The rise and fall of Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus reveals the immense power of prosecutors – and how it can be abused

The Golden Boy

Joe Paulus

Former Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus goes through a security checkpoint prior to his appearance in U.S. District Court in Green Bay, Wis., April 26, 2004. Paulus pleaded guilty under a federal plea agreement to taking bribes over a two-year period in exchange for reducing or dismissing cases. Sharon Cekada / The Post-Crescent via AP

Episode 2 Transcript

Remember the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic? Way back in 2020, when everyone was stocking up on hand sanitizer and toilet paper? That spring, Jerry Lingnofski was working as the head salesman at a gun store. It had a buy-one-get-one-free special — rifles with an unwrapped roll of toilet paper on the barrel.

But Lingnofski wasn’t always in gun sales. He used to work in law enforcement in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley.

Lingnofski had an important story to tell — one that he had recited under oath in a secret court proceeding in 2005. But before he agreed to an interview, Lingnofski wanted a Wisconsin Watch reporter to do some “homework” — by getting a judge to dissolve a secrecy order of the transcript of his testimony.

It worked. And now Lingnofski, a retired detective for the Town of Menasha Police Department, was ready to talk about the case that had put him sideways with former Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus.

It had to do with the horrific 1991 murder of a 2-year-old girl by her neighbor, Kelly Coon, a case prosecuted by Paulus and then-Deputy District Attorney Vince Biskupic.[[{“fid”:”1696116″,”view_mode”:”embed_portrait”,”fields”:{“format”:”embed_portrait”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EJerry%20Lingnofki%2C%20a%20retired%20detective%20for%20the%20Town%20of%20Menasha%20Police%20Department%2C%20says%20Winnebago%20County%20District%20Attorney%20Joe%20Paulus%20and%20Menasha%20police%20officer%20Steve%20Malchow%20asked%20him%20to%20lie%20on%20the%20stand%20about%20a%201991%20murder%20investigation.%20Lingnofski%20refused.%20Lingnofki%20and%20his%20K-9%20dog%20Niko%20were%20featured%20in%20a%20late-1990s%20series%20of%20trading%20cards%20released%20in%20Wisconsin%E2%80%99s%20Fox%20Valley%20to%20highlight%20police%20departments.%20%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20Jerry%20Lingnofski%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:” Lingnofki and his K-9 dog Niko were featured in a late-1990s series of trading cards released in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley to highlight police departments”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“2”:{“format”:”embed_portrait”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EJerry%20Lingnofki%2C%20a%20retired%20detective%20for%20the%20Town%20of%20Menasha%20Police%20Department%2C%20says%20Winnebago%20County%20District%20Attorney%20Joe%20Paulus%20and%20Menasha%20police%20officer%20Steve%20Malchow%20asked%20him%20to%20lie%20on%20the%20stand%20about%20a%201991%20murder%20investigation.%20Lingnofski%20refused.%20Lingnofki%20and%20his%20K-9%20dog%20Niko%20were%20featured%20in%20a%20late-1990s%20series%20of%20trading%20cards%20released%20in%20Wisconsin%E2%80%99s%20Fox%20Valley%20to%20highlight%20police%20departments.%20%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20Jerry%20Lingnofski%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:” Lingnofki and his K-9 dog Niko were featured in a late-1990s series of trading cards released in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley to highlight police departments”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“alt”:” Lingnofki and his K-9 dog Niko were featured in a late-1990s series of trading cards released in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley to highlight police departments”,”class”:”media-element file-embed-portrait media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”2″}}]]

“Amy Breyer was a beautiful little girl, lived with her parents at the mobile home park … Kelly Coon was a subject that we dealt with on and off for different things,” Lingnofski recalls. “And one night, he kidnapped that young child, sexually assaulted her and murdered her.”

According to Lingnofski’s testimony, Paulus and a higher-ranking officer on the Menasha police force, Steve Malchow, had asked him to lie —in a weird way — about his search of the area where Amy’s body was found.

Lingnofski says the two men wanted him to say he found the child’s diaper while rolling around on the ground, instead of where he had actually found it, in some bushes that scratched up his arms.

The lie didn’t make any sense to Lingnofski, but he says Paulus and Malchow insisted. Malchow accused him of not being “team player,” he says, implying that he should do what Paulus wanted — or be banned from taking the stand in Coon’s trial.

Lingnofski refused. And he never did testify in the Coon case.

But it left him with a lasting impression of Paulus as a prosecutor — a man who would later go to prison for his dishonesty.

Malchow is retired from the Outagamie County District Attorney’s Office, where he was an investigator for Biskupic. Malchow and Paulus did not respond to efforts to reach them through phone, email and certified letter with lists of questions.

