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On Thursday, May 6, 1971, 8-year-old Valerie Peterson was killed by a hit-and-run driver around 4 p.m. while riding her bicycle off the side of the road in front of the Manson Augustana Lutheran Church.
One other girl — the friend with whom Valerie was riding bikes — was riding up ahead of Valerie and said she saw a blue-green pick-up truck with two or three men inside traveling north at a high rate of speed. They appeared to have long hair, and the girl believed the truck had some sort of equipment in the flatbed.
Tire tracks in the dirt showed the truck had actually swerved off to the side of the road before hitting Valerie, but the driver did not stop. The girl riding with Valerie said she’d heard a vehicle coming and had specifically told Valerie they needed to get over to the side of the road, and that she’d seen Valerie do so.
Autopsy reports show that Valerie appeared to have flown up into the air after being struck and then hit the truck again on the front or side before striking the ground. The report indicated she most likely died instantly.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suspected one family in particular — those owning the blue-green truck — and went to the family’s home within one hour following the fatal hit-and-run. The well-to-do family was quite well-known in Manson, and one of the sons was home on leave from the military at the time.
The suspect’s neighbors told officials the pick-up truck had arrived home within the past hour and had been driven into the garage at a high speed. Within that same hour, a member of the suspect’s family had thoroughly washed the pick-up truck.
Later that same day, the suspect’s family drove their son to Fort Dodge, where they put him on a plane to return him to the U.S. Army.
Also that same day, after investigators had left the crime scene, someone returned and made black tread marks on the road in efforts to make it appear someone had tried to stop before hitting Valerie; the marks had not been present during the crime scene investigation.
A few days after the homicide, the suspect’s family sold the truck to Rost Motors in Manson. Valerie’s father notified the BCI, who then collected paint scrapings from beneath the truck.
The paint scrapings and initial evidence taken from the scene was sent to Washington, D.C., for testing, but was destroyed by the infancy of testing methods used at that time.
In the years following Valerie’s unsolved murder, her sister, Eileen, and brother, Cal, along with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Roland E. Peterson, spent endless hours pressing officials for updates in the case. On two separate occasions, the family also offered rewards for information they felt might help lead to an arrest; both rewards went unclaimed.
Calhoun County Sheriff Bill Davis, who was the same age as Valerie when she was killed, told the Des Moines Register he remembered hearing his parents talk about the crime while growing up.
Davis went on to become sheriff in 1989, and revisited the case at the Peterson family’s urging. In the Register article dated March 8, 2010, Davis said the evidence all seemed to point to one man who had been living in the same community as the victim’s family since the incident.
When Davis tried to track down the physical evidence — Valerie’s bicycle, her clothing, backpack, books and other items — he made a shocking discovery; some time during the ’80s, all the evidence had been thrown out because the statute of limitations for a hit-and-run crime had run out.
“I really, really feel for the family, because I have a daughter, too,” he told the Register. “I know I would want to know, even after all these years.”
Peterson’s family had never been notified the evidence was going to be destroyed, and didn’t find out everything was gone until Davis began the renewed investigation. Officials said it had been so long and nothing had happened, so they’d discarded the evidence.
In the years since, Davis has handed the Peterson file over to a FBI agent, and even explored asking the suspect to take a polygraph test. State investigators said they would not administer such a test unless Davis planned on filing criminal charges.
Manson, Iowa, located in the western half of north-central Iowa, is not unlike many other small, close-knit rural communities where residents know one another on a first-name basis and frequent local businesses. Quietly, in whispers over kitchen tables and in grocery store aisles, everyone knows everything. Publicly, no one knows anything; it’s better to “not get involved” and play it safe, particularly when prestigious community members are allegedly involved.
In 1971, just over 1,900 people resided in Manson, a town best known for having been built on the site of the Manson Impact Structure, the largest known meteorite crater in the continental United States. And in June 1979, there was the destructive F4 tornado that killed three people and destroyed 110 homes and the middle school Valerie Peterson should have been attending the following fall.
