Child Murder : The Town Confronts Its Past
When Dennis Jurgens died at the age of 3 in 1965, authorities here never ruled whether his death was an accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They just buried the body in St. Mary’s Cemetery, and after a juvenile court hearing, took custody of Dennis’ 5-year-old brother Robert. The boys’ adoptive parents, Lois and Harold Jurgens, returned to their house on Gardenette Drive, alone but free of any charge.
The failure to rule on the manner of Dennis’ death, or to hold Lois Jurgens accountable in some fashion, would prove to have considerable impact on the lives of five other children.
The years eventually obscured the events of Palm Sunday, 1965, as well as the evidence produced at the hearing one month later. Juvenile files customarily remain sealed, private documents. So later decisions were made by people who had never seen the photos of Dennis’ battered body.
Child Returned to Couple
First, in 1969, Robert, just turning 10, was returned to the Jurgenses.
The Jurgenses had hired a new lawyer, a lawyer who happened to be good friends with Judge Archie Gingold, who presided over the juvenile court custody hearing. The Jurgenses also had finally agreed to be examined by a county-appointed psychiatrist.
A Ramsey County social worker, Marion Dinah Nord, later told police she had strongly opposed Robert’s return, feeling certain Dennis had been killed. But, she said, she had been discouraged by her supervisors and the prosecutor from probing into the past. Assistant County Atty. Paul Lindholm, she said, had told her Dennis Jurgens’ file was missing. She told police she was left with the impression that she was not to get involved in why Robert was taken in the first place. She was only to study the question of whether it was OK to return him now.
The doctors on both sides checked out Lois Jurgens and both decided she was OK, Judge Gingold said recently. The prosecutor and the welfare department were no longer opposed to Robert’s return.
“I was left helpless at that point,” Judge Gingold said.
Then, in 1972, the Jurgenses were allowed to adopt four more children--the Howton kids, three brothers and a sister--from Kentucky.
Again, there were social workers who objected, knowing a child had died in the Jurgens home. Again, their supervisors overruled them.
Kentucky wanted to get the four children off welfare and keep them together in a Catholic home. The Jurgenses’ annual salary was now $16,000. They had hired a lawyer to press their case.
Minnesota could see no reason to object. The Jurgenses had a supportive letter from their pastor, Father Bernard Riser. They had been allowed to adopt two children previously. All of the psychological evaluations were favorable. Lutheran Social Services, the private agency processing the adoption request, could see no problems. Yes, a child had died in their home. But the Jurgenses had never been charged criminally.
The Kentucky children endured three years with the Jurgenses before the two older ones ran away in 1975. Later, they told police what life was like in that house.
Lois Jurgens would wake them in the middle of the night to inspect their rooms, beating them if she found dust or hangers crossed in the closet. Once, she grabbed one of the boys by his ears and slammed his forehead onto a protruding nail in the wall.
Sometimes Lois would order Harold to beat them. He would take them to the basement and tell them to cry loudly, while he slapped at his own leg.
Lois’ bedroom door squeaked loudly when she opened it--when they heard that noise, they were consumed by fear. Coming home from school on the bus, they could see the Jurgens driveway at a distance, from the top of a hill. If Lois’ gold Buick Skylark was parked there, they would cringe.
It was so crazy that it almost seemed normal, one of the boys, Grant, said.
Their former foster mother in Kentucky visited them after they fled the Jurgenses and was horrified. The children she had known as loving, affectionate and happy were now distrustful and disoriented. One of the boys later would spend hours on a psychiatrist’s couch, trying to block out the pain.
Another juvenile custody hearing was scheduled, this time in adjacent Washington County, for the Jurgenses had moved there, to the town of Stillwater.
Carol Felix, the Washington County welfare department caseworker assigned to investigate the Kentucky children’s allegations, was allowed to read and copy something that most people had long lost sight of--the file on the Ramsey County 1965 juvenile court custody hearing.
Felix was horrified. She became convinced that Dennis’ death had been mishandled a decade before. She wrote letters to officials in Ramsey and Washington counties, urging them to re-examine the case. She says she received no answers.
“They all dropped the ball,” Felix said recently in Tucson, where she now lives. “No one wanted to deal with this. We’re talking about people who just looked the other way. I mean, those doctors knew that baby was killed. To a certain extent, the level of awareness is different now, but they knew that baby was killed. They were aware. They chose not to face it. It’s just a case of people not willing to look at all this stuff.”
