Dennis Craig Jurgens (December 6, 1961 –
April 11, 1965) was the most famous and only fatal victim of prolific
child abuser Lois Jurgens, who abused a total of six adopted children
during a period spanning the 1950s to 1970s.
The eventual trial of Lois Jurgens for his murder
made national headlines and was the top news story for the state of
Minnesota in 1987, and is one of few crimes that FBI agent Kenneth
Lanning argues can legitimately be described as "ritual abuse". Since
then, a television movie has been produced starring Beverly D'Angelo
Dennis Jurgens was born Dennis Craig Puckett in Sauk Centre,
Minnesota, the child of teenage Jerry Sherwood (who herself was a ward
of the state) and her teenage boyfriend. At the urging of authorities,
Jerry placed him for adoption with the promise that he would be given
Dennis was adopted by the Jurgenses of White Bear Lake, Minnesota,
a suburb of Saint Paul: Harold Jurgens, a former bandleader turned
electrician, and Lois Jurgens, a homemaker. Lois had grown up in an
impoverished family of sixteen siblings and used her marriage to the
middle-class Harold Jurgens as means to improve her social standing.
She had a pathological need for control over her environment and
obsessively cleaned and tended to her home and garden, desperate to
appear the picture of the perfect housewife in 1950s suburban America.
In the decade preceding the adoption of Dennis, Lois Jurgens had
suffered bouts of depression and psychosis, including an extended stay
at a psychiatric institution where electroconvulsive therapy was
administered. She was diagnosed as having mixed psychoneurosis and
also unable to conceive a child with Harold. This drove Lois further
into madness, as she felt she needed children to complete the "perfect
picture" of her life.
Officially forbidden to adopt children owing to Lois' history of
mental illness, the Jurgenses managed to adopt a baby named Robert
privately. Robert fit in well at the Jurgens household, as he learned
from a young age not to get in his mother's way or cause an undue mess
that would likely send Lois Jurgens into a rage. The Jurgenses'
adoption of Robert seemed successful in the eyes of authorities, who
began to consider the possibility that the Jurgenses might adopt more
children through official channels.
Dennis arrives at the Jurgens home
Just past one year of age, Dennis was placed in the
Jurgens home in anticipation of an adoption after spending much of his
first year in foster care where he was well-loved and cared for by an
elderly woman. Almost immediately, Lois took a severe, obsessive
dislike to the child, who was a normal, rambunctious, and spirited
toddler- unlike Robert, who in Lois's eyes was the "good son." Harold
Jurgens suggested that perhaps they should not go forward with the
adoption of Dennis, but Lois refused out of concern that it would
discourage the authorities from allowing them to adopt further
children. Within months of Dennis' arrival, he was rushed to the
hospital with first and second-degree burns on his genitalia, which
were reported and accepted as accidental. The process of adopting of
Dennis was completed.
Abuse at the hands of Lois Jurgens
Lois Jurgens had a reputation amongst her extended family and
neighbors as an intense, angry woman with a short and volatile temper,
but Dennis' arrival in her home provoked sadistic rages that targeted
Dennis as he aged from one to three-and-a-half years of age.
Throughout the years of frequent abuse, it has been reported that
while Harold Jurgens made little effort to curb his wife's abuse of
young Dennis, he personally never mistreated the boy.
In her effort to make Dennis "right" in her eyes, Lois embarked on
a series of sadistic and corporal punishments:
Angered at Dennis for rejecting certain foods, she responded by
placing horseradish on the food and then force-fed it to him.
According to reports from family members who eventually testified at
the murder trial, Dennis turned purple from being force-fed the bitter
and spicy horseradish and also having his oxygen supply cut off when
Jurgens covered his mouth and nose. This treatment, along with the
exertion as he struggled, sickened Dennis to the point of vomiting,
which further enraged Jurgens, who then forced him to eat his vomit.
Lois obsessed about Dennis' weight, which according to medical
records was appropriate for a child of his age and build at the point
of his adoption. He was frequently starved, to rid him of "sloppy
fat," as Lois called it (she also called him "Sloppy Fat" as a
nickname). Due to this frequent starvation, Dennis gained only three
pounds in a two and a half-year period as he aged from one year old to
three and a half years old. The coroner noted in his report that
Dennis had almost zero subcutaneous fat, at the level of a person who
had died of starvation.
Aside from the incident when Dennis was hospitalized with burns on
his genitals, there were many other incidents of abuse which fell
under the category of sexual sadism. Lois' remedy for the toddler
wetting his diaper too frequently was to place a spring-action
clothespin upon the end of his penis. The coroner noted there was
evidence of adult, human bite marks on his penis and scarring all over
his scrotum; he was also found to be wearing two diapers and a pair of
rubber pants at the age of three and one-half years.
Testimony from neighbors and family members told of young Dennis
showing up to public events wearing sunglasses at the age of two, to
hide his frequent black eyes. In addition, Lois took to tying Dennis'
limbs to the bedposts to keep him in bed and tied him to the toilet to
force a bowel movement.
By all accounts, Lois was obsessed with abusing Dennis, and she
wanted the world to know he was a "bad child," and made no apologies
about the inappropriate way she was disciplining him. Lois considered
herself a devout Catholic and believed she was doing "God's work" by
making Dennis "perfect" in her eyes. To this end, she forced religious
training on her young sons; reports had young Robert flawlessly
reciting the Rosary at 2. Dennis struggled with such training and was
forced to pray and recite his Rosary kneeling on a broomstick for
extended periods, until he did it correctly.
To the casual observer, the Jurgens' seemed to be a normal,
church-going family with a perfectly maintained house and yard.
