Tag Archive for Iowa

Murder in Iowa

Angela Johnson could have been the first woman executed by the federal government since December 1953 if the sentence handed down by jurors in her capital murder trial had held up on appeal. Instead she avoided the fate of Ethel Rosenberg after a federal judge declared that Johnson’s defense attorneys muffed the penalty phase of her trial. Her sentence was reduced to life.
 
Johnson was convicted in U.S. District Court in 2005 for her role in helping nerdy but deadly drug kingpin Dustin Honken murder three adults and two children in an attempt to fend off a federal drug probe in 1993. The jury recommended that she pay for her crimes with her life.
 
In 2004 Honken himself became the first person sentenced to death by Iowa jurors in 41 years.
 
Honken was a community college chemistry whiz who began manufacturing methamphetamine with his brother and a childhood friend in 1992. He sold several pounds of the deadly stimulant to two Iowa men, Terry DeGues and Greg Nicholson.
 
His drug dealing career didn’t last very long and Honken was arrested by federal authorities in March 1993. Over the spring and summer of that year, Honken and his attorney negotiated with the feds and Honken learned that Nicholson was cooperating with the government. Honken agreed to plead guilty to federal drug charges in July 1993.
 
However, the week before Honken was scheduled to appear in court for his plea, Nicholson disappeared along with his 32-year-old girlfriend Lori Duncan and her two daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. Honken subsequently backed out of his guilty plea and with little evidence, the government was forced to drop its case.
 
In November 1993, DeGues also dropped off the face of the earth.
 
Although that case against Honken collapsed, he was nabbed again in 1996 and a year later pleaded guilty to meth dealing and got a 27-year prison sentence.
 
If he had been able to keep his mouth shut, Dustin Honken would have gotten away with murder. But behind bars, face is everything and Honken, a wussy little doormat of a con, had to talk tough to stay alive.
 
His first mistake was telling enough of the truth to other cons who immediately put it to their own use. Honken’s second screw-up was involving Angela Johnson in the killings.
 
Armed with Honken’s jailhouse confessions, authorities arrested Johnson on conspiracy and murder charges and put her in the Benton County, Iowa jail where she met Robert McNeese.
 
McNeese was on his way to prison to serve a life sentence for heroin delivery when Johnson began confiding in him that she was connected to multiple homicides. She wanted to kill one friend who had implicated her in the murders of the Duncans, DeGues and Nicholson, and was afraid that Dustin Honken was looking to eliminate her, as well.
 
On the stand at Johnson’s trial, McNeese admitted that he saw an opportunity to help himself by making believe he could help Johnson find someone else to take the fall for the crime.
 
“I told her I had been in prison a long time,” he said. “I knew a lot of people. I told her she would have to describe how the crimes were committed, what the people were wearing when they were killed and where the bodies were located.”
 
Johnson bit and provided all of the information McNeese wanted, including a map which led police to recover the bodies of Honken’s five victims.
 
When she learned she had been double-crossed, Johnson attempted suicide.
 
Eventually, Honken and Johnson would be put on trial and the truth about how their victims died would come out.
 
“I killed my rats,” Honken told federal prisoner Fred Tokars, who is serving life for murdering his wife.
 
Honken used Johnson to get to the victims. On July 25, 1993, she showed up at Duncan’s home posing as a cosmetics saleswoman who was lost. She let Johnson into her home and Honken followed, brandishing a handgun.
 
Tokars testified at Honken’s trial in 2004 that Johnson herded the Duncans into a bedroom while Honken forced Nicholson, who had worn a wire as a cooperating witness, to videotape a statement exonerating him.
 
The group was then tortured, bound, gagged and shot in the back of the head. Tokars testified that Honken told him in 1998 that Kandi and Amber Duncan saw their mother and Nicholson murdered. They were rats being raised by rats, Honken said.
 
A tape played at Honken’s trial, recorded by a cooperating inmate witness, reveals Honken enjoyed killing. “It’s like getting high,” he said.
 
The corpses were driven to a field southwest of Mason City and dumped in shallow graves.
 
Months later, Angela Johnson lured DeGeus to his death. Johnson called her former lover and asked him to meet her on Nov. 4, 1993, the last time he was seen. He was beaten to death with a baseball bat and shot several times.
 
During the penalty phase of Johnson’s trial, Lori Duncan’s brother recalled that his father blamed himself for his granddaughters’ deaths. The girls had wanted to stay overnight with him on July 25, 1993, but it was inconvenient for him at the time.
 
The man is haunted by the belief that “if he had watched the girls that night, they’d still be with us now,” his son said.

Scent of a Man

Bloodhound on the scent

Expert testimony in a criminal case is almost to be expected these days. We’ve all heard about the alleged “CSI Effect” where juries have been unwilling to convict because there wasn’t some sort of scientific evidence to link the defendant conclusively to the crime.
 
