Child Murder : The Town That Lived in Silence
Lt. Clarence (Buzz) Harvey at first did not know what to make of the blonde 42-year-old woman who appeared at the front desk of this town’s solitary police station on the morning of Sept. 18, 1986.
Those in the station familiar with the downtown strip joints in nearby St. Paul might have recognized Jerry Ann Sherwood from her earlier tenure at Alary’s Club Bar. Her features were still attractive, although the years had added a certain hardness and fleshiness. She had a story to tell.
When she was 17 and living in a juvenile home, she said, she gave birth to a boy, Dennis, who was quickly taken from her and eventually adopted by a family named Jurgens who lived in White Bear Lake. Two husbands and four children later, Sherwood had gone searching for her firstborn, only to learn that he had died years before, in 1965, at age 3.
Birth Mother’s Discoveries
From a newspaper notice of his death she had learned that the boy’s body bore multiple injuries and bruises. From the death certificate she had learned that the coroner never ruled whether the death was an accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They had just buried the body, and that was all.
They beat my baby to death, Sherwood told Buzz Harvey. This was a murder. They beat my baby to death.
Harvey had been a rookie cop here in 1965, but Sherwood’s story triggered no memories. He pulled the file on the ancient case and began leafing through the yellowing pages. As he read, he stiffened in his chair. There was something wrong here. The autopsy report mentioned bruises head to toe. Statements in the police logs were riddled with discrepancies. Why was there no disposition of this case?
What had happened--and how--and why? They would have to find out. This woman was no crank.
So began a painstaking inquiry into the past--an inquiry that in recent months has pulled back the curtains on a decidedly uncomfortable vision.
This is a story about respectable men and women of the middle class--doctors, lawyers, priests, social workers, policemen, neighbors and relatives--whose behavior, taken as a whole, led not to that milieu’s promised decency and justice but to a moral outrage, dark and hard to understand.
This is the story of a small boy’s murder that went undeclared and unprosecuted for 22 years in a community full of people who knew what had happened.
Such stories are not rare. Most simply remain hidden. The official records say 1,200 children died of abuse in 1986, but many experts believe the figure would reach 5,000 if closer attention were paid to some deaths attributed to accident or blamed on sudden infant death syndrome.
“I don’t think this case is an aberration at all,” said Michael McGee, the current Ramsey County medical examiner who finally ruled Dennis’ death a homicide. “I’ve been doing this job too long. Do I think this happened just here, just this one? No. There are a lot of dead babies in the ground who were killed.”
Heroes abound now in White Bear Lake, visible and proud of their roles in unraveling the mystery of Dennis’ death. Villains also abound, but they remain less noticed. In fact, they remain strangely forgotten.
With the advent of highways, White Bear Lake has become a suburb of St. Paul, about 12 miles to the south. But in 1962, before the developers and high-speed roads came, this was more truly a small town, inbred and insular, with a population just reaching 15,000.
There was a time when White Bear Lake was an exclusive watering hole for people from Chicago as well as the Twin Cities. Now the town is most frequently described as middle class. The term is relative. The rows of neatly kept houses, the modern police station and the shopping strips all reflect a level of modest comfort rather than affluence.
Harold Jurgens, an electrical foreman, made $10,000 in 1962, and this placed his family a cut above many of their friends and neighbors. Lois and Harold Jurgens lived in a comfortable, meticulously maintained three-bedroom house with a big, fenced backyard on a large corner lot on Gardenette Drive. Harold Jurgens had converted a breezeway off the kitchen into a large, open family, dining and cooking area. A piano and bass fiddle occupied the living room.
They owned a 1963 Chevrolet pickup and a 1960 Falcon station wagon. They carried assorted life insurance polices worth $10,000. Their investments and savings totaled $2,200. They owed $6,000 on the house and $930 on the truck.
They had a son--a 2-year-old named Robert, whom they had adopted at birth through private channels. Harold was infertile and the Jurgenses desperately wanted to adopt another child.
This was the situation that Gerane Rekdahl, a Ramsey County welfare case worker, found when she visited the Jurgens home on March 1, 1962.
