Karen Ann Christensen (Courtesy photo Carole Christensen Bass)

Karen Ann Christensen (Courtesy photo Carole Christensen Bass)

Double Homicide

Karen Ann Christensen, 27
Larry Gordon Wells, 25

Near Coralville Reservoir
Coralville, IA
Johnson County
August 26, 1975

Case summary by Jody Ewing

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.

Larry Wells (courtesy Carole Christensen Bass

Larry Wells (Courtesy photo Carole Christensen Bass)

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.

Johnson County in Iowa
Johnson County in Iowa
Coralville in Johnson County Coralville in Johnson County

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.

Files kept ‘close at hand’

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-christensen-gravestoneCourtesy photo Robbie Decker, findagrave.com
Karen Ann Christensen is buried at West Bend Cemetery in Palo Alto County.
About Karen Christensen

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-wells-gravestoneCourtesy photo Kim Haukoos, findagrave.com
Larry Wells is buried at the Poland Township Cemetery in Marathon in Buena Vista County.
About Larry Wells

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.

Information Needed

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 dciinfo@dps.state.ia.us.

References:

 

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18 Responses to Karen Christensen and Larry Wells

  1. No suspects are mentioned. How awful for the families to endure such a tragic, senseless crime.

  2. praying someone comes forward to help solve this crime.

  3. Kathy Wall says:

    Sad story like so many. Makes me sick.

  4. Great news-case solved-Justice served. Thank You.

  5. How terrible! I pray the killer is found!

  6. Mary Carr says:

    Prayers to the family, I too know what they have gone through, my brother a cold case from 1975. The truth seems so necessary to allow peace in your heart.

  7. Roger says:

    My best friend & i used to go fishing in the area of the burnt truck site in the late 70s through the early 90s. There always was a older gentleman there drinking Olympia beer & smoking cigerettes from the tailgate of his old Ford station wagon.

    Didn’t ever say a whole lot other than offering us his empty cans ect..He did make one odd comment that now makes me wonder….could it of been the killer ?

    He said ” you know there was a couple kids killed in their truck right there?”
    We said yeah, he said ” they were messing around with each other & that just isn’t right”.

    We would see him off & on in the following years, sometimes in Iowa City in a old blue Chevy pickup. Never seen him again after the late 80s I’d say. Just strange he was always there & always looking at the burn site while drinking, just staring at it.

  8. Roger Price says:

    No he never said a whole lot really, kinda just muttering to himself at times. I’m not trying to make this sound like more than it is to give someone false hope, but it was a very strange comment to make & it really didn’t make sence to me until i found out many years later that the two victims were related.

    I’m so glad people actually read these posts, maybe there still is a chance to solve this.
    Thanks Roger.

    • cjbass509 says:

      The guy was probably just repeating things he’d heard. No way to know. He’s obviously long gone.

      There are many strange things about this case; crazy things were happening in central Iowa that summer and fall.

      It’s exceedingly unlikely that this case will ever be resolved, because according to the authorities, all the physical evidence – including all crime scene and autopsy photos – has been lost. The text of Karen’s autopsy report was less than a page long, omitting relevant info. The families were given contradictory and inaccurate information. The case is still “open,” so the files are still secret. Frustrating.

      Karen and Larry were great people. And it’s Labor Day again for the 40th time.

      Thank you for your post.

      And always tons of thanks to Jody Ewing, our tireless advocate.

      • Roger Price says:

        Is it true that a neighbor of one of the victims was once or still is a suspect ?

        • cjb says:

          No clue, although I seriously doubt it. The family gets told next to nothing by the authorities, and/or things that turn out to be false. The person they evidently originally thought did it was a preposterous suspect.

          Do I sound just a bit bitter? How do you ‘misplace’ all the physical evidence from a grizzly double homicide? How do you lose all the crime scene and autopsy photos? How do you not bother to X-ray a body when you can’t visually ascertain what caused a death? How does an autopsy report not bother include to a single explanatory detail about missing limbs? My father was lied to about details. How do you justify that?

          I’m way past any presumption that this will ever be resolved, but I also know that ‘closure’ is a myth, because knowing what happened doesn’t bring people back. These were two young people who were adored by their families.They have been sorely missed for forty-one years.

          (If this post is deemed inappropriate in any way, ICC, please don’t hesitate to delete it.)

          • Roger Price says:

            Wow, i never knew all that ! Sounds personal to you, were they related somehow ?

          • cjb says:

            A Prairie Tribute …

            … to Frank, a farmer,
            who for seventy summers
            nurtured bushels of seed
            into fields full of grain,
            and who gathered and sheaved
            the sweet, fragrant hay
            on an Iowa virgin prairie.

            … to Lois, a farmwife,
            whose bountiful gardens
            nourished and sated
            our bellies and senses,
            and whose pioneer rootstock
            plowed deep in the sod
            of the Iowa tallgrass prairie.

            … to Karen, a farm girl,
            who savored the blossoms
            that bend in sweet breezes
            along rural roads,
            and who died at the dawn
            of her twenty-eighth year
            amid towering grasses
            and wild August blooms
            in a secluded Iowa prairie.

            – Carole Christensen

            • Samuel says:

              Ummm, is it just me, but why is it when a possible lead comes to light it’s debunked before it’s given credibility? Rogers encounter sounds pretty legit to me !?
              Just saying ?

  9. Randall says:

    My 2 pennies worth, if this case is still “open” and there are obviously 2 known people to have talked to and seen a man that was consistently at the crime scene with first hand knowledge of these 2 cousin possibly “messing around” with one another, my God come on people !, really?!
    That’s some pretty private information if you ask me ! Guess it’s just a matter of wanting it solved or just giving up. How sad.

    Randall.

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