The Morning After The MurderI Unwittingly Went To The Murderer's House
Karla Bowen Herman
© Copyright 2021 by Karla Bowen Herman
Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash
He was STOMPED to death! Who murdered this young, well-liked police officer?
You are about to read a secret I have kept for 45 years. Something happened when I was almost 16 years old that chilled me to the bones. I have never revealed it to my parents, my siblings, or even to my friends—past or current. Only my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time it happened) has heard my account. I'm really not sure why I never wanted to talk about it... all I can say is that some things bother you so much, they are unspeakable. However, now that I'm in my sixties, I want to finally write about it—writing about it is easier, for some reason. This is a true story.
Meeting young Officer Bell:
One day, on my summer job as a waitress in Central Cafe, I looked up when the chime on the entry-door jingled; to see a young, attractive police officer enter for a cup of coffee. Marshal Douglas Paul Bell was new to our small town of Keota, which is located in a rural Iowa county. When I first saw him, I recall thinking: "He looks too young to be a police officer!" In fact, he soon told me that this was indeed his very first assignment, after recently graduating from the Academy. Every morning those first two weeks in June, Officer Bell would start his day with coffee at Central Cafe. Even though I was barely 16, he chatted with me with as much respect as if I was an adult. (The summer of 1976 was just getting started. Next Fall, I would be entering my Junior year of high school as one of the youngest in my class.) I soon discovered his father was also a police officer—he'd been one all of his adult life. Officer Bell confessed one morning to me: "Because of the dangers, my parents weren't thrilled that I decided to also go into law enforcement; but they figure I'll be safe enough in a small quiet town, like Keota." Those words would later come back to haunt me.
Officer Bell was SO nice and friendly that, to be honest, I had a little school girl crush on him—although he had no idea; and I never would have let him know. I appreciated the way he'd always leave me a 50-cent tip—even though back then, a cup of coffee only cost a quarter. I would use one of his quarters to select a few songs in the jukebox; and he would always compliment me on my choices. We shared a mutual love for the B-side of a Beatles song: "I Saw Her Standing There"—and would laugh when my boss, Pearl, would complain: "Are you playing that Hippie song AGAIN?" Here is that song, for those of you who've never heard it:
Since Officer Bell had mentioned that he was eager to get to know the young people in town, whenever any schoolmates would drop into the cafe, I would always ask: "Have you met the new police officer in town? He's really nice. Come meet Officer Bell!" I was proud of my schoolmates that all of them were friendly to him.
One boy, Wally, who was a grade ahead of me, was especially pleased to meet him. He came over and sat right by Officer Bell at the counter and shook his hand. Wally explained that since he was going to be a Senior next year, he'd started wondering about what to do with his life after high school, and had seriously been considering law enforcement. Officer Bell was pleased to hear that and they had a lengthy conversation, as Wally asked questions and welcomed any tips, should he pursue it.
I thought to myself, "I can't imagine Wally as a police officer!" But, I just smiled. It wasn't because he wasn't an honest, good person—because he was. I guess hearing him say that was his career choice simply surprised me... You see, Wally was the quiet, gentle type. I couldn't imagine him ever being able to handcuff anybody or chase them down. Wally wasn't exactly athletic—he was kind of scrawny. But, he was dating one of my classmates, and Gina always had nothing but good things to say about him. So, as I wiped off tables while listening to their conversation, I adjusted my attitude, thinking: "Wally would make a kind, understanding police officer—just like Officer Bell; and that's what's most important."
I'd never seen Wally so excited as when Officer Bell kindly asked him: "Would you like to go for a ride-along?" Wally could barely contain himself, as he gleefully responded: "YES! Can I really?" They arranged several ride-alongs after that. I thought it was a really nice thing for Officer Bell to do for Wally. In fact, all of us young people thought Officer Bell was the best police officer ever! Except for one evil-minded person, we later discovered...
Murder in a small town:
An interrogation gone wrong...
On June 12, 1976, I reported to work at Central Cafe and was wiping off the stool where Officer Bell normally sat, in anticipation of his coming in any minute, for coffee. Just then, my boss, Pearl (who was a grandmotherly-type), came out of the kitchen and put her arm around my back. As Pearl pulled me close in a side-hug, she gently said: "I'm so sorry to have to tell you, Honey, but Officer Bell won't be coming in this morning." I was confused by her actions and sad tone-of-voice: "Why? Is he sick or something?" Pearl explained: "No, he was killed last night in the line-of-duty." I couldn't digest what she was telling me: "What? No! Was he in an accident or something?" Pearl gave me another gentle hug: "No, they say he was murdered." I was in shock: "That's not possible; everybody loves Officer Bell. Who would want to kill him?" Pearl answered: "All I know is that he made a routine traffic-stop and someone up and killed him." I began to sob. Pearl told me to take the day off, so I went home, still in shock.
