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Murder case reflects a family-police feud

Wisconsin arrest revives suspicion of official agenda

WHITELAW, Wis. -- The Avery family and the police don't mix. Never have.

The family is so wary of authorities that Chuck Avery opened the trunks of his family's cars, just hours after prosecutors announced Friday that his younger brother, Steven Avery, would face a murder charge.

Chuck Avery said he wanted to make sure that Manitowoc County sheriff's deputies had not planted something in the vehicles to make more trouble for them.

''We're really on edge," he said.

Steven Avery spent 18 years in prison for rape until DNA evidence proved that another man had committed the crime. He filed a $36 million wrongful conviction lawsuit against the county that is still pending.

But now, a sport utility vehicle belonging to a missing woman has been found in the family's junkyard, and prosecutors say DNA tests prove that Steven Avery's blood is in the vehicle. He was charged Tuesday with first-degree intentional homicide and mutilation of a corpse.

The family says he is being framed to stop his lawsuit, and they fear deputies could come after them next.

''The only thing I can think, they are trying to railroad me again and see if they can get away with it this time," Steven Avery, 43, said before he was arrested.

That's absurd, said Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz, who was appointed to the case. Planting DNA evidence would mean someone is running around with Avery's blood, Kratz said.

''It is not possible the evidence . . . is tainted evidence or was in any way planted by a Manitowoc County law enforcement agency, or any law enforcement agency for that matter," Kratz said.

Since the 1950s, the family has run Avery's Auto Salvage outside Mishicot, a town of 1,400 people 25 miles southeast of Green Bay.

Some neighbors speak well of the family. ''If you asked for a favor, you would get it from all of them," said Jim Geux, 49, who lived on a farm near the Averys until 2002.

Others were more guarded, saying they still have to live near the Averys.

Harold Stahl, 80, of Mishicot, said he used to deal with the family when he was a tow truck driver. ''They are an odd lot," he said.

The brothers have been in and out of trouble. According to court documents:

Chuck, 51, was charged with sexual assault in 1988 but was acquitted. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and got 12 months probation. His probation was revoked six months later, and he was sentenced to 60 days in jail. In 1999, his former wife accused him of sexual assault and wrapping a phone cord around her neck. A charge of sexual assault was dismissed.

Earl, 35, pleaded no contest to battery and sexual assault and got three years of probation on each charge. In 1992, he pleaded no contest to a charge of battery for attacking his wife. He got 18 months' probation.

Steven was convicted in 1981 of burglary. He got five years probation, which was revoked in 1982 after he was charged with animal cruelty for pouring gasoline on a cat and throwing it into a bonfire. In 1985, he was convicted of sexual assault; he was sentenced to 32 years in prison but was freed in 2003 after DNA samples exonerated him.

A state investigation cleared Manitowoc County authorities of any ethical violations in Steven Avery's conviction, but lawmakers used his case to push legislation designed to reduce wrongful convictions.

In the missing woman case, investigators say a 25-year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach, drove into the junkyard on Halloween, assigned by Auto Trader Magazine to take pictures of a minivan that Steven Avery wanted to sell.

No one heard from her again. Searchers combed the area, and on Nov. 5 a worker at the Avery junkyard let them search the grounds.

They allegedly found Halbach's SUV hidden by branches and auto parts. Investigators said they had found blood on the ignition and in the rear cargo area, blood on a door to Steven's trailer, and blood in Steven's bathroom.

They also allegedly discovered handcuffs, leg irons, pornographic materials, ''sexual devices" -- and a woman's charred bones and teeth, court documents said.

Deputies drew DNA samples from several members of the Avery family, then arrested Steven after they allegedly discovered two guns in his trailer. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess firearms in Wisconsin.

Detectives are questioning the rest of the family, and Chuck Avery says any one of them could get hauled off next. ''We don't have nothing to do with it," Chuck said.

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