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Latest Update Posted Monday, December 21, 2015:
“Nearly 50 years later, Council Bluffs family still searching for answers in killing of police officer,” by Derek Sullivan / World-Herald News Service
Council Bluffs Police Officer John L. Stephens, 32, and Paul J. Rayer, 51, were shot and killed on Tuesday, December 5, 1967, during a robbery of “Club 64,” an upscale steakhouse about a half-mile east of Council Bluffs’ city limits where Stephens moonlighted as a plain-clothes security guard. Robbery appeared to be the motive.
Officer Stephens was to accompany Rayer, the restaurant’s manager, to the Council Bluffs Savings Bank at about 2 a.m. after the business closed and daily receipts counted. Both men’s bodies were found dead in the restaurant’s office about five hours later when a club employee arrived for regular clean up work.
Stephens, who had been hired as a security guard, was found sprawled in a chair and shot four times in the chest and once in the neck at close range. Rayer was found on the floor behind a desk. He’d been shot three times, twice in the head and once in the arm. Pottawattamie County Sheriff Roy Wichael said one bullet entered Rayer’s forehead just above the eye and another entered his ear.
“Any one of the shots into Stephens’ chest might have killed him,” Wichael said in a Des Moines Register article published December 6. “The same with one of the shots to Rayer’s head.”
Wichael also said there may have been more bullets fired.
“We think they were fired from two different guns — one probably a .25-caliber and the other a .38 — indicating we think that there were two men doing the shooting,” Wichael is quoted as saying in the article.
The bullet that passed through Stephens’ neck was found embedded in the wood of the chair, and powder burns on both men indicated they’d been shot in what police called a “gangland style slaying.”
Clean-up man Nick Elias, 73, lived about 100 feet from Club 64 and told officials he discovered the crime scene about 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday when he entered the club through the side door and noticed the office door open with the lights still on. The door was normally kept closed, and when Elias approached the office he said he saw Stephens’ body sprawled in a chair.
Elias didn’t go any further and notified his cousin, George Elias, 53, who’d owned the club for 14 years. When officers arrived they found Rayer dead, too, lying behind the office desk in a pool of blood, the key to the unlocked safe still in his hand.
Stephens’ jacket was found in another part of the club, and Rayer also was coatless when found, leading officers to believe the two men were not yet ready to leave when the shootings occurred.
About $1,500 was missing from the night’s receipts. There were no witnesses, and officers found no signs of forced entry. Council Bluffs police said Stephens often carried a small chrome-plated snub-nosed revolver while accompanying Rayer to the bank’s night depository, but the gun was not found. Stephens’ separate service revolver was found in his locker at the police station.
Deputy sheriffs said business time cards showed the last employee clocked out at 2:06 a.m.
Radio dispatcher Deputy Donald Dinatelli said he’d called the club at 1:30 a.m. and talked with Rayer and told him to have Stephens call him. According to the Register, Dinatelli called the club each night to ensure Stephens was there to accompany Rayer to the night depository. Dinatelli said Stephens never called him, and that when he called the club again at 2:30 a.m. he got no answer.
Deputy Sheriff Jack Corbaley had conducted a routine check of the club some time during the night and said he saw Rayer’s car in the parking lot but not Stephens’ car. He said he saw no other vehicles driving in the area.
It was not known whether the assailants hid somewhere in the building or somehow gained entry after the dinner club closed.
Club 64, a popular restaurant on Highway 64 owned by George Elias and alternately called the “64 Club,” stood for years just north of East Kanesville and McKenzie Avenue. The posh steakhouse was open from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily except for Sundays.
The club was touted as the best steakhouse in all of Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, a well deserved reputation earned via word of mouth from its regular patrons.
When blogger “Omababe” published a post entitled “Club 64 remembered…” on March 30, 2010, along with photos of a recently surfaced original Club 64 menu, two dozen responses quickly followed as posters shared their memories of the infamous steakhouse.
“My love of good food started at the ’64 Club,'” one writer wrote. Another recalled how he and his wife went there for every anniversary to eat Chateaubriand. It was a “special occasion” restaurant, said another.
Former employees also took time to comment on a menu that once graced tables at what one called a “very classy place.”