Rekdahl, who graduated from St. Paul’s Hamline University in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in social work, had been in adoption services for less than one year. She was a good dozen years younger than the Jurgenses. She thought they had a lovely home.
She saw Harold, then 40, as a tall, rather swarthy man of German and Norwegian extraction, with dark brown hair and eyes. She knew he had high school and one year of college behind him, and that he was an only child with strong bonds to his mother. Rekdahl found him friendly and talkative--perhaps too much so, for he often strayed widely from the subject at hand.
Rekdahl thought Lois Jurgens, then almost 37, to be a rather attractive woman, although she was short and a trifle on the chubby side. She knew that Lois came from a large, poor, Catholic family of 16 children, a family that at times survived on welfare. She knew that Lois had finished only the eighth grade. Rekdahl thought that Lois’ speech betrayed a bit of cynicism. One might get a first impression that Lois was cold and indifferent, but to Rekdahl, this seemed a defense for insecurities.
Rekdahl did know that Lois had a history of psychiatric problems involving a nervous breakdown in the early 1950s. This had required at least two hospitalizations at the Mayo Clinic and at a small psychiatric hospital called Crestview, where she had received electrical shock treatments.
Rekdahl did not know that a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic had diagnosed Lois Jurgens as having a longstanding psychoneurosis dating to her childhood--a childhood spent in a tension-filled home with an alcoholic, abusive father. The psychiatrist also observed that Lois had an obsession about order and cleanliness. The psychiatrist thought it fortunate that Lois Jurgens could not get pregnant because a child would only compound and complicate her emotional disturbances. He felt that she needed psychiatric help very badly and, without it, might become psychotic.
“She would be a poor candidate for adopting a child at this time,” the psychiatrist in 1955 had advised St. Paul’s Bureau of Catholic Charities, where the Jurgenses for years had vainly sought children.
Over the course of several visits to the Jurgens home, Rekdahl saw the matter differently. She believed that Lois had opened up a great deal and tried to be as truthful as possible. They had been able to discuss Lois’ weaknesses, even her past mental depression, without Lois becoming too nervous or upset or defensive. Basically, she thought that Lois was content and happy, especially with Robert.
Rekdahl found her judgment confirmed by the Jurgenses’ priest. Father Bernard Riser of the St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church had known the Jurgenses for years and considered them to be among his parish’s best families. He had served as a reference when they adopted Robert. He felt that Lois’ mental breakdown was not extremely serious and that she had completely recovered. He very strongly favored the Jurgenses’ getting another child.
The same day that she spoke to the priest--Aug. 30, 1962--Rekdahl informed the Jurgenses that they were going to be approved for a second adoption.
The Jurgenses were delighted. They had only two requests. They wanted an infant under a year old, and they wanted a Catholic child.
Nine months earlier, on Dec. 6, 1961, Dennis Craig Puckett, 8 1/2 pounds, had been born at St. Michael’s Hospital in Sauk Centre, in nearby Scott County.
The mother was an unmarried 17-year-old, Jerry Ann Puckett, an attractive blonde of Danish-German extraction. She seemed to Scott County welfare workers a hostile and sullen young woman, unhappy and emotionally underdeveloped. Her mother having long ago disappeared, Jerry Puckett had bounced among assorted relatives and county homes for girls.
There were many fateful moments in Dennis’ brief life, moments in which his destiny could have been changed. The first came now.
Jerry Puckett was a Protestant by background, but at the time Dennis was born she was intending to take instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. For that reason, Dennis, a week after his birth, was baptized a Catholic. Soon after, Jerry Puckett dropped her plan to convert--but by then Dennis was already registered as Catholic on the adoption rolls.
There is in the Scott County records a description of Dennis in the foster home where he lived his first year: He is solidly built, with blue eyes and blond hair. He is able to turn himself over and is extremely strong, almost ready to stand by himself. He has no teeth yet, but they are coming. He is extremely alert. He has had all his baby shots. He naps both in the forenoon and the afternoon. He eats well.
The foster mother thinks him a “little wild one,” but she means this appreciatively and derives pleasure from his antics. She also describes him as a clown, always laughing at himself or other people when they are around.
