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On Saturday morning, Oct. 23, 1976, Debbie Rose Laubenthal, 18, of rural Bancroft and Raymond Morris Henkins, 30, Emmetsburg, were found shot to death on either side of Palo Alto County roadway B-19 near the intersection of N-60 two miles north of Depew, Iowa.
Farmer Clarence Berkland, who was picking corn in the vicinity when he stumbled upon the bodies, first thought it was a Halloween prank but summoned authorities after discovering both victims had been shot with a 45-caliber weapon.
Both victims suffered multiple wounds.
Debbie Laubenthal was a nursing student at Iowa Lakes Community College and in March 1976 participated in the Miss Shamrock Pageant in Emmetsburg. She was adopted by the Laubenthals in Sioux City, IA, and had lived in Bancroft all her life.
Henkins was born in Spring Valley, Ill., and had moved to Emmetsburg with his family as a small child. He had worked for Pocahontas Farm Management in the years prior to his death.
In an incident authorities considered might be related, Henkins had been shot at earlier when two shots were fired into his vehicle on October 17 while he drove south on Broadway. One bullet was recovered from his car door and sent to the BCI crime lab. [Then] Emmetsburg Chief of Police Dennis Goeders said it appeared that the shots fired into the Henkins car were of a different caliber than those that killed Laubenthal and Henkins.
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, 1976, Nile and Norma Jean Smith of Emmetsburg, both 23, were charged with murder in the slaying. Investigators said the Smiths had been with Henkins and Laubenthal — on Henkins’ and Laubenthal’s first date together — for at least part of the evening Oct. 22. Willard Henkins, Ray Henkins’ father, said the Smiths were going to drive Miss Laubenthal and Henkins to her home in Bancroft because Ray’s car was running low on gas.
The search of Smiths’ farm yielded 19 pieces of evidence which was sent to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation lab in Des Moines for analysis.
On Monday, Nov. 22, 1976, Nile and Norma Smith pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their trial originally was scheduled for Tuesday, Apr. 24, 1977, in Palo Alto County District Court in Emmetsburg. A change of venue later moved the trial to Dickinson County District Court in Spirit Lake. Another delay postponed the jury selection until Tuesday, June 7, 1977.
On Tues., June 14, 1977, opening arguments were heard and testimony began.
Palo Alto County Attorney Mike Neary and Mike Sheehy, an assistant Iowa Attorney General, prosecuted the case for the State of Iowa. James A. Andreasen of Algona served as presiding judge.
Lawrence Scalise of Des Moines headed a team of defense lawyers that also included Joseph Hanson and John Brown, both of Emmetsburg.
In his opening argument for the State, Mike Sheehy suggested to the jury that Norma Smith’s belief that Ray Henkins was responsible for the death of a young child of Norma’s was motive for the Henkins and Laubenthal slayings. Sheehy told jurors Henkins and Norma Smith had lived together in Kansas prior to Norma’s marriage to Nile Smith. Apparently, Henkins was home babysitting one day when the child fell down stairs and later died from injuries sustained in the fall. Smith’s motive for killing Henkins, Sheehy said, was revenge.
On Thursday, June 16, 1977, a witness testified that Raymond Henkins had an argument with a woman the night Henkins and Laubenthal were shot to death. Rick Kilan, 17, Henkins’ nephew of Emmetsburg, said Lucy Evans called Henkins out of a friend’s house and an argument ensued. In that same house were Debbie Laubenthal and Nile and Norma Smith. They’d all gone to the Emmetsburg home in order to watch a movie.
Once the movie ended, Neary said Henkins and Laubenthal left with the Smiths and another person; that individual was dropped off at his home.
Neary told the jury he believed the Smiths drove Henkins and Laubenthal to the country road and shot them.
After nine days of testimony by 76 witnesses, the State rested its case on Wednesday, June 29, 1977.
Defense Attorney Larry Scalise created a mild sensation in the courtroom on Friday, July 1, 1977, when a defense witness testified that a signature on a handgun purchase order that figured in the case matched the handwriting of Lucy Evans, a woman truck driver who witnesses said had threatened Henkins.
After three days of testimony by defense witnesses, Scalise rested the defense on Friday, July 1, 1977.
A seven man, five woman jury deliberated more than 22 hours over four days, and on Saturday, July 9, 1977, acquitted both Nile and Norma Jean Smith. One juror cited a “lack of evidence presented by the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
On Wednesday, May 30, 1979, the Iowa Appeal Board turned down four $4 million claims filed by Nile and Norma Smith against the state and eight state agents. By turning down the claims, the appeal board cleared the way for a lawsuit. The Smiths’ attorney said he had expected the board to deny the claims and said he intended to file suit in Palo Alto County District Court on behalf of the couple. The Smiths contended in their claim that after being acquitted, they had to move from Iowa because of threats and harassment.
Nearly 30 years after the case went cold, Palo Alto County authorities announced they were taking another look at the double homicide, hoping new DNA technology might help solve the crime.
Former Police Chief Dennis Goeders, who’d since been elected as Palo Alto County sheriff, the progress would depend on improved and updated laboratory technology and nationwide DNA databases that did not exist at the time of the murders.
“Somebody came forward with a little bit of information,” Goeders is quoted as saying in an AP story dated March 8, 2006.
Goeders declined to elaborate, but said investigators had begun reviewing all the evidence.
“We tried to think of what was different that we could do with it because of the new technologies,” he said. “We’ve resubmitted it to the lab with our new impressions on what we thought maybe should be checked on.”
In the 2006 article, Neary reaffirmed his belief that the Smiths were responsible for the murders.
“There was some evidence that tied the weapon that was used to being the weapon of Nile Smith’s,” Neary said. “The weapon was never found, but there were bullet casings.”
Despite the case being reviewed, Goeders said he was unclear where it would lead.
The murders remain unsolved.
Debbie Rose Laubenthal was born November 17, 1957, and adopted in Sioux City by James Harold and Rosella Mary (Hellman) Laubenthal.
She lived in Bancroft all her life.
She was buried in Saint Johns Cemetery in Bancroft, Kossuth County, Iowa.
Her father, James Laubenthal, died March 6, 2006.
Her mother, Rosella, passed away June 28, 2012.
Raymond Morris Henkins was born August 28, 1946, in Spring Valley (Bureau County) in Illinois.
He served as a Private with the US Marine Corps.
He was buried at Saint Johns Catholic Cemetery in Emmetsburg in Palo Alto County, Iowa.
Raymond was survived by his father, Willard W. Henkins, and a brother, Burton Merle Henkins.
Burton Henkins died six months later on May 9, 1977 in Humboldt County, Iowa.
Raymond’s father, Willard Henkins, passed away two years later on Sept. 5, 1979.
If you have any information about this unsolved double murder, please contact the Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office at 712-852-3535.