It had been nearly a month since Penny Brummer and her girlfriend, Glenda Johnson, had broken up. Outwardly, the reasons Johnson gave Brummer for wanting to split up had to do with Brummer's unwillingness to help around the house: doing the laundry, washing the dishes.

But the truth was a lot more complicated. Pretty and vivacious, Johnson, then 20, had had no trouble attracting the attention of men. Brummer had been the first woman with whom she'd become involved.

After seven months of good times -- plus a lot of drinking and a lot of quarreling -- Johnson had begun to question her sexual orientation.

Her confidante had been Sarah Gonstead, Johnson's best friend since second grade. The two spoke most every day, often about their favorite soap opera, "Days of Our Lives." How much Johnson told Gonstead about her relationship with Brummer isn't known. But it's likely Gonstead would have reinforced any doubts Johnson had about Brummer.

Gonstead, who was straight, had disapproved of Johnson's choice of partner but not, she wrote in an unfinished letter to a friend, because Johnson had "come out that she is gay." Rather, she said, "the relationship she's in isn't healthy for her, and there's nothing I can do about it!!!"

Brummer grew up in Spring Green, where she spent her teen years playing softball, hunting with her father and brother, and binge drinking with friends, she'd say later, to the point of blacking out. Small but tough, she joined the Air Force after high school and was assigned to base security at an air base in California.

There, she married a gay airman, which allowed both of them to live off base and date whom they wished, out of sight of military superiors. After her discharge in 1993, she and a girlfriend moved back to Spring Green, but the relationship didn't last.

Brummer found work as a grocery store stocker before getting a job at a Middleton window blind manufacturer, where Johnson also worked.

Johnson, who grew up on Madison's East Side and briefly attended UW-Whitewater before returning to her home town, had a boyfriend at the time. By June, however, they broke up. About the same time, Johnson, who had been sharing an apartment, moved into her own place, about half a block from what was then Club 3054, a gay bar where Brummer liked to hang out.

The two had grown close, and by July they were lovers. Soon, they were living together in Johnson's Hoard Street duplex.

Yet, their relationship was often tempestuous. According to various accounts, Johnson was flirtatious and moody, while Brummer was controlling and jealous of the time Johnson spent with her straight friends. When Johnson would go out to cruise Madison's East Washington Avenue on the motorcycles she and her friends called "crotch rockets," she said Brummer would stay at home and sulk.

By early 1994, the relationship was starting to fray. The pair split in mid-February.

Brummer, then 25, took the breakup hard. Johnson "was in my head 24 hours a day," Brummer would later say. Johnson said she hoped they'd remain friends.

Yet, when Brummer surprised Johnson one night at her East Side duplex, she was stunned to find her watching a movie with a male co-worker. Brummer sat there for a while in stony silence, then left.

The next day, Monday, March 14, 1994, Brummer decided to leave work early for a night out. She asked some co-workers to join her, but none could get off early.

She bought a burger, got a 12-pack of beer and headed to the house on Madison's North Side where Gonstead -- who had recently dropped out of UW-Madison, where she had hoped to study engineering -- lived with her mother.

"I knew Sarah didn't have a job, wasn't going to school or anything, so I figured, she'll go," Brummer later told the national gay and lesbian journal The Advocate.

Last seen near club?

Gonstead had recently turned 21, and though the two of them had never socialized alone together, Brummer suggested they go for a belated birthday celebration. She chatted with Gonstead's mother, Linda, while Gonstead changed her clothes, donning a purple and pink jacket as she left.

Drinking as they drove, the two stopped at 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. Brummer estimated she had 12 to 15 drinks; Gonstead eight, maybe nine.

The women stopped to relieve themselves in the woods on the north side of Lake Mendota, Brummer said, ending the evening about 11 p.m. at Club 3054 on East Washington Avenue. Several cars were in the small parking lot, Brummer said, so she parked in the back.

But Gonstead wasn't feeling well. She got out of the car to walk to Johnson's apartment, half a block away, Brummer said.

About the same time, Brummer spilled a bottle of beer next to the parking brake of the car -- her mom's Honda Civic -- tipping the beer "over on to my arm and my leg and all down the seat," she would say later.

After spending 10 to 20 minutes cleaning up the mess, Brummer said she decided against going in the club and headed back to her mother's home in Spring Green, where she'd been living since her breakup with Johnson.

As she drove off, Brummer said, she thought she saw Gonstead in the adjacent Taco Bell parking lot talking with a small cluster of people -- among them a petite figure with long brown hair -- accompanied by motorcycles and a gray van with "bug-eyed" windows. It would be the last reported sighting of Gonstead for nearly a month.

Frantic calls

The next morning, Brummer later told police, she called Johnson at home to ask whether Gonstead had made it to her apartment. Johnson also remembered the call. Yet, mysteriously, phone records would later show no such call was made. What is known is that the two spoke later that day when they showed up for their second-shift jobs in Middleton.

Johnson said Gonstead hadn't shown up and was shocked that Brummer would let her walk to her apartment alone, inebriated and at night, not knowing whether Johnson was even home. When her shift ended, Johnson sat in the company parking lot with her co-worker and former boyfriend, Brett Turner. Johnson was worried, the two would later say, to the point of tears.

It wasn't until she got home that night that Johnson said her fears were realized: Gonstead's mother, Linda Gonstead, had left a message on her answering machine wondering where her daughter was.

The next day, March 16, Johnson made a frantic series of calls to family, friends, Linda Gonstead, and the police. She and Brummer reported for work, but Johnson left early, and then called Linda Gonstead again later that night.

A bright pink bundle

Shortly before 7 p.m. that night, David Zoromski, an analytical chemist for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, was driving his son to religion class from his home in rural Mount Horeb to a church in Pine Bluff.

As he crested a small hill on Mineral Point Road, Zoromski was surprised to see in his headlights a red SUV or pickup truck parked on the opposite shoulder, partly on the road.

The victim of a burglary years earlier, Zoromski had made it a point to take note of suspicious vehicles along this lonesome stretch of road. He slowed down and saw what he took to be a slightly built young man standing in front of the open right passenger door.

As he passed, Zoromski said, the man looked up, then put his head down again.

At his feet, visible under the elevated carriage of the vehicle, lay a bright pink object roughly the size of a duffel bag.

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Phil Brinkman is city editor for the Wisconsin State Journal.