Ex-dairy princess convicted of homicide to be released

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

RACINE – For three decades, Lori Esker has been serving time for killing a former classmate in a jealous rage in the parking lot of a Rib Mountain Howard Johnson.

The former Marathon County Dairy Princess was convicted in 1990 of first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Lisa Cihaski, the 21-year-old woman that her ex-boyfriend had planned to marry—instead of her.

Esker, who is now 50, will walk through the doors of a correctional facility in Racine County this week following the decision of the Wisconsin Parole Commission to grant her release.

Eland dairy farmer Bill Buss, 26, at the time of the murder, was part of the ill-fated love triangle. Buss, Esker and Cihaski all attended Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School in the late 1980s.

Cihaski, the daughter of a ginseng farmer, was a former homecoming queen while Buss, a dairy farmer, had garnered numerous awards in youth agriculture circles for his dairy herd's productivity. Esker, who grew up on a dairy farm east of Wausau, served as president of the student council, and held leadership positions in the 4-H Club, Future Farmers of America and Future Business Leaders of America.

Lori Esker in 2016.

According to court testimony, Buss and Cihaski had dated for three years before they parted ways. Soon after their breakup, Buss began dating Esker, who kept over a dozen dairy cows at the Buss farm in Eland.

Buss testified that he and Esker called it quits in June 1988 after dating for more than a year and a half. Esker learned that Buss had resumed his relationship with Cihaski and planned to give her an engagement ring in October.

Friends and college classmates testified that Esker was obsessive and still wanted a relationship with Buss, and repeatedly told them she hated Cihaski and would get Buss back somehow. The UW-River Falls junior told one of her friends that she planned to quit school and marry Buss and farm with him.

On the night of Sept. 20, Esker headed northeast, driving 150 miles with the intention of confronting Chihaski after she finished work that evening at the Howard Johnson motel near Wausau.

The next morning Shirley Cihaski grew worried when her daughter failed to return home. Cihaski found her daughter, strangled inside her car in the parking lot where she worked as an assistant sales and catering manager.

During questioning nine days later, Esker told Marathon County Sheriff's Office investigators that she waited for Cihaski in the parking lot. The two women sat in Cihaski`s car and talked. The conversation, however, grew heated when Esker lied that she was pregnant by Buss.

According to a deputy's report, the two women struggled and seeing a narrow belt lying in the backseat, Esker wrapped it around Cihaski's neck. When Esker left the car, she took the belt and a ring Cihaski was wearing. She later threw the belt into the incinerator chute at her dormitory and the ring into the trash barrel at a convenience store.

During questioning, Esker said she didn`t know if Cihaski ''was dead or just passed out,'' and stated that she hadn't intended to kill her former classmate, and that the killing was in self-defense as the argument over Buss escalated.

Marathon County District Attorney Greg Grau told the jury that Esker had to have held the belt tightly around Cihaski's neck for a minimum of 2 minutes in order for her to die.

"Strangulation is not something that a jury can easily accept as unintentional," he said during the trial.

Apparently the jurors agreed, finding Esker guilty of first-degree intentional homicide following 7 1/2 hours of deliberation. At the time of her conviction in 1990, Esker was sentenced to life in prison. However, she would become eligible for parole after serving 13 years and nine months.

Esker came up for a parole hearing in 2017 while serving time at the Robert Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove, where she was originally slated for release eligibility in February 2018. Her parole eligibility was pushed back to August 2018 and delayed again until July 2019, according to the state Department of Corrections.

The case which garnered widespread attention was featured in the TV movie "Beauty's Revenge" which aired on NBC and on the Lifetime channel.