A young man confessed Thursday that he fatally shot his father in the family's Twin Cities home in 2013 and then plotted a coverup with his mother that allowed the body to go undetected for years in the woods of western Wisconsin, according to prosecutors.
Connie L. Herbst, 62, and Austin J. Herbst, 26, were arrested Thursday near their New Prague home after being charged Wednesday in Scott County District Court with aiding and abetting intentional second-degree murder in connection with the death of Gary A. Herbst, whose bullet-punctured skull was sniffed out by a dog in December 2017 south of Barron, Wis., and brought back to its owner's home.
Austin Herbst admitted Thursday to the killing and said his father's abusive ways made him do it, Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar told the Star Tribune. Hocevar said Connie Herbst only learned afterward what her son had done, although it's unclear exactly when she found out.
Hocevar said that Gary Herbst was killed in the family's home in Elko New Market by Austin Herbst on July 6, 2013, who soon after threw the gun into a body of water in northern Wisconsin. The body remained in the home until mid-August, Hocevar said, when the mother and son hauled it out after dark and dumped it in the woods in western Wisconsin.
Following the discovery of the skull, the rest of Gary Herbst's skeletal remains were soon located by Barron County sheriff's deputies. It took another 2½ years before authorities identified him in June 2020 thanks in large part to the DNA Doe Project, a volunteer organization based in California that helps law enforcement solve especially challenging "Jane and John Doe" mysteries around the country.
Once investigators had a name associated with the bones, they spent up until this week gathering enough evidence to charge Gary Herbst's wife and their son, who was 19 years old at the time he allegedly killed his father.
The charges against the mother and son lay out numerous incriminating details surrounding Gary Herbst's death from a close-range gunshot to the head and the body's discovery.
The defendants told investigators in interviews earlier this year that the 57-year-old Gary Herbst was verbally and physically abusive to both of them, in particular to Connie Herbst, the charges read.
According to the criminal complaints:
Gary Herbst had been missing since July 6, 2013, but no report of his disappearance was filed with local police until exactly one year later, when Connie Herbst did so at his brother's request.
On Feb. 28, 2020, Connie Herbst told police that she was at a library back in 2013 when her son called to say his father had left. She said she came home and found her husband was gone. Missing were his clothing, $5,000 in cash, her .45-caliber handgun and her wedding ring. Austin Herbst said his father left in a vehicle driven by "an unknown person."
On June 29, about a week after authorities announced the identity of the remains, former neighbors told police they saw the Herbst pickup backed up on the grass behind the home after dark in mid-August 2013. One of the neighbors saw Connie and Austin Herbst load into the pickup something that looked like rolled-up carpeting.
County Attorney Hocevar said Thursday that prosecutors believe Gary Herbst' body was in the carpeting.
The neighbor also told police that Connie and Austin Herbst had a garage sale about seven weeks after Gary Herbst disappeared. Items for sale included her husband's clothing and tools. The mother and son then hooked up a boat and were gone for a few days.
Other former neighbors told police about the pickup being parked in back near lower-level walkout doors sometime between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. They also said they saw Connie and Austin Herbst put rolled-up carpeting in the truck. These neighbors added that they could see through a window that the mother and son were scrubbing the basement floor.
On the same day that the neighbors were interviewed, sheriff's deputies and state forensics experts entered the home where the Herbst family had lived and were told by the current owners that they discovered a stain on the basement floor during remodeling.
Tests on the floor stain revealed it was human blood. A second search turned up blood elsewhere in the basement including in the floor track of the sliding glass door.
On July 28, 2020, police interviewed Austin Herbst again and learned that he and his mother went camping in far northern Wisconsin on the weekend following the last known whereabouts of his father. The son said his mother's handgun was not a safety concern because it was in "60 feet of water."
Hocevar said Thursday that he suspects the son pitched the gun into a lake east of Butternut, Wis., where his parents were married.
"It will never be found in that area," the county attorney said, pointing to the many years that have passed. "Where he said he threw it, it's under 12 feet of mud."
Law enforcement examination of Connie and Austin Herbst's cellphones found text messages between the two as news reports about the identity of the remains were being televised in June 2020.
Connie Herbst to her son on June 23: "It was on Channel 9 News last night."
On July 18, 2020, at 3:03 p.m., she texted Austin Herbst: "You need to call me ASAP." Then, about a half-hour later, she texted again: "Might have a problem, they are searching [the Elko New Market home]. ... Just wanted u to know. It's in the paper."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482