Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

More Evidence

The investigating party went outside to the barn to see if the killer might have gone there. Linquist wrote that he found a depression in some hay that was about the size and shape of a man who might have been lying in it. To Linquist's mind, it looked recent. In fact, it appeared that a two-inch knothole had been utilized as a way to spy, because it was near where the shape of a head had been and it afforded a view of the rear of the house.

Sheriff Oren Jackson arrived to help Horton make sense of the scene, aware that the killer had a head start, but not much of one. He, too, had little experience in processing crime scenes. One murder would have challenged him, but eight all at once was beyond the skills of the two of these officers combined. To be sure, detectives would arrive, some of them seeking fame, but no one was there in the early hours of that first crucial day.

To make matters worse, the curious had flocked to the house and gone inside, despite orders to keep them out. It wasn't much different from what had happened four years earlier in Indiana when several bodies were pulled from the ground on Belle Gunness's pig farm. People had brought their picnic lunches and been allowed to line up and go through the makeshift morgue in the pig shed, and savvy entrepreneurs had sold souvenirs from the property.

Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness

By midday, the National Guard moved in to Villisca to control the scene, but it had already been considerably damaged for evidence processing. (One story has it that a man actually walked away with a piece of J.B's skull.) The bodies remained in the house, on view for the Coroner's Jury, until nearly midnight that night, when the county attorney authorized their release for burial.

The bloodhound handler arrived late that evening with the pair of dogs from Beatrice, Nebraska, but so many people had been in the house and handled items like the suspected murder weapon that it was probably impossible for the hounds to get a scent. They did sniff with interest along a trail that led through town to the nearby river, but they lost it there and couldn't pick anything up on the other side. It seemed the killer, if that's who they were following, had decided to walk through the water, getting out who-knows-where. This disappointed the numerous reporters who had converged on the town that day to pick up details.

The same was true of another development. Officials requested federal assistance, which brought M.W. McClaughry, whose title, says Marshall, was Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Criminal identification. One of the country's few experts in fingerprints, he hoped to thoroughly process the house. Unfortunately, with so many people handling the evidence, he was unable to lift any clear prints.

It's probably no surprise that during this same week, Mrs. Stillinger gave birth to a stillborn child. The stress of having two children murdered so brutally may well have had an effect. Not long afterward, the Stillinger's home burned down.

Many suspects were developed in the incident, and many leads followed, but with no skilled investigators and a poorly processed crime scene, it was difficult to pin down a truly viable bad guy. Yet even before they did that, they had to figure out just how the terrible incident had occurred. Since time of death was not a developed science, they didn't know if the parents died first, or the children, the upstairs sleepers or the girls downstairs. They could only guess at items like the bacon and keychain, but they made an attempt to understand what had taken place in the darkest hours of that terrible night.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'