Food connoisseurs reminisced about the best Cattlemen Steak, the fabulous relish and cracker tray, and, in several entries, the delicious Liver Pâté that made one forget he or she hated liver (along with a public request and e-mail address in the event someone had the recipe). From wedding day dinners and anniversaries to the annual trip by Tri Center High School’s entire basketball team, the blog post sparked a host of poignant memories.
Club 64 closed down in the late ’90s.
“God, I loved that place,” wrote ‘Rob.’ “It was a classic American supper club.” View the full post and comments.
Stephens, a seven-year veteran of the Council Bluffs Police Department, was assigned to the traffic bureau on motorcycle duty but had begun working for Club 64 in late 1966 nearly one year prior to his death. Hundreds attended his funeral, and Chief of Police William Swassing declared a 30-day mourning period.
It was believed both men were shot to prevent their identification of the robbers, and Sheriff Wichael theorized Stephens may have recognized the gunmen.
Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents assisted with the investigation at the request of Sheriff Wichael and Council Bluffs police, and by Wednesday had moved their mobile crime laboratory to the shooting scene. Sheriff Wichael and County Attorney George Knoke spent Wednesday interviewing about 20 people, most of them Club 64 employees.
Two weeks after the murders, Chief Swassing announced a reward of $775 for information leading to the two men’s killer or killers. Anonymous donors had donated $675, and $100 was contributed by the local chapter of the International Footprint Association, a law and business men’s group.
Officials by then already had questioned about 130 individuals in a probe for information.
Council Bluffs Police Detective Francis “Mike” Kerns was assigned to the case, and long after he retired the case continued to haunt him. City police and county sheriff’s office officials wouldn’t give up on trying to solve the crime, however, and it wouldn’t be long before one young man picked up with the investigation right where his own father had left off.
Growing up, Michael Kerns was well aware of the double homicide his detective father had long tried to solve. The younger Kerns also wanted to solve the Club 64 double slaying, and followed in his father’s footsteps by choosing law enforcement as his own career.
As the Pottawattamie County sheriff, Michael Kerns continued to follow up on every lead, and nearly 20 years after the murders he announced that new information from people in Missouri had enabled police to reopen the case.
“We’ve got a lot of people to talk to,” Kerns said in an August 6, 1987 interview published in the Burlington Hawk Eye.
Kerns said investigators had been sent to Missouri the previous week to conduct interviews. He declined to provide details as to why the investigation was reopened or whether authorities had any suspects. Kerns noted that the last report on the case was dated from some time in 1975.
As part of his case research, Kerns interviewed his own father, officially getting details of a crime he’d heard his father talk about for years.
“I’ve lived with this case since Dad was involved,” Kerns is reported as saying in the interview. “I’d like to solve this case for a whole bunch of different reasons. No. 1, a police officer was killed.”
Kerns called the investigation a challenge because the city’s layout had changed so much in the 20 years since the murders. The route from the club to the bank no longer existed. In addition, everyone but three people involved with the initial investigation had since died.
Time passed, and with no solid evidence authorities needed to make an arrest and pursue a conviction, the case went cold.
Nearly 40 years after his death, Officer Stephens was honored by having his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C.
The following story about the event, “Officer slain in 1967 honored,” was written by Phil Rooney and published in the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil on Monday, May 14, 2007:
Nearly 40 years after his death, Council Bluffs Police Officer John Stephens was honored Sunday by having his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Stephens was 32 years old in 1967 when he was found shot to death in the office of the Club 64 restaurant along with the body of the club’s manager, 51-year-old Paul Rayer. The case has never been solved.
The popular steak house was located north of the area where the Fareway now sits, and Stephens was working off duty as a security guard when he was killed. About $1,500 cash was missing from the club, leading some to speculate the deaths may have occurred during a robbery.
Carolie Heyliger, a research associate with the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, said Stephens’ name was submitted to the organization by the Council Bluffs Police Department.
“We honor officers who died in the line of duty, period,” she said. “People contact us all the time.”
Names of officers to be considered must be officially submitted by their department with supporting documentation, such as newspaper articles, death certificate and police reports, Heyliger said. “We review each case on an individual basis.”
Sunday’s ceremony honored 145 officers who died during 2006 and a total of 382 officers. Some of them were considered historical deaths, Heyliger said, and no distinction is made between those who died during the past year and those who had not been honored previously.
Stephens’ name was read at the ceremony during a candlelight vigil, and his name has been engraved on panel 19 East, Line 25 of the memorial. A total of 17,917 names are now on the wall of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C.
Sunday’s candlelight vigil was just the beginning of the observance, and Heyliger said a formal ceremony is planned for Tuesday.
Ed Dougherty, Stephens’ half-brother and a retired police officer, lives in Arizona and planned to attend the Washington ceremonies.
“I feel extremely honored,” he said. “It’s something myself and his son have been working on for a couple of years now.”
Dougherty said he hopes the recognition will bring some closure regarding his brother’s death, and he hasn’t given up on seeing the case solved.
“There may still be someone out there who knows something about it who may be able to, at least, solve it or give some answers,” he said.
Council Bluffs Police Lt. Monty Montagne said the department will honor Stephens and the other officers during a 7 p.m. Ceremony on Thursday at St. John Lutheran Church. The service will be followed by a march to the courthouse and a 21-gun salute.
Officers then will march back to the church for an additional ceremony honoring current officers.
Retired Omaha schoolteacher Cindy (Kraft) Chevalier didn’t know Officer Stephens was related to her until late summer 2011. On Sept. 18, 2011, she contacted Iowa Cold Cases and said she hadn’t known about her uncle until a recent car ride when her mother, John Stephens’ half-sister, Patricia Kraft, mentioned him out of the blue.
Her mother, Chevalier said, began talking about how terrible it was what had happened to her brother, Jacki.
Once she learned about her deceased half-uncle, Chevalier not only began researching his life, but started visiting his gravesite at Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Council Bluffs on a weekly basis. The more Chevalier’s interest grew, the more her mother started telling stories about his life.
“Mom tells stories about him all the time and how out of all her siblings, Officer Stephens is the only one who looks like my grandpa,” Chevalier told Iowa Cold Cases in 2011. “She tells the story of his murder whenever we visit the cemetery or are just talking about her siblings.”
Chevalier got in touch with Council Bluffs Police Department detectives, and in a Dec. 21, 2015 Omaha World-Herald article said she remembered seeing his photo for the first time.
“Every time I look at Officer Stephens’ picture, I always get this feeling that he knows Mom and I are remembering him,” she told reporter Derek Sullivan. “If that was me who had been shot and killed, I would want someone, relative or not, to learn of my fate and keep my memory alive. I would want someone to let the world know about me.”
In the World-Herald story, Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jeff Danker said a file remains open on the case, but it’s been years since there has been any new information, and that without any DNA evidence, modern advances in technology don’t really help.
“I would love to solve it, I really would,” Danker said in the interview. “I would love to solve it for his family. I would love to solve it because he was a police officer. I would love to solve it because it has been out there for so long.”
“I just want to know what happened,” Chevalier said. “Yes, the people that did this could be long gone, but we still should find the truth.”
John L. Stephens was born in 1935.
He was a graduate of Omaha South High School and had been a foreman for an Omaha lumber yard before joining the Council Bluffs Police Department on August 2, 1960. He worked the 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. motorcycle traffic patrol shift and then later worked as a security guard for Club 64 from about midnight until after closing time.
Funeral services were held on Friday, December 8, at 2 p.m. at the Cutler Funeral Home in Council Bluffs. He was buried at Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Council Bluffs.
John Stephens was survived by his divorced wife and two children, along with four half-siblings, sisters Patty (Stephens) Kraft and Jackie (Stephens) Sporcic; a brother, Johnny Stephens; and niece Cindy (Kraft) Chevalier.
His half-brother, Robert Stephens, preceded him in death.
Paul J. Rayer was born June 23, 1916.
He began working for Club 64 a year after it opened in 1953, and had been employed there for 13 years.
Funeral services were held Friday, December 8, at 11:15 a.m. at St. Gerald’s Catholic Church in Ralston, Nebraska, with burial following the memorial services.
He was survived by his wife and seven children at Ralston, Nebraska.
If you have any information about this unsolved double slaying please contact the Council Bluffs Police Department at (712) 328-5737, the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office at (712) 890-2200 or Crime Stoppers at (712) 890-2221.
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