By all appearances, suspect Meng-Ju "Mark" Wu was ready to face his triple homicide trial, which was scheduled to start today.
But sometime after a 12:05 a.m. security check Monday at the Dane County Jail, Wu used a thin piece of fabric ripped from a sheet or pillowcase to fashion a noose.
He attached it to a sprinkler head designed to be nearly impossible to use in suicide attempts, put his head through the loop and stepped off either his bunk or a bar on his cell door.
Dane County Sheriff Gary Hamblin said deputies at the jail found him during a routine check at 12:55 a.m. Madison fire paramedics and Madison police Sgt. Karen Krahn responded to the jail. Despite efforts to resuscitate him, Wu, 20, was declared dead a short time later.
Wu's attorneys, Stephen Hurley and Hal Harlowe, were contacted, as was the Taiwanese consulate — Wu was a Taiwan national, Sheriff Gary Hamblin said.
The former UW-Madison student was charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide in July 2003 for allegedly killing Jason McGuigan, 28, Dustin Wilson, 17, and Daniel Swanson, 25. The three were shot to death June 26, 2003, in a Verona apartment.
A criminal complaint alleged a link between gambling and the shootings.
Wu's three-week trial before Circuit Judge William Foust was scheduled to begin today with jury selection. Attorneys listed more than 250 potential witnesses.
So far, no clues have surfaced as to why Wu would have committed suicide.
Hamblin said he didn't know if Wu left a note, but there were papers in his cell that still had to be reviewed.
Wu's last day in Cell Block 701 in the City-County Building portion of the jail was pretty much the same as his previous 439 days there.
He spent the day in his cell or in the cell block common area — either alone or with one of his three block mates, who included accused murderer Bennie Frier.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, he was served a dinner of ham, au graten potatoes, coleslaw, peaches and bread. Lights out was at 11 p.m.
His subsequent suicide has his attorneys stumped.
"None of us will ever know why," Hurley said. "One can think of many possible reasons, but the fact is, we'll never know."
Wu's lengthy jail stay could have played a part, he said. Wu was being held on a county-record $30 million bail.
"I don't say it to be critical, but the county jail is not a prison," Hurley said. "Prisons are designed for long-term occupation. There was a prolonged pre-trial incarceration, but whether that affected his thinking is something we'd all like to know."
Wu's parents, Chao Shih and Lilan Wu, were home in Taipei, Taiwan, and learned of their son's death from a family attorney in Philadelphia, Hurley said. They hadn't attended his pretrail hearings, but planned to come to Madison for the later stages of the trial.
"As you can imagine, they are shocked and grief-stricken," said Harlowe.
Hurley said he expected Wu to be exonerated at trial. But his disappointment is not that his client will never be able to prove his innocence or that the lawyers' extensive preparation will go untested.
"What's disappointing is that a young man took his own life," Hurley said.
While Hamblin won't say Wu's death could have been prevented in a newer facility, he did say visibility into cells in the City-County Building, with some 361 inmates, is "limited many times over."
Wu's blockmates could not see into his cell from their cells, Hamblin said.
"When the phone rings at 1:15 in the morning and someone tells you there's a death at the jail, it's shocking," he said. "But it's not the first time it happened."
In 2003, 821 inmates were placed on "some sort of special watch during the course of the year," Hamblin said.
Unlike the medium-security Public Safety Building, which opened in 1995 and currently has 441 inmates, there are few cameras in City-County Building cells.
"In many cases, deputies have to physically go into a cell block to see what's going on in that cell block," Hamblin said.
The door to Cell Block 701 is 66 feet from the deputies' control room. Surrounded by corridors on all sides, the block is the most secure in the jail.
A window lets deputies see into each cell and the common area. Portholes are also on each cell's back wall.
Even if cameras were installed in all cells, Hamblin said he'd need more staff to monitor them.
Wu's death before his trial also leaves unanswered questions for the victims' families.
"I'm in shock," said Robert McGuigan of Madison, father of Jason McGuigan. "I can't believe what's happened. There's no closure here. I wanted to face the man again. I wanted to look him in the eye. There's no justice here."
McGuigan said lead case Detective Mary Butler of the Sheriff's Office called him about 7:30 a.m. to tell him about Wu's death. "I said, ‘You've got to be kidding me.' "
Sandy Snook of Charles City, mother of victim Dustin Wilson, said she had been mentally preparing for the trial, which she intended to attend during its final week.
"I've prayed every night since (the murders) happened that justice would be brought here," she said of the trial.
McGuigan said he was convinced that Wu would have been found guilty because the investigation had been so thorough and the evidence was unquestionable.
"Everybody loses here," he said. "There's not a winner."
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said the state was confident it would be able to prove the case.
Blanchard said prosecutors will formally ask Foust to dismiss Wu's murder case. Evidence gathered for trial will never be heard.
His office will also review investigators' reports on Wu's death and decide whether there was any misconduct by jail staff.
An autopsy was held Monday, but results were not released.
Hamblin said his office is reviewing Wu's visitor lists, medical records and mental health visits as well as the incident.
Deputies are required to make eight checks of inmates during an eight-hour shift, he said. Three deputies worked in that area during Sunday's overnight shift.
"Any time we have a critical incident in the jail .¤.¤. we take a hard look at the way we do business," Hamblin said. "A 50-year-old building is not designed with the safety and security of inmates in mind."
The state Department of Corrections will also investigate to see whether proper procedures were followed.
Lisa Schuetz and Ed Treleven are reporters for the Wisconsin State Journal, a Lee Enterprises newspaper. Contact Schuetz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-6143, and Treleven at email@example.com or 252-6128.