Public Safety

Crusading to publicize Iowa's cold cases

Woman's concern for victims' families led her to study unsolved murders

She was writing book reviews for a Sioux City newspaper when an editor asked her to take on a series of cold cases — unsolved murders. The kind you see on TV shows. People love that stuff.

With three unfinished novels in a drawer, Jody Ewing could hardly turn down an assignment. And when she heard about Donna Sue Davis, there was no going back to writing about books. The 21-month-old toddler with clear blue eyes and curly blond hair was snatched from a crib in her home in a working-class Sioux City neighborhood and later raped, sodomized, beaten and killed from a severe blow to the head. Her killer was never found.

“I couldn’t believe in 1955 that someone could commit such a heinous crime and not be caught,” Ewing said.

The Onawa woman launched Iowa Cold Cases (iowacoldcases.org) to document each case, so those victims would be remembered, and their assailants would be kept sweating. People flooded her website, asking if she could feature their fallen family member.

She eventually worked on it full time as it grew to 540 cases.

In addition to writing on her website, Ewing has been a constant voice in the ear of Iowa law enforcement officials and acts as a buffer between them and family members who are often frustrated with their efforts.

To them, Ewing is the person who will still listen, the one who hasn’t given up hope.

“If you could hear the voices of these family members ...,” Ewing said.

At work

In her Sioux City home, the front room is equipped with a large desk bulging with deep case files. She works for no pay, often 16 hours a day. She and her husband, Dennis, live sparsely on his disability check after his stroke a year ago. Her not-for-profit receives no grants, and she said she gathers an average of only $500 a year in donations.

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The website sometimes skirts the thin lines of insinuation, naming people with links to the victim or the crime scene who have never been charged or officially listed as a suspect.

“You have got to be careful what you put out there,” said Mike Motsinger, a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. “There is a difference between what someone said and having probable cause to charge someone with it.”

That said, Motsinger follows up on tips from Ewing. Family members will remember or tell her things police haven’t heard before.

“I can’t say it’s led to an arrest or anything, but it’s good information,” he noted.

Listening to family is how Ewing got the autopsy report of Kim Loose, who reportedly fell out the door of a moving car in 1998 in Scott County. Authorities there said the death was ruled an accident.

But Ewing studied the information and a photograph of the accident scene sent by the family. She came to the conclusion the injuries to Loose’s body and what killed her were inconsistent with that story.

One of the three young men at the scene of the accident disappeared the next day and later was found dead in the river after leaping off a bridge.

In the public eye

Ewing doesn’t take credit for solving crimes but feels as if she has played a part. For example, Holly Rae Durban’s case in Shenandoah went cold before Ewing talked to Durban’s sister, who said it was Holly’s boyfriend who killed her in 2009.

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Ewing posted the story, and a couple years later, Brian Davis was charged. Last February, he was convicted of first-degree murder.

Her work does come with risks, perceived or otherwise. In the middle of one dark night, she answered the phone to hear this: “I didn’t kill Michelle.” Another time she heard a voice over the phone tell her about two men who got away with a murder, had changed their names and are now residents in an Iowa town.

She looked up the names and photographs and, sure enough, they were the same two men in images of leading suspects in her research.

Ewing locks her doors now. She is considering taking training on the proper firing of a gun.

“I try to put myself in the position if I was threatened. Could I shoot someone?” Ewing wonders. “I could not go out and murder someone. What fascinates me is that most people can get away with murder.”

More homicides go unsolved nationwide

Roughly a third of homicides in the United States go unsolved.

In the Midwest, it’s even less likely a killer will be caught: Just more than half — 52 percent — are identified, according to FBI data referred to as “clearance rates.”

Criminologists and forensic death consultants such as Jim Adcock estimate more than 200,000 homicides have gone unsolved in this country since 1980.

And the longer a case goes unsolved — the colder it becomes — the harder it is to crack.

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Advances in forensics and social media have helped identify some killers, but the bitter truth for victims’ families is that the national clearance rate has remained relatively static for more than 20 years. In fact, the number of murders in the U.S. has dropped from around 25,000 in 1993 to 13,000 today.

Adcock, a longtime law enforcement instructor and author of several cold-case books, said among the hurdles to finding justice are too little money for law enforcement investigations, witnesses’ fear of the killers and public apathy.

There’s also something called the “white woman syndrome,” a term used by social scientists to explain the short-lived news coverage and lack of public interest when murder victims are members of minority groups.

From 2009 to 2011, Iowa had a special cold-case unit that was part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. But its two agents and a criminologist were reassigned after a federal grant, which pumped $500,000 into the program, ended.

The state continues to follow up on leads in the roughly 160 cold cases that are part of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s files. But with no full-time staffing dedicated to it, far less time is spent seeking new leads, said Mike Motsinger, the special agent with the public safety department who was in charge of the cold case unit.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.