By Richard Jerome
December 23, 1996 12:00 PM

JULIE BAUMEISTER WAS TROUBLED that day in the fall of 1994 when Erich, her 13-year-old, brought home a human skull. He’d found it in the woods of Fox Hollow Farm, the family’s $1 million estate in the Indianapolis suburb of Westfield. Julie was even more unsettled when Erich led her to the site of his ghoulish discovery. There, among the fallen leaves, lay a cluster of bones.

That night, Herb Baumeister, Julie’s husband of 23 years, dispelled her anxiety: The bones, he said, were from a medical school skeleton once owned by his late father, an anesthesiologist. What they were doing in the backyard Herb didn’t say; days later Julie noticed they had vanished, carried off by an animal, she assumed. She quickly forgot the episode. “It wasn’t like I was sitting at home with nothing else to think about,” she says.

In fact there was much Julie Baumeister, now 48, didn’t know about Herb. Every summer, Julie usually left town for part of each month, taking Erich, now 15, and daughters Marne, 17, and Emily, 12, to stay at a lakeside condo 100 miles to the north, owned by Herb’s mother, Elizabeth. Herb stayed home during the workweek. By day he would mind the couple’s business, a chain of local thrift stores called Sav-A-Lot. By night, Julie later learned, he would cruise the gay bars of Indianapolis.

Herb’s other secrets, police believe, were chilling and deadly. Last June, while he was visiting the condo, officers found hundreds of bones at Fox Hollow Farm, adding up to the remains of seven people. Four have been identified: Roger Alan Goodlet, 33, Steven Hale, 26, and Richard Hamilton, 20, all of Indianapolis, and Manuel Resendez, 31, of Lafayette, Ind. All frequented the same bars that Baumeister did—and all went missing on days when his wife and kids were away. For now, says Sgt. Ken Whisman of the Hamilton County (Ind.) sheriff’s department, Baumeister is merely a prime suspect “in the disappearance” of the four identified men, who won’t be ruled homicide victims until forensic specialists determine a cause of death. But officials believe that when the bodies are vetted (six Indianapolis men who fit the profile of the victims are missing), Herb Baumeister may emerge as the most prolific serial killer in Indiana history.

If so, he is beyond earthly justice. The day after police began searching his property the 49-year-old Baumeister disappeared. He had been missing for eight days when campers discovered his body last July 3, lying beside his car in Ontario’s Pinery Provincial Park, shot through the forehead with a .357 Magnum. He left behind a rambling, three-page suicide note, apologizing for his family’s financial woes (the business was nearly bankrupt) but not mentioning the hideous crimes he is now thought to have committed. His widow was stunned. True, she and Herb had grown apart and were contemplating divorce. But Julie had blamed the tensions on their precarious finances. “The police came to me and said, ‘We are investigating your husband in relation to homosexual homicide,’ ” Julie says, recalling her first contact with detectives. “I remember saying to them, ‘Can you tell me what homosexual homicide is?’ ”

For Julie Baumeister the shock was all the more jarring because of the close-knit, even cloistered, family life she and Herb had tried to build at Fox Hollow Farm. The Baumeisters, who had few friends, showered their attention on their children. Herb, Julie recalls, was a dedicated parent, involved in all aspects of their children’s upbringing, whether it was choosing their preschool, buying their Christmas toys or making their peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Perhaps he was trying to re-create what had seemed to be his own happy childhood. Julie says Herb grew up in a Beaver Cleaver kind of home in Indianapolis, the eldest child of Herbert and Elizabeth Baumeister. He entered Indiana University in 1965 but left after one semester. For a time he worked as a copy boy for the Indianapolis Star. Garry Donna, then an ad representative at the paper, recalls him as eager to please but eccentric. For one thing, he and a friend co-owned a secondhand hearse. “I remember [friends] saying, ‘What’s the deal with this guy?’ ” Donna says. “I just said, ‘Well, Herb’s just Herb.’ ”

Herb returned to IU in the fall of 1967 and met Julie, also a student there. “He was nice, fun to be with and good-looking,” she recalls. “We both liked cars, and we were both Young Republicans.” They married in 1971 and soon bought a house in Indianapolis. Herb began clerking at the State Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where he would work his way up to supervisor. Julie taught high school English. “We did everything together,” she says. “He would push the mower, and I would trim the bushes.” But in the early ’70s Herb became so depressed that his physician father had him committed for over a month to a psychiatric hospital. Julie did not dispute the decision. He was “hurting and needed help,” she says now. In fact, ex-colleagues at the motor vehicle agency say he was a perfectionist given to sudden, unprovoked rages.

