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Donna Sue Davis hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. The 21-month-old 21-pound blue-eyed girl with the mass of dark blond curly hair was the youngest of James (“Don”) and Mary Davis’s three children, and her three prized possessions included her teddy bear, a rubber doll and a red purse.
Eleven-year-old Mary Claire, the eldest of the siblings, had friends who resided in the same west side neighborhood in Sioux City, IA, and they often could be seen pushing strollers and buggies around the block with Donna Sue and the other girls’ young siblings in tow. Timothy, 7, also had ample playmates within safe walking distance from the family’s 715 Isabella Street home.
Everyone knew and loved Donna Sue, though seldom used her name. To them, she was simply “The Darling of the Neighborhood.”
In July 1955, life is still good along West 14th and 15th street and the intersecting Rebecca and Isabella streets, and half the summer still remains for riding bicycles and playing Army and swimming and girlfriend sleepovers, and even entertaining baby sisters and brothers while mothers work in gardens and hang fresh sheets to flap and dry in the wind.
But summer in this working class neighborhood — and life as all its residents know it — is about to change forever. The shift begins to emerge the night of July 9, when sirens awaken a city that will not know peaceful slumber for many years to come.
Rain has fallen since 9 p.m., and near 12 a.m. flood sirens puncture the midnight hours. While rain falls in torrents, a fire breaks out at a lumber company but fire trucks can’t navigate the water laden streets. Utility employees work throughout the night to restore electricity to Sioux City residents.
Dawn is about to break.
Sunday, July 10, 1955
Rain ends by early morning, and as water starts to recede city crews move forward with clean-up efforts.
The day’s temperatures soar into the 90s, bringing with them humidity’s heavy blanket. Though room air conditioners have grown in popularity since World War II’s end, costs are still prohibitive for many western Iowa families, whose usual reprieve amounts to nothing more than a cool bath and, hopefully, a nightly breeze through an open window. The Davis family has learned to weather the heat.
Sunday night, Mary Davis gives Donna Sue a bath, dresses her in pink pajamas, and about 9:30 p.m. tucks her into her crib for bed in the first-floor bedroom of the two-story duplex where the family has resided for many years. Donna Sue’s crib sits against the wall at the foot of the Davis’ bed, right next to a cedar chest positioned directly below the bedroom window.
“Three to get ready, and four to go . . . to bed,” Mary tells Donna Sue as she kisses her goodnight. The child is all set with her teddy bear, rubber doll and red purse within arm’s reach. With temperatures still in the 80s, the bedroom window is left open to capture any breeze.
In the kitchen, Mary sits down to read the day’s Sioux City Journal as her husband — a clerk for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway — watches television in the living room. In the next room, Mary Claire and Timothy are already fast asleep.
In the upstairs duplex, Mr. M.A. McLeod goes outside to sit on his upper porch balcony while his wife putters around in the couple’s bedroom.
On the corner just south of the Isabella Street duplex, George Berger sits in his back yard at 1301 Villa Avenue. His back yard faces the Davis home’s south side, and he often enjoys watching the Davis children and their neighborhood friends play together in the large lot between the two homes.
Something catches Mr. Berger’s eye. A man has just crossed through a hedge near the front of the Davis house and, walking quite erect, is heading west along the south side of the Davis’s home. Berger strains to see what the man is doing, but can’t see very well in the darkness and his vision also is obstructed by his own vehicle, which he parked in the driveway earlier that day.
A few minutes later he sees the man retrace his steps toward the street and head in a northerly direction. The man, however, now walks in a crouched, stooped position.
Mr. and Mrs. Laif Fjeldos, who live around the corner two houses away at 1310 West 14th Street, hear their dog Rex barking at the back door. Their back lot borders the Davis’s back lot, separated by mulberry and hackberry trees.
Mrs. Fjeldos gets up to let Rex inside and switches on her back yard light. Skulking along the alleyway, she sees a man who appears to be carrying some type of bundle. She immediately calls for her husband.
