The Darling of the Neighborhood

On July 14, 2010, in Anniversaries, by Jody Ewing
Donna Sue Davis

Donna Sue Davis

Donna Sue Davis hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. The 22-month-old 21-pound blue-eyed girl with the mass of dark blond curly hair was the youngest of James (“Don”) and Mary Davis’s three children, and her three prized possessions included her teddy bear, a rubber doll and a red purse.

Eleven-year-old Mary Claire, the eldest of the siblings, had friends who resided in the same west side neighborhood in Sioux City, IA, and they often could be seen pushing strollers and buggies around the block with Donna Sue and the other girls’ young siblings in tow. Timothy, 7, also had ample playmates within safe walking distance from the family’s 715 Isabella Street home.

Everyone knew and loved Donna Sue, though seldom used her name. To them, she was simply “The Darling of the Neighborhood.”

In July 1955, life is still good along West 14th and 15th street and the intersecting Rebecca and Isabella streets, and half the summer still remains for riding bicycles and playing Army and swimming and girlfriend sleepovers, and even entertaining baby sisters and brothers while mothers work the outside gardens and hang fresh sheets to flap and dry in the wind.

But summer  in this working class neighborhood — and life as all its residents know it — is about to change forever. The shift begins to emerge the night of July 9, when sirens awaken a city that will not know peaceful slumber for many years to come.

Rain has fallen since 9 p.m., and near 12 a.m. flood sirens puncture the midnight hours. While rain falls in torrents, a fire breaks out at a lumber company but fire trucks can’t navigate the water laden streets. Utility employees work throughout the night to restore electricity to Sioux City residents.

Dawn is about to break.

Sunday, July 10, 1955

Rain ends by early morning, and as water starts to recede city crews move forward with clean-up efforts.

The Donna Sue Davis home in 1955
Courtesy photo Sioux City Journal
Donna Sue Davis and her family lived in the bottom apartment at this duplex located at 715 Isabella St. in Sioux City, Iowa.

The day’s temperatures soar into the 90s, bringing with them humidity’s heavy blanket. Though room air conditioners have grown in popularity since World War II’s end, costs are still prohibitive for many western Iowa families, whose usual reprieve amounts to nothing more than a cool bath and, hopefully, a nightly breeze through an open window. The Davis family has learned to weather the heat.

Sunday night, Mary Davis gives Donna Sue a bath, dresses her in pink pajamas, and at approximately 9:30 p.m., tucks her into her crib for bed in the first-floor bedroom of the two-story duplex where the family has resided for many years. Donna Sue’s crib sits against the wall at the foot of the Davis’ bed, right next to a cedar chest positioned directly below the bedroom window.

“Three to get ready, and four to go . . . to bed,” Mary tells Donna Sue as she kisses her goodnight. The child is all set with her teddy bear, rubber doll and red purse within arm’s reach. With temperatures still in the 80s, the bedroom window is left open to capture any breeze.

In the kitchen, Mary sits down to read the day’s Sioux City Journal as her husband — a clerk for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway — watches television in the living room. In the next room, Mary Claire and Timothy are already fast asleep.

In the upstairs duplex, Mr. M.A. McLeod goes outside to sit on his upper porch balcony while his wife putters around in the couple’s bedroom.

On the corner just south of the Isabella Street duplex, George Berger sits in his back yard at 1301 Villa Avenue. His back yard faces the Davis home’s south side, and he often enjoys watching the Davis children and their neighborhood friends play together in the large lot between the two homes.

9:35 p.m.

Something catches Mr. Berger’s eye. A man has just crossed through a hedge near the front of the Davis house and, walking quite erectly, is heading west along the south side of the Davis’s home. Berger strains to see what the man is doing, but can’t see very well in the darkness and his vision also is obstructed by his own vehicle,  which he parked in the driveway earlier that day.

Route the kidnapper took to Donna Sue's window
Courtesy photo Newman, Sioux City Journal staff photographer
Donna Sue’s kidnapper walked erectly west along the south side of the Davis home and a few minutes later headed toward Villa Avenue, walking in a crouched position with a bundle in his arms.

A few minutes later he sees the man retrace his steps toward the street and head in a northerly direction. The man, however, now walks in a crouched, stooped position.

Mr. and Mrs. Laif Fjeldos, who live around the corner two houses away at 1310 West 14th Street, hear their dog Rex barking at the back door. Their back lot borders the Davis’s back lot, separated by mulberry and hackberry trees.

Mrs. Fjeldos gets up to let Rex inside and switches on her back yard light. Skulking along the alleyway, she sees a man who appears to be carrying some type of bundle. She immediately calls for her husband.

