Lieutenant James Lenk of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office was heavily involved in the investigation of Teresa Halbach’s murder, brought back into the public eye by Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Testimony and evidence contributed by Lenk helped convict Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey to the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer.
Steven Avery, exonerated after 18 years in prison on sexual assault convictions, had filed a civil suit against Manitowoc County and related parties. Due to that suit, when Avery became a suspect in Halbach’s disappearance and expected murder, the investigation was led by neighboring Calumet County. However, during the trial to convict Avery, two Manitowoc Sheriff’s deputies were proven to have repeated involvement in the investigation. Sergeant Andrew Colborn, and his superior Lieutenant James Lenk. The investigation wasn’t Lenk’s first interaction with Avery, which has drawn even more suspicions about his involvement.
James Lenk & Steven Avery
The earliest official reference for James Lenk’s awareness of Steven Avery was in 1995, during the period of Avery’s false imprisonment. Sometime that year, Andrew Colborn received a call from a detective in nearby Brown County. The detective reported having someone in custody that was claiming responsibility for a crime another person, in Manitowoc County, had been convicted of. This phone call remained officially unreported until September 12, 2003.
The day after Avery is released for his unjust conviction, Andrew Colborn contacted his superior officer, James Lenk. Lenk told Colborn to write a report, which was then taken by the sheriff and placed in a safe.
This report is uncovered only during the litigation of Avery’s civil suit against Manitowoc County, more than two years later. On October 11, James Lenk is deposed, followed two days later by Andrew Colborn, with questions about the report. While Lenk’s answers are largely evasive and unclear, it is established he instructed Colborn to make a report in 2003. What isn’t established is whether at any point earlier Lenk knew of the call. On October 26, then-Chief Deputy Eugene Kusche is deposed. His testimony states Lenk was aware of the call in 1995, as was then-Sheriff Tom Kocourek, who Kusche testified to have said, “we already have the right guy, and [Colborn] should not concern himself.”
Crucial to the defense’s allegations of misconduct, Colborn’s report, along with Colborn and his chain-of-command, became a focus of the trial. However the trial stops abruptly, when Steven Avery is arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach. During the eventual trial, the defense questioned the circumstances of the investigation surrounding each piece of the evidence used to prosecute Avery: Teresa Halbach’s vehicle and key, her bones, and Steven Avery’s own blood. James Lenk, deposed three weeks earlier for Avery’s false imprisonment, is who found her key.
Two days before Avery’s arrest, on November 7, Lenk is searching Steven Avery’s trailer with a Calumet sheriff’s deputy who had been instructed to watch him. The next day, Lenk, searching the same area without a supervisor, found Teresa Halbach’s valet key, on a ring matching a lanyard found in her vehicle. Later that day, Manitowoc County Sheriff Jerry Pagel gave a press conference, clarifying that Manitowoc’s role was only to provide resources as needed – despite the majority of physical evidence having been found by Manitowoc deputies.
On November 9, Steven Avery is arrested, initially charged with felony possession of a firearm. On November 10, Kocourek, Sheriff during Avery’s false imprisonment, would have testified at Avery’s civil trial, but due to the murder investigation, that trial was put on hiatus; eventually settled in order to fund Avery’s legal defense.
Eventually the prosecution, in part reliant on the key found by Lenk, got a jury to convict Avery. With Avery back in jail, and the civil suit settled, there was no further investigation into Lenk or Colborn with regards to Avery’s previous false imprisonment.
Explaining the Report & Key
During Avery’s trial, the report filed by Colborn is featured minimally, mostly used by the defense to establish Lenk’s relationship to the defendant. With the potentially hostile feelings clarified, the defense highlighted that the key wasn’t found until the fourth day of consecutive searching, the first day Lenk and Colborn were left unsupervised. Under oath, both Colborn and Lenk claimed they didn’t plant evidence, so how did the key end up there?
The official reason was that Colborn shook a bookshelf, and then Lenk entered the room, spotting the key, which supposedly fell out from beside the key to the floor, next to some slippers.
There’s skepticism cast on this, however; this was the seventh search of the a small trailer, and it seems unlikely that the key would have been missed. Additionally, the key is found to have Steven Avery’s DNA on it – and only Avery’s. Teresa Hablach’s DNA did not show up on the key, at all. This suggests that either Avery meticulously cleaned the key, and recontaminated it, or the key was otherwise cleaned and had his DNA transfer onto it – perhaps from the slippers or the carpeted floor.
One interesting point is that the key was found with Avery’s DNA on it. However, Teresa Halbach’s DNA was not present, and Steven Avery’s fingerprints were not found.
James Lenk Now in 2017
After the release of Making a Murderer, someone claiming to represent the online collective Anonymous threatened to leak phone records for Lenk and Colborn, but closer inspection shows the Twitter account is likely a hoax. Some information was shared possibly linking Lenk to another client of Teresa Halbach’s, but that the link is unlikely to exist and even if true, probably inconsequential.
James Lenk is no longer listed as an employee for any Wisconsin law enforcement office. He would be in his mid-60s by now, so has likely retired. There will likely never be a suit against him for his inaction which kept Avery in jail unnecessarily for a decade, and Avery has no more chances for appealing his recent conviction, so any answers will likely remain unknown. Without new evidence, the theories that Lenk would have participated or led a conspiracy against Avery cannot develop beyond speculation.