Mr. Fjeldos grabs a flashlight and shines it toward the man, who is now stooped over and hiding behind a bush. Mr. Fjeldos isn’t about to let this one get away, either; just two weeks before, Rex’s ferocious barking had alerted him to a young man tampering with the Fjeldos’ car, and Rex had held the man at bay while Fjeldos called police. Before police took the man into custody, Fjeldos had voiced a strong complaint about the “poor lighting” in the neighborhood.
This time, however, Fjeldos suspects the stranger might be carrying meat to poison Rex or other neighborhood dogs. He hands his wife the flashlight with instructions to keep it shining on the stranger while once again he calls police.
Sioux City police answer a call from a Mr. Laif Fjeldos, who tells them he has “a suspicious man cornered” and needs assistance. Before police can arrive, the man flees north through the alley and Fjeldos gives chase. Fjeldos chases the man across W. 14th Street and into the next alley, which leads north toward W. 15th. The man — described as about 31 years old with a slight build and wearing a white T-shirt and khaki trousers — runs awkwardly, still stooped over with the bundle. He appears to have something wrapped inside a blanket.
The man suddenly ducks between two bushes in the back yard of the home at 1417 Isabella Street. It is but one block from the Davis home, despite the jump from the 700-block to 1400-block addresses. Fjeldos approaches slowly, but by the time he reaches the bushes realizes the man has simply vanished.
Approximately 9:40 p.m.
Mr. Davis gets up to go to bed and check on Donna Sue. He doesn’t see her in her crib and thinks she’s hiding beneath the covers, but she isn’t there.
“Where’s Donna?” he hollers to his wife, and then sees that the bedroom screen has been removed. He immediately telephones police, unaware they’re already on their way to the neighborhood in response to Mr. Fjeldos’ call about the prowler.
Laif Fjeldos stands outside his home waiting for police to arrive and telling the gathering crowd of neighbors what he’s seen and how he chased the man up the alley toward 15th Street before losing him.
Suddenly, they hear Mary Davis screaming from inside her home. “My baby is gone! My baby is gone!” she wails, and then they hear sounds of crying as she pleads “Help … help … help.”
Running out the Leads
As more and more area residents gather outside to discover what the commotion is all about, Sioux City Police officers arrive on scene.
Mr. Berger tells police about the stranger he saw moving stealthily along the Davis home’s south side just a little while earlier.
Mr. and Mrs. McLeod from the upstairs Isabella street duplex state they didn’t see or hear anything unusual.
Several neighbors report having seen the man, but say they found it difficult to judge his height because he’d walked bent over while carrying something.
More than 25 neighbors go out searching in the vacant fields and houses in the vicinity. Mr. Davis, extremely distraught over his daughter’s disappearance, jumps into his car and begins to search the area on his own, but the surrounding roads are still muddy from the rains and he drives his car into a ditch and gets stuck. Friends come to his rescue to help him pull it out.
Relatives begin gathering at the Davis home to provide comfort and support. The Davises tell police there’s been no family trouble and they know of no one with a motive for wanting to kidnap Donna Sue.
Sioux City resident Sid Goldberg drives through the nearby town of Elk Point, South Dakota, and near a motel sees a man in a white T-shirt and khaki trousers standing on the road beside a black Chevrolet 2-door sedan with Nebraska license plates. The man in the T-shirt and khakis holds a baby in his arms, but Goldberg — unaware of what has transpired back in Sioux City — thinks nothing of it.
Mrs. Everett Hauswirth, who lives on the “Old Back Road” in South Sioux City, Nebraska, is startled by sounds of a vehicle either stopping outside on the gravel road or pulling into her driveway. A moment later she hears the car quickly accelerate and speed away.
Approximately 11 p.m.
