By Paul Hoffman
September 1969 was supposed to usher in a brand new Wauwatosa West school building. But an arson that destroyed 20 percent of the structure less than two months before the official opening pushed the school board’s plan back an entire year and messed with the schedules of the city’s two junior highs.
At the time, Longfellow and Hawthorne junior highs were bursting at the seams. In order to alleviate the overcrowding, the board decided to shift Tosa West students from their original location, 11100 W. Center St., to a $5.8 million facility on a plot of land the school system owned just to the west. The original Tosa West building, erected in 1961, would then become the city’s third junior high, Whitman, now known as Whitman Middle School.
Those plans were scuttled the night of July 10, 1969, when two 18-year-old former West students lit several fires in the new building, causing an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million damage to the structure.
James W. Bannach and Robert J. Beilfuss eventually admitted to the crime. Beilfuss testified that he had been under the influence of marijuana the night the school burned. He also said that the marijuana had revived some of the effects of the hallucinogenic drug LSD that he had taken the night before.
“My mind wasn’t even there,” Beilfuss said before Circuit Judge John L. Coffey, according to a Dec. 6, 1969 Milwaukee Sentinel article. “I was what they called spaced out.”
Both young men blamed each other as being the leader of the escapade. Bielfuss even alleged than Bannach told him he’d like to burn more school buildings. But only Bielfuss served time for the crime. He spent 90 days at the Winnebago State Hospital for mental examinations before being sentenced to 10 years at the state reformatory in Green Bay.
Bannach also admitted smoking marijuana the night of the fire. But he was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
According to their testimony as reported in the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel, Bannach and Beilfuss broke into the educational wing of the new building and set fires using paint thinner. They left, then returned with Molotov cocktails (bottles of gasoline ignited with a fuse) and tossed those into the gymnasium.
The perpetrators were caught two months later, following an investigation into other crimes around the area.
The damage from the fires was so great that the school district had to close the building for the whole school year. That action caused some scrambling as the 1,150 students scheduled for the new building had to be placed somewhere.
One option mentioned by Superintendent John S. Fochs was to send some students to neighboring school districts.
In the end, the board decided to send all the Tosa West students scheduled for the new building back into their old building. Whitman Junior High would have to wait another year.
In addition, in order to avoid sending any student out of district, an extra class period was added to the daily schedule at Longfellow and Hawthorne. This alleviated overcrowding at the junior highs, but it also created a staggered schedule. Some students started their school day an hour later than the rest of their classmates, and some students left an hour earlier than usual. The move assured that all Wauwatosa junior high students would take classes in junior high buildings within the city and that no subjects nor extracurricular activities would have to be canceled.
It appears as though Beilfuss eventually ended up back in the area and may have lived in the same house as he did when the arsons occurred. U.S. Social Security records indicate a Robert J. Beilfuss born in 1951 lived on Underwood Court, across from Underwood Elementary School when he passed away at the age of 59 in 2010. He also lived at a minimum of two addresses in Milwaukee.
Bannach lived just west of Eisenhower Elementary School at the time of the arson. His lawyer said that Bannach had planned to enlist in the U.S. Army, which he apparently did. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security records, a James William Bannach was born in Milwaukee in 1951. He enlisted in the army in February 1973 and was released in February 1977.
Wisconsin marriage records list him as getting married in 1979 to a woman whose last name was Forrest; no first name was listed. At one point, he lived on south 101st street in West Allis and died in 1992 of natural causes.
It’s been 46 years since Beilfuss and Bannach set fire to the current Wauwatosa West building. The school district was fortunate to have the school completely covered by insurance so that it didn’t have to pay a penny to get it restored. It’s also fortunate nobody was hurt or killed.
But it still cast a pall over the city for a time, and it was quite a while before some people could store the memory safely in the back of their minds.
Paul J. Hoffman was raised in Wauwatosa and is a 1981 graduate of Wauwatosa East High School. He is also the author of “Murder in Wauwatosa: The Mysterious Death of Buddy Schumacher.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.