It was daybreak on Tuesday, October 26, 1909 in old De Pere, when the body of Otto Zimdars was found in a pool of blood. Zimdars was De Pere’s Deputy Marshall and although dead, his body was still warm. Leslie Putnam discovered him lying on Fourth Street near the corner of Main Avenue, which was just outside the deputy’s office. Soon, the city was abuzz with policemen attempting to piece the case together.
Drs. Lenfestey and Gregory performed the post mortem, and concluded that Otto’s death was caused by a single bullet wound to his stomach. It entered him three inches from his umbilicus (belly button) passing downward and severing an artery before lodging in his pelvic bone. The 28 caliber shot was fired at close range with no signs of struggle. A woman’s handkerchief was found near the body as well as burnt matches, cigarette papers, and a package of tobacco. His watch and revolver were not found on his person and his death was thought to be instant¹.
The same day as the shooting, a woman named Frances Martel was brought in for questioning. Frances was recently divorced from William Gegare, and she was allegedly “friendly” with the married Otto Zimdars, whom she was with the night of the incident. Initially Frances denied knowing anything about the crime but soon afterward she confessed. She claimed that while her and Zimdars were walking together a man stepped out from behind a tree, and without warning, ran up to Otto and shot him. When asked if she recognized the man, Frances responded that she did; her jealous ex-husband…William Gegare.
Frances Martel and William Gegare, had divorced earlier in 1909. She had alleged cruel behavior (including beatings) on the part of William and he maintained Frances was a bigamist. Earlier in March of 1908, Frances was sentenced to one year in prison for what seemed a crime of a sexual nature. The newspaper refused to expound on it only calling it a “serious charge” noting her arrest took place in a Main Street hotel room². Whether or not this was considered, William was awarded custody of their 4 year old son. In August 1909 (two months before the Zimdars shooting), with the help of her step-father (a Mr. Stephens) Frances kidnapped her own son from William and tried to escape to Chicago. They did not get there though as they were arrested in Racine. Initially the state pressed charges but eventually Mr. Gegare decided to not pursue litigation³.
A warrant for the murder of Otto Zimdars was issued for both Frances Martel and her ex William Gegare. Both were arrested and pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder, and neither were granted bail. However, as it turns out, William had an alibi. His brother had stayed the night at William’s house the day of the murder, and soon it became clear Frances Martel’s story did not add up⁴. That is when District Attorney John W. Reynolds got Frances’ real confession. Here is her story:
We took the train from Green Bay. Mr. Zimdars riding in the smoker and I in the passenger coach. After arriving at De Pere we met a short ways from the depot, and went to the Van Susteren saloon. Mr. Zimdars had a key to the back door and after unlocking it we went in. He handed me a bottle of whiskey and took a bottle of beer for himself. At this time he also handed me a couple of vulgar cards, saying that he had a few more at the office. I wanted to go home after leaving the saloon but Mr. Zimdars wanted me to go over to the office and get the cards he had there.
I went with him to the office and he told me where to get the cards. I opened the drawer in the desk and laying on top of the cards was a revolver. I did not know at the time that by pulling the trigger the gun would shoot as I had been used to seeing guns that had to be cocked by hand. I pointed the revolver at him and pulled the trigger. Mr. Zimdars turned around and ran out of the office onto the street. I followed a short ways and then turned around to go back into the office to telephone for a doctor but could not get in as the door was locked. I think it must have had a spring lock that would lock as the door was pulled shut.
I then went to Mr. Zimdars, who was lying in the road, and putting his head on my knees held him for some time. When I went to him he was still breathing. He never said a word and while I was there I lit a few matches which I got out of my pocket. I stayed with him about half an hour. I was about half full of whiskey and was so excited I did not know what to do. While near him I said, ‘Oh Otto, Oh Otto’. Not knowing what to do, I was so excited, it came to my mind that the people would think it was me that did it. I left him and went to Tracy Meyer’s house where I went to bed. The next morning Tracy and I went over and got a drink. Zimdars gave me four dollars that night. The reason I stated that Gegare killed Otto was the way the officers treated me. One of the officers said “The divorced husband Gegare shot him, didn’t he?” and I said that he did.Green Bay Press-Gazette
November 4, 1909
This new confession was corroborated by all the evidence obtained during the investigation. Martel shared testimony with the jury that convinced all of the accidental nature of the shooting, adding that she had taken the deputy’s watch. Although the jury still recommended prosecuting Martel for the smaller crimes of adultery, gross drunkeness, and careless handling of firearms, District Attorney Reynolds felt it would appear the state was compromising for the crime and would only throw more “odium” on the dead Zimdars. The case was dismissed and Martel was released⁵.
News of the De Pere’s shooting and manhunt spread to newspapers as far away as Grand Forks, North Dakota and Hutchinson, Kansas. Soon after the trial, Mayor D.C. Jones issued a warning to all the De Pere saloons that they must obey regulations in regards to closing time, sale to minors, and “general manner of operations”. He states, “I mean to get rid of the saloon men who do not adhere to the law.” Mentioning “This Zimdars case has brought out some startling facts”⁶.
Deputy Marshall Otto W. Zimdars died at 38 years old. He was survived by his wife and two children, a daughter and a son. He is buried alongside his wife at Greenwood Cemetery.
Frances Martel was arrested Nov 10, 1909 as she stepped off the street car in De Pere. Her arrest was ordered by Mayor D.C. Jones. Charged only with vagrancy, she was released after promising to leave De Pere and to never return⁷. It seems she did just that.
1 Green Bay Press-Gazette, Oct 26, 1909, Page 1
2 Green Bay Press-Gazette, Mar 16, 1908, Page 4
3 Green Bay Press-Gazette, Aug 11, 1909, Page 7
4 Appleton Post-Crescent, Oct 29, 1909, Page 1
5 Green Bay Semi-Weekly, Nov 13, 1909, Pages 1 & 10
6 Green Bay Semi-Weekly, Nov 17, 1909, Page 8
7 Green Bay Press-Gazette, Nov 11, 1909, Page 5