St. Paul man struggling to clear his name; In several ways, Bauer case mirrors that of the Dunlaps (Vince bauer)

Date: 1996-12-31

Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities

Unsolved murders
St. Paul man struggling to clear his name // In several ways, Bauer case mirrors that of the Dunlaps

Author: Curt Brown; Staff Writer

Correction: Published 01/01/97: A photo caption appearing with this article incorrectly stated when a photograph of Vince Bauer was taken. It was taken in December 1996.

At first glance, Vince Bauer and Brad Dunlap seem to have little in common.

Dunlap, 33, comes from middle America, runs marathons and has a good job with a graphics company in Hopkins. Bauer, 34, grew up in a Vietnamese orphanage, hobbles from childhood polio and lives off disability checks on St. Paul's East Side.

But Bauer and Dunlap share one distinction. Although neither has been charged with a crime, they remain the focal points in two of the Twin Cities' unsolved killings of 1996.

Anne Dunlap and Susan Bauer each died a violent death. And speculation has centered on Brad Dunlap and Vince Bauer as the most likely suspects.

Anne Dunlap's slaying, with its contested life insurance policy worth more than $1 million, captured the public's curiosity. Susan Bauer's strangulation, with a disputed $15,000 of life insurance money, quickly vanished from public consciousness.

"But my family and I sure haven't forgot her," said Brian Kobilka, Susan's only sibling. "The holidays have been so tough without her and we're still hoping they find the guy who did it - whoever that might be."

Police and the Kobilka family, while hesitant to discuss the case publicly for fear of jeopardizing the investigation, consider Susan Bauer's ex-husband, Vince, the prime suspect.

"Husbands always are," Sgt. Rich Friechels, a St. Paul homicide detective, said early in the investigation. "He wasn't too happy about the divorce and you just have to ask yourself: Who had the most to gain?"

Vince admits he was devastated by their divorce three months before Susan's death, but insists he's innocent.

Found strangled

Susan Bauer was found strangled with a phone cord and coat hanger around her neck on the morning of March 20. Vince told police he had stopped by the house they had shared on Magnolia Av. at 8 a.m. to surprise their three children, then ages 7, 5 and 2. The oldest two are boys.

"I thought it would be something special for the kids, Dad coming over to see them before they go to school," Bauer said. "Before I even got to the door, my boys came running out saying something had happened to Mom."

Police aren't sure whether the children saw the killer. After a neighbor called 911, Bauer told police he found his wife sprawled across a living room hide-a-bed, naked from the waist down with a T-shirt pushed up under her arms. She was St. Paul's ninth of 29 homicide victims in 1996.

Police initially arrested another man whose girlfriend had confided details of their abusive relationship to Susan Bauer after befriending her on a CB radio. That man, Quang Tran, was released from jail two days after the killing when police apparently verified his alibi: He was at work.

Since then, police, the Kobilkas and Bauer have waited for and agonized over the results of DNA tests, hoping they would resolve the case. Apparently, those tests were not conclusive enough to prompt murder charges.

"We're still exploring our options with the county attorney's office," said Lt. Joe Corcoran of the St. Paul homicide unit.

Other traditional bits of evidence, such as fingerprints or hair samples, are of little help in confirming or refuting suspicions against Bauer because he lived in the tan bungalow on Magnolia Av. for most of the past five years.

A living hell

Since Susan's death nine months ago, Vince Bauer has served 30 days in the county workhouse for violating probation on an earlier child endangerment charge. He lost his job as an alarm monitor at the St. Paul School District's headquarters. He filed for personal bankruptcy after his house was repossessed.

"I think hell would be a better place to be right now, to tell you the truth," Bauer said.

Shortly after his release from the workhouse in April, Bauer was at a Radio Shack store on the East Side with a friend. Some kids came up to him, curious about the braces he uses to deal with the effects of polio he contracted when he was 3 in Vietnam.

"I was proceeding to explain to the children why I needed the canes when their mom yanked the kids away and said: `Stay away from him. He's a murderer.' My friend started yelling and screaming. I just turned away."

Custody clash

The Bauers' children - now ages 3, 6 and 8 - have been living with her parents, Ronald and Joan Kobilka, in Cottage Grove. The children are undergoing counseling twice a week and "doing as well as can be expected," Ron said.

Bauer agreed to give the Kobilkas temporary custody initially because he knew he was going to the workhouse. Now he would like to see his children - something he hasn't done since the day of the slaying.

Bauer compares his plight to O.J. Simpson's struggle to regain custody of his children. "All I'm asking the court is to at least let me see my children. If they feel I'm unworthy to have them, I can live with that. But at least let them know their father is alive. They lost their mother and - boom - right away, within a week, their father is gone with no trace, no words, no seeing."

Ron Kobilka said he and his wife have been honest with the children, telling them that Vince is "still out there." But they're concerned that visiting Vince could be traumatic, possibly because the kids might have seen something on March 20.

County case workers are doing a custody review scheduled for completion in February. Until then, Bauer is prohibited from any contact with the children. He and his attorney, Larry Nichols, accuse the county of stalling.

"Here we sit with nobody charged in this case and Vince's kids taken away . . . without him being allowed any contact," Nichols said. "You can't go around punishing people without giving them their day in court."

But Bauer also acknowledges his past might hinder his custody chances. He was accused in 1994 of sexual misconduct involving a 16-year-old babysitter and said he was pressured into pleading guilty to the lesser charge of child endangerment.

Susan also obtained a court order to bar Bauer from the house, accusing him of using his canes to discipline the children. Bauer and Nichols contend those allegations were simply common divorce ploys and point out that Susan never accused Vince of abusing her.

Bauer said he understood the pain of family separation and loss even before Susan's death, having been left at a Saigon orphanage in 1972 so Swiss and French missionaries could help him with his polio. He left Vietnam two days before Saigon fell in 1975 and was adopted by a Hastings family. He doesn't know if his birth parents are alive.

He said he isn't bitter if the Kobilkas blame him for Susan's fate. "In our grief, we start to think crazy things," Bauer said. "I know my life is going to be rough and you can't change people's minds even if you stand up on top of a mountain and scream."

It's a realization that has led him to empathize with Brad Dunlap.

"I don't think police should put him through hell just because they want to be gung-ho to find somebody," Bauer said. "If they've got nothing on him, for heaven's sake, let him have his life back. And let me have my life back.'

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