Laura Zimmerman remembers a face, but not a name.
It's a long shot, but she believes a man she worked with in the Legislature more than 22 years ago may be the same person whose bones and rotted clothing have long been the focus of Madison's most baffling death investigation: the skeleton in the chimney.
Last month, Zimmerman's memory was passed along to the Madison Police Department, resurrecting the mystery with a tip that has warmed up a cold case and already has been assigned to a police detective. It also may persuade authorities to expand biological tests on the unidentified bones, which are locked in a cabinet in the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office.
Such a test would conclusively confirm the gender of the victim, and could provide confirmation if a hint of an identity was uncovered, said Capt. Jay Lengfeld. If the victim is identified, that opens the field for possible motives and suspects.
It was Sept. 3, 1989, when the owners of the Good 'n Loud Music store on University Avenue halfway between Madison and Middleton found a pile of bones, a skull and rotting clothing at the base of the store's chimney. They had removed a boiler in the basement to repair a leak, and saw a skull through a pipe connecting the boiler to the chimney.
In 1990, experts at the Smithsonian Institution sculpted a reconstruction of the victim's face. When she saw a photo of the reconstruction, Zimmerman thought she recognized a former page — one of the dozens of young people who scurry around the Capitol fetching sandwiches for legislators and filling water pitchers.
"I thought to myself, 'Hey, this guy was a page,'" she said.
But that was already a year after the bones were discovered, and beyond mentioning it to her boss, Dan Fields, at the time, she kept that thought to herself because she couldn't remember the young man's name but thought that he had worked there between 1980 and 1985.
She brought it to the State Journal's attention recently after reading about medical examiners putting images of unidentified bodies on the Internet.
"All the time I worked there, I was never any good at people's names, because there were so many of them," she said. "But I always thought if someone, the police, ran the Social Security numbers of the people who were working for the Senate sergeant's office prior to the body being found, and found that someone had just dropped off the face of the Earth, say with no W-2s, or something, that might be him."
That would likely be the way investigators approach the tip, Lengfeld confirmed, adding that police have long focused on missing-person records in the case, without success.
Zimmerman's boss, Fields, does not recall discussing the possibility with Zimmerman at the time. The State Journal asked him to compare the sculpted reconstruction of the face with faces in old group photos of pages. He saw a resemblance to a young but unidentified male page who appears in a photograph from 1977-78, but neither Zimmerman nor two other pages in the photo contacted by the State Journal could see a significant resemblance. The cheekbones, eyes and chin, however, are quite similar.
The case has defied solution, but not speculation.
Though clothing items — paisley dress, blouse, sweater, shoes, but no underclothes — were clearly a woman's, the skeleton was that of a man. Or, as Lengfeld and retired homicide detective James Grann noted, police are 93 percent certain it was a man.
The body was probably that of a small white man with brown hair and a slight overbite, and had been in the 11.75-inch-diameter chimney for two months to two years, experts estimated at the time. He either died there or was killed elsewhere and his body stuffed into the chimney. Over time the body decomposed and the bones — the pelvis was broken in two places — fell to the bottom of the chimney. Cause of death: unknown.
Police adopted a "most likely" scenario: the victim was a male cross-dresser, possibly a prostitute, surprised someone, perhaps a customer, who was angry enough about that surprise to commit murder, then stuff the body down the chimney.
But every search, every possible list of missing persons, from employees to known cross-dressers, resulted in dead ends. A national television crime show featured the story, but the tips dried up.
At first glance, Lengfeld said, Zimmerman's tip "narrows the victim list down in terms of timing.
"We can look at the records of (senate pages) working there and see if anyone vanished off the face of the Earth," he said. "It's an interesting lead. You never know when people are going to come forward. It could be a home run."