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Crystal Dawn Nitcher
3 months old
Date of Death: Tuesday, August 10, 1976
Misti Ann Nitcher
5 weeks old
Date of Death: Saturday, August 13, 1977
First, it was 2-1/2-month-old Tammy in January 1972. Two months later in March, 2-year-old Sarah. Fast forward four years — and to another state — to 3-month-old Crystal. And finally, almost a year to the day after Crystal’s death, the youngest of them all — Misti, just 5 weeks old.
One by one, Helen Nitcher’s daughters all died under mysterious circumstances.
Patterns got missed. Medical examiners struggled with inconclusive autopsy reports. But Helen C. (née Tenery) Nitcher, later known as Crystal Price, had two dead daughters within 2-1/2 months — in Iowa, that is — until Nitcher relocated and the pattern repeated in Abilene, Texas.
Two more dead infant daughters followed.
News reports on the four girls’ successive deaths also had a strikingly familiar ring; officials reported all three infants, as well as the 2-year-old, dead on arrival.
The mother’s explanations for the short-lived lives were conflicting at best; the stories varied depending on the city and state where the obituaries appeared, leaving astute readers as mystified as Iowa and Texas medical examiners, who never could quite pinpoint exact causes or manners of death.
Iowa coroners had no way of knowing Nitcher left Iowa after her first two daughters’ deaths, only to have two more infants die in Texas. And Texas officials apparently were unaware of the two previous Iowa deaths.
Sympathy and condolences poured down over Nitcher from northeast Iowa to west central Texas.
The girls’ burials hid the pattern well; only one — Misti Ann — was buried in Texas (Abilene), while the other three were buried in Laddonia, Missouri, a tiny town in Audrain County with fewer than 1000 people and notorious for its high murder rate and other violent crimes.
Though Jerry Nitcher was born in Charles City, Iowa, he’d moved to Laddonia as a teen. He died March 23, 2007, in Oregon where he’d been living with his second wife and family.
Helen Nitcher stayed one step ahead of inquisitive minds and questions, but she won’t be providing any answers, either; the Texas native, formerly of Waverly, Iowa, died March 17, 2009 in Midlothian, Texas. Her own obituary reads more like an editorial error than a tribute to one’s legacy.
Preceding her in death: one infant brother, four infant sisters, four infant daughters.
What got missed, and by whom? Is it too late for justice? Didn’t somebody know something? Do they know it, still?
On Friday evening, Jan. 7, 1972, Helen Nitcher took her 2-1/2-month-old baby, Tammy Rachel Nitcher, to a Waverly, Iowa, hospital, stating she’d found the infant unconscious. The baby was pronounced dead on arrival.
According to a Waterloo Sunday Courier article dated Jan. 9, 1972, Tammy had lived at Route 1 in rural Waverly with her parents, Helen and Gerald “Jerry” Dean Nitcher, and a 2-year-old sister, Sarah.
Bremer County Medical Examiner Dr. James Rathe could find no cause of death — all results appeared inconclusive — and the infant’s body was taken to Waterloo for an autopsy at St. Francis Hospital.
Memorial services for Tammy were held Saturday, Jan. 8, 1972, at the Cleveland Funeral Home in Waverly. Tammy’s survivors, the Courier reported, included her parents; one sister, Sarah Marie at home; her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Pauline Tenery of Texas; her paternal grandmother, Mrs. Harriet Nitcher of Waverly; and her paternal great-grandmother, Mrs. Josephine Miller of Plainfield.
After the Saturday services in Waverly, Tammy’s body was then transported to Missouri, where graveside services were held in Laddonia on Monday, Jan. 10, 1972, with burial following the services.
Four days after Tammy’s burial, while the Iowa medical examiner awaited autopsy reports from St. Francis Hospital in Waterloo, the Abilene (TX) Reporter-News published Tammy Nitcher’s obituary as had been provided to them by family members.
The Abilene obituary — published both in the Reporter-News’ morning and evening editions on Friday, Jan. 14, 1972 — stated that Tammy Rachel Nitcher, the granddaughter of local Abilene resident Mrs. Pauline Tenery, had been “ill with a respiratory ailment.”
The Abilene paper said the Nitchers were “stationed recently at Dyess AFB” (located about 7 miles southwest of Abilene).
The Abilene obituary’s final sentence read:
“Other survivors include a sister, Sarah Marie of the home.”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be for long.
On Wednesday, March 15, 1972 — just two months and one day after the Abilene paper published Tammy Nitcher’s obituary — a Nitcher family member called the Waverly Police Department at 11:45 a.m. and requested an ambulance.
Waverly police dispatched an ambulance to the Nitchers’ Bremer County home, where officials found 2-year-old Sarah Marie Nitcher unresponsive.
Helen Nitcher said she’d found her daughter “dead after a nap.”
Sarah Marie, 27 months old, was pronounced dead on arrival after being transported to the Waverly hospital.
There were no obvious signs of trauma or injury. Sarah’s death, like her sister’s, made no sense.
On Thursday, March 16, 1972, in a story that otherwise might have made Page One, the Waterloo Courier published — on Page 13 — that Bremer County officials were “investigating the death of a two-year-old rural Waverly girl, whose 2-1/2-month-old sister died in January.”
No one yet had answers to explain the infant’s death, let alone her now dead 2-year-old sister, and nobody wanted to accuse a grieving mother of foul play.