On Nov. 28, 1962, members of the Scott and Ramsey counties’ welfare departments, including Rekdahl, had a conference in the town of Shakopee. The topic under consideration was the possible placement of Dennis Puckett with the Jurgens family.
Rekdahl expressed some concern. The Jurgenses had wanted a younger child and Dennis was almost a year old. On the other hand, she realized the improbability of being offered another Catholic baby in the near future. Rekdahl decided to call on the Jurgenses.
She was right. Lois Jurgens was disappointed about Dennis’ age. Lois also was not pleased to learn how active Dennis was.
He does not sound very well behaved, she said. Robert was leaving things alone at the age of 1 year.
Rekdahl suggested that if she had negative feelings, it would be best for them not to take the child.
Lois Jurgens agreed, but seemed scared that she would not be offered another child. She knew the agency’s policy was not to place children with couples who were over 40, an age they were approaching. She wanted assurances.
Rekdahl could not so assure her. Because they were Catholic and there were very few Catholic babies on the register, it was likely that they would have to wait quite a long time, she explained. She did not want this to influence their decision, but in all truthfulness, that was the reality.
Rekdahl was developing “real doubts” about this placement, but the Jurgenses decided to go see Dennis that afternoon.
Lois Jurgens’ reaction to Dennis during the visit was less than enthusiastic. She thought Dennis too aggressive, his “wild behavior” quite unlike Robert’s. She thought Dennis was “sloppy fat.” This particularly surprised Rekdahl. In fact, it appalled and amazed her because she herself thought the baby extremely appealing, very friendly, with very beautiful blue eyes and a very nice smile.
Rekdahl by now had “quite a dim outlook” on this placement. Lois Jurgens had not one good thing to say about Dennis.
Nonetheless, when Harold Jurgens called three days later and asked when they could get their boy, Rekdahl and the Scott County officials allowed the Jurgenses to take Dennis for a preplacement visit.
When Harold Jurgens called 10 days later to say they wanted to keep Dennis, the two agencies allowed that as well.
Many years later, asked in court how this placement was approved, Rekdahl--by then a psychotherapist and psychiatric social worker in Napa, Calif., remarried and using the name Gerane Wharton-Park--said: “We finally had really no exacting reasons why we could turn this family down. . . . We did not have enough evidence of any kind to deny them. . . . I felt we actually checked out the concerns quite carefully.”
During her several postplacement visits to the Jurgens home in the following, probationary year, Rekdahl increasingly came to judge the placement a success. She believed that Lois Jurgens was accepting and embracing Dennis, and he seemed healthy and adjusted.
Of course, there was that one bad accident involving third-degree burns to Dennis’ penis and scrotum.
Late in August, Lois had called Rekdahl to report the matter. She said she had set Dennis in the sink to wash him after he had wet his diaper, then had gone into another room to get a clean diaper. In the minute she was gone, she said, he turned on the hot water. She had not noticed anything was wrong until sometime later, when Dennis began holding himself and saying, “Owie!” It was then she saw that his genitals were burned and called the doctor.
Rekdahl was a little concerned, since the accident actually had happened seven days before the phone call, but her main inclination was to soothe Lois Jurgens.
“Mrs. J. was a little nervous today and I felt was probably upset for fear of what we would think of such a thing happening to Dennis,” she wrote in her log. “I tried to assure her that these things happen in any family.”
The next day, Rekdahl phoned the Jurgenses’ family physician, Dr. Roy Peterson, who was treating Dennis.
Peterson, a slender 6-footer, was a respected local doctor, a University of Minnesota medical graduate who had served in the Marines before opening a private practice in White Bear Lake in 1951.
They would not know for two weeks whether Dennis would need skin grafts, he had told Rekdahl. Meanwhile, Dennis was getting whirlpool baths every day. He was an outgoing child, as happy and adjusted as could be expected under the circumstances.
According to Rekdahl’s written log, that was the sum of what Peterson said to her.
