COLD CASES: Death of stepfather drives woman to profile Iowa’s unsolved crimes
Story by Aaron Brilbeck
WHOtv Staff Writer
8:50 AM CDT, July 30, 2010
Original Air Date: July 29, 2010
Onawa, IA – For Jody Ewing of Onawa, near Sioux City, this is her calling. Remembering the forgotten. Profiling cold, unsolved cases throughout the state on her website iowacoldcases.org.
The project started out in 2005 when Ewing was working as a newspaper reporter. She did a series on cold cases, and more and more victims’ families began asking her for help.
“By the time I finished that cold case series I had so many people that had contacted me and I felt so bad that I couldn’t write about their family member that I decided, well, I’ll just start a website and start putting the cases on there,” Ewing says.
Five years later, iowacoldcases.org profiles more than 300 victims, everyone from missing persons to murders. Some of the cases date back decades. Ewing meticulously researches each one, contacting police, news reporters and family members, often forming tight bonds with them.
“I hate to say it but I correspond and speak with some of these victims’ family members more often than I do my family,” Ewing says, “But they call in for updates and if they get any more information they contact me.”
For two years, Ewing researched these cold cases, never really knowing what these victims’ families were going through. But that all changed August 28, 2007.
Ewing’s stepfather, Earl Thelander, was fixing up an old house when copper thieves broke in and stole all the water and propane gas lines — causing gas and water to leak. The [police] department was called and cleared the air, but there was still a hidden pocket of gas under a porch. When Thelander plugged in a fan — the house exploded.
“The explosion blew him over into the opposite side of the basement,” Ewing explains, “And he was still able to get out. He crawled out of there and tried to call my mother but his cell phone didn’t work. He got in the truck and drove himself two miles back into town.”
“My first thought was, oh gosh, whoever it was that broke into the house and stole the copper lines came back and beat him up,” Thelander’s wife, Hope Thelander, says.
But that wasn’t the case. Earl Thelander had been severely burned in the explosion. His wife rushed him to the hospital. She still remembers the doctor telling her Earl wouldn’t make it.
“He said, ‘then about the fourth day you’ll have to start…making a decision of what you want to do,’” Thelander says, fighting back tears. “Well, the minute he said that I knew we would probably have to decide whether to have him live or not.”
“I can remember feeling angry at the time,” Ewing adds, “Thinking how dare he imply that Earl’s not gonna make it. But of course he knew better than I. He had seen Earl and he had second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. I mean, a 30-year-old could not have survived that.”
Earl Thelander died four days later.
“And I told him I loved him and, of course he had tubes in his mouth and everywhere, and he went ‘I love you.’ And that was the last time he talked to us,” Mrs. Thelander says.
The people who stole the piping that led to the explosion have never been caught; police just ran out of leads. And Ewing became part of the cold cases on her site.
“That’s when it really hit me,” she says, “And that was in ’08 I believe that they finally said it. ‘They’ve run out of leads. It’s dead ended and the case has gone cold.’ And then I just went in and it was … it felt surreal putting his name on there. On the website.”
Ewing often spends 16 hours or more a day working on the site. She doesn’t get paid for it — it’s strictly volunteer. She says she has to do it in the name of justice.
“The victims deserve it,” she says. “And the family members of the victims deserve justice.”
Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck stands near the area where the body’s remains were found.
DES MOINES — It’s been nearly 27 years since police found the badly decomposed body of a man in a watery area on the southeast side of town. Still, Des Moines police are no closer to figuring out who the man is or what happened to him.
On February 28, 1984, the remains were found in a wooded area just north of Maury Street near Scott, partially submerged in the water. The body’s condition led police to believe it may have been there since spring of 1983.
“(The) body was found and appeared to be kind of on its side in sort of a fetal position type, wearing nothing but blue jeans, a belt and tennis shoes,” said Des Moines Police Sergeant Jeff Edwards.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
The unidentified man’s remains were found in this wooded area partially submerged in water. Police believe the body may have been there since spring 1983.
The body did show signs of trauma and some broken ribs, but police are not sure of a cause of death or whether it was accidental, natural or murder.
