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On Christmas Eve, 1993, Phil Terrell went for a walk near his home on Des Moines’ south side. The 42-year-old father of three never returned, and his family reported him as missing.
On Wednesday, March 2, 1994 at approximately 2 p.m. a horseback rider found Terrell’s snow-covered, decomposed body in a creek bed just inside Warren County. Assistant Medical Examiner Francis Garrity said autopsy results showed Terrell died from blunt force trauma to the head, and Warren County officials ruled the death a homicide.
Nothing about Terrell’s unexpected death made sense, nor did the conflicting explanations of what happened prior to his disappearance. To this day, his family still wonders if the truth will ever be revealed.
All his life, Phil Terrell worked hard to provide for his family. There were times — when the need arose — he’d hold down two or three jobs in order to provide for his three children, Chad, Amy and Parker.
He not only was a loving caretaker, he had a terrific sense of humor.
“He was the type of person whose presence filled up the room,” said daughter Amy Terrell Cowan.
By 1993, however, something seemed amiss. Terrell began associating with a rough crowd — many of whom had served time or had other types of run-ins with the legal system. He also started insisting someone wanted to harm him, and the family began to fear for his mental health. His life had evolved into somewhat of a mystery to his family, with no explanations offered by his girlfriend, Julie.
The week before Christmas in 1993, Terrell paid a visit to his daughter Amy. She had recently given birth to her first child, and her father wanted to come over and hold his one-month-old grandson, Alex. While there, Amy noticed how unsettled he seemed — almost as if he couldn’t shake something weighing heavily on his mind and needed to confide in someone. She waited, willing to listen and hopeful he would open up, but in the end he decided not to share his concerns and left without revealing whatever troubled him.
One week later on December 24, Amy’s telephone rang. It was Julie, who told Amy her father had gone for a walk and was “missing.”
Amy listened to Julie’s story, but the whole conversation felt a bit strange to her. If her dad had just gone for a walk a little while earlier, why would Julie already consider him missing? The idea of notifying authorities seemed somewhat premature to Amy, but given her father’s concern about someone wanting to harm him, she agreed law enforcement should be called about his disappearance.
“When he went missing, [my brothers and I] believed he had left the city by his own free will,” Amy said.
But as days passed and no one heard from him, they decided it was time to put up missing person posters. In addition, the siblings begged news channels to show their father’s picture and report his story. A few did, and even then Amy said she worried whether it was the right thing to do.
“I think we believed he was going to come back into town and be angry we had made such a big deal of his disappearance,” she said.
Weeks turned into one month, and then another. By February’s end, hope of ever seeing their father alive again began to fade, and the family prepared themselves for more long days and weeks of waiting.
On Wednesday, March 2 at about 2 p.m., a horseback rider stumbled upon Phil Terrell’s decomposing body, partly covered with snow, in a creek bed just inside Warren County south of Des Moines.
As evening approached, two detectives knocked on Amy’s door, and family members — along with Julie — gathered there to hear the bad news and talk with detectives about what they knew.
Amy bristled when Julie began to speak; the story Julie was now telling detectives was not the same as the one she’d originally told the family.
More peculiar details began to emerge. Her father’s body had been dragged to the location where it eventually was found. And, some of his clothing had been neatly folded and placed beneath his head. Investigators believed his body had been in that same location since the day he disappeared, but due to time exposed to the elements, said they had no physical evidence.
FBI agents sorted through Julie’s contradictory statements and explanations, and asked her to submit to a lie detector test. She failed. Still, they had no hard evidence to tie her to the crime.
Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent John Quinn — who’d been with the DCI for 10 years — took the lead in Terrell’s homicide investigation. Quinn would go on to serve as Special Agent in Charge, supervising all field operations, before being promoted in 2003 to Assistant Director of DCI in charge of Field Operations and then to DCI Director in June 2008. To this day, Director Quinn remains the lead investigator in Terrell’s case and is in frequent contact with the family.
“In the last year alone, my brother Parker, my mother and I have all called Director Quinn at different times,” Amy says. “We had what we felt were some leads this year — people who just came forward with information, true or not, we don’t know.”
It was Quinn, in fact, who encouraged Amy to help lobby for the DCI to develop its own cold case unit. A federal grant program in late 2008 helped make that possible, and the Iowa DCI’s Cold Case Unit was up and running by 2009.
Ironically, its victim list doesn’t yet include Amy’s father, though as cases are added she hopes her father’s name will soon appear along with the others.
After WHO-TV Channel 13’s July 2010 month-long weekly series profiling unsolved Iowa homicides and the station’s subsequent partnership with this website to make “Cold Case Thursdays” an ongoing weekly feature, Amy and her brother Parker met with reporter Aaron Brilbeck to talk about the effect their father’s unsolved murder has had on the family.
“I have wonderful memories of him praying with us, of him tucking me in at night,” Amy said in the WHO-TV interview, which aired August 26. “We loved to go to Gray’s Lake. We used to go there a lot.”
Parker, just 13 years old and the only sibling still living at home when his father was killed, said the murder claimed more than just his father’s life.
“I lost a big part of myself when I lost him and I don’t know if I ever learned to properly become a man or be an adult or anything from losing him,” he told Brilbeck. “He could have really provided that. It sucks that it was stolen.”
Parker also admitted that his dad’s murder — and the fact that the killer has so far gotten away with the crime — has left him bitter and angry.
“It’s just a real bitterness towards the world, I guess. I’m real cynical toward everything. I wasn’t like that before,” Parker said. “But I always see the negative side of things.”
Worse are the painful images and memories they resurrect.
“You hear things you can’t ever get out of your head,” he explained, his distress palpable. “I mean, they found his body with his pants around his ankles. There were raccoons living in his stomach. That’s something that I’ll think of every now and then, and you know, it messes with you.”
Amy found an alternative way to deal with the pain; she now works with loved ones of other homicide victims. And, she’s often reminded of her father when she looks at her own sons.
“My younger son has dark hair like my dad did and it really looks exactly like Dad’s hair. Many times I look at him and think he’s not knowing where he is coming from,” Amy said. “He can see pictures but it’s not the same. There’s a lot in his personality too.”
The Terrells believe justice is the only thing that will ease their pain and want their father’s killer caught. Yet even after almost 17 years, Parker says he feels he’s been too angry to grieve.
“There’s no dignity,” he said. “Hit on the back of the head and dragged out in a field. Left there. With three kids at home.”
WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on Phil Terrell’s unsolved murder. August 26, 2010
Amy said her father’s last visit to her home still haunts her, and she wishes he’d opened up and shared with her whatever was bothering him. Neither she — nor her father — knew at the time he’d never have another chance to tell her.
Philip G. Terrell was born July 17, 1951, to Ethel M. and Leslie Vaughn Terrell.
In addition to his three children, he was survived by his mother.
He was buried in Highland Memory Gardens Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa.
If you have any information about Phil Terrell’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa DCI at (515) 725-6010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.