Steve Kilwein always wanted to live under the vast skies of Montana.
In the mid-1980s the middle-aged father of five, a successful contractor and home builder, left North Dakota and settled in Bozeman, moving his wife and family to a location that he had long romanticized.
“He always wanted to live in Bozeman,” said Steve’s daughter Karla Hacker. “The saddest part to reconcile is that that town ended up killing him.”
On June 13, 2021, Kilwein, 79, was slain on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning in his own home. The victim, according to the death certificate, “of multiple chop-type wounds,” inflicted to the back of the head.
His family continues to search for resolution and struggles to comprehend that such an irrational act of violence could be inflicted on their loved one without consequence.
“People should know about it,” said Karla Hacker. “There's still a killer walking around town, maybe still in Bozeman, someone who brutally murdered our father. Most people have no idea that this happened. We have a $100,000 reward, but there's not an outrage or anything.”
“I am still in denial,” said his daughter Karen Hamilton. “How could this happen in the town he absolutely loved?”
The Road to Bozeman: A Dream Fulfilled
Steve Joseph Kilwein was born in 1941 and raised in Dickinson, North Dakota, the second youngest of 13 children, five of whom died of sickness or disease before they reached the age of two. His father, Martin Kilwein, of hard-working, German ethnicity, operated a grain, wheat and flax farm spanning more than 600 acres south of South Heart and abutting the Badlands.
His upbringing consisted of home-grown chickens and canned goods, his favored entertainment chucking marbles with his brother Roger during recess at St. Joe’s elementary school, and he didn’t experience the comfort of indoor plumbing until the family moved closer to town when he was a teenager.
Steve graduated from Dickinson High School in 1960 and Ron Lisko graduated two years later. Ron, smaller, less physically prominent, idolized the older student, whom he first met after Steve stood up to some ruffians who were bullying him. They were both members of Dickinson High School wrestling teams.
“I was a junior and I wrestled in the 133-pound class and Steve was at a higher weight.” said Lisko. “He was a strong guy, a leader, with a good personality, someone who could take control of things. He liked to arm wrestle, too, and if you were arm wrestling against Steve, you’d better be in good shape. He’d drive up and down the main drag in a Ford 57’ with the driver’s side missing. I thought of him as the Fonz of the south side of Dickinson.”
After graduating from high school, he went to work in construction, he and his brother Roger teaming together on countless projects, including dry walling jobs at the campus at Dickinson State College and the Prairie Hills Mall, as well as interior and exterior home painting assignments throughout the Dickinson area.
“For 10 or 15 years it seemed like we worked every night together and we had a new duplex to start every Monday morning,” said Roger Kilwein.
By chance he met Judith Pavlicik at a house party and the couple dated for two years, married in 1964, and in the end reared five children: Kurt, Karen, Karla, Keith, and Kari.
“Judy was the best person and always positive and she had the best laugh” said Steve’s sister, Jeannette Kilwein.
After graduating from Dickinson State College in Art and Business, Steve taught English at the Job Corps, and served as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor at the state hospital in Jamestown. This type of work softened his heart and instilled an unshakeable belief in him that people ought to have second or even third chances. An avid artist, he once found employment painting a local steeple.
“A serial entrepreneur,” as described by his son Kurt Kilwein, Steve later worked as a banker and owned a lumber yard and even a saloon. But it was his work as a home builder that brought him the most financial success; he was smart, witty, adept at solving problems quickly and efficiently. Kilwein Construction built a sizeable number of houses, subdivisions, and business offices in the Dickinson area.
Many remarked that there was something gentle about him, considerate. His affection was boundless: once, he’d bought a funky little car in the classifieds and left it in the parking lot of the high school for his girls. He’d grinningly walked home, allowing them to discover the gift after tennis practice. His children had friends who lacked father figures and he would fill such voids with kindness, contributing his time and skill repairing their vehicles.
During the summer months, Steve and Judy packed the Winnebago and took the children to the property that the family had purchased in the Virginia City area of southwest Montana.
The former gold mine became the source of many glossy memories, days spent enjoying exploring the shafts and fissures and nights at the friend’s cabin in Ennis, stretched under the stars.
With his three oldest children attending or about to attend Montana State University, Steve saw the opportunity to fulfill his dream of fully living in Montana. It was the summer of 1986 when he and his wife and the youngest two kids removed to Bozeman. After a while the Kilweins purchased a modest home downtown.
