The Final Act: Gifted musician-actress assaulted, killed by longtime friend and collaborator
02/27/2018 5:56 pm PST
An aspiring actress who made it her goal to change the world through music. But just as she started to realize those dreams, her life would be taken by a mystery attacker in the early morning hours.
A Wisconsin teen with a passion for drama would find herself in the middle of a dramatic hunt for a killer.
Jessie Blodgett was a Wisconsin teen with a passion for drama.
"Every time I would go over to her house she would be playing the piano, even when I was trying to talk to her, she would be playing the piano, and I'd be like 'I'm trying to talk to you,'" said Jessie's friend Jacquelyn Nytes. "She was always singing, always dancing."
And as both a public performer and a music tutor for local kids, Jessie was something of a star in the small town of Hartford, Wisconsin. Jessie's dad says she'd always been a standout.
"She was brilliant," said Buck Blodgett. "In first grade, the teacher created her own curriculum for Jessie, and when the class's spelling words were 'and' and 'the,' Jessie's first one was 'metamorphosis' and 'anesthesiologist.'"
A brilliant mind that Jessie used to pursue many passions as she grew, from fighting for animal rights to advocating against violence toward women. But in the end, it always came back to music.
"We actually wrote some songs together," said Jessie's friend Ian Nytes. "She was just brilliant at writing music."
But Jessie wasn't the only exceptional talent to come out of Hartford. Enter her good friend and classmate Dan Bartelt.
"Dan and Jess sat next to each other every day in school, all through high school," said Buck. "Dan was a gifted violinist. He was first chair and Jess was second chair."
"Dan was hilarious. I always thought he was funny, really outgoing, always making jokes," said Jacquelyn Nytes. "He was also very smart. I kind of admired their friendship."
Jessie and Dan also had a shared love for the stage, and on paper they had all the makings of an arts-loving power couple. But they'd tried that. Didn't work.
"They dated for about three or four months freshman year of high school," said Buck. Dan broke up with Jess. "We thought that he's a freshman in high school. He doesn't need to explain himself why he's not committed for life here."
And anyway, they were better as friends. After high school, Jessie and Dan went away to different colleges. But they reconnected the following summer.
"Jess came home one day and said 'Dad, mom, Dan's back, he dropped out of college,'" said Buck. "We were like 'He's a straight-A student. What's up with that?'"
"I know that they became really close when he had dropped out of college. They would play music together all the time. They were collaborating," said Jacquelyn Nytes.
The two even wrote and recorded a song together, which now serves as something of a time capsule. Just a few weeks after posting that tune on Youtube, Jessie and Dan were in the spotlight for separate, but equal reasons.
Dan landed a starring role in Bye Bye Birdie. And Jessie?
"Jessie was the fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof," said Buck.
She played for a packed house on opening weekend.
"That was her last night on Earth," said Buck Blodgett.
Just hours after curtain call, Jessie was seen at the cast party, her smile apparently betraying some very uneasy feelings, issues that had to do with at least two older men in attendance. Later that night -- technically, early the next morning, July 15, 2013, Jessie returns home and runs into her mom. The two talked about that cast party.
"They talked about two of the people at the cast party were kind of flirting with her," said Buck.
She even put those feelings down in her diary that same night, writing in part: "I think I'm being corrupted. I think certain men are taking what should be platonic love and perverting it into a competition..."
But Jessie also goes on to write: "I am not helpless... I will recognize problems and confront them without fear. God be with me."
Around 8 a.m., Jessie's mother Joy dropped some laundry off in Jessie's room before heading to work. Jessie's dad had already left for the day.
"Jessie was asleep in her bed and everything was fine," said Buck.
Four hours after that, Jessie's mom returned home for her lunch break. The house was quiet.
"Joy just thought she was sleeping in. She was a teenager on break," said Buck.
But when she went to wake her daughter:
"She was mad that Jess wasn't answering her. She went into Jessie's room. She couldn't understand why she wasn't responding," said Buck Blodgett. "And then she touched her and Jessie was cold."
911: "Hartford 911, what's your emergency?"
Joy Blodgett: "My daughter is blue. I went to wake her up and I just got home for lunch and she won't wake up! Oh my God!"
