MONTOUR | Halloween day Oct. 31, 1973, was typical of many in late fall in Iowa — cold, overcast and threatening rain.
But it also included the discovery of the body of Helen Mae Bown, 61, of Marshalltown, on the bank of the Iowa River northwest of Montour in Tama County. Her body was found that day by Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents.
Bown, a widow, had been reported missing to Marshalltown Police on Oct. 7.
The cause of Bown's death was listed as drowning, but the circumstances never revealed.
Jared Bauch, then Tama County attorney, said recently in an email response for this article: “I remember the case and the scene. Ms. Bown had been in the water several days. As I recall there was an idea that she had been drinking quite a bit at the time she disappeared and her companions were rough customers.
"I think we concluded she got in the Iowa River near Marshalltown and that it was likely a Marshall County case," Bauch said, adding that nothing tied the victim to Tama County other than the body likely being taken there by the river currents.
The death was considered suspicious by Tama and Marshall county officials.
Then-Marshall County Attorney Ron Kaiser convened a grand jury on Nov. 7, 1973, according to a news report in the Marshalltown Times-Republican, “to present evidence that has been uncovered.”
However, no indictment was ever handed down and Kaiser would not comment on whether he thought foul play may have taken place or the nature of any evidence.
The state medical examiner had ruled the death due to “probable drowning.”
Over the years no one was ever arrested or the case officially closed.
Recently, current Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper reviewed the Bown case file which he termed “interesting to read."
“I believe it is one of those cases which could be resolved with a piece of information here and a piece of information there,” he said.
Some details of the investigation are not public because the case technically remains active, Tupper said, but he added that he asked some long-tenured Police Department employees about the case and they were "completely unfamiliar" with it.
Tupper filled in some details not initially reported, however.
Bown was reported missing by a visiting county health nurse who apparently had been providing in-home care for Bown at the time.
In response to rumors which reportedly circulated in Marshalltown taverns at the time, Tupper said, “From some of the details, it does look like officers did investigate multiple possibilities and did review comments people made.”
He said he was uncertain why the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (now Iowa Division of Criminal investigation) was called in to the case, but he said protocol then may have been similar to today.
Current Marshall County Attorney Jennifer Miller replied to an information request: “My office doesn't have any records or information on this case ... so sorry!”
Helen Bown's obituary Nov. 7, 1973, said her husband, William, had died in 1972. The couple had always lived in Marshalltown.
Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera and Deputy Bruce Rhoads both said they have no direct knowledge of the case, as neither was serving with the sheriff's office then.
A native of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Bown had married her second husband, William, in 1964. She had previously married Orville Berger in 1926 when she was 14 years old. They had two sons.
Bown was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown.
The website — iowacoldcases.org — includes this information about the case:
"In a Des Moines Register article dated Nov. 2, 1973, one official not directly connected with the case said the manner in which the investigation was being handled would lead one to believe 'the Watergate tapes or the atomic bomb secrets' were involved."
Additionally, the paper also reported that “no one in an official capacity would say why the search for the woman was concentrated in the area northeast of Le Grand.”
The Bown case was the second time in which a Marshalltown woman’s body would be discovered in Tama County. Earlier that year, the body of Rochelle Lass, Marshalltown, was found on a rural Tama County road north of Montour on Feb. 22, 1973.
That case was solved with the arrest and subsequent conviction of her husband, Dennis Lass, for first-degree murder.