“The house used to be purple, so everyone knew the purple house behind Safeway,” said his daughter Karen Hamilton.
In retirement, Steve was constantly in motion, chopping timber, hauling tools, laying down and tearing up floors or tinkering on assorted projects in the garage. He was an avid reader, especially knowledgeable about the crucial events and decisive battles of the Civil War and World War II as well as the life of President Theodore Roosevelt.
He almost always wore baseball caps; one of his favorites was from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, a place Steve visited several times, and another, rimmed with silly plastic bird poop read: San Pedro Island. He owned caps for all occasions and sports teams: the Minnesota Vikings while in Bozeman and the Denver Broncos when he was in Colorado to visit family.
Soon, all of the Kilwein offspring were scattered in three other states - Colorado, Washington, and California – and circumstances demanded that he and Judy travel a great deal. When grandkids arrived, it sparked the wonder of a second childhood in Steve, all balloons and party hats and streamers. There were pranks with water balloons and crazy water gun battles; the poker games involving stashes of surplus Halloween candy, with grandpa feigning ruthlessness while allowing them to win and deplete his supply; the surprise attacks from the closet with a rushing volley of foam Nerf balls.
Steve and Judy took to traveling and exploring the seminal landmarks and battlefields forming the nation, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Appomattox, as well as cruising, embarking on multiple trips to destinations such as Alaska, Panama, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.
“Watching Steve and Judy was like watching two people who were in love,” said Steve’s sister Leona Moriarty. “They giggled all the time and they were good parents.”
Summer 2021: Heart Still Tied to Bozeman
Come the summer of 2021, Steve Kilwein, 79, was still adjusting to a life as a widower: Judith Kilwein passed away from heart failure in June 2019, at age 75. Before she died, the couple had lived in a house the Denver area, a few doors away from one of their children and grandchildren. Judy embraced the move wholeheartedly, but Steve wouldn’t cut his connection to Bozeman, dividing time in both places.
He had a sore, stiff back which in the past required three separate surgeries and he would sometimes need the assistance of a cane. He was in remission from prostate cancer. Nonetheless, he was just as quick and capable now to show an interested party how to properly insulate a house or hang sheetrock or tape and texture drywall, as he had been in his 30s. The yard was littered with disheveled automobiles, including a 1949 Ford, and Steve’s latest interior remodeling job gave the property the appearance of an active construction zone.
He had a crew of buddies that he met with at Rosauers supermarket more or less daily for coffee and practically every afternoon he visited Home Depot or Lowe's, where he chatted amiably with employees, many of them he knew by name.
Invariably decked in blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a baseball cap, Kilwein never passed up any opportunity to initiate a conversation or make people laugh with silly, unselfconscious jokes.
Saturday. June 12, 2021. The day was hot and bright, cumulus clouds like mountains loomed in the sky. Steve purchased moving boxes to pack up more things to transfer to Colorado. He had made no plans to sell the house in Bozeman, explaining to his children that he still found beauty there and it gave his life some meaning.
“We tried to get him to put the last of the stuff in the truck,” said Karla Hacker. “It was his choice to stay there. He kept saying he was going to move. But we couldn't get him out of Bozeman. He loved it.”
One of his daughters spoke with him late in the evening. He told her that he was going to make soup or fix a sandwich and then retire to bed. He said he planned to mow the yard the following morning.
Sunday. June 13, 2021. At approximately 11 a.m., while the sun burned its way higher with the sky and the community buzzingly faced the day, something horrible happened to Steve Kilwein.
He did not answer his cell phone and after numerous unsuccessful attempts. One of his children contacted the Bozeman Police Department at about 9 p.m.
“It would have been odd to be out of contact with him for more than 12 hours,” said his daughter Kari Gray. “The second none of us had heard from him, we knew something was wrong, perhaps he fell or he’d gotten hurt. The policeman said, your father is deceased. And then we heard from the coroner Monday morning who said he was electrocuted.”
Law enforcement’s initial diagnosis of an accidental death by electrocution struck his children as strangely implausible.
“He was an experienced contractor and he owned a construction company and there was no way he would have touched a live wire,” said Karla Hacker.
“He was a smart man and he could build a house from scratch and we knew there was no way that my dad accidentally electrocuted himself,” said Hamilton.