Years later, Dr. Lynn Solem, the present director of the burn center at St. Paul-Ramsey Hospital, would explain that though this type of burn is now regarded as a sign of child abuse, in 1963 it would have been accepted as accidental. At that time, the battered-child syndrome was just beginning to be recognized. Still it is fair to say that the story Lois Jurgens told required a considerable imagination to embrace.
How could the hot water splashing down on the baby have burned only his penis and scrotum? How could a little boy not scream out in pain as soon as he was burned? Why weren’t his hands burned--wouldn’t he have instinctively reached down to protect himself?
To receive the type of severe burns he suffered, Dennis would have had to be exposed to steaming-hot water for a significant length of time. Even so, doctors do not usually see third-degree burns in an area that isn’t covered by clothing. Clothing retains the heat. On bare skin, the heat just flashes off.
Many years later, Dr. Peterson would tell a grand jury that he had harbored suspicions about the burns, and also about several bruises that nurses noticed on Dennis while he was in the hospital for a full month. He would testify that he had been suspicious enough to call the welfare department. He would testify that he had talked to “some lady” down there.
But, at a hearing just one month after Dennis’ death, Peterson, when asked if there was anything unusual about the burn accident, said: “No, not in particular.”
In early December, 1963, Rekdahl paid her last postplacement visit to the Jurgenses. She thought the postplacement period had been quite successful. Dennis was now fully accepted and loved in the family, she decided. With the exception of the severe burns, his health remained quite good. The adoption should be approved.
“I was young then, just out of college,” the social worker said recently in an interview. “I was not trained in mental illness. None of us knew about child abuse. We didn’t believe it was possible in nice, middle-class suburban families.”
Still, she had never forgotten the case. It had always troubled her, more than any she handled before or since. When the White Bear Lake police called her a year ago, she knew immediately whom they were talking about. She remembered the names, the faces--she particularly remembered Dennis.
“I had doubts, and I didn’t like Lois, but I felt I couldn’t react personally like that,” she said. “There was also pressure from supervisors to place, especially because there were so few Catholic children. . . . I thought the burn accident was a weird story when she told it, but again, there just was not that level of awareness, things didn’t get referred. . . . If I had it to do over again--well, in 1987 I wouldn’t approve, but if it were 1965, I don’t know what I would do. This sort of thing happened back then.”
On Feb. 11, 1964, the commissioner of public welfare, as legal guardian for Dennis, consented to his formal adoption by Harold and Lois Jurgens.
The White Bear Lake police log for the morning of April 11, 1965--Palm Sunday--included the sort of events to be expected in such a town. A Mrs. Hansen called to report a lost wallet, which resulted in an officer’s checking a phone booth at Fourth and Washington streets, next to the Avalon Jewelers. A Mrs. Charles reported a car blocking a driveway at 823 5th St. A Mrs. Krugger reported that children were damming the street at Elm and Ebba (there had been heavy rain the night before). And a Dr. Peterson called at 10:09 a.m. to report a DOA--dead on arrival--at 2148 Gardenette Drive.
When patrolman Robert VanderWyst arrived at the Jurgens home soon after, he found the doctor, the Jurgenses and 5-year-old Robert in the living room.
Dennis had fallen and hit his head on the wet basement floor the day before, the Jurgenses said, and he also had been suffering from a bad cold. They had checked on him throughout the night. When Harold took him to the bathroom at about 7:30 or 8 in the morning, Dennis had seemed fine. When Lois found him gasping and gurgling at 9 a.m., she promptly called Dr. Peterson. The boy was dead by the time the doctor arrived at 9:35.
VanderWyst was not close social friends with the Jurgenses, but he knew them well enough to greet them on the street. While he waited for the coroner’s investigator to arrive, he asked Lois Jurgens if there was anything he could do--such as take Robert to his own home, to be cared for by his wife. Lois thought that would be a good idea.
VanderWyst drove the mile to his house in silence, the young boy sitting beside him. It did not occur to him to question Robert.
He returned to the Jurgens home in time to meet the coroner’s investigator, Saveiro Pitera. Together they went into Dennis’ room to inspect the body.
Dennis was lying face up in his crib, his stiffened arms raised eight inches off the bed. Blankets covered him to the waist.
