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12:09 AM, May 31, 2012
The stories kept coming.
The year was 2005. Newspaper reporter Jody Ewing had finished her series on a half-dozen Sioux City-area cold case crimes for the Sioux City Journal magazine, the Weekender.
But months after the last paragraph published, emails and letters continued. Family members of victims, amateur crime historians and retired law enforcement officers wrote and called Ewing with more stories of unsolved crimes from across Iowa.
“They all felt so helpless and forgotten,” Ewing said of survivors and loved ones. “The pain was still so raw for people, whether (the crime) was five years ago or 30 years ago.”
She collected the stories. She launched the website iowacoldcases.org, starting with a few dozen cases she’d researched.
Still the stories kept coming. Ewing quit her reporting job and focused on Iowa Cold Cases full time for no pay. (She and her longtime partner live on money from renting portions of their Onawa home.)
Then Ewing became part of the story.
In 2007, copper thieves stripped propane gas lines from a home Earl Thelander and his wife owned near Onawa. Thelander, who was Ewing’s stepfather, was preparing the house for a renter.
The propane in the house exploded while Thelander was inside. He suffered burns over 80 percent of his body. He died four days later. No one has been brought to justice in the case. Now Ewing understands all too well the cold case survivors’ feelings of helplessness.
“I learned a lot about the limitations of law enforcement, especially in small communities,” Ewing said. “It made me more dedicated to collecting these stories. It helps people just to know that the story is out there somewhere.”
Eventually, Ewing joined forces with two other women who have an interest in cold cases: English professor and former Ames police record keeper Nancy Bowers, and human rights lawyer Eileen Meier.
Today, Iowa Cold Cases features nearly 600 cases. At least another [two dozen] cases are being researched for potential write-ups.
The website is registered as a not-for-profit company.
The organization has provided solace to victims’ families. The headline for the site is “Where hope is never laid to rest.” It provides an online touchstone — a marker letting people know information about these crimes and that justice is still waiting and wanting.
Bowers’ path veered toward Iowa Cold Cases when she was working in the records department for Ames police. She became intrigued by the homicide of Sheila Jean Collins, an Iowa State University student who was raped and killed in 1968. Collins’ partially clothed body was found in a ditch beside a gravel road. A nylon cord was knotted tightly around her neck.
Collins had been traveling home to suburban Chicago for a weekend to visit her boyfriend, who planned to propose to her. She found a ride through a board in the campus student center. She never made it home.
Police interviewed a man accused in other Midwest rape-murder cases. At one point, clairvoyants were called in to assist police. The case became a topic in that year’s Story County attorney election. Some people believe politics corrupted the investigation, Bowers said.
The homicide remains unsolved.
Every day while working in Ames, Bowers drove by the spot where Collins’ body was discovered.
It chafed her that the case had gone cold, that a young woman’s life was snuffed out, and the killer apparently got away with it.
Bowers saw Ewing’s work online and exchanged messages with her. She became a contributor and eventually co-administrator of Iowa Cold Cases. She loves digging through musty files and yellowed news clippings and reviving stories long faded.
“I really like the older cases. The older, the better,” Bowers said. “Those are the ones that speak to me most. … We need to remember what happened.”
Bowers occasionally interacts with victims’ family members.
In one case, an ancestor contacted her to say her posting on a 1920 homicide in Centerville — a man believed to have been killed by a Mafia-style group called the Black Hand — was the first upfront discussion she had ever heard about how her relative died.
“She said her relatives refused to talk about the victim, and whenever they mentioned his name, it was in very hushed tones,” Bowers recalled. “She said reading it on our site was the first time she got the full story.”
Another main leader of the organization is Meier, an international human rights attorney.
She, too, has a vested interest.
Her 8-year-old sister, Valerie Peterson, was hit and killed by a pickup truck in front of the Manson Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 1971.
The driver swerved onto the side of the road, hitting Valerie at least twice before driving away without stopping.
Though state and federal investigators thought they had a strong local suspect, no charges were brought. The case remains unsolved.
Meier works internationally on human rights issues in places such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Israel.
She hopes to rally the Iowa Legislature to open a permanent cold case unit to solve crimes such as her sister’s death.
Iowa Cold Cases correspondence can be far from cheerful. A reader wrote to Bowers that she was dating a man who had the same name and met the description of a suspect in a homicide. The man was tried three times but acquitted.
Bowers researched the boyfriend’s background and found he was the same man as the suspect. The woman broke off the relationship, and the jilted boyfriend contacted Bowers.
“Suing me was the least of the things he threatened,” Bowers said. “My husband was so upset he bought me a stun gun. It’s still in the box. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Melody Kirk knows that the murder of her great-great-great-grandfather, William Hurt, Des Moines’ first police chief, likely never will be solved. In September 1893, Hurt, who served in the Union Army in the Civil War, was pushed down a flight of stairs by a robber apparently after his soldier’s pension money.
Kirk is grateful that the Iowa Cold Cases website includes information about her ancestor’s homicide. She believes the site may help to solve cold cases. (Bowers said the staff regularly hands over leads to law enforcement, but hasn’t yet solved a case.)
“It gives people hope,” Kirk said. “It keeps the memories of these victims alive. … I know nothing is going to come up in my great-great-great-grandfather’s case, but a lot of these other ones, you know somebody knows something.”
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