Dec. 15, 1944:
The morning train paused in the winter-quiet resort town of Spirit Lake just long enough to allow a scrawny pair of shabbily-dressed men to step off. They carried no luggage. The middle-aged man and his father were strangers to the town’s 2,200 off-season residents. They hung around the station, then spent the day wandering the streets, ducked into a bar, had a beer and shot a game of pool.
When the cold afternoon began to darken, the pair headed west out of town, trudging along the shoulder of a near-empty, two-lane highway into the dying rays of the winter sunset. Their destination, five miles away, was a small, secluded, white-frame house on a bluff above the northwest shore of Lake West Okoboji.
In summer, the house served as the office and activity hub for an oak-shaded vacation resort, the scene of happy gatherings of Midwestern families. On this winter evening it was about to become a scene of horror, and the drifters were about to achieve instant infamy — bringing the state to its feet with a roar of outrage, creating a firestorm of hatred that spread far beyond little Spirit Lake and pumping more raw emotion into the death-penalty argument in Iowa than had likely been generated by any other crime in that century.
Arguably, the death penalty issue should never be decided in the wake of a high-profile murder case. But also arguably, the case against the death penalty must be able to survive the challenge posed by the most grisly and heinous of crimes, whether serial killings, senseless slaughters of young schoolchildren or the slaying of revered elderly citizens.
Violations of trust
Thousands of Midwesterners live at the end of lonely country lanes, out of sight and out of hearing of their neighbors, but with only a vague awareness of their vulnerability. Given the number of rural families living in isolated homes dotting the vast expanses, the odds of being chosen for mayhem are reassuringly slim — so slim, in low-crime Iowa, that many don’t bother to lock their doors. They trust, instead, in basic human decency.
The shock wave that develops when that trust is violated was compounded in the 1944 crime by a consuming fury that set this case apart. The perpetrators, it seemed to many, were the embodiment of evil, and their victims were regarded almost as saints. The two drifters were life-long predators — “a couple of bums,” as their defense attorney was later to describe them — bums whom the saints had once made the mistake of befriending.
So stirred up were Iowans that lawmen were swamped with offers of help. And when the final scene was played out on a scaffold hammered together at the state penitentiary 300 miles away, an overflow crowd was there to witness it.
Pillars of the community
The targets on that December evening were Bob and Esther Raebel, both 63, pillars of the Spirit Lake community, where Bob was a deacon of the Methodist Church, taught Sunday School and chaired the annual Community Civic Club Christmas Party. Wife Esther (an aunt of Byron White, the Colorado University football hero who would become a U.S. Supreme Court justice) was a leader of church women’s activities. They grew up together in little Audubon, a western-Iowa railroad town where, as a teen, Bob clerked in stores to raise money for tuition to Simpson College in Indianola.
Hiking toward the Raebel’s house were Phillip and William Heincy, 72 and 43, with reputations as sordid as the Raebels’ were saintly. The Heincys lived off of odd jobs and crime. Together, under a string of aliases, they had served time for a variety of felonies, including a 1931 kidnapping-robbery in Iowa Falls. When he was in his 40s, the elder Heincy was beaten and castrated by a relative of a woman he sexually assaulted.
Neither man had finished grade school. The younger Heincy’s mother died eight days after he was born.
Past wanderings had taken them to northwestern Iowa, and at least once to the lake they were now approaching. The son carried a .22 revolver, the father a club.
A cheerful atmosphere
The lake’s shore had been bloodied more than 80 years earlier in what is perhaps the darkest chapter in Iowa history: the Spirit Lake Massacre, in which renegade Sioux butchered 38 settlers around Okoboji and nearby Spirit Lake, just north of the town that shares its name. But life on Okoboji since had been tranquil, as befitted a lake considered one of the greatest treasures that nature bestowed on the central plains. As Iowa grew, private cabins and commercial resorts took root quickly around the deep, blue-water jewel.
