In 1962, Jerry Sherwood gave up her newborn son, Dennis, for adoption. Twenty years later, she set out to find him—only to discover he had died before his fourth birthday. The immediate cause was peritonitis, but the coroner had never decided the mode of death, writing “deferred” rather than indicate accident, natural causes, or homicide. This he did even though the autopsy photos showed Dennis covered from head to toe in ugly bruises, his clenched fists and twisted facial expression suggesting he had died writhing in pain.
Harold and Lois Jurgens, a middle-class, churchgoing couple in picturesque White Bear Lake, Minnesota, had adopted Dennis and five other foster children. To all appearances, they were a normal midwestern family, but Jerry suspected that something sinister had happened in the Jurgens household. She demanded to know the truth about her son’s death.
Why did authorities dismiss evidence that marked Dennis as an endangered child? Could Lois Jurgens’s brother, a local police lieutenant, have interfered in the investigation? And most disturbing of all, why had so many people who’d witnessed Lois’s brutal treatment of her children stay silent for so long? Determined to find answers, local detectives and prosecutors rebuilt the case brick by brick, finally exposing the shocking truth behind a nightmare in suburbia.
A finalist for the Edgar Award, A Death in White Bear Lake is “a distinguished entry in the annals of crime documentary,” and a vivid portrait of the all-American town that harbored a sadistic killer (The Washington Post).
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Months later, in the airless cubicles of the solitary police station where White Bear Lake detectives do their business, there was confusion among some of them about just what they truly recalled of the Jurgens case on that damp September day in 1986 when Jerry Sherwood first appeared, demanding their attention.
"I didn't remember anything about the case, I just remembered White Bear was flooded that spring," Detective Ron Meehan, the department's chief investigator, initially told those who asked. "I listened to her story and it didn't ring a bell," Lieutenant Clarence "Buzz" Harvey agreed. For a while, Harvey even went so far as to suggest he'd been a "rookie cop" in 1965, although the records would show that claim to be something of a stretch, since by then Buzz had been on the force a good six years. Chief Philip Major, only a high school senior that year, remembered volunteers frantically sandbagging the rampaging Mississippi and hymn-singing civil rights demonstrators marching up Cedar Street in downtown St. Paul, but of course he recalled nothing of the Jurgens case.
Then, as time went by, the stories evolved. Buzz Harvey acknowledged, a little sheepishly, that yes, he'd been aware of the case from the start. Ron Meehan allowed that "everyone knew, but it was none of our business." Gerry Sarracco, the dispatcher on the critical Palm Sunday morning in 1965, said, "We all knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what."
Just as these mutating versions of distant memories were understandable considering the passage of time, so too were the hazy recollections about more recent days. The prosecutors and police and doctors, after all, could hardly be expected to know they'd later be asked to account for every move, moment by moment, during those pivotal hours following Jerry Sherwood's first appearance. All the same, studying the faces of those involved, watching them aimlessly shuffle papers across their desks, it did sometimes seem their murkiness had as much to do with a certain nervous reluctance as with simple forgetfulness.
That too was understandable.
This much can be said — it was midmorning on Thursday, September 11, 1986, when Buzz Harvey looked up from his desk to find the station's office clerk standing in the doorway of his small office.
"Someone called while you were out, wanting to talk to you," Heidi Riemenschneider reported. "Something about his brother being murdered. Said he would call back later. His name was Dennis Craig McIntyre."
Buzz Harvey's eyes traveled to a dog-eared manila file cradled in her right arm. He raised his eyebrows in inquiry.
"Oh yeah," she said, placing the file on Harvey's desk. "The guy mentioned something about a Jurgens case. Happened twenty-one years ago. I pulled our file. Thought you'd want to see."
Alone again, Harvey considered the closed file before him, shutting his eyes as an unwelcome feeling took hold. Yes, he remembered the Jurgens case. A little boy had died.
Harvey had never seen the file that sat before him. Two other officers had handled the Jurgens case in 1965, Pete Korolchuk and Bob VanderWyst, both now retired. What Harvey recalled came from them. Korolchuk, he remembered, had talked back then of certain pressures and problems connected with his investigation, but what exactly had happened Harvey could not say. He'd been busy with his own work and it had not been his case.
