Murders in Louisa County, Iowa

Researched by Connie Street

The victims: 2008 - Maria C. Moedano, Columbus Junction; 2006 - Maria Sierra, Port Louisa Township; Evan Massey and his mother Jessie Smith, Wapello; 1982 Jerry Duke, Morning Sun; 1941 - Hilda Cox, Letts; 1934 - Myrtle James, Cairo; 1933 - Martin Wolz, Toolesboro; 1894 - Albert Jarvis, Wapello; 1879 - William Teets, and 1850 - George Stump, Toolesboro.

   Legend says Louisa County is named for a Dubuque woman who was considered a heroine for shooting a man to death in the early 1830s. Details vary, but the story goes like this:
  Woodbury Massey, the older brother of Louisa Massey, (sometimes seen as Marsey) was ambushed and killed because of a land dispute in Dubuque by a father and son named Smith. The Smiths were arrested and then released on the promise that they would leave the area. But they didn’t leave. One day, another brother of Louisa met the elder Smith on the street and shot and killed Woodbury’s murderer.
   Smith's son publicly vowed to shoot down his father’s killer, however, Louisa disguised herself in boy’s clothes, took along her father’s pistol and went searching for the younger Smith. When she found him on the steps of a Dubuque tavern, Louisa stepped in front of him and announced in a loud voice that she was her brothers’ avenger. She drew the pistol and fired at Smith's chest, then turned and calmly walked away. Smith did not die immediately, but he eventually succumbed to his wounds. There was no effort to arrest or prosecute Louisa.
   Downstate, counties were being established and officials were supposedly so impressed by Louisa's action that they named a county for her. Some prefer to believe that the name Louisa County honors Louisa County, Va., the early home of some of the area’s early settlers.

Louisa County’s First Homicide

   The first murder in Louisa County took place in March 1850, according to the 1912 History of Louisa County by Francis Springer.  George Stump and William Franklin both lived in Toolesboro. Their families didn’t get along, although the reason for the enmity is unknown. One day, Stump, who was known as a bully, encountered Franklin on a street in Toolesboro and attacked him. Franklin suffered a cruel beating as Stump kicked and battered him "in a shameful manner." Stump escaped to Illinois, but returned to Toolesboro several weeks later. Franklin heard Stump was in town and hid behind an outbuilding near the public well. Soon, Stump was filling a bucket with water from the well and Franklin came out of hiding and emptied his revolver into Stump’s body. Stump fled, but the enraged Franklin caught him, grabbed him by the hair and began beating Stump on the head with the empty weapon. Stump died a couple of weeks later. Franklin was not prosecuted. Many felt that Stump got what he deserved.


   William Pickering, Louisa County, July 3, 1879.—The murder in Louisa county, of William Teets by William Pickering on July 3, 1879, called out a large mob which pursued the murderer, intending to lynch him. Pickering evidently had committed the murder because of the marriage of his mother- in-law to the victim, whom he disliked.

15 years later

   On Aug. 1, 1894, Stephen Courtney, unhappy with the results of a land deal, plunged a large butcher knife into the back of Albert W. Jarvis, the Louisa County Attorney, on the streets of Wapello in front of about a dozen witnesses. According to newspaper articles of the time, Courtney, 40, barely escaped a lynching.
   The coroner’s jury found that Jarvis died from a “wound caused by stabbing with a knife, said wound being willfully and maliciously inflicted.” On March 15, 1895, a jury found Courtney guilty of first- degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Courtney died after 1910 at the state penitentiary in Fort Madison.
   In 2006, Wapello attorney Bill Matthews  remembers the late Wapello attorney Bill Weaver telling him that Hurley told Weaver that Courtney had first come to Hurley’s office with the knife, but Hurley was able to diffuse the situation. Little did Hurley know that Courtney would assassinate Jarvis shortly afterward.
   Courtney, who was related by marriage to Matthews’ grandmother, learned to make jewelry in prison and sent her a wedding gift - a broach he had created while a prisoner.