Even with half the body obscured, VanderWyst noticed the bruises--an “awful lot of them” he would say later. They covered the face, the head, the arms. There were at least a dozen bruises on the face alone, some large and others small. Dennis’ nose was blood-red--VanderWyst thought it looked as if you just wiped it once more you’d probably take the rest of the skin away.
Pitera stared at the body. I want photos of this, he thought. Do you have a camera in the car, he asked VanderWyst.
The policeman did not, so they carried the body to the coroner’s van. Pitera would take photos later that day.
At the hearing a month later, Peterson was asked whether he saw anything unusual as he viewed the body in the crib. As it happened, Peterson at the time was deputy coroner in Ramsey County.
“No, nothing struck me,” the doctor replied, “except for these bruises. . . . Other than that, nothing remarkable.”
Is it quite customary to see a little boy with so many bruises, he was asked.
“It’s not unusual,” the doctor said. “I have several children about that age with this same problem. Active children that bruise easily . . . so it’s not unusual.”
In 1987, testifying 22 years later, Peterson was questioned again about the bruises.
“I can recall seeing some, but it’s not very clear. . . . I just examined him to see that he was in fact dead. The only part of him that I saw was his chest and his face. I didn’t examine him further.”
Did the doctor remember his thoughts on why this child died, his inner feelings that day?
“Well, I do,” he replied. “My biggest feeling was that it was a sad situation and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. It was awful. And it was not my position to do anything other than to pronounce him dead.”
At 2 p.m. on that Palm Sunday, Dr. Robert Woodburn, the coroner’s chief pathologist, conducted the autopsy.
He found bruises running the length of the body--50 to 100 of them, he would say later, the exact number hard to judge because many were overlapped. They were of varying colors--black and blue, yellowish green, reddish--which meant that some were fresh, some old. They covered the legs, the arms, the hands, the head, the shoulders, the back of the head, the buttocks, the small of the back, the middle of the back, the back of the left leg.
There was a large, swollen scrape on the forehead. There was a bluish mark on the right side of the head that started at the temple and extended to behind the right ear. There was a deep, ulcerous lesion at the base of the penis and dark bruises on the tip.
The body was severely undernourished, nearly emaciated. Woodburn could find no subcutaneous fat at all, something everyone normally has in varying degrees.
None of this, however, was what had killed Dennis. During the internal autopsy, Woodburn found a quarter-inch hole in the boy’s small bowel. The hole had allowed a fifth of a quart of infectious, purulent fecal material to flow into the abdominal cavity. The perforation, he judged, had occurred one to two days before the child’s death. Dennis had died of peritonitis.
It is fair to say that this finding raised considerable questions.
There was no possibility that Dennis had died from a blow to the head, and scarce chance that he had died from a fall on the flat basement floor. To perforate a bowel, the doctors agreed, there had to be severe, concentrated trauma applied to the abdomen--the sort of injury that could be expected in a high-speed automobile accident.
It was just inconceivable to Woodburn that Dennis had been so injured by slipping and falling on a basement floor.
Years later, Peterson would say much the same to the police who were reopening the case, but he did not do so in 1965. VanderWyst, visiting him after the autopsy the night of Dennis’ death, told the family physician what Woodburn had found. “Dr. Peterson did not give us any conclusive answers about the condition of Dennis or about his death,” VanderWyst wrote in his report for that night.
The next morning, six coroner’s jurors were asked to view the body of a dead boy, and to remember everything they saw. Stanley Wiatros was one of them. My God, he thought, looking at the body. How in the heck could that happen?
At the funeral home, Lois Jurgens’ brother, Lloyd Zerwas, came to pay his respects. He was shaken. He doesn’t look like a tiny little kid, he thought. He looks like a boy of 10. Zerwas wouldn’t let the rest of his family view the body.
At the funeral, a crown of roses rested on Dennis’ head. A family friend, Barbara Venney, saw the bruises through the flowers. It looked to her as if the roses were placed there to cover up the dark blue markings.