After Herb left his job in 1985, he worked at a local thrift store. The experience inspired him to pursue what Julie calls their “joint vision.” In 1989, after borrowing $350,000 in seed money from Herb’s mother, they opened the first of three Sav-A-Lots, where they sold used clothing, giving some $50,000 of their profits annually to a charity benefiting neglected children. Attorney John Egloff, who represented their business, says both partners were intelligent and “socially conscious,” though Herb was domineering. “Julie deferred to Herb,” he says, “but wasn’t very happy about it.” Oddly, Sav-A-Lot employees note, Baumeister would often disappear during the workday, sometimes for hours at a time.

After initial success, the Baumeisters’ business began to fail—as did their marriage. As Julie tells it, the long hours they put in at the stores, the pressures of parenting and, later, the financial strain, led to a kind of burnout. Herb moved out in February 1991 and filed for divorce. The couple soon reconciled, though, and that November, in spite of their business problems, bought Fox Hollow Farm. Purchased with a small down payment, the estate boasted a four-bedroom house and an indoor pool. Julie says they saw it as a “utopia” where their children “could Rollerblade without having to worry about cars coming around the corner.”

Though she didn’t know it, by then Herb was also involved—perhaps uneasily—in the gay nightlife scene. “Some people, when they come into a gay bar, act like they’re afraid of being here,” says Jim Brown, owner of the upscale Metropolitan Restaurant and Nightclub, which caters to gay professionals. “He didn’t seem like he was comfortable.”

It was in May 1993 that gay men began disappearing in the area—10 would vanish in a little over two years. Police scoured gay Indianapolis, interviewing bar-goers and posting flyers. But leads were scarce. Then, in the fall of 1994, a man told them of a strange tryst he had had that summer with someone named Brian: They had gone to Brian’s sprawling estate and, at Brian’s behest, had engaged in autoerotic asphyxia, a sexual practice involving suffocation, often to the brink of death. The informant remained shaken by the encounter. In the fall of 1995, he had spotted Brian again and, aware of the rash of disappearances, had taken down his license-plate number. It turned out to be the missing link: Brian was Herb Baumeister.

In November, detectives showed up at Fox Hollow Farm asking to search the estate. When Herb refused, police, lacking sufficient evidence for a warrant, went to work on Julie. Approaching her at a Sav-A-Lot, they told her about Herb’s cruising—and that he was a suspect in the disappearances. “I was angry,” Julie says. “I said, ‘You’re wrong. That can’t be true.’ ” When she confronted Herb with the charges, he dismissed them; Julie pressed no further.

With nothing to go on but one man’s brief and bizarre encounter, police made little headway for five months. When they approached Julie a second time, she rebuffed them again. Still, her apparent loyalty to Herb belied their escalating marital problems—by June, the couple were no longer speaking. Moreover, Julie, now haunted by the skull Erich had found, had become increasingly suspicious. “What if the police are right and I’m wrong?” she recalls thinking. On June 24, when Herb was away, she finally allowed police to inspect the property. Remembering the two-week search that followed, she says she clung to her children as if “huddling all my puppies together.” Herb’s eight-day disappearance before his suicide added to the agony. “I kept saying, ‘Where is he?’ ” Julie recalls. “But no one knew.”

The months since Herb’s death have been particularly wrenching for Marne, Erich and Emily, who, Julie says, idolized a father now portrayed by police and local media as a monster. Still, she insists, “nothing can take away the love these kids had for their dad.” Late last summer she and the children moved from Fox Hollow Farm back to the house in Indianapolis where she had begun her life with Herb nearly 25 years ago. “Our biggest question now is how he could have loved us and done this,” she says of Herb’s alleged atrocities. “Happiness as we knew it is never going to return.”