How Teresa Halbach’s Grisly Death In 2005 Led To The Netflix Series ‘Making A Murderer’

Published May 24, 2024

While Steven Avery and his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey were sentenced to life in prison for Teresa Halbach's murder, many wonder if her true killer went free.

Teresa Halbach

NetflixTeresa Halbach, the young photographer whose death in 2005 inspired the docuseries Making a Murderer.

On Oct. 31, 2005, Teresa Halbach went missing. The young photographer was last known to have visited Avery’s Auto Salvage in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, to photograph a vehicle for Auto Trader magazine. She was never seen again.

However, a few days later, her Toyota RAV4 was found hidden away at the salvage yard. Then, investigators discovered Halbach’s burnt remains in a fire pit on the property next to the trailer of Steven Avery, whose family owned Avery’s Auto Salvage.

Avery had previously served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and he had only been free for about two years at the time of Halbach’s murder. In 2007, Avery and his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, were found guilty of killing Halbach, and both of them were sentenced to life in prison.

Avery’s case later inspired the Netflix series Making a Murderer and the subsequent spin-off Convicting a Murderer.

To this day, some believe Steven Avery did not murder Teresa Halbach. But if it wasn’t Avery, who was it?

Who Was Teresa Halbach?

Teresa Halbach was born on March 22, 1980, and grew up in Calumet County, Wisconsin. In 2002, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a degree in photography.

By 2005, Halbach was a well-established local photographer who had recently opened her own studio. According to a 2016 article in the Post-Crescent, parents often asked Halbach to take their children’s pictures, with some even joking that the job must have been a form of birth control.

Halbach denied it, however, saying, “It’s just the opposite for me.” According to friends, she always wanted to be a mother one day and took care of the people around her.

Teresa Halbach And Friends

Kimberly PetersonTeresa Halbach (right) with friends at a comedy club.

“She really cared about people, I think is what really stood out,” said her former teacher, Stan Diedrich. “And she was always going to be a person that would be there to help… She just had a very outgoing personality and she was always happy.”

Jill Schaefer, one of Halbach’s high school classmates, described the photographer as having “this genuine happiness that she exuded to the world.”

Tragically, that contagious brightness was extinguished on Oct. 31, 2005.

The Murder Of Teresa Halbach

In addition to running her own photography studio, Halbach frequently contributed to Auto Trader magazine to make extra money on the side. The day Halbach vanished, she was on assignment at Avery’s Auto Salvage to take photos of a used vehicle the family wanted to advertise in the magazine.

Halbach had been to the property before and reportedly didn’t want to go back, noting that Avery had creeped her out when he answered the door “wearing just a towel.” However, when Auto Trader asked her to return to the salvage yard, she agreed to take a few quick photographs.

Missing Persons Poster

NetflixA poster listing Teresa Halbach as “Endangered Missing.”

However, when friends and family didn’t hear from Halbach for a few days, they knew something terrible must have happened. A search party of more than 120 people set out to look for the photographer, and they soon found her — but unfortunately, it was too late.

Police discovered Teresa Halbach’s charred remains near Steven Avery’s trailer, her car stashed away at the salvage yard with Avery’s blood inside, her DNA on a bullet in his garage, and her keys inside his trailer. What’s more, his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed to police that he and Avery had sexually assaulted and killed the young photographer.

It seemed to be an open and shut case: Steven Avery murdered Teresa Halbach.

Steven Avery

GL Archive / Alamy Stock PhotoA mugshot of Steven Avery taken at the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office in 1985, when he was wrongfully convicted in a rape case.

Just over a year later, in early 2007, Avery and Dassey were both found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, what seemed like a relatively straightforward case would prove anything but.

Ten years after Halbach died, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a docuseries that re-examined the evidence in the case and suggested that, perhaps, it was not Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey who had killed Halbach at all. Perhaps they had been framed.

Was Steven Avery Guilty Of Murder?

Several revelations came to light during the production of Making a Murderer that, at the very least, cast some doubt on Steven Avery’s guilt.

While Avery did have a criminal past, it was well known that the majority of the time he had spent in prison was for a crime that he did not commit. In the wake of that prison sentence, he filed a $36 million lawsuit against the county. It was a massive story at the time, but it also may have allowed other people to exploit Avery’s notoriety to cover up their own involvement in Halbach’s murder.

Among the other suspects was Halbach’s ex-boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas, who was never questioned despite his intimate knowledge of Halbach’s whereabouts on the day of her death and his lack of an alibi. Internet sleuths observed the body language of Hillegas and Halbach’s brother, Michael, and suggested that the two had worked together to frame Avery for the murder.

Steven Avery In Making A Murderer

NetflixSteven Avery spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared his name in a 1985 rape case.

Others have suggested the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office framed Avery for the murder by planting evidence as an act of revenge against Avery and his lawsuit.

Avery’s family members were also put forth as possible suspects. The theory goes that Avery’s other nephew, Bobby Dassey, and Dassey’s stepfather, Scott Tadych, worked together to kidnap, rape, and murder Teresa Halbach as she was leaving the property that day. They then framed Steven Avery for the crime, believing that his criminal past would divert any suspicion away from the two of them.

To this day, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey remain imprisoned for the murder of Teresa Halbach despite the efforts of Making a Murderer producers, outspoken fans of the show, and Avery’s lawyer, Kathleen Zellner. According to Rolling Stone, Zellner filed a 1,272-page motion in 2017 accusing Hillegas of the murder and demanding a retrial for Avery.

The case certainly received widespread attention, but to this day, no one else has been found guilty of Teresa Halbach’s murder.

The Lasting Impact Of Teresa Halbach’s Murder

While much of the conversation around Halbach’s murder focused on Avery and whether he was innocent, for those closest to Halbach, the story was much different.

In 2016, more than a decade after Halbach was killed, her friends told PEOPLE that they still thought about her every day.

Teresa Halbach's Gravestone

Sara Stathas / Alamy Stock PhotoTeresa Halbach’s gravestone at St. John Cemetery in Calumet County, Wisconsin.

“She was always very positive,” said her friend Katie Uttech. “I don’t ever remember her being mad about anything. She just had this positivity about herself. She didn’t have a bad bone in her body. She just enjoyed life, she enjoyed new experiences.”

Uttech said she refused to watch Making a Murderer because she didn’t want to “think of the story of what happened to [Halbach]… I can’t do anything but say who Teresa was, and she was a really great person.”

After learning about Teresa Halbach, the victim from Making a Murderer, go inside the chilling story of Stephen McDaniel, the murderer who gave himself away on live TV. Or, read about Alain Lamare, the police officer who moonlighted as the killer he was trying to catch.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Harvey, Austin. "How Teresa Halbach’s Grisly Death In 2005 Led To The Netflix Series ‘Making A Murderer’.", May 24, 2024, Accessed June 21, 2024.