After the hearing, a Washington County judge removed all four Kentucky children from the adoptive home. But not Robert--he remained with the Jurgenses.
During the following years, an evolution unfolded in this country, an evolution in attitude toward child abuse.
The first markings of the evolution, as it happens, began just as Dennis was arriving in the Jurgens home. In the July 7, 1962, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (JAMA), a team of doctors from the University of Colorado School of Medicine headed by C. Henry Kempe published what was to become regarded in the medical community as a landmark paper. The paper’s title was “The Battered-Child Syndrome.”
Kempe was chairman of the pediatrics department and his team included experts in pediatrics, psychiatry, obstetrics and radiology. Based on an extended study of specific cases, they had come to recognize a pattern.
The battered-child syndrome, they wrote, was a term they were using to characterize a clinical condition among young children who have received serious physical abuse from parents or foster parents. It is a significant cause of childhood disability and death, but it is frequently not recognized. If diagnosed, it frequently is not handled properly.
The syndrome, they said, should be considered in any child exhibiting evidence of fractures, hemorrhages, soft-tissue swelling or skin bruising. It should be considered in any child who dies suddenly or where the nature of the injury is at variance with the story provided by the parents.
Beating of children is not confined to people with psychopathic personalities, they wrote, or to the borderline socioeconomic status. It also occurs among people with good education and stable financial and social backgrounds.
A chief obstacle to treating this syndrome, Kempe’s team wrote, came from doctors’ hesitancy to bring the matter to the attention of authorities. Doctors have an emotional unwillingness, a great difficulty, both in believing that parents could have attacked their children and in undertaking the necessary questioning of them. Many physicians attempt to obliterate such suspicions from their minds, even in the face of obvious circumstantial evidence.
Regardless, a complete investigation is necessary. Police and protective service officials should be notified.
“The physicians’ duty and responsibility to the child,” the team concluded, “requires a full evaluation of the problem and a guarantee that the expected repetition of trauma will not be permitted to occur.”
The landmark JAMA article in time would have great impact across the country, but the changes were gradual and incremental.
No until 1975 did Minnesota adopt legislation regarding the reporting of maltreatment of minors. In 1971, the term “battered-child syndrome” made its first appearance in a case that reached the Minnesota state Supreme Court.
The justices there ruled that establishing a general pattern of child battering was sufficient to convict in a manslaughter case--the prosecutor did not need to link a specific act by the abuser to the precise cause of death.
In time, child abuse became something people much more readily acknowledged and reported. In the last 10 years, the number of official reports of child abuse and neglect has risen 223%. There were 2 million cases reported in 1986, up 12% from the year before. Officially reported child abuse deaths climbed 23% in 1986.
The legal system, of course, reflects values, as do the actions of those who implement the law. The pendulum at some point swung with vigor on the public’s willingness to acknowledge child abuse. Where once a doctor or relative or prosecutor might have encountered uncomfortable pressures if he spoke out, he would now feel those same pressures if he did not speak out.
It was against this backdrop that Dennis Jurgens’ natural mother, Jerry Ann Sherwood, appeared on the doorstep of the White Bear Lake Police Department in September of 1986, demanding that the case of her baby’s death be reopened.
Sherwood had always wondered what happened to the infant she was forced to give up as an unmarried 17-year-old living in a home for troubled girls.
In 1980, she had called the Ramsey County welfare department, trying to trace the whereabouts of her son. Six weeks later, they had responded by letter. We are sorry to inform you, the letter read, that your son died on April 11, 1965.
Shocked and grieving, Sherwood visited St. Mary’s Cemetery, where the county told her Dennis was buried. Unable at first to find his grave site, she leafed through the cemetery’s record book. There, below the listing for her son, someone had pasted in a brief, yellowing three-paragraph newspaper item, dated April 12, 1965.
The small boy had died of peritonitis due to a ruptured bowel, the news clip said.
Sherwood’s eyes wandered to the next sentence in the news clip, and then froze. “The body also bore multiple injuries and bruises. . . . The coroner and the police were investigating.”
She felt like something was exploding inside her.
Dennis, she said out loud. My God. They beat my baby to death. My baby.
Sherwood managed to get a telephone number for Lois Jurgens in Stillwater. In early 1981, she dialed the number. Lois answered.
I am Dennis’ natural mother, Sherwood began. I was just calling to find out what kind of little boy he was.
Lois was surprised--she said she thought Sherwood had been informed of the death at the time. All the same, Lois seemed to Sherwood very nice and polite. She said that Dennis had been a happy, healthy, cute child. When he was found dead, she added, he had black blotches all over his body. She didn’t know where they came from.
