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In a special KCRG-TV report on Dec. 26, 2013, Col. John Stuelke of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office revealed the steps his department has taken to show the latest layer in Ron Novak’s 30-year-old homicide investigation. Stuelke told Channel 9’s Chris Earl:
“In the last ten years, the biggest development in investigating crimes has been DNA,” said Stuelke. “Two years ago, we sent the evidence we had back to the (State Crime Lab) and requested they check for any DNA evidence they could find. They did find a DNA match to an unknown individual that didn’t match the victim. It was on the victim’s clothing and it most likely was the suspect that we’re looking for.”
KCRG’s Chris Earl reports on Ron Novak’s unsolved murder. Airdate: Dec. 26, 2013
Ron Novak stayed home on the deadly cold night. With the gusting winds, wind chills plummeted toward 40 degrees below zero on Friday, December 23, 1983. Christmas Eve would arrive the following day, and Novak hoped to spend some time with his large family and girlfriend.
His girlfriend, as well as his best friend, Dale Laver, were supposed to stop by later in the evening, and the 24-year-old bachelor — who usually thrived on privacy — found himself looking forward to their visit.
Novak had graduated from Jefferson High School in 1978, and a few years later, in search of solitude, bought the farmhouse on Rolling Acres Road about three miles north of Center Point in Linn County, Iowa.
For now, anyway, he at least had the company of his three golden retrievers, Ruff, Candy and Crystal. Despite their friendly nature, they still made him feel somewhat safer; he suspected he was being watched.
His instincts proved to be true.
At some point late Friday night or in Saturday’s early morning hours, a vehicle drove up to the house. Footprints in the snow indicated someone had gotten out and gone to the home’s back door, while a second person went to stand and wait behind a tree.
In town, Novak’s girlfriend went out to start her car about 8 p.m., but the ignition wouldn’t turn over in the frigid cold. She’d just hung up from talking to Novak, and now would have to call him back to tell him her car wouldn’t start. She went back inside and phoned him, but there was no answer.
Near 9 p.m., Laver — who’d met Novak in the first grade and been his best friend ever since — went out to start his vehicle and had the same problem. The dead battery guaranteed he wasn’t going anywhere that night. He, too, tried to phone Novak to let him know he couldn’t make it, but his repeated calls went unanswered.
Both knew Novak rarely left his home for long, and while troubled about not being able to reach him, they felt certain that if something happened, Ron would be able to fend for himself. Nicknamed “Tarzan,” Novak stood 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He also kept three guns in his home.
Novak would never know why the two failed to arrived.
Shortly after noon December 24, 1983, one of Novak’s brothers, Jon Novak, went out to Ron’s house. He would never forget the horrific scene he found.
His brother’s bloody and frozen body lay face down in an unheated storeroom near the home’s back door. Ron’s hands had been bound and tied behind his back. He’d been beaten about the head and body with two hammers and a golf club — the weapons still lay nearby — and shot once in the upper right arm with a .22-caliber handgun.
Huddled closely around him, Ron’s three faithful dogs shivered in the cold as they struggled to keep their slain master warm.
A violent struggle left blood splattered throughout the room, and Novak’s cordless telephone lay near the hammers and golf club.
Novak’s wallet — where he usually kept several hundred dollars for “walking around money” (according to another brother, Don Novak) — was missing. A broken window in the adjacent kitchen door suggested at least one attacker attempted to gain entry there; Novak kept a loaded shotgun near the door.
The door, however, stayed shut that night.
Most puzzling was what officials found in Novak’s bedroom: a small suitcase holding $32,000 in cash and $7,650 worth of marijuana in a green duffel bag.
“At first, we thought the motive probably was robbery,” said Capt. Dennis Fiser of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated March 21, 1992. “But then when we found the drugs and cash out in the open like that, we weren’t sure.”
While investigators worked the crime scene, strong winds outside blew snow across the footprints of Ron Novak’s killers. No fingerprints were found, and neighbors said they hadn’t seen or heard anything.
Fiser said there was little doubt the murder was drug-related. He could only speculate about the phone’s presence near Novak’s body. He might have been on the phone when he let the person in, Fiser said, or perhaps someone had pretended to be a stranded motorist and Novak was taking the phone to them.
That night, while watching television, Laver learned his best friend had been shot and bludgeoned to death with the hammers and golf club.
“We were practically brothers,” Laver told the Gazette. “To have somebody snatch a brother away from you like that, it hurts.”
Laver said he knew Novak sold marijuana but had never known to what extent. He said Novak loved it out where he lived but had expressed some concerns to him six months earlier about a car he’d seen parked overnight near his house.
Novak’s autopsy listed three causes of death: the beating, the gunshot and the cold.
Detectives interviewed some of Novak’s known associates and developed a list of what they called “good” suspects, but never got enough physical evidence to charge anyone.
“It’s always bothered me deeply that I didn’t go out there that night,” Laver said in the 1992 interview with the Gazette. “But if I had been there, would I have been able to prevent the murder, or would I have been laying there with Ron?”
Novak’s sister Mary Novak Whitehead told Iowa Cold Cases in March 2010 that because her brother was not a “sympathetic” victim, the family has suffered for 26 years with no information.
“We have no idea what or who has been considered,” Whitehead said. “We hear rumors from time to time, but again nothing that gives us any peace.”
Whitehead said a former DCI agent told her they’d waited two days to be called [to assist with the investigation] but the call never came. She said the agent also told her someone in possession of the gun had been arrested, but that the family had never been told why officials never filed any charges.
Another sister, Patti (Novak) Wilson, told ICC she felt her brother’s murder had always been ignored and that he was treated like just another drug dealer.
“Murder is murder, no matter who the victim is,” Wilson said in an e-mail to Iowa Cold Cases. “Ronnie had a mother and siblings and nieces and nephews and friends, and we have all been affected in a life-changing way due to his murder and the apparent inaction of the legal/justice system.”
The slaying of his lifelong best friend also altered the way Laver viewed the world.
“When I think about the murder, all I see is darkness,” Laver said. “The facts are clouded, the clues are few and I don’t know who to trust anymore.”
Ronald Lee Novak, the youngest of seven siblings, was born November 11, 1959, to Robert and Marguerite Novak in southwest Cedar Rapids, where he was raised. Survivors included his mother; two sisters, Mary and Patti; three brothers, Robert “Bob,” Donald, and Jon; and his faithful dogs, Ruff, Candy, and Crystal.
After Novak’s death, Ruff and Candy went to live with Ronald’s sister Patti; Crystal went to live with Novak’s brother Jon, just down the road from her former home.
Ron’s brother, Donald, spent many years trying to find justice in his brother’s unsolved murder. Donald passed away in Cedar Rapids on May 2, 2012.
If you have any information about Ronald Novak’s unsolved murder, please contact the Linn County Sheriff’s Office at (319) 892-6100, or contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.