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Dennis Chaffee of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spent the weekend of July 16 – 17, 1983, at home with his 1-1/2-year-old twins — son Adam and daughter Maria — and on Monday, July 18, was to return them to their mother, Mary Hernandez, who resided in Marion, Iowa.
When Monday arrived, Chaffee didn’t answer his phone when Hernandez called, nor did he show up for work at Wilson Foods in Cedar Rapids where he’d been employed for the past 15 years.
Concerned, Hernandez called Chaffee’s parents, Harlon and Betty Chaffee, also of Cedar Rapids.
When the Chaffees went to investigate at 8:30 p.m., they found the toddlers, dirty and thirsty, but unharmed. Their son, however, lay at the bottom of the basement steps, dead from several gunshot wounds.
Chaffee, a 33-year-old Vietnam vet whom police described as “a kind of loner,” had been shot once in the arm and twice in the head with a small caliber weapon. The gun was not located at the scene.
The house sat back from the street and was surrounded by shrubbery, large trees and a fence. And though the two-story brick home was somewhat in disarray, police didn’t believe it had been burglarized. The door was found closed but unlocked.
After discovering their son’s body, the Chaffees took the children across the street to the home of Judy Ryan. Ryan cared for the twins for about an hour, at which time they were picked up and taken to Mercy Hospital for examination.
Hernandez picked up her children early Tuesday morning after an interview with Cedar Rapids detectives.
On Wednesday, July 20, 1983, Cedar Rapids police received a verbal autopsy report from Linn County Medical Examiner Dr. Percy Harris. Police, however, were tight-lipped, refusing to release autopsy details, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated July 21, 1983.
Assistant Chief James Barnes, who headed up the detective bureau, said in the same article he would not release any more details concerning the investigation.
“Releasing further information at this point in the investigation will not benefit us,” Barnes told the Gazette.
Despite ruling out burglary as a motive, Chaffee was known for collecting antiques.
An Oct. 9, 1983 Gazette article announcing Chaffee’s upcoming estate auction, scheduled for Sat., Oct. 15, 1983, listed a number of antique items including:
- A 1915 harpsichord
- Steubenville china
- 6 antique typewriters
- 4-6 wash boards
- A Packard pump organ
- Edison cylinder records
- A 5-section brass telescope
- Numerous advertising tins
- A Globe (Victor Tellurian – 1882)
- An antique Wurlitzer lighted-speaker
- Sears pot-belly stove
- Minnie/Mickey Mouse cookie jars
- Dutch Boy and pig cookie jars
- Numerous pieces of Depression era glass
- and many other antique items.
Musical instruments listed for auctioning included 3 cornets with cases, 3 clarinets with cases, an alto saxophone with case, a Cleveland trombone with case, baritone with case, 4 string banjos, a ukelele, 2 Fiddle-ettes, 3 guitars and 2 electric guitars, a drum set and bongo drums.
Other items reflected his dedication to spending time with his children: a child’s swing set, assorted fishing poles, 5 sleds, 4 pair of snow skis, a small toboggan, and a wooden plane.
More than three decades after Chaffee’s murder, his twins, Adam and Maria, remain committed to finding answers to questions they still have about his untimely death.
No one has ever been charged in Dennis Chaffee’s murder and his case remains unsolved.
Dennis Wayne Chaffee was born September 15, 1949, in Cedar Rapids to Harlon E. and Betty L. Chaffee.
He had been employed by Wilson Foods for the past 15 years and was a member of Salen United Methodist Church and the United Food and Commercial Workers AfL-CIO Local P-3.
He served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
He was survived by his parents, Harlon E. and Betty L. Chaffee of Cedar Rapids; twin children, Adam and Maria, at home; two brothers, Jack L. of Radcliffe, Ky., and Milo M. of Eyota, Minn.; and a grandmother, Mrs. Ted Hoover of Robins.
Services were held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, 1983, at Turner Chapel East by the Rev. Paul Hasel of Salem United Methodist Church, with burial at Cedar Memorial Park Cemetery.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department currently has two Cold Case Unit volunteer investigators who work exclusively on unsolved homicides. These investigators work closely with other investigators from both the Cedar Rapids Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.
The current investigator assigned to the Cold Case Unit is J.D. Smith, a retired Agent for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
If you have any information about Dennis Chaffee’s unsolved murder please call the Cold Case Unit at (319) 286-5919 or email Investigator J.D. Smith.