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Four-year-old Jessica Marie Altman found her mother’s dead body Saturday afternoon, Jan. 24, 1981, in the Fort Dodge apartment where the two lived together. Angela Marie Altman, 22, lay partially nude on the kitchen floor — stabbed and strangled.
When the child answered phone calls, she told the callers about her mother and said she’d been unable to wake her.
Altman’s sister arrived at the 215 S. 7th Street home, and police arrived shortly after 3 p.m. They estimated Altman had been dead somewhere between eight and 10 hours.
Officials couldn’t find a weapon used in the homicide, but found the 4-year-old girl unharmed. Altman had suffered multiple stab wounds to her abdomen in addition to being strangled.
The mother and daughter lived on the southwest edge of Fort Dodge’s business district in a second floor apartment. Altman had last been seen alive the evening of Jan. 23, 1981.
Webster County Medical Examiner Daniel Cole ruled cause of death as strangulation and blood loss caused by 20 stab wounds to Altman’s abdomen.
The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation assisted the Fort Dodge police and Webster County officials in the investigation, and the following day arrested and took 16-year-old Everett Dial into custody. They executed a search warrant on the teen’s nearby 413 S. 7th Street residence where he lived with his mother, Melvina Bell.
According to neighbors and family members, Altman and Dial had been romantically involved and Dial was allegedly abusive.
The youth was charged Monday, January 26, with first-degree murder in Altman’s death, with a detention hearing scheduled Tuesday in juvenile court to determine whether he would remain at the juvenile detention facility while awaiting trial or be released to his mother.
In a Des Moines Register article dated January 27, 1981, Webster County attorney Monty Fisher said the hearing would also determine if there was “probable cause that the juvenile committed a delinquent act.”
A juvenile court judge on Tuesday ruled that Dial would remain in juvenile detention.
Throughout the month of February, officials weighed competency issues and whether or not the probable cause hearing should be open or closed.
By March, based on evaluations performed on Dial at the North Central Mental Health Center, Juvenile Court Judge Francis Tierney ruled Dial posed no threat to the community and was not a flight risk, and freed Dial on his own recognizance.
Another suspect came under investigation, and though an acquaintance and his girlfriend had knowledge of the crime and told Iowa Cold Cases the suspect “killed the girl because she disrespected him,” the individual and his girlfriend refused to testify against the suspect because the suspect allegedly threatened to kill them if they did so.
The murder charges against Dial were dropped, and no one else has ever been charged with Altman’s murder.
Altman’s daughter Jessica was raised by her grandmother, Clarice Altman, and went on to serve in the United States Army before returning to school to become a registered nurse. In a July 29, 2012 interview with the Fort Dodge Messenger, Jessica, who lives in Tennessee, said she’d spent half her life trying to get answers about her mother’s death in what has turned out to be a frustrating quest — both with law enforcement and with her own family.
“I’ve talked to my grandma; she doesn’t really like to talk about it,” Jessica told Messenger reporter Barbara Wallace Hughes. “I guess I can understand. It might be easier for some people to try to forget.”
Jessica told Hughes she’d also tried talking to a couple of her uncles, but that “no one likes to talk about it. They just don’t.”
In January 2012, Jessica — accompanied by her mother’s former mentor, Cindy Henning — traveled to Fort Dodge to meet with local law enforcement. Cindy Henning had mentored Angela Altman through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program during some of the teenaged years Altman spent in Davenport.
Jessica said she came away from the meeting with law enforcement with mixed feelings.
“I still didn’t feel unless I constantly keep at them that they’re going to do anymore than has been done,” she told the Messenger.
Following the meeting, Jessica said she contacted the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Iowa Attorney General, the state ombudsman’s office and the commissioner of public safety.
“I want them to know I’ve been understanding,” she told Hughes in the interview. “I understand they’re maybe short staffed. I understand that you want to get things that have occurred recently taken care of. But I’ve kind of been brushed off for a long time.”
Henning, who still resides in the Quad Cities area, told the Messenger she hadn’t known Altman had been murdered until trying to reconnect with her online and finding news of the murder on the Iowa Cold Cases website. Henning reached out to Altman’s daughter, and the two have since stayed in touch on a regular basis.
Messenger reporter Hughes — in the second in a series of stories on Altman’s unsolved murder — published an article July 31, 2012, detailing the friendship Henning first had with Altman, and then, later, with Altman’s daughter, Jessica.
Since the two met in January 2012, Henning said she and Jessica talk every day or email the other through Facebook.
“We have not been apart. It was like an instant connection, like I’ve known her my whole life,” Henning told the Messenger.
Angela Altman had sent several photos of herself and her daughter to Henning, and many got lost when Henning’s basement flooded. She found two, however, which she passed along to Jessica. One of the photos had handwriting on the back side.
“That was the first time [Jessica] had ever seen her mother’s handwriting,” Henning told Hughes.
Altman’s unsolved murder was featured in newspapers across Iowa in August 2015 as part of the “Gone Cold: Examining Iowa’s Unsolved Murders” series — a year-long partnership between Iowa Cold Cases and the Iowa Newspaper Association, along with the organization’s participating newspapers.
See “Daughter holds out hope in 28-year-old murder of her mother,” published in the Newton Daily News by Barbara Wallace Hughes on August 25, 2015.
Angela Marie Altman was born July 30, 1958 in Meridian, Miss., and moved with her family to Fort Dodge when she was three months old.
She attended Pleasant Valley Elementary School and South Junior High School in Fort Dodge.
She gave birth to daughter Jessica Marie in September 1976.
Memorial services for Angela were held at 3 p.m. Sunday, January 31, 1981 at the Bruce Memorial Chapel with the Rev. Bessie Williams of the Mission Followers of Jesus Christ Church officiating.
Angela was laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery in Fort Dodge.
Survivors included her daughter, Jessica Marie Altman; her mother, Clarice J. Altman; brothers Larry, Danny, Jimmy and Michael Altman; and sisters Dianne Altman Hunter and Delores and JoAnna Altman.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Angela Altman’s murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI remains committed to resolving Iowa’s cold cases. The DCI will continue to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to the resolution of Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.