After giving Sarah Gonstead a couple of days to return home, her mother, Linda, reported her daughter missing on March 16, 1994.

Although it's not unheard of for a 21-year-old college dropout to disappear from view for a while, it was completely out of character for Gonstead, who still lived at home, attended church regularly and didn't have a boyfriend.

Penny Brummer had been the last person known to have seen her. After a night of bar hopping with Gonstead, Brummer said she left her late March 14 outside a bar on Madison's East Side.

Gonstead, Brummer said, wasn't feeling well and wanted to walk to the nearby apartment of Glenda Johnson, her best friend and Brummer's ex-girlfriend.

In the days and weeks that followed, family and friends scoured the East Side for Gonstead. They posted flyers and looked for anyone who might have seen her. Meanwhile, Brummer went over her itinerary of that night several more times with police and with members of Johnson's family, who had started their own investigation.

Police interviewed the owner of a van matching the description of one Brummer said she saw the night Gonstead disappeared. Although the man had a lengthy criminal record, investigators didn't pursue the lead after the man said he hadn't been in the Taco Bell parking lot that night and didn't recognize Gonstead from her picture.

Johnson, Gonstead's best friend since second grade, was frequently ill and missed work in the days after Gonstead's disappearance. Witnesses said Brummer, who worked at the same Middleton window blind manufacturer as Johnson, seemed aloof, calm.

"She said she couldn't let it bother her like it was bothering Glenda," Johnson's former boyfriend, Brett Turner, would later testify. "She had a job to do, so forth. She couldn't afford to be taking off."

Then on April 9, a mild, windy day, Christopher Clemons was riding his bicycle along Mineral Point Road west of Pine Bluff when he noticed an incongruous flash of color in the barren woods along the road.

Returning for a better look, Clemons soon realized he was looking at a body.

Shot at close range

Word of the discovery spread quickly, with media outlets speculating the body could be that of Gonstead.

Brummer and several of Johnson's friends and relatives gathered at Johnson's apartment to watch the late television news report. Iris Darlene Derrick was one of them.

When she asked Brummer how Johnson was doing - meaning her emotional state at the possible discovery of her best friend's body - she said the answer surprised her.

"She told me that . . . the situation between her and Glenda was getting better and she wasn't holding her breath, but she was hoping that they'd get back together," Derrick would later testify.

The group watched a movie while they waited for the news to come on. What happened next is in dispute, but some witnesses would testify that Brummer wanted to keep watching the movie instead of the news. Brummer has denied it, saying the discussion was about whether to return to the movie after the news was over.

An autopsy would later find Gonstead had been shot at close range in the back of the head with a .22 caliber bullet. The coroner put the date of death between March 14 and March 20, 1994.

Police interviewed Brummer and Johnson again, this time probing deeper into their relationship. Brummer said they'd broken up that winter after she discovered Johnson had gone back on birth control pills. Johnson, who told police she was unsure of her sexual orientation, had been talking with Gonstead about dating men again.

Brummer once again repeated her summary of her night out with Gonstead, which she said consisted of visits to Wonder's Pub on the East Side, the Regent Street Retreat near Camp Randall Stadium and Paul's Speedway Bar & Grill on the far West Side. They stopped to relieve themselves on the north side of Lake Mendota before ending the night in the lot of the former Club 3054 on East Washington Avenue.

'I was pretty drunk'

But the next day, investigators decided to drop in at Jake's Bar & Grill in Pine Bluff, west of Madison, to ask whether anyone had seen the women. Why, yes, bartender Heather Engen said; she had served Brummer and another young woman March 14. They had stayed about an hour and a half, leaving sometime between midnight and 1 a.m.

It was a significant development: In her descriptions of that night, Brummer had never mentioned Jake's, less than two miles - and a straight shot down Mineral Point Road - from where Gonstead's body was found.

Police brought Brummer in again and asked her directly whether she'd ever been to Jake's. She said she hadn't. Told she and Gonstead had been seen there, Brummer said, "I was pretty drunk. I must have blacked out."

After he accused her of being involved in Gonstead's death, Dane County Sheriff's Det. Kenneth Pledger said Brummer became teary-eyed, began fidgeting and nodded slightly.

"I said, 'I know you'd like to take this night back' . . . (and) she was sitting there and again shaking her head real slightly in the affirmative," he would remember later.

Police arrested Brummer later that afternoon.

A half-minute away

No physical evidence has ever tied Brummer to Gonstead's murder. But investigators felt they had more than enough circumstantial evidence to charge her, beginning with the obvious: She was the last known person to see Gonstead alive, and she had left out of her description of that evening a critical detail: the visit to Jake's.

Prosecutors also were immediately skeptical of Brummer's story about letting Gonstead walk to Johnson's house rather than drop her there and wait until she'd gotten safely in the door.

Johnson, who like Brummer worked second shift, likely wouldn't have been home at 11 p.m., when Brummer said Gonstead left her. Gonstead didn't have a key to her apartment, and her own home was two miles away.

In a 1995 interview with the national gay and lesbian journal The Advocate, Brummer said the Club 3054 lot was practically in Johnson's back yard, a half-minute to minute's walk away.

"Everybody always asks me, 'Why didn't you walk her home, why this, why that?' " she said. "I walked it all the time. I never thought anything would ever happen to anybody."

Hoping to find the murder weapon, sheriff's deputies went to Brummer's home and presented her mother, Nancy, with a search warrant listing the guns owned by Brummer's late father. Sheriff's Det. David Bongiovani asked about the only .22 caliber handgun on the list, an old 9-shot Hi Standard revolver.

"She walked us down the hallway and said, 'It's in the top dresser drawer,' " Bongiovani would later recall.

But when they opened the drawer, the gun was missing.

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Phil Brinkman is city editor for the Wisconsin State Journal.