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When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, he wasn’t thinking about the days leading up to Christmas, the short time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, or the beginning of yet another year without long awaited answers. Yet in the first few words of this remarkable novel, he seems to capture the wide-ranging emotions victims’ family members feel when these two holidays roll around and the new year begins.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
For loved ones left behind, these end of year holidays can’t help but lead to laughter, tears, long-forgotten memories, and spur renewed hope that this just might be the year…
… the year when someone finally comes forward with a long buried secret.
… the year when investigators make an arrest.
… the year our child, our daughter, our son, our father or mother receives justice.
I believe there’s never been a better time to hang on to hope. The times, and people — they are changing, and those changes go well beyond DNA advancements and new forensic science. Secrets gain enormous weight over time, and there are those too long burdened by being forced to drag them around day after day and lug them across the new year’s threshold. They’ve tired of living in fear and seasons of darkness holding them hostage. They yearn for spring’s hope, the season of light, and know it’s so close they can almost touch it. It’s lying there, waiting for them … just beyond something called truth.
As you consider below the lost lives and what they could have been, imagine your own future and what it still can be. Feel the newfound freedom as you jump over the New Year’s line and land upright with grace, knowing your commitment to the truth is about to change more lives than you can possibly imagine.
Between December 22 and January 2, from 1951 to 2014, the deaths and disappearances of 26 people ripped apart lives of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, surviving children, and countless others who lost someone he or she deeply loved.
Leon Groves, a 40-year-old Des Moines optician and married father of two, worked a second part-time job driving a taxi for Ruan Cab in order to earn extra money to support his family. Three days before Christmas in 1951, Groves was shot and killed in the early morning hours after picking up a fare in downtown Des Moines.
The following month, a former Woodward State Hospital patient, Lewis Arthur Burkett, 27, confessed to killing Groves, but changed his story so many times police weren’t convinced he committed the crime. Groves was shot sometime after 11:06 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, but before 1:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, when officials found his body slumped in his taxi in a snow-filled ditch at S.E. Eighteenth Street and Scott Avenue.
Beth Ricketts, a 31-year-old military veteran who’d moved from Oklahoma City, Okla., to Des Moines, was reported missing Dec. 22, 1997.
Police listed her status as “Endangered Missing,” and believe the 5-foot-8 120-pound woman was taken against her will.
Though her body has never been recovered, Des Moines police list her case as an unsolved 1997 homicide.
Ricketts left behind two young daughters and a son.
The Davenport Central High School graduate earned her teaching degree at Iowa State University, and quickly found her niche working with underprivileged students.
By age 26, the divorced mother of three small children found herself unable to support them and pay her bills on her teaching salary. She made what she called a moral compromise; she quit her job at the school and went to work in a “massage parlor.” In a 2005 interview with The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, Kennedy (using the pseudonym “Anabelle”), acknowledged the massage parlor was basically a front for prostitution.
On Dec. 22, 2007, a couple returning home for the evening found the former teacher’s unresponsive body in an alley in the 1800 block between West 7th and 8th streets in Davenport. Kennedy had been strangled.
Officials believe she was killed elsewhere and dumped in the alley one block away from a home she was known to frequent.
Former New York Jets starting cornerback David Barrett celebrated his 38th birthday December 22 — without his mother, Willie Ann Rucker. Rucker, 27, left her three young children with her sister while she worked, and after working late April 8, 1979, called her sister from a grocery store and asked her to take the children to Rucker’s West Donald Street apartment in Waterloo, where she would meet them.
Rucker, who’d called police just days earlier to report how much she feared her ex-boyfriend, never made it home that night.
Barrett was just 15 months old when his mother vanished under suspicious circumstances, but while growing up was told she’d been killed in an automobile accident. It wasn’t until he attended a family reunion his senior year in college — and was on his way to the NFL — that he learned the truth about his mother’s disappearance.
In a New York Times article dated Sept. 30, 2007, Barrett said that throughout his cross-country travels for games, he held on to hope his mother might still be alive. In every city, he entertained the fantasy that his mother might miraculously appear.
Now a free agent, Barrett continues to search for answers in his mother’s suspected homicide.
