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On Sunday, Oct. 5, 1986 — just 15 days before her 25th birthday — Denease (Monson) Latham of What Cheer, Iowa, suffered blunt force trauma injuries to her head before coming to rest face-down in two feet of water beneath a bridge about a half mile north of Rose Hill in Mahaska County.
One of Latham’s young sons remembers the fight between his mother and father the last night he ever saw his mom alive. She’d taken off on her bicycle, he said, and his father, Robin Latham, later went after her.
His mother was found a few miles from their home, and the three young boys were told she’d run her bicycle into a guard rail on the bridge.
“But there was no blood on the guard rail, and the chain was missing off her bike,” Lorrie Murphy told Iowa Cold Cases (ICC) during a July 16, 2015 phone call.
Murphy’s daughter is now married to one of Denease Latham’s sons.
Few details about Latham’s mysterious death were available online at the time — the coroner had quickly ruled cause of death as drowning — but Murphy said neither the family nor Oskaloosa Sheriff Paul DeGeest were convinced foul play wasn’t involved.
Murphy said DeGeest had wanted to bring charges against the mortician at the funeral home, but that other officials blocked his efforts.
DeGeest, the first investigator on scene, went on to serve as Mahaska County Sheriff and spent three decades trying to bring closure to Latham’s family.
“The mortician allegedly washed the body and destroyed all the victim’s clothing before county officials or investigators could see the body,” Murphy told ICC’s Jody Ewing during the July 2015 phone call.
Latham’s son, Josh, told ICC in September 2016 that the mortician removed his mother’s body from the crime scene and was supposed to transport the body to the state coroner’s office for examination.
“Before transporting her he took her to his funeral home and cleaned her, destroyed her clothes, and embalmed her before transporting her,” Josh said.
Murphy cited the years Latham’s husband spent in and out of Iowa prisons on drug charges, and told ICC that Robin Latham continued to deal drugs in an east-central Nebraska city.
Iowa Court Online proved Murphy’s allegations to be true.
Murphy also said that the day her [then-future] son-in-law turned 6 years old, his dad gave him a box of rocks for his birthday and told him that’s all he deserved.
It got worse.
That same son vividly recalled his 16th birthday a decade after his mother’s suspicious murder. He awoke, he said, with a handgun held to his head while his father ordered him out of the house.
Josh Latham credited DeGeest for working so hard over the years to try to close the three-decades-old crime.
“He knows more than anyone,” he said, and “has helped me as much as he can…”
DeGeest still hasn’t given up.
In an Oskaloosa Herald story dated Feb. 19, 2018, DeGeest recalled what transpired early that Sunday morning in 1986.
“A lady out walking came across a body lying in a pool of water under a small bridge around 8 a.m.,” he told Oskaloosa Herald staff writer Shelly Ragen.
DeGeest said he saw the bicycle on the bridge and the female lying face down in the water below, as did then-Sheriff Joe Beal, who also came out to the scene.
DeGeest said they took a lot of photos, and, from first impressions, both believed it was a terrible accident.
Law enforcement reports showed that Latham spent part of the previous evening, Saturday, Oct. 4, at the West End Tavern in Rose Hill. She then went with her husband and a few others to an “after party” at the tavern owner’s home, the Oskaloosa Herald reported.
Reports in the case file also reflect a verbal argument between the Lathams at the party, leading Denease Latham to leave the house.
She allegedly wasn’t seen again until the next morning when a woman out for a morning walk came across the bicycle in the middle of the bridge and then noticed a body lying face down in the creek below.
The Feb. 19, 2018 story serves as a stark reminder that Denease Latham’s case has not been forgotten.
DeGeest has since retired but still feels the impact of what he called the “suspicious circumstances” involved.
“This case has haunted me. I have been able unlike many law enforcement to ‘not take things home with me at night.’ But this case… I would like to see it solved,” said DeGeest.
Sheriff Russell Van Renterghem said he is taking a look at the case too.
“We are actively looking into the case among others,” he said.
Whether it was an accident or something else, there are still people looking for answers.
Local law enforcement, retired and active, and especially the family are looking to resolve this case.
“The family really needs closure,” said Van Renterghem. He said there are currently no suspects but there are possible persons of interest.
~ The Oskaloosa Herald, Feb. 19, 2018
The Oskaloosa Herald said they will continue to explore this story.
Denease Monson was born October 20, 1961 to Wendell Leon and Verla Rae (Rose) Monson. Denease died under mysterious circumstances on October 5, 1986.
Survivors included her husband, Robin Latham; three sons, Jeremy, Joshua and Jason Latham; her parents; five sisters, Debra Rae Monson Maddox, Donna Lee Monson Booth, Diana Lynn Monson Grover, Dalena Monson Wareing, Deana Marie Monson Burnett; a brother, Darin Leon Monson; and many other loving family members.
Denease was laid to rest in the Confidence Cemetery in Confidence, Iowa, in Wayne County.
Denease’s father passed away in August 2002 and her mother died in March 2006 — neither having ever seen justice served in their daughter’s death.
If you have any information about Denease Latham’s death please contact Mahaska County Sheriff Russell Van Renterghem at (641) 673-4322.