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Gone Cold: Family of Julie Benning empty after her death, The Des Moines Register, Publication Date July 26, 2015 — Video by Brian Powers
Read the Story: 40 years after ‘Waverly Stranglings,’ a renewed search for answers: UNSOLVED MURDER OF JULIA BENNING HAS FAMILY MEMBERS, AUTHORITIES CONSIDERING NEW THEORIES IN HER DEATH, by Mike Kilen, The Des Moines Register
A Defrosting Cold Cases guest blog post by Jody Ewing, November 1, 2014
She had a quick smile, a zany laugh. She was bright, beautiful, spunky and ambitious. She loved getting out to meet people and making things happen.
She loved live music and the weekly Top 100 Countdown.
Her creativity spilled over into every aspect of her life; she not only designed and sewed her own dresses, but painted landscapes and portraits of all things closest to her heart.
She also was an avid reader — Nancy Drew mysteries were a favorite — was already writing her own stories and had an interest in investigative journalism.
But the day after Thanksgiving on Friday, November 28, 1975, 18-year-old Julie Benning vanished without a trace after going to work in Waverly, Iowa.
Her father, Lowell Benning of rural Clarksville, drove to Waverly and reported her missing to Police Chief Clarence Wickham. Mr. Benning knew that Julie — the eldest of his five daughters — would never just disappear without a word, and asked police to contact area media about his missing child. Wickham, perhaps not fully convinced foul play was involved, suggested Benning make the media contacts himself.
The distraught father went to newspapers and radio stations in person, asking they alert the public about his daughter’s disappearance. KWWL Radio reported on the story, and a Bureau of Criminal Investigation (now Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) agent was sent to work with the family.
Initial reports stated Julie was last seen that Friday afternoon, walking on Bremer Avenue on her way to work as a waitress at the Sir Lounge in Waverly’s downtown business district, and Chief Wickham said he’d also heard reports that Benning had been spotted in a shoe repair shop Friday at 5:05 p.m. to get a pair of shoes she’d left there.
Julie had, in fact, arrived at work and went missing under mysterious circumstances while collecting cover charges in the Sir Lounge’s front entryway.
On December 12, Julie’s 19th birthday arrived, but there would be no celebration without her.
A missing person search that sometimes extended to other states produced no clues to Julie’s whereabouts until Thursday, March 18, 1976, when Roscoe Hulbert — a Butler County road maintenance worker — found her muddy body, nude and decomposed, in a roadside ditch along a quiet country road about a mile northeast of Shell Rock, Iowa.
Julie had been stuffed into a culvert, where her body remained all winter long in the cold and dark, until spring rains washed her out and into the ditch.
“She’d been there a long time,” said then-Butler County Sheriff Marvin Barth.
An autopsy report established cause of death as “homicidal violence, caused by injury to the throat area.” The hard-working teen had been manually strangled.
A 1975 graduate of Plainfield High School, Julie Benning lived on a farm near Clarksville with her parents and four younger sisters, but had been staying with her aunt and grandmother, Malita Benning and Mrs. Emil (Frieda) Benning, in northwest Waverly while employed in Waverly to be closer to work.
She’d barely dated at all in high school…had no date to prom…no date for Homecoming.
Shorter than many of her classmates, the 4-foot-11 teen’s only real concerns were occasional acne and a slightly crooked eye, but being self-conscious never kept her from being a friendly, talkative and bold extrovert.
She’d been gutsy enough to jump the fence at a rock concert and chat it up with The Eagles‘ lead singer, Glenn Fry. She and her sister Lori went to dinner with the London-based English rock band Foghat, and for a time Julie also corresponded with the drummer who played for singer Tanya Tucker.
Detasseling corn in the summer wasn’t so much as work as an opportunity to ride the bus and get to know other kids.
The outgoing teen simply had no enemies, and officials struggled to come up with a motive for her murder.
As a senior at Plainfield High School, Benning had sharply criticized the taking of human life and life imprisonment. In a May 8, 1975 school newspaper editorial, Benning wrote:
“Murder is a horrible crime to commit and, of course the offender must be punished, but does that mean he should rot in prison until he dies? I don’t think so . . . nor do I think any person has the right to say someone should never be let out of prison, or give them the death penalty.” She urged her readers to “Put yourself in their shoes — the convicts are still humans, too. I hope people will be willing to help them and lend support in convicts’ efforts to rehabilitate themselves.”
Six months later, the outspoken teen was dead, though a high school editorial hardly seemed like a motive for murder, particularly given the months passed since its publication.
On Saturday, March 29, 1976 at about 8 p.m., Butler County Attorney Gene Shepard received an anonymous letter postmarked March 27 from Oelwein, Iowa. Authorities didn’t say how or where the note was found, but said officers wanted to look further into information contained in the note.
