It was 3:08 AM on October 5, 1994 when the dispatcher awakened me from a sound sleep. She told me I was being summoned to the scene of a discovered gunshot victim. Arriving some thirty minutes later, I witnessed a dead woman drenched in blood sitting behind the steering wheel of her ’86 Chevy Celebrity. The victim was still fastened in her lap and shoulder seat belt. it was an outrageous and pitiful sight. I can still envision her blood stained right hand clenched in a fist as if she had undergone extreme pain before her death. There was a single bullet hole in the rear window of her car. A .22 caliber casing was found in the roadside ditch behind the victim’s vehicle. The knife used to inflict wounds on her was found in a nearby cornfield. An autopsy was performed. Thirty-three stab wounds were counted on her upper left chest, face, and skull. Three broken ribs, were also discovered, as was a bullet hole in her left cheek. A .22 caliber slug was recovered from her body.
Three days later, four 15 year old boys from Missouri were interviewed who subsequently confessed to Sheriff Ted Kamatchus and S/A Dave Fees of the Iowa D.C.I. to the brutal slaying. Making the arrests was a monumental point in the investigation, although a crucial piece of evidence had not yet been recovered. The offenders claimed to have thrown the .22 caliber rifle off a bridge into a river not too long after the crime. But the specific waterway was not known, and only a vague description of the location was attained. Commencing on October 10, 1994 diligent searches were conducted in four waterways. The main focus of our searches was narrowed to the Iowa River off Highway 330, six miles south of the crime scene. The Iowa River at this location is usually shallow, only several feet deep in most areas. I volunteered a couple of Marshalltown police officers (one of them being my older brother John) and their wet suits. They spent the day walking and scraping the river bottom with poles to no avail. There was a seven or eight foot hole with a swift current to the south side of the river. We gave brother John his oxygen tanks and his heavy leaded belt to buckle around his waist as well as a rope to hold onto so as not to be taken away by the river’s current. I sent him down into the hole with orders to not drown. After several minutes with brother out of my sight, he came up. He told me the current was so swift and strong, he could barely stand in the holes on the river bottom and was unable to detect anything solid by stepping on it. So much for that idea.
A day or two later I found two more volunteers from the Iowa DNR. One of them brought along a special type of metal detector that could be hovered over the water surface that would reach to the river bottom for metal detection. While this officer controlled the device, the other continued to scrape the river bottom with a pole. The metal detector worked very well. Too well in fact. The device was detecting a great deal of metals on the river bottom, and the alarm was constantly sounding, but not for what we wanted.
Myself and others on the scene found ourselves wondering what action the river and its current would have on the rifle. Would the current carry the weapon down river? If so, how far and how fast? The specific rifle being sought was a .22 caliber Marlin semi-automatic. Just so happens I had a similar gun locked up in the evidence room, confiscated from a poacher several years ago. We conducted an experiment and heaved it off the bridge. Our eyes fixed on where it landed as one of the DNR officers was in the water about thirty feet away ready to recover it. The officer waded right to its landing location while scraping the bottom as he went along. I glanced down to my watch and timed how long it took him to find it. All those present believed the officer was in the correct general location. The officer in fact did find it after twenty minutes of searching. It was agreed that the river’s current did not carry the rifle any real distance if any, at all. We finished the day again without luck.
On the third attempt I found a couple of Marshalltown firefighters and asked them to bring their boat and grappling hooks to the scene. I had the men work in the immediate area of the deep hole. Another day went by without luck.
Becoming a bit frustrated, I asked the boss to give it one more shot. Given his blessing, I decided to call on two veterans that probably know this part of the Iowa river more than anyone else in the world. Marshall County Conservation Officer Garry Brandenburg and D.N.R. Officer Darrell Batterson. Acquiring a boat, a rope tied to a strong magnet and grappling hooks we went at it commencing about 10 AM. It was now November 12th, five weeks after the homicide. We did have the weather on our side. It had not rained since the murder and it was unseasonably warm. Both Batterson and Brandenburg had interesting theories. I learned from them that the river bottom in this area was made up of silt (very fine mineral particles of earth such as clay, soil or similar matter, the diameter of the particles having a width of 0.002 through 0.05 millimeters), sand (disintegrated rock particles, with a diameter width being 0.06 through 2.1 millimeters), but mostly “SAND.” I was also advised that the sand would be carried over objects by the current in much the same manner as wind carries particles of sand in a desert and thus burying an object. It was also theorized that the rifle would be found perpendicular to the river bridge, “not parallel or adjacent.” The reason given for this theory was that the barrel of the weapon would act as an anchor while the shoulder stock would initially tend to float and act as a “weather vane”. This action would cause the stock to point in the direction of the current. If found, the stock of the weapon would believed to be pointing down river, being perpendicular to the bridge from where it was tossed. It was agreed that two of us should concentrate our efforts in the deep hole with the boat and magnet. The third member of the search party would plow the sandy river bottom while walking back and forth – working away from the bridge structure. Batterson took one of the long pole grappling hooks we borrowed from the fire department. At the end of the pole were two long looped prongs. He drove the prongs as deep as he could into the sandy river bottom and began plowing – more grunting than plowing. He discovered it was very hard work.
We labored about four hours. I decided that we would work about another hour and we’d give it up. I had just tossed the magnet in the deep hole for the four thousandth time when I heard this hysterical, “I FOUND IT!” Brandenburg looked at me, and I looked back. My first thought was that he was just playing a sick joke on us. We maneuvered the boat to get in view of Batterson. There he was, with a big grin on his face, standing next to a rifle stock sticking out of the water. Talk about an adrenaline rush. We couldn’t row the boat back to shore fast enough to grab my camera and measuring tape. The rifle was discovered about 17 feet west off the bridge. We also discovered that the stock had in fact been found pointing downstream perpendicular to the bridge structure. The gun had been about six inches under the sandy river bottom. I remember State Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Bennett’s autopsy report reflecting that he had recovered a fragment of black plastic from the mouth of the victim. In examining the butt plate of the weapon it in fact appeared consistent with what may have caused some of the injuries to the victim’s mouth. I also remember that the victim’s upper front incisor had been recovered from under her driver’s seat. A positive fracture match was made from the butt plate striation with the piece of black plastic, as well as a positive ballistic fire pin and bullet casing match. The recovery of the rifle helped write the final chapter of our investigation, while helping in securing murder convictions on all four assailants. Recovering the rifle was a learning experience. As I look back, I’m convinced the gun was buried by the river’s sand within a relatively short period of time. Secondly, I don’t believe a moderate river current will carry away a firearm such as the one we searched for much of a distance. Finally, as in conducting any kind of search, when possible and practical I would advise to search the area more than once. . Most importantly, when it comes to searching shallow waterways with sandy – silt bottoms, don’t bother scraping and scratching the riverbed, PLOW IT…PLOW IT…PLOW IT!!!
My condolences to the family of Rebecca Hauser.
My thanks to all the people who assisted with the investigation: the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Crime Lab, and to our Attorney General Office prosecutors. In particular, thanks to my old high school wrestling coach. We called him “Mean Gene.” He pushed us hard, and I never won a championship, but ole Mean Gene trained me not to give up on anything easily. In this match, with the help of my colleagues, Batterson’s recovery of that weapon was better than Olympic Gold.
Deputy Wade Ruopp
Marshall County Sheriff Office
210 S. 2nd Ave.
Marshalltown, IA 50158
Fax: (641) 754-6369