911: "OK. Is she breathing?"
Joy Blodgett: "I don't think so. No."
Jessie is unresponsive, covered up in her own bed.
911: "OK, ma'am, do you know how to do CPR?"
Joy Blodgett: "Jessie! She's cold! She's cold!"
911: "She's cold?"
Joy Blodgett: "She's cold. Oh my God!"
You can hear the anguish in her voice as she tries to process the scene, and especially what she sees next.
"She rolled her over and she saw ligature marks," said Buck.
Joy Blodgett: "Her pants are all wet, and she's got, it looks like strangulation marks."
911: "There are strangulation marks?"
Joy Blodgett: "That's what it looks like. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what's going on."
After that, the dispatcher puts Joy on hold while she alerts EMS. Sadly, it's already too late.
Jessie Blodgett was just 19 years old.
Jessie Blodgett had just wrapped a performance of Fiddler on the Roof. But what would happen in the next several hours would leave friends of the aspiring actress in shock -- and police searching for a killer.
Buck Blodgett was at work the Monday his wife found their only child Jessie apparently strangled to death in her bedroom. By the time Buck returned home, investigators already had his daughter cordoned off.
"They wouldn't let me upstairs, so I couldn't see her, I couldn't touch her, I couldn't say goodbye, I couldn't tell her I loved her, and I couldn't tell her I was sorry for not being there when she needed her dad," Buck tells Crime Watch Daily.
Hartford Police Detective Richard Thickens was one of the first investigators on the scene that day.
"We found Jessie on the floor, very obvious mark on her neck, and marks on her wrists, very faint marks that could possibly have been binding marks," said Det. Thickens. "At that point I believed we had a homicide on our hands."
Jessie's mom also tells detectives that when she found her daughter, her hair and clothes were wet, a sign the killer may have spent extra time with his victim.
"He staged her body. I believed he washed her body and then placed it back in the bed, covered her up," said Thickens. "There was no signs of forced entry, so it led us to believe that it was somebody that knew the house."
But who knew Jessie's movements so intimately, and who would use that knowledge to end her life? Police didn't have to look far to find their first suspects.
"Jessie had been in a play that had wrapped up Sunday night, and afterwards she had gone to a cast party and Jessie had talked about some concerns she had about other people involved in the cast," said Det. Thickens.
She wrote about those concerns about an older man in her journal on the day she died.
"We found that there were some concerns with his actions at the cast party. He had actually pulled her onto his lap, according to one of her friends," said Det. Thickens.
And on the day Jessie was killed?
"He hadn't showed up for work on Monday, which for us was a significant concern," said Thickens.
But police say he cooperated with investigation, and after talking to the man for a few hours:
"We cleared him pretty quickly," said Det. Thickens.
Detectives also cleared the other man Jessie wrote about in her diary.
What cops in Hartford didn't realize was that authorities in the neighboring town of Richfield were already zeroing-in on the suspect, but for an entirely different reason -- an entirely different attack on an entirely different victim.
It happened three days before Jessie Blodgett's murder, a young woman named Melissa Etzler was walking her dog at a local park when she was tackled from behind by a man with a knife.
Washington County Sheriff's Detective Joel Clausing interviewed Etzler in the hospital shortly after the assault. Her emotions were still as raw as her wounds from fighting off the attacker.
"Well, I got down to the hospital and I started talking to her," said Joel Clausing, who is now retired from the department. "She couldn't write because her hand was all cut up. So I got a recorded statement."
Melissa Etzler tells Det. Clausing she was just getting ready to leave the park that morning when she was startled by the sound of footsteps behind her.
"So I look back and I laughed and said, 'Oh, you scared me.' Just because I thought he was some friendly guy. And then I turned around again because I can hear him coming at me and I see a knife in his hand," Etzler tells Clausing.
Melissa Etzler continues her story a few days later, when investigators take her back to that park to reenact the crime. After that, she said, it was fight back or die.
"Next thing I remember I'm on the ground, he's on top of me, I'm stomach down," Etzler demonstrates for investigators. "I'm holding onto the knife. We were fighting for it. I had the blade and that's how I got cut and that's when he said 'Can I just go?'"
