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Camille Njus, a 20-year-old Grinnell College student and Department of Transportation intern, was reported missing by her mother on August 5, 1978, after failing to return home for a weekend visit.
On Wednesday, October 18th — 74 days after her disappearance — a city employee discovered her partially clad body buried beneath some brush and logs near the Des Moines River in a deserted area known as the Flint Access.
Due to decomposition, an autopsy failed to determine cause of death but officials said they believed foul play was involved. The body was identified through dental records.
Dr. Dale Grunewalk, [then] deputy Polk County medical examiner, said Ms. Njus may have died August 4, the last day she was seen leaving a hair salon in northern Des Moines. Upon leaving the hair salon, Njus reportedly was on her way to the Des Moines Greyhound bus station to return home to Grinnell for the weekend, but never made it to the bus terminal. She was last seen near Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue.
During her Des Moines internship, Njus would stay with a friend of her mother’s Sunday through Thursday evening, and return home to Grinnell on Friday nights via Greyhound bus. She’d been intent on getting home that particular Friday, as her mother was scheduled for surgery the following Monday and Camille wanted to be with her over the weekend.
When Camille hadn’t arrived by Saturday morning, her parents frantically began calling their daughter’s close friends.
One of those individuals was Camille’s best friend, Gabrielle Rose.
Gabrielle had met Camille — “Cami” as she called her — a year earlier at the college, but they’d quickly developed a very close friendship.
Gabrielle said she found out something was amiss when Camille’s mother called her at her family’s home in Winnetka, Illinois, that Saturday morning. The Njus’s were hoping against hope, Gabrielle said, that Camille had suddenly decided to come visit her in Illinois instead of returning home to Grinnell. Camille had spent time there with Gabrielle’s family during the preceding winter break, and during the week-long visit, Gabrielle said her parents had come to adore Camille.
Though Gabrielle didn’t know where Camille might be, she cut her weekend visit short and returned to the campus to help facilitate communication with a German host family Camille knew. Njus had spent a year in Germany through a Rotary Club scholarship, and because Gabrielle spoke German, she agreed to speak to the host family with whom Camille had lived while in Germany.
Detectives also asked Gabrielle to list the names of boys Njus knew at Grinnell, though all were fairly quickly cleared of suspicion or having any knowledge of Njus’ whereabouts.
“I did inform the police, though, that the week before she went missing, Camille had called me and told me that she couldn’t tell me all the details now, over the phone, but that she had met an older guy,” Gabrielle said. “There was some kind of romance budding there.”
The information was, in fact, the first thing Gabrielle said she’d shared with Camille’s parents and the police once she learned her friend had gone missing.
Des Moines police continued to interview other Grinnell College students, all of whom were cleared.
On May 22, 1979, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that law officers seized a number of items from the residence of a 62-year-old man in connection with Njus’ slaying. Polk County District Court papers, the Gazette said, showed that officers searched the home of LeMar C. Toppenberg and seized from the residence a typewriter, an envelope containing what appeared to be human hair, a calendar, typing paper, two newspaper stories about Njus’ death and four newspaper pages with handwritten remarks.
Toppenberg, who served in WWII and died in 1989, was never charged with Njus’ murder.
Michael Leeper, the senior policy officer handling Des Moines’ missing adults at the time Njus went missing, said that of Des Moines’ 67 missing adults in 1978, Camille Njus was the only one found dead.
Camille Louise Njus was born May 13, 1958, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Olav and Jean Njus. She came to Grinnell, Iowa, with her family in 1974, and attended schools in Cedar Falls and Grinnell. She graduated from Grinnell High School in 1976, receiving honors for scholastic ability, music, prose, poetry, speech and drama. She played clarinet in the band and held several lead parts in musicals at Grinnell High School. She spent her final semester as a page in the Iowa Legislature.
Miss Njus also spent a year in Bielfeid, Germany, as a Grinnell Rotary Club foreign exchange student. She had spent the year before her death as a student at Grinnell College and was enrolled for the fall semester at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She had received a full scholarship to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, for the spring.
Funeral services were held at 11 a.m Saturday, October 21, at the Grinnell United Methodist Church with the Rev. James Russell officiating. Kathleen Heffner was organist, and pallbearers included Tom Anderson, Wayne Anderson, Ken Bryan, David Ferneau, Frank Ferneau and Gerald Ferneau.
Burial was at Maple Hill Cemetery in Montour (IA), Tama County, with the Smith Funeral Home in charge of arrangements.
Memorials in Camille’s name were to be directed to the Grinnell Rotary Club’s foreign exchange program.
Camille’s survivors included her mother and stepfather, James and Jean Letch Gould of Grinnell; her father, Olav Njus of Galesville, Wis.; a brother, Glen O. Njus of Iowa City; a sister, Mrs. J.H. Louis Ingles of Swansea, Mass.; a stepbrother, John P. Gould of Charles City; her maternal grandmother, Mrs. George (Effie) Letch of Grinnell; and her step-grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. R.J. Gould of Harlan.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Camille Njus’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 continues 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.
Anyone with information regarding Camille Njus’s unsolved murder is asked to contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Des Moines Police Department Detective Bureau at (515) 283-4864.