Big money would eventually elbow the small, private cabins and mom-and-pop resorts off of its shores. But those days were far away when Bob and Esther Raebel sold their store in Montgomery in 1921 and opened Raebel’s Resort on West Okoboji. Their 20 bare-essentials housekeeping cabins, all lake-side, rented at prices most Iowa families could afford, even in the Great Depression. Cabins were available by the week or month, rowboats by the day and horses by the hour. But the priceless attraction of Raebel’s was the cheerful atmosphere reflecting the personalities of its owners.
Summertime action on Okoboji focused on the amusement park at Arnolds Park, four miles down the lake south of Raebel’s. Property owners on the northwestern shore enjoyed keeping their serene distance. Even the “Queen,” a small but majestic, coal-fired passenger ship dubbed the “Flagship of the Iowa Navy,” would chug as far up the lake as Raebel’s only if guaranteed 10 paying passengers to Arnolds Park. That seldom happened, which was fine with Bob Raebel; the boat had once nudged his dock out of kilter.
Raebel offered his own evening entertainment: bingo games on the outdoor ping-pong table, scavenger hunts and kids’ impromptu talent shows. By the 1940s, most of his renters were regulars. Everybody knew everybody, and the slender, white-haired, soft-spoken Raebel seemed to enjoy every minute of their company.
Very little disturbed the routine. The biggest resort “news” in a summer’s month in 1944 involved Raebel gently lecturing a young motorboater who buzzed the swimming area, calming a first-time renter who was alarmed on finding a tiny creature swimming in her cabin’s kitchen sink (water to the cabins was piped directly from the lake), and firing a couple of drifters whom he had hired, mostly out of sympathy, to run his stables. They couldn’t handle horses.
School bells called home the last of the vacationers, the leaves of the huge bur oaks turned a lustrous bronze and the summer warmth was sucked from the big lake’s waters. The cabins’ plumbing was drained, docks removed and boats pulled to high ground. The ice on the lake thickened as winter deepened.
The Raebels had gone to Spirit Lake to run errands on the December Saturday that the Heincys arrived by train and were still in town when the intruders reached the resort and broke into a cabin to wait. The men watched the Raebels arrive home, watched through a window as they ate supper, saw Esther Raebel wash dishes and then sit down with a pile of Christmas cards and a long list. They saw Bob Raebel pull open the trap door on the porch and head to the basement to scoop coal into the furnace.
The Heincys left the cabin and entered the porch through an unlocked door. They were standing at the head of the steps when Raebel came up out of the basement. He may or may not have looked up and seen the pair before his chest was torn by a bullet. He staggered into the living room and collapsed. The intruders followed and took turns pounding his head with the elder Heincy’s club.
They demanded money from Raebel’s horrified wife. She emptied her purse and her husband’s billfold in front of them and then knelt by her dying husband. The younger man swung the club viciously, fracturing her skull. She collapsed. The pounding continued. Her hand was broken as she reached up to protect herself.
When the attackers were convinced that both of their victims were dead, they drove off in the Raebels’ 1941 Chevrolet.
A quick capture
The crime pushed war news off the top of page one of Iowa’s daily newspapers for the first time in weeks. In Spirit Lake, the editor of the weekly Beacon newspaper ignored the strictures of straight reporting to describe eloquently the Raebels he knew, who ran “more than a summer resort, for they put into it the radiance of their wholesome personalities and the sterling qualities of their Christian characters.
“Having no children of their own,” the editor wrote, “they lavished their love and affection upon the youth of the churches and the communities in which they lived, and later upon their summer children.”
R.W. Nebergall, the Iowa Bureau of Investigation agent assigned to the case, said he had 50 calls from people wanting to help.
He didn’t need them.
Esther Raebel regained consciousness about two hours after the attack and crawled to the telephone. The operator, daughter of the county sheriff, immediately called her father and a Spirit Lake doctor; the latter was the first to reach the scene. He found Raebel lying in his blood and Esther pleading, “Do something for Rob.” But her husband of 34 years was beyond help.
