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SIOUX CITY COLD CASES
A snowy haze covered the city the morning of Dec. 3, 1974, as Harriet Isom and her next door neighbor drove across town to her son’s home at 1117 Morningside Ave. Something wasn’t right: For the second day in a row, neither 27-year-old Ernest “Billy” Isom Jr. nor his roommate Jesse Hanni, 26, showed up for their jobs at Port Neal Station where they worked as boilermakers.
Billy’s father, Ernest “Big Ernie” Isom Sr., who worked at Port Neal as the boiler supervisor, called his wife and asked if she would go check on the home where the two men and Billy’s girlfriend Freta Bostic lived.
As Harriet entered the front door of the large two-story frame house, it was dark and eerily quiet. Walking through a hall and into the dining room, grim suspicions turned to reality when she discovered the 24-year-old Freta lying face down on the floor between the dining room and the adjacent living room, her arms tucked beneath her pregnant body. Barefoot and clad only in a flower-print robe, the swinging door between the rooms stood half open between her legs. She’d been shot once in the back.
Looking through the doorway and into the adjoining living room, Harriet discovered another gruesome scene: Jesse, fully clothed and still wearing his winter jacket, was propped up against a door to the hall. He’d been shot once through the back and once behind the left ear.
Then came Harriet’s most unsettling discovery – her son lay naked and face down on the floor, his legs across a mattress that he and Freta used as a bed. He’d been killed in a hail of gunfire, shot twice in the back and three times in the head.
After an exhausting drive home to Red Lodge, Mont., Jesse aimed to clear his head. Under a vast blue Montana sky, he took off walking and then ventured across a field to where his father and brother Ray were working. Jesse seemed tired and nervous.
“He said they were after him,” Ray said of the last time he saw his brother alive.
“The man” was on his trail, Jesse told a close friend that same weekend, referring to a drug dealer who Ray believes he crossed in a deal.
“He tried to tell me what was going on, Ray said. “But he didn’t tell me enough.”
The mystery still haunts him today.
That warm afternoon, Big Ernie treated Billy and Freta, as well as Jesse and his girlfriend, Susan, to a big Thanksgiving celebration. Harriet had gone to California to be with her ill brother. Big Ernie was excited to have his only son and future daughter-in-law home for the holiday. The couple, along with Jesse, had just moved to Sioux City the month before and rented a house together.
As they enjoyed a traditional meal complete with Jesse’s homemade gravy, they talked with excitement about the upcoming birth of Billy and Freta’s child. With just a few months to go until the birth, the couple was counting the days.
The next day, the group would say goodbye to Susan, who was traveling back to Colorado to wrap up some personal business and then rejoin the others in Sioux City.
New friends from The Jet, a downtown pub known for live music, bikers and an open culture, had partied hard with the three, leaving the home a mess, police said.
During the quiet evening hours, a friend stopped by, but left when no one answered the door. Two plates at Big Ernie’s home sat cold that night when Billy and Freta didn’t show up for dinner as promised.
Kent Hansen of Bronson was concerned when he didn’t receive his rent check. He’d rented the two-story house the month before to the three newcomers, though strangely enough, Jesse’s girlfriend had put up the deposit. He knew the men had good jobs at Port Neal, and didn’t know why they hadn’t dropped off the check.
It’d been snowing for a while, and as he drove up Morningside Avenue he noticed the blue Chevy parked in their driveway. Snow covered the vehicle and there were no tire tracks behind it. No footprints led toward or away from the house. They must be out of town, he thought, and quietly drove away without going to the door.
After they discovered the bodies, Harriet and her neighbor Dorothy Stewart fled across the street to use a phone.
When the call came into the Sioux City police station, off-duty Officer Norman Kronick, who was closest to the scene, arrived first and secured the scene while waiting for on-duty officers. Among them were Lt. Melvin Lafrenz and Sgt. Ron Shuck of the detective bureau, Capt. Lester Zerschling, Sgt. William Peterson of the identification bureau, and Sgt. Tony Bilunos. Few shifts had gone by before every detective on the Sioux City police force had some assignment connected to the case.
“When you have a situation like this, a thing in a house in the middle of the night, that narrows the field tremendously,” said Sioux City Police Chief Joe Frisbie, an officer at the time who worked as a lead investigator on the case. “The people that we were focusing on were people that they knew. There’s no doubt in my mind they knew the perpetrator.”
Authorities believed from the beginning the killings were drug-related. Both men, Frisbie said, were shot “very much in execution style,” something typically associated with a ‘hit.’
“They were partying with some pretty well-known folks that we knew were involved in narcotics traffic at that time,” said Russell White, Jr., the other lead investigator on the case. “Marijuana and traces of harder drugs had been found in the house, and someone already had come forward and admitted to ‘ripping off’ some pot from one of the victims the night of the party.”
The way they were shot added credence to the theory.
“In addition to being shot multiple times, they were shot behind the left ear,” said White, now a vice president with MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company in Des Moines. “It wasn’t a crime of passion, and robbery wasn’t a motive. The only motivation we believed for the actual killing was that somebody wanted them dead.”
“We think that they were expecting some kinds of problems, too,” Frisbie said. “They were going armed all the time, pretty heavily. They actually were carrying high caliber handguns in their lunchboxes and things like that.”
Police found Jesse’s .357-caliber revolver in a lunchbox inside his 1968 blue Chevrolet that he had parked in the driveway.
Theories abound: an unsuspecting Jesse brought home the killer after a night of partying at The Jet on Sunday; the hit was ordered by a drug dealer in Colorado or Montana; the men had created anti-union sentiments at the Port and co-workers were unhappy.
“They’d also been involved in some anti-union activities at the plant… That was rumored to have not gone well with some of the co-workers,” said White.