Harvey labored to concentrate. He'd recently given up a lifetime of smoking, and now longed for a cigarette. The sausage pies across Highway 61 at the Pizza Hut that he'd turned to as a substitute filled his considerable gut without at all soothing his nerves. Slowly, Harvey opened the Jurgens file and began to leaf through the pages.
As he did so, the unwelcome feeling sharpened and tightened. There was something strange here. Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Demars have given us a signed statement. Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Zerwas have given us signed statements also, Pete Korolchuk had written. But Buzz could find no such statements in the file. He continued turning the pages, his concern mounting. The police logs seemed riddled with discrepancies. Harold Jurgens told VanderWyst that his little boy had fallen and struck his head on the floor, but the autopsy report mentioned head-to-toe bruises. So many bruises from a fall on the floor? The doctor at the death scene told VanderWyst he noticed bruises just on the forehead, since he only checked the boy's chest and face. Why wouldn't the doctor look at the body under the blankets? When Buzz reached the file's last sheet he stared at it, then shuffled back through the pages, searching in vain. Where was the ending? There'd been no prosecution, no disposition at all of this case. What had happened?
And who now was asking about the case? The call had come from a Dennis Craig McIntyre. What did he have to do with this?
Buzz called Ron Meehan into his office.
"Remember the Jurgens case?" the lieutenant asked.
Meehan, a former Marine M.P., college football player, and amateur boxer, was a brawny man with a barrel chest and muscular arms. Then fifty-one, he'd been a White Bear Lake cop for twenty-five years and the department's chief investigator since 1973.
Meehan merely nodded. Yes, he remembered the Jurgens case. He'd never forgotten the Jurgens case.
"Somebody called about it," Harvey said. "Told Heidi he was a brother to the dead boy. Said he'd call back. I'll keep you posted."
The call came four days later, late in the afternoon on Monday, September 15. The voice was young, unpolished and hostile. Dennis Craig McIntyre told Harvey he was calling for his mother. Her name was Jerry Sherwood.
"We want to talk to you about my brother who was murdered twenty-one years ago," McIntyre said. "Can we come in now?" Harvey glanced at the clock on his wall. He worked an eight to four shift, and it was nearly four o'clock.
"I'm only here until four," Harvey said.
"Oh shit," McIntyre said.
Harvey was taken aback, but in the coming days, he would hear that expression more than once from McIntyre.
"I'll call back tomorrow," the young man said.
Tuesday passed, though, without a call. Harvey's phone finally rang late on Wednesday afternoon. "Can we come in tomorrow morning?" McIntyre asked.
Harvey looked at his calendar. That would be Thursday, September 18. "Yes, fine," he said. "Make it at ten in the morning."
It is possible to drive through White Bear Lake without noticing either its charm or its lake. Due in good part to the arrival of interstate highways, the town of twenty-two thousand qualifies as what the urban planners call a second-ring suburb of St. Paul, the Minnesota capital, which rises ten miles to the south. I-35E carries commuters north from downtown St. Paul to westbound I-694. State Highway 61, an exit off 694, carries commuters north again through White Bear Lake.
Highway 61 is a four-lane divided thoroughfare that offers little to please the eye. Approaching the town from the south, the road passes three gas stations, a Wendy's, a McDonald's, a Dairy Queen, the Polar Chevrolet and Tousley Ford car dealerships, a Jiffy Print, a Two Guys from Italy restaurant, the Johnson-Peterson Funeral Home, a liquor store, and dozens of small shops offering wares ranging from live bait to video rentals. Only by looking alertly to the right while negotiating Highway 61 can you catch a passing, fragmented glimpse between buildings of the sparkling-clear twenty-five-hundred-acre lake that forms the city's core. To discover the relatively bucolic villagelike town center hugging the lake's southwestern shore, you would need to turn right off Highway 61 at Fourth Street. There, a quiet retail quarter offers a tableau less jarring to the eye, at least to those who do not mind the sort of stores that go by names such as Country Goose or The Sheepy Shop or Timberdoodle. Just beyond the business district, on winding Lake Avenue, a row of gracefully weathered frame houses faces the water, one-time summer cottages expanded over time into stately, picturesque homes. An arched bridge off Lake Avenue connects the mainland with the even more affluent Manitou Island, a green and richly wooded enclave of baronial mansions. Most days in the summer, sailboats and fishermen move languidly about the lake — not vacationers but neighbors, stealing an hour or two of pleasure before or after work.
