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'Making a Murderer': Steven Avery's lawyer says victim's ex-boyfriend killed her

(Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

(Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin) less

It was one of the most daring and risky legal maneuvers in last week's post-conviction filing by Steven Avery's criminal defense lawyer Kathleen Zellner.

Zellner declared in documents filed at the Manitowoc County Courthouse that she suspects Teresa Halbach's killer was her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas.

Their relationship lasted roughly five years, beginning in high school, in the small farming community of Hilbert. Halbach, 25, vanished on Halloween 2005. Manitowoc County Sheriff's officials immediately targeted Steven Avery, a previously exonerated man, who lived in a red trailer on his family's salvage yard.

Zellner's motion for a new trial included sworn affidavits in her 1,250-page post-conviction filing from 10 law enforcement, legal profession, medical and scientific experts. She hopes it will lead a judge to order a new trial for Avery, who is the subject of the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer.

It was one of the most daring and risky legal maneuvers in last week's post-conviction filing by Steven Avery's criminal defense lawyer Kathleen Zellner.

Identifying Hillegas as the suspect isn't sitting well with those who are convinced Avery killed Halbach and belongs in prison for life.

"It's alarming that in the face of such overwhelming evidence of Mr. Avery's guilt, Ms. Zellner, who has devoted her career to righting wrongful convictions, has so recklessly accused the victim's former boyfriend without a shred of legitimate evidence backing her claim and with no regard for the harm she has caused," said Michael Griesbach, an assistant district attorney in Manitowoc who has authored multiple books about Avery.

Griesbach emphasized he was speaking with USA TODAY NETWORK in his capacity as a published author, not as a Wisconsin district attorney.

Zellner said her legal team attempted to interview Hillegas, who lives in the Milwaukee area, over the past 18 months, but had no success.

"Our investigators contacted Mr. Hillegas to interview him," Zellner told USA TODAY NETWORK. "He was told that we wanted to rule him out as a potential suspect, but we needed answers to certain questions related to his alibi, abusive relationship with Teresa Halbach, knowledge of her password, injuries to his left hand, interaction with law enforcement from Nov. 3 (2005) onward, damage to Teresa Halbach's parking light, access to Avery property Nov. 7. Mr. Hillegas never responded."

A message seeking comment was left on Hillegas cell phone Monday, but he did not immediately respond.

Here are the key points in Zellner's motion relating to Hillegas as a suspect:

1. No alibi for time of murder

During Avery's trial, Hillegas testified that he last saw Halbach on Oct. 30, 2005, but claimed he did not remember what time he visited her property.

"I have seen no evidence that he offered an alibi or any sort of statement regarding his activities from Oct. 31, 2005, to November 3, 2005. Nor have I seen any evidence that the authorities ever asked him to do so," said Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI agent.

2. Spearheaded searches for vehicle

During his initial conversations with law enforcement, Hillegas did not reveal he and Halbach previously dated for about five years. Instead, he gave the impression he was only a concerned friend.

"Mr. Hillegas injected himself into the police investigation by taking an active role in the volunteer search," McCrary wrote. "He gave a female volunteer searcher (Pam Sturm) a camera and a direct phone number to the sheriff (Jerry Pagel)."

On Saturday morning, Nov. 5, 2005, Hillegas mobilized a volunteer effort sending dozens of people out into the surrounding area to locate his ex-girlfriend or her vehicle. It was only after most of the searchers left the property when former private investigator Pam Sturm showed up. Sturm conferred with Hillegas and Scott Bloedorn, a close friend of Hillegas, who lived with Halbach at the time of her disappearance. Sturm proceeded to drive to the Avery Salvage Yard. She walked straight to the back of the property and quickly found the missing RAV4 covered with tree branches.

"It appears that he directed her to the area where the victim's vehicle was located," McCrary stated, referring to Hillegas.

3. Gave police erroneous information

The discovery of a broken blinker light on the driver's side of Halbach's vehicle became one of the most overlooked clues in the Halbach investigation.

The broken blinker turned up inside the cargo area. Hillegas "also appears to have misled police when he told them that Ms. Halbach had damaged the front driver's side of her vehicle months before her disappearance, had filed an insurance claim for that damage and had taken the cash payout without repairing the vehicle," McCrary wrote. "However, it appears that particular damage was done more contemporaneously with the crime and a check with Ms. Halbach's insurance company revealed that she never filed an insurance claim for the front-end damage."

4. Used a fake name to search near Avery Salvage

"On at least one occasion," McCrary stated, "Mr. Hillegas had misidentified himself as Mr. Kilgus to gain access to the Avery property. Regardless, the authorities allowed Mr. Hillegas multiple entries to the Avery property while it was under police control."

During the weekend of Nov. 5-6, 2005, law enforcement officials recovered no major physical evidence to Steven Avery as the killer, despite a massive police presence meticulously canvassing the 40-acre property soon after the RAV4's recovery.

"On Nov. 7, 2005, the day before the victim's burned bones and electronic devices were found in Mr. Avery's burn pit and burn barrel, Mr. Hillegas entered the property without signing in at the command post," McCrary stated. "There is no way to know exactly when he entered the property, or how long he had remained, but it might explain how, despite previous searches of that property, that the victim's bones were not discovered until Nov. 8, 2005. At the very least, this type of unauthorized entry to a restricted crime scene violates proper police practices and risks contaminating the scene."

5. Accessed Halbach's phone records after she disappeared

At Avery's trial, defense lawyers Dean Strang and Jerry Buting asked Hillegas about gaining access to Halbach's phone records. Hillegas testified he managed to correctly guess her username and password.

"There is evidence that voice messages were deleted from Ms. Halbach's voice mailbox after her death and before law enforcement initiated their missing person investigation," McCrary stated. "Mr. Hillegas is one individual who knew Ms. Halbach's username and password and assisted law enforcement in accessing her Cingular Wireless account to obtain a list of her phone calls during the relevant time period."

6. Involved in abusive relationship with victim

Zellner's investigators determined Halbach had severed romantic ties with Hillegas, who still remained a constant presence in her life. "She sustained both verbal and physical abuse in her relationship with her ex-boyfriend," McCrary wrote. "At the time of her death, the ex-boyfriend was unemployed, lived close by and visited her home frequently."

7. Sustained injuries to his hands during time frame of murder

Dr. Larry Blum, a pathologist from Rockford, Ill., reviewed television news footage showing Hillegas with several scratches to his hands as he was organizing volunteer search efforts. "It is my opinion, to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty in the field of forensic pathology, that Mr. Hillegas' right hand ... appears discolored ... the abrasions I observed on the back of Mr. Hillegas' left hand are consistent with scratches inflicted by fingernails."

Zellner told USA TODAY NETWORK on Monday she is not obligated by the criminal justice system "to prove he murdered Teresa Halbach to get Steven Avery's conviction vacated."

"Rather, we are trying to show Hillegas had motive, opportunity and a connection to the crime that meets the Denny (third-party suspect) standard. The jury should have been presented with this evidence. It may have created a reasonable doubt about Steven's guilt."

Follow John Ferak on Twitter: @johnferak

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