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NOTE: Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter RICK SMITH did an incredible job reporting on Sandra Jo Pittman’s murder and Dean Ray Tumey’s two murder trials. Links to his original articles, available in PDF format, are available for download in the ‘Sources’ section at the end of this summary.
At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, September 17, 1980, Sandra Jo Pittman’s body was discovered at a Highway 30 rest area in Cedar County one mile west of Clarence, Iowa. Chicago & North Western railroad workers found the 17-year-old teen — clad in yellow slacks and an unbuttoned white blouse — but the victim carried no identification and her identity was not immediately known.
An autopsy concluded the young woman died from blows to the head from a heavy object such as a claw hammer or crowbar, with time of death estimated as sometime late Tuesday the 16th or early Wednesday between midnight and 7 a.m.
The autopsy report indicated the victim may also have been strangled, but was not sexually assaulted.
Investigators believed the girl was killed elsewhere and dumped at the rest area.
The murder came less than one week after the Amana ax murders of Rose Burkert and Roger Atkison on September 12, and though all victims died from blows to the head, authorities didn’t want to speculate as to whether the deaths were related.
Pittman’s body was identified just after noon on Saturday, Sept. 20, by her father and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Max Pittman of 2407 Maplecrest, Bettendorf, along with two uncles, after seeing a sketch of the victim published Friday in Davenport’s Quad City Times newspaper.
In a Gazette article published Sept. 21, 1980, Tim McDonald of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said the girl’s relatives viewed her body Saturday at Chapman’s Funeral Home in Clarence, where it had been held since being found early Wednesday in the roadside park.
McDonald said the girl had not been reported missing, and that it was not until the sketch was released that relatives realized they hadn’t seen Sandra Jo since Tuesday.
Pittman — who didn’t attend school and had no job — hadn’t lived at home for about two years and had been staying with a boyfriend at his Davenport apartment. After a quarrel Monday night, the teen had sought shelter at the Davenport Catholic Worker house, where she reportedly was last seen alive.
The shelter’s spokeswoman, Betsy Keenan, said she didn’t believe anyone saw Pittman leave Tuesday, but assumed she’d gone job hunting.
“She was looking for about any job she could get,” Keenan told the Gazette in a story published September 24, 1980.
Miss Pittman’s grandmother, Lona Pittman of Buffalo, also told police her granddaughter had planned to attend a party the night she disappeared.
Based on the new information, McDonald said the murder investigation would now shift to the Davenport-Bettendorf area, where officers would start at “ground zero,” interviewing relatives and friends.
On Monday, Sept. 22, Iowa DCI Director Gerald Shanahan announced that lawmen wanted to interview Dean Ray Tumey in connection with the case, but stressed Tumey was not a suspect.
“The leads are getting slim,” Cedar County Sheriff Keith Whitlatch told the Gazette in an article dated October 9, 1980.
Whitlatch said investigators hadn’t yet turned up a murder weapon or a person believed to be one of the last to see Miss Pittman alive.
Nor were there any new leads in the Burkert and Atkison double homicide.
“I am afraid we are in for a long investigation,” McDonald said of the Amana case, adding that [investigators] were not focusing on any one individual or theory; five agents already were assigned to that case.
Director Shanahan told the Gazette officials were still trying to determine whether there was a connection between the Amana murders and the June 25th slaying in Galesburg, Illinois, of a 25-year-old Peoria man who’d stayed in a motel along Interstate 74. In the Galesburg case, the victim also had been slain by what could have been a hatchet.
Three months after Pittman’s murder, Shanahan said leads were still being pursued but that he was not at liberty to discuss the case’s particulars, such as whether her murder was a sex crime.
Shanahan — who spent 25 years as an FBI agent before assuming his role with the DCI — said Iowa’s violent crime rate was much less than the rest of the nation, with only 2.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants the previous year, compared with the national average of 9.7.
“Our clearance rate is above the national average, which is in the 70 percent range,” he is quoted as saying in the Gazette’s December 21, 1980 story.
In 1980 Iowa had 80 questionable murders, 37 determined to be homicides.
The DCI director also expressed concern for frustrations the unsolved cases had on the men involved with investigating them; the sense of urgency with them, he said, tended “to turn a pro into a crusader . . . [where] work becomes more important than anything else.”
In May 1999, nearly 20 years after Pittman’s murder, 53-year-old Dean Ray Tumey of Knoxville, Iowa — who would have been around 34 at the time of the crime — was charged with first-degree murder in Pittman’s death.
Tumey, who had a long history of mental illness and had been living on federal disability, had “long been a central suspect in the crime,” according to a Gazette article published May 14, 1999. Tumey and Pittman first crossed paths while living in a Davenport rooming house during the summer of 1980.
In his initial court appearance, Tumey (who asked that his first name be spelled “Deano”) expressed concerns about losing his disability income while sitting in the Tipton, Iowa, jail. He called the charges against him “all a lie.”
Pittman’s mother, Eleanor Strong Miles, attended the hearing with other family members, and after leaving the courtroom described Tumey as “just an old man.” Miles told the Gazette she was glad it took 19 years to charge Tumey in her daughter’s death.
“I would have killed him when I was younger,” she said.
Over the years, Miles had regularly called Sheriff Whitlatch to check on any updates in the case. Whitlatch had taken Pittman’s case so personally he’d never removed the teen’s photo from his office wall.
On October 1, 1999, a Cedar County jury deadlocked on Tumey’s culpability, voting 7-5 for acquittal before giving up on ever reaching a unanimous verdict.
A Gazette article dated Friday, December 3, 1999, said Tumey allegedly confessed to law officers in 1990 and allegedly reaffirmed the confession to a prosecutor two years later, but that Tumey had been hospitalized at the time of both confessions.
Prior to the trial, Tumey told a prosecution psychiatrist he’d witnessed three men kill Pittman. Gazette writer Rick Smith wrote in the Dec. 3 article:
Prosecutors have said Tumey was with Pittman the evening before her death and they have hinted that he killed her because she denied him sexual favors.
During the trial, the defense pointed the finger at others in Pittman’s circle, one that included drugs, crimes and domestic assault. One boyfriend had talked about killing her, the defense emphasized.
Tumey’s retrial for Pittman’s murder began on Monday, January 31, 2000. His defense attorneys, Brad Norton and Brian Fairfield, contended Tumey’s confessions were “the rantings of a man living near the streets who was either delusional or trying to get attention,” according to a Gazette article published February 1, 2000.
Assistant Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren, who led the prosecution, called Tumey’s confessions “credible” and said Tumey was the last person seen with Pittman on the day before her body was found.
Tumey spent a total of nine months in jail before a second Cedar County District Court jury exonerated him in Pittman’s murder. Jurors deliberated for eight hours before returning the not guilty verdict on Tuesday, February 8, 2000.
According to a Gazette article published February 9, juror doubts centered around “the absence of a sure link between Tumey and Pittman in the hours leading up to her death and around a controversial confession that Tumey allegedly provided authorities in 1990.”
Tumey was expected to stay with his sister and her husband a few days before resuming his life in Knoxville near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Sandra Jo Pittman was born November 20, 1962, to Max and Donna (Hartley) Pittman.
She is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Buffalo, Scott County, Iowa.
If you have any information regarding Sandra Jo Pittman’s unsolved murder, please contact the Davenport Police Department at 563-326-7979 or the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office Crime Stoppers at 563-886-6618.