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On Tuesday, August 9, 1977, Mary White of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, filed a missing persons report with the Cedar Rapids Police Department regarding the disappearance of her son, Dennis Stastny, 30. Two days later, Stastny’s body was pulled from the Cedar River near downtown Cedar Rapids after two young fishermen, Steve Halsor, 16, and John Braumann, 15, discovered the body in the west spillway near the F Avenue bridge about 11 a.m.
According to an autopsy report by Linn County Medical Examiner Dr. Percy Harris, Stastny — a Navy veteran who worked part-time as a shoe salesman — died from a “stab wound to the heart.”
Robert Bauer, 23, who shared an upstairs apartment with Stastny at 222 Tenth St. NW, discovered Stastny’s absence late Tuesday morning after finding a bloody hunting knife in Stastny’s bedroom and a trail of blood leading down the 15-foot hallway and out of the house. The blood stopped at the bottom of an outside staircase, though traces of blood were found on a tree outside the residence. A record album titled “Let it Bleed” was found on the floor in the apartment’s hallway outside Stastny’s room.
Bauer told police both he and Stastny were at home Monday night and had retired about 1:15 a.m. Tuesday. Stastny, whom Bauer had known for more than two years, slept in an adjoining room he’d rented from Bauer a month earlier.
Bauer said he discovered the blood in Stastny’s room after waking up Tuesday at about 11 a.m. Stastny’s boots were still next to his bed, and his cigarettes — which Bauer said Stastny always took with him — also were left behind.
Authorities found Stastny’s 1968 Pontiac still parked behind the house.
Then-Assistant Police Chief Jim Barnes originally believed the wound may have been self-inflicted and that someone later carried Stastny to the river and dumped the body, but said he was treating the case as a homicide.
There was some speculation the murder could have been drug related — Stastny had been arrested by police on a drug charge once previously — but officials reported finding only a small amount of marijuana and marijuana seeds when they searched the residence.
Barnes said he’d not eliminated the possibility of suicide, considering there was no sign of a struggle in Stastny’s bedroom where the bloody hunting knife and trail of blood were found.
The medical examiner disagreed with the suicide theory, saying he thought someone else had stabbed Stastny. “It would be very unlikely,” Harris said, for the wound “to have been self-inflicted.”
Stastny had no water in his lungs, and Barnes said it indicated Stastny “did not drown but was dead when he went into the river.” Barnes also said that if Stastny hadn’t died immediately after the wound was inflicted, that death would have had to occur shortly after.
“And he never could have made it the ten blocks to the river himself in that condition in that short of time,” Barnes said. “There had to be somebody who took him down to the river, and that’s the problem. Truthfully, we have no suspects.”
Bauer took and passed a polygraph (lie detector test). And though not considered suspects, police continued to look for two persons — identified only as black — who were seen at the house Tuesday, and five detectives worked the case full-time.
“I didn’t hear anything during the night,” Bauer said in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated August 14, 1977. “There were no yells. How could they have done that without some kind of noise?”
Bauer said the night before Stastny disappeared the two had stayed up late “just talking,” and had decided they would either go fishing near Coralville or maybe go over to Ellis Park and see what happening the next day. Bauer also said he didn’t know anyone who had it in for Stastny.
The last thing Bauer heard when he turned in was the sound of Stastny laughing, perhaps to himself, said Bauer.
Police didn’t release news of Stastny’s disappearance until the day his body was found, though gave no reason for not releasing the missing persons report Stastny’s mother had filed on Tuesday.
Not more than 12 to 14 hours after Stastny’s body was recovered from the river — while “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Murder by Death” played at area theaters and police had Bauer in protective custody — a break-in occurred at Stastny’s and Bauer’s apartment. Officials said it happened sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning.
Police arrested Ora James (Jimbo) Lewis, 20, of J Avenue NW, and Duane DeLaVergue, 15, of 615 H Avenue NW, in connection with the break-in. Taken from the apartment during the burglary was a .38 caliber handgun, a small amount of cash, and some “smaller things,” according to Bauer. Bauer told police he didn’t know either of the suspects.
A lifelong Cedar Rapids resident, Dennis L. Stastny was born June 15, 1947.
Survivors included his mother, Mary Louise White of Cedar Rapids, and a sister, Tonda Paulsen of Swisher.
Services were held Monday, Aug. 15, with burial at the Czech National cemetery. The Hanford Post of the American Legion conducted military honors, and afterwards presented the flag to Stastny’s mother, Mary.
On Sunday afternoon, September 4 — less than three weeks following her son’s funeral — Mary White, 51, was found dead on the living room floor in her Cedar Rapids home, her head resting on the military flag. Her son’s photo, as well as two photos of a grandson, lay beside her, along with notes she allegedly wrote for relatives on two large white envelopes.
“Dennis, I can’t live without you,” one note said, which also addressed a small amount of money White owed to some close friends. Investigators said the writing on the other envelope was hard to understand.
Authorities believed that White, who lived at 3000 J Street SW, took an overdose of prescription drugs. An empty bottle was found in the bathroom sink, and several white, water-soaked pills lay near the drain. One pill that hadn’t been damaged was taken for identification purposes, and police said the pills — believed to be Elavil — were from a prescription filled for White the previous February.
Born October 22, 1925, in Cedar Rapids, Mary White spent her entire life in the city and had worked as a waitress before retiring. In addition to her daughter, Mrs. White was survived by two sisters, Mrs. D.A. Jones and Mrs. Babe Miller, and two brothers, Frank and Don Stastny, all of Cedar Rapids, and one grandson.
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 Stastny’s unsolved murder please call the Cold Case Unit at (319) 286-5919 or email Investigator J.D. Smith.
Linn County Crime Stoppers accepts anonymous tips, and rewards for information may be available. Crime Stoppers may be reached at 1-800-CS-CRIME (319) 272-7463.