Certain neighbors and family members knew there were problems with
Lois' treatment of Dennis but did nothing to prevent it. They
attempted to mind their own business and feared retribution from Lois,
who was not above threatening the lives of her family members. In the
1960s, the term child abuse had not yet been coined and no one,
not even medical professionals and teachers, was required to report
The murder of Dennis Jurgens
During the early morning hours of April 11, 1965, Dennis Jurgens
died at the hands of Jurgens. The official cause of death was
Peritonitis due to perforation of the small bowel. It is not known
specifically what caused the fatal blow, though the injury was later
found to have been, beyond a reasonable doubt, inflicted by Lois
Jurgens owing to evidence of her constant physical abuse. Along with
the aforementioned evidence of starvation and the scarring and
bite-marks on his genitalia, the coroner discovered multiple
lacerations and multiple generations of bruises covering most of his
The night of his death, a great flood had hit the Saint Paul area
and the Mississippi River's waters were rising to record levels,
causing flooding in the region and inside the Jurgens home. Lois, who
abused Dennis constantly, was pushed to new levels of rage as the
flood waters filled her basement.
The only witness to Lois' final abuse of Dennis was Robert, who was
5 years old at the time. Many years later, at his mother's trial, a
now 27-year-old Robert recounted the events of that evening, including
Lois' extensive beating of Dennis and his being thrown down the stairs
After the murder
Though there was an investigation, society and law enforcement of
the mid-1960s did not accept the concept that a child in a
middle-class home could be the target of abuse. It would have been
difficult at the time to prove that Lois Jurgens had committed murder.
In spite of extensive physical evidence pointing towards severe abuse,
the medical examiner did not classify the death under any of standard
classifications of accident, suicide or murder; he simply marked it
There was also a great deal of suspicion surrounding Jerome Zerwas,
the brother of Lois Jurgens, who was a police lieutenant in the town
of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. A common belief amongst witnesses and
neighbors at the time of the murder, and among the investigators who
eventually re-opened the case, is that he interfered with the
investigation and destroyed incriminating evidence.
Although Lois was not charged with Dennis' murder, the death caused
sufficient suspicion for the authorities to remove Robert from the
home; he was placed with his paternal grandmother for a period of just
over five years, during which the Jurgens' spent a great deal of
effort and money attempting to regain custody. Eventually, while
Robert was hospitalized with a bout of pneumonia, his grandmother
burned to death in a house fire. There is some suspicion that Lois
Jurgens herself set the fire, as it not only was it coincident with
Robert's hospitalization, but Lois had also made threats of arson
regarding the homes of several neighbors and family members who had
spoken to authorities.
Robert was returned to the Jurgens home and, going through new
channels, the couple was eventually able to adopt four school-aged
siblings from Kentucky. By this point, Lois' rage and mania had gone
beyond her ability to maintain an appearance of normalcy, and she and
Harold had relocated to rural Stillwater, Minnesota, possibly to
escape the gossip of their former neighborhood where Dennis was
As the new adopted children were older, there were many firsthand
histories (recounted to the media during the 1987 trial of Lois
Jurgens) describing the severe abuse they suffered at their adoptive
mother's hands. Beatings and displays of Lois' explosive temper were
daily events; especially bad days could include her slamming a child's
forehead into a nail protruding from a wall, forcing a child to stand
barefoot in snow, and shoving a used sanitary napkin in a child's
face. During this period, Lois was once again placed in a psychiatric
Eventually, all four of the siblings from Kentucky and Robert
escaped the home by running away and getting help from concerned
neighbors. Their flight, coupled with the lingering suspicions
surrounding Dennis' death, resulted in the termination of Lois and
Harold Jurgens' parental rights. They were informed they would not be
allowed to foster or adopt any additional children.
The 1986 investigation and 1987 trial of Lois Jurgens
Now in her late thirties, Dennis' birth mother Jerry Sherwood
sought out Dennis in the early 1980s, assuming that he would now be a
young adult and (as she had given birth to four more children with
Dennis' birth father) that he might want to meet his siblings. Her
search led her eventually to his early grave, and her continued
investigation led to a phone call to Lois Jurgens inquiring what had
happened. Lois was cordial to Jerry, and even offered to mail her some
mementos of Dennis. When these mementos never arrived, Sherwood made a
second call, only to discover the Jurgens' had switched to an unlisted
phone number. This only raised Jerry's suspicions further.
Sherwood eventually found Dennis' death certificate, which was
still classified as "deferred," leaving the case technically open.
This, coupled with the lack of a statute of limitations for a murder
charge, could lead the way to a prosecution of Lois Jurgens. Jerry
took her case to the White Bear Lake police department and then to the
On Sunday, October 12, 1986 the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a
cover story about the investigation. Though the name of Dennis'
adoptive family was not given, many people suspected that Lois Jurgens
was the unnamed murderess. The tenacity of Sherwood, along with the
tragedy of her personal loss, kept the story firmly in the public eye
until the arraignment of Lois Jurgens, when she was first identified
in the media.
Aided by the testimony of the Jurgens' other adopted son, Robert,
the prosecution saw Lois Jurgens (now in her 60s), convicted of murder
in the third degree and sent to prison. The investigation, trial, and
conviction of Lois Jurgens are considered landmarks in the history of
child abuse law.
Lois Jurgens served only eight years of her sentence (she was
released early for good behavior) and is now living a quiet life as a
widow in Stillwater, Minnesota. To this day, she proclaims her
innocence. Harold Jurgens died in 2000; at the time of his death,
there was suspicion that Lois had poisoned him, but this was
investigated and ruled out.
Barry Siegel's true-crime novel, A Death in White Bear Lake
recounts the story via extensive research and oral history. A 1992 NBC
television movie, entitled A Child Lost Forever, told the story
from the perspective of Jerry Sherwood (played by Beverly D'Angelo),
and a theatre piece, The Jurgens File, by playwright Brian
Vinero, examined the story from the perspective of the community. The
latter was developed at New York City's 78th Street Theatre Lab in
Child Murder : The Town Confronts Its Past
By Barry Siegel - Los Angeles Times
February 29, 1988
WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — When Dennis Jurgens died at the age of 3
in 1965, authorities here never ruled whether his death was an
accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They just buried
the body in St. Mary's Cemetery, and after a juvenile court hearing,
took custody of Dennis' 5-year-old brother Robert. The boys' adoptive
parents, Lois and Harold Jurgens, returned to their house on
Gardenette Drive, alone but free of any charge.