Several years later, an individual froze to death in a snow storm after leaving his stalled vehicle. It was only after his death the Peterson family learned he had been one of the persons in the truck that hit and killed Valerie. People knew — had known all along — but none had ever wanted to dredge up what they called the “unfortunate accident” that just happened to claim an innocent young girl’s life.
Valerie’s sister Eileen Peterson Meier — now a prominent international human rights attorney — has never stopped fighting for justice for her sister and other victims.
Meier told the Register her sister’s death probably helped propel her into the human rights career. Meier has spent much of her career investigating human rights violations in Bosnia and Nepal. She said a common thread runs through the families of crime victims worldwide.
“I think the thing that almost hurts the most for victims and in cold cases is the silence, along with a feeling of powerlessness,” Eileen Meier told the Register in March 2010.
She and her brother hoped to change that.
The month before the Register interview, Eileen and her brother Cal had just established the “Valerie Peterson Memorial Justice Scholarship” at the Manson Northwest Webster Junior/Senior High School for a Manson high school student who planned to study and make a career in law enforcement, criminal forensics or law.
And then there was silence. The Petersons waited, let time pass, waited some more. No applications arrived.
Parents in a town where everyone knew everything but no one knew anything didn’t want to make waves or have their own children dredging up a community’s unfortunate past.
Later, amidst the recurrent silence, the Petersons quietly withdrew the spurned scholarship.
On May 6, 2010, Eileen posted a poignant guest blog on this website, “Breaking Through Walls of Silence and Shame.” She recalled the silence of store clerks when her brother took her to shop for a black dress … of going back to school for the final week, and no one saying anything, almost as if she’d been out with a cold. She remembers being told by a law officer that the only thing that could be done against the person who killer her sister was issuance of a traffic ticket.
“That is wrong,” Eileen wrote. “My sister was not powerful or influential but a human being who deserves justice and whose life was worth more than a traffic ticket.” Read Eileen’s full post.
In a Des Moines Register editorial published October 18, 2011, Eileen Meier wrote:
The funding for the Iowa Cold Case Unit, established with a $500,000 National Institute of Justice grant and $194,000 federal Community Oriented Policing Service grant, is due to expire in November, and with it my hopes that the unit would be given a substantial chance to make a difference for Iowa families waiting for justice as mine has waited 40 years in my sister Valerie’s case.
I remember countless silent hours over the years looking at the linoleum floor of the Division of Criminal Investigation building in Des Moines meeting with agents who had no definitive answers. If the unit ends after such a short existence, I and others will hear the deafening silence for cold-case victims’ cases creep again through the DCI hallways, leaving only empty echoes of what could have been realized in time.
Evidence examination techniques have advanced exponentially in the last 20 years and hold keys to new information to assist in solving cases. Examination of case file information can be linked with technology not available in the past.
The financial continuation of an Iowa Cold Case Unit with investigators who focus solely on cold cases and use forensic advancements could make an immense difference for victims and their families. Iowa’s elected officials, law enforcement and victims’ groups could take pivotal steps to develop model best-practice standards for evidence procedures and storage, examination of cases and superior outreach to cold-case victims’ families for exemplary support similar to Denver and Arizona.
Iowa’s elected officials must find ways to fund the Iowa Cold Case Unit, and begin the work to create model best practices for cold cases. Iowa has the ability to give the evidence and information from cold cases a voice silenced over years to be loudly and skillfully articulated through the work of Iowa’s Cold Case Unit.
— Eileen Meier, Manson
She and her brother continue to actively pursue answers in Valerie’s unsolved hit-and-run homicide and their advocacy work on behalf of other victims.
If you have any information about Valerie Peterson’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, email email@example.com, or contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation at (402) 493-8688, or email Omaha@ic.fbi.gov.