Now in minimum security, notorious ‘hit man’ murderer Joseph Hecht has a parole review in July

The October 1983 murder of Carolyn Hudson "was one of the most cold-blooded in the annals of Dane County crime."
Nov. 8, 1985 clipping from The Capital Times with headline: KILLER NABBED AFTER ESCAPE
Cap Times clipping courtesy of Doug Moe.
Joseph Hecht, convicted in 1984 of murder-for-hire, is up for parole.

The email arrived one morning earlier this month, with the subject line, “Joseph Hecht Parole.”

“As the police officer who arrested Hecht on the Glenway Golf Course,” wrote Charlie Flad, “I learned … that Joseph Hecht is coming up for parole. As someone who has written articles about the Hudson murder case I thought you’d be interested in this information.”

I was interested.

The October 1983 murder of Carolyn Hudson by Joseph Hecht “was one of the most cold-blooded in the annals of Dane County crime,” wrote The Capital Times staff writer Dan Allegretti two years later, on the day Hecht pulled a gun on his guards and escaped while on a medical visit to University Hospitals and Clinics of Madison.

At the time of his escape, Hecht was serving — according to news accounts at the time — a sentence of life plus 53 years in the Waupun Correctional Institution for the Hudson murder. Two other men were also convicted of the crime: Hudson’s ex-husband, Richard Wheeler, who’d been angry about paying child support; and James Stomner, the “middleman” who’d introduced Wheeler to Hecht.

Hecht accepted Wheeler’s money to carry out the murder. He’d come to Madison from Texas and never been in the same room with Hudson until the moment he shot and killed her. The Hudson home was on Vondron Road. Hudson’s 14-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Wheeler, gave chase as Hecht fled the house after the murder. She memorized his license plate number, leading to Hecht’s arrest later that day. He was convicted of the murder in 1984. Hecht’s brief escape in November 1985 added a bizarre twist to an already notorious case. After pulling the gun at University Hospital, Hecht commandeered a red pick-up truck outside the hospital.

“He showed me his hand,” Earl Reiner told me last week. “He had a small pistol that could fit in the palm of your hand. At that point he already had his hand on the truck door. He opened it up and told me to move over.”

Reiner, then 32, had been at University Hospital to pick up his wife from work. Their 7-month-old son, Jon, was in a car seat next to him on the pick-up’s bench style front seat. Hecht got in the driver’s seat and told Reiner to start the car for him — Hecht was still shackled. Reiner sat between Hecht and his son. The guards gave chase, Reiner said, until Hecht fired a shot at them and they retreated. Hecht then asked if there was a place nearby where he might get the shackles removed. Reiner suggested Budd’s Service Station on Monroe Street. When Hecht went inside, Reiner grabbed his son in the car seat, ran next door to One Hour Martinizing dry cleaners, and called the police. He’d given Hecht the truck’s keys, and Hecht eventually drove to nearby Gregory Street, where he abandoned the truck and was spotted by Charlie Flad, a University of Wisconsin–Madison police patrolman. An all hands on deck call had gone out to law enforcement when Hecht escaped.

“I’m driving west on Gregory when I see this guy walking down the sidewalk on the left hand side,” Flad said, when we spoke recently. “I pulled up on the sidewalk and started driving toward him. I was thinking, ‘If this is the guy, he’ll run.’ And off he went.”

Hecht ran through the backyards, across the railroad tracks (now the Southwest Bike Path) and onto the Glenway Golf Course. Flad pursued, figuring he had an advantage: Flad grew up in the neighborhood and knew it intimately. But Flad also had a bad head cold and was huffing and puffing. He was 40 feet or so behind Hecht on Glenway’s third fairway.

“He was yelling something at me,” Flad says. “But my ears were plugged, and I couldn’t hear him.” Flad believes Hecht tried to fire at him but the gun either misfired or was empty. “He threw the gun at me. I had my gun out. I yelled at him to get down and ultimately he did. I ran up, rolled him over on his stomach, searched him and handcuffed him.”

Hecht was sentenced to an additional 41 years when convicted of the escape attempt. He never revealed where he got the gun, which authorities believe was hidden in the sole of his shoe. Flad saw Hecht a few more times — “We would get notified anytime he was coming back to the hospital,” he says — and each time asked Hecht where he got the gun. Hecht was not forthcoming.

