FOND DU LAC — The day of reckoning finally arrived for Dennis Brantner on Thursday after more than 20 years keeping his secret hidden.
In a packed courtroom, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney asked that Brantner receive the maximum sentence of 10 years for the brutal death of 18-year-old Berit Beck on July 17, 1990. The teen was murdered at a midway stop-off point in Fond du Lac, while traveling north through the state on a work-related road trip to Appleton.
If she had lived, she would be 46 years old.
Dave Beck of Union Grove — Berit’s father — broke down several times as he spoke to Judge Robert Wirtz. The last time he saw his daughter was as she loaded up the family van, eager to get on the road, she had assured him not to worry.
“All the people up north are good people,” Berit told her dad.
Diane Beck, Berit’s mother, said she blames herself, as any loving mother would do, and wishes she had gone with Berit to Appleton the day she was taken.
After listening to the Beck family speak of the horrific pain they endured for decades, Wirtz sentenced the 64-year-old Brantner to the maximum 10 years. The retired truck driver was convicted Feb. 2 of second-degree reckless homicide after Wirtz accepted a plea deal, which reduced the charge from murder.
The defendant entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain innocence while acknowledging there is strong proof of guilt.
“It is as heinous and overwhelming and serious as any crime could be,” Wirtz told Brantner during the sentencing. “You have significantly hurt the family and society.”
Diane Beck asked Wirtz for a 27½ year sentence, saying no amount of punishment will be enough, as tears flowed for her daughter.
Berit’s parents have spent countless hours in Fond du Lac courtrooms — the first time during an almost three-week-long murder trial in 2016, which ended in a mistrial and Judge Gary Sharpe recusing himself from the case.
Many times, the Becks gazed up at the face of their happy, blonde-haired daughter, as her larger-than-life photograph was displayed on a big screen set up for jurors to view as evidence was paraded and scrutinized during the trial.
Toney said in his discussion with jurors, 11 were in favor of casting a vote for guilt.
Over and over, the Beck family endured listening to the gruesome details of Berit’s death — how her still blind-folded, skeletal remains were stumbled upon by a farmer in a ditch outside Waupun on Aug. 22, 1990. Autopsy results indicated the most likely cause of death was strangulation.
Berit’s body was discovered almost a month after her van was located at a K-Mart parking lot on West Johnson Street in Fond du Lac. Berit had been traveling from Sturtevant to Appleton for a three-day job training orientation with Boldt Construction. She had stopped to purchase some items along the way.
A frantic search ensued when the family learned Berit never arrived at her destination. More than 100 volunteers mobilized to distribute posters and information.
Blonde-haired, bright-eyed Berit Beck was the first grandchild in the family and a gifted musician with high hopes for the future, said her uncle Scott Olsen. A letter read in court from her ill grandfather, Vern Olsen, described picnics at the river’s edge, Berit holding a tree branch fishing pole.
Brother Ben Beck said he was just 17 years old when he lost his sister.
“This was a slow, horrible torture no family should endure,” he said. “It’s like living a nightmare I can’t begin to describe.”
In an interview with The Fond du Lac Reporter back in April 2014, when investigators announced a break in the case, Diane Beck said she had made a graveside promise to her daughter to fight for justice.
At that time, the State Crime Lab had identified Brantner’s fingerprints as the source of nine previously unidentified fingerprints on items collected within the van, and two fingerprints were found on the van itself.
Toney said every person identified through DNA to have been in contact with the Beck’s van had reason to be in the van, except for Brantner.
The 64-year-old retired truck driver is already an inmate at Waupun Correctional Institution on drug-related charges. He was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison for attempting to smuggle prescription opiates and other drugs into jail in his cowboy boot, when he was arrested for Berit’s murder on March 27, 2015.
His brother told detectives he believed Brantner had wanted to take an overdose while in jail to end his life, court records say.
Toney said Thursday that Brantner never confessed, but when asked if he dumped Beck’s body in the ditch, he said “If I did, I did. If I did, (I’m) so (expletive) sorry.”
“Today there is no hiding for Dennis Brantner. Today there is no more forgetting for Dennis Brantner. Today is Berit’s day,” Toney said.
Prosecuting this case presented many hurdles, Toney said, including statute of limitations challenges. The law prohibited the state from charging Brantner with other crimes, including kidnapping and false imprisonment, which could have extended his sentence.
“I have begun speaking with legislators in order to modify the statute of limitation in these types of cases to give prosecutors additional resources to obtain justice for murder victims and prevent what could be a miscarriage of justice in allowing murderers to escape responsibility for their horrific actions because of legal technicalities,” Toney said.
At a press conference following the sentencing, the Becks, along with Fond du Lac County Sheriff Mick Fink, said that while 10 years was nowhere near what Brantner deserved, it was the best they could get.
“We scrubbed this thing the best we could,” Fink said, crediting Detective Nate Lamotte with his dogged work in picking the case back up in 2014.
“Five years ago we didn’t have anything. Today Dennis Brantner is serving time,” Ben Beck said.
When asked to describe Brantner, Lamotte said: “He is a person who just can’t tell the truth. It’s a simple as that.”
Brantner would be eligible for parole in about 2024, Toney said.
“Dennis Brantner did not take or break our spirit.” — Dave Beck, Berit Beck’s father