By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Johanna Balsewicz was finally getting out. After an abusive marriage in which her husband, Douglas Balsewicz was becoming increasingly controlling and violent, Johanna, 23, felt she was on the edge of a better life — for her and her two young children.
On June 3, 1997, the West Allis woman was scheduled to appear at a divorce hearing. She wouldn’t leave her home alive.
Johanna’s sister, Karen Kannenberg, who was supposed to go with Johanna to the court proceeding, began getting calls that morning at work from her dad and her other sisters. They were crying, the receptionist said. Kannenberg couldn’t take those calls. She had a bad feeling something horrible had happened to a family member.
Kannenberg knew Doug Balsewicz had killed her little sister.
“She was happy and literally he totally stole that from her,” Kannenberg said at an emotional press conference last week alongside GOP candidate for governor, Tim Michels, and Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, Republican candidate for attorney general.
Kannenberg and her surviving sisters recalled the nightmare of that day 25 years ago, and the horror they relived when Gov. Tony Evers’ liberal state Parole Commission planned to free the man who brutally killed Johanna.
The memories burned.
Balsewicz broke into his estranged wife’s home. Their children, Chris, 4, and Nikkole, 2, were in the room with their mother when Balsewicz barged in. They watched as their father brutally stabbed Johanna 42 times, mostly in the face and neck.
“And the coward left her to die with her two kids in her bed while she’s half on the floor and on the bed,” Kannenberg said. “For eight hours those two kids just clinged to each other.”
When neighbors found them the following morning, the children were hand in hand, covered in their mother’s blood. For years, these traumatized children imitated the sound their mother made — the death rattle — as she lay dying, Kannenberg said.
Earlier this year, Johanna’s family was traumatized all over again by a soft-on-crime parole commission that had decided to free Balsewicz on “good behavior” less than 25 years into his 80-year sentence. Kannenberg said her family only learned of the killer’s pending release through the “grapevine,” not through the Evers administration.
They urged the liberal governor to block Balsewicz’s release. Caving to political pressure in an election year, Evers asked his appointed Parole Commission Chairman John Tate II to reconsider. Tate eventually resigned at Evers’ behest, and Balsewicz’s parole was rescinded. The commission on Evers watch, however, has set free hundreds of convicted criminals, including more than 270 murders and attempted murderers, and more than 44 child rapists, according to Wisconsin Right Now. Parole commission records recently ordered turned over by a court show the commission has continued to issue discretionary early parole to violent felons this year, and even after Tate’s resignation.
“People, you just have no idea. If it’s not your loved one you have no idea how this is feeling, knowing that someone is going to be let out,” Kannenberg said, holding back tears. “My sister is dead. My sister was only 23 years old.”
Toney said the Parole Commission must consider a number of factors in weighing the early release of violent criminals. There are two main questions that should be at the heart of such a consideration: Is parole in the interest of justice, and would it depreciate the seriousness of the crime?
Evers recently told the Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board that making sure victims are heard is “probably the most important thing we can do.”
So why is the governor “coddling criminals,” Michels asked.
“We need to have a governor who will stand up for the victims, like those standing behind me, and make sure there are no future victims, because the bad guys need to understand that if you’re not willing to do the time then don’t do the crime,” he said at the press conference.
For Johanna’s surviving siblings, it comes down to one important question.
“You took a life. Why should you have any life out here?” Kannenberg said.
Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 12, 2022