Frequently Asked Questions

When it comes to unsolved crimes, people typically have a lot of questions. On this page, we’ll answer some of the more frequently asked questions and add others as deemed necessary. In certain instances (where noted) the answers may apply specifically to Iowa law vs. criminal law in other states. Examples are provided merely to clarify explanations.

Does Iowa have an official cold case unit?

Not at this time. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation established a federally funded official Cold Case Unit in January 2009, but when federal funding expired in 2011, was forced to shut down the unit in December 2011 (a tremendous blow to Iowans). Investigators made steady progress on many cases using latest forensic DNA technology, the results of which weren’t fully appreciated until a series of arrests and convictions after the CCU shut down while still awaiting test results. Our hope is that future funding will restore this vital, much-needed unit so they may continue to identify, prioritize and evaluate past crimes that still hold potential for resolution through ever-advancing forensic science.

How much time must pass before a case is listed as cold?

It depends entirely on each individual case and its status with the respective investigating agency. As a general rule, a case goes “cold” once all leads hit a dead end or have been “run out.” When no further leads exist to investigate, local or state law enforcement officials will often refer to the case as having “gone cold.”

In certain instances — cases like Evansdale cousins Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, which remain active investigations — we’ll sometimes add the victim’s information our website after one or two years to remind readers that, 1) no arrests have yet been made, or 2) it’s not too late to provide additional details to prosecutors because a case has not yet gone to trial. A previously unknown tip may very well make the difference between an acquittal or conviction.

What about the murders where someone was tried and found not guilty? Are these considered unsolved?

A case is considered “unsolved” until a suspect has been identified, charged, and tried in a court of law for the crime. Cases not resulting in convictions may or may not be kept on the books pending new evidence (i.e. instances where a different suspect might still be found, charged, and tried for the crime). In cases where investigators and/or prosecutors had solid evidence and are convinced they charged and tried the responsible suspect (who was later acquitted), or in cases where the primary or known suspect dies before trial, the murders are considered “by lawful terms” unsolved even though the cases warrant no further investigation. These cases are closed by what is called “exceptional means.”

Extenuating circumstances may also come into play, and a suspect acquitted of one murder may still be found guilty in another closely associated homicide. For example, in March 1993 a jury acquitted Teri Lass in the February 1992 bludgeoning death of her 6-day-old son, Shane Lassbut Mrs. Lass could still be charged in the “undetermined” March 1988 death of her 10-day-old daughter, Tamara Lass, particularly should an exhumation and new forensic autopsy produce previously undetected DNA evidence.

What is the difference between a homicide and a murder? Aren’t they the same thing?

While the terms “homicide” and “murder” are often used interchangeably (even in a single article, where both terms are appropriate and correct), they each have distinct meanings. Simply put, all murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders.

A “homicide” is the act of killing another human. A “murder” is the killing of another person “with malice aforethought either express or implied.” (See Iowa Code Chapter 707 — Homicide and Related Crimes)

Homicides include murders, acts of self-defense, the infrequent “suicide by cop” (which is classified as a justifiable homicide, not murder) and other circumstances where neither premeditation nor malice aforethought exist. Law enforcement officials classify all murders as homicides, and a case referenced as either a homicide or a murder has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a suspect has been identified. Homicides become murder investigations based on evidence and known circumstances surrounding the decedent’s death.

In a first-degree murder case where more than one suspect is arrested, tried, and found guilty, how does the punishment for the actual killer differ from the person(s) who aided and abetted in the crime?

A conviction in Iowa for first-degree murder is punishable by a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Contrary to what many people believe, a conviction in Iowa for aiding and abetting first-degree murder is also punishable by a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

The Iowa State Legislature’s 2016 session is currently reviewing newly proposed bills to increase the statute of limitations for charges of accessory before (or after) the fact.

It seems there used to be more old cases on the website. Are you culling out the older ones?

Iowa Cold Cases will never remove a case from our website simply due to its age. The only cases removed are those in which law enforcement officials confirmed are not, in fact, unsolved. Between 2010 and 2012, a former ICC volunteer with website publishing privileges added several cases to this website based on old newspaper articles, but the cited sources often did not include research beyond the same year the murder occurred (e.g. the late 1800’s, the ’20s and ’30s, and so on). After the volunteer’s departure, ICC contacted the respective investigating agencies to verify the status of these cases, and then removed those that officials confirmed were not classified as unsolved. We at ICC understand loss and the growing interest in Iowa’s historical murders, but our website’s primary goal remains — and has always been — focused on providing summaries for Iowa’s unsolved murders.

How many unsolved murders or cases exist in Iowa?

As of September 2015, Iowa Cold Cases lists 571 cases: 456 of these cases are murders, and 115 missing person cases include those where officials believe the victim is deceased (e.g. Lynn Schuller, Jane Wakefield, Johnny Gosch), or where the missing person has legally been declared dead (e.g. Jodi Huisentruit).

How can you help me with a particular case?

Although we conduct investigative research on each case as much as possible prior to its inclusion here, we do not have the resources nor legal authorization to actively investigate individual cases in a law enforcement capacity; criminal investigations are handled by law enforcement members within the respective investigating agency or agencies.