Sid Goldberg is back on the road and listening to his radio. He hears the report about Donna Sue’s abduction and immediately stops to telephone Sioux City police. The Sioux City police notify Elk Point, S.D. police, who quickly converge at the same hotel Goldberg passed almost 90 minutes earlier. The Chevrolet sedan is gone, but Goldberg says he remembers the license plate number.
Sioux City police radio a detailed description of the man and child to law enforcement networks in Iowa, S.D. and Neb., and to taxicab companies whose cabs are equipped with two-way radios.
Police take Donna Sue’s bedroom screen and several other items to police headquarters to check for possible fingerprints.
Police follow up on the license plate number in hopes of discovering the owner and getting a lead, but nothing pans out. The Nebraska Motor Vehicle Bureau won’t be open until the following morning.
Sioux City Police Chief James O’Keefe is roused from bed to take charge of the search for Donna Sue and her kidnapper.
Capt. John Rispalje and detectives John Banys and Paul Brown are held over for extra duty in the investigation, as are several patrolmen.
Throughout the night, Sioux City police swarm over the city’s west side in search of any type of clue.
Monday, July 11, 1955
Early Monday morning at the Davis home, Capt. Rispalje explains that the FBI cannot be called in on the case until proof exists the abductor took Donna Sue across a state line or contacted the Davises asking for money or other consideration in exchange for Donna Sue’s return.
More detectives descend upon the neighborhood, talking with residents about the previous day’s and evening’s activities. They conduct a house to house check.
Three FBI officers from the Omaha Field Office arrive at the Davis home, stating they are there to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood. They unofficially associate themselves with the case in what they call a “consultatory capacity.”
A farmer reports to the Woodbury County Sheriff’s office that he heard a baby crying in a parked car on a road about three and one-half miles east of Highway 75, halfway between the nearby towns of Sergeant Bluff and Salix, Iowa. He says the car had Nebraska plates, and deputies go to investigate.
Just across the river in South Sioux City, Neb., Mrs. Ernest Oehlerking, 33, is in a festive mood. Today, one of her six daughters turns 11 years old, and she is getting ready to bake a cake while the girls are in town at a Girl Scouts camp. The birthday gifts are already wrapped.
As afternoon approaches, Chief O’Keefe appeals to all householders to check carefully for the possible presence of baby garments or a child’s clothing that might be a clue to the kidnapping.
Police officers report to an anxious public that a man with a bundle had been seen north of an alley near 14th and Nebraska streets. They say the man entered a garage in the vicinity, stayed a few minutes and then left the building.
They speculate the child may have been wrapped in a blanket the abductor carried with him elsewhere in the city, but state nothing has been taken from Donna Sue’s bedroom. Her teddy bear, rubber doll and red purse were all found inside her crib after she vanished.
The search party grows to include Air National Guardsmen, extra police and dozens more volunteers. The search extends from West Seventh Street to West 18th Street and along Perry Creek, and from West Eighth and Bluff Street West to Ross Street.
They find nothing.
Across the river in Nebraska, Ernest Oehlerking drives his tractor toward South Sioux City where he intends to buy oats. His nephew, 14-year-old Ronnie Oehlerking of Denver, rides behind the tractor in a wagon along with Ernie Reed and Harlan Haas — two locals who help out on the Oehlerking farm.
One-eighth of a mile north of his farmhouse and midway to Mrs. Everett Hauswirth’s home, Ernest Oehlerking notices something in a ditch. He goes to investigate and discovers the bottom half of a baby’s pink pajamas as well as a pair of rubber pants — the kind normally worn over a baby’s diaper.
He immediately turns around for home where he calls the police and tells his wife what he’s discovered.
Mrs. Ernest Oehlerking leaves right away for town to pick up her daughters from Girl Scout Camp. On her way home – based on what she later calls ‘women’s intuition’ – she stops at the home of her sister-in-law, Mrs. William Oehlerking (47 years old). The women set out in two cars to search for Donna Sue, both driving south on the Old Back Road. Mrs. William Oehlerking’s 13-year-old daughter chooses to ride with her aunt and six cousins (ranging in age from 18 mos. to 13 years), while Mrs. William Oehlerking drives alone.
