Phil Terrell

Phil Terrell

Phil Terrell


Philip G. Terrell
42 YOA
Residence: Des Moines, IA
Body found in Warren County
March 2, 1994
Date Disappeared:
December 24, 1993


August 26, 2010 report |
By Aaron Brilbeck and Iowa Cold Cases

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.

Something Left Unsaid
amy-terrell-cowanCourtesy photo WHO-TV Channel 13
Phil Terrell’s daughter Amy Terrell Cowan described her father as one “whose presence filled up the room.”

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.

Your Father is Missing

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.

Phil Terrell familyCourtesy photo WHO-TV, Channel 13, Des Moines
Phil Terrell in earlier years with his wife and three children.

“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.

A Gruesome Discovery

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.

creek-bed-where-phil-terrell-foundCourtesy photo WHO-TV
The creek bed where Phil Terrell’s body was discovered two months after his disappearance on Christmas Eve.

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.

investigators-at-phil-terrell-siteCourtesy photo WHO-TV
Investigators gather near the crime scene where Phil Terrell’s body was found.

“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.

A New Plea for Help

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.

parker-terrellCourtesy photo WHO-TV Channel 13
“It hurts, and I’m mad,” Parker Terrell says of his father’s unsolved murder.

“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.

phil-terrell-grandson-AlexCourtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Amy Terrell Cowan said her youngest son not only closely resembles her father, but also shares his personality traits.

“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.

Phil Terrell's gravestoneCourtesy photo Katie Lou,
Phil Terrell is buried at Highland Memory Gardens Cemetery in Des Moines.
About Phil Terrell

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.

Information Needed

If you have any information about Phil Terrell’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa DCI at (515) 725-6010 or email



Copyright © 2018 Iowa Cold Cases, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

19 Responses to Phil Terrell

  1. ben franklin says:

    Look into Phil stender and [admin snipped for security reasons] …. Phil and a man named jerry beat mr.Terrell to death in his garage

    • S. More says:

      Ben, you need to come forward. Your information is correct but the DCI needs you, and so does the family. You are the only one who can settle this terrible wrong. Please for everyone’s sake…

  2. ben franklin says:

    It was over the moving company mr.Terrell sold to mr.stender ….i am sorry i hope this helps bring closure to yourfamily because it is long overdo

    • Ben. I’m sorry but this doesn’t help. It makes it worse. You seem to have detailed knowledge about this crime. It is going to take someone like you coming forward to get any traction on this case. My father and family deserve justice. Please contact the DCI. You have no idea how drastically you could change so many peoples lives for the better. I’m begging you. You would be answering thousands of prayers.

      • Jody Ewing says:

        Ben, I agree with Parker that you should share what you know with the DCI. Please contact Special Agent in Charge Mike Motsinger at 515-725-0030. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and this family has waited for answers for more than two decades.

        I applaud your courage for commenting here, and hope you’ll take the next step forward by contacting the DCI. Thank you in advance.

        • Jon says:

          I agree that he should contact the DCI. The two people he mentions exist and are currently residing in Iowa. The public records on Intelius have confirmed that they are listed as relatives.

  3. Virginia Terrien says:

    Dear Ben, on this anniversary date of Phil’s disappearance, your information comes as a relief and brings the possibility of hope to finally know what happened to my brother, and to have justice for Phil’s death. If you have not yet contacted Mike Motsinger at the DCI, please take another courageous step forward and call. You are in my prayers.
    Virginia Terrien

  4. Marilyn Potthoff says:

    I know there are people out there with information, if you have a conscience or a heart please come forward and share with the police what you know and let our family rest. Please do the right thing and I know you will be blessed for it. By telling the truth you will not be doing anything wrong, please let our family have closure. I pray for these things! God bless you.

  5. sm says:

    Phillip C. Stender
    Henderson, Nevada
    last working in California

  6. Virginia Terrien says:

    It’s so hard to believe that in 22 years there has been so little movement to bring in the person who killed my brother. My prayers continue to be with the investigators and those who may be able to provide information that lead to the arrest of the man who murdered Phil.

    • Marilyn Potthoff says:

      I agree Gin, it’s especially sad considering they know who to go after. DCI only has 4 employees which is also very sad. They only seem to work on current murders, even though we have new information on the case they just say, “it’s a cold case” and are quite cruel how they treat his family, as you already know. It’s so frustrating that they continue to let his murderer walk around free. So much for Iowa justice.

  7. S. More says:

    Phil Stender had means, motive an opportunity. Yet no one has questioned him are tested in for DNA. He will be caught soon enough.

    • Virginia Terrien says:

      S. More, how do we know Phil’s killer will be caught “soon enough”? I agree that it is crazy that no one has questioned the accused man.

      RIP, Phil Terrell
      Funeral anniversary–22years

      We still miss you!

  8. Marilyn Potthoff says:

    S. More I’d like to discuss this with you further. I’ve been hoping and praying for 22 years for closure, if you have any thing new I’d love to hear it. Phil’s three children his sisters and all his friends deserve to have this solved.

  9. s.more says:

    Phillip Carl Stender
    Living in Nevada
    Will be in Iowa July 1st-5th
    Casey Roberts (Crawford) GF

    • S.more says:

      Just saw Phil Stender iin Carlisle at the VFW 11pm. If he is a suspect somebody should find in there.

      • S.more says:

        Phil has been in town for two weeks. Yet, no one has questioned him. Seem strange. I will not be involved anymore, when no one cares obviously he is not a suspect… Thanks for nothing Ben Franklin.
        My heart goes out to the family, wish you could bring a civil suit against phil stender.

  10. C says:

    How come no one is mentioning the girlfriend? She seems shady and probably knows what happened.

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