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Around 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, September 10, 1966, a fisherman found 18-year-old Norma Jean Horgen’s body near Clear Lake’s northwest shore. The St. Ansgar teen — a student at the Mason City School of Cosmetology — was discovered in about four feet of water.
Officials determined cause of death as drowning, though did not rule out foul play.
Dr. A.J. Kerlitzka, the county medical examiner, said alcohol was found in the teen’s blood, but said the alcoholic content did not indicate intoxication and that Horgen had not consumed an excessive amount.
According to friends, Miss Horgen did not drink.
Her body was found fully clothed, and though Kerlitzka said there were no signs of sexual assault, investigators had reason to believe the teen could have been murdered; they found one of Horgen’s arms twisted in back — as in a wrestling hold — indicating she could have been forced into the water.
Kerlitzka estimated Horgen’s body had been in the water less than 20 hours, which lined up exactly with the time the teen was last seen alive…late Friday night around midnight and/or 12 a.m. early Saturday morning.
In an Austin (MN) Daily Herald News article dated Saturday, Sept. 17, 1966, Cerro Gordo County Attorney B. Michael Dunn said 75 to 80 people had been questioned in the case and would be reinterviewed in efforts to clarify some discrepancies — particularly the time element in Horgen’s death.
Horgen allegedly was last seen by a female friend around midnight Friday about five blocks from Horgen’s Mason City apartment. Fellow students reported her missing the following afternoon.
Horgen’s mother, Leona (Erdman) Horgen of St. Ansgar, told police her daughter could not swim but could float. Horgen, who wasn’t intoxicated, would have had no reason to enter the lake.
A week after her mysterious drowning, officials weren’t certain how the cosmetology student got from Mason City to Clear Lake or where she’d consumed the small amount of alcohol found in her bloodstream.
Cerro Cordo County Sheriff Gerald D. Allen told the media authorities weren’t convinced the drowning was an accident, and hundreds were interviewed before the case eventually went cold.
Twenty-six years after Norma Jean Horgen’s death, authorities arrested Las Vegas veterinarian John Rea Wallace, 44, and charged him with first-degree murder. Wallace, a decorated Vietnam war veteran with no known criminal history, owned and operated the Spring Valley Animal Hospital in Las Vegas but returned to Iowa after learning a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
Wallace had been a student at Mason City Junior College in 1966 when Horgen was a cosmetology student, and had been living in Las Vegas since the mid-1970s.
In July 1992 Wallace pleaded innocent to the charge and was freed on $100,000 bond. His trial was scheduled for September 1992, but Cerro Gordo County District Court Judge Gilbert Bovard granted the defense’s motion to delay the trial.
Wallace’s attorney, Randall Mainor of Las Vegas, accused Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Mason of “outrageous conduct” and challenged the completeness of the state’s evidence, arguing that state evidence had been lost or withheld. Mainor also said the state withheld evidence from the grand jury regarding other suspects in the case.
In February 1993, Judge Bovard dismissed the murder charge against Wallace, ruling that evidence had been withheld from the grand jury and that Lt. Mason had participated in grand jury deliberations — an action against the law.
The murder indictment, Bovard said, was tainted.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Norma Jean Horgen’s murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to the resolution of Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
Norma Jean Horgen was born February 15, 1948.
She attended St. Ansgar High School and graduated in May 1966.
In June 1966, she moved to Mason City after enrolling at the Mason City School of Cosmetology.
Memorial services were held Tuesday, September 13, 1966, at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Ansgar, with the Reverend Norman Betke officiating. Burial was in the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery in Mitchell County.
Miss Horgen was survived by her mother, Mrs. Leona Horgen of rural St. Ansgar; four sisters, Mrs. Keith (Karen) Jaspers of Solon, Janice of Anaheim, California, and Dorothy and Sherlyn at home; and three brothers, Russell, Keith, and Darwin, also at home.
Her father, Kenneth Horgen of St. Ansgar, preceded her in death.
If you have any information about Norma Jean Horgen’s unsolved case, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Office at (641) 421-3000.