It was 1979. The Bee Gees were dominating the top of US charts and Jimmy Carter was President.
Dona Mae Bayerl, 38, was living in Muskego, Wisconsin, with her husband John and their two children, Jodie, then seven, and Jackie, four.
Dona adored raising her two girls. She’d always worked before becoming Bayerl’s second wife, but once married she’d stayed home to be a mum.
The only downside to the new role she loved was that it made Dona more dependent on Bayerl. He dominated at home and controlled their money – something that, according to his ex, reflected his behaviour in his first marriage.
His first wife would later testify that Bayerl had been physically abusive. She’d divorced him on grounds of ‘cruel and inhuman treatment’ after just a few years of marriage.
And it seemed he hadn’t changed.
Dona would regularly write letters to a friend in Michigan and she admitted to her that she was afraid of Bayerl. She said Bayerl could be physically abusive and he had once thrown her down the stairs leading to their basement.
Dona also confided in her friend that Bayerl had asked her to sign paperwork that would give her husband sole ownership of their house if she died. Dona said she’d refused to sign it. Her worried friend had offered her $500 in cash, if she’d needed it, to leave.
May 6 was the last day Dona was seen. Three days later, Bayerl went to the police and said his wife was missing.
He explained that on May 6, they had argued about things including an unfixed television set, and Dona had stormed out of the house and had driven off in the family car to ‘cool off’.
When Dona wasn’t back by 10pm, Bayerl said he’d gone to bed and then heard the car pulling into their garage about an hour later.
There was movement in the house, so he assumed that Dona had returned but then he described hearing the car drive away. Bayerl said Dona didn’t come to bed and he later found the family car in the garage.
When officers asked John why it had taken him so long to report Dona missing, Bayerl admitted that the pair had marriage problems and he thought she would return once she’d calmed down.
Is that what Dona had done? Had she broken free of her controlling husband? There was one huge hole in that explanation. Friends and family said Dona would never have left her two children.
Little Jackie had chicken pox at the time as well and it seemed out of character for Dona to have left for even a few hours – let alone several days.
Having lost her confidence, family said Dona would even be nervous to put the dogs out at night in the back yard, and yet her husband said she’d apparently taken off for three days. There was no sign Dona had taken any clothes or personal belongings. Bayerl said she’d taken $200 in cash but that couldn’t be proven.
Local police started an extensive ground and air search. Landfill sites were scoured with bloodhounds, but Dona couldn’t be found.
Dona’s sister Joan came to stay at the house to look after the children who were bewildered without their mum. It was Joan who spotted a blood stain on the wall inside the garage and on a bottle, also in the garage.
She was also suspicious that Bayerl had done laundry since his wife had gone missing – something he never did even when Dona had been unable to through illness. Bayerl had even washed a quilt and a rug, although they had strange stains on them.
Joan told police and discovered officers were already suspicious of Bayerl’s behaviour.
They searched the house and took the blood as evidence, and found more in the basement, but because of the lack of DNA technology in 1979, they could only determine it was a match to Dona’s blood type – they couldn’t say it was hers. Bayerl had claimed the blood was his after cutting his finger on a mower.
It wasn’t the only reason investigators were focused on Bayerl. When Bayerl had been asked by his colleagues about his missing wife, after reading it in the paper, he denied it was even referring to her and said they must have just had the same name. It was a strange thing to lie about.
On the day Dona had gone missing, Bayerl said they had been out shopping and out to dinner, something the two girls said never happened. They told officers that their mum and dad had been fighting all day and Dona had been under the weather. They described last seeing her when she put them to bed.
With so much suspicion on Bayerl, he was pushed to admit that he’d raised his hand to Dona several times. He also confessed that he’d been sleeping with a local woman – who worked at a bar – for almost two years, visiting her around twice a week.
It seemed very likely to investigators that Bayerl had something to do with Dona’s disappearance. Most people sadly believed that she was dead but without a body, there was no proof of a killing.
The trail ran cold but Bayerl’s photo remained in the case file. Three months after Dona disappeared, Bayerl filed for divorce and it was granted in 1980 – allowing him to marry his third wife, a woman he also went on to abuse.
Dona was officially declared dead in 1986 but her family never gave up hope that they would get answers, and justice for Dona.
When talking with one of his grown-up daughters in 2009, Bayerl admitted something bad must have happened to her mum otherwise she would have contacted her and her sister. It was an unusual thing for him to say.
The missing mum was never forgotten. In 2017, Muskego police released photos of Dona done by a forensic artist to give people an idea of what she might look like.
In 2018, Bayerl was visited by the police who wanted to update him on the investigation. Bayerl admitted that he’d ‘misused’ his wife and called himself a ‘bad husband and father’.
He still denied having anything to do with Dona vanishing. But police had something else. With the development in DNA technology they had managed to test the blood found in the family home. It was a match to Dona’s blood.
With that, and the suspicious statements made by Bayerl, he was arrested at Fort Myers, Florida, where he was now living, and charged with Dona’s murder.
It was a risk. The evidence was largely circumstantial and Dona’s body was never found. But it was the only way a court would ever get the chance to seek justice for Dona and her family.
Bayerl pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder as he was extradited to Wisconsin and continued to insist that he had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance. Four decades after Dona had disappeared, Bayerl was finally in court in 2019.
Now 79, he was hard of hearing, grey and frail but Dona’s loved ones hadn’t forgotten the man who had frightened Dona. The man who had told so many lies to cover up what had really happened that fateful night.
Bayerl didn’t testify but his defence said there was no proof beyond all reasonable doubt that he’d killed his wife. They didn’t present any evidence.
Prosecutors told the court about the blood in the garage. His first and third wife testified about the domestic violence they’d endured at his hands.
Bayerl’s first wife said he had a ‘wicked temper’ and had once choked her so hard around her neck he left a handprint. Members of Muskego Police Department took the stand to say that his behaviour was unusual after his wife went missing.
And when he was confronted about the blood in the garage, Bayerl had clearly reacted. ‘He had a white T-shirt on and the area of his heart started moving when we told him about the blood stains,’ a former lieutenant said in court.
The prosecutor told the jury, ‘Just because he’s good at concealing the body doesn’t mean he gets to get away with murder.’
After five hours of deliberation, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Forty years after the disappearance of his wife, her family finally had answers.
In June 2019, John Bayerl, 79, was sentenced to life in prison. He was ordered not to have any contact with his two daughters, and he was told he would need to pay over $7,000 in restitution for witness expenses and his daughter’s travel expenses.
The police working on the case said it was proof that they never quit and vowed to continue searching for Dona’s body. The conviction is bittersweet for her loved ones.
Without Bayerl admitting what he did, or where he hid Dona’s remains, they will never truly know what happened the night they lost her. But as the case shows, eventually time does reveal the secrets of the guilty.