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Unsolved homicide: The cold case files

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MASON CITY - Andy Hatges, Elgin Strait, Dillon Luna and John Snyder Jr. All were slain in Mason City, but the killers have never been found.

And now the four are Mason City Police Department "cold cases" - murder investigations in which almost every lead, every hint and every rumor has been followed and exhausted. They are cases that have not been closed, but lay dormant, as investigators wait for one solid bit of information to turn up that will lead to an arrest.

Now, with new technology and investigative techniques available, police are once again taking an active look at solving these mysteries.

On Sunday, March 8, 1968, Andy Hatges, 76, owner of West Vu Market, 2601 Fourth St. S.W., was found dead in his home after he didn't open the store that morning.

Elgin Strait, 81, was found March 17, 1977, shot in the back of the head with a shotgun in a basement bed at his home at 1302 S. Hampshire Ave.

Fifteen-day-old Dillon Luna, son of Joseph and Christine Luna, was found dead of smoke inhalation April 30, 1992, as his parents' home at 1429 N. Federal Ave. burned to the ground.

John Snyder Jr., age 1, son of John Snyder and Lisa Sellmann, was reported missing the morning of July 20, 1994, from his father's apartment on South Adams Avenue near the corner of State Street. He was found two days later in Willow Creek.

Andy Hatges was found lying face down near a corner of his living room with his throat slashed, according to police records. Bruises and cuts were found on his hands, and a crescent wrench was found under his body.

"I can picture so much," said former Police Chief Wes Greenan. "It was a vicious crime. His hands were all beat up from defending himself, and he was almost decapitated."

Greenan said more than 400 people were interviewed in the Hatges case, but no one knew anything that would incriminate anyone in the murder. At one time, Greenan remembered, police were told to look for a red truck, but when you're looking for a red truck, almost every truck is red, he said.

Elgin Strait's son, Earl, found the body several days after his death, according to police records. Reports indicate that robbery may have been the motive for Strait's murder. He was said to have been carrying $1,000 in a money belt at the time of his death. When his body was found, the money belt was empty.

The Strait murder was the first case in which the police department, having exhausted all investigative techniques, consulted a psychic investigator.

"We couldn't find the murder weapon," Greenan said. "The psychic told us to go east of the 190-something mile marker on the interstate until we found kids playing around a windmill. She said the murder weapon would be close to that."

The police took the psychic's advice and went to the 190-mile marker on Interstate 35. To the east, they found some children playing near a windmill lawn ornament, and just as the officers' hopes were getting high, they realized that also near that windmill was the North Iowa Landfill.

The fire that destroyed the Luna home, thought by officials to be the result of arson, was ignited in the living room, according to the fire marshal's investigation.

Dillon Luna's body was found in the living room. Five other people lived in the house, and police thought it strange that no one remembered the baby was inside until after they were all out of the house.

Still, police could not find proof that the baby was murdered.

John Snyder Sr. said he didn't hear anything the night his son was allegedly abducted and that morning found only two blankets in the hall of the apartment building where they lived. State Medical Examiner Tom Bennett said the boy drowned but had sustained head injuries prior to drowning. An autopsy showed the child had a fractured skull and jawbone.

Lt. Ron Vande Weerd said police have interviewed suspects in connection with the Snyder baby's death, but have never been able to prove who did it.

Vande Weerd hopes to warm up those old, cold cases, though. At the turn of the New Year, Vande Weerd began researching the mysterious deaths of Hatges, Strait, Luna, and Snyder, and has since assigned officers to work on the cases on a regular basis.

"There's no statute of limitations on unsolved homicides," Vande Weerd said. "Resources and overtime are not issues on cases as serious as homicides."

Vande Weerd began research in the police records room where boxes and files are filled with crime data dating from the early days of the police department. There have been more than four unsolved murders in Mason City, Vande Weerd said, but chances are a perpetrator who killed someone in the 1950s "probably isn't around anymore."

Vande Weerd rummaged through old paper files from the years prior to computerization. Some records were torn, water-stained or faded beyond recognition. Rats and mice were a nuisance in the records room before the police department moved to its current location in 1979, and many papers and items of clothing were eaten by the rodents.

Where there were literal holes in the stories, Vande Weerd contacted retired police officers who worked on the cases. Capt. Duane Jewell and Greenan helped Vande Weerd by contributing their memories of each of the cases, as did former Capt. of Detectives Walt Reindl before he died May 1.

"Walt Reindl was a wealth of knowledge," Vande Weerd said. "His passing on is a great loss."

Once each of the four cold cases had been researched, Vande Weerd handed out the assignments.

He asked the officers to become familiar with the case files, talk to witnesses, and talk again with the victims' families.

Vande Weerd said he hopes that through re-interviewing people involved in the cases, someone's memory is sparked and a crime that was once considered nearly impossible to solve will then be put to rest.


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