Walter Moore, a co-worker of Harold Jurgens, also came to the funeral. As he viewed the body, he thought: This boy has been murdered.
At first, that seemed to be the conclusion that the official inquiry would also reach.
The first few days of the police investigation by VanderWyst and Sgt. Peter Korolchuk yielded a good deal of information. They talked with more than a dozen relatives and neighbors of the Jurgenses. Several told of having seen Dennis bruised and battered. Some had seen or heard Dennis being beaten. They had seen Lois pull Dennis’ ears so hard that blood flowed. A few wondered how the Jurgenses had ever been allowed to adopt children.
Two or three couples signed written statements. Others promised that they would do so.
“At this time there are a number of persons yet to be contacted who supposedly have information and are relatives of the family,” Korolchuk wrote on Thursday, April 15, four days after the death.
The next day, Dennis’ brother, Robert, was picked up and taken to a local hospital, on order of Juvenile Court Judge Archie Gingold. The county had filed a custody petition, alleging neglect.
One of Lois Jurgens’ responses was to call Father Riser, the priest who had so warmly recommended them to the county welfare worker. Lois had a question: Would Father Riser write a letter in support of their present effort to adopt another child, a third child? Father Riser told her he definitely would.
By the second week, the investigation began to encounter obstacles.
Several relatives now told the investigators they would not sign statements. The policemen were led to understand that an attorney representing the Jurgenses had visited them and threatened them with civil lawsuits if they spoke out.
Harold and Lois Jurgens, on the advice of their attorney, no longer would make themselves available for questioning.
Problems arose within the police department as well. In a town like White Bear Lake, apparently no one thought it problematic that the assistant police chief, Lt. Jerome Zerwas, was Lois Jurgens’ brother. No one proposed handing the investigation to some other body--to, say, the county sheriff’s office.
One day, Zerwas walked into the squad room and found the two officers investigating Dennis’ death. According to sworn testimony by both Korolchuk and VanderWyst before a grand jury last year, Zerwas at the time warned the investigating officers that he would do everything in his power to keep his sister’s name clear.
On April 26, Korolchuk drafted an analysis of the information they had gathered. There appeared to be a number of discrepancies in the Jurgenses’ story, he noted. The chief one involved the nature of the malady that killed Dennis.
Peritonitis is a horribly painful illness involving shock, collapse of the blood vessel system, high fever and breathing difficulties. The afflicted look and act very sick for a matter of hours, sometimes days. It was hard to believe that the Jurgenses had noticed nothing. It was harder to believe that Dennis had been awake and talking normally an hour and a half before he died.
Korolchuk wondered: Why wasn’t a doctor called to the home in the day before Dennis died, when he must have been extremely and obviously ill?
Korolchuk would never get the chance to answer such questions. Four days after he drafted this analysis, on April 30, he and VanderWyst were pulled off the case.
“We reached a point where we could not find any new leads or pick up any new information . . . .” he told the grand jury last year. “In talking to the county attorney and the chief of police, we had gone as far as we could and we were told that was it, we’d have to terminate the investigation.”
What to make of Dennis Jurgens’ death now was passed into the hands of the Ramsey County coroner.
In 1965, it was a private general practitioner, Dr. Thomas Votel, who handled the coroner’s duties on a part-time basis for $6,300 a year.
Those looking back now, those who unraveled the case, tend to shrug and shake their heads when Votel’s name comes up. Votel “went through living hell,” one local judge said.
Votel could not take the first step. He wanted others to go first. He feared finding himself alone.
“The prosecutor had a different attitude back then,” Votel said recently. “You couldn’t get action from the prosecutor and police. . . . There was no community pressure back then. . . . I did my best.”
In 1965, Votel said, he thought this was certainly a battered-child case, but the reports indicated that the child had fallen down some stairs. He could be a battered child, Votel said he reasoned, and still his death could have been caused by a fall, an accident.
That this was much more a question for doctors than for the police did not sway Votel. He would wait until the police investigation could resolve the matter.
He wrote “deferred” in the box where he was to specify the manner of death, and put the certificate aside.