The failure to rule on the manner of Dennis' death, or to hold Lois
Jurgens accountable in some fashion, would prove to have considerable
impact on the lives of five other children.
The years eventually obscured the events of Palm Sunday, 1965, as
well as the evidence produced at the hearing one month later. Juvenile
files customarily remain sealed, private documents. So later decisions
were made by people who had never seen the photos of Dennis' battered
Child Returned to Couple
First, in 1969, Robert, just turning 10, was returned to the
The Jurgenses had hired a new lawyer, a lawyer who happened to be
good friends with Judge Archie Gingold, who presided over the juvenile
court custody hearing. The Jurgenses also had finally agreed to be
examined by a county-appointed psychiatrist.
A Ramsey County social worker, Marion Dinah Nord, later told police
she had strongly opposed Robert's return, feeling certain Dennis had
been killed. But, she said, she had been discouraged by her
supervisors and the prosecutor from probing into the past. Assistant
County Atty. Paul Lindholm, she said, had told her Dennis Jurgens'
file was missing. She told police she was left with the impression
that she was not to get involved in why Robert was taken in the first
place. She was only to study the question of whether it was OK to
return him now.
The doctors on both sides checked out Lois Jurgens and both decided
she was OK, Judge Gingold said recently. The prosecutor and the
welfare department were no longer opposed to Robert's return.
"I was left helpless at that point," Judge Gingold said.
Then, in 1972, the Jurgenses were allowed to adopt four more
children--the Howton kids, three brothers and a sister--from Kentucky.
Again, there were social workers who objected, knowing a child had
died in the Jurgens home. Again, their supervisors overruled them.
Kentucky wanted to get the four children off welfare and keep them
together in a Catholic home. The Jurgenses' annual salary was now
$16,000. They had hired a lawyer to press their case.
Minnesota could see no reason to object. The Jurgenses had a
supportive letter from their pastor, Father Bernard Riser. They had
been allowed to adopt two children previously. All of the
psychological evaluations were favorable. Lutheran Social Services,
the private agency processing the adoption request, could see no
problems. Yes, a child had died in their home. But the Jurgenses had
never been charged criminally.
The Kentucky children endured three years with the Jurgenses before
the two older ones ran away in 1975. Later, they told police what life
was like in that house.
Lois Jurgens would wake them in the middle of the night to inspect
their rooms, beating them if she found dust or hangers crossed in the
closet. Once, she grabbed one of the boys by his ears and slammed his
forehead onto a protruding nail in the wall.
Sometimes Lois would order Harold to beat them. He would take them
to the basement and tell them to cry loudly, while he slapped at his
Lois' bedroom door squeaked loudly when she opened it--when they
heard that noise, they were consumed by fear. Coming home from school
on the bus, they could see the Jurgens driveway at a distance, from
the top of a hill. If Lois' gold Buick Skylark was parked there, they
It was so crazy that it almost seemed normal, one of the boys,
Their former foster mother in Kentucky visited them after they fled
the Jurgenses and was horrified. The children she had known as loving,
affectionate and happy were now distrustful and disoriented. One of
the boys later would spend hours on a psychiatrist's couch, trying to
block out the pain.
Another juvenile custody hearing was scheduled, this time in
adjacent Washington County, for the Jurgenses had moved there, to the
town of Stillwater.
Carol Felix, the Washington County welfare department caseworker
assigned to investigate the Kentucky children's allegations, was
allowed to read and copy something that most people had long lost
sight of--the file on the Ramsey County 1965 juvenile court custody
Felix was horrified. She became convinced that Dennis' death had
been mishandled a decade before. She wrote letters to officials in
Ramsey and Washington counties, urging them to re-examine the case.
She says she received no answers.
"They all dropped the ball," Felix said recently in Tucson, where
she now lives. "No one wanted to deal with this. We're talking about
people who just looked the other way. I mean, those doctors knew that
baby was killed. To a certain extent, the level of awareness is
different now, but they knew that baby was killed. They were aware.
They chose not to face it. It's just a case of people not willing to
look at all this stuff."
After the hearing, a Washington County judge removed all four
Kentucky children from the adoptive home. But not Robert--he remained
with the Jurgenses.
During the following years, an evolution unfolded in this country,
an evolution in attitude toward child abuse.
The first markings of the evolution, as it happens, began just as
Dennis was arriving in the Jurgens home. In the July 7, 1962, edition
of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (JAMA), a team of doctors
from the University of Colorado School of Medicine headed by C. Henry
Kempe published what was to become regarded in the medical community
as a landmark paper. The paper's title was "The Battered-Child
Kempe was chairman of the pediatrics department and his team
included experts in pediatrics, psychiatry, obstetrics and radiology.
Based on an extended study of specific cases, they had come to
recognize a pattern.
The battered-child syndrome, they wrote, was a term they were using
to characterize a clinical condition among young children who have
received serious physical abuse from parents or foster parents. It is
a significant cause of childhood disability and death, but it is
frequently not recognized. If diagnosed, it frequently is not handled
The syndrome, they said, should be considered in any child
exhibiting evidence of fractures, hemorrhages, soft-tissue swelling or
skin bruising. It should be considered in any child who dies suddenly
or where the nature of the injury is at variance with the story
provided by the parents.
Beating of children is not confined to people with psychopathic
personalities, they wrote, or to the borderline socioeconomic status.
It also occurs among people with good education and stable financial
and social backgrounds.
A chief obstacle to treating this syndrome, Kempe's team wrote,
came from doctors' hesitancy to bring the matter to the attention of
authorities. Doctors have an emotional unwillingness, a great
difficulty, both in believing that parents could have attacked their
children and in undertaking the necessary questioning of them. Many
physicians attempt to obliterate such suspicions from their minds,
even in the face of obvious circumstantial evidence.
