Ten Iowa murders that reveal the darkness which lurks in the heartland of evil.
When you think of Iowa you probably see images of endless fields of corn and soybeans and the simple farm folk who tend to them. Maybe you even see the rather dour, stoic couple from the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic. Yet underneath all of that simplicity and stoicism, Iowa contains a darkness every bit as horrifying as the legendary darkness of New York or Los Angeles. Perhaps even more so. None other than gothic rock icon Glenn Danzig once quipped that Iowa is the “heartland of evil.”
That evil can be found in a long history of strange and macabre murders that defy our own understanding as Iowans about what we are as a state and as human beings. Has the transformation of our landscape into farmland invited some kind of supernatural curse? Have we ploughed up our black Iowa dirt and released its darkness that it might make its way into the hearts of our people? Or are we just regular people, with the intrinsic tendency for truth to sometimes get stranger than fiction? After reading these ten cases I will let you decide.
10. The Villisca Axe House Murders
While there had already been fifty years of dark and deadly colonial history in the state of Iowa, it had never seen anything like the horrors visited on the Moore family and their two guests on Sunday June 9th of 1912. On this night an unidentified assailant entered the Moore home in Villisca, Iowa and killed all six members of the Moore family, as well as the two young Stillinger sisters who were staying the night with them, using an axe. It was a gruesome scene that tore the town apart, creating a rift between residents who lined up in two camps to blame or support the two biggest suspects, forever damaging community relations.
Recently a book was released by famous baseball writer Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James that claims to have solved the case. After doing years of extensive research on this murder, as well as other murders committed around the country at the same time, the two pieced together a tale of coast to coast serial murder by a man they believe to be Paul Mueller. While they have made a solid case against him, there is no way to ever verify it. The thing about reconstructing the past is that even our best answers will always contain a question mark.
Meanwhile the house in which the crime occurred remains open to visitors, and has been restored to appear as though it might have in 1912. There are both daytime tours and an overnight package in which you get to stay the night in the house where these horrible crimes took place, and which is allegedly haunted by the victims. I once did the tour and overnight stay with an ex-girlfriend and some of her friends, and although I did not see any ghosts, I did see some pretty entertaining human behavior and was genuinely creeped out by the place. Knowing what had happened, how could you not be?
9. Jackie Leigh Douthart
On May 22, 2001 the young single mother was reported missing when she did not return to her home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa after a night out with friends. The last person she was seen with, Benjamin Biggs, became the number one suspect in the case. However Biggs, who claimed to have dropped Jackie off at her home that night, committed suicide during a police chase on June 29th, and so his guilt has remained inconclusive even though police and family members believe him to have been the killer. Further complicating matters, it was almost a year before Jackie’s body was located, which happened like something straight out of a macabre coming-of-age story by Stephen King.
Two children were riding their bikes along a highway on March 17, 2012 when they stumbled across a human skull, which was later determined to be that of the missing woman. As she had decomposed to a skeletal state, nuclear dna testing was needed to confirm the identity, while a cause of death was unable to be determined. With no evidence or motive available, there is little hope of resolution in Jackie’s tragic tale.
8. Matthew John Owen
If anyone ever tells you that you a ninety year old white guy from Iowa can’t live the pimp life, you can give them the Batman backhand and tell them about Matthew John Owen. After 52 years of marriage to his third wife, Matthew became a widower, but not before securing all of their shared assets under his name to fund his pimp future. After having broken the yolk of matrimony through attrition and death, Matthews left behind small town living for the relatively cosmopolitan Cedar Rapids, Iowa and bought a quarter million dollar home in close proximity to his favorite strip club.
As he became a regular of Woody’s Show Club, and other local strip clubs, he met lots of young women whom he became a sugar daddy to. In exchange for cleaning and other household services, as well as their company both platonically and sexually, Owen was subsidizing the lives of several dancers and their entourage. His behaviors were both charitable and creepy, and his lavish lifestyle drew more and more in. He was known to brag about his wealth and made great displays of it, which likely led to his demise.
On the morning of January 18, 2013 Cedar Rapids police visited the home of Matthew. They had visited more than half a dozen times since he had moved in regarding burglary, theft, suspicious persons and welfare checks, which is what they were doing when they found his body that cold morning. There was a uHaul in the driveway, the front door was open, and large amounts of jewelry, cash and property were determined to be missing. Although police are certain he either knew, or was somehow connected to his killer, they have come no closer to fingering whoever plucked the ripe pimp from his geriatric garden of glittery gals. What a way to go out, though, and I would wager Matthew would have thought it was worth it.
