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Today marks 22 years since 7-1/2-month-old Amber Marie Hayes of Muscatine, Iowa, was decapitated, dismembered, and her remains strewn in a remote area near Lake Odessa. Two boys riding all-terrain vehicles discovered the infant’s body, her pink diaper bag and blanket four days later.
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. She’d left the child at home with her boyfriend, Leslie Ray “Les” Brockert, 28 (he was not Amber’s father but lived with Hayes at her residence) while Mary and a friend went to Terri’s Hideway and then to Chet’s, two former Muscatine taverns. Brockert had watched the child before, and Mary had known him almost all her life.
Brockert was arrested and charged with kidnapping, but after a 5-1/2-day trial in Jackson County District Court, jurors deliberated on three hours before acquitting Brockert on Oct. 24, 1988.
Brockert, now a convicted felon, went on to try and blow up his girlfriend’s car in a 1994 arson case and was arrested multiple times both Louisa and Muscatine counties, can still be tried for first-degree murder if advanced DNA technology leads to further information in Amber’s unsolved homicide.
Any child’s murder reminds us all that no life should ever be taken for granted. Iowa’s cold cases include many other young children who lost his or her life at the hands of a killer never held responsible.
One exception may be the Aug. 31, 1954 murder of 8-year-old Jimmy Bremmers of Sioux City. Jimmy had a speech impediment, and had a short friend list: his black and white dog, Specks, and friend Joey Hamel. On that Tuesday evening, Jimmy went to visit Joey — who lived only two doors down.
At 8 p.m., just as Life with Father began to air on television, Jimmy, along with Joey’s cousin Steve Counterman, 13, left the Hamel house to head for their respective homes. When Steve started up a hill for his home, he looked back and saw Jimmy standing alone near a tree by the Hamel’s porch. It was the last time anyone saw Jimmy Bremmers alive.
Nearly one month later, a county crew building a snow fence north of Sioux City stumbled upon a young boy’s remains — later identified as Jimmy’s — on Sept. 29. The boy had been decapitated, and his crushed skull lay several feet away rom his upper decomposed body. Both hands were missing.
Ernest Triplett, an itinerant music salesman for Flood Music in Sioux City, had already been questioned and taken into custody by police Sept. 2 before the boy’s body was found. On October 5, 1954, Triplett appeared before the Woodbury County Insanity Commission with no legal representation present and was involuntarily committed to the Cherokee mental hospital.
The following day, doctors injected Triplett with 80 mg of the amphetamine Desoxyn and three grains of the barbiturate Seconal, even though Triplett hadn’t eaten since the previous day. By days end, Triplett confessed to killing Jimmy Bremmers.
On June 17, 1955, a jury found Triplett guilty of murder in the second degree. Seventeen years later, University of Iowa law professor Robert Bartels represented Ernest Triplett in legal proceedings to challenge Triplett’s conviction.
On October 17, 1972, Ernest Triplett’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison the following day. Bartels later wrote about the case in his 1988 book, Benefit of Law: The Murder Case of Ernest Triplett.
No one else has ever been arrested or charged in Jimmy Bremmers’ murder.
Following closely on the heels of Jimmy Bremmers’ murder, Donna Sue Davis, 21 months of age, was abducted from her Sioux City home around 9:35 p.m. on July 10, 1955. She was molested, tortured and then dumped along the edge of a South Sioux City, Nebraska, cornfield just across the river.
Two sisters-in-law and their daughters found the tot’s body the following day.
When mitochondrial DNA testing began in the early 1980s, Sioux City police submitted samples of Donna Sue’s clothing, and continued re-submitting them any time new technology advanced testing methods. The results consistently had some of the same matches, but ultimately returned an “inconclusive” report.
Eventually, there was nothing left to submit, and Donna Sue’s alleged killer died in late 2009 at age 87.
Some of Iowa’s other young victims include:
Patricia Veach, an 8-year-old found dead in her Des Moines home on July 10, 1969. Officials said she’d been sexually molested and either strangled or smothered by her slayer.
Her father and brother, Billy Veach, remained under a cloud of suspicion for the next 42 years.
On Tuesday, March 8, 2011, Billy told Iowa Cold Cases he’d received the words the family had waited decades to hear; the State Crime Lab had resubmitted evidence to check for familial DNA. According to Sgt. Steve Woody, Billy said, they were “able to definitively exclude my dad, his brothers and myself from any suspicion.”
When Billy told his father about the results, both men broke down in tears. Still, they wait for answers as to the true killer’s identity.
Elna Maria “Valerie” Peterson, 8, was struck and killed May 6, 1971, in Manson after going bike-riding with a friend and being struck by a pickup truck that swerved in order to hit her and then did not stop.
On March 13, 1983, someone abandoned a newborn baby boy along a rural Story County road.
Around 8:45 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, 1987, an elderly fisherman discovered the body of a young white male lying on the sandy beach area near a floodgate in Dubuque, Iowa’s isolated Maus Park.
Upon arrival police found the lanky, brown-eyed boy deceased, and ultimately identified him as 14-1/2-year-old Kenny Joe Johnson. At the time of his death, Kenny Joe resided at Hillcrest Family Services and attended Central Alternative High School. He originally resided in the Davenport area and had been in Dubuque about one month before his death.