Regardless, a complete investigation is necessary. Police and
protective service officials should be notified.
"The physicians' duty and responsibility to the child," the team
concluded, "requires a full evaluation of the problem and a guarantee
that the expected repetition of trauma will not be permitted to
The landmark JAMA article in time would have great impact across
the country, but the changes were gradual and incremental.
No until 1975 did Minnesota adopt legislation regarding the
reporting of maltreatment of minors. In 1971, the term "battered-child
syndrome" made its first appearance in a case that reached the
Minnesota state Supreme Court.
The justices there ruled that establishing a general pattern of
child battering was sufficient to convict in a manslaughter case--the
prosecutor did not need to link a specific act by the abuser to the
precise cause of death.
In time, child abuse became something people much more readily
acknowledged and reported. In the last 10 years, the number of
official reports of child abuse and neglect has risen 223%. There were
2 million cases reported in 1986, up 12% from the year before.
Officially reported child abuse deaths climbed 23% in 1986.
The legal system, of course, reflects values, as do the actions of
those who implement the law. The pendulum at some point swung with
vigor on the public's willingness to acknowledge child abuse. Where
once a doctor or relative or prosecutor might have encountered
uncomfortable pressures if he spoke out, he would now feel those same
pressures if he did not speak out.
It was against this backdrop that Dennis Jurgens' natural mother,
Jerry Ann Sherwood, appeared on the doorstep of the White Bear Lake
Police Department in September of 1986, demanding that the case of her
baby's death be reopened.
Sherwood had always wondered what happened to the infant she was
forced to give up as an unmarried 17-year-old living in a home for
In 1980, she had called the Ramsey County welfare department,
trying to trace the whereabouts of her son. Six weeks later, they had
responded by letter. We are sorry to inform you, the letter read, that
your son died on April 11, 1965.
Shocked and grieving, Sherwood visited St. Mary's Cemetery, where
the county told her Dennis was buried. Unable at first to find his
grave site, she leafed through the cemetery's record book. There,
below the listing for her son, someone had pasted in a brief,
yellowing three-paragraph newspaper item, dated April 12, 1965.
The small boy had died of peritonitis due to a ruptured bowel, the
news clip said.
Sherwood's eyes wandered to the next sentence in the news clip, and
then froze. "The body also bore multiple injuries and bruises. . . .
The coroner and the police were investigating."
She felt like something was exploding inside her.
Dennis, she said out loud. My God. They beat my baby to death. My
Sherwood managed to get a telephone number for Lois Jurgens in
Stillwater. In early 1981, she dialed the number. Lois answered.
I am Dennis' natural mother, Sherwood began. I was just calling to
find out what kind of little boy he was.
Lois was surprised--she said she thought Sherwood had been informed
of the death at the time. All the same, Lois seemed to Sherwood very
nice and polite. She said that Dennis had been a happy, healthy, cute
child. When he was found dead, she added, he had black blotches all
over his body. She didn't know where they came from.
Sherwood asked if Lois would send her a picture of Dennis, a
picture of him in the baptismal slip Sherwood had bought him as an
infant. Lois readily agreed, and Sherwood provided her address.
Six weeks later, when nothing had arrived, Sherwood tried vainly to
phone Jurgens once more. The Jurgenses' number had been changed. The
new number was unlisted.
A bitterness gripped Sherwood.
She had held Dennis in her arms for five days before they took him
away. No matter what plan or idea she came up with, the people at the
Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre kept saying no. She
could not keep the baby.
Her life had always been hard, before and after that. Her mother
had taken off when she was 3. She had shuttled for years among
relatives, her father, foster homes, a stepmother. By the age of 23,
she had borne four more children besides Dennis.
One, Misty, had come soon after Dennis, and had also been taken to
a foster home, but that baby Sherwood managed to get back. After two
divorces, she had supported the four mostly by herself, sometimes
managing an apartment building, sometimes drawing welfare assistance,
sometimes dancing at Alary's Club Bar.
They wouldn't let me keep Dennis, she now thought. 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 alive.
Sherwood, though, was also afraid. She was then receiving welfare
assistance. She feared attacking the welfare system, she said
recently. If you buck the system, it bucks you back. So for six years,
she did nothing more.
Sherwood talked of all this while sitting on a couch in the St.
Paul apartment where she now lives. It was an apartment that has seen
better days. Pictures were taped crookedly to walls that seemed more
in need of fresh paint than works of art. Toys and small children
filled the room--this was an apartment shared by others. At midday, a
large television set blared soap operas continuously. Atop the TV set
in a frame sat a photo of a smiling, beaming blond-haired little boy.
"That's Dennis, just after Lois got him," Sherwood said.
In the fall of 1986, unable to forget, she told her story to a
friend. The friend was outraged. Don't be afraid, the friend told her.
What can they do to you?
So Sherwood finally sent her daughter to the county courthouse for
a copy of Dennis' death certificate. Looking at it, Sherwood thought
something seemed strange. In the box numbered 20, where the coroner
was supposed to have written homicide or accident or natural, he had
instead written the word "deferred." The death certificate, Sherwood
realized, was never completed.
Sherwood called the White Bear Lake police station. She did not
intend to back down this time.
As it happened, she did not need to apply much pressure. The most
telling evidence that times had changed since Dennis' death came in
the immediate, decisive responses she now triggered.
Lt. Clarence (Buzz) Harvey handed the old file to Detective Greg
Kindle, a specialist in juvenile abuse crimes. Kindle required only
moments to reach a conclusion.
Kindle thought: A blind man could tell this was a homicide.
Sherwood also called the Ramsey County medical examiner's office.
The job was no longer held by a part-time general practitioner--Dr.
Michael McGee was an experienced, full-time forensic pathologist.
He looked at the death certificate, the original autopsy report,
the old police files and the photos. Later, he would exhume Dennis'
body and do his own autopsy--he would find the body inexplicably
well-preserved, with a curious crown of withered flowers on the head.
