While the trial in Netflix’s popular crime documentary Making a Murderer takes place in 2006, the story behind it spans back all the way to 1985, when Steven Avery was first jailed for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen. DNA evidence would free him in 2003, revealing the true culprit to be Gregory Allen, a man with an extensive rap sheet that local police were actively monitoring at the time of the crime.
When Steven Avery was again arrested in 2005 for the murder of Teresa Halbach, he claimed he was being framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. A strong accusation, but it all starts to make sense when you look into his treatment by them in his 1985 case. Let’s take a deep look at that original case and the relationship between Steven Avery and the sheriffs of Manitowoc County.
The following evidence was gathered from depositions made during the 2004 Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office investigation into the handling of the Penny Beerntsen / Steven Avery case, Avery’s 2005 civil suit against Manitowoc County, and the Making A Murderer documentary itself.
Before the Penny Beerntsen case, the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department had come down like a ton of bricks on Steven Avery in another case where he ran his cousin Sandra Morris off the road. Morris was married to a deputy sheriff and Steven’s lawyer Reesa Evans contends is the reason he had the book thrown at him. Avery was charged with two felonies: endangering safety regardless of life and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
But where things go really bad for Avery is when Deputy Judy Dvorak takes Beerntsen’s statement after her assault and tells her superiors the perpetrator sounds like Avery. That’s despite several key differences in Penny’s original written statement between the perpetrator and Avery: different height (5-foot-11 vs 5-foot-1), different builds (athletic vs. stocky), different eye color (brown vs. blue), and different hair color (blonde vs. brown).
According to Deputy Arland Avery (Steven Avery’s uncle), Sheriff Kocourek’s right hand man Deputy Sheriff Gene Kusche made a composite drawing based not on Penny Beerntsen’s description but a copy of Steven Avery’s mugshot from the incident with his cousin (a charge Kusche denies). They presented that image to Beerntsen, who confirmed it looked like the assailant. They then showed her a lineup of mugshots with the image of Avery.
Steven Avery’s lawyer Reesa Evans was not happy with the way any of that went. “So they show Penny Beerntsen Steven’s picture,” she says in Making a Murderer. “And then she sees a lineup later and Steven is the only person she’s seen before. Plus she had the sheriff’s deputy saying ‘I think it sounds like this guy.’ That’s pretty suggestive.”
It was also enough for Avery to be picked up. At 11:30 on the night of the attack, Avery was arrested at his home by Manitowoc Deputy Kenneth Petersen, who would later become sheriff. And here’s where things start to get really strange.