"After she disarmed him he asked if he could leave, and I believe she said no," said former Det. Clausing.
"When he tried taking it from me, I said 'No, you're gonna go, I'm taking this with me,'" Etzler tells investigators.
And as she tells Crime Watch Daily, that's exactly what she did.
"Oh, I kept the knife, yeah, that was in my car. It was a fish fillet knife," said Etzler. "He can't get it from me, he's trying but he just can't get it out of my grip, so he finally is just like 'Can I just go?' And it's like 'Well, you're the one on top of me, so.' So it was just bizarre."
She says after that the suspect ran off, but that she remembered every detail of her perpetrator.
"A white male, 18 to 20 years of age, 6' 2", 210 pounds," Det. Clausing confirms with Melissa Etzler. "He had light blond hair, but very fair skin." And plaid shorts.
"Melissa was the best witness I've ever had in my entire career," Joel Clausing said. "She described where he was parked in the parking lot and what kind of vehicle he was driving to within a couple of years."
"Dark blue minivan. Dodge Caravan. I don't know what year, an older model though," Etzler told the detective.
Based on Etzler's description of the suspect, police release a composite sketch to the media.
"We expected a bunch of calls saying 'I knew who this guy was.' We didn't get anything," said Clausing.
But when they circulate Etzler's near-perfect description of the suspect's van:
"I was approached by a Deputy Meyer from our department," said Clausing. "He came up to me and said 'I saw a car like that parked in that very same spot a couple months ago.' But even better, he said 'And I found you a plate.'
"He ran it that day," said Clausing. "He ran the plate that day, he knew he ran the plate that day, so he looked back on all the plates he had run over how many ever weeks, and found it."
And when authorities put a name to that license plate, the focus of two mysteries in two separate towns narrows in on one very surprising suspect.
"The owner didn't match the description, but then they found out that they had a son who did," said Jessie Blodgett's father Buck.
On the same day 19-year-old Jessie Blodgett was being murdered in her own bed, 12 miles away in the neighboring town of Richfield, Wisconsin, Melissa Etzler was walking detectives through an assault that happened to her three days prior.
Detective Joel Clausing of the Washington County Sheriff's Office was able to track down a license plate for the suspect's vehicle, though to his initial dismay, it comes back registered to a middle-aged couple. But when investigators question that man and his wife, they find out the couple has a son who is 20 years old, roughly 6' 1", weighing about 200 pounds.
"Mom and dad gave us his cellphone number," said Clausing. "As we're driving away from the residence, I called him."
Around that same time, in the town of Hartford, Jessie Blodgett's loved ones have filled her family's home.
"We all sat in a circle around our living room and people shared memories and cried together and hugged," said Buck Blodgett.
Among those mourners was Jessie's old artistic collaborator, fellow actor/singer/songwriter Daniel Bartelt.
"Dan actually did most of the talking. He was talking, talking, talking, talking, he did a lot of talking," said Jacquelyn Nytes.
And he was about to do a lot more.
"Then all of a sudden he had this phone call and he wasn't upset, he wasn't surprised, he just said 'Oh, OK, I'll be right over there,' and then he hung up the phone," said Jacquelyn.
On the other end of that phone was Det. Clausing. Daniel Bartelt was the son of that couple -- the driver of that van.
"I told him we needed to talk to him and he said OK, and I asked him where he was. He said he was at Jessie Blodgett's vigil," said Clausing.
By this time, even though it wasn't your case, you knew who Jessie Blodgett was.
"Yes," said Clausing. "But what sparked more interest when I got off the phone, I looked at Detective Walsh and said 'He never even asked me what this was about.' How many people get called by a detective, asked to meet and they don't say 'What's going on? Why do I need to meet you?' He never said it."
And apparently, he didn't have much to say to his friends back at the Blodgett house either.
"He kind of looked at everyone and was like 'I got called down to the police station,'" said Jacquelyn Nytes.
Of course at that point no one there even knew about the attack on Melissa Etzler.
"He's in our house and Joy, this is my wife, she said 'Dan, don't worry, they're going to talk to all of Jessie's friends.' Little did we know at the time why they were talking to Dan," said Clausing.