But to make his judgment, he needed only the evidence from 1965.
He knew flat out, without hesitation--this was a homicide.
"They were afraid back then, just afraid," he said recently. "I
spend a lot of time looking at dead babies. When I see lots of
bruises, a bowel full of pus, I think bad thoughts."
His first call, on Oct. 5, 1986, went to Dr. Tom Votel, the coroner
in 1965 who never completed Dennis' death certificate. He was now in
private practice in St. Paul.
I'm getting ready to change one of your old death certificates,
McGee said. I'm sorry to cause you trouble--the news media will
probably be after you--but I have to. . . . Do you remember this
Votel, as it happened, did not have to ponder that question. He had
never forgotten the case. He had thought about it every day. He was
glad it was coming up. The situation was so different back then.
"Yes, I remember," Votel told McGee. "And there may be three or
four other cases like this one. You better start looking."
Two days later, on Oct. 7, McGee phoned the county attorney, Tom
I am warning you that I am today sending you a letter by courier,
the medical examiner told the prosecutor. Be prepared. I am changing
this death certificate to homicide.
Melinda Elledge, 38, an assistant Ramsey county attorney, was
sitting on her bedroom floor that night, watching the TV news with her
husband and 3-year-old son, when the face of Jerry Sherwood, Dennis'
natural mother, appeared on the screen. Something was being said about
a 21-year-old murder case and Mike McGee, the coroner.
A 21-year-old murder--what problems that promised.
"I sure hope I don't get that case," Elledge said, turning to her
The next morning in downtown St. Paul, Foley handed her the Jurgens
file. All that time lost from my family, Elledge thought.
Then she opened the file and saw the photos of Dennis. Elledge, as
it happened, was an adopted child herself. Her son was exactly the age
of Dennis when he died. She could not keep her eyes off the photos.
She thought: This is a homicide. There is no doubt. And we will
Foley had also assigned to the case another assistant county
attorney, Clayton Robinson Jr., 34. Robinson was still a high school
student when his father, a Chicago policeman, was fatally shot when
making an arrest. As a lawyer, Robinson had always been stirred by
The two prosecutors were more emerging stars than established
veterans in the county attorney's office. They had little experience
with murder cases. But Foley figured they would bring particular zeal
to the case.
Robinson now stuck his head in Elledge's office.
"Clayton," Elledge said. "Look at these photos."
Three days later, Philip Major, chief of the White Bear Lake Police
Department, issued a memo to all police personnel.
We now have a 21-year-old active homicide investigation, he wrote.
There will be considerable news media attention. I want you to know
how I see this department's role in 1965 and today. The investigation
conducted by then-Sgt. Peter Korolchuk and then-Officer Robert
VanderWyst was thorough and well-articulated. Why the death was not
classified as a homicide in 1965 we do not know.
"In 1986, this case must be handled with the same enthusiasm it
received in 1965."
The police chief handed the case to Kindle and a veteran detective,
Ron Meehan. They would have to build this one brick by brick. There
would be no confession. They were used to that in White Bear Lake.
This was not a town full of scared, ignorant confessors. See my
lawyer--that's what most of them said.
Within three days, Meehan and Kindle had tracked down VanderWyst,
now retired and ailing, a victim of bone cancer. When they showed him
his old file, he knew right away something was wrong.
There are lots of reports missing, he told the younger officers.
All of our interviews with the relatives are gone.
In the end, it would not matter much. In 1987, the relatives were
eager to talk. Kindle and Meehan did not even have to track them all
down. Family members were calling them. We have stories to tell you,
they would say.
The stories were horrific. And they all corroborated each other.
Everything that no one wanted to say 21 years before came pouring out.
"We got to the point," Kindle said later, "where we didn't want to
Some of it had been told in 1965--the force-feeding of food and
vomiting, the slapping and yanking by the ears, the gasping head held
under running water--but now that, and more, came out in fuller, less
Lois Jurgens' family, the Zerwas family, was truly clannish. A good
number of the 16 children would gather on Sundays at the parents'
house, along with assorted husbands, wives, cousins and grandchildren.
There they would see Lois Jurgens and her children. Those gatherings,
in fact, were the only reason some of them ever saw Lois--many, it
turned out, did not particularly like her.
Some called her nasty. Others thought her brittle and controlling,
demanding that her boys never get dirty. A good number considered her
She seemed to some a religious fanatic, always trying to convert
the non-Catholics, walking around at times with a raised cross in her
hands, proposing to drive out the devil. Forcing Dennis to kneel on a
broomstick, she had trained him by the age of 3 to recite the
half-hour Rosary by heart, something he had done, his voice quavering
in fear, at a family funeral.
But she rarely went to church. And there were moments when she
seemed less than religious--moments, for example, when she proudly
pulled her ample breasts from her blouse and displayed them to the
There were relatives who saw Lois whacking hard on Dennis when he
fell and crawled during his first efforts at walking. There were
relatives who had seen Dennis covered with bruises, wearing sunglasses
to hide black eyes. There were relatives who had seen Dennis tied
spread-eagle in his crib by his wrists and ankles. There were
relatives who had seen horrible bruises on his penis.
Dennis was such a bubbly, sturdy boy, happy and outgoing at the
start, they all said. Robert was passive and obedient, refusing candy
or cookies offered by relatives, but Dennis was spirited, willing to
take the cookies even if it meant trouble from Lois. Then Dennis had
changed over time--he was gradually beaten into a sad, frightened,
lonely child. He didn't even cry after a while. He wasn't allowed to.
He would just whimper. It was hard to watch.
For heaven's sake, some in the family had said to Lois, give Dennis
back if you hate him so much. I can't, Lois would answer, because if I
do they'll never let me adopt another child.
One of Lois' sisters, Beverly Zerwas, mentioned to the police a
1965 hearing, something Kindle and Meehan knew nothing about.