Sherwood asked if Lois would send her a picture of Dennis, a picture of him in the baptismal slip Sherwood had bought him as an infant. Lois readily agreed, and Sherwood provided her address.
Six weeks later, when nothing had arrived, Sherwood tried vainly to phone Jurgens once more. The Jurgenses’ number had been changed. The new number was unlisted.
A bitterness gripped Sherwood.
She had held Dennis in her arms for five days before they took him away. No matter what plan or idea she came up with, the people at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre kept saying no. She could not keep the baby.
Her life had always been hard, before and after that. Her mother had taken off when she was 3. She had shuttled for years among relatives, her father, foster homes, a stepmother. By the age of 23, she had borne four more children besides Dennis.
One, Misty, had come soon after Dennis, and had also been taken to a foster home, but that baby Sherwood managed to get back. After two divorces, she had supported the four mostly by herself, sometimes managing an apartment building, sometimes drawing welfare assistance, sometimes dancing at Alary’s Club Bar.
They wouldn’t let me keep Dennis, she now thought. They told me they would take my baby to people who could give him all that I couldn’t. Well, they were right. I could never have given him death. My four other children have had it rough, but they’re alive.
Sherwood, though, was also afraid. She was then receiving welfare assistance. She feared attacking the welfare system, she said recently. If you buck the system, it bucks you back. So for six years, she did nothing more.
Sherwood talked of all this while sitting on a couch in the St. Paul apartment where she now lives. It was an apartment that has seen better days. Pictures were taped crookedly to walls that seemed more in need of fresh paint than works of art. Toys and small children filled the room--this was an apartment shared by others. At midday, a large television set blared soap operas continuously. Atop the TV set in a frame sat a photo of a smiling, beaming blond-haired little boy.
“That’s Dennis, just after Lois got him,” Sherwood said.
In the fall of 1986, unable to forget, she told her story to a friend. The friend was outraged. Don’t be afraid, the friend told her. What can they do to you?
So Sherwood finally sent her daughter to the county courthouse for a copy of Dennis’ death certificate. Looking at it, Sherwood thought something seemed strange. In the box numbered 20, where the coroner was supposed to have written homicide or accident or natural, he had instead written the word “deferred.” The death certificate, Sherwood realized, was never completed.
Sherwood called the White Bear Lake police station. She did not intend to back down this time.
As it happened, she did not need to apply much pressure. The most telling evidence that times had changed since Dennis’ death came in the immediate, decisive responses she now triggered.
Lt. Clarence (Buzz) Harvey handed the old file to Detective Greg Kindle, a specialist in juvenile abuse crimes. Kindle required only moments to reach a conclusion.
Kindle thought: A blind man could tell this was a homicide.
Sherwood also called the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office. The job was no longer held by a part-time general practitioner--Dr. Michael McGee was an experienced, full-time forensic pathologist.
He looked at the death certificate, the original autopsy report, the old police files and the photos. Later, he would exhume Dennis’ body and do his own autopsy--he would find the body inexplicably well-preserved, with a curious crown of withered flowers on the head. But to make his judgment, he needed only the evidence from 1965.
He knew flat out, without hesitation--this was a homicide.
“They were afraid back then, just afraid,” he said recently. “I spend a lot of time looking at dead babies. When I see lots of bruises, a bowel full of pus, I think bad thoughts.”
His first call, on Oct. 5, 1986, went to Dr. Tom Votel, the coroner in 1965 who never completed Dennis’ death certificate. He was now in private practice in St. Paul.
I’m getting ready to change one of your old death certificates, McGee said. I’m sorry to cause you trouble--the news media will probably be after you--but I have to. . . . Do you remember this little boy?
Votel, as it happened, did not have to ponder that question. He had never forgotten the case. He had thought about it every day. He was glad it was coming up. The situation was so different back then.
“Yes, I remember,” Votel told McGee. “And there may be three or four other cases like this one. You better start looking.”
Two days later, on Oct. 7, McGee phoned the county attorney, Tom Foley.
I am warning you that I am today sending you a letter by courier, the medical examiner told the prosecutor. Be prepared. I am changing this death certificate to homicide.
Melinda Elledge, 38, an assistant Ramsey county attorney, was sitting on her bedroom floor that night, watching the TV news with her husband and 3-year-old son, when the face of Jerry Sherwood, Dennis’ natural mother, appeared on the screen. Something was being said about a 21-year-old murder case and Mike McGee, the coroner.
