessions, they found a photo of a pretty young girl in his wallet. Kalhauser refused to identify her.

In November 1996, the state of Massachusetts sentenced Kalhauser to 26 years in prison in connection with Michael Renk’s shooting: that former fiance’s new boyfriend from all those years ago. But Arizona police kept working. When the manufacturing firm where Kalhauser worked discovered van Reeth’s IDs wrapped in red cloth and hidden behind a cabinet, they called police. Even without a body, Kalhauser was charged with her murder.

He didn’t plead guilty. He pled “no contest,” which translates to acknowledging that he might be found guilty if the case went to trial. Kalhauser was given twenty years in Arizona in 1999, no chance of an early release, to be served concurrently with his time in Massachusetts — leaving him with a release date of 2025.

Renk’s body was never found.

But About That Photo Kalhauser Had…

Cold case deputies took a new look at that photo Kalhauser had. They noticed it was close to the facial reconstruction they’d had done of a Jane Doe from way back in April of 1981. There was no older unsolved Pima County homicide from which the victim had not been identified.

She’d been found by some hunters on April 8, 1981. About half a mile down a desert wash, they spotted a jacket hung on a tree. One said that they hoped they didn’t find a body — but they spotted Jane Doe soon after. She’d been strangled 36-48 hours before with some “kind of ligature” and likely sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, her body was so desiccated the identification was nigh on impossible. They couldn’t make out her eye color. Her hands were so dried they had to be sent to the FBI for fingerprinting. But they knew she was from 17-22 years old.

And they knew, suddenly, that she looked an awful lot like that photo Kalhauser had been carrying.

So they began circulating that photo on social media in the Massachusetts area — where Kalhauser had been living — since everything in the Tucson area had long turned up a dead end. Did anyone know her? Did anyone recognize her? The pretty blonde girl wore a hippy-type dress and held flowers. She smiled shyly. Surely someone knew who she was.

Someone did, and that led them to Bill. A detective called him, acting cagey. He said he was from cold case and had a Jane Doe who might be Gerow. They asked for DNA. But Bill hoped it wasn’t his sister, who he believed was still alive.

The DNA matched.

Gerow Has Still Not Found Justice

Innocent until proven guilty: Kalhauser has been declared a person of interest in the murder of Brenda Gerow, but has never been charged. He remains in jail until 2025. Despite her photograph being found in his wallet — the wallet of a twice-convicted murderer — and him being the last person who saw her — Gerow’s murder remains officially unsolved.

But her brother lived all these years believing his sister was alive out there. He thought that one day he’d find her, that one day their children would play together. “I feel like I lost her three times,” he said: once when she left, once when she died, and once when he found that Kalhauser (he believes) killed her.

But someone out there knows more. Someone else saw something, heard something. Someone knows more about Gerow’s disappearance than the police or her brother. Bill pleas with them to reach out to Pima County law enforcement. His sister deserves justice. Her murderer, be it Kalhauser or someone else, needs to be found and punished.

And Bill, her lost younger brother, deserves more than memories and a jar of older sister’s ashes.