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Case Summary credits: Janet Franson, Sandra Coshow, Bernadette Coshow, Jody Ewing
The following information is based on officially filed Investigation Reports from the State of Iowa Department of Public Safety, the State Fire Marshal Division / Arson and Explosives Bureau, a State of Iowa Certificate of Death issued for Keara Coshow on July 25, 1979 (Medical Examiner Dr. S. Rodmond Smith), Information Reports filed with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), Information Reports filed with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, telephone conversations with retired homicide detective Janet Franson, personal communications with Bernadette Coshow, The Johns Hopkins Health Library, and newspaper archives cited in the “Sources” section.
Many thanks go to Janet Franson, an honorably retired homicide investigator from the Lakeland, Florida, Police Department who went on to do volunteer work with the Doe Network and then spent five-and-one-half years with the Project ALERT® program of NCMEC, where she served with a team of about 170 retired local, state and federal law enforcement professionals donating time and experience to investigating unsolved crimes. For three-and-one-half years after that, she worked as a Regional System Administrator for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
She continues to develop innovative ideas to find missing persons and give names to unidentified remains, and recently started the Indian Country Facebook Page, as well as an Unidentified Persons Jewelry page where she posts photos of rings, watches, necklaces, and other items found on the remains of unidentified persons.
Keara Coshow’s unsolved murder found its way to our site after Keara’s aunt, Sandra Coshow, went to a Wisconsin attorney in April 2007 with information about the then-27-year-old crime. The attorney contacted law enforcement, who in turn reached out to Janet Franson, who investigated the case and in turn reached out to ICC.
Sandra Coshow, who lost her battle with cancer and passed away in July 2013, made an incredible difference in her search for justice for her niece. Please help law enforcement complete the journey for justice that Sandra and Janet so earnestly began.
Keara Lee Coshow, a blind 3-year-old Native American child living with her family in Red Oak, Iowa, died Thursday, July 12, 1979, in the Hill Top Motel’s laundry room after her stepmother allegedly set the room afire. Keara, unconscious from an acute spinal cord injury sustained the previous evening (also allegedly at the hands of the stepmother), was carried into the laundry room shortly before the fire erupted.
Keara and her 5-year-old sister, Bernadette, lived with their father and stepmother, Wayne and Karen Coshow, in a house 100 yards from the 1303 Summit St. Hill Top Motel, which Karen Coshow managed.
Karen Coshow said in one interview with local police that she took Keara with her to the motel around 1:30 or 1:45 p.m. Thursday. Keara, she said, played with an empty pop bottle on the laundry room’s doorstep while [Karen] removed sheets from rooms #6 and #8. The laundry room door was open, she said.
Karen said she’d returned to the house for a passkey she needed for another room, but “returned to the motel area about five minutes after last seeing Keara.”
Mrs. Coshow told local law enforcement she couldn’t see Keara anywhere but noticed the laundry room door now closed. She said she headed straight to the laundry room for some towels, but couldn’t push open the door due to smoke and flames, and that she’d immediately returned to her home to notify the fire department.
Documented reports by both police and the Iowa State Fire Marshal Division give conflicting accounts of what happened in the minutes immediately after the fire ignited.
According to records on file with the Iowa State Fire Marshal Division, the fire alarm call came in at 2:15 p.m., called in not by Mrs. Coshow but by the foreman of a construction crew working nearby.
Terry Sellers and Phil Harris, both of Red Oak, were doing construction work on a neighborhood house when they heard people screaming and smelled smoke. Both men ran to the scene but were unable to enter because of the intense heat and dense smoke.
Firefighters found the young, charred girl lying in the middle of the laundry room on her back, almost as if the child had gone to sleep that way.
Karen Coshow didn’t know the blaze had not destroyed evidence of injuries the tot sustained the previous evening. Mrs. Coshow also didn’t know three witnesses had watched her comings and goings from the laundry room just prior to when the fire erupted.
