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On Monday, September 30, 1991, Tom Mather, 32, was shot in the head and slashed several times in his home on County Road X-40 one mile north of the West Liberty exit off Interstate 80.
His wife, 24-year-old Dawn (Woodard) Mather — to whom he’d been married just one year and one month — said he was shot by a naked intruder and that she (also naked) escaped to a nearby farmhouse owned by Mark and Mary Mather.
In February 1992 — just four months after her husband’s brutal slaying — Dawn Mather took the Principal Financial Group to court on grounds that they had refused to pay her claim on her husband’s $50,000 life insurance policy.
According to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated September 30, 1992, Dawn said the insurer told her murderers were disqualified from receiving insurance proceeds. (Principal officials stated the claim was still being reviewed at the time Dawn Mather took them to court.)
Tom Mather’s parents — Stewart and Mildred Mather of West Branch, Iowa — sided with Dawn, insisting their daughter-in-law of 13 months had nothing to do with Tom’s death. In an ironic twist, the Mathers accused Principal Financial of planting the “public seed of suspicion” that Dawn Mather somehow played a role in their son’s murder.
This is what the Mathers said Dawn told them about the night their son was killed (as published in the above referenced Gazette article):
It was 8:40, and Dawn and Tom were watching television. A naked man appeared in the living room, pointing a gun and holding two pieces of rope in his hand. Tom demanded to know what the intruder wanted. He answered, “I’ve come to rob you,” the Mathers said.
Always keeping the handgun pointed at Tom, the intruder ordered Dawn to take the rope and tie up her husband. When she couldn’t do it very well, the man finished the job.
He then forced Tom to crawl into the bedroom, and then back out. In the bedroom, he ordered Dawn to remove her clothes, then tied her up in clothes. She freed herself. When Tom saw her free, he yelled for her to run. Naked, she headed out the door and up the road to the next farmhouse. She was taken in and hidden, and the Cedar County sheriff was called.
~ Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 30, 1992
Back at the Mathers’ Springdale home, Tom lay dead — shot once in the head, his neck and wrists slashed — with money strewn all around the room.
Based on her initial statement, Dawn Mather admitted to fleeing the home after Tom instructed her to run and was not present when the alleged intruder shot her husband.
Dawn described her husband’s alleged murderer as a white male, about 30 years old, around 6 feet tall, with a slender- to medium-build, and straight, bleached-blond hair darker toward the ends [opposed to darker at the roots].
Late Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1991, Cedar County officials released a composite drawing of the murder suspect based on Mrs. Mather’s description.
The Cedar County Sheriff’s Office began receiving calls Wednesday, and by Thursday — once the sketch had been distributed through media statewide — calls began pouring in, The Gazette reported Oct. 11, 1991.
Whitlatch, along with an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent, sifted through the tips and worked their way from Springdale to outlying areas running out the leads.
In the same Gazette article, Dawn Mather is again quoted as saying the intruder shot her husband in the head, though she allegedly ran from the home before his murder and allegedly wasn’t present to witness where and how he’d been shot or even when the alleged intruder fired the fatal shot.
According to The Gazette, in June 1992 the Principal Financial Group paid out $42,500 on Tom Mather’s insurance policy, and the company insisted they’d never denied Dawn’s claim. (All insurance companies have rules they must follow in murder cases where a spouse is considered a suspect or person of interest.)
Immediately following Tom Mather’s murder, many questioned his wife’s involvement, and Cedar County Sheriff Keith Whitlatch, speaking only in general terms, responded with a well-known fact seasoned investigators regularly acknowledge; many murders are committed by a person close to the victim.
“Anytime you have a spouse killed, the public thinks it’s the surviving spouse who did it. And quite frankly, sometimes it is. … And at this point, we can’t say (Tom’s wife) is or isn’t [responsible],” Whitlatch told The Gazette.
Dawn Woodard was working as an arcade cashier at Sycamore Mall in Iowa City when she met Tom, a night-shift custodian at Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the University of Iowa. Tom lived at home on his family’s 160-acre farm near Springdale, and Dawn moved in with them in January 1990.
Dawn and Tom married August 4 that same year, and Tom’s parents moved out of the home to a new residence a few miles west of West Branch. Over the next 13 months, the elder Mathers saw their son and daughter-in-law on a regular basis.
After Tom’s murder, Dawn Mather told her in-laws investigators were “harassing” her, tracking her bank account, and accessing her phone records. Dawn also told the Mathers that investigators knew information they couldn’t otherwise know. Their phone lines must be tapped, Dawn and the Mathers believed.
Dawn, formerly of Urbandale, moved to Coralville after Tom’s murder. She got an unlisted phone number, but her former in-laws told the press they never doubted her story because it was “believable.” Dawn and the Mathers believed a drifter came off Interstate 80 at the West Liberty exit, traveled one mile north on County Road X-40 to Tom’s house, and saw the home as a convenient target to rob.
Mather’s parents told The Gazette they believed the naked robber story; he was naked so no one could describe what he was wearing, they said. They reasoned he’d left the money behind after being frightened off.
Whitlatch employed help from the news media in attempts to solve Mather’s murder, including a crime re-enactment televised by KCRG-TV9. “Who Killed Tom Mather” aired Wednesday, November 18, 1992.
According to a Gazette article published November 19, 1992:
The re-enactment on KCRG-TV (Channel 9) revealed several previously undisclosed facts about the case, including the focus on a late-model, blue Pontiac Grand Am. The car, believed to be about a 1986 or 1987 with mag wheels, was seen on a gravel road near the Mathers’ home about 6:45 p.m. the night of the murder. A couple were seen exiting a similar car in the Mathers’ driveway that night between 8 and 8:30.
Tracks found in a cornfield there also could match the dimensions of those of a Grand Am, according to police.
A man dressed in tan coveralls was seen coming from the direction of the cornfield, carrying a pole or pipe about 8:45.
The re-enactment also revealed that a light-colored car was seen quickly leaving the Mathers’ driveway about 6:55, about 10 minutes after a man had come to the door asking for directions to either Wilton or Wellman.
A light-colored car also was seen parked in the driveway about 8:45.
Whitlatch said he was pleased with the response and the show. “We wanted to make it factual and not overly dramatic,” he said.
During the re-enactment, one witness described seeing a man standing near the blue Pontiac Grand Am talking to a woman wearing a light green dotted blouse and skirt. The tip prompted investigators to serve a search warrant on Dawn’s Coralville apartment, where they found green polka-dotted clothing items like those described by the witness.
Whitlatch held out hope, telling The Gazette that officials never had ruled out Dawn Mather as a suspect in her husband’s murder.
Dawn Mather lawyered up. Her defense attorney, William Kutmus of Des Moines, advised her against speaking further with police, and Dawn promptly moved out of state.
When Keith Whitlatch officially retired as Cedar County Sheriff on December 31, 1999, he described Tom Mather’s murder as the “most frustrating” case he’d ever dealt with.
“We’ve had quite a little evidence, but just not the right evidence,” Whitlatch said in a Gazette article published January 1, 2000.
When the Iowa DCI established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Tom Mather’s murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s website as those they hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, 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 resolving Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
Thomas Stewart Mather was born May 27, 1959, to Stewart and Mildred Mather.
On August 4, 1990, he married Dawn Woodard in Urbandale, Iowa.
Memorial services were held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, October 3, 1991 at the Springdale United Methodist Church, with interment in the Springdale Cemetery in Cedar County.
In addition to his wife and parents, Tom was survived by a sister, Julie.
If you have any information regarding Tom Mather’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, email email@example.com, or contact the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office at (563) 886-6618.