FORT DODGE | Jessica Altman believes it’s still possible she will find out who murdered her mother in the Fort Dodge apartment they shared in 1981.
Then just 4 years old, Jessica Altman found her mother’s body — stabbed, strangled and partially nude.
A juvenile was arrested, briefly charged then released, but no one has ever been held accountable for Angela Altman’s death.
Jessica Altman has been relentlessly trying to identify her mother’s killer for her entire adult life.
“I absolutely do believe we can still get answers, ” she said.
Now 38 and a registered nurse living in Tennessee, Altman periodically returns to her hometown to visit with law enforcement officials, family members and people who were her mother’s friends.
“I’ve continued to work with local law enforcement and the Division of Criminal Investigation over the years,” Altman said in a telephone interview. “We communicate on a regular basis, and I meet with them every time in Fort Dodge and discuss the case.”
Although published reports at the time said one of the 22-year-old’s sisters found her body, Jessica Altman said she, not her aunt, made the discovery.
“I remember waking up,” she said. “I remember finding her body. I remember the phone calls. I remember telling the people who called that I couldn’t wake her up. I remember my aunt coming there.”
Police arrived shortly after 3 p.m. on Jan. 24, 1981, apparently some 8 to 10 hours after Angela Altman’s death. They reportedly found no weapon.
They interviewed Jessica, but considered her too young to be a reliable witness. She doesn’t remember much more, except that she heard a man arguing with her mother earlier that evening.
Friend reaches out
Family members, she said, never pushed local officials to find answers and were reluctant to talk about the crime or her mother.
Jessica Altman, who is married and has three children, didn’t know that her mother had spent time in Davenport as a teen or that a woman named Cindy Henning had been her mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
A posting on the Iowa Cold Case website brought the two together in 2011. Although Altman was skeptical at first, Henning persisted in reaching out through emails.
Finally, she wrote, “I have a picture of you in a little yellow dress at 3½ months old. I have a picture of you and your mother. This is your birth date, and your middle name is Marie, just like your mother.”
Altman approached one of her aunts, who confirmed that Angela Altman had lived in Davenport.
Henning helped Altman get to know her mother as a person, telling stories about the teenager she had known as Angie.
“She liked listening to music,” Henning said. “She loved the Rolling Stones song ‘Angie,’ loved that song. We used to go the park and just hang out, listen to music, play with my kids. She was probably 14, 15 years old. I was only four years older than her, so I was young myself.
“She was a proud mama. She definitely loved her daughter; that can’t be denied,” Henning said.
Angela Altman sent other photos of herself and her daughter, but many of those were destroyed when Henning’s basement flooded.
Henning sent two of the surviving photos to Jessica Altman; one had writing on the back of it.
“That was the first time she had seen her mother’s handwriting,” Henning said.
Angela Altman was very quiet, Henning said, but was a prolific letter writer.
'Had to get away'
Angela Altman moved back to Fort Dodge after a few years, and she and Henning continued to exchange letters. However, in 1977, Henning received a phone call from her young friend.
“She called me out of the blue and wanted to know if she could come stay with me for a week or so,” Henning said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll get you a bus ticket if you can come down.’ Like I said, she was real quiet, but it just seemed like she had to get away. I don’t know why. She needed to come to my house. And she did.”
The two continued to correspond until at least 1979, Henning said.
“She moved back to Fort Dodge. She got hooked up with some girl; I can’t remember the girl’s name. But (the girl) was wild, wanted her to travel. They were going to Las Vegas; they were going to Texas. I don’t know if they ever did,” Henning said.
There’s one thing Henning does know: “It’s been great having Jessica in my life.”
Henning has been by Altman’s side when she has visited with law enforcement officials in Fort Dodge and has met family members, including Clarice Altman, the grandmother that Jessica lived with after her mother’s death.
Clarice Altman, Henning said, is “very quiet; she reminds me a lot of Angie.”
New eyes on the case
The case is more than three decades old, and it’s often been a “long, tedious process” to keep it in front of investigators’ eyes, Altman said. None of the case’s original investigators are still with the Fort Dodge Police Department or the DCI.
But she has reason to hope.
Webster County Attorney Jennifer Benson, who was elected in 2014, has talked with Altman and is putting fresh eyes on the case file.
“I am reviewing every single piece of paper,” Benson said. “I think it’s important to do that with cold cases, especially with cases like this that have been cold for such a long period of time. We do care and are going to try to do everything we can.”
Fort Dodge Police Chief Kevin Doty added that any information that comes in relating to a cold case will be examined.
“Those cases would be worked in conjunction with the DCI,” he said.
DCI Special Agent Ray Fiedler has been involved with the Altman case for years.
“We’re working it when we can and when we get something,” Fiedler said. “We’re interviewing people when information comes in.”
Fiedler said it’s possible someone has information that would solve the case, but either doesn’t realize how crucial the information could be or is reluctant to come forward.
“Give us a chance,” he said. “If somebody knows something, call us or call the Police Department,” he said. “We’re more than happy to talk to you. If you know anything, even if you think it’s insignificant, call us. Let us put the pieces together.”
Who and why
In 2012, after a series of articles about Angela Altman’s murder and her daughter’s quest for answers, Webster County Crime Stoppers offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
Jessica Altman said she was both thankful and encouraged by the offer.
“I hope that by continuing to keep that out there — because I know that people know in Fort Dodge who did this — that it will eat away at the people who know, and they will finally say something,” Altman said. “I think they have already suffered the torment of someday being found out, the constant worry.”
At this point, convicting her mother’s murderer isn’t what’s most important to her, she said.
“I just want to know who did it and why,” Altman said. “That’s more necessary than a conviction.”