Mr. Fjeldos grabs a flashlight and shines it toward the man, who is now stooped over and hiding behind a bush. Mr. Fjeldos isn’t about to let this one get away, either; just two weeks before, Rex’s ferocious barking had alerted him to a young man tampering with the Fjeldos’s car, and Rex had held the man at bay while Fjeldos called police. Before police took the man into custody, Fjeldos had voiced a strong complaint about the “poor lighting” in the neighborhood.

This time, however, Fjeldos suspects the stranger might be carrying meat to poison Rex or other neighborhood dogs. He hands his wife the flashlight with instructions to keep it shining on the stranger while once again he calls police.

9:37 p.m.

Sioux City police answer a call from a Mr. Laif Fjeldos, who tells them he  has “a suspicious man cornered” and needs assistance. Before police can arrive, the man flees north through the alley and Fjeldos gives chase. Fjeldos chases the man across W. 14th Street and into the next alley, which leads north toward W. 15th. The man — described as about 31 years old with a slight build and wearing a white T-shirt and khaki trousers — runs awkwardly, still stooped over with the bundle. He appears to have something wrapped inside a blanket.

The man suddenly ducks between two bushes in the back yard of the home located at 1417 Isabella Street. It is but one block from the Davis home, despite the jump from the 700-block to 1400-block addresses. Fjeldos approaches slowly, but by the time he reaches the bushes realizes the man has simply vanished.

Approximately 9:40 p.m.

donna-sue-davis-crib-in-bedroomCourtesy photo Newman, Sioux City Journal staff photographer
The interior of the bedroom from which Donna Sue was kidnapped. Police speculated that the abductor was forced by arrangement of furniture to enter the room in order to seize the child, and that he left by the same window.

Mr. Davis gets up to go to bed and check on Donna Sue. He doesn’t see her in her crib and thinks she’s hiding beneath the covers, but she isn’t there.

“Where’s Donna?” he hollers to his wife, and then sees that the bedroom screen has been removed. He immediately telephones police, unaware they’re already on their way to the neighborhood in response to Mr. Fjeldos’s call about the prowler.

Laif Fjeldos stands outside his home waiting for police to arrive and telling the gathering crowd of neighbors what he’s seen and how he chased the man up the alley toward 15th Street before losing him.

Suddenly, they hear Mary Davis screaming from inside her home. “My baby is gone! My baby is gone!” she wails, and then they hear sounds of crying as she pleads “Help … help … help.”

Running out the Leads

As more and more area residents gather outside to discover what the commotion is all about, Sioux City Police officers arrive on scene.

Mr. Berger tells police about the stranger he saw moving stealthily along the Davis home’s south side just a little while earlier.

Mr. and Mrs. McLeod from the upstairs Isabella street duplex state they didn’t see or hear anything unusual.

Several neighbors report having seen the man, but say it was difficult to determine his height because he was bent over carrying something.

Friends gather at the Davis home as the search for Donna Sue beginsAP Wirephoto Courtesy Sioux City Journal
The Davis home quickly became headquarters for search parties organized by neighbors after Donna Sue’s abduction.

More than 25 neighbors go out searching in the vacant fields and houses in the vicinity. Mr. Davis, extremely distraught over his daughter’s disappearance, jumps into his car and begins to search the area on his own, but the surrounding roads are still muddy from the rains and he drives his car into a ditch and gets stuck. Friends come to his rescue to help him pull it out.

Relatives begin gathering at the Davis home to provide comfort and support. The Davises tell police there’s been no family trouble and they know of no one with a motive for wanting to kidnap Donna Sue.

10:05 p.m.

Sioux City resident Sid Goldberg drives through the nearby town of Elk Point, South Dakota, and near a motel sees a man in a white T-shirt and khaki trousers standing on the road beside a black Chevrolet 2-door sedan with Nebraska license plates. The man in the T-shirt and khakis holds a baby in his arms, but Goldberg — unaware of what has transpired back in Sioux City — thinks nothing of it.

10:30 p.m.

Mrs. Everett Hauswirth, who lives on the “Old Back Road” in South Sioux City, Nebraska, is startled by the sound of a vehicle either stopping outside on the gravel road or pulling into her driveway. A moment later she hears the car quickly accelerate and speed away.

Approximately 11 p.m.

Sid Golberg is back on the road and listening to his radio. He hears the report about Donna Sue’s abduction and immediately stops to telephone Sioux City police. The Sioux City police notify Elk Point, S.D. police, who quickly converge at the same hotel Goldberg passed almost 90 minutes earlier. The Chevrolet sedan is gone, but Goldberg says he remembers the license plate number.

Sioux City police radio a detailed description of the man and child to law enforcement networks in Iowa, S.D. and Neb., and to taxicab companies whose cabs are equipped with two-way radios.