“The suspicion is that the body had been [there] for some time,” Edwards said. “Probably, at least at some point, the body was partially submerged which did deteriorate the body considerably so that what was discovered in February — the remains were mostly just bones and just a small patch of skin.”
That small patch of skin may hold the clues to solving this case. The man, who police say was white with brown hair and stood about 5-foot-8, had several tattoos.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Sgt. Jeff Edwards, Des Moines Police Department
On the victim’s right arm, there was a tattoo of a red flying bird carrying a streamer that said “MOTHER.” The word “DAD” is above the bird. Also on the right arm was a tattoo of a Nazi storm-trooper wearing a German helmet. The face under helmet is skull-like.
A third tattoo on the right bicep shows a laughing skull with a top hat and cigarette with the words Born To Die” encircling the design.
On the right side of the chest there was a profile of a woman with a gear with a wrench through it for an earring.
Near the center of the chest, a spotted snake appears to be coiled around a tree.
WHO-TV Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unidentified body of a white male found in Des Moines
on February 28, 1984. Air date: November 4, 2010
“It’s been very difficult in going back now with this particular person because we don’t have a missing person that we can match up to the body that was recovered or to the remains recovered,” Edwards said. “We don’t have any identification. Nothing. Very little in the way of identifying marks other than the tattoos.”
The spot where the body was found is well known to police. It’s so remote, meth producers often cook drugs there and car thieves will ditch stolen vehicles.
Investigators say it’s important to identify the remains to give a family, somewhere, some closure and possibly get a killer off the streets.
“Whoever they are and whoever this person is, they deserve to know what happened to their loved one,” said Edwards. “And obviously, if it does turn out that it’s a homicide, we have someone out there that’s committed a homicide. We need to bring that person to justice.”
Anyone with information about the body is asked to call Des Moines Police at 515-283-4811.
Tattoos Found on the Remains
Right Arm Side Profile
Right Front Profile
Right Rear Profile
Tattoo 1 : Flying bird carrying streamer in its beak. Written inside streamer is “MOTHER”. The word “DAD” is above bird. The bird is in red-orange ink. Back of streamer is in green ink. Located right upper-arm near shoulder-tip. Dimensions: Approximately 3 inches from “DAD” to bottom of streamer. Approximately 2 1/2 inches from beak to tail.
Tattoo 2 : Nazi storm-trooper. Wearing German Helmet, iron cross, SS on collar tabs. Face under helmet is skull-like. Has appearance of wearing leather coat. Dark-colored ink. Located on side and extending to rear of right upper-arm. Dimensions: approximately 6 inches tall by 3 inches wide. Runs parallel to tattoos three and four.
Tattoo 3 : Laughing skull with top-hat and cigarette. The words “BORN TO DIE” encircling design. Red ink inside eyes. Green ink inside nose. Located on right arm/inside bicep. Approximately 1/2 inch above tattoo no. four. Total size approximately 1 3/4 inches wide at brim of hat by 2 inches long.
Tattoo 4 : Female face with dark hair under a sombrero. Fancy design on brim of sombrero. It’s believed that the sombrero was put on after the female’s features were tattooed. An additional tattoo of “JOHN” is visible under the design inside the sombrero brim. From top of hat to chin of female face is approximately 2 1/2 inches. The brim of the sombrero is approximately 2 1/4 inches wide. Located inner-arm approximately 3 1/2 inches. Located inner-arm approximately 3 1/2 inches from elbow joint. (right side) Approximately 1/2 inch below the skull in top-hat design.
Tattoo 5 : Female facial-profile/left side. Located on right side of chest above nipple. Tattooed so that female’s hair appears light-colored. NOTE: A distinctive feature is that female has a “gear” with a wrench through it for an earring. Dimensions: Tattoo would take up most of subject’s right breast-area.
Tattoo 6 : Appears to be a spotted snake coiled around a tree. Dark ink. Located in middle of chest; along the sternum, from the xiphoid process to the angle. Majority of this tattoo is indistinguishable due to skin deterioration.
Tattoo 7 : Dark-colored ink. No combination for colors. Believed that skin-section from abdominal area/right side between navel and chest. Approximate dimensions: (male cartoon figure minus head due to skin deterioration.) Toe to toe – 3 inches; sole to upper-chest – 3 3/4 inches.