This is not new in the American criminal justice system, as the case of Nick Grba, a convicted murderer, attests. Courts have struggled with invisible evidence for a long, long time.
 
Grba blew up his rival with a couple of sticks of dynamite and was caught thanks to the hard work of Gyp and Pansy, a pair of pure-bred bloodhounds. Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court was unimpressed with their efforts and issued a ruling that remained the law of Iowa for more than 70 years.
 
Mike Baldizer, a native of an eastern European country that doesn’t even exist anymore, drove a cab in Mason City, Iowa, where he lived with his wife, Anna.
 
In the early morning hours of August 21, 1920, Mike returned from carting a fare and parked his car in his garage. Within seconds of his arrival, the garage exploded and Mike was severely injured. He languished for a couple of days, but on August 24, he died.
 
Police arrived shortly after the building exploded and found wires leading from the garage to a spot about 30 yards away.
 
In the darkness, they sealed off the area and waited for daylight. When dawn broke, it was apparent that someone had laid in wait near Mike’s home waiting to set off the charges. The police called for a bloodhound team from Waterloo and at 2 p.m. on August 21, Gyp and Pansy and their handler arrived to see if a scent could be found.
 
At first, the dogs appeared to be going in circles. They followed a course around the garage toward the cabin where Mike and Anna lived, and then back to the end of the wires where they had started. The next time, the bloodhounds picked up a scent and headed down a street about 100 feet away, the team crossed a ditch and then ran across some railroad tracks to the main plant of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. At the plant, the dogs headed toward some clay pits, and stopped at a steam shovel, where Nick Grba had left some clothing.
 
The police had not been simply waiting on the dogs to make an arrest. In fact, shortly after the explosion, Nick Grba had been arrested based on his threats and conversations he had with Anna Baldizer — with whom he was carrying on an illicit affair.
 
The 24-year-old Serbian immigrant had come to Mason City in 1909 and had lived across from the Baldizers for about a year. He and Anna, 30, began their affair after Grba told Anna that he could not live without her. He begged her to leave with him, but she refused.
 
Rejected, Grba threatened his former lover.
 
“Well, Anna, if you don’t listen to me, you won’t go farther with me, you will feel sorry about it,” he said, according to Anna. “You will shed tears. You will cry plenty.”
 
A witness also placed Grba at the scene of the crime the night it happened, for Grba had apparently stopped by the Baldizer’s home to fill a jug of water.
 
The police investigation also turned up other evidence that Grba was the bomber. A few days before the explosion, Grba was looking for wire and fuses to “blow up a rock.”
 
“You can get it for me,” Grba said. “There won’t anybody know anything about it.” (sic)
 
On August 19, another witness told police, Grba approached him to get “electric dynamite caps.” Earlier in the week, Grba bought a pound of blasting powder, which he returned and bought electric dynamite caps. Three days before Mike was blown up, Grba bought “three or four” sticks of dynamite and blasting caps, telling the sales clerk that he wanted to blow up some stumps. That same day, he bought 60 feet of insulated wire and a pair of dry-cell batteries.
 
Two or three days before the explosion, Grba apparently tried a test run. An explosion was heard in the clay pits where Grba worked, and he told questioners that he had blown up some fish in a pond there.
 
The bulk of the state’s case, however, was the testimony of the anonymous fireman from Waterloo who owned Gyp and Pansy, the bloodhounds who helped confirm the police’s theory of the crime.
 
His testimony gives a fascinating look at how bloodhounds work, and it’s worth repeating at length:
 

Since being engaged in raising and training bloodhounds, I have trained a great many dogs. It would be pretty hard to say just how many, but I would be safe in saying, hundreds of them. These dogs have been trained to follow nothing but just the human trail. The dog is better when he is trained to just trail one thing.
When I first start a young dog out, we take him and I take my boy, a young lad of 8 years old, and let him feed the pups and take the pup’s feed–take the pup out and let the boy show the pup his food, and then start and go out of the pup’s sight as quick as he can. Well, then, the puppy is hungry, and he will want to go to the boy because he knows he has got the food there for him, and when he goes to where he saw the boy last, the only way the dog has of finding the boy is to use his nose and to find him. Well, after the dog will do that, take him in the morning, and every time he feeds him, make the dog make his nose earn his feed; and after a few days of that, just take the boy out and let him stand by a tree, or any place, and mark the place on the ground to know where he was, and take the pup over and tell him to smell of that spot, and then go find him.
The dog will go ahead and follow the trail until he gets to where the young fellow is, and then the young lad will feed him; and I do that and keep on doing that, and try him on some girl or my wife or some of the neighbor’s children; and after the dog has had a week or so of that kind of trailing, then we take the dog and change him over onto different trails, and keep making the trails a little more difficult and a little longer and a little older.
If the trail is — say the dog runs a 5-hour trail this morning — if he falls down on it or is slow, the next trail in the afternoon is a 5-hour trail for him to run, and keep him on that until he is used to that old scent, and then keep drawing it longer and stretching it out until your dog will run what we call an overnight trial — that is, a trail made one night and run in the morning…
Then have a man make a trail on the road, and have a rig to get into, and go and get off at a certain place that we know where he gets off, and we trail him with the dogs to this spot where the dogs lose the trail, and let the dogs work all around, and then take the dog in the car and take him close to where this man has hit the ground again, and begin circling around until he crosses this trail, and when he hits that trail, he will beller and go on.
They will just come up to a man and smell him all over. When they are on the trail, they give tongue. When a dog is off the trail and running around, he runs mute, and when he strikes the trail, he bellers; he will bawl and go on.
Some dogs are trained so that, when they locate their man, they are fierce; while others show a friendly spirit. My dogs are trained peaceable.

