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A woman was found dead with an ax in her head. 37 years later, her husband faces charges

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3 days ago Gary Craig, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
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More than 37 years after James Krauseneck Jr. told police he found his wife with a woodcutting ax buried deep into her head, he has been accused of her murder.

The Feb. 19, 1982 homicide, which became known in New York state as the unsolved “Brighton ax murder,” has perplexed police for nearly four decades — a tragic story made all the more heart-wrenching because the couple’s then 3½-year-old daughter, Sara, may have witnessed the killing before spending hours alone in the home with her mother's bloodied corpse.

a man holding a dog: The Krausenecks in a family photo. © File The Krausenecks in a family photo.

In an indictment unsealed Friday morning, Krauseneck is accused of second-degree murder in the homicide of his wife, Cathleen “Cathy” Krauseneck, who was 29 when killed. Krauseneck pleaded not guilty Friday before state Supreme Court Justice Charles Schiano Jr. His daughter Sara accompanied her father to the court appearance.

a group of people standing in a room: James Krauseneck, 67, arrives at court with his daughter Sara, right on Nov. 8, 2019 © Shawn Dowd James Krauseneck, 67, arrives at court with his daughter Sara, right on Nov. 8, 2019

Krauseneck, 67, is being represented by local attorneys William Easton and Michael Wolford. Wolford represented Krauseneck in 1982 during the original investigation.

His attorneys insist on his innocence.

"Over 37 years ago, Sara Krauseneck lost her mother and Jim Krauseneck lost his wife," Wolford said after the plea. "Today marks a further tragedy — Jim being charged with Kathleen's murder. 

"Jim's innocence was clear 37 years ago," Wolford said. "It's clear today. At the end of the case I have no doubt Jim will be vindicated."

Krauseneck remains free on a bail of $25,000 cash, and a partially secured amount of another $75,000, meaning that money would be owed if he tries to flees. He surrendered his passport. 

Cathleen Krauseneck's sister, Annet Schlosser, said in a telephone interview Friday that her family has long waited for criminal charges against James Krauseneck Jr.

"My family will see justice for Cathy, we hope," Schlosser said. "We still have a ways to go yet with the trial, but this is a huge step forward."

The trial is tentatively scheduled for early June.

Krauseneck told police in 1982 that he found his wife dead when he returned home from his job at around 5 p.m. He scooped up Sara, who had dressed herself that day in two sweaters she put on backwards, and ran to a neighbor's home and called police.

a person posing for the camera: Cathleen Krauseneck was killed in 1982 by an ax blow to her head in her Brighton home. © Staff Cathleen Krauseneck was killed in 1982 by an ax blow to her head in her Brighton home.

Police stumped by crime

As weeks and then months passed with the crime unsolved, the 1982 homicide rattled the quiet neighborhood, prompting a rush at local hardware stores for deadbolts and other home security measures. In the year after the homicide, Brighton police traveled to three states where the Krausenecks previously lived and interviewed more than 300 people, even speaking with psychics.

Then-Brighton Police Chief Eugene Shaw kept the case file on his desk as years passed.

a man wearing a suit and tie: James Krauseneck said he discovered the body of his wife, Cathy, murdered with an ax in their Brighton home. He is now accused of murdering her. © Staff James Krauseneck said he discovered the body of his wife, Cathy, murdered with an ax in their Brighton home. He is now accused of murdering her.

“I look at it every morning when I come in,” he told the Democrat and Chronicle in 1985. “It’s right in the forefront of our minds. Police officers live these things; they don’t forget about it.”

It wasn’t until 2016, when Brighton police and FBI officials said they were conducting DNA testing on the ax handle and other pieces of crime scene evidence, when police even hinted at Krauseneck, who was then living in Washington state, as a suspect.

Police have not said what, if any, results came from the DNA testing.