She had not testified truthfully at that hearing, Zerwas said,
because she felt then the family should try to stick together. Father
told us to, she said. She had never asked Lois about sores and marks
on Dennis because it wasn't her business; she wasn't nosy. But a lot
of people at the funeral knew it wasn't a normal accident.
Two families who did testify against Lois in 1965 told police Lois
had haunted them for weeks afterward, calling them late at night,
driving by their homes, threatening to burn their houses and kill
Meehan and Kindle found another relative with a story to tell, this
one about Harold Jurgens. June Bols was married to Lois' cousin. Bols
had started out thinking Harold a gentle, kind man, but came to
dislike him as well. He just catered to Lois, and didn't stand up when
he should have.
Bols told police that one afternoon in the early 1970s, long after
the case was closed, Harold came by her house and they sat drinking
I was not home when Dennis died, Harold had said suddenly. I was
away from home up in Wisconsin, doing some electrical work for
friends. Lois called me there.
Dennis and I have been at it again, Lois had told Harold on the
phone. You better come home.
Harold had known what that meant. He had packed up his things and
driven straight home. He had put Dennis in bed with him. In the middle
of the night, Dennis had awakened, had to go potty. In the morning, he
Bol had been frightened hearing this. She felt Harold was admitting
something, admitting that Lois was terrible to Dennis. She wished
Harold hadn't told her.
Kindle and Meehan found the Jurgenses' former family physician, Dr.
Roy Peterson, in his office on 4th Street. He was by now a venerable,
gray-haired member of the local medical community, close to retirement
after maintaining his White Bear Lake practice for 35 years.
Dr. Peterson said he did not recall much about the Jurgens case. It
had slipped his mind. He remembered nothing of the morning of Dennis'
death, of talking to the Jurgenses or the police. He also had lost his
file on Dennis.
Over and over, though, the doctor repeated one point. Falling on
the floor could not have ruptured a bowel unless you fell very hard on
a sharp object. It was very rare to see such an injury. It had to be a
deliberate blow to rupture like that.
Kindle handed the doctor a photo of the dead boy, taken at the
coroner's office. Peterson stared at the picture of a badly bruised
body, a body he had looked at in the flesh on Palm Sunday, 1965.
There is no question this is child abuse, the doctor said. He
appeared visibly shaken. The two detectives thought it obvious that
Peterson was moved.
"This is awful," the doctor said.
The police found one other pipeline to the past. He was a witness
well-qualified to talk about life inside the Jurgens' house, a witness
no one bothered to question back in 1965.
Robert Jurgens was now 26. He was living in Crookston, a small town
in northern Minnesota. He was, as it happened, a policeman.
Robert had run away from the Jurgens home several times as a
teen-ager, after the Kentucky children were removed. Eventually, he
was placed in a foster home, under authority of the juvenile court.
For a time, when he was 15 and 16, he had become involved with drugs
but had shook that addiction after being hospitalized in a chemical
He had married when he was 21--his wife worked as a paralegal
secretary for the Polk County attorney--and they had a 3-year-old son
Robert first learned from Lois Jurgens that the matter of Dennis'
death was being reopened. She had called, frightened, asking him what
it meant. Robert, she had asked, they're not going to come and take me
away, are they?
Robert had always maintained good relations with the
Jurgenses--they were the only family he had. He had never wanted to
confront the meaning of past events any more than others did. He had
even left his own child with the Jurgenses recently for three weeks
while he and his wife were making the move to Crookston.
The phone call from Lois had left him with a sick feeling. As a
police officer, he knew that if the case was being reopened, it had to
involve a murder charge--the statute of limitations had long ago run
out on anything else. He was being forced to confront something he had
wanted to deny and avoid.
If Dennis was murdered, Robert knew without a doubt it was Lois
Jurgens who killed him.
Robert agonized over what role he should now play. He wanted a
family, he wanted parents. But he needed to reach the truth, as a
brother to Dennis, as a police officer. He sought advice from his boss
in the Crookston Police Department. Twice, he spoke to Lois and Harold
Jurgens on the phone.
Don't talk to anyone, they were urging him. Say nothing. We've
hired a very good attorney. If your lips are moving, the attorney told
us, you're saying too much.
That made Robert angry. He wanted to find out everything he could,
but they never would talk things out with him about how Dennis died.
They just never would. He had in recent years tried to have it out
with his dad.
Why didn't you ever divorce her? he had asked. Why didn't you ever
get us out of this? Why did this go on?
He remembered Dennis. He remembered being real happy when Dennis
came into the house. Dennis was 1 then, he was 2 1/2. Before Dennis,
the house had been very quiet, and he had felt lonely and afraid,
afraid of his mother. But Dennis was full of energy, Dennis wasn't
His own son was now precisely Dennis' age when he died. He couldn't
even imagine doing such things to a child.
If Dennis was murdered, without a doubt, without even a doubt, she
By the time Kindle and Meehan called him from White Bear Lake,
Robert had made up his mind. He would cooperate with the police. He
would cooperate, even though he knew that meant one day testifying
against his adoptive mother.
Kindle and Meehan flew to Crookston on Oct. 17, 1986.
"I've made up my mind this is something that I want to do and I'll
try and recall and think of everything," Robert told the policemen.
With trepidation, worrying how it would affect him, they showed him
photos of Dennis' badly battered body. Robert just shrugged.
"Dennis always looked like that."
The White Bear Lake detectives looked at each other, then turned on
their tape recorder.
On Jan. 29, 1987, the Ramsey County grand jury indicted Lois
Jurgens on one count of second-degree murder and two counts of
third-degree murder. She was arraigned the next day--21 years, 9
months and 19 days after Dennis died.
Jerry Sherwood, Dennis' natural mother, was in the courtroom that
day when they brought Lois Jurgens in.
Ma, here she comes, her daughter said to her. Sherwood turned and
the two mothers looked into each other's eyes.
"There was hatred in both our looks, I must admit," Sherwood said
later. "Although the reasons for the hatred were different."