Tattoo 8 : Dark-colored ink. No discernible color combinations. Butterfly pattern. Located on rear of right-side shoulder; towards collarbone area. Dimension: approximately 1 1/2 inches long. NOTE: No pattern distinguishable on rearward wing (possible due to skin deterioration).
” Cold Case: Officials Hope to Identify Man by Tattoos ,” WHOtv Channel 13 Des Moines, Nov. 4, 2010
I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it has been working with Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck over the past 7-1/2 months and witnessing the dedication he’s brought to telling the stories behind many Iowa cold cases.
To regularly interview family members who’ve lost loved ones to violent crime can be a daunting job. It requires a genuine passion for the subject matter, a willingness to listen to long-buried hurts, anger, resentments and regrets, and an ability to understand the depths of another person’s pain and then present to the public a story that neither embarrasses the individual nor exploits the victim’s life or his or her final days.
While Aaron has done an exceptional job with all of the above and his commitment to telling victims’ stories remains strong, the weekly series may be cancelled due to the one adversary we all face: time.
On July 1, 2010, WHO-TV Channel 13 in Des Moines (an NBC affiliate) began a five-week series highlighting unsolved homicides and missing persons cases around the state. Aaron Brilbeck — the award-winning journalist behind the weekly series — crisscrossed Iowa interviewing victims’ family members, talking to local law enforcement officials and/or the Department of Criminal Investigation and, when possible, former or retired investigators who originally worked the cases.
Based on viewer feedback and interest, WHO-TV and Iowa Cold Cases partnered up to keep the series going, and in subsequent weeks and months, Aaron delivered some powerful reports including:
The 1971 unsolved murder of 17-year-old Maureen (Brubaker) Farley, a newly married Sioux Cityan who’d moved to Cedar Rapids and whose body later was found atop an abandoned vehicle in a wooded ravine;
The 1993 Christmas Eve disappearance of 42-year-old Phil Terrell, a father of three whose decomposed body was found two months later in a Warren County creek bed;
As the eldest of seven siblings, Maureen Brubaker often babysat and would tell her parents the children had been good so her parents would give them a dime apiece.
With each story, Aaron always unearthed intriguing or little known details about the case: the fact that feisty 87-year-old Hazel Reimann broke six fingers trying to fight off her attacker; that a key piece of evidence got left behind at the Marvin Brandland “Trick-or-Treat” murder scene; or even that a week before his death, 19-year-old Cecil Gaddy, paralyzed from the waist down, had called one of sisters to explain why he feared for his life.
While interest in the Iowa Cold Case series remains strong, it also tests the network’s resources in that two valuable staffers — Aaron and a top camera man — are sometimes gone a good part of the day traveling through the state.
For that reason, WHO-TV News Director Rod Peterson is considering canceling the weekly series. Aaron believes, as we do, that the series is a much needed public service that reminds viewers about long forgotten (but still open) cases. All too often, victims’ family members tell us, people forget or pretend the crime never happened. Bringing the stories back out into the open and into living rooms not only gets communities talking about the cases again, but sometimes “shakes loose” previously unknown details from those too fearful to speak earlier.
Missed one of Aaron’s reports? Watch online at WHO-TV Special Reports or see the Iowa Cold Cases Videos page.
So, what do you think? Has the Channel 13 Iowa Cold Case series run its course or barely scratched the surface? Would you miss it were it cancelled? Were there other cases (see list here) you still hoped to see covered? Were the 3-5 minute segments too long? Too short? What did the series mean to you?
We invite you to share with the station your thoughts and opinions.
As WHO-TV’s Rod Peterson works toward reaching a decision about the series’ fate, your input could make a difference.
Listed below are a number of different ways you may contact the network. As with any feedback, we ask you keep your comments civil, respectful and on topic. The WHO-TV staff works hard to allocate time and resources to news and stories they feel will best serve the audience’s needs and interests; decisions are not always easy.
Thank you in advance, and know how much your feedback is appreciated by all of us.