Krauseneck was at first cooperative with police in the days after the homicide but then refused to continue talking to police unless certain conditions were met. Those conditions were not identified in news coverage in 1982; police declined to agree to the terms.

a close up of a newspaper: Democrat and Chronicle story on Brighton ax murder © Democrat and Chronicle Democrat and Chronicle story on Brighton ax murder

It's likely prosecutors did not want to offer Krauseneck immunity before a grand jury. The grand jury that this month handed up the indictment accusing Krauseneck of murder appears to be the first ever convened to hear evidence in the criminal case.

Suspected burglary

In 1982, police said Cathleen Krauseneck may have been killed during a burglary. A window was found shattered from the outside; the ax wielded in the homicide and a maul, used for splitting wood, were found in the home.

Police said the window was apparently smashed with the maul. Also found was a sock that may have been used to hold the maul.

Former Rochester Times-Union reporter Laurie Bennett, who covered the case extensively and interviewed James Krauseneck nine years after the homicide, wrote in a 1991 article that police ultimately decided that the burglary appeared "too neat."

a close up of a door: Police photograph of the back door of the Krauseneck's home at 33 Del Rio Drive, Brighton. Glass had been broken by a wood-splitting maul, supposedly so an intruder could get into the house. © Staff Police photograph of the back door of the Krauseneck's home at 33 Del Rio Drive, Brighton. Glass had been broken by a wood-splitting maul, supposedly so an intruder could get into the house.

"Upstairs and downstairs, money and jewelry lay in plain sight," wrote Bennett, who was working at the Detroit News at the time of the 1991 article. "A silver tea set and two candelabra had been placed on the dining room floor, near a plastic bag. Cathleen Krauseneck's purse was nearby, its contents strewn across the carpet."

Police provided new details of the crime to Bennett for the 1991 story, in hopes it would generate new leads and tips.

a large white house: 33 Del Rio Drive, Brighton, then home of James and Cathleen Krauseneck at the time of her murder © Staff 33 Del Rio Drive, Brighton, then home of James and Cathleen Krauseneck at the time of her murder

In that same story, Bennett interviewed Krauseneck, who was living in Michigan at the time and who had not spoken to police since 1982. In the interview, Krauseneck said his daughter, who was then 12, had some independent memories of the night of the killing. 

"I think Sara knows what happened to her mom," said Krauseneck, who then still refused to allow her to be interviewed by police. "She was there that day. 

"It's not something we talk about very often. I think she has her own way of thinking about it. She's had to figure out her way of dealing with it."

A loving couple

In the years after the homicide, Cathleen's family stood by her husband, saying that the investigation appeared myopically and unfairly focused on James. It was in recent years that they began to think he committed the killing.

In 1982 neighbors, family, and friends portrayed the couple as extremely close and loving. Both parents doted over Sara.

Not long before the killing, an issue arose for Krauseneck at his job. He had maintained that he had a doctorate, but it turned out he had not completed his doctoral work.

He had told his previous employer — a college in Virginia, where he taught economics — the same thing.

It's unclear whether Krauseneck's employment was at risk, or whether his wife knew. At the time of the homicide, the Krauseneck family had lived in the Rochester area for less than a year.

a group of people posing for the camera: James Krauseneck, second from left, walks into court, with daughter Sara, right, and wife Sharon, to face charges in the 1982 murder of his then-wife Cathleen, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Hall of Justice in Rochester. © SHAWN DOWD/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AN James Krauseneck, second from left, walks into court, with daughter Sara, right, and wife Sharon, to face charges in the 1982 murder of his then-wife Cathleen, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Hall of Justice in Rochester.

Krauseneck recently retired from his job as a vice-president at Weyerhaeuser in the state of Washington. He and his wife, Sharon, now live in Arizona.

At Cathleen Krauseneck's memorial service in Michigan, the priest said, "The two prevailing emotions today are grief and bewilderment. We are brought together by circumstances that have neither rhyme nor reason.

"She and her husband had just begun their home. Although this tragedy has destroyed the life of her body, no number of tragedies can destroy the life of her soul."

Follow Gary Craig on Twitter: @gcraig1

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: A woman was found dead with an ax in her head. 37 years later, her husband faces charges

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