It is a blistering 96 degrees outside.
The Oehlerking vehicles pass the Ernest Oehlerking farm and continue down the gravelled Old Back Road that leads from South Sioux City to Dakota City. A half-mile past the Oehlerking farm the girls suddenly scream, crying out that they’ve seen Donna Sue’s body. Mrs. Ernest Oehlerking comes to a stop and backs up.
Donna Sue Davis lies 15 feet west of the Old Back Road in the first row of a 40-acre cornfield. Her pink pajama top is wound around her neck. The corn is about waist high and there is little shade to cover her small body.
Donna Sue’s arms lie above her head. She could be sleeping if not for the blood and bruises and markings around her eyes.
Mrs. Ernest Oehlerking takes the girls home with her to call police while her sister-in-law stays with Donna Sue’s body. Mrs. William Oehlerking finds an old paper sack nearby, tears it up and covers the body.
Police arrive at the site. In South Sioux City, Chief of Police F.E. (Pete) Baumer notifies SCPD Identification Bureau Superintendent Harold Casey and the clothing is taken to the parents for identification.
Police hold three persons for questioning in the case.
South Sioux City and Sioux City police investigate the cornfield area where Donna Sue was found. Broken cornstalks indicate her body likely was thrown from a car.
Later that day, Dr. Thomas L. Coriden (Woodbury County coroner) and Dr. A.C. Starry, Sioux City pathologist, perform the autopsy. They conclude Donna Sue has been dead between 10-12 hours.
The child’s battered body has been raped, sodomized, and her left jaw broken. Numerous bruises populate her body, along with cigarette or cigarette lighter burns on her buttocks.
The coroners list cause of death as “massive brain hemorrhage resulting from a severe blow to the head” — also known as blunt force trauma to the head.
When the autopsy is finished, Donna Sue is transported to Sioux City’s Manning-O’Toole funeral home.
Dr. Coriden says blood types are are undergoing chemical studies in efforts to assist with the investigation.
Police discount reports they are seeking a 1941 model car. Dakota County Sheriff Tony Goodsell says he had directed the search for the vehicle after a hit-and-run accident in Dakota City about an hour after Donna Sue’s disappearance Sunday night. Evidence indicates there is no connection with the case, and police say they are investigating other leads.
Sioux City Journal reporter Bob Gunsolley is covering a city council meeting when news arrives that Donna Sue’s body has been found. Sioux City Mayor George Young begins to go “berserk” – ranting and screaming and cursing.
In South Sioux City, the Oehlerking families begin receiving phone calls from relatives in Beemer, Neb.; they’ve already heard the news on TV.
Tuesday, July 12, 1955
10:05 a.m. (approx.) State police in Pierre, S.D., receive a report that a truck driver has seen a man answering the description of the slayer a little after 10 a.m. on U.S. Highway 12 east and south of Selby, S.D. The trucker says the man was hitchhiking on the highway, which runs north and south through Selby.
Noon – Walworth County Sheriff Theodore Delbert says a thorough search in all directions from Selby failed to uncover any trace of a hitchhiker or man answering the killer’s description.
Police Identification Bureau experts check a collection of fingerprints found on a cedar chest under the window in the room where Donna Sue slept. Officials will check the prints against Donna Sue’s family members and nearby relatives.
Afternoon – Federal officers file a “John Doe Warrant” for the slayer, giving officers throughout the country the authorization to arrest and hold anyone suspected of the slaying.
The Sioux City Journal demands Sioux City be made “the most feared town in America for the sex deviate.”
The FBI pursues the case under the Lindbergh Act; the suspect, when caught, will be tried in federal district court in Sioux City and be eligible for the death penalty.
Six FBI agents — under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Joseph Thornton of Omaha’s FBI field office — take over the search for the slayer under terms of the Lindbergh kidnapping law.
