Though Iowa City has never experienced a debacle on the scale of the Villisca axe murder, or crime rates like those seen in big cities, it has had its share of unsolved murders and missing persons. In late 2009, a state cold case unit was established and nearly 150 cases were listed on their website in the hopes of solving them using the latest advancements in DNA technology. The cold case unit closed in December 2011 due to lack of funding, but the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) continues to pursue some cold cases on which they have made progress. Iowacoldcases.org, a non-profit run by dedicated volunteers, is actively updated with new information and advocates for missing persons and their loved ones by keeping victims’ stories alive and active, working with law enforcement and even aiding in making convictions.
Despite the passage of time, I can’t help but think of or write about these cases from a very personal place because they affect me deeply. In researching these cases, several things intrigued me, as I already knew where they had occurred. All of these events occupied the public and press for many years and many still have grieving family and unpunished perpetrators. Many thanks to the nonprofit Iowa Cold Cases; most of the information provided here has been sourced from their in-depth archives. Their motto is: ”Where Hope is Never Laid to Rest.”
The oldest known Iowa City cold case is for the murder of the handsome 32-year-old motorcycle patrolman, Edward M. Leeney. On April 29, 1926, he died after colliding with a city street car at Market and North Dubuque streets while in pursuit of a speeding vehicle. According to Iowa Code Chapter 707, “if a person kills another person while escaping or attempting to escape from lawful custody” it is considered murder. Leeney’s case remains unsolved as the person he was pursuing escaped. In 2003 he was honored by Johnson County’s nine enforcement agencies.
On Nov. 10, 1962, 43-year-old Edward A. Kriz, former owner of George’s Buffet, was murdered behind Hamburg Inn No. 2, at 214 N. Linn St. After closing the bar early and dining at the next door restaurant, Kriz and his wife left out the backdoor. Upon leaving, they encountered a man wearing a Halloween mask and trying to enter his bar. As Kriz attempted to stop the man, shots were fired and the killer fled. A button was torn off the attacker’s coat that eventually led police to 18-year-old Joseph Schneider. The collective evidence was hand-delivered to the FBI lab in Washington D.C. for testing, but when returned, the damning button was missing, and all charges were dropped against Schneider.
Another unsolved case involved 30-year-old Ronald F. Lipsius, from Williamsburg. Lipsius ran the Clover Farm Food Market at 812 S. Summit St. On Monday, May 16, 1966, around 8:30 a.m., a young woman stole $50 from the till of his store. When he chased the woman down the sidewalk she shot him dead with a .22 caliber pistol, drove away and was never identified.
In the mid-1970s, several women were murdered in the Iowa City area. At age 20, Sarah Otten was a nursing student living in Room 429 of Rienow Hall on the UI campus. On March 13, 1973, just before midnight, another student found her severely beaten and dead from asphyxiation. Six months later, fingerprints and DNA evidence led authorities to arrest former UI football player James Hall. In May 1974, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison at Fort Madison. In 1983, Hall’s conviction was overturned on a technicality and he was released. Tragically, in 1992, Hall was convicted of strangling to death another woman, Susan Hajek. No one else was ever charged in Ottens’ murder.
A double homicide occurred near the Coralville Reservoir in a wooded camping area just south of Marina 218. A pickup truck found in high weeds with two charred bodies inside was found on Labor Day in 1975. The gas cap had been removed, extra gas had been added and matches were found in the trunk bed. Identified through dental records they were Karen Ann Christensen, 27, of Cedar Rapids, and her cousin Larry Gordon Wells, 25, of Marathon. Karen was a 1969 double major who graduated summa cum laude from UNI; Larry attended college in Nebraska and served with the Navy in Vietnam, after which he lived in his childhood home in Marathon, working on its restoration with the help of Karen.
Jane Ellen Wakefield, 26 at the time, was last seen on Sept. 9, 1975 at the Bon-Air Mobile Home Lodge. A UI grad, she taught at Penn Elementary in North Liberty. When she she did not show up for work, the school reported her missing. Some people suggested that she had left with a religious cult, but that proved wrong. She had filed for divorce six months earlier and was involved with another man. Two city lagoons near the trailer court were drained but no evidence was uncovered. Testing on bone fragments found at the incinerator of her apartment led nowhere. When it was reported that she was murdered, cremated and the ashes had been spread along I-80, local authorities performed a search but found nothing conclusive. The prime suspect in the case has never been charged due to lack of evidence; Jane is still missing and assumed dead. She was one of three divorcees that went missing that summer.
Vicki Lynn Klotzbach, a 22-year-old lab technician at the University of Iowa, was found raped and shot dead in Coralville in 1981. According to a 2002 article from the Fort Madison Daily Democrat, the bullet was traced to the gun’s owner who became the prime suspect, but the prosecutors lacked enough evidence to make an arrest at the time. After more than 20 years, advancements in DNA testing technologies confirmed that the original prime suspect was indeed the murderer of Vicki Klotzbach. He was convicted in 2003.
Susan Pearl (Bollinger) Kerstan’s burned body was found in her car on Sept. 24, 1995. At age 38, Kerstan was a talented artist and a divorced mother of four. Beaten severely, she was placed inside her vehicle, rolled through two fences and into a field off Highway 923 about a mile south of her home at Regency Mobile Home Village and then set afire. She was identified through dental records. Since her murder, her living children, family and even members of the community have actively tried to find who murdered Kerstan. Suspicion fell upon her estranged boyfriend and father of the twin girls, but no one was ever convicted.
The death of Iowa City child care worker Laura Van Wyhe is strange and compelling. Laura was found by a truck driver on Oct. 25, 1996, along the shoulder of Highway 136 near Kahoka, Mo. Alive but incoherent, troopers said she may have been hit by a car, but not where she was found. She died three hours later of brain trauma, massive blood loss and blunt force trauma to the legs. She had gone to Bonapart with her 14-month-old son to visit family on her birthday. Due to sleeping arrangements she stayed in Kahoka with her boyfriend’s family. Apparently leaving in haste, her baby bag was found in a tree and her clothing was in a cornfield near her body. She was wearing her brother-in-law’s unsullied jacket. Who killed her, as well as other elements following her death, still remain a mystery.
English-born Frances Bloomfield went missing on Sept. 20, 1997. Her husband, who had just returned home from Europe, reported her missing after finding pools of blood in their home. Her car was also missing. Later that day, her body was found in a ditch along U.S. 20, a half mile south of Rockford, Ill., hands and feet tied with rope and wrapped in black trash bags. The cause of death was strangulation by ligature. Her car was found in a New Jersey airport.
For more details or if you have information on these cases and others in the state please consult Iowacoldcases.org.
Marlin R. Ingalls is a professional archaeologist, historian and architectural historian within Iowa’s Office of the State Archaeologist. He is a member of the state historical society of Iowa’s Technical Advisory Network and former member of the Iowa’s State Nomination Review Committee, which reviews nominations for listing on the national register of historic places. He is also a consultant specializing in helping preservationists and communities evaluate, document and restore their historic buildings, neighborhoods and other historic resources.