Though it wasn’t determined if there were one or more assailants, more than one caliber of handgun casings were found at the scene. The victims had all been killed with a .380-caliber semi-automatic weapon. No one in the neighborhood saw anything unusual that night and no one heard the gunshots.
Tracking down suspects entailed a lot of teamwork and travel. The victims had lived in Sioux City only a month and had permanent addresses from three different states: Isom from Arkansas City, Kan., Hanni from Red Lodge and Freta Bostic from Greensboro, N.C. The three additionally had worked in Steamboat Springs, Colo., shortly before their move to Sioux City.
“These young people were very traveled and they were from all different parts of the country,” said White. “They dropped out of sight for about six weeks before they showed up in Sioux City. So we theorized that maybe they were hiding out and then just reappeared up in Sioux City, thinking they could blend in with the woodwork up here and not be found.”
It’s now obvious that they didn’t.
An afternoon press conference holds promise for Sioux City police officers, Capt. Frank O’Keefe of the SCPD Detective Bureau tells an excited crowd of local media. The first lead has already taken officers Frisbie and White to El Paso, Texas, and on to Carlsbad, N.M., where a Moville couple is being held in jail for questioning in connection with the killings.
The man — a former co-worker of Isom and Hanni — also had been employed by Ebasco at Port Neal and had abruptly quit his job on Monday, Dec. 2, the same day that Dr. Thomas L. Coriden, Woodbury County medical examiner, said the victims died.
O’Keefe said the man and his girlfriend left the Sioux City area with little or no notice at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, approximately 10 hours before the murder victims were found. “They were friends of the victims,” said O’Keefe.
And while there had been recent labor trouble at Port Neal, “I don’t think the slayings were labor-related,” O’Keefe said at the conference.
“This case took us all over the country,” said Frisbie, who spent his 30th birthday in Carlsbad, where the couple from Moville were given polygraph tests. “We thought the gentleman might have had knowledge or was somehow involved, but that didn’t pan out exactly the way we thought.”
Nor did a phone interview with Hanni’s former girlfriend — who had returned to Colorado shortly before the homicides — conducted by Lt. Melvin Lafrenz of the detective bureau.
“Melvin Lafrenz was on the phone with an officer in Steamboat and the officer was with the woman,” White said. “I recall Lafrenz, who’s now deceased, telling us that they had found the woman and she ‘didn’t know anything.’ I never believed that and still don’t today.”
No doubt the threesome had developed some bad relationships in their travels; Freta was “involved with some credit card scams. They’d been using phony credit cards and were involved in buying and selling plastic,” White said. In addition, according to an anonymous telephone call allegedly placed to a Sioux City television station, Hanni had earlier that year testified in federal court in Denver against a major drug kingpin.
Shortly after Frisbie and White returned from New Mexico, the phone rang at Sioux City Police headquarters. Someone from eastern Iowa had seen a report of the homicides on the evening news. They said they had information.
“There were some people from eastern Iowa that had witnessed the falling out of one of these [victims] with this person we wanted to interview out west,” Frisbie said. “There was some bad blood between them and this other group of people.”
Officers and detectives continued to run down leads, conducting hundreds of interviews with friends and family members from Montana to Kansas to Oklahoma and North Carolina. The exhaustive investigation forced Sioux City Police to contact an FBI agent in Colorado to conduct a follow-up interview with a “person of interest,” who they believed knew more than she gave up in the earlier interview via phone.
If the case took place today it would be handled differently, said Lt. Lisa Claeys of Sioux City’s Investigative Services Bureau.
“It’s risky because you’re missing information that only the officers who worked the actual case would have,” Claeys said of courtesy interviews. “When somebody lies to you, you’re going to know because you have the details of the case, whereas somebody who’s doing a courtesy interview has no inclination. They have to base it on face value, and it’s just not a good idea.”
But the Sioux City officers already were running ragged.
“I just lived it for weeks at a time. And you couldn’t do anything else,” said Frisbie, who in addition to serving as Chief of Police teaches criminal justice courses at University of South Dakota and University of Bellevue, Neb. “So basically the bureau was without two people, because the workload went on and we had to run this thing down. Every lead we had, we worked to its end until there was nowhere else to go.”
When the case started to become an anniversary thing, Frisbie said they’d run something in the paper. Someone usually would see it and call, and new detectives assigned to the case went out for additional follow-up work.
“It took an awful long time to follow all the leads out,” said Frisbie, who, like many others, has strong suspicions about Hanni’s girlfriend.
The case — never resolved to his satisfaction — is still open and reviewed on a regular basis. And, the state also has the new computerized file that can search through the DNA database.
“We collected a lot of physical evidence at the time – all kinds of things,” Frisbie said.
Police still have all the evidence, including bloody clothes, bullets, blood samples, carpet pieces and crime scene photographs.
“There is no statute of limitations on murder,” Claeys said.
White, who left the police department in 1980 and served as Woodbury County Sheriff from 1981 to 1988, said the case is very much prevalent in his mind and he believes it eventually will be solved.
“Joe Frisbie and I were about as dedicated as two young detectives could have been and worked every case we were assigned to the max,” said White. “We took this case especially serious because we had determined early on that someone had come into our city and committed these murders, and that was a personal affront to our sworn oath.”
This article first appeared in the Weekender on May 20, 2004, and inspired the founding of the Iowa Cold Cases website the following year.
Police Chief Joe Frisbie retired from the Sioux City Police Department on March 31, 2009.
On Dec. 3, 2014, the Sioux City Journal published a story marking the 40-year anniversary of this still unsolved triple slaying.
If you have any information about this unsolved triple homicide, please contact the Sioux City Police Department at 712-279-6390.