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Sept. 10, 2016 — Roger Atkison’s widow, Marcella Shat, shares with the St. Joseph News-Press information about her marriage to Atkison, the painful yearly anniveraries, and how after 36 years she still hopes the case will be solved.
“There is a key person that knows what happened,” Shat said. “If that key person would just step forward and give us some information, I think it could be solved.”
Sheriff Robert Rotter with the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office said detectives returned to St. Joseph last month to get a full grasp of the case. They revisited witnesses and collected blood samples to compare against any new discoveries. He said evidence was sent to a lab in the winter for an initial touch DNA test, which can analyze skin cells left on an object. They are awaiting results.
On Friday evening, September 12, 1980, Rose Burkert, 22, and Roger Atkison, 32, arrived at the Amana Holiday Inn along I-80 near Williamsburg, Iowa, hoping for a romantic weekend getaway. The on-duty attendant told them the hotel was booked solid due to an area morticians’ conference, but double-checked the register. They were in luck; there’d been a cancellation.
The couple received a key to Room 260 at 7:40 p.m.
Shortly after noon the next day, a housekeeper arrived at Room 260 — a room only accessible from inside the building — and knocked several times. She got no answer. She tried the door, but found it locked.
The housekeeper went to get a passkey from the hotel manager and returned to the room.
“She opened the door and first saw feet. Thinking they were asleep, she peered in further,” Iowa County Sheriff William Spurrier said in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article published September 19, 1980.
What the housekeeper saw — blood splattered all across the bed’s headboard, the walls and the carpet — caused her to “slam the door shut and run for the manager,” wrote Gazette staff writer Gary Peterson.
Once the manager saw the grisly crime scene, he immediately called the Iowa County Sheriff’s Department.
Both Burkert and Atkison lay face down on the bed, the back of their skulls slashed and caved in by repeated blows from either an ax or hatchet. Atkison also had several severed fingers, indicating he’d tried to protect his head from the blows.
Both victims resided in St. Joseph, Missouri.
The married Atkison worked as a telephone installer-repairman for General Telephone Co. in Savannah, Mo., and Burkert was a nurse trainee at St. Joseph Hospital.
Officials found Burkert fully clothed, whereas Atkison wore only his shorts.
In a Gazette article dated September 18, 1980, Iowa County Medical Examiner Dr. Stacey Howell of Amana said both Burkert and Atkison died of acute blood loss and brain injuries.
Howell said Atkison suffered lacerations to the scalp, skull and brain, and that Burkert suffered lacerations to the scalp and skull and a brain contusion. Both suffered bleeding under the brain covering, Howell said.
The room showed no signs of forced entry.
Two chairs sat next to the bed, indicating the killer or killers may have carried on a conversation with the couple prior to the slaying.
Evidence also indicated the killer had at one point put his feet up on the desk. He’d carved a piece of soap and written one word on the bathroom mirror: ‘This.’
The television had never been turned off.
Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department Captain Howard Judd, who worked the case for the St. Joseph Police Department, described the scene as “pretty gruesome” and “overkill.”
Rumors swirled in both Missouri and Iowa.
Some suspected Burkert’s ex-boyfriend, Danny Burton, whom she’d kicked out of her home due to his alleged drug use. He’d allegedly been stalking her in the weeks before the murder, and Burkert had filed a complaint with the Andrew County (MO) Sheriff’s Department and told them if she ended up dead it would be “because of her ex.”
A single mother, she’d gotten a dog for protection.
She later found the dog hanging — butchered — in front of her home.
Burton had an alibi and passed a polygraph.
Rumors also circulated that the killer may have been Roger’s uncle, serial killer Charles Hatcher, who’d recently escaped from a Nebraska mental health center.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette story published Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1980, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) supervisor Tim McDonald said teletypes were being sent out to other states in an effort to locate any similar crimes. He said about 400 people — including guests and Holiday Inn employees — had already been questioned.
State investigators said neither guns nor drugs were involved in the deaths.
“We are not going to give up,” DCI Director Gerald Shanahan told the St. Joe News-Press in a September 24, 1980 interview about the case.
In a Gazette story published the following day, Shanahan said there’d been no headway in the case, but that agents from Missouri and Illinois were assisting in the case.
According to the Gazette’s Sept. 25 story, agents were in Galesburg, Ill. to investigate a similar murder committed less than three months earlier on June 25. Authorities said a hatchet-like instrument was believed to be the weapon in both cases.
On December 21, 1980, Gazette writer Peterson scribed about the “little optimism” in eastern Iowa murder probes. In the article, Iowa County Sheriff Spurrier referred to the Burkert/Atkison slayings as “the most perplexing in his 32 years of law enforcement.”
Shanahan left the DCI in 1983, and cited the Amana hatchet slaying and the disappearance of Des Moines Register paperboy Johnny Gosch as the two unsolved cases he would think about most after his departure.
“Those kinds of things will always remain with you,” Shanahan said in a Spencer Daily Reporter story published June 28, 1983. “Hopefully as time goes on they will be solved.”
When the Iowa DCI established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, the Rose Burkert /Roger Atkison double homicide was amongst approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
In a St. Joseph News-Press story by R.J. Cooper published Sept. 20, 2009, Tammy Burkman said solving the case became her obsession. Wrote Cooper:
She compiled stacks of articles, stories, tips and files. It’s all Ms. Burkman thought about. She called detectives, dissected forensics shows on TV, calling officers afterward to suggest a new technique that could break the case. When she received threats, Ms. Burkman pushed harder, hoping to force the culprit out of hiding. When a fire destroyed Ms. Burkman’s files five years ago, she didn’t concede. She merely started over.
Her obsession, however, came at a cost; it led to a divorce.
Burkman kept asking questions, wouldn’t give up.
Federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, though 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 continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
Tammy Burkman remains committed as well. Given the “wonderful times” she and Burkert spent together during Burkert’s pregnancy, it only seemed appropriate she launch the new Facebook page — Justice for Rosie — over Mother’s Day weekend.
Rose Burkert was born May 21, 1958, and at the time of her death was a nurse trainee at St. Joseph Hospital in Missouri.
She was buried at Saint Joseph Memorial Park Cemetery in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in Buchanan County.
Roger Edward Atkison was born May 30, 1948, in Saint Joseph, Missouri, to James Hiram and Ruth Elizabeth (Todd) Atkison.
He served as an HM3 with the US Navy during the Vietnam War, and later worked as a telephone installer-repairman for General Telephone Co. in Savannah, Mo.
He was buried in Saint Joseph Memorial Park Cemetery in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in Buchanan County.
His father, James, passed away in 2004, and his mother Ruth died in 2012.
If you have any information regarding the unsolved double slaying of Rose Burkert and Roger Atkison, please contact the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office at (319) 642-7307 or contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or email email@example.com.