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Town Marshal William Lawrence Meadows, 36, was shot and killed on Monday, January 23, 1961, while investigating a burglary in progress at the Hartmann Packing Plant in Plainfield, Iowa.
Meadows, who’d worked his family’s farm for years and also volunteered as a scoutmaster, had barely stepped through the packing plant’s front entrance just after 2:15 a.m. before being shot through the heart by what authorities believed to be a high-powered 30-30-caliber deer rifle. Meadows died instantly.
According to a Waterloo Daily Courier article published that same day, the fatal shot was fired by one of two unidentified burglars who “fled in a flurry of bullets” following an attempted safe-cracking.
Mrs. Ernest Buckman, who lived with her husband over the drug store they operated across the street from the packing plant, reported the break-in about 2:15 a.m. Mrs. Buckman told the Courier she’d just fallen asleep after reading late and was awakened by a loud noise — later determined to be the blast going off in the safe — and that she and her husband first believed someone was breaking into their own store.
The couple looked out their window and saw someone moving around inside the packing plant, and then saw the intruder duck down when a truck passed on the street.
Mrs. Buckman immediately phoned Officer Meadows and then Kenneth Hartmann, who operated the packing plant with his father, Theodore “Ted” Hartmann, and brother, Robert Hartmann.
The unmarried Meadows, who lived with his aunt Edna Voss at the family farm, left his German shepherd and best friend “Inde” behind at the farm and headed toward town. On his way, he radioed Waverly police to request assistance. The Waverly Police Department — 13 miles southeast of Plainfield — dispatched two officers in separate squad cars.
Meadows, Plainfield’s only police officer, was known as enthusiastic and impartial and worked primarily at night. He’d served as a Staff Sgt. in World War II as part of the Army Air Force’s 776 Bomb Squad, and after leaving the armed services worked for a time on the west coast before returning to Iowa to run the family farm.
The thieves had broken the lock on the packing plant’s front door, and were still making attempts to crack the safe in the company’s office when Meadows entered the building. The 30-30 bullet went completely through his body before he fell about three feet inside the front door.
Ted Hartmann had just arrived and was coming up the sidewalk toward the door when a second bullet broke through the plant’s front glass and whizzed by, barely missing Hartmann’s head.
“Stay where you are, or you’ll be shot, too!” someone yelled, and Hartmann quickly ducked down behind a car.
Hartmann told the Daily Courier men shot through a glass doorway off a hallway just north of the packing plant’s office before one man burst through a screen on the door, followed by another. One burglar ducked behind another building — the Roach Farms, Inc. — north of the packing plant as bullets sprayed through the night’s dark hours.
Courier staff writer Stewart Haas wrote in the Jan. 23 story:
From their shooting inside, bullet holes dotted glass windows the entire width of the building.
One bullet had ricocheted from the street and through the post office window across from the packing plant. The bullet entered just under the “P” in Plainfield painted on the window.
The intense cold had kept Kenneth Hartmann’s headlights dimmed as he drove to the packing plant, but once he pulled in to park behind the building, the headlights suddenly flashed bright as a short and stocky man ran and then ducked down behind a gas tank.
“Who are you?” the man yelled.
“Kenney,” Kenneth Hartmann replied.
“You better get around to the front of the building,” the man told him.
Waverly police officers Ernest Brant and Clarence Wickham approached Plainfield’s southern edge, and while Officer Brant stopped to set up a road block, Officer Wickham proceeded to the packing plant. After finding Meadows’ lifeless body, Wickham notified the Bremer County Sheriff’s Office, who in turn notified the state patrol.
Kenneth Hartmann said he never got a good look at the man, but described him as approximately 5 feet and 9 inches tall and stocky. Kenneth Hartmann also told authorities he’d noticed a bubble-shaped “Nash” driving on Hwy. 188 just east of Plainfield shortly before he’d left home.
The other suspect was described as slender, with both men wearing what appeared to be work clothes.
Waterloo police joined in the search, and were on the look-out for the vehicle in the event it headed south.
The Courier’s Haas wrote about the suspects’ hasty departure:
The men bolted in such a hurry that they left their safe-cracking tools behind. Included were two gas maks which apparently were used to protect them from the gas and dust from the blast.
Authorities said the safe’s outer door had been kept unlocked, but that the inside cash compartment was locked. The burglars placed a putty-like substance on the cash compartment and planted nitroglycerin behind it, and then used a blasting cap to set off an initial explosion so powerful it blew the outside door four feet across the room. Still, it failed to break open the safe’s cash compartment.
The new charge had just been set when Meadows’ arrival distracted the burglars, who never got the chance to set off the second explosion. Even had they succeeded, their efforts would have proved futile; the safe’s cash compartment contained nothing more than records. The cash already had been taken to the bank.
Officials later unloaded the second charge.
State Bureau of Criminal Investigation officers filtered through clues from the murder scene Monday afternoon. One investigator said the explosives were carried in a chamois-skin bag, like those used for carrying liquor. The burglars used a large knapsack to carry their tools.
Hartmann Packing Plant owner Ted Hartmann had operated the plant for a 15-county area since 1945, and another break-in had occurred just one month earlier. The only thing stolen during the previous break-in was bacon from a cooler, and authorities said no evidence existed to connect the two break-ins.
Officials described the Sunday night/early Monday morning burglars as “professionals.” In fact, they credited Officer Meadows’ nightly patrol for likely having scared off the burglars from the month before.
By Monday night, Meadows’ German shepherd roamed the farm home in search of a master who’d never return.
Meadows’ aunt watched the dog pace around the homestead.
“He’s going to miss him,” Voss told the Courier.
Plainfield businessmen started a memorial fund for the slain town marshal, and despite a $500 reward offered by Iowa Governor Norman Erbe, the burglars responsible for Meadows’ slaying were never apprehended.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, William Meadows’ murder was one of 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.
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 the resolution of 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.
William Lawrence Meadows was born October 3, 1924, in Raymond, Washington, to Jeanne Elizabeth Pringle and Dr. Lawrence Harland Meadows.
In 1949, when the family’s Plainfield farm went up for rent — a farm settled by his aunt’s grandfather, who came to America from Scotland — Meadows decided to return to Iowa to manage it.
He spent 15 years farming the land two and one-half miles north of Plainfield, serving as Plainfield’s town marshal the last five before his death.
Meadows was buried in Harlington Cemetery in Waverly, Iowa.
The National Peace Officers Association later presented the Medal of Merit for Valor Award to Meadows’ family, and placed Meadows’ name on the Memorial Roll of Honor at the Police Hall of Fame and Museum at Port Charlotte, Florida.
If you have any information about William Meadows’ unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Bremer County Sheriff’s Office at (319) 352-5400.