Esther Raebel easily identified her attackers as Phillip and William Heincy — the two drifters that Raebel had fired that summer from their stablehand jobs.
Their capture was quick. After spending Saturday night in Storm Lake, they abandoned the Raebels’ car and rode a succession of trains back to Quincy, Ill., where they were promptly arrested and brought to a jail in Des Moines.
Both confessed. They intended to kill the Raebels, they said, and thought they had. Money was the sole motive; they voiced no animosity toward their former employer. The elder Heincy said Raebel was “kind.”
Their crime netted $28 — enough for a few beers and train fare. None was left by the time they returned to Quincy.
“We certainly wouldn’t hang an 8-year-old boy in this state,” his court-appointed attorney, K.B. Welty, said of Phillip Heincy. The misfits — short, scrawny, dull-eyed — looked like poster boys for the “diminished responsibility” defense. But Iowa was in no mood to waste sympathy, or time, on the Heincys. Less than a month after their crime, they were in court pleading guilty to first-degree murder. Less than two weeks later, a hearing was held on sentencing, and in less than two more weeks, they were on death row at the Fort Madison State Penitentiary.
Father Herman Bonger, Catholic chaplain at the penitentiary where both men had become Catholics, contributed to the blizzard of letters to Gov. Robert Blue regarding the impending hanging.
“I earnestly implore you, dear governor, to analyze and determine whether they were responsible and halt the dispatch of their lives until God in His mercy calls them.”
“I cannot believe,” said defense attorney Welty, “that the great state of Iowa, on the eve of its one-hundredth birthday, will bloody its hands by taking lives in this manner.”
Welty said both Heincys were mentally unbalanced and should perhaps be in mental hospitals.
“They’re a couple of bums with no reason or self-restraint… They have no idea of what is right and wrong.”
In late March, 1946, three days before the scheduled execution, the state ordered sanity tests. Two psychiatrists said that both Heincys were “neither insane nor feeble-minded.” The killers paced their cell for much of execution eve, and at dawn on March 29, they were led to a barn-sized building, and nooses were slipped over their hooded heads.
Finding witnesses to executions, as required by law, can be difficult. But not this time. One-hundred people, including three women, showed up to watch. Some had driven the 300 miles from Spirit Lake. A reporter noted that none showed or expressed any pity.
Pushing the levers
Sheriff Joe McQuirk, whose daughter had fielded Esther Raebel’s anguished cry for help on that December evening 15 months earlier, pushed the double levers that dropped father and son to their deaths.
“I had dreaded the duty, of course,” he told The Des Moines Register. “But when I was up there on the scaffold, I kept thinking of the man these Heincys killed in cold blood. I lost a good neighbor and a fine friend when Mr. Raebel was murdered.
“So you see, I pushed the levers for Raebel, both levers, and that was that.”
At 73, Phillip Heincy was the oldest man ever executed in Iowa; it may have been the first father-son execution in the nation. Life magazine carried a photo of the pair’s solemn walk to the gallows. In the next day’s Des Moines Register city edition, the front-page banner headline dealt with the 99-year sentence given a rural Iowa man who killed his lover’s husband. The Heincy execution story ran under a one-column headline on page 14. Eighteen years later, Iowa abolished capital punishment.
Gerk Jansen, a jovial Sac City barber, bought Raebels’ resort in 1945 and moved his family into the frame house on the lake. Esther Raebel, fully recovered physically, made rare summer visits to the resort to see former guests who continued to vacation there. “Gerk’s Resort” thrived. But soaring Okoboji property values made the aging rental cabins economically obsolete, and in the ensuing decades, the house and the cabins were bulldozed to make way for expensive homes.
The only remaining legacies of the horror are buried deep in the memories of the Raebels’ long-ago “summer children” — memories jolted to the surface whenever they hear an elderly, gentle voice soothe the feelings of an unhappy child — or whenever the endless death-penalty debate heats up. CV
Bill Leonard is a retired Des Moines Register editorial writer. In his youth, his family vacationed at Raebel’s Resort. He was 14 when Raebel was murdered.