7. Julie Benning
The death of this 18 year old woman from Waverly, Iowa left her family, friends and community with far more questions than answers. After graduating high school, the bright and compassionate young woman took a job working the door at a strip club, as her family was unable to send her to college. On November 28, 1975 she vanished, leaving only conflicting accounts. Her employers claimed she never arrived at work, but this was later brought into doubt as the accounts of others present at the club say she not only showed up, but worked for some time before going missing. Other conflicting reports also helped to obfuscate what had happened to the idealistic but somewhat reserved Julie, including an investigating officer who made an odd claim that he knew her to be a regular hitchhiker, which family and friends contest.
To make matters worse, the similar deaths of two other young women, one four years prior and the other a year later, suggest that there was perhaps a serial killer at work in the area. Six months after her disappearance Julie’s body was found naked in a ditch on a quiet country road, robbed of her dignity, future and, ultimately, justice.
While her family has never given up hope in finding her killer, they have gone over forty years without much to work with. A few years back a man stepped forward with information he claimed would point to her killer, but police have yet been able to find any conclusive evidence to draw any conclusions in the case, and after so many years the chances of ever knowing exactly who snuffed out her bright young life are not getting any better.
6. Elizabeth Collins & Lyric Cook
Every loss of human life to violence is a terrible thing, but most people would agree that the loss of a child is even more horrible. The loss of two children to a single act of predation is so vile that it is almost beyond our comprehension, but that is exactly what happened in Evansdale, Iowa in the middle of the hot, humid July of 2012. The eight year old Elizabeth and her ten year old cousin Lyric were riding their bicycles at Meyers Lake when they were abducted by a person who continues to elude identification.
At four o’clock on the day they went missing their bikes were found, but it was not until December 5th of that year that their bodies were discovered by hunters in a wildlife area twenty five miles from where they had disappeared. Because one of the girls came from a troubled home with a father who had abused her mother and had a long criminal history mostly involving methamphetamine, authorities focused on family ties to the girls’ disappearance. However neither any family member or other suspects considered have ever been directly linked to the crime, and the killer remains free.
There is a certain implication in the deaths of two young females as to the motives of their killer, and it makes one shudder to think of how their final moments might have been spent, satisfying the depravities of someone who considered them disposable. This has haunted their community, which has rallied to remember their loss and continue to search for the murderer responsible, yet whoever did that terrible thing is likely still walking among us here in the endless, quiet expanses of agriculture.
5. Agnes McFedries Kennedy
Sometimes a person who meets a tragic end leaves behind a strangely prophetic clue for us before their death. Agnes was a beautiful, generous and loving woman for whom circumstance, opportunity and fortune had not been kind. With children to care for, and in the wake of a bad divorce, she felt forced to leave her highly successful career as a special needs teacher to become a sex worker at a ‘massage parlor’ to make ends meet while raising her children simultaneously. Just two years before her death she spoke anonymously to the local paper about her situation and about the danger she faced as a sex worker by being forced to do it illegally and without protection from sexually frustrated and potentially violent clients.
Agnes went to work as usual on December 22, 2007 but never returned home, and her body was discovered that night in an alley, later determined to have been strangled to death. The first person of interest in the case was a man known for his penchant for physically abusing female sex workers whose alibi was that he had been at home watching tv with different sex workers when it happened, but he is no longer considered a suspect. There was also an attempt to extort her family in exchange for information, which includes Agne’s son Drew McFedries, a UFC fighter. A man who was convicted of two similar murders in the Davenport, Iowa area following the slaying of Agnes is now being considered as a prime suspect.
4. Martavious Johnson
Every description you will find of this young man from Waterloo, Iowa, whose life was so tragically and senselessly robbed from him, is a glowing review of a human being with great character, compassion and a sense of purpose guided by self-discipline and dedication. Six years after his death his family and friends still cannot understand how his promising life could have been taken for nothing but having made a joke.
On January 5th of 2012 Martavious, often referred to as Tay Tay, was involved in a verbal confrontation with some gang members. Even though Tay Tay was not himself involved in gangs, as he was too busy with athletics and being a dedicated employee of a local dry cleaner (whose attitude and work ethic they admired so much they even paid his funeral expenses), a wisecrack he made to them prompted one member to fire a lethal shot at him. It is scary to consider that an ego that cannot deflect against witty quips would fire back with bullets to the tune of such terrifying finality. Even in Iowa there exists enough poverty and inequality to drive young people into what was once thought to be exclusively a big city issue — gangs.
3. Cari Lea Farver
Technically the murder of this young woman by a romantic competitor has been solved, with the killer convicted in August 2017 for the crime, despite the lack of a body, in a Nebraska court. However the details are so strange that it would be a crime of its own not to mention it.
