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Fiercely independent, Hazel Reimann was an active senior who still mowed her own lawn and drove her own car. A former riveter who worked on airplanes during World War II, the 87-year-old Des Moines resident loved gardening, yard work and running around with her sister, Helen Burklund.
On Tuesday, September 2, 2008, Hazel’s plans included picking up Helen and taking her to the doctor. But when Hazel didn’t show up as expected, Helen — also of Des Moines — drove over to her sister’s southeast Watrous Avenue house just after 1 p.m. There, in the home’s kitchen, she found a bloody, horrific crime scene leading to the basement, where she discovered her sister’s lifeless body in a pool of blood.
Police said Reimann had been beaten and stabbed. There were no signs of forced entry, and though a suspect and motive were unknown, detectives were certain about one thing — the sprightly octogenarian had put up an extraordinary fight; in addition to the blood in the kitchen and on the walls, Reimann had broken six fingers trying to fend off her attacker.
Jesse Bilbrey — a close friend of Reimann’s for 30 years — said he thought she was pretty careful and couldn’t understand why anyone would have killed her. She kept her plants on a table in the basement during winter months, he said, and would often work on them at night with the lights on.
Officials believed Reimann’s murder occurred the night before, and though they questioned many neighbors, couldn’t come up with any solid leads.
Four days later, with no suspects in the case, Polk County Crime Stoppers offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
“Even the smallest details — any observations neighbors may have had on that day, if they saw people sneaking around the house or anything like that — is going to be really important for us,” said Des Moines police Sgt. Vince Valdez.
Investigators also shared information about Reimann’s homicide with Polk County sheriff detectives, who were investigating the May 22 murder of 88-year-old Margaret Ellen Feige of Saylor Township. Feige, who lived at 4340 1st Street, had also died from a beating. Officials said that while there were similarities between the two elderly women’s murders, they didn’t believe there were any connections in the cases.
On May 2, 2009, Des Moines police offered a $1,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Reimann’s death, as well as that of 31-year-old Brandy Ratliff, Jr.
Ratliff, 31, of 1608 E. Capitol Avenue, was killed October 19, 2008, after an unknown suspect or suspects fired several shots into his home. The reward was in addition to the Polk County Crime Stoppers’ previously announced reward of $1,000 in each case.
While Burklund still grieves over her sister’s death and the lost companionship, Des Moines police acknowledge the case — while still open — has dead-ended for now with no new leads left to investigate.
In a November 19, 2010 interview with WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck, Burklund shared her thoughts about a vibrant sister who’d had much life left to live.
“We were still cutting around the mustard,” Burklund said of the sisters’ busy lifestyles. “She was a little bit hard of hearing and I was losing my eyesight, so I said ‘Well, one of these days the deaf will be leading the blind.’ We always joked about that.”
They weren’t just sisters, said Burklund, but best friends who’d planned to spend the rest of their lives together.
“We had it all planned out,” she told Brilbeck. “She would come and live with me if she got sick, and if I got sick I’d go live with her.”
Since neither of the two had children, Burklund said they figured it was the thing to do.
“And that was the way it was left until . . .” The words, still too painful to speak aloud, wouldn’t come. Then, softly, she finished with ” — the problem came along.”
Des Moines police remain hopeful that eventually, someone will come forward with new information and give them a fresh lead.
“The investigation is still open at this point,” Des Moines Police Sgt. Jeff Edwards told Channel 13’s Brilbeck. “Detectives followed up on numerous leads at the time, but those leads have now been exhausted and we have had no new information on this death since then.”
Helen Burklund said she wants her sister’s killer caught and punished but is trying to move on. She told Brilbeck she plans to do some deer hunting this season to try to get her mind off the murder, but said it’s hard being alone and she misses her sister’s friendship and companionship.
“I’ll get by, but it’s been pretty darn hard,” she said. “I terribly terribly miss her. Every day. Every night.”
Of Polk County’s 21 homicides in 2008, only Reimann’s, Feige’s and Ratliff’s remain unsolved.
Hazel Marie Reimann was born April 13, 1921, and raised in Jefferson Township in Madison County, Iowa.
She grew up on the farm, and after marrying went to California and Washington State to work in defense plants during World War II. When she returned to Des Moines, she worked at Colonial Bakery and then spent 35-1/2 years at Farm Bureau before retiring.
In addition to her sister Helen, Hazel was survived by a niece, Sheri Blough Neff.
She was preceded in death by her parents Emmiel and Nora Reimann; a brother, Jimmie, and sister, Edna.
Mass of Christian Burial was held Saturday, September 6, 2008, at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 15 Indianola Road, with burial following at Jefferson-Goar Cemetery in Winterset, Madison County, Iowa.
Anyone with information on Hazel Reimann’s unsolved slaying — or that of Ratliff or Feige — should contact the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4864 or Polk County Crime Stoppers at 515-223-1400.
WHO-TV’s Aaron Brilbeck visits with Helen Burklund, sister of unsolved homicide victim Hazel Reimann.
Air date: November 19, 2010