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Amber Marie Hayes, 7-1/2 months old, was reported missing by her mother, Mary Hayes, at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 9, 1988. Four days later, parts of the infant’s body, her pink diaper bag and a blanket were discovered in a remote area near Lake Odessa by two boys riding all-terrain vehicles.
The child had been decapitated and dismembered.
The lake area, just south of Muscatine, is located about one-half mile west of the Mississippi River in Louisa County.
Mary Hayes, 24, had gone out that night with a friend for the first time since Amber’s birth, and reported the baby missing after returning home and discovering her daughter gone.
Hayes had left the baby at home with her boyfriend, Leslie Ray “Les” Brockert, 28 — who was not Amber’s father but lived with Hayes at her residence — while she and her friend went to Terri’s Hideaway and Chet’s, two former Muscatine taverns. Brockert had watched the child before, and Hayes had known him most of her life.
When Mary returned home a little after 1 a.m., Brockert grabbed his car keys from her and slammed out of the house. When she went to check on Amber and discovered her missing from her crib, she instinctively knew something was wrong and contacted police.
Though he knew authorities were looking for him, Brockert avoided them for several hours. Once they found him, he told police he’d been up for four days from using cocaine. He said a “cocaine-induced headache” had kept him from looking up when someone came in and took the child but that he didn’t know who the person was because he’d kept his head covered with a pillow. Brockert was subsequently jailed as a material witness in the case.
According to a Muscatine Journal article dated February 12, 2010:
A special agent with the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation said Brockert gave five different stories concerning Amber’s disappearance, according to notes taken for interviews conducted during the investigation.
Hayes and the baby’s father, Terry Hayes, along with other relatives, made weekend appeals on local television stations for Amber’s safe return. Searchers dug through the city’s 1,200 garbage bins and in the county landfill, and also searched nearby wooded areas and ditches in hopes of finding the child. The baby’s grandmother, Barbara Flake, said [dealing with the situation] was pretty hard for the family.
On June 12, 1988, nearly four days after she disappeared, Amber’s remains were discovered near Lake Odessa and investigators changed the infant’s classification from a kidnapping to a homicide.
Hayes said that when police arrested Brockert there were gloves and a shovel in his car and sand on the vehicle’s passenger side. (Muscatine Journal, Feb. 12, 2010)
Stephen Petersen — Muscatine County Attorney at the time — said he’d considered murder charges but ultimately charged Brockert with first-degree kidnapping. Due to intense media coverage, the kidnapping trial — the first ever televised in Iowa — was transferred to Maquoketa with District Judge Jack L. Burns presiding.
Muscatine attorney John Wunder — who defended Brockert during the trial — argued that Brockert “was in jail” when Amber was killed, and though a doctor who testified for the defense said the remains found in the dry creek bed would have been placed there about 12 to 72 hours before they were discovered, he admitted he wasn’t an expert in studying fly larvae, a forensic entomology method used to determine the length of time since death.
According to court testimony, Tony Ramsdell of Muscatine was with Brockert at the home shortly before Amber disappeared, and Wunder said he subpoenaed Ramsdell for questioning. Ramsdell, however, never showed up and the defense attorney said police didn’t enforce the subpoena.
On Wednesday, October 19, 1988, a man who lived next door to Brockert told jurors he’d noticed some unusual events around the time of Amber’s disappearance and death.
Jose Canas testified he saw a pink diaper bag sitting in weeds near the alley behind his home the night of June 8, the same night the baby disappeared. Canas also testified that he saw Brockert driving in south Muscatine the following morning with the diaper bag in his car.
Canas said he would allow Brockert to borrow some of his tools without asking, and that after the abduction, he believed a shovel was missing.
Brockert provided several hours of testimony on Friday, October 21, portraying himself as loving surrogate father to the murdered baby girl. He also admitted there were numerous customers coming and going from the Muscatine home to buy drugs. Brockert said he and Hayes ran a $2,000-per-week narcotics business.
“It was like a 7-Eleven, a lot of people coming and going at all hours,” Brockert told the jury.
Several Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation agents testified they were not aware of such extensive drug trafficking at the couple’s home.
After the 5-1/2-day trial, the seven-man, five-woman Jackson County District Court jury deliberated for three hours on Monday, October 24, 1988, before acquitting Brockert of the kidnapping charge. Mary Hayes appeared stunned before sobbing uncontrollably.
Brockert’s mother, Madonna McKillip, shed only tears of joy, and said “I feel great,” as she left the courtroom.
Muscatine County Attorney Petersen told the press the prosecution would be setting up a meeting to rework leads and review the case; he said Brockert remained the primary suspect in Amber’s murder. Murder charges could not yet be filed until more lab work was completed and additional interviews conducted, he said.
In a Telegraph Herald article dated October 25, 1988, defense attorney Wunder said there were two basic reasons the jury found Brockert innocent [of the kidnapping charges]:
- Stephens’ testimony. Stephens is the forensic specialist who testified about the time span between Amber’s death and the discovery of her remains.
- The discredited testimony of Jose Canas. He waited 10 weeks before telling police he had spotted Brockert with the baby’s diaper bag June 9.
In February 2010, Mary Hayes told the Muscatine Journal she felt someone may have helped Brockert get rid of Amber’s body and that she believes both Brockert and Ramsdell know the truth about what really happened that night.
Hayes’ surviving daughter, Barb — just 8 years old at the time — was spending the night with her father and found out about her sister’s disappearance by watching the news. She told the Journal that after Amber’s remains were discovered, classmates at school chased her around with baby doll heads saying they were her sister.
Barb [Campbell] went on to become a registered nurse and now has a child of her own.
In the years following Amber’s murder, Les Brockert — now a convicted felon — tried to blow up his girlfriend’s car in a 1994 arson case and has been arrested numerous times in both Louisa and Muscatine counties. He has claimed to be insane and believed to currently reside in the Columbus Junction area.
Mary and Barb continue to hold out hope that DNA or forensic testing will one day bring the case to a close and justice for Amber.
“If they looked at the case now, when they arrested him there was gloves and a shovel in his car and sand on the passenger side of the vehicle. Maybe they could do a soil sample match from the lake,” Mary said in the Journal’s Feb. 12, 2010 article. “I will never stop hoping for justice for Amber.”
Amber Marie Hayes was born October 21, 1987, in Muscatine, Iowa, to Terry Ray Hayes and Mary (Casteel) Hayes. Her date of death is listed as June 12, 1988.
She was laid to rest at Babyland in Muscatine’s Memorial Park Cemetery on June 23, 1988.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Amber Hayes’ murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to the resolution of Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.