In a July 16, 1979 Red Oak newspaper article, Mrs. Coshow gave yet another version of what happened before the fire, stating she had Keara with her while doing laundry in the laundry room. This contradicts the reports where the stepmother said she’d been cleaning rooms #6 and #8 and saw Keara hanging around the laundry room door playing with a pop bottle. The Red Oak paper reported Coshow as saying she “left for about 5 minutes for an errand in the office, with the child staying in the laundry room.” She said by the time she returned with pass keys to other motel rooms, the laundry room was already engulfed in flames.
Perhaps just as importantly, when questioned about what she’d tried to do, Karen said that after she pushed open the laundry room door, that she’d “encountered heavy smoke and intense heat and flames” and immediately returned to her home to notify the fire department. Her words about encountering heavy smoke and intense heat were nearly identical to what the two construction workers told officials.
According to at least one witness who watched Karen Coshow take Keara into the laundry room and then walk at least several motel rooms away before the explosion took place, credited the construction workers for the ones who tried to save Keara.
Keara’s biological mother, Debra Lee (Bracklin) Butler, a full blood Lac Courte Oreilles (pronounced la-COO-der-ay) Indian, told Iowa Cold Cases in July 2016 that Karen and Wayne had kidnapped the two girls and did not have custody or approval to take them from her. She said search inquiries for her daughters were unanswered and minimized. Wayne’s family, she said, kept their location secret and that she had no idea where they were living until learning about her daughter’s death one month after the crime.
It wasn’t as if locals didn’t know the little girl; she’d already had numerous visits to the hospital in what social services suspected was child abuse by the stepmother. In recent months, Keara had spent an entire week in the hospital recovering from caustic burns to both eyes caused by Drano crystals and water. The Drano crystals came from a childproof canister that a 3-year-old could not possibly open on her own.
Lye is highly soluble in water and decomposes most organic matter.
The Drano incident essentially left Keara Coshow blind in both eyes. Despite being prescribed glasses, the girl “couldn’t even see the silverware on the table” in front of her, according to Karen Coshow.
Dr. Rodmond Smith felt the Drano incident was suspicious and said the case had been turned over to Social Services and a case worker assigned.
Reports also alleged that Karen Coshow often locked her two young stepdaughters out of the house during the daytime hours and wouldn’t let them inside even to use the bathroom.
On Wednesday, July 11, 1979, Karen allegedly had once again locked both her stepdaughters outside. When Keara told her older sister she had to go the bathroom, the 5-year-old Bernadette banged on the door, hollering out to the girls’ stepmother that Keara really needed to use the bathroom.
The door remained locked, and Keara eventually soiled her clothes.
When Karen finally came to the door to let the girls in — after all, their father would be home soon — and discovered Keara’s accident, she became outraged and ushered both girls inside.
According to an ‘Information Report’ Det. Janet Franson sent Monday, June 11, 2007, to Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) Investigator David Dales, Karen took both girls into the bathroom and prepared a bath. Karen put Bernadette into the bathtub first and then began undressing Keara, growing more angry as she removed the child’s soiled clothing.
Bernadette said her stepmother began to violently shake her 3-year-old sister, a fact that is consistent with the June 2007 report sent to the DCI. Karen continued to repeatedly shake the child, and by the time she finally put Keara into the bathtub, the child’s body had gone limp and she showed no signs of having any motor skills at all. She could not sit up, move or even respond.
When Karen let go of the child’s body and left the bathroom, Keara’s unresponsive body slid down into the bath water.
The 5-year-old Bernadette struggled to hold her sister’s head above water, and Karen soon arrived with a blanket, wrapped Keara in the blanket and took her out of the bathroom. When she returned, she got Bernadette out of the bathtub, dressed her in pajamas and put her in the girls’ room.
When the girls’ biological caucasian father, Wayne Coshow, arrived home from work, he had a surprise; he’d stopped by McDonald’s and picked up their dinner.
His wife sat in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth with a blanketed child. Bernadette came out of her room, and when her father saw her turned to Karen and asked “What’s wrong with Keara?”
Karen did not stop rocking or get up from the chair. “She’s sick,” she told her husband.
Keara never peeked out of the blanket or made a sound.
By nightfall, Bernadette lay wide awake in bed, waiting for her little sister to join her. The two shared the same room and slept in the same bed every night. No one ever brought Keara into the room to put her to bed all night long.