Murder in the Night

A murder in 1933, gained national attention when the story “Murder Without Clues” was published in the January 1939 Master Detective magazine and again in 1941 with an even more sensational story titled “Fatal Lure of the Buried Gold” was published in Headquarters Detective magazine.
   Martin Wolz, 63, was a wealthy and prominent farmer who didn’t believe in banks. It was common knowledge that he carried large amounts of cash on his person and many believed that Wolz had more than $10,000 hidden in his house and/or buried in his yard.
   On July 22, 1933, when Wolz arrived at his home near Toolesboro with nearly $400 in his pocket after selling some hogs, he and his housekeeper Susie Holcroft noticed headlights in the yard. According to Master Detective, Wolz hid his cash under the car’s floorboard and grabbed a crank before getting out of the vehicle. He soon discovered that someone had been in his house and stolen his rifle and shotgun.
   Without warning Wolz suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of his own shotgun - aimed at him by a stranger who ordered Wolz to tell him where the money was buried. Wolz did not answer. There was a sound like thunder and Wolz’ jaw exploded. Immediately, another man shot Wolz in a lower part of the body with the stolen revolver. After viciously kicking Wolz several times, the men tied up Holcroft and interrogated her before ransacking the house, taking 90 cents. Wolz lived long enough to free Holcroft.
   Later, investigators found more than $1,200 in cash and liberty bonds in the house and outbuildings.
   It was seven months before three St. Louis men were arrested and later found guilty of the crime. A local boy had told the investigators he had seen a Chevrolet with Missouri license plates the night of the murder. That information broke the case for Sheriff George Oakes and the murderous trio was soon arrested.
   Paul Hake, 24, whose parents lived on the Mississippi River Bottoms near Toolesboro, had worked for Wolz. The first to be arrested, Hake confessed that he was at the Wolz farm the night of the murder, but insisted he had not gone to the house. Hake’s life sentence was later commuted to a 90-year sentence. He was transferred to the Men’s Reformatory at Anamosa on Nov. 2, 1935. He was paroled Oct. 6, 1952 and Gov. William Beardsley signed Hake’s final discharge and restoration of citizenship on Oct. 27, 1954.
   Eddie Tallent, 24, was an epileptic “with unusually vicious tendencies.” He pleaded insanity, but was pronounced sane and sentenced to life in prison. According to court records, Tallent was transferred to the Men’s Reformatory at Anamosa on Nov. 25, 1952, with tuberculosis.
   Tony Thompson, 33, was arrested for the Wolz murder immediately after being acquitted in St. Louis for another murder. Holcroft identified him in court as the man who shot Wolz in the face. He was sentenced to hang. It was the first death sentence in the 8th judicial district in more than a century.
   On Jan. 7, 1937, newspaper headlines proclaimed “Tony Thompson to hang on March 4. Sheriff Oakes to spring the trap.” However, about a month later Gov. Nelson Kraschel commuted Thompson’s sentence to life in prison. Thompson served his life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison and died there of a heart attack Sept. 15, 1960.  Newspaper article

Man Kills Ex-wife, Shoots Self

   In April 1934, Charles James shot his ex-wife, Myrtle, through the heart at her home in Cairo, then shot  himself. Their 14-year-old daughter witnessed the incident. A week before she was killed, Myrtle had told the sheriff she was afraid of Charles. Charles James survived and spent the rest of his life in prison.


   Older residents of Letts remember when Maurice Cox, 33, shot his wife Hilda, 30, in October 1941. Afterwards, Maurice took his 4-year-old daughter Sandra Jo to her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Hartman, left her with them and then went into a nearby cornfield and shot himself through the head. Sheriff George Oakes was in charge of the investigation. Coroner George Jamison pronounced the deaths "homicide and suicide" and said no inquest was needed. A double funeral was conducted and Maurice and Hilda are buried at the Letts Cemetery. (Information from the Oct. 9, 1941 issue of the Wapello Republican)

Murder Without a Trial

   It was  41 years before another murder occurred in Louisa County. On September 19,  1982, in Morning Sun, a 14-year-old boy stabbed decorated Vietnam veteran Jerry Lee Duke, 40, to death. The teen was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. There were attempts to try him as an adult, but in January 1983, he was declared mentally ill and the teen remained in the custody of juvenile court. Neither exact details of the incident, nor motive were ever discovered. Duke, who had retired from the Navy in 1982, was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

Murders in 2006

   In January 2006, Kirk Massey, 25, on Jan. 6, 2006, shot his long-time girlfriend Jessie Smith, 22, their 4-year-old son Evan Massey, the family dog and then himself in Wapello. Smith was dead when police arrived. Evan and his father were both found in critical condition and pronounced dead later that day.
   Six months later, Gustavo Sierra of Conesville was charged with the July 2006 murder of his estranged wife Maria Sierra in northeast Louisa County. Sierra
, 41, was sentenced Oct. 7, 2006, for second-degree murder and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to 75 years  in prison for second-degree murder and first-degree burglary.

Murder-Suicide - 2008

On Sept. 9, 2008 Columbus Junction authorities released the names of the victims in a Sunday morning shooting in Columbus Junction. Pedro P. Moedano, 47, shot his wife, Maria C. Moedano, 46, multiple times before turning the gun on himself. The couple was dead when law enforcement arrived at the scene at 1304 Colton St., around 1:09 a.m. The autopsy findings matched that of the investigation and the deaths have been ruled a homicide and suicide.

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Page updated March 2, 2013