Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa


Frank F. Jones family
Frank F. Jones family

Given the degree of overkill evident in this crime, an obvious suspect would have been someone holding a grudge. That seemed to describe a business rival, Frank Jones, for whom J.B. had worked for nine years. After a bitter parting, J.B. had started his own implements store, taking away some of Jones's larger customers, including as the John Deer Plow franchise. Jones had become a politician and had served in both the House of Representatives and state Senate; he'd also founded the Villisca National Bank. Thus, he was in a position of prestige and control, and some citizens described him as arrogant. In addition to his possible anger over the professional betrayal, there were rumors that J.B. had had an affair with Jones's daughter-in-law.

Jones might not have committed the murders himself, but with this considerable wealth, may have hired someone to do it — perhaps a cocaine addict and alleged serial killer named William Mansfield. One detective accused Jones openly of this very act, dogging him in the hope of getting a confession. Jones denied having anything to do with it.

William Mansfield
William Mansfield

Given the potential that the killer had been watching the house from a hiding spot, such behavior seemed less that of a successful businessman and more that of a stalker. Perhaps someone had been in love from afar, in a perverted way, with Sarah, and had finally been unable to control the urge to kill those she loved, along with her. It was unlikely to be a stalker of 12-year-old Lena, or even an impulsive molestation, since in that case the surveillance would have been on the Stillinger home.

There were many rumors about who the culprit was, including information viewed in tea leaves and the vision offered by Mrs. Hamilton, a self-proclaimed psychic in a nearby town. She "saw" a large man with a dark mustache and a hat. She said he'd turn himself in and also indicated, erroneously, that the murder weapon was near another building.

More interesting as a suspect was a mentally unstable preacher who became obsessed with the killings and supposedly confessed, but that was some years down the road. In addition, over the years, men who appeared to be serial killers have been offered as suspects. Indeed, there was a documented trail of ax murders at that time across the Midwest.

Let's examine these possibilities more closely.