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When I launched the Iowa Cold Cases website in December 2005, I never imagined a day would come I’d have to add a member of my own family.
That day has arrived.
His name: Earl Thelander … Dad Earl as my four siblings and I lovingly called him; Dad to his own six biological children; and simply Honey to my mother, Hope, with whom he’d shared his life for the past 25 years.
My stepfather died from second- and third-degree burns he sustained over 80% of his body after copper thieves cut and stole copper propane lines in a rural rental property Mom and Earl owned and let the house fill with gas for the inevitable explosion.
When my Grandpa (Raymond) Archer died in January 2004 and my grandmother moved into town to live with Mom and Earl, my folks purchased the small country home to keep it in the family and had been working there this past August getting it ready for a new renter.
Early on a Tuesday morning, August 28, 2007, Earl arrived at the house to install a new water pump and tank. Just inside the east entrance off the kitchen, however, he smelled gas and discovered the kitchen door’s broken glass. Knowing it wasn’t safe to enter the home, he immediately turned around and went to the backyard to shut off the propane at the tank. He then called my mother from his cell phone and asked her to call the Monona County Sheriff’s Department and advise them of the break-in.
Once she’d made the call, my mother — along with three other family members who’d been visiting — drove the two miles out to the farm. After law enforcement officials arrived and everyone went through the home opening up windows and doors to ventilate the house, my family returned to town. (We later learned the explosion didn’t occur then because oxygen levels were too low.)
Three hours later, insisting it wouldn’t take long to install the new water pump and promising he wouldn’t be late for lunch, Earl returned to the farm alone. Law enforcement officials were gone, and when he didn’t smell any remaining gas fumes, my stepfather believed it was safe to work. The burglars, however, had also cut copper water lines on the water heater, and water had leaked out onto the basement floor. Earl plugged in a squirrel cage blower to help dry the floor, and suddenly everything exploded around him.
Back in town, my cousin Norman had just arrived at Mom and Earl’s home, hoping to surprise them with a hot pork tenderloin lunch he’d brought for the three of them to enjoy together. Mom, who’d been scheduled to undergo surgery for a breast biopsy the next morning, stood bent over the kitchen sink, washing her hair. She’d just grabbed the towel and started wrapping it ’round her head when Earl — who’d survived the explosion and stormed his way through a ball of fire to drive himself home to the woman he loved — walked through the door, his clothes burned and hanging in shreds, and said to her as she looked up, “It just blew.”
Mom and Norman rushed him to Onawa’s Burgess Memorial Hospital, and, once stabilized, Earl was transported by Life Flight to the Clarkson Hospital Burn Unit in Omaha, NE. He died four days later, surrounded by his 11 children, numerous grandchildren, and my mother, who held her face close to his as he opened his eyes to gaze at her one last time just before passing from all our lives.
The estimated copper value these thieves exchanged for a good man’s life?
. . . approximately 10 dollars.
No arrests have yet been made in the case. The family has offered a $5,000 Reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Earl’s death. All information is confidential and the reward may be claimed anonymously. Please call 1-800-859-1414 for more information.
* Note: Six days following Earl’s funeral, his wife Hope was diagnosed with Stage III, Grade 3 invasive breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy the following month and spent close to one year undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. She currently is in remission.
On Thursday, February 14, 2008, the Iowa House Judiciary Committee assigned a Subcommittee to House Study Bill 660 — An Act relating to scrap metal transactions, prohibiting certain sales and imposing criminal penalties. While supported by organizations such as the IA Assn. of Electric Cooperatives, the IA Utility Assn. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the bill met with resistance from organizations such as the IA Assn. of Business and Industry and Alter Trading Corporation, and died after failing to make the Iowa House’s March 7 first funnel date. See the list of companies/lobbyist names that were for or against Iowa’s bill.
A number of other states, however, not only passed in that same session House and Senate resolutions similar to Iowa’s failed HSB 660, but expanded the scope of these laws from specifically copper to more general nonferrous metals. See State Copper and Scrap Metal Theft Statutes.
On Saturday, February 16, 2008, the Onawa Volunteer Fire Department conducted a controlled burn of all that remained of the rural home