“I was advised that the information was being obtained, that there was an ongoing investigation,” Votel said recently. “My deputy reassured me from time to time. I would question him. He assured that it was going on, that this would be his responsibility to get the information, bring it back to me so I could complete the certificate. I was willing to wait.” Votel was still waiting about two years later, when he retired from office.
The question of Dennis Jurgens’ death next fell to the Ramsey County attorney’s office. VanderWyst and Korolchuk had brought in the file themselves and lobbied for prosecution. Paul Lindholm, the assistant county attorney, considered it.
As the laws were then interpreted, he believed that he would have to link a specific action taken by Lois Jurgens to the precise cause of death. Building a general history of abusive conduct would not be sufficient.
There was also the matter of community attitudes.
When you judge a case, you don’t do so in a vacuum, Lindholm would explain years later in an interview. You consider how well you can sell this to 12 people in the jury box. You do consider social attitudes. People were not then inclined to believe that middle-class families in suburban homes killed their children.
Then there was the coroner’s report. “Deferred,” Votel had written. That was not binding on the prosecutor, but the defense attorney would zero in on this. If the doc can’t figure this out, he’d say, well. . . . If Votel had called it a homicide, at least that prospect would have been removed. He couldn’t push Votel on this. They were independent of each other.
The way Lindholm figured it, instead of prosecuting Lois Jurgens for murder, let’s move to take Robert away. That will require a juvenile hearing on neglect. Maybe we can get more evidence from there.
“You can second-guess yourself until you get an ulcer,” Lindholm said recently. “The volume of business coming down the pipeline doesn’t allow for regrets. You’ve got to worry about tomorrow. This case was a drop of water in the river.”
So it was that Dennis Jurgens’ death resulted not in a murder prosecution but, rather, in a juvenile court hearing over custody of his brother, Robert. The hearing would prove to be a curious affair.
It began one month after Dennis’ death and continued for two days, May 10 and 11, 1965. Much of the testimony related to Dennis, not Robert. It was as if the authorities had found a way to try Lois Jurgens for Dennis’ death without calling it a murder.
About 50 witnesses provided a mixed story.
A parade of neighbors and relatives called to the stand by the Jurgenses’ attorney, Edward Donohue, all denied seeing any evidence of abuse. Dr. Peterson said he saw nothing unusual in Dennis’ life or death.
Other testimony and evidence was more troubling. What was to be the core of the case against Lois Jurgens 22 years later essentially came out then, albeit in a less detailed, more muted fashion.
There were, to begin with, the same photos of Dennis’ battered body on the coroner’s table. Years later, the attorney representing Robert’s interests at the 1965 custody hearing would still remember those photos. They had shocked James Nelson. He could never forget how Lois Jurgens looked at those photos stoically, showing no emotion. To him, that was close to frightening.
Then there were the neighbors and relatives who had seen incidents and evidence of abuse.
Ivan and Gladys Demars, neighbors who had served as references when Dennis was adopted, over the fence had seen the boy with bruises, black eyes, split lips. They had seen Lois yank Dennis violently by the ears. Dennis had been a beautiful baby, Gladys Demars said. Then he began to look terrible--his face so old, like a little old man.
“We wanted to tell someone,” she said. “We would like to have done something, but it was none of our business. Who’d listen? We came very close to trying to do something. We thought it would be no use.”
Donna Mae Zerwas, Lois’ sister-in-law, had seen all that and more. While visiting one Thanksgiving, she saw Lois force-feed Dennis, in a highchair, by shoving a fork full of food into his mouth. The boy’s mouth was getting full, he wasn’t swallowing, so Lois put horseradish on the fork.
That will make you swallow, Lois had said. If you throw up, you are going to eat it.
Dennis had thrown up then. Donna Mae, about 5 feet away, watched in horror as Lois force-fed that vomit to him, made him eat it.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” she said. “I have never seen anything like that done.”
Donna Marlene Norton, Lois’ sister, was there that day and saw the same thing.
“I looked down. I didn’t look after that; I couldn’t,” she said. “It just made me sick. All I could do was shake my head.”
Donna Marlene had seen other things. When Dennis cried, Lois would force his head under the cold water faucet at the kitchen sink. The boy would be gasping and choking for breath until she would fear that he would drown.