Police and federal agents run down countless tips on the slayer’s whereabouts.
Dr. Coriden says chemical studies on blood types are in progress.
Sioux City police begin a citywide roundup of what they call ‘known sex perverts.’
The police, the Sioux City Journal and other information centers take calls from incensed residents all day long as an ugly mood surges throughout the community.
Wednesday, July 13, 1955
9:00 a.m. – Donna Sue’s funeral is held at Sioux City’s St. Boniface Catholic Church. A crowd of 350-400 people pass by the small white flower-covered casket. In the eulogy, Rev. Philip Koehler says Donna Sue has died in a defense of purity, and compared her killing to those of small Jewish boys in biblical times. She is now “to many hearts, St. Donna,” he says, and the mourners “might well pray to her rather than for her in order they might all be childlike.”
A FBI agent and several local detectives attend the funeral and mingle among the mourners on the chance the killer may have returned out of morbid curiosity.
Following the funeral, 40 cars accompany the body to Calvary Cemetery, where four young boys – David Madsen, Steven Stafford, Gary Manning and Thomas Walsted (ages 12 to 14) – carry the casket to its resting place on a green hilltop.
Iowa Governor Leo A. Hoegh holds a press conference and suggests Donna Sue’s killer “must have been insane.” He recommends more be done to prevent mental disease.
In Washington, D.C., FBI director J. Edgar Hoover learns about Donna Sue’s murder and its sadistic nature.
“Get him!” Hoover demands.
Thirty-one-year-old farm hand Otto E. Wennekamp visits a car dealership to trade in his vehicle and leaves with the new car to go get the money. When he doesn’t return, the dealer notices a number of cigarette burns in the old car’s dashboard. He telephones police.
South Sioux City Sheriff John Elliott of Pender, Neb., receives a tip on Wennekamp’s whereabouts from a farmer whose identify is not ascertained. Elliott finds the suspect on the Otto Bengin farm. FBI investigators and Sioux City police arrive and immediately begin questioning Wennekamp.
Wennekamp is apprehended and taken into custody near Thurston, Neb. Elliott, FBI and Sioux City law enforcement question Wennekamp for about an hour at the S. Sioux City police department but his alibi checks out; he’s held over only for auto theft.
Sioux City detectives announce that Wennekamp has been released and exonerated of any connection with Donna Sue’s death.
That same day in Joplin, Missouri, 42-year-old drifter Audrey Earl Brandt tells police he killed Donna Sue Davis. He later recants, saying it was all a hoax. Police determine he’d been traveling in Missouri with a carnival the night of Donna Sue’s abduction and he’s eliminated as a suspect.
Omaha’s FBI regional office sends nearly 30 special agents to Sioux City to help police direct the investigation. The agents are paired with Sioux City police officers and work out of Sioux City’s federal building.
U.S. District Attorney Francis E. Van Alstine and Woodbury County Attorney Donald O’Brien make a plea to the public to let the law take its course in the event there’s an arrest. They emphasize they’re doing everything possible to apprehend Donna Sue’s slayer, and that if the person is caught, that they are “duty bound to see that he receives a fair trial.”
Sioux City Chief of Detectives Harry Gibbons — a former boxer — begins writing in what eventually will become a cache of spiral notebooks, all cross-indexed with every interview, every suspect and every detail related to Donna Sue’s murder.
Thursday, July 14, 1955
In their headline “Sex Offender Law is Unused,” the Des Moines Register reports Des Moines police are taking first steps to certify a pedophile as a sexual psychopath. The Register’s editors place the article on page 3, next to a picture of the Davis family grieving in front of Donna Sue’s casket.
The Journal-Tribune Co. offers a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Donna Sue Davis’s killer.
A demand for watchdogs for protection increases in Sioux City. Mrs. M. W. Baldwin, director of the Humane Society, says people want dogs who will be kind to children and cross to strangers. Shepherd breeds are in the greatest demand, with a heavy demand for German shepherds, or “police dogs.”