Paulus a ‘Golden Boy’

Before his downfall in 2004, Paulus was known as a flashy, hard-charging district attorney with a knack for prosecuting headline-grabbing cases.

“For the longest time, Joe was called the Golden Boy,” says Jerry Burke, a retired long-time TV reporter for WBAY. “He could do no wrong. …. Boy, look at the convictions he’s getting. Well, that was before we knew some of the crap he was pulling under the table.”

Paulus became Winnebago County district attorney in 1988 when he was just 29 years old. The young DA hired an even younger assistant, Biskupic, who was fresh out of law school.

Jerry Burke sits in an office
Jerry Burke is a retired broadcast reporter who used to work at WBAY in Green Bay, Wis. He regularly covered Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus and Outagamie County District Attorney Vince Biskupic during his time as a reporter. Burke says he disliked Paulus but says of Biskupic: “Vince had ethics.” Burke was photographed at his home in Oshkosh, Wis., in 2020. Dee J. Hall/Wisconsin Watch

“Joe was his (Biskupic’s) mentor,” recalls Mike Balskus, a now-retired veteran Fox Valley prosecutor who investigated Paulus’ tenure and later worked for Biskupic in neighboring Outagamie County. “Vince would follow Joe around like a puppy dog. Essentially he would do whatever Joe wanted. And I think (he) also learned from Joe.”

Burke, for his part, says a good prosecutor is characterized by ethics, and “Vince (Biskupic) had ethics.”

In 1990, Paulus won one of Wisconsin’s first no-body homicide convictions. In 1992, he won the first conviction in the Fox Valley using DNA evidence.

Paulus also prosecuted a man for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman who had what is now called dissociative identity disorder. At the time, in 1990, the so-called Multiple Personality Rape Case got written up in newspapers including the Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun.

But the judge overturned the conviction just six weeks after trial, saying he erred in preventing a defense expert’s examination of the alleged victim. Paulus’ victim-witness coordinator also discovered the star witness was having sex with the woman, whom he knew had a mental illness — an action that bore a strong resemblance to the crime charged against the defendant.

‘You made the right choice’

About a decade later, Paulus would make headlines again — just not the kind anyone would want. That story begins with a young assistant district attorney named E.J. Jelinski.[[{“fid”:”1696136″,”view_mode”:”embed_landscape”,”fields”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EE.J.%20Jelinski%20was%20an%20assistant%20district%20attorney%20in%20Winnebago%20County%20who%20worked%20under%20Joe%20Paulus.%20After%20learning%20about%20Paulus%E2%80%99%20misconduct%20in%20office%2C%20Jelinski%20reported%20him%20to%20the%20FBI.%20He%20was%20later%20fired%20by%20Paulus%20and%20is%20now%20in%20private%20practice%20in%20Menasha%2C%20Wis.%20Jelinski%20is%20pictured%20here%20in%202004%2C%20the%20same%20year%20Paulus%20pleaded%20guilty%20to%20federal%20charges%20of%20bribery.%20%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20E.J.%20Jelinski%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”E.J. Jelinski stands in front of a desk with an old computer”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Open and Shut episode 2″},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“4”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EE.J.%20Jelinski%20was%20an%20assistant%20district%20attorney%20in%20Winnebago%20County%20who%20worked%20under%20Joe%20Paulus.%20After%20learning%20about%20Paulus%E2%80%99%20misconduct%20in%20office%2C%20Jelinski%20reported%20him%20to%20the%20FBI.%20He%20was%20later%20fired%20by%20Paulus%20and%20is%20now%20in%20private%20practice%20in%20Menasha%2C%20Wis.%20Jelinski%20is%20pictured%20here%20in%202004%2C%20the%20same%20year%20Paulus%20pleaded%20guilty%20to%20federal%20charges%20of%20bribery.%20%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20E.J.%20Jelinski%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”E.J. Jelinski stands in front of a desk with an old computer”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Open and Shut episode 2″}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“alt”:”E.J. Jelinski stands in front of a desk with an old computer”,”title”:”Open and Shut episode 2″,”class”:”media-element file-embed-landscape media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”4″}}]]

Jelinski is in private practice now in Menasha. He started working for Paulus in 2001, while he was still in law school.

He describes Paulus as funny — and sometimes, even kind. But, says Jelinski, “the majority of the time he spent playing with people just for his own amusement. And he was cruel. He was quite cruel.”

He recalls Christmas Day 2001 when Paulus called him 16 times. “And finally, on the 16th time I answered,” Kelinski said. “And he said, ‘I just wanted to make sure you were thinking about me on this important holiday, ha ha ha,’ click.”