116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: An unsolved 1983 murder in Cedar Rapids
Dennis Chaffee was shot in his basement while his twin toddlers were upstairs
It’s been 39 years, but twins Maria and Adam Chaffee hold onto hope that the person who killed their father in 1983 will one day be identified and brought to justice.
The arrest of a Manchester man in 2018 for the murder of Kennedy High School senior Michelle Martinko — 39 years after her slaying — only deepened their hope. But they’re still without answers.
The twins were 18 months old and staying with their father, Dennis Chaffee, at his Cedar Rapids home when he was shot and killed.
The newsy Marion Sentinel chronicled the milestones in Dennis Chaffee’s life — born Sept. 15, 1949, in Cedar Rapids; measles in 1953; infectious hepatitis in 1955; mumps in 1956.
He was in the fourth grade in Hiawatha when he and four of his classmates led a discussion on safety and fire prevention in October 1958 on “Youth Speaks,” a radio series sponsored by the school district that aired on several local stations.
Dennis was 11 and his brother, Jack, was 13, when they were featured in an Aug. 18, 1961, Gazette story as Gazette carriers.
Jack delivered 65 papers to Hiawatha businesses. Dennis had 97 customers on Robins Road and Northwood Drive NE. Dennis was headed into seventh grade at Franklin, and Jack was going to be a ninth-grader.
The story said Dennis had a coin collection and liked model woodworking. “The two boys are saving part of their earnings for college expenses,” the story said.
Dennis Chaffee was among the 717 students who graduated in the Cedar Rapids Washington High School Class of 1967 — the largest class to graduate in the city’s history. The new Kennedy High School opened in the fall.
After high school
Two years later, Chaffee and 21 other young men in Linn County were drafted into the Army. After basic training, Chaffee served in Vietnam.
When he returned home to Hiawatha for a 10-day leave in August 1971, 31 members of his family gathered for a picnic at the home of his parents, Harlon and Betty Chaffee.
After his service, Chaffee returned to Cedar Rapids and went to work at Wilson Foods. In 1980, he bought a two-story brick house at 914 38th St. SE. The house was set back from the street, surrounded by shrubbery, a fence and large trees.
Chaffee had his 18-month-old twins, Adam and Maria, staying with him at his house the weekend of July 16, 1983.
Mary Hernandez, the twins’ mother, called Chaffee on Monday, July 18, to arrange to pick up the kids. When he didn’t answer, she called Chaffee’s parents and asked them to go to the house and see what was going on.
When the Chaffees arrived shortly after 8:30 p.m., the door to the house was closed but unlocked. Inside, they found the children, dirty and thirsty, but unharmed.
Harlon Chaffee found his son lying at the bottom of the basement steps with at least three gunshot wounds.
Police said little about the crime and were “tight-lipped about possible suspects,” according to The Gazette.
A 1990 recap of unsolved murders in Cedar Rapids included Chaffee’s death, quoting Assistant Police Chief Bruce Kern as saying, “No new leads have been generated of late.”
Chaffee’s mother, Betty, was interviewed at the time and said she credited relatives, friends and religion with helping her and her husband cope with their son’s death.
“We do make memorials to our church, but it’s easier for me if I do it on other days than the anniversary of his death or his birthday. It just brings it home too much on those days,” she said.
In 1993, Maria and Adam placed an “In Memory Of …” notice in The Gazette’s Milestones section on their father’s birthday.
Chaffee’s mother died in 2000 and his father in 2009.
In 2011, a team of retired Cedar Rapids investigators began reviewing 19 unsolved homicides in Cedar Rapids, making use of new technologies and DNA. And while the Martinko murder was solved with the 2020 conviction of Jerry Burns of Manchester, the Chaffee murder remains unsolved.
Even though she was only 18 months old when her father was killed, Maria Chaffee said she wishes she could remember what happened in his home that weekend.
“If only I could remember. Maybe my memories could bring justice for my dad,” she said in an email. “I think how life would have been different with him in it. How am I like him? Do I look like him, act like him? He's a piece of me that I'll always be missing.”
She said her main heartache is for the family members who knew her father and “had to go through life not ever knowing why” he was killed.
“Someone got away with murder.”