My boyfriend, Louie, lived in another town. He called me to talk about it before I had the chance to call him. Apparently, the news of Officer Bell's murder was already all over the county—probably all over the state of Iowa. Over the phone, Louie filled in some horrific details I didn't know: "My Dad says he heard that police officer customer of yours was stompedto death!" That awful detail made me start crying again... "How could something like that happen in our quiet little town? Oh, his poor parents," I lamented. "You know, they were scared for him to become a police officer. But, they assumed he'd be safe in Keota, Iowa, of all places... What kind of monster did he pull over? It has to be someone who was passing through... I can't imagine anybody from my town could be a murderer!"
Louie replied: "Well, according to what my family heard, they've already got a confession—some kid named Wally. Do you know him?" My shock quickly turned to concern for Wally. "No, that can't be! There's NO WAY Wally did it—he couldn't hurt a fly! Plus, Officer Bell was his mentor... Wally wants to become a police officer someday, too; and Officer Bell was bringing him on ride-alongs and everything!" "Well," my boyfriend replied, "apparently during interrogation, Wally confessed." I became more adamant in my objections, "That can't be. It just CAN'T be true!"
But, it was. Gina tried (to no avail) to explain to her parents that Wally had only confessed after hours of interrogation—out of pure exhaustion and defeat. Even though all of his schoolmates never doubted that Wally was innocent, Gina's parents said she should immediately consider herself broken up with him; and she was banned from ever seeing him again.
I Unwittingly Visited the Real Murderer's House:
I decided to ride my bike over to the house of the doctor's son, to find out what was going on.
The very next morning after the murder, a classmate (who was my best friend at the time), called to discuss the murder; then she dropped anotherbombshell. "Did you hear that Jerry Don is moving away?" Jerry was a kind, quiet boy in our class. He'd moved to our town back when we were all in Junior High. The only doctor in our little town, Dr. Don and his wife, couldn't have children; and they had kindly adopted Jerry and an older boy, Eddie, from out of the long-term foster system. Jerry and I had a platonic relationship—we forged a bond because of both coming from the South... He was born in Oklahoma and I was born in southern Missouri. But, we'd always been just friends. I couldn't handle one more bit of sad news that morning... "Why is he moving away?" I asked. "I don't know," my bestie said, that's just what I heard." Exasperated, I sighed: "Well, I'm gonna ride my bike over there and find out what's going on."
I knew where Jerry lived, but I had never been in their house before. When I knocked on the door, I was taken aback when his 19 year-old big brother, Eddie, acted suspicious after he answered the door. "What are YOU doing here?" he demanded—in an unfriendly way that scared me a bit. "Is Jerry home?" I mumbled. "Whaddya want with him?" Eddie asked, gruffly. I was about ready to say, "Never mind" and get back on my bicycle and ride away, but just then Jerry came up behind Eddie, looking obviously upset. He shoved Eddie out of the way and protested, "She's here for ME, let her in!" After I was inside, Jerry took me by the arm, led me past Eddie, into his room. Only after shutting his door, did he ask: "What are you DOING here?" I felt kind of stupid as I explained: "Is it true you're moving away? Say it isn't so." Jerry turned around, as he answered, and I noticed he was frantically throwing clothes into a suitcase; rushing so much that nothing was getting folded—just tossed in any-which way. "Yep, I'm going back to Oklahome to live with my biological sister. I called her last night and she said I could live with her and her husband." I was flabbergasted that it was true. "But why, Jerry! In a couple years, we're going to be seniors! It's gonna be great! Don't go, you'll miss all of that! Why would you want to start over somewhere else this late in high school?" But all Jerry would say is, "I have to go and I don't wanna talk about it." I tried one more time to find out why he was leaving: "Did you get into a fight with your adoptive parents or something? Things surely can't be THAT bad." But Jerry replied: "Things ARE that bad, but I said I don't wanna talk about it. Change the subject, because I'm not changing my mind!"
"Okay," I sadly agreed. "But, just know that a lot of us are gonna miss you... First Officer Bell gets murdered, and now you're moving away..." Just then, Jerry's big brother Eddie burst into the room. (Apparently, he had been listening behind Jerry's bedroom door.) Eddie glared at me and advancing just inches away from my face, demanded: "WHAT have you heard?" Frightened, I stuttered, "Just... just that somebody killed Officer Bell during a routine traffic stop. My boss, Pearl, told me." Jerry tried to push him out the door, yelling: "Get out, Eddie! She's here to say goodbye to ME, not talk to you. Get out!" But Eddie was stronger, and persisted: "Who do they think did it?" Bewildered at the brothers heated exchange, I quietly answered: "All I know is that Wally got arrested. Apparently, he confessed. That's all I know!" That seemed to satisfy Eddie and he finally left the room. Jerry was visibly upset, and whispered to me, "Don't talk about it anymore. You need to go, NOW. Please. Please go!" I was confused, but I said, "Okay, if that's what you want, I'll leave. It's been nice knowing you." Jerry must have felt badly, for he grabbed my arm as I was leaving, turned me around and gave me a quick hug, saying: "I'm so sorry. Someday you'll understand why I need to get away... You've been a good friend to me ever since I got adopted, and I'll never forget you." It was unnerving to have Eddie staring at me, as I left. Not looking at him, I said, "Goodbye, Eddie," as I hurried out the door—I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. But, he never answered.