The fisherman found the boy rolled in a 5-by-9-foot piece of yellow-orange nylon carpet dumped at the park. An autopsy report stated the teen died by manual strangulation and had been sexually assaulted. He also had a small amount of alcohol in his system.
Iowa City landfill workers discovered an unidentified infant at the city dump four days before Christmas in 1991.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 10, 1996, the body of a newborn female infant — dubbed Baby Jane Doe Lincoln — was found inside a garbage bag placed in an old horse barn one mile east of Lisbon, Iowa, in Cedar County. Clair Wilson, a retired Quaker Oats employee, discovered the bag on the floor near a horse stall while moving lumber into the 40-by-75-foot barn around 10 a.m. Sunday.
Wilson, not believing what he found, brought the bag to the house’s patio. The infant’s body lay inside a smaller white plastic shopping bag — its handles tied — that had then been placed in a black plastic open garbage sack. The red printed letters on the white bag’s exterior said “Thanks for Shopping here,” with the “T” and “S” in uppercase letters.
Two-year-old Ricky Neal Morehouse, III, burned to death in the upstairs bathroom of his biological mother’s home in Kent, Iowa, on Saturday night, March 3, 2001.
Ricky and his twin brother, Reggy, who lived in Harlan, Iowa, with their biological father, Rick Morehouse, Jr., had been spending the weekend in Kent with their mother, Rachel Page, when the fire — deemed arson by investigators — was set and killed Little Ricky.
The power had failed, Rachel told authorities, so she’d gone to the basement to fix the fuses and restore the power. She said afterward she’d gone to check on the twins, who were sleeping upstairs. The power then failed a second time, she said, though no neighbors reported any outages.
Rather than try to restore the power again, Rachel said she instead decided to clean out her car, which sat parked in the driveway.
It was 10 p.m., with temperatures below freezing.
Six-year-old Jaymie Grahlman also died in a late-night fire set at her Cedar Rapids home Saturday, April 5, 2003. Her biological father, Jay Grahlman, 38, also died from burns he sustained in the fire while trying to locate his daughter.
Also in the home at the time of the fire was Jay’s girlfriend, Vickie Reed, 32, Reed’s daughters, Kylie Reed, 9, Nicole Reed, 7, and Grahlman’s youngest daughter Ida Mae Grahlman, 3, whose mother, “Monica,” was in Mexico.
The 3755 H Ave. NE house sat at the end of a quiet dead-end street. Reed stated in published reports that she pulled Jay and three of the girls to safety but couldn’t find Grahlman’s daughter Jaymie. Jay reentered the burning home in hopes of finding Jaymie.
Firefighters later found Jaymie in the home’s bathroom, lying in a supine position in the bathtub, and according to her autopsy report, she sustained third-degree burns with distinct demarcation to the front of her body, with circumferential burns to the backs of both legs (implicating the thermal burns were caused by a scalding liquid, not fire).
Jaymie’s biological mother, Shannon Salmons, had plans to pick up her daughter the following day for spring break.
Earlier that evening, Jay had played cards with neighbor Brian Zirtzman, a 39-year-old man with an IQ of just 67, placing Zirtzman in the bottom one percent of adults. Despite Zirtzman’s boyish personality, Jay treated him like an equal and made him feel welcome in the home. When Jay and Vickie had first moved into the house, a neighbor told Vickie that Zirtzman had a juvenile record — that as a teen he’d set fire to a nearby home.
Zirtzman later gave what appeared to be a memorized confession to police and then charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson. Linn County jurors realized Zirtzman had been coached in memorizing the stilted confession; investigators said it was “far too complex” for man with an IQ of 67 to make. (At the time, this score classified Zirtzman as being mentally retarded).
Throughout the trial, Zirtzman gazed around the room like a bored child, seemingly unaware of the goings-on.
Not even the State Fire Marshal’s Division could determine the fire’s exact point of origin, which appeared to have been started in multiple locations.
“Accidents happen and you can only accept them,” Vickie Reed told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Reed, despite having “rescued” everyone in the home except Jaymie, emerged from the incident with no burns of any kind.
The Linn County District Court jury acquitted Brian Zirtzman of all three charges on July 14, 2004.
On May 3, 2005, four-year-old Josh Yoder was struck by a hit-and-run driver in the 500 block of South 9th Street in Clinton, Iowa. He died the following day at University Hospitals in Iowa City.
The Clinton Police Department described the car involved in the incident as a medium blue 1990s Chevrolet Corsica. It likely would have sustained front end damage, said officials, who asked for the public’s help in identifying the offending driver and vehicle.
Josh Yoder was the youngest of 13 siblings.
Five-year-old Evelyn Miller was reported missing from her Floyd, Iowa, home in the early morning hours on July 1, 2005.
Her body was found five days later in the Cedar River.
Cases involving children are always extremely difficult, and even harder for loved ones left behind.
If you have any information about any of the cases listed above, please visit the respective page to find the investigating agency and how to submit information that might help solve the case.