The detectives' conversation with Dan Bartelt is recorded.
Detective: "All right, do you know what this is about?
Dan Bartelt: "No."
Detective: "This is about an incident about Detective Walsh and I are investigating that happened last Friday."
Detective: "Where were you at again?"
Bartelt: "I was at a house in Hartford, at Jessie Blodgett's house."
Detective: "Is that the girl that just passed?"
Bartelt: "Yeah, we were visiting her parents."
"I said, just making small talk, 'Whatever happened with her?'" said Clausing.
Bartelt: "I think someone raped and murdered her."
That was in the first two minutes of the interview, but would prove to be one of its most significant moments.
"I wanted to talk to him about my case, right, so we started asking him about his history," Clausing tells Crime Watch Daily.
Detective: "OK. OK, were you at a park last Friday?"
Detective: "Any park?"
Bartelt: "I don't believe so."
Dan Bartelt denies knowing anything about the assault on Melissa Etzler. But then something catches Clausing's eye.
Detective: "What happened to your arm?"
Detective: "On your elbow."
Bartelt: "Fell, probably."
Bartelt: "Let's see your hands. Go like this. What's that on your thumb?"
Bartelt: "Got stabbed with a screw at work."
"He had an injury to his thumb, a puncture cut," said Clausing. "We asked him where he had sustained that injury, and he said he did it at work."
Bartelt: "Went straight through my thumb."
Detective: "If we check with your employer, would they say, would you still have your job?"
Detective: "OK, that's what I thought."
Dan Bartelt did not really have a job.
"Every day he would get up, put on his work clothes, grab his lunch, get in his van and pretend to go to work, to his parents," said Clausing.
But if Bartelt wasn't working, then his explanation for that cut wasn't either.
"And I said 'Well, how did you injure your thumb then?'" said Joel Clausing.
Detective: "Tell us about that."
Bartelt: "I was cooking and I cut my finger on a knife."
Detective: "Hold on a second, let's talk. OK. Nobody in their right mind would lie about cutting themselves if it happened at home cooking, OK. What happened? Just be honest."
And to Clausing's surprise, he suddenly was.
Bartelt: "I've gone to the park before."
"Eventually he admitted that he was the one that attacked Melissa in the park," said Clausing.
Detective: "You went after that girl, right?"
Detective: "OK. Why? What were you going to do?"
Bartelt: "I wanted to scare someone."
Dan Bartelt tells detectives that since he dropped out of college, he's felt frightened of life, and he just wanted someone else to feel the same. A confession complete with motive. But then investigators didn't necessarily need it. At the park they found Bartelt's blood on multiple items, and a roll of heating duct tape that matches tape in Bartelt's house. Plus they had their star witness.
"They had me do a lineup. Right when I saw his face, I'm like 'Yeah. That's him, 100 percent," Melissa Etzler tells Crime Watch Daily.
"We got to arrest him," said Clausing. "But now we discussed, 'Do you think he is the [Jessie Blodgett] guy?' You know, 'Do you think he is good for the murder?'"
And the reason they wonder that goes back to those first few minutes of the interview, when Daniel Bartelt said he thought someone raped and murdered her.
"He said that she was raped and murdered. Which was significant," said Clausing. "The police, us, at that time didn't even know that she was sexually assaulted."
Dan Bartelt admits he tried to attack a woman at the park. But he is adamant that he didn't kill his friend and fellow actor Jessie Blodgett.
Investigators expected to find the man guilty of the brazen assault on Melissa Etzler lurking in the shadows. They figured any persons of interest in 19-year-old Jessie's murder 12 miles away to be hiding underground. Instead, Daniel Bartelt was basking in the spotlight, even landing the lead role in Bye Bye Birdie just before both attacks.
"Dan was one of the most intelligent people that I've ever interviewed. He had a sense about him that was bad," said former detective Joel Clausing.
Especially when just one day after Jessie's murder, before the forensics had even come back, this trained actor flubbed one of his lines.
"He said that he believed that Jessie had been raped and murdered," said Det. Richard Thickens. "We had no indications of her being raped."