In the Courier’s March 16 story, the confusion over the two girls’ deaths was clear, as indicated in the article’s second and third paragraphs:
Bremer County Medical Examiner Dr. James Rathe said he had not yet received a report on an autopsy performed on Sarah Marie Nitcher, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Nitcher of Rt. 1, Waverly.
Dr. Rathe said Thursday he had seen “nothing so far” that leads him to believe the death was other than a natural one.
For Sarah? Or for Tammy?
According to the Thursday, March 16 story, Dr. Rathe said an autopsy on Tammy Nitcher was inconclusive and no cause of death was determined. The article said Bremer County Sheriff James Leemon was out of his office Thursday morning and unavailable for comment.
One day later on Friday, March 17, 1972 — the same day Sarah Nitcher’s funeral services were held — Bremer County Attorney Richard Kemming said in a Courier article that the death of Tammy Nitcher “was eventually ruled a crib death.”
In the same article, Dr. Rathe said there was no evidence of foul play, yet also acknowledged he still had not received a report on the autopsy performed on the girl.
On Saturday, Sarah Nitcher was laid to rest after graveside services at Laddonia, Mo.
On Tuesday, March 21, 1972, the Courier said Rathe had also ruled 2-year-old Sarah Nitcher’s death as a “crib death.”
Rathe also said his investigation into Tammy Nitcher’s death had not been closed by the “crib death” ruling.
The Abilene Reporter-News reported that same day that 27-month-old Sarah had “died in her sleep.” The child’s aunt, Mrs. Vanita Gary of 1458 Woodard, said an autopsy in the death showed no apparent cause for death and that an investigation was continuing.
An autopsy in Sarah’s death, according to the Reporter-News, attributed her death to “crib suffocation.”
Survivors in Sarah’s death also included an uncle, S. Sgt. Charles E. Tenery Sr., of Ft. Bliss, the Reporter-News said.
According to a Waterloo Sunday Courier story published July 15, 1973, Gerald D. Nitcher of rural Waverly filed a bankruptcy petition in Cedar Rapids’ District Court, listing debts of $25,881.60, and assets of $65.
He had no exemptions, the article said.
The Courier reported on Nov. 2, 1973, that a real estate judgment was filed against Gerald D. and Helen C. Nitcher for just over $10,000 on the first mortgage note for a property described as part of Lot no. 11 in Thrift Acres in Black Hawk County, Iowa.
The couple divorced in 1974. Helen Nitcher relocated to Abilene, Texas, where she’d give birth to two more daughters, Crystal and Misti.
Under “Deaths and Funerals,” the Abilene Reporter-News published the following on Wednesday evening, August 11, 1976:
Crystal Dawn Nitcher, infant daughter of Helen Nitcher of 2226 N. 6th, died at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hendrick Memorial Hospital after a 10-day illness.
Services will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Elliott-Hamil Chapel of memories, 542 Hickory.
J.W. Rives will officiate. Burial will be in Laddonia, Mo.
The child was born April 23, 1976, in Abilene.
Survivors include her mother; her maternal grandmother, Pauline Tenery of 1434 Woodard; an aunt, Vanita M. Nappier of 1458 Woodard and an uncle, Charles E. Tenery of Fort Benning, Ga.
One year later.
Nearly to the day.
The Abilene Reporter-News published the following on Monday evening, August 15, 1977, under Deaths and Funerals:
Misti Ann Nitcher, five-week-old daughter of Mrs. Helen Nitcher of 5298 S. 7th, was dead on arrival at Hendrick Medical Center Saturday night.
Police, who were called to escort Mrs. Nitcher and her daughter to the hospital, said the baby apparently died of natural causes.
Graveside services were to be at 2:30 p.m. Monday at Elmwood Memorial Park.
Ira Harrison was to officiate. Burial was to be directed by Elliott-Hamil Funeral Home.
The infant was born July 8 in Abilene.
Survivors are the mother of the home; maternal grandmother, Pauline Tenery of 1434 Woodward; one aunt and one uncle.
Helen Crystal Tenery Nitcher later married Donald K. Price of Midlothian, Texas, and began going by the name “Crystal Price.”
She would give birth to one more child — a son — Jason Allan Price. Jason and his wife, Kazanna, became the parents of twins, Seth and Chase.
Helen Tenery Nitcher Price died March 17, 2009, at age 59.
Her “Life Legacy” page at a website for Boze-Mitchell-McKibbin Funeral Home in Waxahachie, Texas, stated that she was preceded in death by her father in 1963, her mother in 1990, brother, Dalton Tenery in 1966, one infant brother, four infant sisters, one nephew and her four infant daughters.
Her obituary did not — even once — reference her four daughters’ names or the name “Nitcher.”
Tammy Rachel Nitcher was born October 22, 1971. She died January 7, 1972.
Sarah Marie Nitcher was born November 24, 1969. She died March 15, 1972.
Crystal Dawn Nitcher was born April 23, 1976 in Abilene. She died August 10, 1976.
Misti Ann Nitcher was born July 8, 1977 in Abilene. She died August 13, 1977.
If you have any information regarding the deaths of Tammy and Sarah (in Iowa), please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any information concerning Crystal or Misti’s deaths, please contact the Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal Investigations Division at (512) 424-2130.