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On Tuesday evening, November 21, 1995 — just over one day before Thanksgiving — Martha “Marty” Erickson, 47, was murdered while on her way to a dance.
Her body was discovered the following day in Avon Lake’s shallow waters, and State Medical Examiner Thomas Bennett said Erickson had been beaten and stabbed. He estimated she probably died between 24 and 48 hours before her body was found.
Erickson enjoyed helping people fight their demons, and often attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings even though she wasn’t an alcoholic. News of her murder shocked and saddened many who’d gotten to know her.
“She just wanted to help out,” Erickson’s oldest sister Laurie Rhiner said in a September 9, 2010 interview with WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck.
Rhiner said she remembers how excited her sister had been about the dance.
“That’s all she would talk about, was how much fun she was going to have … who she’s gonna see there and what they are going to talk about,” Rhiner recalled.
Police said the body offered few clues due to time spent in the water, and that they couldn’t even say for sure whether Erickson had been sexually assaulted.
“Anytime you have a body at a location, remote in that area — also with the body being submerged which causes destruction of physical evidence — what you have to do is go back and track down the subject’s time line and establish who it was that she was with,” Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Director John Quinn told Brilbeck.
That task proved virtually impossible due to the people with whom Erickson associated.
“Some of the meetings, they only use first names and some of the people are unwilling to go ahead and discuss the incident and interactions with people,” Quinn explained. “So we did have some barriers to success.”
Rhiner said the hurt never goes away, but one just has to learn to live with it. Rhiner copes with the pain through her art, and says her younger sister is the inspiration for much of it.
Still, there are thoughts that come back to haunt her.
“You start thinking, what were her last moments like?” she wondered. “And you get so sick to your stomach you start shaking because you weren’t there to help her.”
Rhiner said she’d always been there to protect her baby sister and keep her out of trouble, but this time, she wasn’t.
The week after Erickson’s death, Johnson County officials said they’d discovered Erickson was an acquaintance of Susan Kersten, an Iowa City woman whose severely burned body had been found two months earlier on September 24, 1995 in the charred remains of her car in a farm field southeast of Iowa City. Kersten, 38, died as a result of blows to her head suffered before the fire.
Erickson knew Kersten from a group both participated in, Johnson County Sheriff Robert Carpenter said in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated December 1, 1995. Carpenter said he didn’t know if the two were close friends, but that there appeared to be no link between the deaths.
Officials had interviewed Erickson in Des Moines shortly after Kersten’s death, along with a number of other acquaintances, Carpenter said, but the interviews were strictly routine.
Polk County Detective Dennis Marshall — who was in charge of Erickson’s murder investigation — said the fact that the two women knew each other was not high on the list of leads.
Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unsolved murder of Martha “Marty” Erickson.
Airdate: September 9, 2010
“Martha lived in Iowa City for a short time,” Marshall said, “But we’re concentrating on things here because of the leads we have. We’ll work the leads from the top down, and it’s one lead we’ll eventually cover.”
Marshall also confirmed that Erickson knew Steven Klein, the father of Kersten’s twin daughters, but reiterated that they only knew of their acquaintance and had no strong link between the two deaths.
Klein was arrested July 17, 2015 in Muscatine and charged with first-degree murder in Kersten’s nearly 20-year-old unsolved homicide. His trial, originally scheduled to begin Nov. 3, 2015, has been continued until spring 2016.
Just over one month after Erickson’s murder, someone shot 37-year-old Donna Lee Marshall in the head January 8, 1996, at her Iowa City trailer in the Bon Aire Mobile Home Lodge. Marshall knew both Kersten and Erickson, but the investigation into the acquaintance of all three women yielded nothing substantial, Johnson County Sheriff Carpenter told the Gazette in a story published May 12, 1996.
Carpenter said detectives and DCI agents were talking at least weekly on the cases to evaluate their progress.
The murders of Martha Erickson and Donna Lee Marshall remain unsolved.
Martha Diane Erickson was born February 18, 1948.
She was buried in the Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.
Anyone with information about Martha Erickson’s unsolved murder is asked to contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Polk County Sheriff’s Office at (515) 286-3800.