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Onawa, IA – For Jody Ewing of Onawa, near Sioux City, this is her calling. Remembering the forgotten. Profiling cold, unsolved cases throughout the state on her website iowacoldcases.org.
The project started out in 2005 when Ewing was working as a newspaper reporter. She did a series on cold cases, and more and more victims’ families began asking her for help.
“By the time I finished that cold case series I had so many people that had contacted me and I felt so bad that I couldn’t write about their family member that I decided, well, I’ll just start a website and start putting the cases on there,” Ewing says.
Five years later, iowacoldcases.org profiles more than 300 victims, everyone from missing persons to murders. Some of the cases date back decades. Ewing meticulously researches each one, contacting police, news reporters and family members, often forming tight bonds with them.
“I hate to say it but I correspond and speak with some of these victims’ family members more often than I do my family,” Ewing says, “But they call in for updates and if they get any more information they contact me.”
For two years, Ewing researched these cold cases, never really knowing what these victims’ families were going through. But that all changed August 28, 2007.
Ewing’s stepfather, Earl Thelander, was fixing up an old house when copper thieves broke in and stole all the water and propane gas lines — causing gas and water to leak. The [police] department was called and cleared the air, but there was still a hidden pocket of gas under a porch. When Thelander plugged in a fan — the house exploded.
“The explosion blew him over into the opposite side of the basement,” Ewing explains, “And he was still able to get out. He crawled out of there and tried to call my mother but his cell phone didn’t work. He got in the truck and drove himself two miles back into town.”
“My first thought was, oh gosh, whoever it was that broke into the house and stole the copper lines came back and beat him up,” Thelander’s wife, Hope Thelander, says.
But that wasn’t the case. Earl Thelander had been severely burned in the explosion. His wife rushed him to the hospital. She still remembers the doctor telling her Earl wouldn’t make it.
“He said, ‘then about the fourth day you’ll have to start…making a decision of what you want to do,'” Thelander says, fighting back tears. “Well, the minute he said that I knew we would probably have to decide whether to have him live or not.”
“I can remember feeling angry at the time,” Ewing adds, “Thinking how dare he imply that Earl’s not gonna make it. But of course he knew better than I. He had seen Earl and he had second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. I mean, a 30-year-old could not have survived that.”
Earl Thelander died four days later.
“And I told him I loved him and, of course he had tubes in his mouth and everywhere, and he went ‘I love you.’ And that was the last time he talked to us,” Mrs. Thelander says.
The people who stole the piping that led to the explosion have never been caught; police just ran out of leads. And Ewing became part of the cold cases on her site.
“That’s when it really hit me,” she says, “And that was in ’08 I believe that they finally said it. ‘They’ve run out of leads. It’s dead ended and the case has gone cold.’ And then I just went in and it was … it felt surreal putting his name on there. On the website.”
Ewing often spends 16 hours or more a day working on the site. She doesn’t get paid for it — it’s strictly volunteer. She says she has to do it in the name of justice.
“The victims deserve it,” she says. “And the family members of the victims deserve justice.”
To see Ewing’s website, log on to iowacoldcases.org.
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