The White Bear Lake police station is not located in this quarter of town. Instead of turning right at Fourth Street and heading toward the lake, a visitor to the police station must turn left, away from the water, cross over the railroad tracks that divide Highway 61, and then bear left again on Miller. A block down the road on the southwest corner, the police station occupies a one-story structure that resembles a local library but for the patrol cars parked diagonally along the building's east side. Compact frame homes with small porches face the station from across the street, like an audience at a play or ball game. When Buzz Harvey and Ron Meehan joined the force around 1960, it numbered nine men, and by late 1986 it had grown to twenty-eight.
Fall in White Bear Lake was taking hold the morning of September 18, 1986. The temperature reached only sixty degrees, a full ten degrees below the norm for mid-September. A trace of rain dampened the sidewalk outside the police station.
Buzz Harvey's visitors arrived precisely at ten o'clock. There were three of them. Dennis Craig McIntyre, nineteen, had a sullen manner and long brown hair with bangs that obscured much of his forehead. His sister, Misty McIntyre, twenty-three, a quietly composed young woman with layered shoulder-length brown hair, gave off no attitude at all. Their mother, Jerry Sherwood, forty-two, was a tall woman with an elaborately coiffed mane of blond hair. Those in the station familiar with the downtown strip joints in nearby St. Paul might have recognized her from an earlier tenure at Alary's Club Bar. Her features were still attractive, although the years had added a certain hardness to her face and thickness to her arms and legs. She looked like a cocktail waitress with mileage.
Buzz asked investigator Ron Meehan to join them, and five people in Harvey's nine-by-twelve office made for some cramping. The lieutenant sat at his desk facing the door, his back to a small window. Sherwood and her son Dennis sat in straightback chairs facing him across the desk. Misty sat in a chair to the left of Harvey. Meehan leaned awkwardly against a credenza along one wall.
Jerry Sherwood had a story to tell. She spoke with feeling, her voice harsh and forceful.
When she was seventeen and living in a juvenile home, she said, she gave birth to a boy, Dennis, who was quickly taken from her and adopted by a family named Jurgens — Lois and Harold 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'd died years before, in 1965, at age three. From a yellowing newspaper notice of his death that she'd found during her search, she'd learned that the boy's body bore multiple injuries and bruises. From the death certificate, she'd learned that the coroner had never ruled whether the death was an accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They'd just buried the body, and that was all.
"They beat my baby," Jerry said. "They beat my baby to death."
Sherwood sobbed as she spoke, but she was not just grieving. She was angry. She wanted justice and she clearly doubted she'd get that from the police or anyone else in authority. It did not, in fact, seem to her she'd seen much justice in any part of her life. Her story was both hard and familiar: a mother who took off when she was three, years of shuttling among relatives and foster homes, the four children besides Dennis all coming by the time she was twenty-three, all by the same man who fathered Dennis, a man Jerry eventually married. Misty had arrived eighteen months after Dennis and had also been taken to a foster home, but that one Jerry managed to get back. In time, she'd divorced the children's father and married again, but this second union also ended in divorce. After that, she'd supported the four children as best she could, sometimes managing an apartment building, sometimes drawing welfare assistance, sometimes dancing at Alary's.
"They wouldn't let me keep Dennis," she told Buzz, her bitterness undisguised. "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 still alive."
Harvey was impressed. He thought Jerry a tough, emotional lady, but he also sensed it would be best to calm her down, so he tried to speak both gently and firmly. "Something should have been done twenty years ago," he told her. "We will investigate this, we will look into this."
His words, though, had no effect. In fact, no one in the room seemed to hear him, and now the meeting was slipping from his control moment by moment. Everyone was talking and Jerry's voice kept growing louder and more tearful.