Friday, July 15, 1955
Governor Leo Hoegh calls for special meeting of the Board of Control and superintendents from the state’s four mental hospitals. They schedule the meeting for the following Friday.
Friday, July 22, 1955
The Davis family breaks its silence to thank the public for their support. The Davises have received some 500 cards and letters from all across the U.S.
The Sioux City Journal reports its reward fund has grown in one week from $1,344 to $2,387. A Sioux City TV station promises $500 and Gov. Hoegh offers $500 on behalf of the State of Iowa. It is the first time the state has ever offered a reward in a criminal case.
At the meeting, Gov. Hoegh announces the state is establishing a special ward for criminal sexual psychopaths at the state mental hospital in Mount Pleasant.
Saturday, December 10, 1955
Police in Reno, NV, arrest Virgil Vance Wilson on charges of intoxication and disorderly conduct. Wilson, a 32-year-old butcher from Onawa, Iowa, asks to speak to a detective, and tells Capt. Reno Ferretto that sometime in July, he stole a car and raped and killed Donna Sue Davis.
Wilson tells Ferretto he stole the car in Sioux City (36 miles north of Onawa), and drove onto a side road where he raped and then strangled the child. He said he then threw her body out of the car and abandoned the vehicle. Reno police telephone Sioux City police.
Sunday, December 11, 1955
FBI agents question Virgil Vance Wilson. Wilson contradicts his earlier story and repudiates his confession, denying any connection whatsoever with Donna Sue’s slaying.
Tuesday, December 20, 1955
Sioux City Police Chief James O’Keefe announces that Wilson has been eliminated as a suspect. He says Wilson had been in Des Moines in the company of friends as late as 7 p.m. the night of Donna Sue’s murder and couldn’t have arrived in Sioux City with enough time to commit the crime.
Friday, June 8, 1956
A man is taken to Des Moines for a lie detector test in connection with Donna Sue’s murder; he is held for further questioning because of discrepancies in his story.
Woodbury County Attorney Donald O’Brien and Chief of Detectives Harry Gibbons address the lie detector tests, saying one suspect has been ruled out and that another should be questioned and investigated further.
Wednesday, November 13, 1957
The Sioux City Journal closes the book on its reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Donna Sue Davis’s killer. They return individual contributions to the donors.
Wednesday, January 29, 1958
The Sioux City Journal reports that the Davis case is being reopened and is the subject of a closed inquest being conducted at the Woodbury County courthouse.
Woodbury County Attorney Donald O’Brien says the three-man jury is tentatively scheduled to meet again Saturday.
Dr. Coriden says the inquest is closed to “protect witnesses.” He says eight or 10 persons have taken lie detector tests.
Friday, January 16, 1970
Chief of Detectives Harry J. Gibbons — who has filled many notebooks and obsessed for nearly 15 years over Donna Sue’s unsolved murder — dies. It is rumored he spent his final days in a mental health facility, cutting out paper dolls.
Donna Sue Davis was born September 19, 1953, the daughter of James “Don” Davis and Mary Beatrice (McCarville) Davis.
She died July 10, 1955, at the age of 1 year, 9 months, and 22 days.
In addition to her parents, survivors included a sister, Mary Claire, 11; a brother, Timothy, 7; the maternal grandmother, Mrs. Mary McCarville of Sioux City, and the paternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Davis of Sioux City.
Memorial services were held at 9 a.m. Wednesday, July 13, 1955 at St. Boniface Catholic Church with the Rev. Philip Koehler officiating. Between 350-400 people attended the service.
Donna Sue was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery in Sioux City.
The above information is from dozens of Sioux City Journal archives, The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, the Sioux City Police Department, and other sources.
If you have any information about Donna Sue Davis’ unsolved murder please contact the Sioux City Police Department at (712) 279-6390.