The fireman was brought in the afternoon after the blast to see if his dogs couldn’t find a trail or scent at the edge of the wires.
 
“I walked out to the end of the wire, and I could see plainly where a man had been lying down,” he said. “I took both dogs and led them out to the end of the wire, and I put my hands down on the ground, like that, and both dogs stuck their noses down to where my hands were. I says, ‘Man gone get him.’ That is the words I use in starting my dogs.
 
“I started my dogs at the end of this wire,” he continued. “The dogs started, and they came over right along the wire back past this garage and into the street, and then they followed around back and forth around there a little bit; they worked around quite a little bit.”
 
He described how the dogs became confused with a “muddling of tracks.”
 
“Where a man has went around in a circle and back and all over those tracks, it puzzles a dog quite a bit, and it is hard for him to get away. His tracks are all crisscrossed, and no straight trail for him to follow, and he does a lot of stammering and swinging and circling before he finds a way to get away,” he testified “That is what made me take my dogs back to the end of the wire again, to let them straighten out and come through again.”
 
This time, the dogs apparently picked up Grba’s scent.
 
“They came back toward the garage, and swung out west and right straight out across the stubble field, and went out kitty-cornered across the stubble field to a road, and down this road to where there was a big hole in the ground and a lot of dirt taken out,” the dog handler testified. “They went up along this here bank, and kind of along the edge of the bank there was an engine or shovel set right up in here. There is a place marked ’shovel’ on here. It might have been set back 100 or 150 feet; but the dogs went to this shovel. The Gyp dog stood up to the entrance way that goes up in, and barked. There was a pair of overalls there, and she smelled the overalls all over.”
 
Having led investigators to a place where the bomber had apparently been, the next step was for the dogs to pick out the bomber himself. Gyp, Pansy, their fireman handler and the sheriff headed to the jail, where a line-up/walk-by was conducted. Gyp and Pansy were again put to the test.
 
“I took my dogs into the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff says, ‘We will have the men walk by the dogs,’ and he says, ‘I want you to see if you can pick the man that we have, and see if we have the right man or not, if the dogs know,” the unnamed fireman testified. “I did not know who the man was. He was a perfect stranger to me, and I didn’t know what kind of a looking man he was.
 
“There was quite a few fellows came in the sheriff’s office and came by, and the dogs stood at leisure, right side of me. I didn’t have no strings on them or nothing. There was probably five or six men went by, and then there was three men came in and started by. When they came up by us, both dogs turned and begun to kind of swing their heads, and went over to this one man. They smelled of him, and he kind of held his hands up, like this. One dog was smelling of his shoes, and the other kind of smelling around here on him.”
 
Looking back, it seems incredible that the Iowa Supreme Court was not impressed with this evidence, but for whatever reason, it was not.
 

It is a “theory” that microscopic particles of effluvia emanate constantly from the body of every living human being, and that these particles possess an odor characteristic of the particular individual. It is supposed that the highly developed olfactory nerves of the bloodhound enable him to detect the peculiar odor of these particles, and thus to follow the trail of any particular person. How this is possible is not a matter of ascertainment. Scientists are baffled. The dog only knows. How long the particles exist after the person has passed has likewise never been scientifically demonstrated. The “scent” is referred to as being “cold” or “fresh.” Time and atmospheric conditions are supposed to affect it.
Notwithstanding that the majority of the courts of the country, especially in the southern states, have sustained the admissibility of evidence of this character, we are disposed to the view that the better reasoning requires that such evidence should be excluded, and we are inclined to ally ourselves with the Supreme Courts of Nebraska, Illinois, and Indiana, in rejecting such evidence. The life and liberty of any citizen should not be placed in jeopardy or be forfeited upon evidence of the conduct of a dog.

With that tongue-lashing, the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed Grba’s conviction.