'Ruthless' shooting still yields memories and lessons in Waukesha County

Scott Ash
Diane Lutz (right) receives a hug during a memorial ceremony at the Waukesha Police Department on Monday, April 18, 2014 for her late husband Capt. James A. Lutz, who was shot and killed 20 years ago in the line of duty.
Published on: 4/28/2014

Two men exited a silver-gray Ford Taurus on Rolling Ridge Drive armed with semi-automatic rifles on the morning of April 28, 1994. They marched parallel toward a squad car and shot dead Waukesha Police Capt. James Lutz, a 28-year veteran of the force.

Fellow officer Thomas Fletcher was pinned behind his squad car at the time. He would later estimate that the incident took about 14 seconds.

At a memorial ceremony held for Lutz on Monday, April 28, the 20th anniversary of the shooting, Fletcher, now retired, reflected on the moment when Lutz was killed by "two ruthless men." The shooters were not mentioned by name during the ceremony, but many locals would can recall who they were: James and Theodore Oswald.

Ruthless memories

The Oswalds made national headlines in 1994 when they led police on a chase throughout Waukesha County after a failed bank robbery in Wales.

Lutz, 57, was gunned down by the father-and-son team after a high-speed chase in Waukesha. The men then turned their weapons on Fletcher, who was parked nearby.

Fletcher took cover behind his vehicle's driver-side door and avoided a volley of shots. He returned fire with his .357 revolver and the men retreated back to their vehicle. He testified at the trial for Theodore Oswald that he believes he hit one of the men, but both were wearing body armor.

Fletcher said he survived by following his training, a message that seemed intended for the many officers in attendance Monday.

"Training works, but it needs to be consistent," he said. "Thank you to all those trainers that helped me survive."

Fletcher pursued the men after the shoot-out but lost visual contact near Rolling Ridge Drive and Spring Hill Drive. The vehicle was later found in the backyard of a Spring Hill home.

As police searched for them, the Oswalds carjacked a vehicle at Interstate Printing in Pewaukee, then abandoned that vehicle after they were spotted driving in Pewaukee. They subsequently broke into a house on Oak Street and took Judy Opat, then 46, hostage.

Opat was dragged out of her house and forced to drive her van through a police barricade set up outside her home. She was shot in the shoulder during the ensuing chaos and was then thrown from the van by the Oswalds. The chase ended soon thereafter, when Theodore Oswald took control of the vehicle and crashed it into a tree near the end of the block.

Two officers, Captain Thomas Lentz and Lieutenant Thomas Duemling, were shot during the attempted escape.

Opat, reached by telephone this week, she still lives at the Oak Street home.

She is retired now and said she does not think much about the incident, though she is constantly reminded of it by others.

"Emotionally, it doesn't affect me, but it was a lot of time in my life that I spent at the trial," she said.

She said that the older members at her church no doubt remember her as one of the Oswalds many victims, but the community's memory of the incident is fading.

"It makes me self conscious," she said. "I don't know why. But the younger people don't know. An entire generation has grown up not knowing about it."

Impact on prosecution

Former Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher said he could not believe the Oswald robbery was 20 years ago. He still remembers remembers every detail from the years he spent working on the case, including the day of the shooting.

"I remember seeing a police officer sitting on the curb crying," Bucher said. "It was at that point that I realized we needed to get some order and break (the crime scenes) down. Because, ultimately, I knew the case was landing on my desk."

Bucher, who along with Pablo Galaviz and Lloyd Carter, represented the state in prosecuting Theodore and James Oswald.

James and Theodore Oswald faced a litany of charges in Waukesha County Circuit Court following the crime spree, including multiple counts of attempted homicide, robbery, vehicle theft and reckless endangerment.

Bucher said his team sifted through tens of thousands of pieces of evidence to develop their case.

"It absorbed my entire life for three years," he said. "Every night, every weekend, every day."

In separate trials, both men were convicted on all counts and sentenced to effectively life in prison. A U.S. District Court judge overturned Theodore Oswald's convictions and sentence in March 2003 on the basis of juror bias, but he was again found guilty and received a life sentence in June 2005. He is currently appealing that decision.

"I think [we] would retry that case in a minute," Bucher said. "Because of the evil of those individuals, because of the blackness."

The aftermath

The tragedy was an unfortunate lesson, but one that helped law enforcement evolve further in the county.

Waukesha County Sheriff Daniel Trawicki, who also attended Monday's service, said law enforcement was "outmatched and outdone" by the Oswalds, who were found after the crash to be in possession of numerous rifles and handguns. By comparison, officers at the time had department-issued service revolvers and 12-gauge shotguns loaded with buckshot.

Waukesha City Police Chief Russell Jack, who noted at Monday's ceremony that the department's training complex will be named in Lutz's honor, said that his department began equipping squad cars with high-caliber rifles shortly after the incident.

Many other departments in the region followed suit shortly thereafter, and rifles are now standard issue for local departments.

Jack said that Lutz was responsible for forming the Waukesha SWAT Team nearly four decades ago, a police unit that has since become an essential tool for handling active shooter scenarios.

"Our SWAT team is built on the backs of those that came before us 38 years ago," Jack said.

Fletcher also offered tribute to Lutz for his contributions as well as his ultimate sacrifice.

"He was truly an educator and trainer of the highest standard," Fletcher said. "May he always be remembered as a true mentor of local policing."