Heating Up Cold Cases: Author draws attention to the Chippewa Valley’s real-life mysteries

Tom Giffey

UNSOLVED MYSTERIES. The 1996 disappearance of Spooner teenager Sara Bushland is one of 13 crimes explored in author Robert Dudley’s latest book, Cold Cases of West-Central Wisconsin.
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES. The 1996 disappearance of Spooner teenager Sara Bushland is one of 13 crimes explored in author Robert Dudley’s latest book, Cold Cases of West-Central Wisconsin.

Some middle-aged men restore cars or perfect their golf games on the weekends. Robert Dudley’s hobby – that’s the word he uses for it, anyway – is researching true-life mysteries, most recently a baker’s dozen murders, suspicious deaths, and disappearances from in and around the Chippewa Valley. Dudley isn’t a law enforcement officer or a private detective. Instead, he’s a dedicated amateur investigator and author who has spent countless hours poring over newspaper archives and conducting interviews to draw attention to sometimes-forgotten victims.

“It’s a niche that I think is rewarding and beneficial – bringing light to these cases,” says Dudley, who just published his latest book, Cold Cases of West-Central Wisconsin.

Among the most fascinating (and troubling) of the 13 cases in the book is that of Sara Bushland, a 15-year-old from rural Spooner who stepped off the school bus one spring afternoon in 1996 and was never seen again – at least by anyone who has admitted it. Sara, who had a troubled relationship with her mother and stepfather and who had been a victim of sexual abuse, was originally reported as a runaway. It wasn’t until several years later that authorities considered that foul play may have been a factor in her disappearance. Dudley has done extensive research into the case, working with Sara’s sister and others who knew her to uncover previously unknown details.

Dudley hopes that the attention to the Bushland case – especially in the Spooner area, where Dudley is selling the book and has published several articles in the local newspaper – helps unearth the truth. He knows that some tips he’s received and passed along have prompted local law enforcement to make new inquiries. “It is very satisfying to see there is active investigation going on,” he says.

Dudley says the families he has worked with generally are supportive of his writing, especially when they learn he has a track record as an author and isn’t acting out of morbid curiosity. And while he realizes that most readers see his books as a form of entertainment, he hopes that his work highlights the humanity of those he writes about – not just their victimhood. As an epigraph at the beginning of the book states, “Everyone, no matter the rung they hold on the ladder of life, is someone else’s everything.”

Author Robert Dudley will speak about his new book, Cold Cases of West-Central Wisconsin, at 7pm Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Volume One Gallery inside The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. The book is available at The Local Store and through Amazon.com.

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