WHO-TV 13 Contact Information
Send an e-mail to WHO-TV Channel 13, Des Moines
Call (515) 242-3500 and ask to speak with News Director Rod Peterson
Fill out the WHO News Idea Form
Write to: WHO-TV 13, 1801 Grand Ave., Des Moines, IA 50309
Marc James Warren Allen
Age at Report: 13
DOB: May 13, 1972
Weight: 85 lbs.
Case Type: Endangered Missing
Missing From: Des Moines, IA Polk County NCIC #: M-190867573
NCMEC #: NCMC1053047
Missing Since: March 29, 1986
On March 29, 1986 — the day before Easter — Marc James-Warren Allen became the third Des Moines, Iowa paperboy to vanish without a trace. Johnny Gosch, 12, of West Des Moines disappeared September 5, 1982. Thirteen-year-old Eugene Martin vanished from Des Moines’ south side just two years later on August 12, 1984, under very similar circumstances.
Then, not quite two years later, 13-year-old Marc Allen told his mother he planned to walk to a friend’s house down the street but never arrived at the neighbor’s home and hasn’t been seen since.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV Channel 13
Marc Allen’s mother, Nancy Allen, told Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck that every time the news reports a body has been found, her feelings jump from not wanting it to be her son yet wishing for the chance to finally bury him and give them both peace.
Nearly three decades later, all three boys’ cases remain unsolved.
Marc’s mother, Nancy Allen, admitted her son had been a handful; the teen had been shifted back and forth between her Iowa residence and his father’s Minnesota home most of his young life and he’d often get into trouble. But in a week normally filled with family get-togethers, shopping and holiday activities, Nancy took time to speak with WHO-TV Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck about what it has been like waiting so many years for answers and wondering about the fate of a young son who never quite seemed to fit in.
“It was hard because he had been living with dad for a while and then came back and lived with me, and [his] younger brother and older sister were real close and he wanted to be in there. In tight,” she said.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Marc Allen waved goodbye to his mother while walking along this Des Moines sidewalk and was never seen nor heard from again.
They never got the chance for that to happen.
The night before Easter in 1986, the teen left his southwest Emma Avenue home to hang out with friends and perhaps take in a movie just as his siblings prepared for a pizza dinner.
“He walked out the door and the kids were getting ready to have pizza and I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Allen told Brilbeck. “The last thing he said to me as he walked out the door was ‘Save me some pizza, Mom. I’ll be hungry when I get home.’”
Nancy watched her son walk down the sidewalk, past the bushes, and then he was gone.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Marc Allen as a youngster.
“He waved when he got to the bushes and I waved at him and that was that and I never saw him again,” his mother said.
The next morning when Nancy realized Marc hadn’t come home the night before, she knew immediately something wasn’t right but hoped against hope he’d prove her wrong.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children released this age-enhanced photo of what Marc Allen might look like today.
“It was Easter Sunday so I thought maybe he went to Grandma’s knowing Grandma would have an Easter basket there for each of the kids. So I asked my mom but he wasn’t there,” she said. “I had phone numbers for his friends. Called all of them. No one had seen him.”
Allen said she called police, but they told her they couldn’t do anything for 48 hours. Days turned into months.
Police checked in Minnesota where Marc’s father lived, and in Connecticut where the boy’s paternal grandmother lived. Nothing.
Allen told Brilbeck she didn’t know whether her son’s disappearance was linked to the disappearances of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin, but said police seemed reluctant to help her because of the other missing teens.
“I just feel like, at this time, they were just afraid of …afraid of what would happen with the Eugene Martin and Gosch thing. I got the distinct feeling that they did not want parents to be frightened to let their children sell newspapers or do different things,” she said.
The Des Moines Police Department’s Sgt. Jeff Edwards disagrees.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Sgt. Jeff Edwards of the Des Moines Police Department
“I know detectives followed up on leads that did not pan out,” Edwards told Brilbeck in a separate interview for the story WHO-TV aired Thanksgiving Day 2010. “They were not able to locate him. He’s still listed as a missing person.”
Marc’s mother said she doesn’t know whether her son is alive or dead, but that after 25 years she’d like to know for sure so she — and her son — can find peace.
