Cold case: Former professional clown charged with killing 7-week-old daughter 30 years ago

MILWAUKEE — As Ronald Schroeder took the stage as “Silly the Clown” one summer day in 1991, his 7-week-old daughter lay dying across town.

Catherine Schroeder was pronounced dead the following day at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. A medical examiner determined her injuries, which included brain hemorrhaging, detached retinas and broken ribs, were consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome.

On Wednesday, 30 years to the day after Catherine’s death, Schroeder, 51, of Milwaukee, was charged with first-degree reckless homicide and two counts of child abuse causing great harm. Court and jail records show he is being held on cash bond of $350,000.

Schroeder, a registered sex offender, has always been a suspect in the infant’s death. A month before Catherine died, Schroeder was suspected of causing bruises on the baby’s body, WISN in Milwaukee reported.

Schroeder was also suspected of abusing two of his other children in 1997 and 2005, according to a criminal complaint obtained by the news station. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the 2005 case involved another daughter.

The child was 5 weeks old at the time, according to Fox 6 News.

The 1997 case appears to have involved Schroeder’s infant son.

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None of the allegations led to charges, though authorities reopened the case of Catherine’s death in 1998. Again, prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to charge Schroeder with killing his daughter.

Schroeder remained free until 2007, when he was arrested for sexually assaulting a girlfriend. A 2008 story by Milwaukee magazine spoke to the woman, who met Schroeder as a teenager.

At the time of the sexual assault, the woman was about 20.

The woman told police she and Schroeder had gone out to a bar, where she’d had too much to drink. Back at his home in Brookfield, she’d passed out.

“The next morning, (Ron) was joking about taking pictures of me naked when I was passed out,” she told police. “I thought he was kidding.”

He was not. Schroeder showed her photos of her lying on the bed, naked and unconscious.

Additional images later found on his computer showed the sexual assault. They also found 160 photos of what detectives described as child pornography, the magazine reported.

Schroeder was never charged in connection with the child porn, but along with the sexual assault charges, he was charged with 27 counts of capturing an image of nudity.

The Journal Sentinel reported that he was sentenced in 2008 to six years in prison.

He was released in 2013 but is serving 12 years of extended supervision, the newspaper said. He will be on the sex offender registry for life.

It was not clear what new evidence, if any, prompted authorities to take another look at Catherine’s death. Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Brian Peterson reviewed the baby’s autopsy in June and determined that the girl died of blunt force trauma to the head.

“Based on the injuries observed at autopsy, which included subdural hemorrhaging, subarachnoid hemorrhaging, cerebral cortical contusion hemorrhages, retinal hemorrhages, optic nerve sheath hemorrhages and fractures to right ribs 2-5, Dr. Peterson concluded that Catherine Schroeder died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head,” the criminal complaint states, according to WISN. “(He) ruled the manner of death was homicide.”

From entertainer to sex offender to alleged killer

Fox 6 News reported that Schroeder, then 22, called 911 just after midnight Aug. 25, 1991, to report that Catherine was not breathing. She died about 17 hours later at the hospital.

Milwaukee magazine reported that Schroeder’s wife, Christine Schroeder, knew something was wrong with the baby during the day Aug. 24. Catherine, who they called Catie, wouldn’t eat, sleep or respond to her mother’s voice.

More alarming was the infant’s blank stare, her eyes remaining fixed even when Christine Schroeder waved her hand in front of her.

The worried mother would later tell authorities that she lived in fear of her husband, who she said ruled their home with his fists. Ron told her not to take Catie to the hospital, she said.

Ron Schroeder denied ever hurting his wife or daughter, Milwaukee reported. He also denied the accusations of abuse and sexual assault.

Documents and records obtained by the magazine in 2008 told a different story.

Schroeder’s “Silly the Clown” persona was well-liked by his young audiences, as well as his fellow performers. Known for his balloon animals and an “invisible dog” routine, he performed at the Milwaukee County Zoo and Circus Parade, as well as at private parties and other public events.

The face paint hid a dark side, however.

“When you first meet him, you think he’s the nicest guy in the world,” Al Boeckeler, Christine Schroeder’s father, told Milwaukee in 2008. “But when the relationship gets more in depth, his true nature starts coming out.”

Boeckeler described his former son-in-law as a “very sick individual.”

Despite the abuse, Ron and Christine Schroeder married in May 1991, when 22-year-old Christine was seven months pregnant. Catie, who was born premature on July 3, would be dead three months later.

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Christine Schroeder would later tell police that Catie showed signs of being unwell the day before she died. Her breathing was labored and she cried out in pain as her diaper was changed.

Sometime after 11 p.m., as Ron Schroeder tried to feed the girl, she stopped breathing. By the time paramedics got her to the hospital, she was in a coma, Milwaukee reported.

Multiple doctors suspected abuse and told detectives as much. They diagnosed her trauma as the result of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

“There is ample evidence that Catherine not only died of physical abuse, but was battered on at least one, likely multiple, occasions,” wrote Dr. Jordan Greenbaum, an ER doctor and child advocate at the hospital.

Investigators could not make a case against either Schroeder, both of whom hired lawyers and refused to talk, according to the magazine.

Three years later, Christine Schroeder gave birth to the couple’s second daughter. When a public health nurse asked her about other children, Schroeder lied and told the woman her first child died of SIDS.

A Milwaukee County judge would soon order the new baby removed from the Schroeders’ home. She lived her first five years with her maternal grandparents.

“It was such a relief,” Al Boeckeler told Milwaukee. “We were very fearful the same thing would happen to our second granddaughter that happened to our first.”

The Schroeders’ marriage fell apart and in 1995, Christine Schroeder filed for divorce.

Meanwhile, Silly the Clown kept delighting children in the community.

Ron Schroeder was next accused of abuse by a live-in girlfriend, who gave birth to his son in 1997, the magazine reported. The girlfriend later told police about multiple incidents in which Schroeder had abused her and their small son.

She packed and left for good in November 1998 after Schroeder called her from a gig, livid and screaming that she’d forgotten to pack the glue for his red rubber clown’s nose.

Schroeder would go on to have two more daughters with his second wife, Nichole, who he married in 2002. Nearly three years later, in January 2005, Schroeder was accused of beating the couple’s younger daughter, who was 8 weeks old at the time.

According to Milwaukee’s 2008 story, the baby was choking on her own blood when first responders arrived at the Schroeder home. Doctors at Children’s — where Catie had died 13 years before — found bruises on her chest and abdomen, as well as fresh and healed broken ribs.

The infant’s right leg was also broken in two places.

The girl and her sister were removed from the Schroeder home and placed with Nichole Schroeder’s parents. The following summer, Nichole Schroeder filed for divorce and, eventually, she was reunited with her children.

Nichole Schroeder would later tell police she believed her husband had hurt multiple children over the years. Still, authorities said they did not have enough to bring charges against him.

“Two parents had access to the child,” then-Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel said in 2008. “We did not have then, and still do not have to this day, the ability to say who did it.”

Last week’s criminal complaint does not address what prompted the charges against Ron Schroeder at this time.

Christine Schroeder said at her ex-husband’s 2008 sentencing that she believes he killed Catie.

“He tried to blame Catie’s death on both me and his mother, but ultimately I knew he was the one that caused her death,” she said.