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Dennis Lee First, 64, died early Friday morning, May 11, 2007, after being stabbed and beaten at his efficiency apartment located at 2249 C St. SW, Apt. No. 5, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
According to Tammy Mims, assistant manager for the Hawthorne Hills Apartments, First had prostate cancer, didn’t have many visitors and lived on Social Security.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article published Monday, May 14, 2007, Mims said that when a friend called and asked her to check on First, she notified Robert Gross — a maintenance employee at the apartments — and asked him to go to First’s apartment.
Gross, who’d worked at the apartment complex for eight years, said he knocked several times on First’s door, and when no one answered, entered the residence at approximately 7:30 a.m.
Inside, he found First lying face up on the bed, feet on the floor.
“I saw him lying there and I just walked in about five steps and looked at his stomach to see if it was moving,” Gross told The Gazette. “It was not, and a dried trail of blood ran down his cheek from his mouth to the bed.”
Gross described First as a friendly man who caused no trouble, said hello to people and fed birds and squirrels.
Neighbor Curtis Padgett told The Gazette he sometimes rolled cigarettes for First and had last seen him Wednesday night.
“I was going to go knock on his door (Friday morning),” Padgett said in the May 14, 2007 article. “When I came out, they were carrying him away in a body bag.”
Mark Stender, one of First’s other neighbors, told the paper he’d visited First just briefly at noon on Thursday to check on him, and that he’d been fine at that time.
“And then all of the sudden they tell me he’s dead,” Stender said.
Cedar Rapids Police Lt. Kenneth Washburn said in a press release that an autopsy conducted Saturday, May 12, showed First died from loss of blood. Washburn didn’t go into further details about First’s injuries but said the death was being ruled a homicide.
First’s death certificate noted a cutting/stab wound to the right side of First’s neck and multiple blunt force injuries to his head and chest.
According to the medical examiner, First had bled to death in the 24 hours before his body had been found.
Evidence collected at the scene was sent to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s state crime lab in Ankeny for testing.
“He had a rough life,” First’s ex-wife, Christine Burmeister of Tipton, told The Gazette on Monday, May 14, for an article published Tuesday, May 15, 2007. “It’s hard to believe somebody … (would) stab him. He could hardly get around.”
First and Burmeister had two children; son Brad was born in 1963 and daughter Laura in 1965. In the 1970s, the couple lived in Olin in Jones County, where First worked as a purchasing agent at a Monticello steel company. He’d been living in Cedar Rapids since the couple’s 1981 divorce.
According to the Gazette, since May 1990, First had been arrested on charges of stealing from local businesses and for drunken driving. He’d also been accused of threatening a man from whom he rented a room.
Things didn’t get any better for First after his son was killed in a 1993 auto accident.
According to Linn County District Court documents published December 15, 1996, First, then 54 and living at 141 36th Ave. SW, was charged with second-offense drunken driving in connection with a March 1 arrest. First pleaded guilty to an amended charge of first-offense drunken driving. He was fined $500, given a 60-day suspended sentence and placed on probation.
First eventually lost touch with his daughter, ex-wife and other relatives, but had begun calling them again a few years prior to his death. He never asked them for anything, Burmeister said.
In the five months before First’s murder, police were called to his apartment on five separate occasions; the Gazette reported three calls were medically related and two for disturbances.
Despite her ex-husband’s earlier troubles with the law, Burmeister wondered why someone would want to kill him, particularly considering his bad health.
“He did not deserve to die like this,” she told The Gazette. “It’s senseless what they did to him.”
Lt. Washburn said in May 14 afternoon news briefing that police hoped evidence found at First’s apartment would help them catch the killer.
“We’re following up our leads and looking at DNA evidence,” Washburn said.
In late May 2007, Cedar Rapids police served five search warrants in the case, searching not only First’s apartment but that of Curtis Padgett, the man in Apt. 3 who’d said he sometimes rolled cigarettes for First. Police searched Padgett’s apartment twice and also searched Padgett himself.
In a Gazette article published May 24, 2007, Padgett said officers took his fingerprints and a DNA sample with a swab from inside his cheek. Police also took a pair of Padgett’s boots and other items from his apartment.
Additionally, officers searched 24-year-old Dan Shelton’s apartment — No. 7 — across the hall from where First lived, but didn’t take anything from Shelton’s home.
Padgett was the last known person to have seen 15-year-old Erin Kay Pospisil, who went missing from Cedar Rapids June 3, 2001.
Padgett, a friend of Erin’s older brother, told police in 2001 that he was leaving the Pospisil home the same time as Erin and agreed to give her a ride to her friend Brit’s home. According to Padgett, when they arrived at Brit’s house, no one answered the door, and Padgett claimed that as Erin walked back to his truck, a black Chevrolet Cavalier with tinted rear windows pulled up to the curb. He said Erin went up to the car and had a short conversation with someone, and then told him “These guys will give me a ride” before getting into the Cavalier’s back seat.
Police could find no other witnesses to substantiate Padgett’s story about a black Cavalier in the neighborhood, and Pospisil hasn’t been seen since leaving her home with Padgett.
Both cases remain open and no one has ever been arrested in Dennis First’s murder or Erin Pospisil’s unsolved disappearance.
Dennis Lee First was born September 11, 1942, the son of Millard and Elvera (Juehring) First. On June 17, 1962, Dennis and Christine Griffin were united in marriage until they divorced in 1981. Together they had two children, Brad and Laura.
Survivors included his daughter, Laura and husband, Devin Schroeder, and their two children, MacKenzie and Mitchell; grandchildren, Jacob First, Ross First and Jessica First; two great-granddaughters; and his ex-wife, Christine (Ken) Burmeister.
He was preceded in death by his son, Brad, in 1993; his parents; and an infant sister.
Funeral arrangements were made through Fry Funeral Home in Tipton. At First’s own request, no services were held.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette obituary dated May 14, 2007, First’s daughter said her father’s ashes would be laid to rest in a place that meant the most to him. She also wrote:
Although there were many obstacles over the years keeping us apart, a father’s love for his daughter and a daughter’s love for her father never falters. May you now be in peace, dad.
If you have any information about Dennis First’s unsolved slaying, please contact the Cedar Rapids Police Department at (319) 286-5400.