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On Thursday morning, October 15, 1964, Dixie Lynne Eberly, 13 months old, and her 3-year-old sister, Denise Diane Eberly, died after an arson fire in the family’s rural New Market, Iowa home in Taylor County.
Officials said 13-month-old Dixie burned alive in her crib. Denise died of smoke inhalation a short time later at the Municipal Hospital.
The girls were the daughters of Clara “Ruth” Eberly and John “Leroy” Eberly.
Two other children, Rickie, 4, and Otis, 2, were hospitalized after being rescued from the front of the house. A fifth child, Larry, was in kindergarten class in New Market — a small town with only 506 residents — when the fire broke out.
The state fire marshal arrived Thursday afternoon to investigate and ordered the home be closed; the fire had burned several holes through the roof and left no room undamaged.
That same night, Ruth Eberly gave birth to the couple’s sixth child, a boy they named John Leroy.
According to a Clarinda Herald Journal article dated Oct. 15, 1964, Mrs. Eberly was at a neighbor’s house when another neighbor discovered the fire.
Sometime just after 9 a.m., Mrs. Orval Ridnour saw smoke swirling around the eaves at the back of the Eberly’s house. Thinking it might be a bonfire, she walked over to the house and discovered smoke coming from under the entire roof.
Ridnour couldn’t get the front door open and found the back door engulfed in flames.
Firemen brought the three older children, Rickie, Denise and Otis, from a front room where they’d taken refuge.
They found baby Dixie’s crib in the dining room, the same room in which investigators would later determine someone set the fire.
The girls’ bodies were taken to the Walker Funeral Home for identification and autopsies.
Leroy and Ruth Eberly had lived in New Market about five years and were well known throughout their rural community.
Leroy Eberly, originally from Villisca, Iowa, worked as a road worker for Page County and had served his country as a soldier with the United States Army during the Korean War.
Ruth (Brown) Eberly, who’d grown up in Corning, Iowa, stayed at home with the couple’s five children.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, the family held a single memorial service for both girls at the Walker Funeral Home.
As of Monday, Oct. 19, both Rickie and Otis Eberly remained under care at the Clarinda Municipal Hospital, while state and county officials worked together to determine what caused the fatal blaze.
County employees with whom Mr. Eberly worked contributed to a fund held for the family in a Clarinda bank.
Just over one week after the fire, the hospital released Rickie and Otis Eberly on Friday, Oct. 23, 1964.
A “Card of Thanks” ran in the Clarinda Herald Journal on Monday, Nov. 16, 1964, which stated:
WE ARE so grateful for the help of friends during our recent loss of our children and for the care of those at the Clarinda Municipal hospital.
— Mr. and Mrs. Leroy Eberly
Mr. and Mrs. Roy Eberly
Once fire officials and detectives classified the fire as arson, they began checking into the Eberly family’s history.
On Sunday, April 12, 1964 — six months prior to the girls’ deaths — Dixie Eberly, then 7 months old, and Otis Ray Eberly, 19 months, were admitted to the Municipal Hospital in need of medical services, according to a Clarinda Herald Journal article published Monday, April 13, 1964. Both young children spent two nights in the hospital before being released April 14, the Journal reported April 16, 1964.
Approximately one month before her death, Dixie had been admitted to the hospital again and released Sept. 17, 1964.
Three days later, her parents were “out-of-town guests” at the Sept. 20 wedding of Marilyn Parrott and Martin D. Walker, the Journal reported Oct. 1, 1964.
Officials ruled out Leroy Eberly as a suspect in his daughters’ deaths; he’d gone to work earlier that morning and wasn’t present when the fire broke out.
Based on the children’s previous injuries and because they’d — like the fire — always occurred while under Ruth Eberly’s sole care, the State of Iowa determined the remaining four children, Larry, Rickie, Otis and baby John, should be taken from the Eberlys and placed in foster care and put up for adoption.
Leroy Eberly filed for divorce from Ruth, hoping to reclaim his children. The couple’s divorce was finalized March 16, 1965, less than five months after Dixie and Denise’s deaths.
The state refused to return Leroy’s children. He wouldn’t be allowed to see any of his children, children’s services said, until they turned 18 years old.
He grieved deeply over having lost all his six children in a matter of months.
Ten years after divorcing Ruth, Leroy Eberly married widow Helen (Hewitt) Hanson on May 24, 1975. Helen loved sewing baby quilts, crocheting, and enjoyed reading as well as writing. She passed away in March 2010 at age 85.
Ruth Eberly also remarried. She married Kenneth Newbrey in Grand Island, Neb., on June 23, 1995. She lived in Creston and died March 17, 2009, at her aunt’s home near Greenfield, with burial in the Quincy Cemetery.
Her obituary at tributes.com said she was preceded in death by son Otis Ray (Eberly) Fraizer, and two daughters: Denise Diana Eberly and Dixie Lynn Eberly.
The obituary made no mention of Ruth’s three living children.
The more Leroy Eberly aged, the more he ruminated about his two little girls’ senseless deaths and how he’d been cheated out of raising his other four children. He, too, had become a victim.
He frequented a local café, where he often shared his thoughts with café employee Lorrie Murphy.
“Everyone knows my [first] wife did it, but there’s not enough proof,” he told Murphy about his young daughters’ unsolved murders. He’d been able to track down three of his four other children, he said.
A Red Oak Express article dated Tuesday, April 9, 2013, announced an open house celebrating John Leroy Eberly’s 80th birthday — hosted by his children at the Villisca Community Center from 1:30-4 p.m. April 13, 2013. Those unable to attend were encouraged to send greetings and good wishes to Eberly’s 715 E. High St. Villisca home.
Otis Ray — who’d been only 2 years old when taken away from his parents — had been given a new name, Kenneth Otis Frese, and passed away April 1, 2003 at age 40.
