July 2001

In 1955 University of Northern Iowa student Ed Epperly and two fellow classmates, Don Brown and Leo Mundy, began investigating the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders for a historical research paper assignment.  One of their initial efforts involved writing to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and asking for access to any material they might have related to the case.  The DCI acknowledged the existence of an axe murder file, but in compliance with a long-standing "law enforcement-eyes-only" policy, denied the young men an opportunity to view its contents.

We began researching the murders for our documentary in 1993 and also contacted the agency regarding their axe murder file.   We were told that they did not know whether or not a file existed, and if there was one, they were not aware of its location within the agency's archives.

 

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is located in the Wallace Building in Des Moines.
 

The DCI, formerly known as the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation or BCI, was formed in 1921 and played no direct role in the official 1912-1917 investigation of the state's worst mass murder in Villisca.  However, the first BCI Chief, Oscar Rock, and another BCI agent, James Risden, were key figures in Attorney General Horace Havner's axe murder investigation team.  The BCI was formed, in part, as a response to public frustration over the state's inability to coordinate the Villisca investigation and to successfully solve the crime.

With our documentary project drawing to a close, we renewed our effort to gain access to the DCI's axe murder file.  In March 2001 we received a telephone response to our written request to examine the bureau's Villisca material.  The existence of the file was confirmed, but we were told that the agency's long-standing policy would be maintained.  Our request was denied.

In May 2001 we began, first a correspondence and then a negotiation, with the Iowa Attorney General's office.   These letters and conversations finally resulted in an agreement allowing Tammy and I, along with Dr. Epperly, to examine the long-sought axe murder file in the Wallace Building DCI offices in Des Moines on July 17, 2001.

 

Kelly and Tammy Rundle on the left with Dr. Epperly just outside the DCI offices.  Epperly has been seeking access to the agency's Villisca axe murder file for 40 years.
 

Once inside we were given visitor's badges and then greeted by agent Stephen Conlin.  He led us into his office and we were seated at a large conference table.  Latex gloves were issued and then we were allowed to examine the contents of their Villisca file.  We took notes but were not permitted to make photocopies or to take any photographs inside the DCI offices.

The contents of the file can be summarized in four basic groups: letters to the DCI regarding their file (including Leo Mundy's from 1956), old newspaper clippings related to the murders, post-1917 information and correspondence regarding possible confessions or suspects, and two large depositions taken in June 1918 related to the Montgomery County Protective Association and the involvement of Detective James Wilkerson in that organization.  The County Association was formed to raise money to defend Reverend Kelly and to prosecute the case against Frank Jones.

Wilkerson developed the case against State Senator Frank F. Jones and--when a grand jury failed to indict Jones for lack of evidence in the axe murder case and when Reverend George Kelly was charged, tried, and acquitted--the Burns Agency Detective made a bid to become Montgomery County Attorney.  In response, Attorney General Havner assembled a factual dossier shedding strong doubt on Wilkerson's character and motives.  Wilkerson withdrew from the election and returned to Kansas City.

Because of time constraints, Dr. Epperly requested, and was granted, an appointment to return in two weeks time to examine the depositions in greater detail.

While we understand why the DCI does not grant access to recent or ongoing case files, the 90-year-old Villisca axe murders have not been actively investigated since 1917.  The story is now a matter to be explored by historians.  We are grateful to Stephen Conlin at the DCI and Jeff Farrell at the Attorney General's office for their cooperation with our request to examine the Villisca axe murder file.

 

Latex gloves we used to examine the forgotten files.

Related Link:

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation


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