Bernadette remembers well what happened the following afternoon.
“The next day I was outside on the swing set and Karen brought Keara out in training pants and no other clothes,” Bernadette said of the early Thursday afternoon. “She was carrying Keara and I asked if she could play and Karen said ‘no, she’s still sick.'”
Bernadette, along with Karen’s 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, and a longtime female motel tenant, watched as Karen carried Keara to the motel’s laundry room, centrally located within the motel. Karen opened the door, disappeared inside with Keara, and came back outside a few minutes later without the child.
“Karen went a few doors down and then the laundry room blew up,” says Bernadette.
Not surprisingly, her stepmother didn’t call 911. “It was the construction workers working close by that called 911,” Bernadette said on a Facebook memorial page she’d created to bring about more awareness in her sister’s unsolved death. Bernadette told readers:
They did not find my sister on time – she was burnt beyond recognition. I have told this story many times and for whatever reason it has been ignored and blown off. I was never questioned by authorities until my aunt tried to open the case and then only to find Iowa will not do anything because they messed up. I believe one day the truth will come out. I don’t know how but it will. Whether it is because we were just two Indian girls in a predominately white population and our life was less important … I don’t know but we were cast off and since I went away to my mother nothing was further asked.
“Many wanted to investigate but were put off,” said Bernadette. “Not only do I have my personal word and memories, I have other forms of proof, and nothing will ever change my mind [and make me believe] that this was an accident or that Keara did it to herself.”
In an Iowa Department of Public Safety, State Fire Marshal Division / Arson and Explosives Bureau “Investigation Report” — CASE # 7907361, dictated Aug. 1, 1979 and prepared by Special Agent Roy Marshall — Marshall described a sequence of events and what officials discovered at the scene.
The report included just some of the following details:
Karen Coshow told investigators the [blind] 3-year-old must have reached up and pulled the gallon can of paint thinner from a laundry room shelf, somehow pried off the [child-proof] metal lid and spilled it all over herself before a “spark from the water heater probably” ignited the fire.
Fire officials referred to the fire as a conflagration — an especially large and destructive blaze that not only causes devastation, but can cover a vast amount of space almost instantaneously. Fires of this nature are often deliberately set, with arson employed as a cover for fraud, murder, sabotage, diversion, or a person’s pyromania. It may become extremely difficult to pinpoint where the fire began, which is exactly what happened in Keara Coshow’s case.
The State Fire Marshal Division’s “Investigation Report” dated 8/1/79 states in the first and second paragraph on Page 2:
In further questioning the parents it was learned that Keara had suffered an eye injury a few months ago. This injury was the result of her eyes coming in contact with a mixture of water and Draino [sic]. The details of exactly how this had happened were not given. As a result, Mrs. Coshow said Keara’s vision was very poor and that she even had difficulty finding her silverware at the table. She had glasses but was not wearing them at the time of the fire. Both parents were asked about the paint thinner but neither could recall having seen it, although they were not aware of what all was actually stored in the room.
After concluding the interview and taking additional photographs of the scene, this agent went to the funeral home and viewed the corpse. Dr. Rodmond Smith, the county medical examiner, was present and related incidents of alleged child abuse that had been inflicted upon Keara and her sister, presumably by the mother. Dr. Smith also felt the Draino [sic] incident was somewhat suspicious. He said the case had been turned over to Social Services and that a case worker had been assigned. Due to the circumstances the body was x-rayed and a blood sample was drawn in Red Oak. Dr. P.C. Ramon, Jr., of Atlantic was also contacted and arrangements were made for Dr. Ramon to perform an autopsy. The results of these examination are included in this report.
~ Excerpts from 8/1/79 Investigation Report by Special Agent Roy Marshall of the Iowa State Fire Marshal Division
Keara Coshow’s autopsy report and certificate of death prove it would have been physically impossible for the 3-year-old to have started the fire; the violent shaking the previous afternoon had left Keara with an acute spinal cord injury and in neurogenic shock, receiving no medical attention for the life-threatening injury.
