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Today marks four cold case anniversaries, dating from Sept. 7, 1925 to Sept. 7, 1992 … nearly seven decades … but families are still awaiting answers. All four victims could have changed countless lives had their own not been so abruptly cut short.
Myrtle Underwood Cook, 51, sat near a window in her Vinton, Iowa, home on Sept. 7, 1925, rehearsing aloud a speech she planned to make at an upcoming Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) meeting when an unknown assailant fired a shot through the window. The bullet entered Myrtle’s heart, and she died within the hour.
Like many who speak out against what they feel is wrong, Myrtle already knew many detested her and considered her “bad for business.” As president of the Benton County WCTU, Myrtle had gone beyond just giving speeches; she’d recently published the names of people she suspected of bootlegging, and many had served jail time. She took Prohibition very seriously, despite the widely disregarded constitutional ban on the production or sale of alcoholic beverages. Five years had passed since the nationwide law took effect, and the WCTU was steadily growing its grass roots “dry crusaders” base from both political parties.
In addition to the WTCU, Myrtle Cook also maintained a membership with the Ku Klux Klan, and her funeral served as a stark reminder of the troubled times in which Americans lived:
More than 50 years later on Sept. 7, 1976 — Labor Day weekend — Marie “Lisa” Peak, a 19-year-old Wartburg College sophomore majoring in journalism, was found dead in a rural Bremer County ditch. She’d been sexually assaulted, and the autopsy concluded she’d died of suffocation and a broken neck.
Earlier that year, Peak had provided authorities with valuable information about a sex and extortion scheme by 40-year-old used car salesman John Joseph Carmody Jr. of Mason City. Carmody pleaded guilty to rape and extortion and was sentenced to 40 years at Fort Madison’s Iowa State Penitentiary.
Lisa was the third young woman from Waverly, Iowa, to be killed and dumped in nearby areas in a five-year time span. Valerie Klossowsky, a 14-year-old Waverly-Shell Rock Junior High School student, was strangled in June 1971 and dumped under a bridge 10 miles southeast of Waverly. Julie Ann Benning, 18, disappeared from Waverly the day after Thanksgiving in 1975. A Butler County road maintenance worker found her body in March 1976 in a ditch just six miles away from where Peak’s body would later be dumped.
The three unsolved cases would come to be known as “The Waverly Three.” All three murders remain unsolved today.
On Thursday evening, Sept. 7, 1989, Jeffery “Jo Jo” Zolliecoffer went missing from Waterloo, Iowa. He was last seen alive at Goodies II, a Waterloo bar formerly located in the 100 block of Sumner Street. Eight days later, a child playing next to the Cedar River told nearby adults he’d spotted either a mannequin or body in the river. At 6:40 p.m. Sept. 15, police found Zolliecoffer’s body in the river a half-mile north of Waterloo’s business district.
“Jo Jo’s” killer or killers had made every attempt to ensure the body would not be discovered; they’d shot the 23-year-old three times — including a shotgun blast to the back of his head — before wrapping him in a quilted blanket, securing the blanket with copper wiring, and looping the wire through two concrete blocks.
Twenty-four years after Zolliecoffer’s murder, the newly formed Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers (CVCS) provided the family with renewed hope. Jo Jo’s brother, Willie Lumpkin, told KFXA TV in June 2013 that the family got their hopes back up once crime stoppers came in and re-opened the case.
Four years later, the case remains unsolved, though Waterloo police and CVCS continue their pursuit of justice.
Three years after Zolliecoffer’s death, 22-year-old Rhonda Anette Knutson was bludgeoned to death Sept. 7, 1992, while working the night shift at the Phillips 66 convenience store in Williamstown, Iowa, in Chickasaw County.
The Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office said Knutson died from severe and traumatic head injuries after being beaten with a blunt object. Robbery wasn’t considered a motive in the slaying, and the victim had not been sexually assaulted.
Sheriff’s office deputies and agents from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) conducted hundreds of interviews, consulted several psychics and also employed a private investigator in the case. Within three days of Rhonda’s murder, they developed composite drawings of two men — both truckers — seen in the store around the time of Rhonda’s death.
Chickasaw County Sheriff Tom Bernatz printed and mailed out over 1,500 news bulletins about the case to truck stops throughout the US in efforts to generate more leads. By December, eight banks in northeast Iowa had pledged $7,500 toward a refund fund, with another $1,500 in pledges from private citizens.
Rhonda had lived for the past two years with her boyfriend, Al Wolf, in rural Tripoli about 16 miles southeast of the Phillips 66 station. The couple had met at the convenience store in 1989 and moved in together one year later. Rhonda, one of seven siblings, loved art and interacting with people. More than 500 family members and friends attended memorial services to pay tribute to the outgoing 1988 New Hampton High School graduate.
The Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office was one of the very first counties in Iowa to add unsolved crimes to its website, and Rhonda’s case became one of those first added to the Iowa Cold Cases website after its launch in 2005.
If you have any information about any of the above unsolved cases, please contact the respective investigating agencies: