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Judith Kaylene Pleas, 17, was reported missing to the Council Bluffs Police Department in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on August 10, 1973.
On October 14, 1973, a farmer located the remains of a female in a cornfield outside Council Bluffs’ city limits and contacted the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office, who in turn notified the Council Bluffs Police Department.
The victim was later identified as that of missing teen Judith Pleas, and an investigation concluded cause of death was strangulation.
Steven Lybarger, 22, was eventually arrested and charged with Pleas’ murder. Lybarger was found guilty, but the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the case in March 1975 after assertions that a trial judge acted illegally in suppressing oral admissions and a written statement by Lybarger. Download the PDF file: State vs. Cullison, Supreme Court of Iowa, March 19, 1975
Lybarger — a high school dropout who’d served a short stint with the Navy before being discharged after a marijuana bust — had moved to Omaha, Neb., in the summer of 1973 after separating from his wife. By September 1973, Lybarger had accrued a number of charges for writing checks with insufficient funds, and in September 1973 he fled to California with his girlfriend.
On December 28, 1973, the Pottawattamie County District Court issued a bench warrant pursuant to a county attorney’s information charging Lybarger with felonious false drawing of a bank check.
Lybarger was arrested in San Francisco on February 15, 1974. He waived extradition on the bad check charge on February 20, and on Saturday, February 23, three Iowa officers took Lybarger into custody. Lybarger acknowledged he understood his “Miranda Rights” as given, and signed a waiver of those rights before the four boarded a 1:55 p.m. San Francisco-Denver-Omaha flight.
During the flight, Lybarger conversed with the officers, while no mention was made to either Pleas’ murder or the bad checks. The plane landed in Omaha at 8:30 p.m., and the group arrived at the Pottawattamie County sheriff’s office in Council Bluffs about 9 p.m.
In a conference room, Lybarger again was read his Miranda Rights and signed another waiver. Once the questioning began, Lybarger learned officials were investigating Pleas’ murder, and that polygraph examinations had already been administered to other persons. All three officers would later testify that Lybarger asked to take the [polygraph] test that night, despite their suggestions it wait until morning.
James Babbitt, a polygraph examiner employed by the Pottawattamie County attorney’s office, administered the test, and results indicated some of Lybarger’s answers had been “deceptive.”
When investigators began interrogating Lybarger in earnest, he related how he’d beaten Judith Pleas into unconsciousness. Lybarger later stated he ‘started rattling off at the mouth more or less making statements that were not true, based on information obtained from the interrogators. At some point near the end of the interrogation, Lybarger began shaking and crying. The officers concluded he needed medical attention and took him to Mercy hospital.
According to State v. Cullison:
Lybarger’s hospital admission sheet stated ‘possible drug reaction or withdrawal and probable psychologic reaction to combination of drugs and situation.’ The hospital records show upon arrival at the hospital Lybarger complained of stomach pains and burning and strange mental feelings. He was very anxious and his pupils were dilated. He was given tranquilizers.
Lybarger had a history of drug use and claimed he had access to drugs in the San Francisco jail before his removal to Iowa. Lybarger was placed in bed with locked restraints on each ankle, his body, and left wrist, which were not removed. He slept much of February 24th. He was assigned to Dr. Mahoney, a practicing psychiatrist.
The doctor later testified he conversed with Lybarger about 10:00 A.M. on the 25th and ‘found nothing abnormal about him at all.’
Lybarger was eventually charged and convicted in Pleas’ murder, but the Supreme Court of Iowa overturned the conviction on March 19, 1975, in part due to Lybarger’s psychiatric evaluation at the Oakdale Medical Facility by Dr. Paul Loeffelholz from March 19, 1974, to April 25, 1974. In response to an extensive hypothetical question, Loeffelholz opined Lybarger did not have the ability at the time of either statement to make a voluntary choice between making the statements and remaining silent. In response to a similar hypothetical question, Dr. Mahoney testified in his opinion that Lybarger was ‘perfectly capable’ of making both statements voluntarily.
Iowa’s Supreme Court remanded the case to district court for further proceedings.
Records of a second trial were not found on Iowa Courts Online, and in March 2010, the Council Bluffs Police Department submitted information on Pleas’ case to Iowa Cold Cases, stating her offender is still unknown to law enforcement and that the case remains open.
Judith Kaylene Pleas was born May 2, 1956.
She was killed on August 10, 1973.
She was buried at Salem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Mills County, Iowa.
Anyone with information regarding this case is encouraged to contact the Council Bluffs Police Department Criminal Investigation Division at (712) 328-4765 or Crime Stoppers at (712) 328-7867.