Tosa Man's Epitaph Was Written in His Own Blood
Molecules of DNA and his own resistance to authority measured the lifespan of John M. Pekrun.
The short, tumultuous life of John Michael Pekrun began unraveling when he was in his teens, and it ended last week with the bullet that killed him as he charged with a hunting knife at an Iowa state trooper.
It seemed an almost predictable end for the Wauwatosa man, who died at 30. In every one of the many crimes he was charged with since his youth – including car theft, endangering safety, property thefts, hit and run – he was also charged with fleeing, eluding, resisting or obstructing an officer.
Those early chapters of his brief adult life are written in police reports, court records, jail terms and prison sentences. The final chapter began not quite three months ago with yet another brazen crime and a fine piece of forensic investigation by the Wauwatosa police.
A rash of crimes
In late March and well into April, a large number of property crimes were reported in an area of Wauwatosa centered around West North Avenue and North 114th Street. Many seemed petty – entries into unlocked cars, rifled for as little as loose change. More were quite serious – homes, businesses and vehicles broken into, vehicles stolen.
On April 2, police were sent to investigate a particularly brash crime in the 11400 block of West Garfield Avenue. A home had been broken into and two vehicles had been stolen out of the driveway.
The homeowner had found his daughter's car, a 1994 Chevy Corsica, abandoned only about 100 feet north on 114th Street, where the steering column had locked up.
Apparently, the girl had left her house key in her car. The thief let himself the locked home while the family slept and found the keys to the father's '98 GMC Sierra on the counter. Without disturbing anything else, he took the keys and stole the Sierra.
Pieces of evidence
Police carefully examined the Corsica from the outside and then asked the girl to look around inside without touching anything. She saw that her glove box had been rifled and that some of her school things were missing. Then she noticed something else. There was a large black-handled screwdriver between the seat and console. It wasn't hers.
While at the scene, police were alerted that the stolen Sierra had been recovered early that morning in Brown Deer, found sitting on the off-ramp to Lannon Road from Highway 41 with its doors open. At about the same time, another vehicle had been reported stolen nearby.
The owner was taken to examine and recover his Sierra. He found that a knife had been taken out of a box and an air pellet pistol stolen from inside the console. He also found a cigarette lighter that did not belong to him.
Detectives swabbed the doorknob of the house, the doors and steering wheels of both cars, and the items either touched or left by the thief, hoping to recover DNA. In all, 10 swabs were sent on April 8 to the State Crime Lab.
On May 25, the lab reported one DNA "hit." It belonged to John Michael Pekrun. It came from the screwdriver – the crime tool he had left inside the first of at least three cars he stole that night.
Pekrun's home was just a block away, at 2050 N. 113th St.
Arrest warrant issued
Pekrun was on criminal supervision at the time. Police contacted his probation officer, presented the evidence of a violation and soon had a warrant for Pekrun's arrest.
Neighbors told a reporter Sunday that in the weeks of June before they heard Pekrun had been killed, the street had been crawling with police. Multiple squad cars had been parked at the Pekrun house many times, they said. Individual squad cars had been parked at either end of the block day and night.
Pekrun's whereabouts during June are still unknown, but he found no safe haven at his home. All that is known is that at some point he decided to flee the state. That did him no good. In fact, it was his undoing. The warrant had been broadcast to neighboring states along with the information that Pekrun was suspected of vehicle theft.
Last Wednesday, a sharp-eyed Iowa trooper made the identification and tried to pull him over. As had become his habit, Pekrun fled, leading law officers on a wild chase that took them north into Minnesota and later back into Iowa before he lost control and crashed near the small town of Floyd.
News accounts differ slightly but agree on most points. Pekrun refused to surrender and got out of the crippled pickup truck wielding a large hunting knife. He approached officers menacingly, and a Taser was fired. It either missed or had no effect. Pekrun charged with the knife and was shot to death.
Crimes made worse – and for what?
In his wild night of April 2, Pekrun did not go away empty-handed. From the Sierra, he got a $25 knife and a $10 air pistol. From the daughter's car, he netted two $50 music players – one damaged – a "flapper" hat, a Beatles book bag and three school folders with covers featuring Wonder Woman, Batman and the Justice League.