Lois had talked to them all about her toilet training methods. When Dennis messed his bed, she said, she forced the boy to eat his feces. When he wet his pants, she said, she put a clothespin on his penis. When he wouldn’t have a bowel movement, she said, she pulled the feces from his rectum with her hands.
You don’t know what to think, Donna Marlene said. She had talked about this with the whole family, but not with the authorities.
“No,” she explained. “In our family you don’t dare say much.”
The testimony from Dr. Woodburn, the pathologist who did the autopsy on Dennis, was unequivocal.
There was no possibility that Dennis had died from a blow to the head. It was highly unlikely that a fall on a flat surface could have caused this. Only 5% to 10% of the bruises on Dennis could have been caused by such a fall.
“It is essentially unconceivable to me, without a protruding object above the floor, that he could have been injured in this way,” Woodburn said.
The specter of homicide hovered, but would not land in this hearing room in 1965. The lawyers danced around the matter, leaving much unspoken.
Judge Archie Gingold, in his findings at the close of the hearing, ruled that Dennis had been subjected to many incidences of cruel and severe abuse. A condition of neglect did exist.
But neither the judge nor anyone else was willing to face the implications of such findings. Instead the judge agonized, repeatedly expressing from the bench his sense of conflict and uncertainty.
This was the first child-abuse case he had handled. He would later learn much more, would attend seminars and organize a county task force on the problem, but it cannot be said that Gingold knew nothing in 1965 about the battered-child syndrome. He had read the early articles that by then had been published. He knew that parents otherwise free of major symptoms of psychotic illness could abuse children.
From the bench, he said he hoped that they could find something to explain the mistreatment of Dennis.
“There is a lot to be known about the science of this whole darn subject,” he said. “Let’s not build up some fiction that now we have done everything we should do.”
On the other hand, he could not bring himself to embrace the notion that Lois Jurgens was a murderer.
No one here is being punitive, Gingold told the Jurgenses and their attorney from the bench. There is no evidence we are dealing with any people here who have any demon-like motives. That isn’t an issue at all. They are good people. He liked them. The Jurgenses are not being attacked anywhere along the line. The threat of a criminal prosecution is way by the boards now.
That was why the judge wanted Lois Jurgens to consent to a thorough, inpatient examination by a psychiatrist he knew and trusted. Robert would remain in county custody for the time being.
The Jurgenses refused.
Donohue, their attorney, had allowed Lois before the hearing to be examined by a psychiatrist only under the strictest conditions. The defense picked the doctor, and set parameters on what questions he could ask. On the stand, the Jurgenses had refused to answer questions about Dennis. They had cited the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Donohue was not inclined to relax such controls.
The defense attorney was still thinking about a criminal prosecution--even if no one else was. My clients have rights, he said.
Judge Gingold would not back down either. Many years later, he explained why:
“I was quite certain it was a homicide, quite certain,” Gingold said recently in an interview.
Retired now for several years, he suffers from angina and does not go out much, but he recalls the 1965 hearing.
“I remember very clearly the pathologist coming in and saying it had to be a blow, not a fall, but I think the prosecutor felt he couldn’t prove it, and I was on the same wavelength as the prosecutor. It’s easy today to say, ‘Why didn’t they prosecute?’ but it was a different time, a different time. . . . The prosecutor wasn’t getting help from the White Bear Lake police--her brother was on the force. The welfare department case work was very limited. That doctor (Peterson) also presented problems--he was a typical doctor, couldn’t believe his patient was killed.”
There was enough evidence to sustain child abuse and neglect charges. That was all Gingold had to concern himself with. Homicide was not the issue at the hearing.
“You see,” Gingold said, “I didn’t have to go that far. . . .”
So Robert, on a temporary but semiannually renewed basis, remained in county custody, living in foster homes. The Jurgenses returned to their house on Gardenette Drive, childless but free of any charge. The word homicide remained unspoken. Dennis lay in the ground at St. Mary’s Cemetery, no name given to his death.
For a time, that appeared to be the end of the story.