Only the killer could know that. So while Dan Bartelt sits in jail for that assault on the girl in the park, detectives covering that case share what they know with detectives investigating Jessie Blodgett's murder.
"I was doing search warrants on Dan's computer, and in the computer there was a lot of bondage pornography," said Clausing. "There was a lot of, I don't know how you describe it: dark, dark stuff."
Including one search on "spree killers," and several other searches for serial killers. It didn't end there.
"We actually had searches for pornographic snuff films that actually seemed to match the series of events that had occurred in Jessie's room," said Det. Thickens. "In the movie, after strangling her, he washes her. One of the things that Mrs. Blodgett had made note of was how Jessie was placed back in her bed, covered up, and that he hair was wet."
Just an eerie coincidence? Detectives were about to ask the suspect themselves.
Detective: "What I want to talk to you about is Jessie Blodgett. I understand that you were friends with her, OK?"
This time, Dan Bartelt is a little more careful not to incriminate himself.
Detective: "What do you think happened to Jessie?"
Bartelt: "I have no idea."
Bartelt admits that he'd reconnected with his one-time girlfriend that summer, and had been at Jessie's house a lot in the weeks before her murder. He even says he had good reason to hide that fact. But it wasn't because of anything nefarious.
Bartelt: "We started kissing on the couch and she asked me if I wanted to go up with her."
"He said that they had a romantic relationship, but he hadn't made it public because he was dating someone else," said Det. Thickens.
But detectives are suspicious.
"The entire time I talked to him he made it look like he was crying, but I didn't see him shed a tear," said Thickens.
As for Bartelt's whereabouts on the day of Jessie's murder, he says he was driving around in his parents' van, pretending to be at work.
"He said that he had left the house and he had gone to a couple different parks, ending up at Woodlawn Park in the city," said Thickens.
Detective: "What time did you end up there?"
Bartelt: "About 10 or so."
Detective: "What were you doing out at Woodlawn?"
Bartelt: "Reading, trying to write."
An airtight alibi, claims Bartelt. But then when it comes to what he was "trying to write," he tells detectives it's a series of stories about a young girl, not unlike Jessie, who would eventually be murdered.
Bartelt: "The main character's name is Jessica."
So he admits to killing off the fictional character, "Jessica." Not so much for Jessie Blodgett.
Detective: "Can you help us out on it? Get us some closure?"
Bartelt: "I wish I could."
"He denied any involvement," said Det. Thickens.
And as detectives continue to press, Dan Bartelt's tone gets suddenly less teary.
Bartelt: "You are making me very uncomfortable."
Detective: "Why is that?"
Bartelt: "Because of what you're trying to insinuate."
Detective: "And what's that?"
Dan Bartelt uses his right to remain silent on that question. And he won't have much to say on beyond that either.
Bartelt: "I don't see how this is helpful. If we're going to talk more I'd like to have a lawyer."
And with that statement, the interview was over. Dan Bartelt had confessed to nothing. As for his alibi?
"Dan said he was at the Woodlawn Park. So they get video. Sure enough, there's Dan," said Joel Clausing. "He was there that morning that Jessie was killed."
So then, had investigators been too quick to pin a murder on an easy suspect? One who had already confessed to another crime? Jessie's own parents thought so. Especially because Daniel Bartelt spent hours grieving with them after Jessie's murder.
"Dan was at our house. I hugged Dan several times," said Buck Blodgett. "We were telling the police it wasn't him and he was a good guy."
But Jessie's parents were wrong. They were fooled by his act. As it turns out, Bartelt's own alibi would also be his undoing. Back at that park, police uncover the dark side of Daniel Bartelt.
"They go take all the trash out of the trash bins at Woodlawn Park," said Clausing. "They find a cereal box. Inside the cereal box is a ball-gag, ligatures, alcohol wipes."
The rope fund in the trash lines up perfectly with the ligature marks on Jessie's neck.
Then when detectives search Dan Bartelt's house, they find the exact same rope in his garage. Plus, remember that tape investigators found on Bartelt's vents that matched tape he dropped during Melissa Etzler's assault? Incredibly, a full week after Jessie Blodgett's murder, investigators taking a second look at the scene find the exact same tape under her bed.