A 21-year-old murder--what problems that promised.
“I sure hope I don’t get that case,” Elledge said, turning to her husband.
The next morning in downtown St. Paul, Foley handed her the Jurgens file. All that time lost from my family, Elledge thought.
Then she opened the file and saw the photos of Dennis. Elledge, as it happened, was an adopted child herself. Her son was exactly the age of Dennis when he died. She could not keep her eyes off the photos.
She thought: This is a homicide. There is no doubt. And we will win.
Foley had also assigned to the case another assistant county attorney, Clayton Robinson Jr., 34. Robinson was still a high school student when his father, a Chicago policeman, was fatally shot when making an arrest. As a lawyer, Robinson had always been stirred by homicide cases.
The two prosecutors were more emerging stars than established veterans in the county attorney’s office. They had little experience with murder cases. But Foley figured they would bring particular zeal to the case.
Robinson now stuck his head in Elledge’s office.
“Clayton,” Elledge said. “Look at these photos.”
Three days later, Philip Major, chief of the White Bear Lake Police Department, issued a memo to all police personnel.
We now have a 21-year-old active homicide investigation, he wrote. There will be considerable news media attention. I want you to know how I see this department’s role in 1965 and today. The investigation conducted by then-Sgt. Peter Korolchuk and then-Officer Robert VanderWyst was thorough and well-articulated. Why the death was not classified as a homicide in 1965 we do not know.
“In 1986, this case must be handled with the same enthusiasm it received in 1965.”
The police chief handed the case to Kindle and a veteran detective, Ron Meehan. They would have to build this one brick by brick. There would be no confession. They were used to that in White Bear Lake. This was not a town full of scared, ignorant confessors. See my lawyer--that’s what most of them said.
Within three days, Meehan and Kindle had tracked down VanderWyst, now retired and ailing, a victim of bone cancer. When they showed him his old file, he knew right away something was wrong.
There are lots of reports missing, he told the younger officers. All of our interviews with the relatives are gone.
In the end, it would not matter much. In 1987, the relatives were eager to talk. Kindle and Meehan did not even have to track them all down. Family members were calling them. We have stories to tell you, they would say.
The stories were horrific. And they all corroborated each other. Everything that no one wanted to say 21 years before came pouring out.
“We got to the point,” Kindle said later, “where we didn’t want to hear anymore.”
Some of it had been told in 1965--the force-feeding of food and vomiting, the slapping and yanking by the ears, the gasping head held under running water--but now that, and more, came out in fuller, less restrained detail.
Lois Jurgens’ family, the Zerwas family, was truly clannish. A good number of the 16 children would gather on Sundays at the parents’ house, along with assorted husbands, wives, cousins and grandchildren. There they would see Lois Jurgens and her children. Those gatherings, in fact, were the only reason some of them ever saw Lois--many, it turned out, did not particularly like her.
Some called her nasty. Others thought her brittle and controlling, demanding that her boys never get dirty. A good number considered her crazy.
She seemed to some a religious fanatic, always trying to convert the non-Catholics, walking around at times with a raised cross in her hands, proposing to drive out the devil. Forcing Dennis to kneel on a broomstick, she had trained him by the age of 3 to recite the half-hour Rosary by heart, something he had done, his voice quavering in fear, at a family funeral.
But she rarely went to church. And there were moments when she seemed less than religious--moments, for example, when she proudly pulled her ample breasts from her blouse and displayed them to the room.
There were relatives who saw Lois whacking hard on Dennis when he fell and crawled during his first efforts at walking. There were relatives who had seen Dennis covered with bruises, wearing sunglasses to hide black eyes. There were relatives who had seen Dennis tied spread-eagle in his crib by his wrists and ankles. There were relatives who had seen horrible bruises on his penis.
Dennis was such a bubbly, sturdy boy, happy and outgoing at the start, they all said. Robert was passive and obedient, refusing candy or cookies offered by relatives, but Dennis was spirited, willing to take the cookies even if it meant trouble from Lois. Then Dennis had changed over time--he was gradually beaten into a sad, frightened, lonely child. He didn’t even cry after a while. He wasn’t allowed to. He would just whimper. It was hard to watch.
For heaven’s sake, some in the family had said to Lois, give Dennis back if you hate him so much. I can’t, Lois would answer, because if I do they’ll never let me adopt another child.
One of Lois’ sisters, Beverly Zerwas, mentioned to the police a 1965 hearing, something Kindle and Meehan knew nothing about.