At 8:48 a.m. Dec. 23, 1994, Elise Gray and her boyfriend, Matthew Lewis, carried comatose 2-year-old Rylee Marie Gray into St. Lukes Hospital in Cedar Rapids. The toddler had suffered injuries to her head, buttocks, and extremities.
Doctors discovered the little girl had a subdural hematoma and brain swelling, and despite last-ditch surgery that removed 10 percent of the child’s brain, Rylee died Christmas Day.
Dr. Keith Krewer, the pathologist who performed Rylee’s autopsy, said her injuries were likely caused by both violent shaking and by having her head struck, smashed into something or injured when she was thrown down.
Lewis, 23, was arrested Dec. 28, 1994, and charged with first-degree murder in Rylee’s death. His mother, Colleen Lewis, didn’t believe her son had caused the girl’s injuries, and said Rylee had taken a spill in the bathtub two days before she was taken to the hospital and that she also fell out of a Portacrib and twisted her neck five days earlier.
A Linn County District Court jury took only four hours of deliberation on Nov. 21, 1995, to return a not guilty verdict.
Sometime in the very early morning hours Christmas Eve day, 1983, two or more individuals entered 24-year-old Ronald Lee Novak‘s rural Center Point residence on Rolling Acres Road, tied his hands behind his back, beat him with hammers, golf clubs and firewood, shot him and left him in an unheated storeroom as wind chills plummeted toward -40 degrees.
Later that day, one of Novak’s brothers, Jon Novak, went to check on Ron — the youngest of seven siblings — and found his brother’s bloody and frozen body lying face down near the home’s back door.
Ron’s three devoted golden retrievers lay huddled closely around him, shivering in the cold as they tried to keep their dead master warm. Officials found $32,000 in cash and $7,000 in marijuana in Novak’s home, and some family members felt officials treated Ron’s death as that of just another druggie.
In 2011, however, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office sent a blood sample to the State Crime Lab in Ankeny for DNA testing and were able to make a DNA match to an unknown individual that didn’t match the victim. The blood sample came from Ron Novak’s clothing, and Sheriff John Stuelke said it likely belonged to the suspect they were seeking. The DNA profile has been entered into CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — and officials await a “hit” to match the DNA to Ron’s killer.
On Christmas Eve, 1993, Phil Terrell went for a walk near his home on Des Moines’ south side. The 42-year-old father of three never returned and his family reported him as missing. On March 2, 1994, a horseback rider found Terrell’s snow-covered, decomposed body in a creek bed just inside Warren County.
Assistant Medical Examiner Francis Garrity said autopsy results showed Terrell died from blunt force trauma to the head, and Warren County officials ruled the death a homicide.
Terrell worked hard and often held down two or three jobs to provide for his three children. His daughter, Amy Terrell Cowan, said something seemed amiss shortly before her father went missing, and that he’d begun associating with a “rough crowd.”
The week before Christmas in 1993, Terrell had paid a visit to Amy, who’d recently given birth to her first child. Her father wanted to come over and hold his 1-month-old grandson, Alex. While there, Amy noticed how unsettled he seemed — almost as if he couldn’t shake something weighing heavily on his mind and needed to confide in someone. She waited, willing to listen and hopeful he would open up, but in the end he decided not to share his concerns and left without revealing whatever troubled him.
Darrell R. Lewis Sr., 39, was found shot to death in Des Moines around 12:40 a.m. Sunday morning, Dec. 24, 1995.
Police said Lewis — who had a lengthy police record — was found between two parked cars in the 2100 block of Carpenter Avenue on the city’s northwest side and clutched two small bags of a substance that proved to be crack cocaine.
In a Des Moines Register article dated Christmas Day 1995, Lewis’ mother, Rosa Lee Brown, said her son had been living at home with her and that she’d spoken to him around midnight, just 40 minutes before his body was found. He’d sounded lonely, she said.
“I said ‘Come on home, sugar,’” Brown told the Register. “That’s the last I heard of him.”
Lewis’ murder remains one of many unsolved Des Moines homicides.
