David Stefonek enjoyed the autumn and early winter of 1985, chiefly because his father was finally enjoying life again. Sixty-seven-year-old Dexter Stefonek had traveled from Wisconsin to spend a few months with David and his family in Oregon. Dexter was relishing the time with his grandchildren, and it brought joy to David to finally see a smile return to his father’s face.
Dexter had been despondent for much of the past year as his wife Vivian’s health deteriorated. Her death occurring on Christmas day of 1984 was particularly hard.
David wanted his father to stay with him through the end of winter, or at least through the Christmas season. Dexter, as much as he had enjoyed his extended stay in Oregon, however, wanted to get back home. Against David’s wishes, Dexter began the drive from Oregon to Wisconsin in the early morning hours of November 18.
The winter of 1985 was a particularly cold one across the northern United States. Dexter’s drive encompassed going through six frigid states; he did not make it out of the third state.
Three weeks after leaving Oregon, Dexter Stefonek was found shot to death in eastern Montana. Over thirty-five years later, his murder is one of the coldest cases from one of America’s coldest states.
The distance between Corbett, Oregon, and Rhinelander, Wisconsin, was nearly 2,000 miles. Dexter, anxious to get back home, told David he planned to pull into rest areas when he got tired instead of staying in motels.
Located off Interstate 94, 20 miles from the town of Glendive, the Bad Route Rest Area in southeastern Montana is approximately 30 miles from the North Dakota border.
When Fred Siegle, the rest area’s custodian, arrived for work at 8:30 a.m. on November 19, he noticed an unoccupied pick-up truck parked at the facility. Fifteen minutes later, Clyde Mitchell, a highway maintenance supervisor, stopped at the rest area and also saw the truck. He remembered it as a white four-wheel-drive Chevy with blue trim and a cowcatcher on the front. He noticed numerous clothes and bedding in the back. Clyde recalled the vehicle having Arizona license plates.
Other than employee vehicles, the Chevy was the only car at the Bad Route Rest Area. The seldom-used rest stop was a sprawling area with room for at least a dozen freight trucks and a few dozen cars. Fred and Clyde thought it was strange that the Chevy was parked far from the bathrooms on a frigid day.
Clyde left the Bad Route Rest Area to complete his rounds. Fifteen minutes later, as Fred was leaving the rest stop, he saw a brown Plymouth Horizon pull into the parking lot. The driver got out, carrying two large plastic containers. Fred believed they were milk jugs. He said the car’s driver was at least six feet tall, between 35-40 years old, with light skin, and wearing a parka.
Half an hour later, Dawson County Sheriff received a call about a car fire at the Bad Route Rest Area. When he arrived at the scene shortly after 10:00 a.m., the inside of the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
Police found that the car to be Dexter’s Plymouth, and it was determined to be the same car seen earlier by Fred and Clyde. However, it was clear that Dexter was not the man who drove the car to the rest stop. Fred described a much younger and taller driver. An examination of the charred vehicle supported the latter description. The driver’s seat was pushed all the way back, indicating a man likely at least six feet tall had been driving. Dexter was only 5’5.
An arson expert determined that gasoline had recently been put into the car, not to fill it up but to set it on fire.
A little over twenty-four hours had passed since Dexter left Oregon when his burning car was found nearly 1100 miles away near Glendive, Montana. Dexter was last seen filling his car with gas the day before in Park City, Montana, 220 miles southwest of The Bad Area Rest Stop.
Deputies searched the area but found no trace of Dexter.
Four months later, in February of 1986, Bill and Cindy Shaw made a routine run to dump garbage at a landfill 17 miles northwest of the Bad Route Rest Area where Dexter’s car had been found ablaze. Cindy was an artist and often found materials to use in her artwork at the landfill. On this day, she found something much worse.
Cindy found a wallet on the ground. Inside was Dexter’s driver’s license and a substantial amount of money. As Bill and Cindy searched the landfill, they found several scattered items of clothing and a suitcase that also contained money.
Upon further search of the landfill, Bill discovered something more horrifying. When he picked up a boot, he was shocked to see a man’s foot sticking out from beneath a mattress.
It was Dexter. He had been beaten and shot twice in the head. There were bruises on his hands, throat, and the front part of his skull.
The suitcase and clothing items found at the Shaws at the landfill were identified as Dexter’s. They were still in good condition, appearing to have been recently discarded. The Shaws did not see any of those items when they had been to the landfill the previous week.
After completing the autopsy, however, the Dawson County Coroner believed Dexter’s body had probably been at the dumpsite from the time his car was found burning when it was discovered.
One week later, graffiti written in pencil was found on the wall in the men’s restroom at the Bad Route Rest Area. The note read, “HOT JOCK SHOT WAD FROM WISCONSIN 11/85 SATURDAY THE 3rd”.
Police believed the graffiti is a reference to Dexter’s murder. “HOT JOCK” may be a trucker’s CB handle, and the “WISCONSIN” is Dexter’s home state. The “SATURDAY THE 3rd” is not clear. November 3, 1985, was a Sunday and was two weeks before Dexter was last seen.
It was never determined who wrote the graffiti.
The man seen parking Dexter’s Plymouth at the Bad Route Rest Stop is suspected of murdering him. He is believed to have been 35-40 years old in 1985, making him in his late 60s to early 70s today. He is described as at least six feet tall with a light complexion. In November of 1985, he was clean-shaven.
The suspect’s vehicle was a white Chevy 4 x 4 truck with a Hawaiian blue horizontal stripe on its side. It had a white camper shell top and a cattle guard on the front bumper.
Clyde Mitchell saw that the truck had Arizona license plates with a Phoenix plate holder. Under hypnosis, he recalled the first three numbers of the license plate as 147. Investigators found 279 vehicles in Arizona with those numbers. They narrowed the possibilities to 60 plates with the numerical beginning of 147 but could not link any of them to Dexter’s murder.
Over thirty-five years after meeting a brutal end in the brutally cold Montana winter, Dexter Stefonek’s murder remains unsolved. The murder is a cold case, literally and figuratively, as investigators said they have received few clues in recent years.
If you have believe you have any information on the murder of Dexter Stefonek, please contact the Dawson County Montana Sheriff’s Department at (406) 377-5291.
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