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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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Did Madison cops miss chance to catch Joel Marino killer?
Witness says he saw suspect again, but police didn't seem to care

A key witness in the Joel Marino murder investigation says he saw Marino's killer walking along West Shore Drive six weeks ago, but he believes police did not take his call seriously.

"I thought the cavalry would come," says the witness, a retired Madison firefighter who asked not to be identified because the killer remains at large. "No one ever came."

This wasn't your ordinary police tip. It came from the man who saw the suspect on the day of the murder, near where the presumed killer dumped a hat and backpack that were later linked by DNA tests to the knife used to kill Marino.

The witness told his story to Isthmus after reading last week's revelation that UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before she was murdered, but police were never sent. He was also infuriated by a comment from Police Chief Noble Wray, after the Zimmermann murder, urging people with relevant information to "call police, and we will come."

"That just pissed me off," says the man. "It's bullshit."

On Good Friday, March 21, the witness was shoveling snow as two men walked by. One of the men, he believed, was the person he had seen on Jan. 28, minutes after Marino was fatally stabbed.

"It just sent quivers through me," he says. "This was a white guy, with the same tall and slim build, the same coat, and he didn't have a butt. His pants just kind of hung there." The witness says his attention to detail was honed by years of writing reports for fire investigators. But he admits that he did not get a good look at the man's face on either occasion.

Upon spotting the suspect, the witness ran inside and called the police non-emergency number.

"I said, 'I'm the one who saw him the day of the murder. He just came up my street again,'" he recalls. "I wanted to give them credence that this wasn't a prank, this wasn't just anybody calling."

After calling police, the man raced outside, found a neighbor, and together they drove around the neighborhood, searching.

"He just kind of vanished," the witness relates. "We went everywhere, the hardware store, Copps, drove up and down Park Street. We never saw him again. And we never saw a squad the whole time we were looking."

The witness says no officer ever contacted him in response to this call. Upset, he tracked down a detective at the south district: "He said he'd check it out. He said thanks for calling. That's it."

Capt. Jim Wheeler of the South Madison Police District says police were dispatched to the area at 4:59 p.m. on March 21 but "did not locate anyone." He doesn't know why officers didn't contact the witness, saying he's not had time to investigate.

Wheeler did have time, however, to vent about the toll that the Marino family's public criticism of the police investigation has taken on him and his detectives.

"We have gone above and beyond in the Marino case," Wheeler says. "It's hurtful when we hear this stuff. If we're not doing our job, go to professional standards, internal affairs, the chief, or the Police and Fire Commission. That's the process for complaints. Now people are just calling the newspapers. It's not fair to us."

Lou and Debbie Marino, Joel's parents, were outraged by last week's revelations about the botched 911 call. The news of the firefighter's sighting of the suspect adds to their growing anger.

The Marinos believe police investigators have engaged in "turf battles," "ego trips," "unexplained delays" and "lies."

"They are beyond their capacity, and they care most about covering their asses," says Lou Marino, who has asked the Attorney General's Office to step in. "I won't let my son's murder investigation be mismanaged. I can't sit by and just watch people bide their time so this just becomes a forgotten case."

Police say they do not know whether the Marino and Zimmermann murders are connected. Marino lived about three blocks south of Brittingham Park, Zimmermann three blocks northeast. Both were stabbed to death inside their homes in the middle of the day.

"I hope I'm wrong, but I think there's a serial killer out there," says Debbie Marino. "You want to know what haunts me? Had we gotten harder on the police, could we have stopped Brittany's murder?"

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