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Donald Amos Nervig, a 52-year-old businessman who resided at 1331 Mattern Ave. in Des Moines, went missing Tuesday night, December 14, 1965, at about 9 p.m.
More than a month later on Wednesday, January 26, 1966, two young boys out sledding discovered Nervig’s frozen body in an ice and snow-bound gully five miles northwest of Des Moines just off N.W. Sixth Drive.
Polk County medical examiner Dr. Leo D. Luka said cause of death was a skull fracture resulting from a blow to the back of the head by a heavy instrument.
Nervig had been dragged through a five-strand barbed wire fence — located between the road the gully — before being dumped in the 20-foot-deep gully.
No traces of alcohol or food were found during an analysis of Nervig’s stomach and blood, which Luka said indicated Nervig was alive for at least 10 to 12 hours after he was last seen, putting his death at sometime in the early morning hours on December 15, 1965.
“Foul play is the cause of death,” Luka said.
Nervig’s wife, Stella Nervig, reported her husband missing December 15 and said it was unusual for him to not come home. Police told her to wait a little bit longer and that perhaps her husband would turn up. After calling several friends and acquaintances, Mrs. Nervig discovered her husband had been at Chuck’s Pizza House at 3610 Sixth avenue on Tuesday night. She returned to the police station Friday morning, December 17, to report her findings.
Nervig’s murder investigation was led by Omar Beardsley, chief of the Polk County Sheriff Office’s investigations division, and Polk County Sheriff Wilbur T. Hildreth.
What really happened to Don Nervig? Did another Iowa man take the answer to his own grave?
On Tuesday, December 14, 1965, Nervig, co-owner of Nervig & Avila Speedometer & Electrical Service at 814 Keosauqua Way in Des Moines, received a telephone call from a friend shortly after noon. Nervig told his friend he planned to go home and take a hot bath for his arthritis and “just relax.”
According to Detective Chief Cleatus M. Leaming, Nervig left work Tuesday afternoon carrying approximately $340; about $300 was in cash and checks from business receipts, with the rest what Nervig carried in his pockets.
Instead of going home, Nervig went to the Executive Lounge at 605 Seventh Street, where he met, for the first time, 26-year-old Ronald Leroy Kyger of 2930 Tiffin Avenue. Kyger, a loan company official, and Nervig engaged in conversation and had several drinks. The two later left together to go get pizza, and Nervig was seen staggering at the pizza restaurant around 9 p.m. Nervig and Kyger left the restaurant sometime between 9 and 9:15 p.m.
Kyger did not report for work at the loan company the following day, though he did go in on Thursday.
Kyger was brought in for questioning on Saturday, December 18. He told police Nervig had no money bag on him and very little money on his person, and that Nervig actually “more or less invited himself along when I went for pizza.” The two left in Kyger’s car, Kyger said, and went to Chuck’s Pizza House.
After they left the restaurant, Kyger said Nervig began to criticize the way Kyger drove, and that Nervig then reached over and turned off the ignition key to Kyger’s vehicle. Kyger said he hit Nervig with his hand and then let Nervig out of the car near the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. plant on Second avenue between Hoffman road and Broadway, just north of the city limits. Kyger told police he left Nervig on his hands and knees on the shoulder of Second avenue.
Police established the time as about 9:15 p.m. because Kyger picked up his wife at the Hyperion Field Club at 9:45 p.m. The temperature at the time was 32 degrees, and continued to fall overnight. Temperatures on Wednesday remained below freezing.
Kyger volunteered to submit to a lie detector test, which Des Moines police administered. Authorities said the polygraph tended to substantiate Kyger’s account of what happened the night of December 14.
On January 9, 1966, about 150 people participated in a search party for Nervig organized by family friend Floyd Gabbert. Boy scouts, law enforcement officials, firemen and volunteers began searching at 8 a.m. — the temperature at five below zero — near the area where Nervig was last reported as being seen alive. The group scoured the area until 4 p.m.
“We split into five groups,” Gabbert told the Register in an article dated January 9, 1966. “We covered an area from the Des Moines River to E. Fourteenth street, and from Broadway avenue north to and including the Margo Frankel Woods State Park.”
No trace of Nervig was found, but Gabbert remained hopeful. “I think there’s a real hope that the man may still be alive,” he told the Register.
On January 18, Ronald Kyger entered Iowa Lutheran Hospital for treatment of a blood ailment, where he remained until January 30. He would later be discharged from the loan firm, in part due to his connection with Nervig’s murder case.
On Wednesday, January 26, two young boys stumbled upon a man’s body in a wooded gully between N.W. Sixth drive and N.W. Sixteenth street where the two roads met. The Register reported on January 27, 1966:
Michael Dale Howell, 13, son of Mrs. Elizabeth Howell, 7720 N.W. Sixteenth st., and Stephen Lawrence Bacon, 12, son of Mrs. and Mrs. George Bacon, 7725 N.W. Sixteenth st., told authorities they tripped on the snow-covered body as they were pulling their sleds up the gully, shortly after 5 p.m.
The man was missing a shoe, and a brown tweed sports jacket lay along a fence next to N.W. Sixth drive about 50 feet from the body. The body, clad in brown work clothes, had the words “Nervig and Avila” sewn over one shirt pocket.
The body was about five miles from where Nervig was last seen, even though officials reported Nervig was unable to walk long distances because of his heart trouble and arthritic condition.
Volunteers from the Saylor Township Fire Department used axes to free Nervig’s body, which was frozen in ice at the bottom of the gully. While they worked, the volunteers discovered traces of blood in the ice.