Melinda Elledge and Clayton Robinson were comfortable with the case
they had to prosecute, but from the start they had been picking up
intriguing references to a 1965 juvenile hearing. The relatives had
talked about it. So had a Dr. E. Dale Cumming, a local physician who
had once treated Dennis.
It was clear at that hearing, Dr. Cumming had told Kindle and
Meehan, that Dennis was beaten to death. There was no reason the
coroner's ruling should have been deferred.
Where were the records and transcript of this hearing? Somewhere
there had to be a transcript rich with information. People now dead or
ill could talk across the years. People's memories could be refreshed.
The prosecutors had made phone calls and thrown out subpoenas
across four states, to no avail. They finally had concluded it no
Now, on the day before they were to pick the last juror and begin
the trial, the prosecutors' phone rang. A clerk was calling from the
Washington County courthouse in Stillwater, 20 miles to the east.
We just happened to be cleaning out old evidence lockers, the clerk
said. We found your transcript.
The Jurgenses had once filed a \o7 habeas corpus\f7 petition in
Washington County, trying to get Robert back. To the petition they had
attached a voluminous exhibit--the whole 1965 record.
Elledge and Robinson sped to Stillwater. Skimming through the 700
pages, they saw just what they expected. The two prosecutors, arm in
arm, danced together in the Washington County courthouse parking lot.
The trial began last May 12. There were some spectators who thought
it oddly appropriate that such an old murder case was unfolding in a
forum that itself suggested so much of another era.
The Ramsey County courthouse was built in the 1930s, and still
features manually operated elevators. Because the courtroom lacked air
conditioning, the windows during the trial were kept open, allowing
the sound of cars and barges from the nearby Mississippi River to
punctuate the testimony.
The white-haired judge, David Marsden, wore bow ties. Lois Jurgens
appeared each day with a different hat perched on her head--each of
them markedly outdated, many of the pillbox style popular more than 20
Spectators found her fascinating, and unfathomable. During light
moments, they wondered what hat she would appear in the next day.
During darker moments, they wondered whether she would ever allow any
expression to cross her impassive, stoic face.
Barbara Peterson, the court reporter, was in a position to see Lois
Jurgens' face at all times. Peterson was mesmerized--Lois never even
blinked throughout the trial, except for one moment. When Robert
Jurgens on the stand testified incorrectly about her height, saying
his mother was shorter than she in fact was, Lois Jurgens pursed her
lips and shook her head with intensity. That had really annoyed her.
Photos of Dennis' battered body powerfully colored the trial. When
they were passed around to jurors, one cried, and others wiped tears
from their eyes. When they were displayed in the courtroom, blown up
into poster size, an unprepared Jerry Sherwood had to bolt from the
The relatives and family friends this time trooped willingly to the
witness stand and told their stories. Some were emotional, even
anguished. One had to be helped off the stand by a friend.
The highlight of the trial was Robert's testimony.
He sat in the witness stand, a mild-looking, blond-haired 26-
year-old with a wispy mustache, and spoke softly.
He remembered everything, with precision.
"Dennis used to cry, try to get away," Robert said. "Later on,
Dennis didn't do as much crying and he didn't do any running away. I
would recall that he more or less submitted and would just kind of
whimper and not get into that heavy crying. . . .
"I don't know exactly the reason why, but I cherished my mother. .
. . I did everything she said. I ate my food, I picked up my toys, I
kept neat and Dennis didn't and as a result Dennis received more
In the days preceding Dennis' death, he remembered Lois, in the
basement, dunking Dennis' head into a laundry tub full of water,
holding his head there until Dennis was gasping and crying, trying to
"I was terrified. I was afraid--I--I didn't know what to do. I--it
was a terrible sight."
Riding his tricycle in the basement soon after that, he remembered
hearing several loud thuds, then seeing Dennis rolling fast, very
fast, landing hard at the base of the stairs, on his stomach. Then his
mother came running down the stairs after him, hollering at Dennis,
picking him up, shaking him, hitting him.
"I was terrified. . . . What do you do, you know?"
Robert remembered well the night Dennis died. It was storming out,
thundering and lightning. He was afraid to go to bed, but he did
finally. He heard Dennis and his dad talking at some point in the
night. The next thing he heard were screams and hollers, coming from
He got up and went to see what was happening. He saw his mother
holding Dennis, shaking him violently, yelling his name, slapping him
on the back, hollering for Harold.
Robert was told to go sit in the living room. A doctor came, and
The courtroom had by now settled into a breathless silence,
punctuated only by an occasional gasp, and by the sound of automobiles
outside the window. Robert drew a breath, slowly. His voice started to
I returned recently to our old house on Gardenette Drive, Robert
said in answer to a question. "It was eerie, walking into Dennis'
room. . . . It was very tough."
On the bench, Judge Marsden felt he was losing his own composure.
Looking down, he realized that Robert was weeping, unable to continue.
He banged the gavel. "The court will take a 10-minute recess," he said
The defense attorney, Douglas W. Thomson, inexplicably posed the
question to Robert that the prosecutors would have loved to ask but by
the rules of law could not
"You think your mother caused Dennis' death, don't you?" Thomson
hurled the words at Robert, hoping, most likely, to establish that
Robert was prejudiced.
Robert, the whole courtroom, sat in silence for a moment. Then he
swallowed, and answered in a soft, muted voice.
"Yes," he said.
Up on the bench, Judge Marsden thought: Old Dougie just made one
Thomson, 57, had once been among Minnesota's top criminal defense
lawyers, but what with a penchant for drinking and late nights and
race tracks, the high-profile cases had stopped a decade ago. Finally
back in the center ring, he had been rising every morning before dawn
to walk five miles along the Mississippi, thinking out his strategy.
