It was a typical summer day in 1967. Leota Camp kissed a goodbye to her husband, Ray, as he went off to his job at the Iowa Employment Security Commission.
Like the many other stay-at-home mothers in the working-class Des Moines neighborhood on Fleming Avenue, a block east of Lower Beaver Road, she had housework to do and children to supervise.
Brenda, 3, and Kevin, 4, played in the back yard as Camp hung laundry on the line, leaving to check on her 3-month-old, Kristine, inside.
It was getting close to noon. Brenda and Kevin grew hungry and went inside to ask their mother for lunch.
What they found was a horror — one that 48 years later, still has no answers.
Their mother, Leota, was in the front bedroom, lying face down on the bed, her hands tied behind her back and legs tied together at the ankles with men’s neckties, while another was used as a gag. A knife protruded from her bloodied back.
“My brother pulled the knife out of her back,” said Brenda (Camp) Conklin, who today lives in West Des Moines.
They ran, screaming, to the neighbor, Mary Groe. “Mommy’s bleeding,” Kevin yelled. Groe soon saw Camp on the bed and rushed out to get another neighbor, Nelle Edwards. The two women found Leota still moaning, with four stab wounds an inch apart down her spinal column, according to Des Moines Register archives. They called the police.
Little Kristine lay in the next room on a white blanket, nursing on a bottle, unharmed.
Chuck Groe was summoned by his wife to notify Ray Camp at work.
“He didn’t want to tell me, “ Camp said. “He told me there had been an accident with Leota, and I should go to Broadlawns.”
Despite emergency responders’ attempts to revive her during the short ride to Broadlawns Polk County Public Hospital, Leota Camp, 25, had already died.
No apparent motive
A neighbor told police of seeing a man in his 20s, about 5-foot-9 with a stocky build and wearing a white-and-brown plaid shirt and blue jeans, driving a black Ford Mustang to the street before walking in the direction of the Camps’ home, according to the Des Moines Police Department’s report.
It was a shocking crime in broad daylight. In the months that followed, mothers in the neighborhood walked with their heads down, looking for missed evidence, while children frantically ran inside their homes when they saw any Mustang drive down the street.
Detectives in 1967 told the Register that they were “digging hard and fast,” but there didn’t appear to be a motive. Camp wasn’t sexually assaulted, and nothing was missing from the home.
Police would never find the man. The case went cold.
Sgt. Jason Halifax, a Des Moines police spokesman, said detectives most familiar with the case are retired or dead, although the department looked into a tip as recently as 2008.
The memory of the murder hasn’t gone cold for neighbors or the family.
Decades of questions, pain
Conklin remembers sitting on her father’s lap, hearing the news of her mother’s death and the numbness she felt at the funeral. Her father offered a reward and, for four years, consulted with police on any new developments. Finally, the family moved on and rarely talked about it.
“I was angry for a long time, and then maybe drank more than I should. Then I figured out that wasn’t going to do anything for me or my children,” said Ray Camp, today 73 and living in Johnston. “I got over it and buried myself in my work, and tried to spend as much time as I could with the children.”
All Conklin had was stories of her mother’s life — a farm girl from Missouri who was an honor student in high school and grew up in a religious home.
“She had one of the best memories of Bible verses of anyone I knew,” Ray Camp said. “She was kind and concerned about other people, and a very loving mother with her children.”
The family never returned to the house on Fleming Avenue. Conklin still has never driven past it.
“It affected me when I got her age and had my own kids,” Conklin said. “I always felt like I should go look at the police file.”
It wasn’t until she approached her 50s that she finally got the thick file and, coincidentally, got a call from a man in Maryland who had studied the life of serial criminal James Mitchell DeBardeleben, who was sentenced to life in prison after a series of murders and other crimes and died in 2011. The police sketch of the man in the Mustang, he said, matched DeBardeleben.
A former neighbor of the Camps has other ideas.
Carol Wuetherich lived a few houses away from the Camps and drove by the house around noon on the way to buy a new car, leaving her children with a babysitter, who told her the news when she came home.
“I think of it every day,” she said. “I think it was meant for me.”
Wuetherich, of Norwood, Minn., is convinced it was a mistake by a hit man.
“I had a gut feeling my life was in danger. I went to a dog pound and got a German Shepherd for protection — that is how afraid I was.”
Four years ago, Wuetherich said she went to police with the story and the incriminating details, and was told instead they’d been checking people Camp went to school with. In 1967, authorities told the Des Moines Register the killer was “a kook or pervert who got scared and panicked.”
Conklin said she learned early on in her life that evil exists, and life is fleeting. She used to worry the man was hurting other people. But what nagged at her into middle age was the mystery. She wants to know who did it.
Before her are the copies of a huge police file, that have so far told her nothing.