Our goal is to provide case summary details on verified unsolved cases in efforts to keep the victims’ names “out there and in the public eye” and to encourage those with new or known information — that which might help solve a case — to contact the investigating agency. The news media plays an important role in reminding readers a case is still unsolved (particularly around anniversary dates), and even the briefest update may be enough to spark a fresh lead.

We care deeply about each case and our hope is that case information gathered and presented here will serve as a springboard for others to get involved and help us deliver one powerful message: these victims will not be forgotten, and justice may very well be as close as a phone call or email initiated by one single individual.

We emphasize cooperation, not competition, with partners and news media outlets to ensure each victim and his or her family members’ story remains a top priority and focuses on efforts to help solve each case.

What does an autopsy involve, and how long before the report is completed?

An autopsy is a systematic examination of a body’s organs to determine the cause and manner of death and to assess any pathologic changes that may be present. A complete forensic autopsy begins with a thorough review of the decedent’s medical history if that information is available. The body is then examined both externally and internally in order to discover and document disease or injury. Specimens of vital organs and body fluids are tested for drugs and alcohol. In cases of death resulting from violence, evidence may be collected and later examined by the state crime laboratory.

The autopsy and ancillary tests usually do not delay the release of the body to next-of-kin. However, final results and completion of the autopsy report may take 60-90 days.

Who determines whether an autopsy is necessary or may request that one be performed?

From Iowa Code 331.801(4): County Medical Examiners, County Attorneys, and the State Medical Examiner may request that an autopsy be performed in cases where death is suspected to have arisen from violent, suspicious, and unexpected circumstances.

May a family refuse a forensic autopsy?

No. Forensic autopsies are necessary to answer medicolegal questions that are deemed in the public’s interest or to address a question of law.

The Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner (IOSME) and the County Medical Examiners recognize that there are rare instances when an individual’s religious beliefs may oppose the performance of an autopsy. The IOSME will consider religious beliefs on a case-by-case basis. The final decision to perform an autopsy will be determined by the IOSME. More information may be found at the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner website.

Why is an autopsy necessary when cause of death (such as a gunshot wound) is obvious?

A complete autopsy examination can uncover details necessary for determining manner of death and provide information that may need to be presented in court. For example, details in an autopsy report may include direction of the wound, extent of injury, number of wounds, and range of fire (distance from muzzle to victim). Specimens are also acquired during the autopsy for testing of drugs and alcohol.

My loved one was an organ donor. Is this still possible if he/she is murdered?

The Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner commonly works with the Iowa Donor Network to arrange for organ and/or tissue donation. A need for an autopsy does not necessarily preclude organ and/or tissue donation. Although extenuating circumstances may prevent donation, all eligible donors will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

If you’d like to donate your loved one’s organs, please contact either the Iowa Donor Network at (319) 665-3787 or the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner at (515) 725-1400 prior to the autopsy.

Who may obtain copies of an autopsy report or death certificate?

An autopsy report (which is confidential and treated as a medical record), is available only to the decedent’s immediate and legal next of kin (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, grandparent, guardian), and to investigating law enforcement agencies and county attorney offices.

The FINAL AUTOPSY REPORT is available to the legal next-of-kin upon receipt of a written request, and there is no charge for this report. An Autopsy Request Form for use by next-of-kin may be found here (MS Word format). One may also request a copy of the autopsy report by writing to:

Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner
2250 South Ankeny Blvd.
Ankeny, IA  50023-9093

Fax: 515-725-1414

In this request, please include your full name, address, telephone number, your relationship to the decedent, their date of death, and the county in which the death occurred.

The Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner cannot issue copies of death certificates. The funeral director that you chose to handle the final arrangements for your loved one can assist you with obtaining copies of the death certificate. There is a fee charged per certificate when purchased directly through the Iowa Department of Public Health. Certified copies of the death certificate may be obtained from the Iowa Department of Public Health Vital Records office, either in person or by mail. Information about how to purchase a death certification is available at http://www.idph.iowa.gov/health-statistics/request-record. If you have additional questions, please contact the Vital Records office at (515) 281-4944 during business hours.

The cause and manner of death (contained in a death certificate) is a matter of public record and can be released unless release of such information will hinder or harm an ongoing criminal investigation [Iowa Code 22.7(4)].

Iowa law provides this guidance for release of autopsy reports under Iowa Code Section 22.7(41):

  • Law Enforcement: Law enforcement agencies have the greatest access to medical information. Medical examiner records and reports, including autopsy reports, shall be released on request to a law enforcement agency that is investigating the death.
  • Immediate Next of Kin: The decedent’s immediate next of kin has conditional access to autopsy reports which shall be released on request, unless disclosure “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”
  • General Public: The general public has no access to autopsy reports. However, information regarding the cause and manner of death is open and shall be released to the public, unless, like autopsy reports, disclosure of this information “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”

Who makes the decision to exhume a body, and is the family’s permission needed?

