116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden says that working as a prosecutor is like being on a carousel: “It never stops to let you off because the cases keep coming, so you have to choose your time to leap.”
Vander Sanden, 64, announced his leap Tuesday to the Linn County Board of Supervisors, saying it seemed like a “practical time to retire” after being the elected county attorney for over 11 years and serving more than 38 years in the office.
“What I realized as we are taking applications to fill an assistant county attorney position, since Valerie Clay was appointed to the bench last month, is that all the applicants were all born after I started in this office,” Vander Sanden said, laughing. “I’ve recommended the board appoint my first assistant, Nick Maybanks, to finish out my term. It makes the most sense because he intends to run for county attorney. He has the support of the entire staff and is a key reason for our success. He is an excellent trial attorney who has handled some of the most complex cases in the office.”
Vander Sanden pointed to Maybanks’ prosecution of the cold case of the murder of Michelle Martinko, 18, who was fatally stabbed in her parent’s car in a parking lot at the then-newly opened Westdale Mall. The crime haunted Cedar Rapids for nearly 40 years until her killer, Jerry Burns, 67, of Manchester, was identified and finally brought to justice last year.
“Nick is the only one in this office that intends to run,” Vander Sanden told The Gazette during an interview after the board meeting. “He will make an excellent county attorney, if chosen.”
The county supervisors could instead decide to call a special election so voters could choose a person to serve the remainder of Vander Sanden’s term, which expires next year. No decision has been made.
Vander Sanden, a Democrat whose current salary is $190,492.28, has run unopposed since taking the office in 2010 after Harold Denton retired. Vander Sanden was appointed to finish out the last few months of Denton’s term and then was elected that same year.
In recent years, the 38-year veteran of the office has faced some challenges over decisions made during his tenure involving shootings by police officers. One such case was Jerime Mitchell, who was shot and paralyzed by former Cedar Rapids police officer Lucas Jones on Nov. 1, 2016.
Vander Sanden was criticized by Mitchell’s family and other community members for not having Mitchell testify before the grand jury that cleared Jones of wrongdoing. Mitchell sued the city of Cedar Rapids, its police department and Officer Jones. The day before the case was to go to trial, the city’s insurance carrier offered a settlement and the Mitchell family received $8 million without the city acknowledging liability or fault.
Vander Sanden on Tuesday didn’t mention the Mitchell case or others, but said he has no regrets for the decisions he made and stands by them.
Vander Sanden said he never had his “eye” on being the county attorney. He said he is grateful for the opportunity to serve as the “people’s lawyer” and always had wanted to work in the county prosecutor’s office because he saw it as the “most honorable thing one can do with a law license.”
He said he accomplished many things in the office and tried some tough cases, especially in the “old days” when prosecutors didn’t have an assistant working with them on a big murder case. Vander Sanden said he thinks they have a better system now of having a “second or third chair” on a case.
Vander Sanden couldn’t talk about two of the county’s big recent murder cases, including Drew Blahnik, convicted of killing Chris Bagley in 2018, because Blahnik hasn’t been sentenced yet; and the upcoming trial of Greg Davis, convicted in 2018 of killing his former girlfriend in 2017 but then overturned on appeal and set to be retried sometime next year. Vander Sanden will still be working on those cases through December.
Looking back on his career, he pointed to some of the more challenging cases that were emotional or had unusual facts or strange twist in events.
One of those was James Hall, a University of Iowa football recruit who was convicted of strangling a young student, Sarah Ottens, in 1974. Hall was convicted in Johnson County of second-degree murder, but that was overturned on appeal. Prosecutors chose not to retry it and Hall went free.
The case made national news but in 1992, Hall was again accused of strangling a woman, Susan Hajek, this time in Linn County — and Vander Sanden prosecuted him.
Vander Sanden said Hall asked his girlfriend to be his alibi and claim they walked into the victim’s residence and found her already dead. Another witness, however, said Hall had an agreement to share cocaine with the victim in exchange for sex but she didn’t provide sex to Hall. Hall went back later and killed her. He was convicted of first-degree murder.
Another case Vander Sanden recalled is that of Stephen Keyes, who was convicted in 1996 of setting fire to his house while his wife and children were sleeping. It was such an emotional and tragic case because his wife and their youngest — a toddler — died of smoke inhalation.
At the time, Keyes was having an affair and wanted to leave his family and also had financial troubles, Vander Sanden said. Keyes was outside the house watching it burn when a witness came by and saw him. Keyes then started yelling about his family being inside, and rushed in and saved two of his children — but not his wife and toddler. He was convicted and given two life sentences.
“They are more than cases,” Vander Sanden said. “You always remember the people and feel like you never can do enough. They take an emotional toll on you, but you have to move on because there’s always another one to take on.”
Vander Sanden said last year — during the start of the pandemic — was tough on the justice system when trials were suspended and some hearings were put on hold because of in-person restrictions. He appreciated jurors being willing to serve when the trials started again, and no trial had to be canceled because of lack of jurors in this county, he added.
He is now looking forward to traveling and “devoting” himself to his wife, Denise, and his three adult children. He also plans to spend more time with his first grandchild and there’s another one on the way.
Gage Miskimen of The Gazette contributed to this report.