Cari was dating an Omaha man who had also recently been involved with another Iowa woman, Shanna Golyar. While Shanna had become aware of Cari, the opposite was not true, as the boyfriend had believed that relationship to be over. However Shanna became enraged with jealousy and a short time into the relationship Cari went missing after leaving the boyfriends home to go to work, and has never been seen again. And yet the bizarre aftermath left a trail of evidence tying Shanna to Cari’s murder. After disappearing, strange social media posts began to show up on Cari’s personal profile, and even odder text messages were sent from her phone to several people. The boyfriend was puzzled that his short term girlfriend had not only disappeared after, but had sent him numerous off the wall messages and emails in an attempt to make it appear as a rejection and break up. For this reason he did not suspect anything beyond having dated a crazy person, even though the intensity of the correspondence seemed to greatly exceed their short lived relationship.
Golyar also went so far as to shoot herself and then attempted to blame her deceased victim, and engaged in numerous real world and online activities intended to throw investigators off. She even posed as others online and then claimed responsibility for Farver’s death. Yet over time key pieces of evidence like dna and fingerprints connected the two women, as well as the mountains of insane electronic evidence, that prosecutors were enough to make a confident conviction in the killing of Farver. Goylar maintains her innocence and has not yet given authorities a location of her victim’s body.
2. Melisa Gregory and Stephen Fisher
The history of this case has intertwined with my own life. The woman believed to be the only possible killer by police, although they were unable to convict her due to a lack of physical evidence, was a peer and acquaintance of my parents, as well as my coworker at a pizza place in my late teens. I knew her and her children well, and even partied with them at their home with other coworkers and friends on several occasions. I considered her a friend, if not a bossy and domineering woman with a short temper. But she also had an earlier and darker connection to me.
My own father had died when I was eight years old, and the cause of his death was a mystery to myself, my brothers and even my mother. There were rumors and suggestions of foul play and drug deals gone awry. Fueling these rumors was none other than Terri Supino, the woman who most likely killed her ex-boyfriend (and father of her children) Stephen Fisher, along with his new girlfriend in a grisly, violent manner. As Terri had been trying to deflect guilt from herself in the years since the murder, long before she stood trial a few years ago, she had concocted a story of grand conspiracies and a local mafia who had killed not just Stephen and Melisa, but allegedly also my father and others. She contacted my mother on a few occasions to “provide new evidence”, and spoke to me during the time I knew her about it, but as the years went by and I gained distance it sort of faded into a dead end mystery. When Terri was arrested in 2014 after thirty years to stand trial, my mother and I visited the sheriff who was investigating to see if we could help provide some clues, or finally get some answers about what happened to my dad. As it turned out, his death and those of Stephen and Melisa could not possibly have been connected in any way, and the tales told by Terri had all been machinations with much more sinister undertones than helping us to find any answers.
On March 3, 1983 Gregory and Fisher were found bludgeoned to death in trailer on a property outside of Newton, Iowa. The injuries were so egregious that investigators initially believed guns must have been involved, but evidence later revealed the two had been beaten repeatedly with a hammer or other blunt object. Due to the volatile nature of Stephen and Terri’s relationship, and the increased hostility since their separation, she was immediately a suspect. Other factors that made her suspicious were the passionate nature of the crimes, and the killers ability to swing a hammer so hard in such a small space, which would make more sense with a person of Terri’s slight stature. Despite this, and the fact the pretty much everybody believes that she did it, there has never been enough evidence to convict and the case against her is closed forever.
1. Adam & Gary Lack
The deaths of this father and son have some very Iowa circumstances about them, and suggest corruption, conspiracy and ultimately two murders. It is a twisted tale with so many strange turns and believable but insane accusations that it is hard to form a complete picture of what happened, who was involved, as well as how and why.
The Lack family farm in Mitchell County, Iowa, as well as others nearby, had become inundated with waste runoff from the larger surrounding farms. The land become unsuitable for farming and the groundwater which fed their homes was polluted beyond use. Adam Lack was not just going to take this on the chin, and so through legal and technological means he plotted to expose the destructive activities of the local agricultural industry. As a result of his efforts he faced harassment, and ultimately, torture and murder. Yet corrupt local officials allegedly helped cover up his death, even though there was overwhelming evidence of the actual murder and murderers.
A few years later his father Gary was fighting a battle against cancer, which had almost undoubtedly been the result of the pollution in his environment. After a visit to the Mayo Clinic, Gary was assigned temporary hospice care, due to his upcoming participation in a promising experimental treatment. A few days later a hospice nurse injected Gary with a lethal dose of highly questionable medication, which had been ‘stolen’ from a pharmacy ran by the county attorney’s wife. The nurse was found guilty of several wrongdoings by a state nursing association, but charges were never brought against her in his death. She also took it upon herself, outside medical protocol, to declare Gary legally dead, at which point his body was taken away and cremated without permission and with no autopsy performed.
So while you might think of Iowa as just a quiet land of simple folks quietly dotting the rolling farmland, not only do we have pimps and gangsters, but corporate conspiracies and corrupt officials spinning games of deadly intrigue. Hey, we can’t all be Iowa Nice!