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On a cold Friday night, March 26, 1976, Alice Van Alstine — a former “Minutemen” sympathizer who’d recently abandoned the right-wing paramilitary organization — tucked her children into bed at their 29th St. Des Moines apartment and then vanished into thin air, never to be seen nor heard from again. Her purse and money were found in the apartment, and despite the near-freezing 37º outside temperature, she’d also disappeared without her coat or shoes.
Neighbors found three of her children alone in the apartment on Sunday — the fourth was a patient in a state institution — and reported her as missing that same day.
Investigators found Alice’s car door open, the keys in the ignition. Her 6-year-old son told officers that when he got up Saturday morning, “Mommy wasn’t there.”
Detective Paul Womak said the disappearance is mysterious because, based on interviews with Van Alstine’s friends and relatives, she “was very close to her family — the good mother — who for all practical purposes just disappeared.”
To Alice’s close family members and friends, her mysterious disappearance was anything but a mystery; almost all believed she’d been kidnapped and assassinated by Minutemen or Minutemen sympathizers because she wanted to leave the organization but knew too much about their activities in Iowa and was considered a “traitor.”
Founded by Robert DePugh of Missouri in 1959, Minutemen believed a Communist takeover was eminent, and were known for stockpiling weapons, ammunition and explosives, and plotting and carrying out right-wing paramilitary activities.
Alice, indeed, had known and witnessed plenty while married to her first husband, Lee Harlow Andre, and already had begun cooperating with officials.
On July 21, 1977, Des Moines Tribune writers Greg Stricharchuk and Gene Erb published a page one, full-scale exposé on Minutemen activities in Iowa chronicling several Minutemen-related incidents in the Des Moines area. According to the article, Alice stated in a sworn deposition that while married to Andre, suitcases belonging to Minutemen were left at her home, that one suitcase contained a Bible with secret coded messages, that the suitcases were burned when Minutemen were sought by authorities, and that stolen weapons and explosives were stored in her barn.
In that same deposition, Alice acknowledged explosives had been used to bomb a Des Moines home and that she’d been visited by FBI agents.
The Tribune article also stated that in a two-hour interview, Andre — who said he was trying to get custody of the children — acknowledged he’d dropped by Alice’s apartment the night she disappeared to discuss the matter with her. Andre also said there wasn’t a “shred of evidence” to suggest foul play in his ex-wife’s disappearance.
So convinced of the Minutemen’s involvement in his daughter’s disappearance and murder, Alice’s father, World War II veteran Howard Barnes, took to sleeping each night on a sofa for more than a year with a loaded .30-caliber carbine at his side. The July 1977 Des Moines Tribune article quotes Barnes as saying that before Alice vanished she’d told him, “Dad, they [the Minutemen] are going to kill me.”
At the time she’d confided in him, Barnes said he couldn’t picture Minutemen “that vicious a bunch,” but fully believed it after his daughter went missing and after driving more than 15,000 miles talking to people about Alice and her connections to the Minutemen. Based on his discoveries, Barnes began to fear he, too, may be killed or his hand-built home in Lovilia bombed.
A Des Moines Register article dated Aug. 17, 2013, said authorities interviewed more than 200 people in the case, but came up with nothing.
In July 2013, a Polk County sheriff’s office spokesman told the Register that the case remains open, but that no detectives are currently assigned to it, and most of the original investigative materials were destroyed in the 1993 floods.
Van Alstine’s classification on the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s Missing Person Information Clearinghouse is listed as involuntary, suggesting it was an abduction or kidnapping.
Alice Mae Barnes was born May 23, 1947, in Albia, Iowa in Monroe County to Howard E. and Marion (Wilson) Barnes.
She graduated from Albia High School in 1965 at the top of her class. According to the Des Moines Tribune, her former principal, Rolle Foster, said she was on the honor roll two years and “a very active student.”
Alice was described by others as highly intelligent, outgoing, very attractive and creative. As a child, she’d owned all kinds of pets, including a raccoon.
It was her love for animals that led Alice to enroll at Iowa State University after high school with plans to become a veterinarian. She dropped out after running out of money for tuition, but talked about illustrating a veterinarian textbook. She continued to dabble in art and poetry at the Indianola writer’s workshop.
She married Lee Harlow Andre in a Des Moines Mormon church on July 15, 1967, and they later reaffirmed their vows in Utah. They had four children, April, Lance, Crystal, and Erich. The couple divorced January 3, 1975.
She married Merlyn Everett Van Alstine the same day, January 3, 1975, and they divorced January 1, 1976.
Survivors included her parents and four children.
Her mother passed away in March 1980. Howard Barnes died in October 1986.
If you have any information regarding the unsolved disappearance and suspected murder of Alice Van Alstine, please contact Det. Tim Hopper at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office at (515) 286-3800 or the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010.