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On Saturday, April 17, 1954, two Des Moines youth fishing along a river bank spotted a body floating in the water and notified police.
Thomas Spagnola, 14, of 924 Second Avenue, and Harry Piagentini, 15, of 4200 S.E. Sixteenth Street, discovered the body caught in an obstruction near the Des Moines River’s west bank beneath the Court Avenue bridge.
The body, clothed in long underwear, a T-shirt and socks, was taken to Dunn’s Funeral Home where fingerprints were taken to establish the victim’s identity.
Polk County coroner Dr. Walter D. Anderson said the body had been in the water somewhere between 48 and 72 hours. Sanders had no water in his lungs, and Anderson ruled cause of death as a fractured skull and brain injuries, not drowning as was first believed. Sanders’ billfold also was missing.
“We are working on the theory that this is murder,” Detective Chief R.E. O’Brien said in a Des Moines Register article dated April 18, 1954.
Through fingerprints and family members, officials identified the body as that of Charles Edward Sanders, 67, who lived with his son, Carver Sanders, a justice of the peace, at 4321 E. Aurora Avenue.
Sanders, the Register reported, had been a semi-pro baseball pitcher for several Des Moines teams in the early 1900s. Most of his adult life, Sanders had worked as a house painter and paper-hanger.
Witnesses reported seeing Sanders in a tavern Thursday morning, and police speculated Sanders had subsequently become involved in a fight where he was was badly injured or killed before being thrown into the river.
The previous Christmas eve, Sanders had been seriously injured in a slugging in the city’s east side business district. An April 19, 1954 Register article said detectives quoted Sanders’ son-in-law, Curtis Walker of 1147 Oak Park Ave., as saying Sanders was knocked out in the 400 block of Sixth Avenue East and found in a nearby apartment by family members on Christmas day.
Walker said it took about a month for his father-in-law to recover from the head injury.
Detectives interviewed more than 20 “river front characters” in efforts to determine whether Sanders was involved in a fight before his death, but no one knew of any disputes.
Sanders’ granddaughter, Barbara Graves, described him to Iowa Cold Cases as a “cheerful and peaceable man, usually with a trademark — and mostly unlit — cigar clamped between his teeth.”
Charles Edward Sanders was born July 25, 1886 in Carlisle, Iowa to John Henry and Emily Jane Clement Baker Sanders. His sisters included Adelaide Dell and Nancy Belle, and half-sisters Cora Jane Baker and Minerva M. Baker. His brothers included Walter Forest Sanders and half-brothers Carver C. Sanders, James Elmer Baker, Lonzo G. Baker and Jerome M. Baker.
He married Mabel Leona Burk on June 19, 1910 in Knoxville, Iowa, in Marion County. The couple had eight children — four sons and four daughters.
In addition to his son Carver, Charles Sanders was survived by sons Donald of 3400 Ravina Drive and son Gerald of 5870 S.E. Nineteenth Street; and three daughters, Mrs. Lillian Walker of 1147 Oak Park Ave., Mrs. Betty Jean Graves of 3743 Bowdoin Ave., and Mrs. Pauline DuBois of Clive. He was preceded in death by his wife, Mabel, a son, Ronald, and daughter, Irene.
Charles Sanders was buried in Hamilton Cemetery in Hamilton, Iowa, in Marion County.
If you have any information about Charles Sanders’ unsolved murder please contact the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4864.