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The legend of William Kunnecke, one of South Dakota's oldest and most mysterious serial killers

With little information on his last known whereabouts and no justice for his victims, the elusive serial killer William Kunnecke remains somewhat of a legend for South Dakota.

Barbed wire sits along a wall at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. (Republic file photo)
Barbed wire sits along a wall at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. (Republic file photo)
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SPEARFISH, S.D. — One of the most notoriously known serial killers of South Dakota has been a mystery since his killings in the early 1900s.

With not much information on his last known whereabouts and no justice for his victims, the elusive William Kunnecke remains somewhat of a legend and will continue to be one of the biggest mysteries of South Dakota.

From Germany to the United States

From what little information can be found, historians have determined that Kunnecke originated from Germany, coming to America in 1884 and, from there, Kunnecke settled in Mountain Home, Idaho.

William Kunnecke stood at 5 feet, 3 inches tall. He weighed approximately 160 pounds and allegedly killed somewhere between one to five people.

Legend says that, from there, Kunnecke started his own shoe shop before meeting his wife through what was called a marriage bureau, which was essentially the equivalent of a dating site back in the day. Regina Kopp and William Kunnecke were married in 1896.

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Kunnecke then bought a herd of sheep – which grew at a mysteriously quick rate – and him and his wife tended their new farm near Rocky Bar. With the growing numbers of the sheep, the Kunneckes had to hire farmhands – which disappeared at a mysteriously quicker rate than the sheep herd had grown.

Regina Kunnecke’s nephew, known only by his last name, Koeninger, arrived from Germany sometime in 1895 and was hired on as a farmhand. Koeninger remained employed under the Kunneckes for a little over a year and a half until he went missing somewhere around the area of Trinity Mountain.

William Kunnecke went looking for another farmhand, telling the citizens of Rocky Bar that Koeninger had gone back to Germany. These claims were investigated by the German consulate in Portland, Oregon. The consulate discovered that Koeninger’s parents hadn’t heard from him and that Kunnecke allegedly owed their son over $800 in wages, promised by a written letter to Koeninger.

According to legend, Kunnecke refused to pay the amount, stating that he already had paid him.

The townspeople were beginning to grow suspicious of the missing boy’s disappearance and Kunnecke’s strange stories that never seemed to line up, as well as his abnormally large herd of sheep.

Rumors began to fly that Kunnecke had killed Koeninger. City commissioners believed so strongly that Kunnecke was guilty, in fact, that they ordered a $1,000 reward for any information on Koeninger’s whereabouts.

Shortly after authorities made the bounty, William Kunnecke made his last appearance, claiming he was headed for Rocky Bar via horseback. It’s widely-believed by the townsfolk that, instead, he went to Trinity Mountain to get rid of any evidence that would tie him to his wife’s nephew’s disappearance.

Authorities eventually discovered that Kunnecke had moved on, later finding a burned down shack that belonged to the Kunnecke’s in the mountains. They suspected that Koeninger’s body was burned to ashes in a deliberate house-fire but unfortunately, Kunnecke left no proof behind.

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Kunnecke was never thoroughly investigated or tried for his potential part in Koeninger’s disappearance.

In the spring of 1900, another sheep owner’s body cropped up somewhere along the trail between his own farm and the Kunneckes. The man was identified as Litzman.

According to legend, Litzman had little trust in banks, leading him to carry most of his money on his person. Authorities found no money when they discovered his body, however, leading them to believe that his death was a robbery gone wrong.

At the same time, Kunnecke had left town in the attempt to skip a court-appointed bail bond for violating a law regarding herding diseased sheep for the amount of $500. Kunnecke's swift exit made townspeople and authorities even more suspicious of crimes seemingly connected to him.

With authorities hot on his trail, Kunnecke made his escape to Germany with his wife following soon after, where he stayed under the radar for a few years.

It later became widely a recognized and accepted theory that William Kunnecke had poisoned Litzman, stolen his money and left his body on the trail despite Kunnecke never being tried for the crime.

Resurfacing in South Dakota

Kunnecke, now in his 40's, disappeared once more and, after a long period of time, resurfaced in Spearfish, South Dakota, where he settled on another farm near Cottonwood’s creeks. Not very long after, Kunnecke was accused, tried and convicted of stealing over 300 sheep from another farmer.

Kunnecke was sentenced to pay a fine of $1,350 and spend a month in jail.