"I brought him into the world, someone else took him out. No child should have to die like Dennis died. ..." Leaning against the credenza at the side of the wall, Ron Meehan felt confused. He remembered the dead boy had a brother, but wasn't his name Robert? Yes, Robert was the Jurgenses' other son. Buzz had told him the brother was coming in, so Meehan thought it would be Robert. Now Meehan was laboring to place all these people. Sherwood was saying, "Dennis." Was she talking about her son Dennis Craig, sitting here in the room with them, or the dead Dennis? And this Dennis Craig kept calling the other Dennis his brother. How could that be?
"I'm not going to drop this," Jerry Sherwood was saying. "I'm not going to forget this."
When she stopped talking, her son Dennis Craig started. He sprawled in his chair, sneering, looking not unlike the sort of punk the White Bear cops sometimes threw in jail on Saturday nights. "What are you going to do?" he demanded. "What are you going to do?"
Buzz Harvey began to feel under siege. He and Ron were being treated as if they were the enemy, as if they had something to do with Dennis's death.
"We share your desire for justice." He forced the words through gritted teeth. "We are on the same side."
Jerry asked to read the 1965 police reports in the file sitting on Harvey's desk. Buzz, knowing what they contained, hesitated. He would have preferred to do some editing first.
"You can if you want," he said, "but I'd recommend that you not. I'd rather read it to you."
Fearful of what was coming, but now unable to control events in his own office, Buzz began to read aloud from the report written by Officer Bob VanderWyst on the day of Dennis's death in 1965. Within moments he reached the description of the small boy's body:
Dennis was laying on his back in the crib with his head facing west and his feet pointing east. His arms were towards the east or alongside of his body with his hands about 8 inches off the bed. There were covers partly on Dennis, they were up to about the middle of his body. Dennis had many black and blue spots or bruises on his face, head and arms. The rest of his body was covered up. On his face and forehead there were at least a dozen black and blue places, some were very large and others small. His nose was almost blood red and peeling.
Jerry Sherwood's sobs interrupted him. She was unraveling, breaking down, her angry resolve crumpling for the moment. This was just what Harvey had expected. "You don't want to hear any more," he said, but she insisted he continue, so he did, although he skipped over other descriptions of Dennis's body, his editing guided by the rise and fall of Jerry's sobs.
The meeting lasted an hour and a half. Sherwood left Harvey's office much as she had arrived — overwrought and hostile and full of distrust. At the door, she turned and delivered her parting words.
"I will be calling in regularly," she promised.
Harvey thrust the Jurgens file into Ron Meehan's hands. Ron, after all, was the chief investigator.
Although Meehan remembered the Jurgens case from 1965, this was the first time he'd ever seen the file. He retreated to his office, about half the size of Harvey's, and began reading. The phone rang. A visitor dropped by. The phone rang again. Meehan grabbed the file and bolted for his car. He drove south on Highway 61 toward the interstates and his home, turned left on County Road E, and followed it east one mile to a McDonald's. In the drive-through lane, he bought a cup of coffee with milk, then pulled his car to the rear of the parking lot and started to read.
Excerpted from "A Death in White Bear Lake"
Copyright © 1990 Barry Siegel.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: VOICES FROM THE PAST,
2. White Bear Lake,
3. Lois and Harold,
4. All That a Child Could Desire,
6. Halcyon Days,
8. All-America City,
9. Palm Sunday,
10. The Size of a Nickel,
12. The Investigation.,
13. The Funeral,
14. Good Friday,
15. Riding a Dead Horse,
16. The Custody Hearing,
17. A Little More Baling Wire,
19. Stone Hill,
20. This World Stinks,
22. Robert Returns,
PART TWO: CONSEQUENCES,
25. An Example Could Be Made,
26. The Bubble Bursts,
27. The Loss Case,
PART THREE: VOICES FROM THE PRESENT,
28. It Never Entered My Mind,
29. A Horse to Ride,
31. The Prosecutors,
32. I Want to Talk to You,
33. Very Nice People,
35. Christmas 1986,
36. In Search of the Past,
37. A Cry from the Ground,
38. Grand Jury,
39. It's Going to Be a Fight,
41. The Past Recovered,
42. The Trial,
45. Memories, Still,
About the Author,