“There are times when the news says they’ve found a body and they’re not sure yet how old it is but they’re pretty sure it’s male,” said Nancy. “And in one instant you hold your breath and bite your fingernails and hope that it’s not your child. And in other ways you wish they would come out and say that it is your child — so you can finally bury them and go to rest.”
WHO-TV Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unsolved March 29, 1986 disappearance of 13-year-old Des Moines paperboy Marc James Warren Allen. November 25, 2010
Marc Allen was last seen wearing a light blue t-shirt, blue jean shorts, white socks and gray tennis shoes with velcro tabs. He has a small scar on the top of his head, and his first name might be spelled “Mark” by some agencies involving missing children and persons.
To date, there is no definitive evidence connecting Marc Allen’s case to that of Johnny Gosch or Eugene Martin.
If you have any information concerning Marc Allen’s disappearance, please contact the Des Moines Police Department at 515-283-4811 or Iowa Cold Cases via our Contact form or Anonymous Tip Form.
COLD CASE: The story of a teen boy who disappeared is told yet again, WHO-TV Channel 13, Nov. 25, 2010
DES MOINES – Roxanne Beck was just entering her teen years 33 years ago when her father, Frank Goff of Des Moines, was murdered. And the killer, Goff’s children believe, was one of his own brothers.
Now, there will never be an arrest and there will never be justice. Goff’s brothers are both dead.
“It was hard,” Beck says, “It was really hard. I was only thirteen. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life.”
Courtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Frank Goff’s parents’ Des Moines home, where police believe Frank was shot and killed by his two brothers.
The year was 1977. Star Wars was a big screen hit, Jimmy Carter became the 39th President of the United States, and — as was often the case, Frank Goff was arguing with his brothers, Jerry and George. Only this time, the argument turned deadly.
Police believe Jerry and George taunted Frank into going to their parents’ home on Southeast Jackson Ave. There was a party going on but that changed when Frank walked in the door and was immediately shot in the neck.
Police told the family they believe Frank lay on the floor bleeding to death while his brothers dug the bullet out of the wall and concealed other evidence. Frank’s son, also named Frank, was just 10 years old at the time.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Frank Goff’s children believe justice will never be served in their father’s death; his brother Jerry – believed to be the trigger man – died in 2002, and George, a career criminal, died last year.
“They just told me that he’d been shot,” the younger Goff recalls, “And back in those days you couldn’t go up to the hospital if you were under 14 or whatever. So basically we spent the night in the waiting room in the basement of the hospital. I did not see him after that night, to tell you the truth.”
Frank Goff died the next day.
“He was my best friend,” Beck says. “I was only 13 and it was really hard to get over. I mean you never get over it. But it was really devastating for me.”
Police questioned his brothers — the family says police told them they believed Jerry was the trigger man — but there wasn’t enough evidence to make an arrest.
“That’s just what the detectives thought at the time,” Beck says. “They believed that he did it because his story didn’t match up with what he was telling them and they caught him in so many lies — they just didn’t have any physical evidence.”
Courtesy photo WHO-TV, Channel 13, Des Moines
Frank Goff with his two children, daughter Roxanne and infant son Frank.
Even with so many people at the party, police apparently were not able to find enough witnesses to make an arrest. Days turned to months, then years as the case went cold. Jerry died in 2002 and is buried at Laurel Hill cemetery in an unmarked grave. Records show he died of respiratory arrest. George, a career criminal, died last year.
Frank Goff’s kids believe the two got away with murder.
“People do more time in jail for speeding tickets these days than anybody ever did a day for that murder, you know? And it’s like, so yeah we never get justice as far as that goes,” Goff says.
And with their uncles both dead — they doubt there ever will be justice.
WHO-TV Channel 13′s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unsolved murder of Frank Goff. July 22, 2010
“Oh no. No,” Beck said. “There hasn’t been [justice] for 33 years. And there will never be obviously, you know what I’m saying? Because you can’t prosecute a dead person.”
The family wants to know why police haven’t been able to make an arrest, considering the number of witnesses at the party, the fighting between the brothers, and the gun found at the murder scene.
We asked police for copies of the police report and other information about the case. A police spokeswoman replied and said the case is locked and no information can be released.