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After his stint in jail, Kunnecke hired another young farmhand from Iowa, Charles Rohrbecker. Rohrbecker then promptly disappeared.

According to South Dakota State archives, William Rohrbecker, Charles's 19 year-old brother, came looking for him, only for William himself to be hired on as a farmhand.

After Kunnecke explained the strange disappearance of Charles and that he would be needing another helping hand with him gone. William Rohrbecker agreed, and eventually met another older gentleman who worked as a farmhand, Andrew Demler, who would become Kunnecke’s next victim.

The days passed without incident, and Rohrbecker grew closer to Demler and noticed that Demler never worked without his dog and sheep-lined coat.

One day, however, Demler vanished, prompting Kunnecke to ask Rohrbecker to take over Demler’s duties on the farm.

Kennecke told Rohrbecker that Demler had moved on, gone back to New York.

Rohrbecker, weary, rode out to the sheep camp with Kunnecke. There, he allegedly found Demler’s dog sniffing a pool of blood frozen to the side of a sled. Kunnecke explained it away, saying that he had killed a sick ewe and discarded it there.

Rohrbecker was not convinced, but continued to work. He eventually opened the door to a tool shed and was disturbed to find Demler’s sheep-lined coat. With Demler’s jacket and dog — both prized possessions of Demler’s he never went without — and no Demler, Rohrbecker questioned his employer.

After multiple threats, Kunnecke told Rohrbecker that before he quit he would need to wait for another farmhand to be hired before he could leave. Rohrbecker realized that, like his brother and Demler, the same fate probably awaited him and he escaped late in the night.

According to South Dakota State Archives, after hopping a train back to Iowa, Rohrbecker wrote to Sheriff Feeney, a Stanley county sheriff, of his suspicions about Kunnecke.

Feeney began to dig. Kunnecke’s stories began to fall apart as the sheriff dug. After a few days of questioning, Feeney remained unconvinced that Kunnecke was only a do-good farmer who had bad luck with keeping farmhands and eventually formed a search posse to find Demler.

Panicked, Kunnecke decided to move Demler’s body early one morning. What he didn’t realize, however, was that the sheriff and the search party were already on his property and had found a tuft of hair in Demler’s body’s previous resting ground.

The sheriff and a man from the search party, Henry Schact, followed the tracks made by Kunnecke’s wagon, leading them not only to what remained of Demler, but to Kunnecke as well. After a search of his wagon, they found a broken pocketknife and an ax.

The search party recovered a few of Demler's limbs that Kunnecke had thrown to the side of a trail near Plum Creek. The rest of his body was found at the bottom of a hill.

It was determined from Demler’s frozen body, which Kunnecke had attempted to hack into pieces but was largely unsuccessful, that the cause of death was by gunshot. He had been shot three times, once in the head with a pistol, and then twice by shotgun, once in the mouth and another shot to the head. Powder burns were also discovered on Demler’s clothing.

Kunnecke was arrested and taken to Hughes County jail, where he spent almost a year as his lawyers, whom he’d hired immediately upon his arrest, fought the system with claims that their client had been locally prejudiced against.

Suicide attempts, prison and escape

During his time in prison, Kunnecke would go on to try to escape three times. On one such occasion, he was allegedly found with a saw made from an old pocketknife, a stove poker, a large bottle and a stick.

After being punished for this specific escape attempt, Kunnecke went on an almost-weeklong hunger strike. He also attempted suicide by eating a bar of soap and starting a fight with two Native American prisoners in the hopes of getting beat to death before a jailer could interfere.

He did, in fact, survive the brutal beating and went on to confess to Demler’s murder. However, he claimed he killed him in self-defense, to which only prevailed a life imprisonment sentence.

Kunnecke was sent to South Dakota State Prison, where, at the age of 69, he would last be seen watering the lawn at the end of August, 1919.

According to State Archives, he slipped through a gate unnoticed and was able to put considerable distance between himself and authorities before a warden had noticed.

Though other detective agencies in the U.S. were notified of Kunnecke’s disappearance, he successfully evaded police. One report of a man matching Kunnecke’s description was last seen in El Paso, Texas, presumably to cross over the Mexican border, but was never confirmed by authorities.

To this day, William Kunnecke’s last known whereabouts remain unknown, as does the number of victims he truly had and Kunnecke remains one of South Dakota’s creepiest and darkest mysteries.

Cassie Williams joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2022. To get in contact with Cassie about potential stories, feel free to email her at cwilliams@mitchellrepublic.com.
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