Five months after his 80th birthday, Leroy Eberly passed away Sept. 15, 2013 at the Villisca Good Samaritan Society. In addition to his three surviving children, he left behind 27 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren.
According to his obituary, John Leroy Eberly was born to Ray Martin and Onieda Bell (Beery) Eberly on April 10, 1933 in Taylor County, Iowa, and served his country as a soldier with the United States Army during the Korean War. He worked for the City of Villisca for 15 years and for Montgomery County for another 15 years. He retired from Eaton’s after 15 years as a forklift operator in the Transmission Division.
A lifelong Villisca resident and member of the Mt. Calvary Lutheran church, he enjoyed watching old western movies and was an avid John Deere collector.
He married Helen Pauline (Hewitt) Hanson on May 24, 1975 at the Kuntz Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Helen passed away March 15, 2010 in Omaha at age 85. Her obituary mentioned the passing of her step-daughters, Denise and Dixie Eberly, and referenced her surviving husband, Leroy Eberly, of Villisca. The paper noted other survivors as step-sons Larry (Melissa) Eberly of Cherokee, John (Wendy) Flanscha of North Liberty, and Rick Bunge of Texas.
Leroy Eberly was preceded in death by his parents Ray and Onieda; first wife Ruth; second wife Helen; daughters: Denise Diane and Dixie Lynne; son Kenneth Otis Frese; step-daughter Judy Hanson; and brother-in-law Darwin Snyder.
Survivors included his children: Larry (Melissa) Eberly of Cherokee, IA; Rick Bunge of Texas; John (Wendy) Flanscha of North Liberty, IA; his step-children: Gloria (Denny) Mascher of Farragut, IA; Galen Hanson of Omaha, NE; Barb (Del) Kruse of Des Moines, IA; Bonnie (Chuck) Clark of Omaha, NE; Jerri (Mark) Otto of Gretna, NE; Janice (Bob) Roach of Moore, OK; Jacque (Bill) Fisher of Springerville, AZ; Paul (Diana) Hanson of Omaha, NE; brother Rex (Janice) Eberly of Corning, IA; sister Linda Snyder of Corning, IA; aunt Anna Miller of Villisca, IA; daughter-in-law Barbara Frese of North English, IA; friend of the family Keith Hammers of Villisca, IA; special friend Barbara Roberts of Villisca, IA; 27 grandchildren, 49 great-grandchildren, and many extended relatives and friends.
Memorial services for Leroy were held at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, September 18, at the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Villisca, with visitation scheduled for one hour before the services and with Wolfe Funeral Home in charge of arrangements. Burial followed at the Butler Cemetery in rural Shambaugh, Iowa. Family members, friends, and area residents then gathered for a luncheon in the church basement.
Family members suggested memorials be made to the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Villisca, the Villisca Fire Department or the Villisca American Legion.
Denise Diane Eberly was born March 8, 1961, in Clarinda to John Leroy and Clara “Ruth” (Brown) Eberly. She died Oct. 15, 1964, at age of 3 years, 7 months and 7 days.
Dixie Lynne Eberly was born in Clarinda Aug. 31, 1963. She died Oct. 15, 1964, at the age of 1 year, 1 month and 15 days.
Survivors included the girls’ parents, Leroy and Ruth Eberly of New Market, Iowa; four brothers, Larry Dean, 6, Ricky Gene, 4, Otis Ray, 2, and John Leroy Jr. born Oct. 15, 1964; grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Otis Brown of Corning, Iowa and Mr. and Mrs. Ray Eberly of Villisca, Iowa; and many aunts and uncles, all of whom grieved the young girls’ tragic deaths.
Memorial services for both Denise and Dixie were held Oct. 17, 1964 at Walker Funeral Home with the Rev. C.D. Uetzmann of St. John’s Lutheran Church officiating, with interment following in Butler Cemetery in rural Shambaugh, Page County.
If you have any information about this unsolved double homicide, please contact the New Market Police Department at (603) 659-8404.
JOHN LEROY EBERLY, “Leroy,” b Apr. 10, 1933, Polk Twp., Taylor Co. Iowa;
McMullen rural Sch., Taylor Co.; emp. City of Villisca; Lutheran, Clarinda; PFC
Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., 6 Mo., Ft. Bragg, N. Carolina 18 Mo.; ad Villisca, Iowa;
m (1) Aug. 1957, New Market, Iowa (div. Mar. 16, 1965), RUTH BROWN; m (2) May
24, 1975, Omaha, Nebr. (Memorial Lutheran), HELEN PAULINE HEWITT HANSON, b Feb. 13, 1925, Thayer, Iowa (da Bert and Celia (Bowen) Hewitt); 8 gd. Talmage, Iowa,
1 yr. Thayer H.S., training in child care, Omaha; Lived Denver, Colo., San
Diego, Calif., Madison, So. Dak.; 1965-75 child care through the Social Welfare
Services, Omaha, Nebr.; Prince of Peace Lutheran, Ralston, Nebr.
1. Larry Eberly, b Apr. 23, 1958.
2. Ricky Eberly, b Dec. 17, 1959.
3. Dennise [sic] D. Eberly, b Mar. 8, 1961, Clarinda, Iowa; d Oct. 15, 1964; home fire at New Market; bur. Butler Cem.
4. Otis Ray Eberly, b Sept. 5, 1962; named changed to Kenneth Otis Frese, d April 1, 2003, age 40, buried in South English Cemetery in Keokuk County
5. Dixie Lynn [sic] Eberly, b Aug. 31, 1963, Clarinda, Iowa; d Oct. 15, 1964; home fire at New Market; bur. Butler Cem.
6. John Leroy Eberly, b Oct. 15, 1964.