Neurogenic shock — in laymen’s terms — refers to severe autonomic dysfunction and interruption of sympathetic nervous system control in acute spinal cord injury above the 6th thoracic vertebra.
Medical Examiner Dr. S. Rodmond Smith ruled the official Cause of Death as “Neurogenic shock from burns entire body” (as reported on Certificate of Death).
After the violent shaking on Wednesday, neurogenic shock would have left the child with either paraplegia — a loss of movement and sensation in the lower half of one’s body — or quadriplegia, the loss of movement and sensation in all four limbs.
The coroner’s autopsy report and medical examiner’s death certificate substantiated what Keara’s sister,
Bernadette Coshow, said she’d witnessed the previous afternoon. She said Keara had been shaken so violently she was no longer able to sit up, walk, or speak.
The fully burned body made it difficult for Dr. P.C. Ramon, Jr., of Atlantic, to come to satisfactory conclusions with an x-ray of Keara’s body. The x-ray found no evidence of [regular] broken bones, but did find fractures in the spinal cord. Ramon also stated that the “rib cage x-ray was not satisfactory to exclude the possibility of fracture.”
Lawrence S. Chin, MD, Professor and Chair, Department of Neurosurgery, State University of New York Update Medical University, is one the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons. According to Chin’s May 12, 2016 clinical presentation on spinal cord injuries:
In all patients with spinal cord injury and hypotension, a diligent search for sources of hemorrhage must be made before hypotension is attributed to neurogenic shock. In acute spinal cord injury, shock may be neurogenic, hemorrhagic, or both.
The following are clinical “pearls” useful in distinguishing hemorrhagic shock from neurogenic shock:
- Neurogenic shock occurs only in the presence of acute spinal cord injury above T6; hypotension and/or shock with acute spinal cord injury at or below T6 is caused by hemorrhage
- Hypotension with a spinal fracture alone, without any neurologic deficit or apparent spinal cord injury, is invariably due to hemorrhage
- Patients with a spinal cord injury above T6 may not have the classic physical findings associated with hemorrhage (eg, tachycardia, peripheral vasoconstriction); this vital sign confusion attributed to autonomic dysfunction is common in spinal cord injury
- The presence of vital sign confusion in acute spinal cord injury and a high incidence of associated injuries requires a diligent search for occult sources of hemorrhage
The distinction between Hemorrhagic shock and Neurogenic shock is essential in determining a plan of treatment for those who survive either of these two types of acute spinal cord injuries. Hemorrhagic shock must be ruled out before hypotension can be attributed to neurogenic shock.
Neurogenic shock and burns to the entire body, according to medical examiner Rodmond Smith, M.D., was the “IMMEDIATE CAUSE” of Keara Coshow’s death (Section 18, Part I). The child’s Certificate of Death, Section 18, Part II — OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS [that contributed to the decedent’s death], included two words: Neurogenic shock.
With this type of acute spinal cord injury, Keara Coshow would not have been playing outside the day the fire occurred. Reports from witnesses confirm Keara had not, in fact, been outside except for when Karen Coshow carried Keara’s body to the laundry room.
Neither local nor state investigators questioned any of the three witnesses about the fire or any of the events leading up to it.
Keara’s biological mother said she got her daughter, Bernadette, back from Red Oak officials only after the attorney general got involved, yet no one would admit foul play in Keara’s death.
What is still not known today is why both the autopsy report and certificate of death dutifully cite neurogenic shock and full body burns as immediate factors in Keara’s death, yet cite the “manner” of death as accidental; each doctor’s report makes it clear Keara had no motor function prior to the fire. The “accidental” ruling directly defies all information that precedes it.
NOTE: All reports and documentation are available upon request to any official involved in this investigation.
Keara Lee Coshow was born August 15, 1975, in Spooner, Wisconsin, to Wayne E. and Debra Lee (Bracklin) Butler, a full blood Lac Courte Oreilles (pronounced la-COO-der-ay) Indian from Wisconsin. The parents later split up, and Wayne married Karen Parrott. While some reports state the father obtained custody of the girls, Ms. Bracklin Butler said Wayne and Karen did not have custody and had moved away and taken the girls with them during one of the girls’ visits.