"His fingerprints were on that," said Clausing.
And based on the evidence, investigators believe they know exactly why the tape was there.
"He hog-tied Jess, he gag-balled her and he taped her so the gag-ball wouldn't come out," said Buck Blodgett.
Detectives also found both Jessie's and Dan's DNA on those ligatures, and Dan's DNA under Jessie's fingernails. And when it comes to that detail Bartelt let slip in his first interview?
"We found DNA that indicated that he assaulted her," said Det. Thickens.
After that, it was hard for anyone to deny the Daniel Bartelt they thought they know was something else entirely.
"Dan's a chameleon," said Thickens. "He is able to present himself to the world in a very different light then the way he actually is."
Good qualities for an actor -- lethal for a killer.
Even without a confession, Dan Bartelt is charged with the first-degree intentional homicide of his old friend Jessie Blodgett.
But there was still one giant question left hanging: Why?
"She definitely admired Dan, you know, his musical talents, his mind, his intelligence, she really did have a good friendship with Dan," Jacquelyn Nytes.
The two even wrote and recorded songs together just weeks before Daniel Bartelt bound Jessie as she slept, sexually assaulted her, then strangled her to death, leaving her dead in her bed for her mother to find.
But the big question still remaining was Why?
"Personally I don't like labels, but I think he is a sociopath," said Buck Blodgett. "I think he has no empathy. I think he's brilliant and talented, like many sociopaths, they're calculating, they learn how to fit in and blend."
And based on the evidence, which included a lot of disturbing searches found on Dan Bartelt's computer, the prevailing theory is that the big reason Bartelt killed Jessie was just to satisfy a sick urge.
"I think she was a convenient target," said Det. Richard Thickens. "He knew where she was going to be. Hhe knew there wasn't going to be family in the house. I think he wanted to kill someone and she was available."
The trial didn't last long. Daniel Bartelt was found guilty.
"I think Dan is a bad, bad person and he's where he should be," said former Detective Joel Clausing.
But that's what everyone else says about him now that he's been found guilty. What would Bartelt have to say for himself? Would he finally confess?
"Buck, Joy, I can't give you the answers that you're looking for," Bartelt said in court. "This jumpsuit that I'm wearing, these shackles that I'm put in, don't make me guilty."
No, it was the mountain of evidence that made him guilty, and yet like an actor delivering his final monologue in a play, Dan prattles on.
"I can't prove that I'm innocent to anyone, not even myself," Bartelt continues. "I can't prove that the sun that I haven't seen for over 400 days still even rises and sets, but I like to believe that it does.
"The only reason, the only reason that I went to trial at all is because I was told I would not be allowed to acknowledge that I couldn't refute the evidence and just accept sentencing without saying that I'd done something I hadn't," Bartelt said.
"I'm suffering now more than I ever have before.
"Judge Martins, I pity you," said Bartelt.
But in the end, the one thing he didn't say?
"My conscience is clear," said Bartelt.
"He didn't acknowledge what he did, let alone apologize to Joy and to me and to Jessie and to everybody. He continued to deny what he did," said Buck Blodgett.
Daniel Bartelt was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Anger, hatred, rage -- any parent of a murdered child might be feeling all of these things. But when it was Jessie's father's turn to speak in court, he turned to his daughter's killer and said: "I forgive you as I have every single day since we found out it was you. I believe there's good and bad in every one of us, so I don't demonize or vilify you."
"I don't want you to think I am living in some sugarcoated bubble and I don't have pain or anger at all," Buck tells Crime Watch Daily. "At the same time, stronger than that was this inexplainable peace and forgiveness and a sense that everything is OK, and I don't know how to explain that to this day."
"It's a nonprofit, and our dual mission is to end violence against our girls and women, and to have all people inspired, educated and motivated to choose love over hate," said Buck.
It's how Jessie would've wanted it, he says -- what she lived for, and what she wrote about in the music that lives on after her death.
"Don't get me wrong. I will never be OK with what Dan did to Jessie," said Buck. "But Jessie's life and death for me are for bringing light into this world. My life is getting better and better all the time. Love is greater than hate."