Iowa Code 144.34 states that disinterment for the purpose of autopsy requires a district court order and is allowed only when there is reasonable cause to believe that someone is criminally or civilly responsible for the death. While due consideration is given to relatives’ feelings, the ultimate decision lies with the court. Obtaining consent from the decedent’s family, however, can be crucial in the court’s decision.

While court orders may be requested by and granted to local law enforcement officials as well as state and federal officials, a petition to exhume a body is normally not made unless officials believe they have a viable suspect, or, in cases where a death initially was ruled an accident or not a result of foul play, investigators now believe a crime was committed and previously overlooked trace evidence may exist.

How do you use or share information submitted through the Contact form?

As information is received, we first cross-check Iowa Cold Cases files for any existing documentation on that victim. If no documents or files exist, we research the case to verify its status as an open case. Depending on the details shared via the Contact form, the information may be passed on to city or county law enforcement agencies, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation or the FBI. If someone specifically requests we not disclose his or her name or information that would personally identify him or her (as referenced in the Contact form), we fully respect those wishes for anonymity and that information will not be disclosed. We do, however, fully comply with legal requests made by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

How did the Iowa Cold Cases website come about?

Author/journalist Jody Ewing founded the website in 2005 after writing a Sioux City, Iowa, cold case series for the newsweekly, Weekender. Once the series began, many victims’ family members reached out to Ewing, wondering if his or her loved one’s case could also be featured in the series; it simply wasn’t possible to include them all. Ewing began researching these additional cases — uncovering hundreds of other names in the process — and founded the website in efforts to provide all victims’ case information and stories.

Nearly two years after launching the website, Ewing’s stepfather of 25 years, Earl Thelander of Onawa, died from burns sustained in a Monona County propane gas explosion caused by copper thieves. Earl’s death became the nation’s first innocent copper theft fatality. The following year, local law enforcement declared the case as officially having gone cold, and Ewing added his name to the website, where it remains yet today, unsolved.

Do you consider any of the other cases “personal?”

There’s not a case listed here that isn’t.

7 Responses to FAQ

  1. cindy chevalier says:

    Good Evening,
    I was just emailing to find out if there have been any new leads of the case of John
    Stephens? He is on your website here. He was an Iowa police officer working as a security guard and was killed at a restuarant called Club 64. This happened way back in the early 60’s. He is my mom’s half-brother. Did the police just quite searching? Did they ever have any suspects or leads? Does anyone know what really happened? Thank you so much.

  2. Zach says:

    I am also curious why Jo Jo Zolicoffer isn’t on this site, he went to East Waterloo high school and was an 85 grad I believe.

    • Jody Ewing says:

      The reason Jo Jo Zolliecoffer is not yet listed on our site is because the extent of the info I’ve been able to locate about him amounts to this, from the Social Security Death Index:

      J Zolliecoffer
      Born Nov. 3, 1965
      Death: Sept. 1989
      Age 23
      SSN 481-78-3320

      I have searched every online source I can find, including archives, the Waterloo paper (at least what’s online; I live on the other side of the state), plus even the Waterloo High School website. And, I’ve used a wide variety of spellings. Note:

      – Rob has it spelled Zollicoffer
      – Zach has it spelled Zolicoffer
      – The SSDI has it spelled Zolliecoffer

      The truth is, I know nothing about this case (i.e. how he was killed, the location in Waterloo “where” he was killed, the circumstances behind the murder, etc.), and the reason I don’t know is because no one has provided any of those details to us. Was his (birth) name “Jo Jo” or is that a nickname? If it’s a nickname, what does the “J” stand for as used by the SSDI? Joseph, Joe, Jo, James — no one has given us that information, either.

      Do any of you have any old newspaper clippings or photos you could scan and send to me? I will also contact the Waterloo Police Dept. and see what information they’d be willing to provide.

      I will go ahead and do a “basic” page for Jo Jo right now, and will add more information as it is provided to me. You may contact me directly with the details at: jody@iowacoldcases.org

      I look forward to hearing again from some of you.

      All best,

      Jody Ewing

    • Jody Ewing says:

      Zach, Rob and Jahmilah: I began searching again after writing, and finally (after using a different online library for newspaper archives) was able to find four short pieces about Jo Jo, (first name Jeffrey/Jeffery – confusion on that, too), but at least they will be enough to put together a summary that explains what happened to him. (What an awful way to die! From what I gathered from the articles, his body was found in the Cedar River; he’d been shot in the head and his body tied to concrete blocks.) What a tragic death. Absolutely barbaric. I’m so sorry for your loss.

      Please, though, still feel free to pass along any other information/photos and/or favorite stories you might have of your friend. We can state the facts, but close friends and family members can paint a vivid portrait of a loved one’s personality or sense of humor in ways only they can tell.

      It’s quite late here and I’m heading off to bed, so will tackle the page summary tomorrow.

      All best,
      Jody

  3. ROB says:

    the murder of jo jo zollicoffer in waterloo in late 80’s or early 90’s should be on here

  4. cindy chevalier says:

    Hi there,
    I was wondering if the case of John Stephens has ever been solved? I am asking because he is my mother’s half brother. She oftens thinks about him and has always wondered if the person or persons have ever been caught?
    Thank you so much.

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