She had not testified truthfully at that hearing, Zerwas said, because she felt then the family should try to stick together. Father told us to, she said. She had never asked Lois about sores and marks on Dennis because it wasn’t her business; she wasn’t nosy. But a lot of people at the funeral knew it wasn’t a normal accident.
Two families who did testify against Lois in 1965 told police Lois had haunted them for weeks afterward, calling them late at night, driving by their homes, threatening to burn their houses and kill their children.
Meehan and Kindle found another relative with a story to tell, this one about Harold Jurgens. June Bols was married to Lois’ cousin. Bols had started out thinking Harold a gentle, kind man, but came to dislike him as well. He just catered to Lois, and didn’t stand up when he should have.
Bols told police that one afternoon in the early 1970s, long after the case was closed, Harold came by her house and they sat drinking coffee together.
I was not home when Dennis died, Harold had said suddenly. I was away from home up in Wisconsin, doing some electrical work for friends. Lois called me there.
Dennis and I have been at it again, Lois had told Harold on the phone. You better come home.
Harold had known what that meant. He had packed up his things and driven straight home. He had put Dennis in bed with him. In the middle of the night, Dennis had awakened, had to go potty. In the morning, he was dead.
Bol had been frightened hearing this. She felt Harold was admitting something, admitting that Lois was terrible to Dennis. She wished Harold hadn’t told her.
Kindle and Meehan found the Jurgenses’ former family physician, Dr. Roy Peterson, in his office on 4th Street. He was by now a venerable, gray-haired member of the local medical community, close to retirement after maintaining his White Bear Lake practice for 35 years.
Dr. Peterson said he did not recall much about the Jurgens case. It had slipped his mind. He remembered nothing of the morning of Dennis’ death, of talking to the Jurgenses or the police. He also had lost his file on Dennis.
Over and over, though, the doctor repeated one point. Falling on the floor could not have ruptured a bowel unless you fell very hard on a sharp object. It was very rare to see such an injury. It had to be a deliberate blow to rupture like that.
Kindle handed the doctor a photo of the dead boy, taken at the coroner’s office. Peterson stared at the picture of a badly bruised body, a body he had looked at in the flesh on Palm Sunday, 1965.
There is no question this is child abuse, the doctor said. He appeared visibly shaken. The two detectives thought it obvious that Peterson was moved.
“This is awful,” the doctor said.
The police found one other pipeline to the past. He was a witness well-qualified to talk about life inside the Jurgens’ house, a witness no one bothered to question back in 1965.
Robert Jurgens was now 26. He was living in Crookston, a small town in northern Minnesota. He was, as it happened, a policeman.
Robert had run away from the Jurgens home several times as a teen-ager, after the Kentucky children were removed. Eventually, he was placed in a foster home, under authority of the juvenile court. For a time, when he was 15 and 16, he had become involved with drugs but had shook that addiction after being hospitalized in a chemical dependency program.
He had married when he was 21--his wife worked as a paralegal secretary for the Polk County attorney--and they had a 3-year-old son named Joshua.
Robert first learned from Lois Jurgens that the matter of Dennis’ death was being reopened. She had called, frightened, asking him what it meant. Robert, she had asked, they’re not going to come and take me away, are they?
Robert had always maintained good relations with the Jurgenses--they were the only family he had. He had never wanted to confront the meaning of past events any more than others did. He had even left his own child with the Jurgenses recently for three weeks while he and his wife were making the move to Crookston.
The phone call from Lois had left him with a sick feeling. As a police officer, he knew that if the case was being reopened, it had to involve a murder charge--the statute of limitations had long ago run out on anything else. He was being forced to confront something he had wanted to deny and avoid.
If Dennis was murdered, Robert knew without a doubt it was Lois Jurgens who killed him.
Robert agonized over what role he should now play. He wanted a family, he wanted parents. But he needed to reach the truth, as a brother to Dennis, as a police officer. He sought advice from his boss in the Crookston Police Department. Twice, he spoke to Lois and Harold Jurgens on the phone.
Don’t talk to anyone, they were urging him. Say nothing. We’ve hired a very good attorney. If your lips are moving, the attorney told us, you’re saying too much.
That made Robert angry. He wanted to find out everything he could, but they never would talk things out with him about how Dennis died. They just never would. He had in recent years tried to have it out with his dad.
Why didn’t you ever divorce her? he had asked. Why didn’t you ever get us out of this? Why did this go on?