Riding my bike home, I tried to decipher that strange encounter and how weird Eddie had been. Even though Jerry stood up to his adoptive brother, it was clear to me that he was scared of him. I remember what Jerry had told me once, a year ago, when Eddie was a senior in our high school... Up ahead of us in the lunch line, Eddie had pulled a knife on a teacher! Such a thing never happened in our small-town school; and even though the incident was quickly calmed down by the staff, who took the knife away; Jerry was clearly so embarrassed. Standing by him in the lunch line, I tried to make him feel better: "It's not your fault, Jerry; don't let it get to you." Jerry felt like he had to explain why he thought Eddie acted like such a bully: "We were both in the foster system because neither of us were being taken care of by our parents—if you could call them "parents". But, I was the lucky one... I have an older married sister who loves me. Eddie had nobody. He was terribly abused. All I know is that he used to get thrown against a wall all the time. Maybe it damaged his brain or something. Our adoptive parents keep trying, but he's damaged goods." After that, I tried to be more understanding of why Eddie was the way he was. But, I was still scared of him—and glad when he graduated. (Even though I was just a child, I empathized with Dr. Don and his wife, realizing how tough it must be for them to have taken on a troubled child, like Eddie.)
The true murderer is revealed three years later:
If the boots fit, you must convict.
Jerry was gone by that night. Wally's parents disputed his confession under duress, and Wally was released for lack of evidence. But, he moved away because life was never the same for him in our suspicious small town, sadly. I don't know where he ended up or whatever became of him. I hope he was able to rise above being falsely accused... All I know is that Gina eventually married someone else.
It often pained me to think about Officer Bell's parents; and how horrible it must be for them that three years had passed, and nobody else had yet been arrested for their son's murder.
Then, in 1979, there was a sudden breakthrough in the case. Eddie Don was in a penitentiary serving a 10-year sentence for a 1978 kidnapping conviction. (I'm not sure who he kidnapped, or what happened to that victim.) I heard that after his arrest, his girlfriend at the time, voluntarily went to the police and said that Eddie had been bragging that he was the one who had murdered Officer Bell. (I think she must have been too scared to come forward, until after he was behind bars, but I guess I really don't know for sure.)
I started shivering and couldn't stop shaking, when my boyfriend told me the news, over the phone. That was the only time I told anybody that I had encountered the murderer the morning after the murder: "My God, I went to the murderer's house the morning after the murder, and Eddie answered the door! I was chatting to his brother about the murder, and Eddie got all weird— but he's so weird anyway, I never put two-and-two together!" (I felt so naive, as well as frightened; but you have to remember I was not quite 16 years-old at the time.) My boyfriend reasoned: "Well, it's a good thing you didn't suspect, or he might have killed you, too!" Another shiver went down my spine when he said that. I couldn't bear to talk about it anymore after that—to anyone. It gave me nightmares.
During trial, the public finally learned what had really happened the night that kind, young police officer was murdered. Officer Bell had pulled Eddie Don over in a routine traffic stop, for speeding. Eddie was apparently worried that Officer Bell would discover that the car he was driving was stolen—he'd just snatched it from a parking lot. Somehow, Eddie managed to grab the police officer's gun out of it's holster. (You have to remember that he had only been on the job for two brief weeks.) Eddie forced Officer Bell to lie on the ground, and then he stomped him to death. It sickens me to imagine that kind, young officer—one of the nicest young men I've ever met—begging for Eddie to please stop, pleading for his life. Once he quieted, Eddie shot him with his own gun, to make sure he was dead; then wiped it clean of finger-prints. Eddie then returned to town, cleaned and dumped the stolen auto, and proceeded to do a few home-invasions to create an alibi. Despite his troubled childhood, nobody had suspected the doctor's son...
After his girlfriend's information, the police went to the Don residence... You see, before incarceration, Eddie had still been living at home, in his adoptive parents' basement. Dr. Don gave them permission to search his room. Eddie had neglected to get rid of the boots he had worn when he stomped Officer Bell to death—and a match was made by forensics. Eddie was sentenced to life on July 29, 1980. (I hope it was without the possibility of parole, but I don't know for sure.) I do know that Eddie later appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court of Iowa on 12 counts, but all of them failed, and his conviction thankfully stands.
As for Jerry? I now understand why he had to get away from his adoptive brother, just as he said I would, someday. I am so sorry I had no idea just how difficult it must have been, living with such a troubled big brother. To get rescued from neglectful parents and then the foster system, only to end up with such an adoptive sibling... It seems too much for one child to have to deal with. I don't know how much he knew, but Jerry was just a child at the time, like me; and I know he was scared of Eddie. I hope Jerry had a happy life with his biological big sister's family. Years ago, I heard a rumor that Jerry grew up to become an FBI agent. You never know whether or not to believe the small-town gossip. But, if it is true, I am so proud of him! A decade later, I heard another rumor that Jerry was killed in action, when undercover for the FBI. I hope it's true.