Debbie Rose Laubenthal
Raymond Morris Henkins
Debbie Laubenthal, 18 YOA, of Bancroft, IA
DOB: November 17, 1957
Raymond Henkins, 30 YOA, of Emmetsburg, IA
DOB: August 28, 1946
Killed near Depew, IA
Palo Alto County
Date: October 23, 1976
On Saturday morning, Oct. 23, 1976, Debbie Rose Laubenthal, 18, of rural Bancroft and Raymond Morris Henkins, 30, Emmetsburg, were found shot to death on either side of Palo Alto County roadway B-19 near the intersection of N-60 two miles north of Depew by Clarence Berkland, who farmed in the area.
- Courtesy photo Emmetsburg Reporter
- Investigators examine the crime scene where the bodies of Debbie Laubenthal and Raymond Henkins were found.
Berkland, who was picking corn in the vicinity when he stumbled upon the bodies, first thought it was a Halloween prank but summoned authorities after discovering both victims had been shot with a 45-caliber weapon. Both suffered multiple wounds.
Debbie Laubenthal was a nursing student at Iowa Lakes Community College and in March 1976 participated in the Miss Shamrock Pageant in Emmetsburg. She was adopted by the Laubenthals in Sioux City, IA, and had lived in Bancroft all her life.
Henkins was born in Spring Valley, Ill., and had moved to Emmetsburg with his family as a small child. He had worked for Pocahontas Farm Management in the years prior to his death.
In an incident authorities considered might be related, Henkins had been shot at earlier when two shots were fired into his vehicle on October 17 while he drove south on Broadway. One bullet was recovered from his car door and sent to the BCI crime lab. [Then] Chief of Police Dennis Goeders said it appeared that the shots fired into the Henkins car were of a different caliber than those that killed Laubenthal and Henkins.
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, 1976, Nile and Norma Jean Smith of Emmetsburg, both 23, were charged with murder in the slaying. Investigators said the Smiths had been with Henkins and Laubenthal — on Henkins’ and Laubenthal’s first date together — for at least part of the evening Oct. 22. Willard Henkins, Ray Henkins’ father, said the Smiths were going to drive Miss Laubenthal and Henkins to her home in Bancroft because Ray’s car was running low on gas.
The search of Smiths’ farm yielded 19 pieces of evidence which was sent to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation lab in Des Moines for analysis.
On Monday, Nov. 22, 1976, Nile and Norma Smith pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their trial originally was scheduled for Tuesday, Apr. 24, 1977, in Palo Alto County District Court in Emmetsburg. A change of venue later moved the trial to Dickinson County District Court in Spirit Lake. Another delay postponed the jury selection until Tuesday, June 7, 1977.
On Tues., June 14, 1977, opening arguments were heard and testimony began.
Palo Alto County in Iowa
Palo Alto County Attorney Mike Neary and Mike Sheehy, an assistant Iowa Attorney General, prosecuted the case for the State of Iowa. James A. Andreasen of Algona served as presiding judge.
Lawrence Scalise of Des Moines headed a team of defense lawyers that also included Joseph Hanson and John Brown, both of Emmetsburg.
In his opening argument for the State, Mike Sheehy suggested to the jury that Norma Smith’s belief that Ray Henkins was responsible for the death of a young child of Norma’s was motive for the Henkins and Laubenthal slayings. Sheehy told jurors Henkins and Norma Smith had lived together in Kansas prior to Norma’s marriage to Nile Smith. Apparently, Henkins was home babysitting one day when the child fell down stairs and later died from injuries sustained in the fall. Smith’s motive for killing Henkins, Sheehy said, was revenge.
- Courtesy photo Emmetsburg Democrat
- Nile Smith on the way to his arraignment.
On Thursday, June 16, 1977, a witness testified that Raymond Henkins had an argument with a woman the night Henkins and Laubenthal were shot to death. Rick Kilan, 17, Henkins’ nephew of Emmetsburg, said Lucy Evans called Henkins out of a friend’s house and an argument ensued. In that same house were Debbie Laubenthal and Nile and Norma Smith.
After nine days of testimony by 76 witnesses, the State rested its case on Wednesday, June 29, 1977.
Defense Attorney Larry Scalise created a mild sensation in the courtroom on Friday, July 1, 1977, when a defense witness testified that a signature on a handgun purchase order that figured in the case matched the handwriting of Lucy Evans, a woman truck driver who witnesses said had threatened Henkins.
After three days of testimony by defense witnesses, Defense Attorney Larry Scalise rested the defense on Friday, July 1, 1977.
A seven man, five woman jury deliberated more than 22 hours over four days, and on Saturday, July 9, 1977, acquitted both Nile and Norma Jean Smith. One juror cited a “lack of evidence presented by the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
- Courtesy photo Emmetsburg Democrat
- Norma Jean Smith at the courthouse.
On Wednesday, May 30, 1979, the Iowa Appeal Board turned down four $4 million claims filed by Nile and Norma Smith against the state and eight state agents. By turning down the claims, the appeal board cleared the way for a lawsuit. The Smiths’ attorney said he had expected the board to deny the claims and said he intended to file suit in Palo Alto County District Court on behalf of the couple. The Smiths contended in their claim that after being acquitted, they had to move from Iowa because of threats and harassment.
The case has remained open since there is no statute of limitations on murder charges.
Efforts to break the case were recently renewed with new laboratory analysis of physical evidence gathered in 1976. According to Palo Alto County Sheriff Dennis Goeders, the progress will depend on improved and updated laboratory technology and nationwide DNA databases that did not exist at the time of the murder.
Debbie Laubenthal was born November 17, 1957, the daughter of James and Rosella (Hellman) Laubenthal. She was buried Saint Johns Cemetery in Bancroft, Iowa.
Sources: (in chronological order)
- “Two Killed in Slayings Near Depew,” The Emmetsburg Reporter, Tuesday, October 26, 1976
- “Couple Charged in Murder,” Muscatine Iowa Journal, Thursday, Nov. 18, 1976
- “Tech-savvy officials revisit 1976 double homicide,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 10, 1977
- “Murder Case Begins in Spirit Lake,” The Estherville Daily News, June 14, 1977
- “Cousin of murdered girl takes stand as trial begins,” The Spirit Lake Beacon, June 16, 1977
- Muscatine Iowa Journal, Friday, June 17,1977
- “Smith trial witness testifies,” The Muscatine Journal, June 17, 1977
- “The State of Iowa Versus Nile and Norma Smith,” The Emmetsburg Reporter, Tuesday, June 21, 1977
- The Emmetsburg Democrat, Thursday, June 23, 1977
- “Injured juror replaced; 2nd week of testimony begin,” The Spirit Lake Beacon, June 23, 1977
- The Emmetsburg Reporter, Tuesday, June 28, 1977
- “Packed Courtroom Awaits Daily Testimony,” The Spirit Lake Beacon, June 30, 1977
- “Smith Claims Innocence,” The Emmetsburg Democrat, Thursday, June 30, 1977
- “Tell of Threats to Kill Henkins,” The Estherville Daily News, Thursday, June 30, 1977
- “State Opens Rebuttal,” The Estherville Daily News, Tuesday, July 5, 1977
- “Jury Acquits Nile & Norma,” The Spirit Lake (IA) Beacon, Thursday, July 14, 1977
- “Claims,” The Oelwein Daily Register, Thursday, May 31,1979
- “Authorities Hope to Solve Palo Alto Cold Case,” The Sioux City Journal, Thursday, March 9, 2006
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