He remembered Dennis. He remembered being real happy when Dennis came into the house. Dennis was 1 then, he was 2 1/2. Before Dennis, the house had been very quiet, and he had felt lonely and afraid, afraid of his mother. But Dennis was full of energy, Dennis wasn’t afraid.
His own son was now precisely Dennis’ age when he died. He couldn’t even imagine doing such things to a child.
If Dennis was murdered, without a doubt, without even a doubt, she killed him.
By the time Kindle and Meehan called him from White Bear Lake, Robert had made up his mind. He would cooperate with the police. He would cooperate, even though he knew that meant one day testifying against his adoptive mother.
Kindle and Meehan flew to Crookston on Oct. 17, 1986.
“I’ve made up my mind this is something that I want to do and I’ll try and recall and think of everything,” Robert told the policemen.
With trepidation, worrying how it would affect him, they showed him photos of Dennis’ badly battered body. Robert just shrugged.
“Dennis always looked like that.”
The White Bear Lake detectives looked at each other, then turned on their tape recorder.
On Jan. 29, 1987, the Ramsey County grand jury indicted Lois Jurgens on one count of second-degree murder and two counts of third-degree murder. She was arraigned the next day--21 years, 9 months and 19 days after Dennis died.
Jerry Sherwood, Dennis’ natural mother, was in the courtroom that day when they brought Lois Jurgens in.
Ma, here she comes, her daughter said to her. Sherwood turned and the two mothers looked into each other’s eyes.
“There was hatred in both our looks, I must admit,” Sherwood said later. “Although the reasons for the hatred were different.”
Melinda Elledge and Clayton Robinson were comfortable with the case they had to prosecute, but from the start they had been picking up intriguing references to a 1965 juvenile hearing. The relatives had talked about it. So had a Dr. E. Dale Cumming, a local physician who had once treated Dennis.
It was clear at that hearing, Dr. Cumming had told Kindle and Meehan, that Dennis was beaten to death. There was no reason the coroner’s ruling should have been deferred.
Where were the records and transcript of this hearing? Somewhere there had to be a transcript rich with information. People now dead or ill could talk across the years. People’s memories could be refreshed.
The prosecutors had made phone calls and thrown out subpoenas across four states, to no avail. They finally had concluded it no longer existed.
Now, on the day before they were to pick the last juror and begin the trial, the prosecutors’ phone rang. A clerk was calling from the Washington County courthouse in Stillwater, 20 miles to the east.
We just happened to be cleaning out old evidence lockers, the clerk said. We found your transcript.
The Jurgenses had once filed a habeas corpus petition in Washington County, trying to get Robert back. To the petition they had attached a voluminous exhibit--the whole 1965 record.
Elledge and Robinson sped to Stillwater. Skimming through the 700 pages, they saw just what they expected. The two prosecutors, arm in arm, danced together in the Washington County courthouse parking lot.
The trial began last May 12. There were some spectators who thought it oddly appropriate that such an old murder case was unfolding in a forum that itself suggested so much of another era.
The Ramsey County courthouse was built in the 1930s, and still features manually operated elevators. Because the courtroom lacked air conditioning, the windows during the trial were kept open, allowing the sound of cars and barges from the nearby Mississippi River to punctuate the testimony.
The white-haired judge, David Marsden, wore bow ties. Lois Jurgens appeared each day with a different hat perched on her head--each of them markedly outdated, many of the pillbox style popular more than 20 years ago.
Spectators found her fascinating, and unfathomable. During light moments, they wondered what hat she would appear in the next day. During darker moments, they wondered whether she would ever allow any expression to cross her impassive, stoic face.
Barbara Peterson, the court reporter, was in a position to see Lois Jurgens’ face at all times. Peterson was mesmerized--Lois never even blinked throughout the trial, except for one moment. When Robert Jurgens on the stand testified incorrectly about her height, saying his mother was shorter than she in fact was, Lois Jurgens pursed her lips and shook her head with intensity. That had really annoyed her.
Photos of Dennis’ battered body powerfully colored the trial. When they were passed around to jurors, one cried, and others wiped tears from their eyes. When they were displayed in the courtroom, blown up into poster size, an unprepared Jerry Sherwood had to bolt from the courtroom.
The relatives and family friends this time trooped willingly to the witness stand and told their stories. Some were emotional, even anguished. One had to be helped off the stand by a friend.
The highlight of the trial was Robert’s testimony.
He sat in the witness stand, a mild-looking, blond-haired 26- year-old with a wispy mustache, and spoke softly.
