Tracking Cold Cases
SIOUX CITY COLD CASES
Murder, she wrote: Tracking Sioux City’s unsolved murders
By Jody Ewing
On July 10, 1955, at approximately 9:30 p.m., Mary Davis put her 22-month-old daughter, Donna Sue, to bed in her crib after giving her a bath. Humid temps had reached the mid 90s that day, and Mary left the windows open to circulate the air. Shortly thereafter, a white male partially removed the storm screen from the bedroom window, entered the residence and abducted Donna Sue from her crib.
About that same time, several witnesses in the neighborhood observed a man acting suspiciously who appeared to be carrying something in his arms. One neighbor – believing his garage had been burglarized or that the man was “up to no good” – alerted the police at 9:37 p.m. and then attempted to catch the man himself.
At approximately 10:05 p.m., James Davis went to prepare for bed and noticed that his daughter was not in her crib.
A local farmer found Donna Sue’s diaper, plastic pants and pajamas the next afternoon along a roadside outside of South Sioux City. Her body was found a short time later, near the road in the first two rows of a cornfield, three-quarters of a mile from where the clothing had been found and about eight miles from the Davis home.
Donna Sue had a severe skull fracture, a fractured jaw, had numerous abrasions on her body and also had been sexually assaulted.
Nearly 50 years later, the case remains open and is the first of Sioux City’s 10 unsolved homicides that went cold. In addition to the 10 homicides, the department also has four unsolved missing person cases, two of which are believed to be homicides as well.
What happens to these “cold cases” once leads hit a dead end? What steps do investigators take when new evidence comes along or technology provides another means for reviewing old evidence already on file?
The answers might surprise you. They may even help you solve one of the infamous Sioux City murders.
“There’s no statute of limitations on homicide,” says Lt. Lisa Claeys, a 20-year Sioux City Police Department veteran and the lieutenant of the Investigative Services Bureau. “Since 1952, we’ve had a total of 126 homicides, and out of those, 10 are unsolved. Three out of the 10 are a triple homicide, but you have to count each death as a homicide.”
Despite the unsolved murders, Sioux City boasts a “clearance rate” – a law enforcement calculation based on homicides solved or cleared for other reasons – well above the national average.
“We have a 92 percent clearance rate, which is 20 percent to 25 percent above the national average,” Claeys says. “Based on the past 52 years, we averaged 2.4 homicides a year. If you look at the last 10 years, it jumps to 3.2 per year. People may think, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve had this many homicides and you have 10 that are unsolved,’ but we are way beyond the national average in terms of being able to clear homicides.”
The slight increase is due in part to the August 2001 killings of Leticia Aguilar, her five children and Sioux City businessman Ronald Fish by 24-year-old Adam Moss in a case that drew national attention.
Police Chief Joe Frisbie – who joined the department in 1967 and took over as Chief in 1996 – says homicides have a higher clearance rate because they’re so personal.
“Normally speaking, homicides are committed by someone you know,” says Frisbie, who worked as one of the lead investigators on the 1974 triple murder. “That of course discounts serial killers and random killings for people who commit robberies and things like that. But the bulk share of crimes are crimes of passion. In those cases, people leave evidence everywhere.”
New eyes on the case
As with other cases, homicide cold cases also are eventually handed on to other bureau detectives. Investigative Services detectives are given five-year limited assignments, with replacement notifications put out before the five-year deadline. The average time spent on cold cases depends on the given officer’s other number of cases.
The Sioux City Police Department has 127 sworn officers, which includes Chief Frisbie, three captains, six lieutenants, 22 sergeants and 95 officers. Officers carry an average caseload of 10-15 cases per month, though at times will carry 20 or more with approximately 12-1/2 man hours spent per case. The five-year limit on cold cases provides new eyes for a fresh look at a file.
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“They are very time-intensive from the standpoint that you can’t be working a whole bunch of other cases and then just do this on the side because you have to be intimate with the entire case,” Claeys says. “There’s a certain amount of prep time to refresh yourself with everything.”
An exception is new evidence requiring further investigation. Or, when circumstances change in the lives of a witness or suspect. A new detective on the case might show up years later to re-interview a former suspect, only to be met with, “What took you so long?”
Despite how a suspect eventually is caught, Chief Frisbie says the officers take crime personally.
“We don’t like to see people walk away and get away with it,” he says of the unsolved crimes. “But I’m a firm believer that nobody gets away with anything.”
This article first appeared in the Weekender on May 20, 2004