Johnita Clemons, a 34-year-old mother of two, was shot and killed inside her Francis Avenue Des Moines home on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013.
At 9:35 p.m. officers responded to a call of shots fired at 1801 Francis Ave. on the city’s north side. The caller said three shots were fired, though police were unable to verify that number.
When officers arrived at the house, they found the woman inside, dead of gunshot wounds. She’d just become the city’s 14th homicide for 2013.
A Des Moines Register article dated Dec. 25, 2013 said Clemons had been engaged since January, and that police had been dispatched to the Francis Avenue address six times in 2013 — once for a medical situation and five times for domestic disputes.
Randall “Randy” Scott Dawson, 52, was shot multiple times at his Waterloo home on Christmas Eve, 2014.
Waterloo police said officers and paramedics responded to a shooting at 302 East 10th Street at 9:25 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014, after a neighbor reported what sounded like five or six gunshots.
Waterloo Fire and Rescue transported Dawson to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead, said Daniel Trelka, director of safety services for Waterloo.
Trelka said police were looking for one or two “persons of interest” in the shooting.
On Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, KWWL Channel 7’s Olivia Mancino met with Dawson’s daughter and girlfriend outside Dawson’s former home. The two women described Dawson as a jokester with a heart that let everyone in.
“He would give anybody any kind of assistance they needed, the shirt off his back. He would take the time to help anyone,” his daughter, Rachel McKinney, told KWWL.
Dawson’s girlfriend, Jennifer Becker, gave birth to the couple’s son six months after Dawson’s death.
Not surprisingly, they were together on Christmas Day, 1979, painting in James’ woodcarving shop in Moline. Later in the day they stopped painting and hopped into James’ 1965 black Chevrolet pickup truck; they had an air compressor to deliver in Rock Island, Ill., and afterwards were to pick up the $500 payment for it in Davenport, Iowa.
James and Harker delivered the compressor in Rock Island and headed toward Davenport that night, but never arrived to pick up the $500 payment and were never again seen alive. The black pickup truck sat parked in the 600 block of Iowa Street in Davenport — its bed full of grass, branches, other debris and snow — and on Feb. 22, 1980, was tagged as an abandoned vehicle. It eventually made its way to a police auction.
On Thursday, April 24, 1980 — five days before Gary’s 31st birthday — James Spurling, Jr., 25, and his brother, Richard, 19, both of Muscatine, spotted the black pickup at the Davenport police auction. They had another truck in need of repairs, and thought the black Chevrolet would be perfect for salvageable parts.
Hours later, the elder brother drove the foul-smelling truck out to a field to clean out the pickup truck’s bed. After grabbing a shovel, he noticed a boot and tried to pull it from the debris, but the boot didn’t move. He then saw a bug crawling across a leg, and went back home to call police. He hesitated before placing the call, not quite certain of exactly what he’d seen. He returned to the truck for a second look and discovered a second set of boots and another body buried beneath the debris. He immediately went home and phoned police.
Officials determined both James and Harker had been struck in the head with a wedge normally used for tree cutting.
Rashad Adair Sr., a 31-year-old father of four, died Christmas Day in 2012 after being shot 19 days earlier in Des Moines. Police said it appeared the victim was sitting in a vehicle behind 1410 Washington Avenue on the city’s north side when an unknown gunman approached and fired several shots into the vehicle before fleeing on foot.
Four days after Adair’s death, his family and friends gathered at the crime scene to light a candle and remember a son, brother, and father on what would have been the victim’s 32nd birthday.
Rashad Adair left behind four children ranging in age from 1 to 15 years old, and was remembered as a man who always put family first.
Shannon Michael Naill, 40, was reported missing to the Appanoose County Sheriff’s Office in Centerville on Dec. 25, 2013.
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), Naill was working for an unknown company as a high pressure washer cleaning larger factories, and was last seen in Des Moines, Iowa.
Naill was scheduled to travel to New Mexico to deliver a service truck and then return to Iowa December 28 to meet with family.
At approximately 10 p.m. the day after Christmas in 1975, Michael Edward Carr, 19, was struck by a vehicle on the west edge of Estherville while walking home. The hit-and-run happened near the intersection of Iowa Highway 9 and Emmet County blacktop A-22.