He remembered everything, with precision.
“Dennis used to cry, try to get away,” Robert said. “Later on, Dennis didn’t do as much crying and he didn’t do any running away. I would recall that he more or less submitted and would just kind of whimper and not get into that heavy crying. . . .
“I don’t know exactly the reason why, but I cherished my mother. . . . I did everything she said. I ate my food, I picked up my toys, I kept neat and Dennis didn’t and as a result Dennis received more traumatic reprimands.”
In the days preceding Dennis’ death, he remembered Lois, in the basement, dunking Dennis’ head into a laundry tub full of water, holding his head there until Dennis was gasping and crying, trying to breathe.
“I was terrified. I was afraid--I--I didn’t know what to do. I--it was a terrible sight.”
Riding his tricycle in the basement soon after that, he remembered hearing several loud thuds, then seeing Dennis rolling fast, very fast, landing hard at the base of the stairs, on his stomach. Then his mother came running down the stairs after him, hollering at Dennis, picking him up, shaking him, hitting him.
“I was terrified. . . . What do you do, you know?”
Robert remembered well the night Dennis died. It was storming out, thundering and lightning. He was afraid to go to bed, but he did finally. He heard Dennis and his dad talking at some point in the night. The next thing he heard were screams and hollers, coming from Dennis’ room.
He got up and went to see what was happening. He saw his mother holding Dennis, shaking him violently, yelling his name, slapping him on the back, hollering for Harold.
Robert was told to go sit in the living room. A doctor came, and then policemen.
The courtroom had by now settled into a breathless silence, punctuated only by an occasional gasp, and by the sound of automobiles outside the window. Robert drew a breath, slowly. His voice started to quaver.
I returned recently to our old house on Gardenette Drive, Robert said in answer to a question. “It was eerie, walking into Dennis’ room. . . . It was very tough.”
On the bench, Judge Marsden felt he was losing his own composure. Looking down, he realized that Robert was weeping, unable to continue. He banged the gavel. “The court will take a 10-minute recess,” he said quickly.
The defense attorney, Douglas W. Thomson, inexplicably posed the question to Robert that the prosecutors would have loved to ask but by the rules of law could not.
“You think your mother caused Dennis’ death, don’t you?” Thomson hurled the words at Robert, hoping, most likely, to establish that Robert was prejudiced.
Robert, the whole courtroom, sat in silence for a moment. Then he swallowed, and answered in a soft, muted voice.
“Yes,” he said.
Up on the bench, Judge Marsden thought: Old Dougie just made one bad mistake.
Thomson, 57, had once been among Minnesota’s top criminal defense lawyers, but what with a penchant for drinking and late nights and race tracks, the high-profile cases had stopped a decade ago. Finally back in the center ring, he had been rising every morning before dawn to walk five miles along the Mississippi, thinking out his strategy.
Thomson’s closing argument offered an intriguing thought. This whole trial was going on because of the whim and caprice of one man, he said. That man was the Ramsey County medical examiner, Michael McGee.
“On Oct. 7 of last year nothing, nothing changed. There was no piece of evidence whatsoever that Dr. McGee relied on in changing the designation to homicide. There have not been any medical or scientific advancements that could have been employed by Dr. McGee. It may be true that the battered-child syndrome has been studied over the last 22 years . . . but there is nothing about the advancement in the recognition of the battered-child syndrome that in any way came into play when Dr. McGee changed that death certificate.”
The defense attorney was right, of course. But there were those who would say that was precisely the point. Dennis’ death should have been called a homicide back in 1965, just as it should be called one today.
That, at least, was what the jury decided last May 30, after just four hours of deliberation. The panel found Lois Jurgens guilty of third-degree murder--the Minnesota state description for killing someone without premeditation or intent. On June 5, after a sanity hearing, Judge Marsden sentenced Jurgens to up to 25 years in prison. There she sits now, pending an appeal.
When the verdict was announced, the courtroom exploded with emotion. The prosecutors hugged each other. Spectators wept. Jerry Sherwood grasped her children. And as onlookers watched with fascination, Lois snapped at her husband. “Harold,” she said loudly, impatiently, “Harold, come here.”
Outside the courtroom in the hallway, Sherwood quickly was surrounded by a crowd of reporters. County Atty. Foley told a sea of microphones that this verdict represented a “tremendous victory for the system.” In a corner near the elevators, Robert Jurgens stood alone, crying.
The meaning and import of the Jurgens case are matters still contemplated and debated in this region.