The body was taken to Dahlstrom’s Funeral Home, and medical examiner Luka said a search of the clothing could not be made until the ice melted from the body.
The body was found on the property of Charles Warren of 7390 N.W. Sixteenth street. Warren told the Register area residents had done some searching along the road for Nervig shortly after he disappeared. The body was found about 200 feet from Warren’s home and about 50 feet from an old barn.
According to Sheriff Hildreth, the body had been in the gully since before the freezing weather started in early January. The body also had been there before any major snowfalls; Des Moines received less than three total inches of snow before Christmas 1965, and all of it had melted by January.
Though authorities tentatively identified the body as that of Nervig, an autopsy was scheduled for the following day.
The Register reported on January 29 that Nervig’s death apparently was not due to natural causes. Reporter David Eastman wrote that the $340 Nevig was said to be carrying was not found on his body when searched Friday, although Nervig’s billfold, containing $7, was found in his pockets. A check for $31 was also found, payable to Nervig.
Further tests were being done on tissue samples taken from Nervig’s body before any results as to exact cause of death would be announced, the paper said. The results were expected to take up to a week.
“If it is murder, we’ll have to get together and find out what we have, and do a little back-tracking,” Eastman quoted County attorney Ray Fenton as saying.
Saturday afternoon, January 29, authorities announced Nervig had in fact sustained a severe blow to the head, and cause of death was ruled as a homicide.
That same day, officials impounded Ronald Kyger’s car for a thorough examination by identification experts.
Donald Nervig’s death was apparently caused by a blow to the back of head, “such as might be made by a ball peen hammer,” Hildreth is quoted as saying in a Register article dated February 1, 1966. Nervig was alive at least 10 or 12 hours after he was last seen, Hildreth also said.
Hildreth told the Register clues were few in Nervig’s case, and that sheriff’s deputies and Des Moines police found “a woman’s shoe and a man’s billfold along Sixth avenue north of the city, some distance from the gully.” Hildreth didn’t believe either of the items had any connection to Nervig’s murder.
Neither the bank bag nor Nervig’s glasses had been located, nor had the $40 or $50 Nervig supposedly carried in his billfold, Hildreth said.
By Sunday, February 6, 1966, two days of mild weather had thinned Des Moines’ snow cover, and Polk County Deputy Sheriff Eldon Lewis decided to take another look around the area where Nervig’s body was found.
His efforts paid off. Lewis discovered not only the bank bag — which contained $279 in checks and $26 in cash — but also Nervig’s glasses. The items were found around 1 p.m. on a road near the gully, and officials said finding the bag cast doubt on the previous theory that robbery had been the motive in Nervig’s death.
Also found was a partially smoked cigar, which investigators believe belonged to Nervig. Hildreth said additional items were also recovered, but wouldn’t reveal what those items were.
Kyger’s attorney refused to allow investigators to question his client any further.
Police still wonder: how did Nervig’s body get to the creek bed? What weapon was used to strike the fatal blow?
In a Register article dated March 10, 1966, Dr. Luka said Nervig most likely could have lived “only a matter of minutes” after the blow was struck, though said in rare instances, a person could have lived slightly longer.
The Register’s article stated:
Dr. Luka said the blow made a circular wound about an inch and a half across, and an inch and a half deep, in Nervig’s skull. There was evidence of brain damage, and some bleeding. Blood was found at the place where the body was found, and there were blood stains on Nervig’s clothes.
The weapon was a heavy instrument with a protrusion, Dr. Luka said, ruling out a tire iron or a club. Hildreth said he thought it was something which could be swung, such as a hammer or an ax.
Luka said Nervig was probably unconscious when the blow was struck.
County road crews and sheriff’s deputies combed the area around the gully but never located anything used as a weapon. Nor had they ever determined a motive. The Register reported that Nervig was a former member of Alcoholics Anonymous, but seldom had become unruly.
Also perplexing was the fact that Nervig’s body had already digested the food he’d allegedly eaten at the pizza restaurant, something Luka said was not possible after death. (Iowa Cold Cases could find no reports where witnesses stated they’d actually seen Nervig consume pizza or any other food the night he went missing.)
Where was Nervig from 9:15 p.m. that night up until the time of his murder? Police were unable to locate a single person who saw Nervig after the night of December 14.
Sheriff Hildreth told the Register his theory is that Nervig was killed somewhere other than at the gully, and that the body was then taken there and left. Nobody saw Nervig after 9 p.m. December 14, which Hildreth said leads him to believe the murder took place sometime the morning of the 15th.
And, though the fire department members who chopped Nervig’s body out of the ice admitted one blow struck the top of Nervig’s skull, Luka said the fatal blow to the back of Nervig’s skull — which resulted in brain damage and bleeding — was inflicted while Nervig was still alive so could not have been made by the firemen.
Ronald Leroy Kyger died in California in 1993 at age 54; Donald Nervig would have turned 53 exactly two weeks from the date he went missing.
Nervig’s murder remains unsolved.
Donald Amos Nervig was born December 28, 1912, near Humboldt, Iowa, to Sadie Nelson and Amos T. Nervig, Sr. He had one sister, Edith M. Nervig Hartung, and four brothers: Amos T. Jr., Thomas A., Irvin L., and Stanley M. Nervig.
Donald Nervig enlisted in the Army in 1944 and served in World War II. He and his wife Stella had three daughters, Carole, 19, and Donella, 16, at home, and Mrs. T.J. McGiverin of West Los Angeles, California. (Though one report states Mrs. T.J. McGiverin also lived in Des Moines.)
Memorial services were held at 1 p.m. on January 29, 1966 at Luther Memorial Church, with burial at Pine Hill Cemetery.