To most people, Thanksgiving — as well as the big Black Friday shopping day that follows — is simply a welcome holiday and an opportunity to get great savings on big-ticket items or Christmas gifts. Offspring living in distant states or countries will often travel thousands of miles to celebrate the weekend-long occasion with parents or grandparents and enjoy catching up with siblings while feasting on turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and homemade pumpkin pie.
- Courtesy photo Benning family
- Julie Ann Benning disappeared from Bremer County in 1975 the day after Thanksgiving. Her body was found nearly four months later in a rural Butler County ditch.
For some Iowa families, however, Thanksgiving remains a painful reminder of a loved one’s absence — one not just missing from this year’s festivities, but one whose unexplained disappearance or murder has never been solved — particularly if the crime occurred on or near the Thanksgiving holiday.
Julie Benning‘s family knows this all too well. When the 18-year-old Clarksville, Iowa teen went missing the day after Thanksgiving in 1975 while on her way to work, her parents and four younger sisters knew right away something had happened. Her distraught father drove to Waverly to report her missing, and went to area newspapers and radio stations, asking they alert the public about his daughter’s disappearance.
Nearly four months later, a Butler County road maintenance worker discovered Julie’s body in a roadside ditch along a country road about one mile northeast of Shell Rock, Iowa. The friendly teen, a 1975 Plainfield High School graduate who painted landscapes and portraits and also designed and sewed her own dresses — had been raped and strangled.
Martha “Marty” Erickson was murdered the day before Thanksgiving in 1995 while on her way to a dance. Her body was later found in Avon Lake’s shallow waters in Polk County. She’d been beaten and stabbed.
Police believe Marty may have been killed by someone she’d tried to help; the 47-year-old Avon resident enjoyed helping alcoholics and drug addicts fight their demons, even though she had no personal addictions.
Twenty-five-year-old Larry Murillo went to work on Thanksgiving night in 2009 and returned home disoriented. His mother took him to see a doctor, who prescribed an anti-depressant for anxiety.
By Saturday Murillo was having hallucinations, and told his mother somebody was following him and that he felt scared. That night, Murillo left the house and went out into the cold without so much as a pair of shoes. He has not been seen since.
Roberta “Bobbi” Crawford, an Ellsworth Community College teacher who raised her son and was just beginning to enjoy her role as a new grandmother, was slain in her Hampton home the week before Thanksgiving in 1999. An autopsy concluded the 53-year-old died of blunt force trauma to the head.
- Courtesy photo WHO-TV
- Bobbi Crawford embraced being a new grandmother. She was bludgeoned to death in her Hampton home November 17, 1999.
Bobbi’s son Lee Crawford — a social studies teacher in Sigourney, Iowa — received word that something happened to his mother and made the three-hour drive to her home not knowing what had happened. In a January 2011 interview with WHO-TV’s Aaron Brilbeck, Crawford described the trip as the “three hour drive from hell.”
Crawford said he credited his wife, Jolie, also a teacher, with helping him through the first years after his mother’s murder and still remains hopeful it will one day be solved.
- Courtesy photo April Plyer
- Scott Tompkins, shown here with his godson, was gunned down in Muscatine on November 29, 1995. Tompkins worked as an assistant manager for the local Hardee’s restaurant.
Scott Tompkins, 23, was shot less than one week after Thanksgiving on November 29, 1995, while stopped to fix his windshield wipers at a Muscatine intersection. His body was found just blocks from the Hardee’s restaurant where he worked as assistant manager.
Hardee’s manager Chris Park described Scott as “just a real nice young man” and didn’t believe Scott had “an enemy in the world.” Scott’s mother, Sharon Tompkins, is confident her son was killed by Muscatine gang members. She doesn’t believe justice will ever be doled out for all those responsible in her son’s murder; while she waits, she continues her anti-gang advocacy.
Two days after Thanksgiving in 1984, John Green Jr., 3, and his 18-month-old brother, Mark Green, died after two explosions in their Davenport home on November 24. The boys were in an upstairs bedroom when the explosions occurred about 12:30 p.m. near the home’s front door.
The boys’ mother, who screamed and managed to escape the home with a six-year-old daughter and another relative, was unable to get upstairs to rescue her two sons. A police officer attempted to rescue the boys but was overcome by heat and smoke and later pulled out by rescuers.
In 1990, when 53-year-old Paul Knockel failed to show up at a family member’s home for Thanksgiving dinner, relatives went to his home, where they found Paul’s wallet, watch and shoes but no sign of him.
The following day, his family spotted what they thought was Paul’s car — a 1981 red Mercury Zephyr — parked along Route 151 just over the Wisconsin border. A few hours later, the vehicle was gone.
Neither Paul Knockel nor his vehicle has been seen since. Relatives believe he may have been abducted from his home and then murdered.
Two days after Thanksgiving in 2006, Dorothy Jenine Rose was found dead in her Cedar Rapids apartment. The 43-year-old had been strangled and had been dead three to four days before the building’s landlord discovered her body.
There are others.
Still, hope remains. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) had but two short years to put to work their newly created Cold Case Unit, but fruits of their labor continue to be witnessed since the unit shut down in late 2011 due to lack of funding. They were making progress — particularly with cases where DNA had been preserved — and remained committed to following through with those cases. Their perseverance paid off.
On July 26, 2011, officials arrested 45-year-old Tracey Ann Richter-Roberts for the 2001 death of 20-year-old Dustin Wehde in Early, Iowa.
On May 23, 2012, the DCI announced that the female remains found in southeast Iowa on March 17, 2012 were believed to be those of Jackie Leigh Douthart, who disappeared from Mount Pleasant on May 22, 2011.
On July 12, 2012, Derrick J. McElroy, 26, was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of 19-year-old Brandyn Preston of Fort Dodge. Preston was shot May 8, 2011, and died from his injuries on January 22, 2012.
On September 27, 2012, agents with the DCI and Floyd County Sheriff’s Office charged 33-year-old Casey Frederiksen in the 2005 death of five-year-old Evelyn Miller.
On November 13, 2012, DCI agents and Wapello County Sheriff’s deputies arrested 66-year-old Robert Eugene Pilcher in connection with the 1974 homicide of 17-year-old Mary Jayne Jones of Ottumwa.
DNA from other cases continues to be processed, and hundreds of Iowa families remain hopeful that funding will soon restore the DCI’s Cold Case Unit. We need them. They’ve proven they can produce results. And, DNA technology is only going to advance and get better.
This Thanksgiving holiday, while we pay tribute to loved ones lost, we also give thanks to the hundreds of law enforcement officials who work tirelessly to bring killers to justice and peace to families.