Police take Donna Sue’s bedroom screen and several other items to police headquarters to check for possible fingerprints.

Police follow up on the license plate number in hopes of discovering the owner and getting a lead, but nothing pans out. The Nebraska Motor Vehicle Bureau won’t be open until the following morning.

Sioux City Police Chief James O’Keefe is roused from bed to take charge of the search for Donna Sue and her kidnapper.

Capt. John Rispalje and detectives John Banys and Paul Brown are held over for extra duty in the investigation, as are several patrolmen.

Throughout the night, Sioux City  police swarm over the city’s west side in search of any type of clue.

Monday, July 11, 1955

Early Monday morning at the Davis home, Capt. Rispalje explains that the FBI cannot be called in on the case until proof exists the abductor took Donna Sue across a state line or contacted the Davises asking for money or other consideration in exchange for Donna Sue’s return.

More detectives descend upon the neighborhood, talking with residents about the previous day’s and evening’s activities. They perform a house to house check.

Three FBI officers from the Omaha Field Office arrive at the Davis home, stating they are there to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood. They unofficially associate themselves with the case in what they call a “consultatory capacity.”

A farmer reports to the Woodbury County Sheriff’s office that he heard a baby crying in a parked car on a road about three and one-half miles east of Highway 75, halfway between the nearby towns of Sergeant Bluff and Salix, Iowa. He says the car had Nebraska plates, and deputies go to investigate.

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Just across the river in South Sioux City, Neb., Mrs. Ernest Oehlerking, 33, is in a festive mood. Today, one of her six daughters turns 11 years old, and she is getting ready to bake a cake while the girls are in town at a Girl Scouts camp. The birthday gifts are already wrapped.

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As afternoon approaches, Chief O’Keefe appeals to all householders to check carefully for the possible presence of baby garments or a child’s clothing that might be a clue to the kidnapping.

Police officers report to an anxious public that a man with a bundle had been seen north of an alley near 14th and Nebraska streets. They say the man entered a garage in the vicinity, stayed a few minutes and then left the building.

They speculate the child may have been wrapped in a blanket the abductor carried with him elsewhere in the city, but state nothing had been taken from Donna Sue’s bedroom. Her teddy bear, rubber doll and red purse had all been found in her crib after she vanished.

The search party grows to include Air National Guardsmen, extra police and dozens more volunteers. The search extends from West Seventh Street to West 18th Street and along Perry Creek, and from West Eighth and Bluff Street West to Ross Street.

They find nothing.

3:45 p.m.

Across the river in Nebraska, Ernest Oehlerking drives his tractor toward South Sioux City where he intends to buy oats. His nephew, 14-year-old Ronnie Oehlerking of Denver, rides behind the tractor in a wagon along with Ernie Reed and Harlan Haas — two locals who help out on the Oehlerking farm.

One-eighth of a mile north of his farmhouse and midway to Mrs. Everett Hauswirth’s home, Ernest Oehlerking notices something in a ditch. He goes to investigate and discovers the bottom half of a baby’s pink pajamas as well as a pair of rubber pants — the kind normally worn over a baby’s diaper.

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Read the full case summary on Donna Sue Davis

2 Responses to The Darling of the Neighborhood

  1. Donna Sue Johnson says:

    I was born in Dec 1955, when I was about 9 years old, I asked my mother why she named me Donna Sue, she said she named me after a little girl that was kidnapped and murdered in Sioux City. After all these years I thought of that conversation and thought I’d research it, thinking I’ll never find this info. After I read the story I was choked up and horrified at what happened to that sweet baby, I think my mother meant it as a way to honor that little girl, not as something eerie, she’s gone too, so I can’t get clarification, just thought I’d write to you, I’m a haunted by your story.

    • Jody Ewing says:

      Donna Sue, I can’t tell you how much your comments meant to me, and I’m so glad you finally found the history behind your namesake. Without having known your mother, I think I can still say with certainty that she would have named you as a way to honor Donna Sue. And, in my opinion, it is an honor. Donna Sue was such a precious child. I wasn’t born until three years after she was killed, but I live only 35 miles south of where she lived, and knowing about what happened to her was one of my main incentives for writing my first cold case series. If I may ask, did you live near Sioux City? I know Donna Sue’s murder made national news, but was just curious.

      I also noticed you posted your comment after reading the blog story; Donna Sue’s full case summary is now up at https://iowacoldcases.org/case-summaries/donna-sue-davis/ in case you’d like to read that.

      Thank you again for writing, and please feel free to contact me via e-mail at jody@iowacoldcases.org any time.

      All best,
      Jody

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