It seemed to be the way with him. He would steal things of value when he found them, but he would also steal almost anything he found. And he always made sure to exacerbate any crime, no matter how small, by adding penalties for resisting arrest.
Pekrun's run-ins with the law as an adult began with a arrest just 11 days after he turned 18 in 1998 – juvenile records, if any, are not available to the public. The charge would be first-degree endangering safety, a serious felony. One week later, he was arrested for bail-jumping and eluding a police officer.
He pleaded guilty to the two latter charges and to a reduced second-degree charge of endangering safety.
And so it went. In 2002, he was convicted of auto theft and eluding an officer. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to two counts of property theft as a repeat offender. Although dismissed, an initial charge of resisting arrest was read in to the record.
There were other arrests and charges that were dismissed, but they provided the evidence that eventually put an end to Pekrun's life of crime. His DNA had been found and filed from a police chase ending in a hit-and-run in 2005, in which his abandoned car had been full of just-emptied beer cans. In 2002, his blood was found trailing from the scene of a burglary at a tobacco store. Milwaukee police also had a sample of Pekrun's DNA from yet another crime scene.
But DNA alone often is not enough to pursue charges. It can prove someone was at a scene but not necessarily what he did there or when. Pekrun, like many criminals, had as many dismissed cases as convictions. It is entirely possible that if he had simply pulled over for an Iowa state trooper, he would be alive and perhaps even free. No one can say whether a swab from a dropped screwdriver would have convicted him.
Next in line
John Pekrun wasn't the only one in his family who had run-ins with the law.
In 2008, his younger brother, Matthew, was seen entering a car by an off-duty Milwaukee police officer. The officer gave chase, pushed Matthew Pekrun off a bicycle, chased him on foot, caught him, pepper-sprayed him. Pekrun wriggled free, was caught again and pistol-whipped by the officer, wriggled free yet again, and when caught once more, turned and stabbed the officer twice – with the screwdriver he was carrying.
Whereupon, the officer shot him three times, severely wounding him.
None of those facts has been at issue in any of the three times Matthew Pekrun has been tried on charges of first-degree recklessly endangering life, most recently in March. Each has ended in a mistrial because of questions about the procedures followed by the officer. So he is being scheduled for a fourth trial.
Neighbors on North 113th Street said Sunday that sort of behavior had been typical on their block since the oldest Pekrun boys had reached adolescence. Loud all-night parties, strange comings and goings, cars and bicycles showing up and disappearing just as fast, fights, threats and innumerable police calls.
One neighbor said that in their revels, people would often park on the lawn and drive over downspout extensions. The next day, some neighbor would report that a downspout had been stolen from them.
Calm for now
It was as quiet as could be at 2050 N. 113th St. on Sunday. Four vehicles were in the driveway of the tiny, dilapidated house, but at least three looked abandoned. Neighbors said those vehicles hadn't moved in years but neighbors stopped calling in the nuisance out of fear.
Nobody answered the door after repeated knocks, and though a window stood open, it was dark inside and it appeared no one was home.
Maybe, said a neighbor, they're in Iowa recovering the body. John Pekrun had no identification on him when he was shot. He wasn't positively identified until after an autopsy.
One neighbor said her husband's life had been repeatedly threatened by one of the Pekruns for no apparent reason. Another neighbor said she did her best to avoid any contact.
But one neighbor remembered a time when her children played with the Pekrun boys and, she said, they seemed like typical kids. Life had been hard on them, she said, not always the other way around. The parents both had to work but clearly didn't have much to show for it, and when they were younger, the boys fixed up old cars and sold them to help the family out.
The father had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, the woman said, and had been incapacitated for years until his death a few months ago. As for the mother, the neighbor said simply: "Life for her was very difficult."
"I like to think that inside, there were good hearts still," she said. "I saw it when they were little, and I can't think that that can just go away. I think that when they first got into trouble, no one helped them. They just made them out as bad, and that was that."