Wisconsin deputy burglarized grieving families' homes during funerals, officials say
She also allegedly tried to break into a fellow law enforcement officer's home after learning that the woman would be out of town.
After his longtime girlfriend passed away in February 2018, an 82-year-old man in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, came home from the funeral to find a perplexing note stuck inside his front door.
"I was here to pick up the stuff through Facebook," it said. "I came in to the house and the items weren't by the door. So I didn't leave my money. I tried Facebook messaging you but you haven't responded."
The message didn't make much sense, the man's son later told police, because the 82-year-old didn't even have a cellphone or a computer. And it soon came to seem even more suspicious when the man looked inside his bedroom and found a cabinet open and his checkbook gone.
More than a year later, detectives with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office would link the crime to one of their own deputies. Authorities say that Janelle Gericke, who worked as a corrections officer at the Jefferson County Jail until July, scoured obituaries for funeral times and targeted the homes of grieving family members while they were attending memorial services.
But her colleagues began spotting her as she staked out potential victims, and, on Tuesday, Dec. 17, the 29-year-old was charged with felony burglary.
A criminal complaint from the Wisconsin Department of Justice lists seven instances between February 2018 and June 2019 where the former deputy either successfully broke into a stranger's home, or was spotted lurking outside houses that she had reason to believe would be empty. If her calculations turned out to be wrong, state investigators say, Gericke would quickly make up a story.
When one family returned home from a funeral and found her standing in their kitchen, she claimed that she had been hired to clean the house. On multiple occasions, she explained that she was trying to pick up furniture or baby goods she arranged to buy on Facebook Marketplace, and then said she must have written down the wrong address.
But even in a sprawling county that is home to more than 80,000 people, there were times when Gericke showed up to the wrong house and ran into people who knew her. On Halloween last year, prosecutors say, a couple getting ready to go trick-or-treating noticed a woman standing on their patio and peering into their house through the door. When the wife approached, she realized that the stranger was actually Gericke, who worked with her father at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and also belonged to his bowling team.
"I didn't know this was your house," Gericke allegedly told the woman. She explained that she was trying to buy a shelf that she had seen on Facebook Marketplace, giving a name and an address that the couple didn't recognize.
Then, in January, authorities say, one of Gericke's co-workers spotted her while out on patrol. Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy David Drayna had been driving past the home of a beloved local firefighter who was fatally hit by a car while trying to rescue a stranded motorist on New Year's Eve, and was surprised to see someone standing on the man's front porch at the precise moment that his memorial service was taking place.
When he stopped, he realized that it was Gericke, who was pregnant at the time. She claimed that she was trying to buy used baby gear off Facebook Marketplace, and had no idea that she was actually at the deceased firefighter's house. Afterward, she texted the deputy a photo of a Graco baby swing, saying, "I got my bouncer. Im the idiot. She gave me the right address, it was 1020. I accidentally typed 1030 . . ."
Later, state investigators interviewed the woman who lived at the "right address." She hadn't sold anyone a Graco baby swing, she said.
Suspicions began to mount last April, when Gericke allegedly targeted one of her own co-workers in a particularly brazen burglary attempt. An officer with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office who was leaving town for two days had sent out a departmentwide email, giving her colleagues a heads-up about her travel plans. As soon as her plane landed, authorities say, her phone started pinging with alerts from her home security system.
The surveillance video showed a pregnant woman in tennis shoes trying to tug open the front and back doors to the officer's house, then poking around a gas grill on the patio to look for a spare key. Two other deputies who watched the footage identified the woman as Gericke.
Gericke denied that she was the woman in the video, admitting only that she owned an identical pair of white tennis shoes, the affidavit says. But in May, detectives connected her to the stolen checks that had vanished from the 82-year-old man's home more than a year before. The note that had been left on his front door had a fingerprint on it, and the state's crime laboratory matched it to Gericke.
Officials from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that as soon as they realized one of their own deputies was a burglary suspect, they handed the investigation over to the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation. Detectives with the state agency staked out Gericke's home, noting that she drove a silver Chevrolet Cobalt identical to the one that had appeared on surveillance footage, and had a black Labrador retriever matching a dog that some victims had described seeing in the back of her car as she left the scene.
The final test came a month later, when state investigators began studying online obituaries and watching the homes of bereaved relatives. On June 14, investigators say they saw Gericke try to enter the home of a couple who were at a memorial service for their son, then drive to the home of the deceased man's brother and try his doors, too.
Gericke, who was first hired by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in February 2016, was fired in July, the Journal Sentinel reported. It's unclear why it took five more months for charges to be filed. A Tuesday statement from the department apologized "for the embarrassment and mistrust that this individual may have caused."
Gericke's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday night. Her first court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 30.
This article was written by Antonia Noori Farzan, a reporter for The Washington Post.