Keeping cold cases from being forgotten

7:50 PM, May 11, 2012

Written by Josh O’Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen

When Jody Ewing first began writing about Iowa’s unsolved murders, people would ask if she had a personal connection to a cold case that sparked her interest.

Until 2007, the answer was always no.

On Aug. 28 of that year, 80-year-old Earl Thelander of Onawa, Ewing’s stepfather, was cleaning the basement of an unoccupied rental property that had been gutted by copper thieves. Earlier that day, he and law enforcement officials had turned off the propane tank and aired out the house, but when he turned on a blower fan to dry out the basement, it ignited an explosion. Thelander died of severe burns four days later.

Jody Ewing

Ewing had written a newspaper series on cold cases for the Sioux City Weekender in 2005, and soon after began a website, Iowa Cold Cases, devoted to profiling Iowa’s unsolved homicides and disappearances.

So when investigators announced they had exhausted their leads in the search for the copper thieves who had contributed to Thelander’s death, it was with a sense of sad irony that Ewing added her stepfather to the site in 2008.

“I’m going to keep doing this as long as his case is cold,” Ewing said.

Ewing lived in Iowa City for a time while studying at the University of Iowa, before earning a degree in communications with a minor in criminal justice at Iowa State University. She now lives and works in Onawa, about 30 minutes south of Sioux City.

Seven years after beginning her efforts, she now works with a co-administrator, Nancy Bowers of Ames, and together they research and write entries for their extensive and polished website under a nonprofit called Iowa Cold Cases.

To date, the site has chronicled 502 unsolved homicides and 107 missing persons cases — from the 1847 death of Nathaniel Carnagy, said to be Linn County’s first murder victim, to the 2011 slaying of West Des Moines real estate agent Ashley Okland, which investigators have yet to label a cold case.

The website attracts nearly 20,000 unique visitors and 250,000 page views a month.

Ewing’s site keeps cases that otherwise may have slipped out of the public eye and into the cracks of history just a Google search away. That wasn’t the case when she began writing about the topic.

“When I started looking online for information, there was nothing,” she said. “When I typed Iowa cold cases into Google searches, other than the occasional story about Jodi Huisentruit and sometimes Eugene Martin, there was nothing on these other cases.”

The website now serves as an information hub for the families of victims, who provide administrators with new details as they arise, post written tributes to their loved ones and mark the anniversaries of their deaths. Ewing says, to her knowledge, it is the only website of its kind working to compile cold cases from a single state.

Although Ewing and Bowers’ sources include law enforcement officials and victims’ families, much of their research is done online using newspaper archives and ancestry websites. Often, within days of posting a new case history, a family member will contact them with additional details or photographs.

“I discovered that it didn’t matter if it’s been five years or 50 years since someone had been murdered, the families never, ever forget,” Ewing said.

And as someone who is living under the cloud of an unsolved crime, Ewing understands their pain.

“It’s kind of hard to move forward when you don’t know what happened,” Ewing said. “If someone disappeared, of course there’s the constant wondering if they’ll show up again one day. And with an unsolved homicide, you don’t know if that person is out there killing other people, or they could be a person you run into at the grocery store.”

Reach Josh O’Leary at 887-5415 or

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