Still, the Kilwein children were prepared to accept such a scenario as the cause of their father’s death. After all, he was constantly tearing apart dividing walls, removing partitions, rebuilding panels. Did an unprotected thread of wires freakishly shock him?
Then Tuesday morning, one of the Kilwein children received a call from a Bozeman detective asking if he could receive permission to enter Steve’s house. Soon, the line of questioning from the police turned noticeably more serious.
“The questioning became odd for somebody who's been electrocuted,” said Kari. “And that’s when the detective said that they were looking at other possibilities.”
Classified as Homicide
On Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the Bozeman Police Department issued a curt press release addressing the fate of Steve Kilwein.
“The Bozeman police classified it as a homicide on Tuesday morning,” said Karla Hacker. “The news release from the police department said that it was someone known to him and that there was no threat to the general public.”
“All the police said was that it was someone he knew and they had a strong suspect and that made you think that there’d be an arrest soon,” said Roger Kilwein. “That didn’t happen.”
Details remain stubbornly minimal, though the death certificate identifies “multiple chop-type wounds” as the cause of death, “implying a hatchet or axe,” suggested Kurt Kilwein, though the instrument or tool of violence has never been made public.
Over the years Steve had experienced several thefts from his residence, unique bits and pieces, such as a World War I combat helmet, which he quickly recovered at the neighboring pawnshop. There was the Swiss watch that disappeared from inside the house just days before. But Steve’s construction and lawn tools were left untouched, including a table saw, a nail gun, and an air compressor.
On Sunday morning, June 15, 2021 around 11 a.m., Steve’s lawn mower was filled with gas, positioned a few feet from the front door. None of the locks or doors showed damage and there were no signs of a break-in or vandalism. Steve's wallet was found in his bedroom, containing approximately $2,300 from the sale of a Suburban.
The autopsy report indicated that a struggle transpired and Steve, still physically prominent at 6 '2", about 200 pounds, might have even fought with his attacker. No one heard or saw anything suspicious on that quiet block in that quiet neighborhood.
Built in 1910 or earlier, Kilwein's modest single family home at 101 North Ninth Avenue, approximately 742 square feet, is located on a one-way street neighboring Summit Church at 921 W. Mendenhall Street. The house is just two blocks from Bozeman High School on 11th Avenue.
“Church would have been in session when my dad was killed,” said Karen Hamilton. “Someone brutally attacked him and then coldly and callously just walked out the front door, and that person is potentially still walking around Bozeman.”
Friendliness and chattiness were two of Steve’s characteristic trademarks and so, too, was compassion. Recently, there was a downtrodden drifter who liked to repair cars. Steve had found odd jobs for him until Steve he’d stepped on a crack pipe in the backyard and sent the man on his way.
“I think we all think that it was probably someone he knew,” said Kari. “He never locked his door in the day. He was kind of always adopting people and in the past he had an old trailer; he had people living in the trailer in the back.”
“Could my dad's generosity and caring nature be what eventually took his life from him?” asked Karen Hamilton.
Ironically, Steve wasn’t even supposed to be in Montana on the day he was murdered: an appointment in Colorado to have MRI scans of a sore hand and neck had been re-scheduled.
Days later he was buried. Solemnity with a pat of sunshine: each of the five children would wear one of their father’s baseball caps in remembrance. When they laid him to rest, they did not know that his murderer would remain faceless and the police’s search would be fruitless.
Steve’s loved ones find the adage about time healing all wounds to be untrue: grief doesn’t grow fainter, its shell hardens and it aches in new ways. They will spend the anniversary cleaning his grave. Compounding their pain, the perception held by some of Steve’s children that the murder of their father is obsolete news, or perhaps even worse, not news at all.
“From the start, his murder has been treated as if he were just an old guy living in a torn apart house,” said Karla Hacker. “But there was so much more to him. He had beautiful grandkids who he adored. He had a loving wife for 55 years. Had he been in one of the million dollar homes in Bozeman, and not scruffy looking, would the outcome of this case have been different?”
-— Brian D’Ambrosio
A $100,000 reward is available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder of Steve Kilwein. Anyone with information about Steve Kilwein’s homicide can contact Detective Ben King at (406) 582-2242 or email email@example.com. Writer Brian D’Ambrosio can be contacted regarding future Unsolved Montana features at firstname.lastname@example.org.