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Belle Plaine train fatalities ruled murder-suicide
Law enforcement agents and family say they don't know what prompted a Belle Plaine mother to step in front of a train and take her 8-year-old son with her.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has ruled the May 4 deaths of Teresa C. Gerleman, 35, and Henry Fields a suicide and murder, the division announced Tuesday.
'We found some material that indicated she had some suicidal thoughts and tendencies,' said Special Agent in Charge Rick Rahn. 'We don't know what tipped the scale or caused her to go down this path.'
Gerleman waited near the railroad tracks before 5 a.m. May 4 for the Union Pacific train to approach, according to the release. Video footage from the train showed Gerleman and her son, Henry, crossing the tracks. As the train drew near, Gerleman returned to the center of the tracks and pulled Henry into its path.
Officials concluded the investigation after reviewing evidence from Gerleman's residence, interviews with Union Pacific employees, video footage from the train and other interviews.
Randy Gerleman, of Jackson, Miss., said Tuesday the family is devastated by the decision of his niece and goddaughter to kill her son.
'You want to commit suicide, go ahead,' he said. 'But you are a dirty, rotten, lowdown, no-good son-of-a-gun yanking your son onto a railroad track and murdering him, too.'
Gerleman said the last time he saw Teresa Gerleman was in 2006, when her mother died. But he was friends with her on Facebook and saw she posted about having health issues. She struggled in the past with drug abuse and holding a job, he said.
Randy Gerleman wonders whether friends, staff at Longfellow Elementary, the Belle Plaine school Henry attended, and government officials who interacted with the family saw any red flags.
'At some point, someone should have known that child should have been taken away,' he said.
Records detail struggles
Court records paint a picture of a rocky relationship between Teresa Gerleman and Eric L. Fields, Henry's father. Randy Gerleman said his niece and Fields were not married.
In 2008, Teresa Gerleman pleaded guilty to assault causing injury for attacking Fields on June 22, 2007, in the 1400 block of Oakland Road NE in Cedar Rapids, The Gazette reported.
Gerleman filed two petitions for domestic abuse protective orders in 2014, alleging Fields had physically and verbally abused her. One complaint alleged Fields had thrown Henry into his toddler bed, causing the boy to hit his head on the wall. That petition was dismissed when a judge determined at trial the incidents Gerleman testified about would have happened more than five years earlier.
Eric Fields could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Teresa Gerleman sought state unemployment benefits in 2012 from the Robert Half corporation, a Cedar Rapids company where she was employed as a part-time data entry clerk, Iowa Workforce Development records state. An administrative law judge ruled she was not entitled to benefits because she voluntarily quit.
'She had panic and anxiety issues but did not have medical advice to quit,' records state. 'The employer worked with her but there was nothing it could have done to keep her from quitting. She failed to return after a medical leave of absence and declined accommodation.'
In 2015, federal court records show, an administrative law judge who reviewed Gerleman's request for Social Security disability benefits noted inconsistencies in what she and a doctor had reported.
'The claimant testified she was in constant pain, yet she was able to independently care for her son, including playing with him. ... In addition, it was noted the claimant quit several jobs due to her anxiety, but she was hesitant to engage in therapy to try to cope with her issues,' the administrative law judge wrote at the time.
Still, a federal magistrate last fall vacated the previous decision denying disability benefits to Gerleman and remanded the case back to the Social Security commissioner.
EXPERT: 'Rare a parent will just snap'
Monique Behnken, an Iowa State University assistant sociology professor, clinical psychologist and lawyer, said cases of mothers committing murder-suicide are not as rare as people think.
'It's surprising that a mother could do this to her child, but the literature says that if a child is murdered, more than likely it was done by a parent,' she said.
Usually there are stressors, such as mental illness, domestic abuse, child custody issues or financial problems, that precede filicide, she said.
'It's rare a parent will just snap out of the blue,' she said. 'Unfortunately, by the time things have happened, people have missed signs.'
While society is horrified by a parent killing his or her child, it's important to know there are complex emotions at play, she said.
'As a society we expect women will be nurturing and caretaking,' she said. 'If this mother did what is alleged, she may still have been a loving caretaker. Because we don't know what was happening (in her mind), we just don't know.'
Suicide by train
The Belle Plaine Police Department originally responded to the Union Pacific Railroad's Ninth Avenue crossing about 5 a.m. May 4 for reports of pedestrians being struck by a train. Gerleman and Henry later were identified as Belle Plaine residents.
The train was going slower than the 40-mph speed limit through Belle Plaine, Rahn said.
The Federal Railroad Administration reported 219 suicides by train in 2017 across the country, with three in Iowa. When Union Pacific train engineers or conductors witness such an incident, they immediately are directed into counseling, said Kristen South, a spokeswoman for the railroad.
'It's horribly upsetting,' she said. 'They can see what's happening. They can hit the brakes, but it takes about a mile to stop.'
All Union Pacific trains have video cameras recording in front of the train and inside the engine, South said.
Investigators found no evidence the deaths of Gerleman and Henry are connected to the April 23 death of Justin Wisner, 42, who also stepped in front on the Union Pacific train in Belle Plaine, Rahn said.
But some residents are concerned about copycat incidents with the train that regularly rolls through the Benton County town of 2,400.
'I'm trying not to bring too much attention to it because of the copycat thing,' said Belle Plaine City Administrator Jeff Horne.
Belle Plaine had a vigil earlier this month and community members are trying to support each other, he said. 'It's a very difficult thing. We had two of these happen in a short period of time.'
News researcher John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed.
How to get help
National Suicide Prevention Hotline, available 24 hours a day: 1-(800) 273-8255