Carr, who worked for the catalogue merchandiser “Ardan’s” in Des Moines, had spent the evening with a friend at the “Filling Station” bar in Estherville.
Carr died from his injuries a week later on Jan. 2, 1976.
Boyd George Novinger, a 77-year-old funeral director who’d worked in the family-operated business for 50 years, was shot multiple times in the chest at his Bedford residence on Saturday, Dec. 27, 1997.
Novinger’s son-in-law and business partner, H. Keith Taylor, was first on scene and told officials he found his father-in-law’s body the following Sunday afternoon.
In an email to Iowa Cold Cases, Novinger’s daughter, Christy, said she still had many questions. Four different death certificates, she said, were issued in the six months following her father’s murder. A $2,500 reward the family offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case went unclaimed.
Prior to entering the funeral home business, Novinger enlisted with the US Navy in 1941 and served aboard the U.S.S. Honolulu in the South Pacific. He’d been awarded the Navy Unit Commendation Medal.
Shortly before Novinger’s death, his son-in-law partner had coerced Novinger’s daughter into signing papers where the couple would adopt a 28-year-old married man with children.
Judith Reed, 38, was struck in the head Dec. 26, 1974, after an altercation outside the Welcome Inn tavern in Goose Lake in Clinton County. She was found dead in a friend’s home the following morning.
Reed and another woman at the tavern had become combative the previous evening before bar owner Ismel Pacho asked them to leave. The women’s argument continued outside, and at some point Reed was hit in the head with an unknown object.
Reed had been staying in Charlotte, Iowa, four and one-half miles west of Goose Lake, with friends Norma and Robert Haines and was able to make it to their home that evening before complaining of a headache and going to bed. The Haines found Reed unresponsive the next morning just after 8 a.m. and contacted authorities.
Clinton County coroner J.J. Young pronounced Reed dead at the scene and said the head injury led to her death.
Annamarie Rittman, 46, died Dec. 27, 2005 after being struck down by a pickup truck that swerved into her as she arrived for work at the Lowe’s Store in Altoona.
The mother of three was walking through the store’s parking lot just before 5:30 a.m. when video cameras captured on tape a red four-door Ford pickup truck running her down and hitting her from behind.
Justin Andrew Pollard, a U.S. Army reservist, was charged with first-degree murder in Rittman’s hit-and-run homicide after police matched video footage and stickers on the back window of Pollard’s truck to the vehicle seen in the video. The murder charges were dropped in 2007 after a judge ruled the video inadmissible because it played faster than real time, but charges were refiled in 2009 after experts found a way to slow the video.
Polk County jurors acquitted Pollard of Rittman’s murder in September 2010, and KCCI raw video footage showed a smiling Pollard leaving the Polk County courthouse after the verdict, busily texting on his cell phone and using few words to respond to KCCI’s questions. In May 2012, Pollard filed a lawsuit against the city of Altoona, two Altoona police officials and the video production company.
Though the parties involved reached a settlement, officials said they stood behind the evidence they had against Pollard and are not actively seeking any other suspects in Rittman’s murder. Pollard cannot be tried again due to Double Jeopardy laws.
Fifty-year-old Gerald Best was found stabbed to death Dec. 30, 1999, in his Mason City apartment located at 4 N. Madison Avenue.
Medical Examiner David Sloan said Best’s throat had been slashed.
In a Mason City Globe Gazette article published Dec. 8, 2002, former Lead Detective Kevin Pals, who left the Mason City Police Department in January 2001 after being elected Cerro Gordo County Sheriff, said he worked closely with DCI investigator Tom Keenan on Gerald Best’s case. Pals said he worked the case continually for several months and would still be working on it had he not changed jurisdiction.
“We have evidence that was left at the scene and the police know things that the public doesn’t know,” said Pals, who remains optimistic the case can still be solved.
Jeannie Elizabeth Hernandez, 20, was reported missing to the Des Moines Police Department on Dec. 31, 2005. At the time of her disappearance, she was described as a 20-year-old 5-foot-4 Hispanic/Latino female with black hair, brown eyes, and weighing about 127 pounds.
