The heartbreaking case of 3-year-old Kenny Kramer, his disappearance and murder
His dad, Howey Kramer, was convicted 23 years ago of murder, despite maintaining his innocence.
BROWNSVILLE — Nearly 25 years later, the case involving the abduction of a 3-year-old Brownsville boy and the trial of his father on murder charges retains its ability to shock the senses. It is as heartbreaking and tragic today as when it was being reported nearly 25 years ago.
In the early hours of May 10, 1999, Kenny Kramer, age 3, was kidnapped from his bed in rural Brownsville where he lived with his grandparents. Eight days later, the boy’s body was found in a heavily wooded area behind a mobile home in Brownsville, a small town halfway between La Crescent and the Iowa border. Kenny had been put into a large plastic bag, with his mouth duct-taped shut. The bag had been taped to a tree. Kenny suffocated to death within minutes of being placed there.
Almost immediately, law enforcement authorities centered their suspicions on Kenny’s 26-year-old dad, Harold “Howey” Kramer. Kenny, they said, had been part of an elaborate and deranged scheme concocted by Howey Kramer to win back a girlfriend who had broken up with him. It shocks the conscience to this day.
John Weiss, a 41-year Rochester Post Bulletin veteran reporter who covered the five-week trial , said the passage of time has not diminished or lessened the urgency of the question of why.
“Let’s call it what it is: How can someone be that evil,” Weiss said in an interview with the Post Bulletin.
As much as the mind rebels against the notion of a father using and killing his son in some twisted romance-retrieving plan, the evidence and testimony pointed inexorably back to Howey Kramer. Yet it wasn’t a slam dunk. The prosecution brought forward some 70 witnesses, yet it didn’t have an iota of forensic evidence — not a fingerprint or DNA sample on the plastic bag, for example.
“There was not one bit of forensic evidence. (The prosecution) had to weave a web around him, what he was doing,” Weiss said.
And it did.
What it did have was a dog that didn’t bark, putative ransom letters that reflected Kramer’s peculiar spelling errors, a confession that the defense vainly tried to toss on appeal, and a damning performance by Kramer himself on the witness stand.
In 1997, Kramer, Kenny and Kramer’s girlfriend, Dawn Buroker, had been living in a mobile home in Hokah. Kramer and Buroker were engaged to be married, but Buroker called the engagement off. Kenny’s grandparents welcomed the little boy into their mobile home in Brownsville, so that Kramer and his ex-girlfriend could work out their differences. But Buroker moved out, and Kramer went to live with his parents along with his son, Kenny.
Kramer was distraught over the break-up, according to court records. It’s not clear exactly when Kramer began to form the notion of using Kenny as leverage to get his ex-girlfriend back, but he knew that Buroker was very close to Kenny and continued to visit him weekly in Brownsville.
A month after Buroker called the wedding off, Kramer began leaving notes for her with her coworkers. During one visit Buroker made to Brownsville, Kramer showed her a typewritten note that he said had been left in his car. The note threatened that Kenny would be hurt if Buroker and Kramer did not start acting like a family again.
A month before Kenny’s death, Kramer allegedly went to a movie theater where Buroker worked. Kramer was holding Kenny, but he stood in front of the box office, pointing at Kenny as if he wanted her to see his son.
She told police she thought Kramer was playing "mind games" with her.
Kenny goes missing
The night Kenny was abducted, Kramer left his parents’ home to visit a friend. He claimed that he was driving aimlessly near La Crosse when, around 3:45 a.m. he was forced off the road and assaulted by two men, who told him, “we have your son.” Kramer didn’t return to his parents’ mobile home but instead drove to the apartment of a friend.
Kramer called his parents two or three times but only reached an answering machine. When Harold Kramer, Sr., Kramer's dad, returned his call, Kramer told him to check on Kenny and Harold Kramer, Sr., found him missing.
One question that worked in Kramer’s disfavor was the behavior of his parents’ watchdog. If Kenny had been abducted by an unknown intruder, why didn’t it bark or growl as it typically did when a stranger approached the home? Harold Kramer Sr., a light sleeper, claimed he would have awakened if the dog had done so.
Then there was the peculiarity of the spelling of Kramer’s nickname. It was spelled “Howey,” not “Howie,” as most people would have spelled it. It was an easy mistake to make and Weiss himself in covering the trial early on misspelled Howey’s name as “Howie.” The May 10, 1999, ransom note left by the mysterious abductor had the spelling right.
Police also found love letters from Kramer to his ex-girlfriend stashed under his mattress at the Brownsville mobile home. Several of the misspellings contained in the love letter, such as “gonna” and “differant,” were repeated in the kidnap note.
And it reiterated the same threat: It said that if Kramer married Buroker within a week, the boy would be returned. But of course, it was too late.
Taking the stand
Kramer took the stand in his own defense. His performance on the stand inflicted significant damage on his credibility and defense. Prosecutor William Klumpp caught Kramer in so many errors and poked so many holes in his evolving alibi that it raises the question why he testified at all.
“(The prosecutor) just tore him to shreds. He got him in so many contradictions,” Weiss said. “Klumpp had a big easel with a three-by-four-foot sheet used in business meetings. Every time he was caught in a contradiction, he marked it on the sheet. There were like a dozen marks.”
Weiss said Kramer’s inconsistencies on the stand convinced him that Kramer was guilty. It apparently carried weight with the jury, too. On March 17, 2000, a Fillmore County jury found Kramer guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and child endangerment but not guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison of which he has served 23 years.
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Why did he do it? Was it a bid for sympathy from his ex-girlfriend? Was it a plan that spiraled out of control? No one can say. On the first anniversary of Kenny’s murder in a phone interview from prison, Kramer maintained his innocence.
“I don’t think law enforcement had enough to convict me on, for one,” he said. “I still maintain my innocence.”
During his disappearance and through the trial, glimpses of Kenny Kramer’s personality would emerge that amplified the loss. He was a boy who liked to wake early with his grandmother and make coffee and breakfast for his grandfather. During the trial, a picture of the boy was shown in court of him wearing cranberry red pajamas listening to a headset. He wears a mischievous, heart-warming smile.
“He was a nice little boy,” Elmer Kramer, Harold Kramer Sr.’s brother, said. “He was talkative for a 3-year-old. I think he was pretty bright.”
After Kenny’s death, the people of Brownsville put up a granite bench and birdbath in his honor. He would be 27 today and likely have kids of his own.