Underwater Detective Solves Madison Lakes’ Mysteries
(Written in June 2017, and discussed on the MeatEater podcast, #172, in June 2019.)
MADISON, Wisconsin — Rick Krueger studies sonar-sketched shadows on the lake bottom as they scroll across his Humminbird’s screen, hoping they’ll reveal yet another sunken secret far beneath his boat.
Krueger, 63, grew up fishing perch and bluegills on the capital city’s lakes, but has seldom cast a bait since buying his first side-scanning sonar unit in 2005. He’s on the water about 125 times a year, roughly three hours per trip, “looking for stuff” from ice-out to ice-up with his sonar units, which can reveal fish 100 feet away – port, starboard or below.
Krueger loves pike, walleyes and muskies as much as anyone. Still, he’s more interested in finding things that nature and people left behind—intentionally or otherwise—on the bottoms of lakes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa. Krueger has compiled GPS coordinates for 60 sunken boats on his sonar units, but that’s just 4 percent of the 1,400 waypoints he’s recorded.
He knows the exact whereabouts of logs, pontoons, I-beams, boulders, rock piles, marl trenches, work barges, antique boats, dredging pipes, a dredge bucket, fuel barrels, boat engines, ice-fishing shanties, century-old cars, manmade fish cribs, demolished boathouses, matching cups and saucers, and other items too small to catalog.
Krueger usually steers away from objects he’s already identified, and methodically scans muddy bottoms not yet searched. When something catches his eye, he lowers a camera to identify it. If it looks interesting – that is, something probably manmade -- he returns with his wife, Ann, so he can dive for a better look.
Krueger got certified as a scuba diver in 1991, but quit counting his dives after his 600thdescent, “and that was years ago,” he said. He’s certified to dive 125 feet, but the deepest spot around is an 84-foot hole in Mendota, and Krueger hasn’t needed to go below 70 feet to inspect sunken boats.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked his most memorable find. That occurred July 22, 2006, and solved a 45-year-old mystery.
“I was on Lake Waubesa and spotted something big sitting at a 45-degree angle 35 feet down,” Krueger said. “I figured it was a boat, but it turned out to be a car, so I got permission from the police department to dive down to look.”
Krueger said he couldn’t see inside the car because it was filled with silt, but he got enough information on the 1950 Ford Coupe to help police identify it. When police divers returned, they found the skeletal remains of Ronald Wick, 20, and Carl Stolz, 23, who disappeared Feb. 21, 1961, after a night of barhopping.
Although it was illegal to drive cars onto Madison’s lakes, the friends drove about 600 yards onto Waubesa before breaking through ice that had weakened during a warm spell. By the time a search plane went up days later, much of Waubesa and nearby Monona was open water.
Rumors soon put the young ice-fishermen on Lake Monona’s bottom, while other gossip put them in faraway states to start life over. Krueger’s discovery put them where searchers initially looked after finding tire tracks heading out on Waubesa.
Krueger’s expertise as a diver and side-scanning sonar hobbyist kept him connected for years with local dive and rescue teams, who also knew him as “Radio Shop Rick” in the city of Madison’s radio communications division. When police or fire officers sought Krueger’s help, however, he knew the work wouldn’t be fun. Finding drowning victims never is.
In April 2013, two years into retirement, Krueger offered to help find Charles Guerts, 26, of Kaukauna, who disappeared three months earlier while in town for a conference. Searchers suspected Guerts fell through Lake Monona’s weak ice while taking a shortcut back to his room at the Sheraton Hotel. Cadaver dogs indicated where Guerts likely went through, but by then the lake was ice-covered, and recovery efforts failed.
When Krueger got his boat and sonar units operating in April, he acquired GPS coordinates from the cadaver dogs’ handlers and began searching. He detected something on the bottom 33 feet below during his first pass, and lowered a camera. When he couldn’t make out the video images with certainty on the camera’s small screen, he went home and verified his suspicions on his computer. He notified authorities, and helped them recover Guerts’ body.
Identifying underwater objects on a sonar screen can be hard. “You can tell a boat from a log, but you can’t tell a log from a big pipe,” Krueger said. “Anyone who says they can instantly identify something on sonar is full of it.”
Although finding drowning victims is gruesome, heart-wrenching work, Krueger said it provides relief for grieving families. “I used to avoid being there when they recovered the body, and I avoided contact with family members,” he said. “But then I received a letter from a young man’s mother, thanking me for finding her son. I learned if I can provide comfort by finding someone’s loved one, I owe them my help. Whenever I feel sorry for myself and have doubts about helping, I read that mother’s letter.”
These days, rescue crews have better equipment and their own sonar experts, so they seldom request Krueger’s help. He’s fine with that, because less stressful mysteries remain beneath the waves.
“Until about 100 years ago, people dumped everything into the lakes, even the bones, skulls and horns of cattle they slaughtered,” Krueger said. “And if someone was working out there on a barge in the 1800s, and it was too much trouble to get it off the lake before winter, they just sank it and didn’t tell anyone.”
Fishermen did likewise to create fish-attracting structures for their own private hotspots. “I’ve found fish cribs made of tractor tires bound together with cable,” Krueger said. “I record everything into my data package, which I’ve shared with the DNR and sell for $20 to anyone who contacts me (firstname.lastname@example.org).”
Meanwhile, he keeps trying to verify the crash path of Otis Redding’s plane, which plunged into Lake Monona, killing the famous young singer, the pilot and four band members Dec. 10, 1967. Newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts don’t quite agree on where salvage crews removed the wreckage.
Undaunted, Krueger keeps searching for clues. “Lakes can’t keep their secrets forever,” he said.