On Tuesday morning, Sept. 7, 1976 — less than six months after Benning’s body was discovered — the nude, beaten body of 19-year-old Marie “Lisa” Peak was found in a ditch a quarter mile north of Waverly’s city limits just six miles from where the road maintenance worker found Benning.
Peak had been sexually assaulted, and, according to autopsy findings, died of suffocation and a broken neck. Like Benning, none of Peak’s clothes were found at the scene.
Peak, the daughter of Knoxville veterinarian and former city councilman Dr. Frank Peak and Mary Peak, had just returned to the Wartburg College campus in Waverly the day before to begin her sophomore year with plans to major in journalism. Peak told friends she was going shopping Monday afternoon but never returned to the campus that night.
Investigators cited a number of similarities in the Benning and Peak slayings, and FBI criminologists were consulted to determine if the same person murdered both young women.
Both Benning and Peak were attractive and described as “outgoing” or “popular.” Both disappeared in broad daylight. Both women’s bodies were found nude, but due to decomposition, authorities never said whether they were able to determine if Benning had been sexually molested.
Both women were interested in journalism and enjoyed reading about and writing mysteries.
Questions also emerged as to whether the Benning and Peak murders had any connection to another area homicide four years earlier.
On June 15, 1971, the partially clad body of 14-year-old Valerie Lynn Klossowsky of Waverly was found on a creek bank under a bridge three miles west of Denver, Iowa. The Waverly-Shell Rock Junior High School student also had been strangled.
In the months after discovering Julie Benning’s body, officers in the murder investigation released artist’s sketches portraying the likeness of how Julie Benning may have appeared on Nov. 28, 1975, the day she went missing.
Gloria Aleff and Associates of Waverly prepared the drawings as a public service, and the press released them for distribution — along with a story by Assistant City Editor Lamont Olson — in attempts to refresh the recollections of anyone who may have seen Benning on that date.
The Bremer-Waverly Law Center issued another public appeal asking anyone who may have seen Benning to contact officials.
Officers noted that though the artist’s conceptions were not actual photographs, they were “excellent likenesses” to the young Waverly woman.
Some statements made in the article, however, directly conflicted with information provided in later years to Iowa Cold Cases.
For instance, early in the investigation, Sir Lounge operator Jean Weston said she began to feel uneasy when Julie didn’t show up for work that day.
“I’d taken her home after work Thanksgiving night, and when she got out of the car, Julie said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow night’,” Weston told Olson. “When she didn’t come the first night, I thought maybe she’d planned to take some time off and I had just forgotten. But when she missed two nights, I talked with my husband and he said ‘call her folks’.”
Iowa Cold Cases later learned Benning not only showed up for work November 28 as scheduled, but that fellow employees and lounge patrons witnessed her presence there as well.
Chief Wickham told the paper he knew Miss Benning and occasionally talked to her, but never did see her with anyone in particular.
In Olson’s story, Wickham, however, made a strikingly disturbing comment.
“I knew she hitchhiked an awful lot,” he said.
The blatantly untrue statement not only contradicted what family and friends knew about Benning, but somehow seemed to infer the teen’s death could have resulted from hitchhiking the night she went missing. Even Jean Weston’s statements to the press contradicted the chief’s comment.
“She hardly ever took a night off. I don’t think she had a date in all the time she worked here,” Weston said. “In fact, I said to her: Julie, you’re only young once, get out and have some fun once in a while.”
Weston said Julie had shrugged her shoulders and said “I don’t have any place to go.”
In the years following Benning’s death, FBI profilers said they were almost certain her homicide was connected to Lisa Peak’s death.
Since 2013, a staggering amount of documented information has surfaced in the Benning and Peak murders. Ongoing information and details continue to be shared with the FBI, who serve as the primary investigating agency. Individuals involved with putting together the final pieces of these two puzzles are in close contact with officials, with on-the-ground eyes to ensure the safety of those so courageously working to solve both these heinous crimes.
Julia Ann “Julie” Benning was born December 12, 1956.
Survivors included her parents, Lowell Henry and JoAnn (Demro) Benning of rural Clarksville; four sisters, Lori, Kelly, Carol and Linda, all at home; and a grandmother, Mrs. Emil Benning of Waverly.
Memorial services were conducted at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 21, 1976, at the United Methodist Church of Christ at Pleasant Valley near Clarksville, with burial in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Clarksville, Butler County. Kaiser-Corson Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Julie Benning’s murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI and the FBI remain committed to resolving the three Waverly murders and continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
If you have any information about Julie Benning’s unsolved murder — or that of Lisa Peak or Valerie Klossowsky — please contact Special Agent Jon Moeller at the Federal Bureau of Investigation at (712) 258-1920, or contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.