Elna Maria “Valerie” Peterson
Elna Maria “Valerie” Peterson
May 6, 1971
On May 6, 1971, 8-year-old Valerie Peterson was killed by a hit-and-run driver around 4 p.m. while riding her bicycle off the side of the road in front of the Manson Augustana Lutheran Church. One other girl — the friend with whom Valerie was riding bikes — was riding up ahead of Valerie and said she saw a blue-green pick-up truck with two or three men inside traveling north at a high rate of speed. They appeared to have long hair, and the girl believed the truck had some sort of equipment in the flatbed.
Tire tracks in the dirt showed the truck had actually swerved off to the side of the road before hitting Valerie, but the driver did not stop. The girl riding with Valerie said she’d heard a vehicle coming and had specifically told Valerie they needed to get over to the side of the road, and that she’d seen Valerie do so.
Autopsy reports show that Valerie appeared to have flown up into the air after being struck and then hit the truck again on the front or side before striking the ground. The report indicated she most likely died instantly.
The Cover-ups Begin
The FBI and Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suspected one family in particular — those owning the blue-green truck — and went to the family’s home within one hour following the fatal hit-and-run. The well-to-do family was quite well-known in Manson, and one of the sons was home on leave from the military at the time.
Calhoun County in Iowa
Manson in Calhoun County
The suspect’s neighbors told officials the pick-up truck had arrived home within the past hour and had been driven into the garage at a high speed. Within that same hour, a member of the suspect’s family had thoroughly washed the pick-up truck.
Later that same day, the suspect’s family drove their son to Fort Dodge, where they put him on a plane to return him to the U.S. Army.
Also that same day, after investigators had left the crime scene, someone returned and made black tread marks on the road in efforts to make it appear someone had tried to stop before hitting Valerie; the marks had not been present during the crime scene investigation.
A few days after the homicide, the suspect’s family sold the truck to Rost Motors in Manson. Valerie’s father notified the BCI, who then collected paint scrapings from beneath the truck.
The paint scrapings and initial evidence taken from the scene was sent to Washington, D.C., for testing, but was destroyed by the infancy of testing methods used at that time.
In the years following Valerie’s unsolved murder, her sister, Eileen, and brother, Cal, along with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Roland E. Peterson, spent endless hours pressing officials for updates in the case. On two separate occasions, the family also offered rewards for information they felt might help lead to an arrest; both rewards went unclaimed.
Some time during the late ’80s or early ’90s, the evidence stored from Valerie’s case — her bicycle, clothing, backpack and books, etc. — was discarded by local law enforcement officials. The family had never been notified the evidence was going to be destroyed, and didn’t find out everything was gone until the year 2000 when they once again began following up with investigators on the case’s status.
Officials told the family it had been so long and nothing had happened, so they’d thrown it out.
“No One Knows Anything”
Manson, Iowa, located in the western half of north-central Iowa, is not unlike many other small, close-knit rural communities where residents know one another on a first-name basis and frequent local businesses. Quietly, in whispers over kitchen tables and in grocery store aisles, everyone knows everything. Publicly, no one knows anything; it’s better to “not get involved” and play it safe, particularly when prestigious community members are allegedly involved.
In 1971, just over 1,900 people resided in Manson, a town best known for having been built on the site of the Manson Impact Structure, the largest known meteorite crater in the continental United States. And in June 1979, there was the destructive F4 tornado that killed three people and destroyed 110 homes and the middle school Valerie Peterson should have been attending the following fall.
A number of years later, an individual froze to death in a snow storm after leaving his stalled vehicle. It was only after his death the Peterson family learned he had been one of the persons in the truck that hit and killed Valerie. People knew — had known all along — but none had ever wanted to dredge up what they called the “unfortunate accident” that just happened to claim an innocent young girl’s life.
Valerie’s sister Eileen Peterson Meier — now a prominent international human rights attorney — has never stopped fighting for justice for her sister and other victims.
In February 2010, Eileen and her brother established the “Valerie Peterson Memorial Justice Scholarship” at the Manson Northwest Webster Junior/Senior High School for a Manson high school student who planned to study and make a career in law enforcement, criminal forensics or law. The Petersons received no applications. Parents in a town where everyone knew everything but no one knew anything didn’t want to make waves or have their own children dredging up a community’s unfortunate past.
Later, amidst the newfound silence, the Petersons quietly withdrew the spurned scholarship. They continue to actively pursue answers in Valerie’s unsolved hit-and-run homicide and their advocacy work on behalf of other victims.
If you have any information about Valerie Peterson’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or send your information to Iowa Cold Cases via our Contact form.
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