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Mrs. Helen Mae Bown, a 61-year-old widow, was last seen alive in her Marshalltown, Iowa, home on Monday, Oct. 2, 1973, and reported missing on Sunday, Oct. 7.
Three weeks later on Halloween Day, state agents discovered her body on the bank of the Iowa River northwest of Montour in Tama County, about seven miles east of Marshalltown and two miles northeast of Le Grand.
Investigators on scene included Tama and Marshall county sheriff’s officers, Marshalltown police, DCI agents, Tama County Medical Examiner Dr. C.W. Maplethorpe, and Tama County Attorney Jared Bauch.
Marshall County Attorney Ronald Kaiser announced the victim’s identity and apparent cause of death the following day at a 9 a.m. press conference.
Though the victim apparently drowned, no evidence existed to determine whether manner of death was accidental or a homicide.
According to officials, even though Bown’s body was found on the Tama County side of the river, the Marshall County attorney took over the investigation because Bown had lived in that county.
Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. R.C. Wooters, who conducted the autopsy, said Bown was believed to have been dead and in the river since her Oct. 7 disappearance.
In a Des Moines Register article dated Nov. 2, 1973, one official not directly connected with the case said the manner in which the investigation was being handled would lead one to believe “the Watergate tapes or the atomic bomb secrets” were involved.
Additionally, the paper also reported that no one in an official capacity would say why the search for the woman was concentrated in the area northeast of Le Grand.
Then-Marshall County Attorney Ron Kaiser convened a Grand Jury on Nov. 7, 1973, according to a news report in The Marshalltown Times-Republican. He told the TR the reason for impaneling the Grand Jury “was to present evidence that has been uncovered.”
No indictment was ever handed down and Kaiser didn’t comment on whether he thought foul play was involved.
In a July 29, 2015 Tama News-Herald/Toledo Chronicle story included as part of a new “Gone Cold” series, Bauch, of Traer, said he still remembered the case.
“As I recall there was an idea that she had been drinking quite a bit at the time she disappeared and her companions were rough customers. The DCI was on the case from the outset. I think we concluded she got in the Iowa River near Marshalltown and that it was likely a Marshall County case,” Bauch told reporter John Speer in an email response for the article.
“Her appearance in Tama County was probably due to the vagaries of the Iowa River currents. We had nothing to tie her to a Tama County location at the time of her death.
“We did consider hers to be a suspicious death,” Bauch said.
In a Toledo-Tama News story published later on Aug. 17, 2015, Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said he’d reviewed the Bown case file and found it an “interesting read.”
The following excerpt is attributed to the Toledo Chronicle/Tama News Herald:
“I believe it is one of those cases which could be resolved with a piece of information here and a piece of information there,” Tupper said.
Some details of the investigation are not public because the case does remain technically active, Tupper told The Chronicle. He did admit, “I asked around some of long-tenured police department employees and they were completely unfamiliar (with it.)”
Tupper filled in some details not initially reported – Bown was reported missing by a visiting county health nurse who apparently had been caring for Bown at the time. County health nurses then and now often call upon patients who are in their own homes.
In response to rumors which reportedly circulated in Marshalltown taverns at the time, Tupper said, “From some of the details it does look like officers did investigate multiple possibilities and did review comments people made.”
He said he was uncertain why the then-termed Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (now Iowa Division of Criminal investigation) was called into the case. But he said protocol then may have been similar to today – “What we would now do.” He said asking for assistance from the DCI “doubles the workforce we have on a daily basis.”
He said the case file pointed to “nothing specific” on why then-Marshall County Attorney Ron Kaiser convened a Grand Jury on Nov. 7, 1973. At the time Kaiser would not comment to The Marshalltown Times-Republican why the jury was impaneled.
~ Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald, Aug. 17, 2015
Helen Mae Bown was born July 30, 1912.
She was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown, Marshall County, Iowa.
Her gravestone lists her date of death as Oct. 2, 1973.