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Former Wisconsin DA identified as mastermind of 1979 murder

LADYSMITH, Wis. -- Even when he was district attorney, Robert Rogers did not exactly act like one of the white hats. It was no secret he smoked marijuana. He used to swagger into court in jeans and a T-shirt, which was a big deal back in the 1970s. To some, he came across as arrogant and vain.

But it was not until this spring -- more than 20 years after Rogers's death -- that it became clear his outlaw image while district attorney was more than a pose.

Investigators say the district attorney masterminded a 1979 murder that had mystified this town for years, recruiting his three brothers as the hit men. Two of those brothers have been jailed on murder charges.

According to investigators, the victim, Roger Pfeil, a 27-year-old college student, was angry at Rogers for having Pfeil's dogs shot for running loose. Rogers was afraid Pfeil would come after him, so he struck first, investigators said. Pfeil was killed in his driveway with a blast to the head from a sawed-off shotgun.

Rogers remained as Rusk County's top law enforcement officer for several months afterward before leaving town under a cloud of suspicion in Pfeil's slaying. But the investigation went nowhere until a grand jury was convened and one of Rogers's brothers came forward to say he watched as Pfeil was shot. That brother will not face charges.

''I don't think people are shocked that Bob Rogers was involved in it," current District Attorney Kathleen Pakes said. ''What people can't believe is the two people that did this are just right here in the community."

Rogers's own life ended in violence in 1984 at age 38. He shot himself to death on his boat in Marin County, Calif., after killing a man who was romantically involved with his estranged wife.

Dan Gudis, mayor of this city of about 4,000 people 125 miles east of Minneapolis, said the arrests provide some answers people had sought for years. ''They are surprised and excited to know they will finally know what really did happen," he said.

Around Ladysmith, Rogers was known as a renaissance man who loved to hunt, golf, ski, and do carpentry and electrical work. He held a law degree from Stanford University. During the 1970s, he worked for now-Governor Jim Doyle, then Dane County's district attorney, as an assistant district attorney. Doyle fired Rogers over an incident in which Rogers distracted a theater ticket-taker while two of his brothers removed a custom-made window from a van nearby.

''I remember a lot of people being fairly pleased that he was no longer working in the office," Doyle said.

But he also said of Rogers: ''I think most people who dealt with him would say he was incredible, a very, very smart person, very high energy."

Rogers filed in 1978 to run for district attorney but withdrew a month later, saying he did not have time for the job. His name remained on the ballot as the only candidate, and he got 2,805 votes.

In court, he had an air of confidence, said Ladysmith Police Chief Dean Meyer. Some considered Rogers arrogant. ''He was a guy who walked into the courtroom in blue jeans, clogs, T-shirt, and sports coat," Meyer said. ''You would rarely see him prepare for a case. He would walk in the door, boom, boom, boom. He rarely missed a beat in court."

It was no secret Rogers smoked marijuana, Meyer said, and he once testified at hearings that he favored reducing the penalty for using pot.

In 1979, soon after sheriff's deputies shot Pfeil's dogs, Pfeil stormed into the sheriff's department and started punching officers, made threats, and spit on Rogers. A day before Pfeil was killed, Rogers told one of the officers he had received an anonymous phone call warning Pfeil was going to kill him.

Prosecutors say Rogers persuaded his brothers to kill Pfeil first. According to investigators and court records, John Rogers, 52, a one-time factory worker, pulled the trigger. Mike Rogers, 50, who owns a painting business in California, told authorities he and brother Dale, a 46-year-old carpenter, hid nearby.

All three have cooperated with investigators, revealing where the weapon was buried, police said.

John Rogers's attorney, Steven Gibbs, said both brothers confessed and hope to resolve the case without a trial.

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