Keara had moved to Red Oak with her father and stepmother two years prior to the fire.
In addition to her father and stepmother, Keara Lee was survived by her mother, Mrs. Debra Lee Bracklin, Spooner, Wis.; three sisters, Bernadette, Heather and Keidriane, at home: grandparents, Mrs. Dorothy Coshow of Earl, Wis., Mr. and Mrs. John Bracklin of Chicago; great-grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Everman of Earl, Wis., and Mrs. Bernadette Bracklin, Stonelake, Wis.
She was a member of Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
Keara was buried in the Baby Land section of Evergreen Cemetery in Red Oak on July 14, 1979. Sellergren-Lindell Funeral Home in Red Oak handled arrangements.
Debra Bracklin Butler wouldn’t learn of her 3-year-old’s death until one month later. At that time, with the help of the Iowa Attorney General’s office, Bernadette was reunited with her mother and went to live with her.
In September 2009, Karen Coshow participated in the 2nd Annual Southwest Iowa Merit Badge College, part of the Boy Scouts of America Merit Badge Series, where scouts attend sessions and learn about subjects ranging from Architecture and Aviation to Engineering and Soil and Water Conservation.
Karen Coshow — who remains married to Keara’s father, Wayne — served as a Merit Badge Counselor for a class on Reptile and Amphibian Study. Her Counselor Profile page (dated September 2009), listed her employer field as a veterinarian technician, but the page relayed the following information about her certification status:
Youth Protection not completed within the past two years.
For the past 17 years, Karen Jean and Wayne Eugene Coshow — who together run Country Critters in Iowa — have raised wolves, tarantulas, boas, lizard and reptiles, and at one time had over 30 wolves. Since Keara’s death, they have moved around frequently, having lived in Red Oak, Iowa, Macedonia, Iowa, Imogene, Iowa, Emerson, Iowa, and Essex, Iowa.
In December 2009, The (Council Bluffs) Daily Nonpareil interviewed Karen Coshow for an article published December 19 about Pottawattamie County residents who, for about three weeks, had been finding their dogs and cats slain with arrows. Coshow, a clinic employee at the Carson Veterinary Clinic, recalled a recent attack where a cat had been wounded with an arrow. During that same time period, a man also called the clinic about his dog being shot with an arrow. Both the cat and the dog died before the owners could make it to the veterinary clinic.
“It’s just been a horrible thing,” Karen Coshow told the Nonpareil.
In April 2013, Wayne and Karen Coshow attended the Clarmar school for its annual Science Exploration Day, bringing with them a turtle, an iguana, a Chilean rose hair tarantula, a spike bearded dragon, a 1-year-old red-tailed boa and a Navajo lizard, sharing interesting facts about each of them. An Omaha World-Herald story dated April 27, 2013, said the hands-on activities included making and eating Shake It Up Ice Cream.
Wayne Coshow’s mother, Dorothy Coshow, passed away on June 8, 2014. Her life legacy obituary, which appeared online at www.bratleyfuneralservice.com, did not mention her granddaughter, Keara, in the list of family members preceding her in death.
An Atlantic Telegraph News article dated Thursday, July 3, 2014, cited a program Karen Coshow gave to children at the Atlantic Public Library on Monday, June 30, 2014, where she brought with her an 18-year-old Russian Red Tundra Wolf named Kellan. The Atlantic Rotary Club sponsored the event.
Wayne Coshow’s sister, Sandra, and Keara’s sister Bernadette fully cooperated in the very brief 2007 investigation, and said they were willing to make themselves available for interviews with the appropriate investigating agency or agencies.
Instead, the case quietly faded away. Keara’s aunt, Sandra Coshow, died in July 2013 after a brave fight with cancer.
If you have any information about 3-year-old Keara Lee Coshow’s unsolved murder, please contact one of the following:
It is not too late to reopen this case. There is no statute of limitations on murder.
© 2005 – 2018
Iowa Cold Cases
All Rights Reserved
If you'd like to reprint a post or case summary, please contact us with the name of the requested post/article. Thank you in advance!