Friends last saw Hernandez, dressed in black clothing, around 11 p.m. in the vicinity of SE 22nd and King in Des Moines.
Ms. Hernandez has a tattoo with the name “Soriano” on the back of her neck, an unknown tattoo on her left wrist and a scar on her left arm.
Elizabeth Jane “Betty” Swetnam, a 73-year-old grandmother who operated a massage business out of her 1610 West 19th Steet Sioux City home’s basement, was brutally stabbed to death on Friday, Dec. 31, 1993.
Her family grew concerned when they couldn’t contact her neither New Year’s Eve nor New Year’s Day; Swetnam’s gray car, according to neighbors, sat parked in the driveway.
At 2 p.m. January 1, the family sent a grandson and a granddaughter’s husband to check on Swetnam’s welfare. The grandson found the side door off the carport unlocked, and upon entry saw his grandmother lying at the bottom of the basement steps. Police arrived only seconds later, and called the crime both brutal and violet; Swetnam had sustained numerous wounds, many of which were considered fatal.
Julie Bell Davis would have celebrated her 52nd birthday today. The 33-year-old Cedar Rapids mother of two was brutally stabbed to death Aug. 28, 1997, inside Skyline Display’s satellite office on East Second in Des Moines where she worked.
Davis had a successful career selling trade show displays through her company’s Cedar Rapids and Des Moines offices, and officials believe the perpetrator came up behind her, grabbed hold of her hair, pulled her head back and cut her throat. She also sustained several stab wounds to the chest area before falling to the floor.
Harold Ronald Holt, 24, was shot in the abdomen in the early morning hours on Jan. 1, 1966, after attending a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s home. He died two weeks later on Monday, Jan. 17, of complications from a “perforatory wound” in a lung. Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. Leo Luka said Holt suffered wounds in the liver, diaphragm and lung.
Holt, who resided in Des Moines at 1040 Sixteenth St., had spent the evening at the home of Lawrence Robinson in Des Moines when a feud erupted between two other men at the party.
Douglas McArthur Wilson, 21, of 1549 Eighteenth St., Des Moines, and Herman Mure, 21, of 815 Crocker St., went outside, and Holt followed.
James Charles Huff Jr., a farm hand who worked at the Lindsey Edgar “Ed” and Jean Huelsenbeck farm about two miles southeast of Urbana, was taken to St. Lukes Hospital in Cedar Rapids Jan. 1, 1977 for severe injuries he’d sustained to the head.
The Palo Ambulance Service responded to the call, and upon arrival found Huff unconscious and bleeding from a severe head wound. Bruises populated the 26-year-old’s body.
Huff had begun working at the Huelsenbeck farm on his 26th birthday and had been employed there for just over one month. The Ohio native had moved to Iowa to be closer to his father.
He was later transported to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City, Iowa, where he died a few days later on January 5.
Benton County Sheriff Kenneth Popenhagen said it appeared Huff’s injuries had been inflicted over the course of several days, and that the autopsy couldn’t confirm the actual cause of death.
David Marchan, 18, went missing from Des Moines on Jan. 1, 2001.
According to a Twitter account set up for Marchan by his younger brother, Marchan fled to Los Angeles, California because he was a witness to a murder and felt he was next.
David’s disappearance has also been listed with the California Department of Justice, Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit.
Gregory John Howell, 44, went missing from Fort Dodge on New Year’s Day 2005. Howell had his own personal demons, and officials and family members suspect he was killed over a drug deal.
“I told him, I said you need to slow down. You got a family. You got a good family. You need to grow up. He wanted to be a kid. He lived a fast life,” his brother Frank told WHO-TV reporter Aaron Brilbeck for a Cold Case Thursdays story that aired Sept. 2, 2010.
The family has given up on finding justice. They believe Greg was killed but they doubt the killer will ever be found. Right now, they just want to find his body. They say Greg paid for all the wrong he did in his life and that he deserves to rest in peace.
“You know, it’s not right, ’cause he’s a human being,” Frank says. “Don’t matter what he did.”