Thomson's closing argument offered an intriguing thought. This
whole trial was going on because of the whim and caprice of one man,
he said. That man was the Ramsey County medical examiner, Michael
"On Oct. 7 of last year nothing, nothing changed. There was no
piece of evidence whatsoever that Dr. McGee relied on in changing the
designation to homicide. There have not been any medical or scientific
advancements that could have been employed by Dr. McGee. It may be
true that the battered-child syndrome has been studied over the last
22 years . . . but there is nothing about the advancement in the
recognition of the battered-child syndrome that in any way came into
play when Dr. McGee changed that death certificate."
The defense attorney was right, of course. But there were those who
would say that was precisely the point. Dennis' death should have been
called a homicide back in 1965, just as it should be called one today.
That, at least, was what the jury decided last May 30, after just
four hours of deliberation. The panel found Lois Jurgens guilty of
third-degree murder--the Minnesota state description for killing
someone without premeditation or intent. On June 5, after a sanity
hearing, Judge Marsden sentenced Jurgens to up to 25 years in prison.
There she sits now, pending an appeal.
When the verdict was announced, the courtroom exploded with
emotion. The prosecutors hugged each other. Spectators wept. Jerry
Sherwood grasped her children. And as onlookers watched with
fascination, Lois snapped at her husband. "Harold," she said loudly,
impatiently, "Harold, come here."
Outside the courtroom in the hallway, Sherwood quickly was
surrounded by a crowd of reporters. County Atty. Foley told a sea of
microphones that this verdict represented a "tremendous victory for
the system." In a corner near the elevators, Robert Jurgens stood
The meaning and import of the Jurgens case are matters still
contemplated and debated in this region.
There are many here who now derive considerable satisfaction from
the outcome of the Jurgens murder case. Those who pursued, unraveled
and prosecuted the mystery feel understandable pride. Spirited
discussions aim at identifying the chief heroes. Many appreciatively
see in the case vivid evidence of this country's increased awareness
since 1965 of child abuse--this above all is often cited as the chief
theme of the story.
The prosecutors believe they could not have convicted Lois Jurgens
back in 1965. They point to the evolving awareness of the
battered-child syndrome in the community, in the courts and in the
lawbooks. They believe that in the past they would have had to link
Dennis' ruptured bowel directly to an act by Lois, rather than prove a
more general pattern of abuse. They know they would not in 1965 have
had Robert's devastating testimony.
"This case was not harmed by the passage of time," said Robinson,
the assistant county attorney.
Robert Jurgens sees heroes in the two prosecutors and the two
police investigators. Last Sept. 1, he came to a small White Bear Lake
courtroom and, with tears and hugs, presented them with his own
Judge Marsden and the prosecutors, in turn, see a hero in Robert.
They admired the grace and strength with which he had risen above a
tortured childhood. It was he, they argued, who had to pay a price,
choosing to testify against his adoptive mother, losing the only
family he had.
Plenty of others, of course, see a hero in Jerry Sherwood. She was
not a particular favorite with public officials, for once the case was
reopened she continued to apply sometimes abrasive pressure, both
privately and publicly. But if this pressure irritated them, a few
were willing to admit later, it also assured that the ball would not
once again be dropped.
There are those also who see God's hand at work.
"Things in this case are not humanly explainable," the prosecutor
Elledge said. "If Jerry Sherwood hadn't gone out to the cemetery and
if the record book didn't just happen to have a news clip in there. .
. . A few months from now certain witnesses will be dead."
Police Detective Kindle said: "I don't know what Lois Jurgens did
to draw God's attention. All the pieces were there when they shouldn't
have been. It's like God said, that's it. Here's where I draw the
line. . . . I'm going to freeze this one until the time is ready."
What most of those involved in the case--police, prosecutors,
judges--do not acknowledge seeing are the villains, apart from Lois
Jurgens herself. Reflecting on why the Jurgens tragedy happened, few
of them are inclined to point fingers or fix blame or make judgments.
The "system" didn't work, they are willing to say. But people
didn't have any idea what child abuse was. People saw clean, ordered
houses, that's what people saw, or wanted to see. It was easy to fool
people. Some just lost track or were overwhelmed or were afraid. This
happened years before the battered-child syndrome was recognized, in a
middle-class suburb, where people sensed something was wrong but
thought it none of their business. We should not judge basically
decent people who failed to do something, or chose not to. They were
not consciously wrongdoers. We must resist hindsight. We can't call
any of them bad guys.
This attitude, finally, remains among the most puzzling of all the
strange elements in the Jurgens story. That the unflinching facts of
the Jurgens case suggest something a good deal more disturbing--a
community full of people aware of Lois and what she had done--seems to
have evaded many involved in the case. No one but Lois Jurgens has
ever been held to account.
There are understandable reasons. The task at hand, after all, was
to identify a murderer and put her in jail. Why the Jurgens tragedy
happened was not the question being pursued. By its nature the trial
ended up confining and localizing the horror in one person. Where some
might find fault with the welfare caseworker, the family doctor, the
local priest, the police, the coroner, the lawyers and judges, the
neighbors and relatives, others saw informants and prosecution
Beyond that, the uncomfortable question of why the Jurgens tragedy
happened is one many people simply have trouble facing. The case
revealed an image of a community and human nature, after all, that was
not the one many thought they knew--or even now want to know. So
satisfactory answers have ended up being difficult to reach.
Robert Jurgens, as it happens, is still struggling for an answer,
months after the trial ended. He could not shrink from the raw facts
now even if he wanted to. The trial was not enough for him. He has
read through the case file, the mountains of paper that document his
own history. What he read has left him overwhelmed.
He saw how he was allowed to be placed. He saw how he was removed,
then returned to Lois and Harold. He saw how he was left there when
they took away the Kentucky children. He saw what happened to the
brother he remembers only as a laughing baby full of energy.
"Why did this happen?" he said one morning recently from his home
in Crookston. "That's the question that doesn't get talked about. . .
. I guess it happened because no one wanted to go through the white
picket fence of the Jurgens house and step on toes. They just did not
want to walk through that white picket fence."
Anger would be expected, but instead, Robert Jurgens spoke quietly.
His tone was full of wonder--a sad, puzzled wonder.