“The last time,” Flad recalls, “I said, ‘I see you found Jesus.’”

While incarcerated Hecht wrote in a timeline that he “received Christ Savior and Lord” in 1988.

Flad said Hecht replied, “Yeah, I found Jesus.”

Flad said, “Then you should tell us who gave you the gun that was in your shoe.”

Flad recalls: “He said an expletive and that was the last time I saw him.”

Flad recently sent an email to the Wisconsin Parole Commission asking about Hecht’s status. The reply he received stated that at Hecht’s most recent parole review, in December 2020, “the Commission assessed that Mr. Hecht had satisfied the conduct and programming requirements for a grant [of parole], but the risk reduction, time served, and release plan requirements remained unmet. All five requirements must be satisfied for a grant recommendation to be made, which would require the review and approval of the [Commission’s] Chair.” But it also stated that since that review, Hecht had earned minimum security status and is now at the minimum security Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution.

“Demonstrating continued positive conduct in a reduced security setting,” the Commission wrote Flad, “will be an important factor in the Commission’s assessment of risk reduction, and can also help determine when a request to confirm release plans would be appropriate.” They scheduled Hecht for another review in July.

Flad told me that on reading that, “I felt they were hinting that he was good candidate for parole.”

Flad does not agree. “The man is a murderer. I don’t think much has changed. Especially when he wouldn’t tell me who gave him the gun.”

Reiner, the man taken hostage by Hecht in 1985, told me he’s written a several page document “arguing why [Hecht] should stay in” that he sends to the Parole Commission when Hecht is being given a parole review. Victims are always provided the opportunity to comment. When Reiner heard about the upcoming July review, he sent a one-page letter to Gov. Tony Evers, the Parole Commission, and the Dane County District Attorney’s office, asking the latter “to submit paperwork that you don’t want him on the street.”

Yet Reiner offered this to me, too: “People can change. I read he’s become a born-again Christian. I don’t know.”

Reiner is a religious man. His son, Jon, the infant who was with Reiner when he was taken hostage in 1985, is now a pastor in Onalaska.

“He’s a fine young man,” Reiner says. “We never sat down and talked about this until the last few years. I didn’t want him to have this fear.”

Last week I spoke with Oliver Buchino, offender records associate with the Wisconsin Parole Commission. He described the seventh months between Hecht’s December 2020 review and the one slated for next month as “a period of monitoring now that he’s in reduced security, see how he’s doing there. How good the conduct has stayed during that period. The Commission will make a new assessment [in July] along all five requirements, see which ones are met, and if there are any that are unmet. I can’t speculate on what the commissioners’ recommendation will be for the review, but they’ll be looking at all five again.”

Buchino told me Hecht has had 13 parole reviews dating back to 2005. An “action summary” of the most recent review last December, Buchino says, indicates Hecht “stated that another inmate gave him the gun” that he used in the UW Hospital escape.

In a March 2014 article in the Wisconsin State Journal on the decline of paroles in the Walker administration, reporter Dee Hall spoke with a woman who identified herself as Hecht’s fiancé and insisted he had changed, citing his religious conversion. “This is not the same man who went to prison,” she told Hall. “When is enough, enough?”

It will never be enough for Jacqueline Wheeler, who was a young teenager in 1983 when her mother was murdered in the home they shared. Today Wheeler is an estate planning attorney in Milwaukee. We first spoke two decades ago. I’d reached out when a key figure in the case, James Stomner, was paroled. Jacqueline Wheeler wasn’t happy about that. (Richard Wheeler would be paroled a few years later.)

“I’d have been really upset if it was Hecht who had gotten out,” she told me then. “He scares me.”

When we spoke again, last week, Wheeler said she’d received a notice in May that Hecht would be getting a parole review in July — unusual timing; the notices usually come in October for December reviews. The notices give her an opportunity to provide comment to the Parole Commission — there is always a question about the impact of the offense upon the family.

“The loss is acute,” she says. “My mother’s birthday is June 6. That was a tough day, as is every Mother’s Day and every other holiday. My children never knew their grandmother.”

Wheeler added that she didn’t realize Hecht had been transferred to a minimum security facility.

“That’s alarming,” she says.

I asked about parole. To her mind, should it happen?

“Never,” Wheeler says. “He doesn’t possess a conscience. This is all about his self-interest. There is no way he should get out.”

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