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On Labor Day, September 1, 1975, two young motorcyclists discovered the charred bodies of two persons inside a scorched pickup truck near the Coralville Reservoir in Johnson County, Iowa. The victims were later identified as Karen Ann Christensen, 27, of Cedar Rapids, IA, and her cousin, Larry Gordon Wells, 25, of Marathon, Iowa.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (now Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) worked together in investigating the deaths. Officers from the state fire marshal’s office also assisted in the investigation.
According to the sheriff’s office, Berkley Stordahl, 17, Marion, and Virgil Elsbury, 18, Cedar Rapids, discovered the bodies about 11 a.m. while motorcycling near Marina 218 on the Coralville reservoir. Stordahl and Elsbury told authorities they first noticed the pickup in the area the previous Friday.
On Labor Day, while resting near the truck, they looked in, saw what they believed to be one body in the pickup’s cab section, and notified the sheriff’s office.
The truck was found in high weeds in a wooded area just south of a campsite road south of Marina 218.
A deputy called to the scene said the bodies were so badly charred it was not until they started removing what they thought was one body that they realized two corpses were involved.
Officials traced the pickup to Larry Wells and notified his sister, Marilyn. Marilyn then gave them the name of Karen’s sister, Carole, and once dental records identified the two victims, cousins Marilyn and Carole conveyed the news to their parents.
An investigator in the case said the extent of fire and the amount of damage done to the bodies was inconsistent with the amount of inflammables usually found in a truck of that type. The gas cap had been removed from the pickup and gas had been used to accelerate the fire. Matches were discovered in the pickup’s bed.
Authorities determined the two died the evening of Tuesday, August 26, because the pickup in which they were found had been burned in a raging fire, though the tall grasses near the truck weren’t scorched; there had been a hard rain later that Tuesday night.
Karen Christensen would have turned 28 years old the following day.
In an Iowa City Press-Citizen article dated May 11, 2012, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the county’s few cold case files are always kept close at hand. He specifically referenced two cases — the Christensen and Wells double homicide and the September 1995 murder of Susan Kersten, whose body was also found in a burned vehicle — and said the cases were discussed at staff meetings and assigned to an investigator.
“We’ve had other people take a look at them to see if we’re missing something,” he told the Press-Citizen. “We try to be proactive on them … but, it’s really, really difficult. They’ve gone through several hands. It’s not like we haven’t had multiple eyes on them.”
Too, he said, investigators had to balance closing current cases while keeping tabs on cold cases.
In early 2012, the Iowa City Police Department sent four investigators to cold case training. One of those four — police investigator David Gonzalez — was credited in November 2013 for his ‘relentless’ work that helped crack open Frances Bloomfield’s 16-year-old unsolved murder. On Nov. 26, 2013, police arrested 73-year-old John Richard Bloomfield in St. Paul, Minn., and charged him with first-degree murder in his wife’s death. Due to health problems, he was released from custody April 3, 2014 and allowed to leave Iowa while awaiting trial. He died Nov. 6, 2014 at Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis before he could be tried.
In the Press-Citizen’s May 2012 story, Gonzalez said investigating a cold murder case is not too dissimilar from a current murder investigation.
“You want to make sure you’re being very thorough,” he said. “You develop a lead list of things you want to do.”
Gonzalez said technology — especially those with DNA and DNA databases — has aided in police closing cases with greater efficiency.
“I think as technology increases, it makes the solvability of cases that much higher,” he said.
Officials say no matter how old the cases get, they still maintain hope to close each and every one. Solving the cold cases means giving crime victims the answer and closure they need, Gonzalez said.
And, they are making progress.
Susan Kersten’s former boyfriend, Steven J. Klein (now 54), was arrested in Muscatine July 17, 2015, and charged with first-degree murder in Kersten’s nearly 20-year-old unsolved homicide.
Answers remain elusive in Christensen and Wells’ unsolved murders.
Karen Ann Christensen was born in Emmetsburg, IA, on Aug. 27, 1947, to Frank and Lois (Wells) Christensen and grew up with her only sibling, Carole, on a farm in northwest Iowa.
The sisters attended grade school in Rodman and high school in West Bend, where Karen graduated in 1965. She went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Northern Iowa in 1969 with a double major in English literature and library science, and worked as the librarian at several elementary schools in Cedar Rapids.
Karen loved poetry, specifically Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was crazy about wildflowers, beginning when she was in grade school. She researched and compiled her family’s genealogy, and rarely gave cards or gifts that weren’t hand-made. She poured herself into her projects and always brimmed with enthusiasm.
She was buried at West Bend Cemetery in Palo Alto County.
Larry Gordon Wells was born in Storm Lake, IA, on November 19, 1949, to Gordon and Marie (Taylor) Wells.
He grew up in Havelock and Marathon with his older sister, Marilyn, and younger sister, Cheryl. They lived in the Marathon home that their great-grandfather had owned.
They had ponies, and Larry’s grandfather had helped his young grandson with the boy’s paper route. Larry was smart, athletic, cute, and shy, and was the pitcher on his baseball team.
He went to college in Nebraska, and then served with the Navy in Vietnam.
At the time Karen and Larry died, Larry was living in the Marathon house where he had grown up. Karen was helping him restore the original antique woodwork, and they — like their mothers, who’d met as beginning teachers at West Bend — had become good friends.
Larry was buried in the Poland Township Cemetery in Marathon, Buena Vista County.
Carole believes her sister and cousin were probably on their way to Iowa City to visit Marilyn, a student there at the time.
“I’ve always liked to think that they made the stop near the Coralville Reservoir to look for wildflowers,” Carole says.
Anyone with information about this double homicide is asked to call the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office at (319) 354-3729 or the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.