There are many here who now derive considerable satisfaction from the outcome of the Jurgens murder case. Those who pursued, unraveled and prosecuted the mystery feel understandable pride. Spirited discussions aim at identifying the chief heroes. Many appreciatively see in the case vivid evidence of this country’s increased awareness since 1965 of child abuse--this above all is often cited as the chief theme of the story.
The prosecutors believe they could not have convicted Lois Jurgens back in 1965. They point to the evolving awareness of the battered-child syndrome in the community, in the courts and in the lawbooks. They believe that in the past they would have had to link Dennis’ ruptured bowel directly to an act by Lois, rather than prove a more general pattern of abuse. They know they would not in 1965 have had Robert’s devastating testimony.
“This case was not harmed by the passage of time,” said Robinson, the assistant county attorney.
Robert Jurgens sees heroes in the two prosecutors and the two police investigators. Last Sept. 1, he came to a small White Bear Lake courtroom and, with tears and hugs, presented them with his own appreciation plaque.
Judge Marsden and the prosecutors, in turn, see a hero in Robert. They admired the grace and strength with which he had risen above a tortured childhood. It was he, they argued, who had to pay a price, choosing to testify against his adoptive mother, losing the only family he had.
Plenty of others, of course, see a hero in Jerry Sherwood. She was not a particular favorite with public officials, for once the case was reopened she continued to apply sometimes abrasive pressure, both privately and publicly. But if this pressure irritated them, a few were willing to admit later, it also assured that the ball would not once again be dropped.
There are those also who see God’s hand at work.
“Things in this case are not humanly explainable,” the prosecutor Elledge said. “If Jerry Sherwood hadn’t gone out to the cemetery and if the record book didn’t just happen to have a news clip in there. . . . A few months from now certain witnesses will be dead.”
Police Detective Kindle said: “I don’t know what Lois Jurgens did to draw God’s attention. All the pieces were there when they shouldn’t have been. It’s like God said, that’s it. Here’s where I draw the line. . . . I’m going to freeze this one until the time is ready.”
What most of those involved in the case--police, prosecutors, judges--do not acknowledge seeing are the villains, apart from Lois Jurgens herself. Reflecting on why the Jurgens tragedy happened, few of them are inclined to point fingers or fix blame or make judgments.
The “system” didn’t work, they are willing to say. But people didn’t have any idea what child abuse was. People saw clean, ordered houses, that’s what people saw, or wanted to see. It was easy to fool people. Some just lost track or were overwhelmed or were afraid. This happened years before the battered-child syndrome was recognized, in a middle-class suburb, where people sensed something was wrong but thought it none of their business. We should not judge basically decent people who failed to do something, or chose not to. They were not consciously wrongdoers. We must resist hindsight. We can’t call any of them bad guys.
This attitude, finally, remains among the most puzzling of all the strange elements in the Jurgens story. That the unflinching facts of the Jurgens case suggest something a good deal more disturbing--a community full of people aware of Lois and what she had done--seems to have evaded many involved in the case. No one but Lois Jurgens has ever been held to account.
There are understandable reasons. The task at hand, after all, was to identify a murderer and put her in jail. Why the Jurgens tragedy happened was not the question being pursued. By its nature the trial ended up confining and localizing the horror in one person. Where some might find fault with the welfare caseworker, the family doctor, the local priest, the police, the coroner, the lawyers and judges, the neighbors and relatives, others saw informants and prosecution witnesses.
Beyond that, the uncomfortable question of why the Jurgens tragedy happened is one many people simply have trouble facing. The case revealed an image of a community and human nature, after all, that was not the one many thought they knew--or even now want to know. So satisfactory answers have ended up being difficult to reach.
Robert Jurgens, as it happens, is still struggling for an answer, months after the trial ended. He could not shrink from the raw facts now even if he wanted to. The trial was not enough for him. He has read through the case file, the mountains of paper that document his own history. What he read has left him overwhelmed.
He saw how he was allowed to be placed. He saw how he was removed, then returned to Lois and Harold. He saw how he was left there when they took away the Kentucky children. He saw what happened to the brother he remembers only as a laughing baby full of energy.
“Why did this happen?” he said one morning recently from his home in Crookston. “That’s the question that doesn’t get talked about. . . . I guess it happened because no one wanted to go through the white picket fence of the Jurgens house and step on toes. They just did not want to walk through that white picket fence.”
Anger would be expected, but instead, Robert Jurgens spoke quietly. His tone was full of wonder--a sad, puzzled wonder.
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