White Bear Lake was recognized as an All-America City in April 1965. Ironically, there is another 50th anniversary this month — the death of an abused 3-year-old boy named Dennis Jurgens. He died on Palm Sunday, April 11, 1965, the same week elated city leaders celebrated an award from the National Municipal League and Look magazine.
Twenty-three years after the boy’s death, Los Angeles Times correspondent Barry Siegel drove into town and saw the All-American city sign. He knew immediately the two events would be intertwined in his upcoming book: “A Death in White Bear Lake: The True Chronicle of an All-American Town.” The book was published in 1990 and is still in print.
Siegel’s novel tells the true story about the death of Dennis, his adoptive parents, Lois and Harold Jurgens, and myriad residents he interviewed in 1988 — a year after Lois Jurgens was convicted of third-degree murder of a boy who came into her home at the age of 1.
The Press recently spoke with the author, who teaches journalism at the University of California-Irvine, reminding him of the milestone. “I didn’t realize we were at the 50th anniversary,” said Siegel, who spent the summer of ‘88 in a rented White Bear Lake apartment researching the case.
Most of Jurgens’ neighbors on South Gardenette Drive were still there that summer, and willing to reminisce about the neighborhood, the little boy who died that Palm Sunday and his reclusive parents, whom no one seemed to know.
Dennis’ death certificate indicated the cause of death as peritonitis due to traumatic perforation of the small bowel. His adoptive mother, 39 at the time, said he fell down the basement stairs. Many in the neighborhood thought it was more than that. So did the cops and the mortician who embalmed Dennis.
“The mid-60s was just the beginning of awareness of battered child syndrome,” Siegel said in a telephone interview. “The neighbors I talked to about the case were good people. They were still very upset about it 23 years later — what they should have done and could have done. People I talked to were puzzled, concerned, trying to figure it out themselves. One or two I remember wept as we sat in their backyards. The book isn’t a story about bad people, it’s about good people who didn’t do the right thing.”
Siegel said the consequences of the choices we make are far more interesting to him than a story about people who commit terrible acts. “I wasn’t as interested in Lois and why Harold didn’t step in. What drew me most to this story was the window into a community and the choices good people make. I also wanted to write about the evolution of our understanding of child abuse. In 1965, this wasn’t recognized.”
When the case file reopened in 1987 charging Lois Jurgens with murder, there was no new evidence. “There was no smoking gun piece,” Siegel said. “The difference was this time the medical examiner immediately thought ‘child abuse.’”
Those who remember the case know it reopened after Dennis’ biological mother, Jerry Sherwood, went looking for the son she surrendered at birth.
As the book retells, Sherwood walked into the White Bear Lake Police Department Sept. 11, 1986, claiming her baby boy had been beaten to death. Sherwood had discovered the coroner never ruled on the actual cause of death; they had just buried the body in St. Mary’s Cemetery. One of the original investigators, Ron Meehan, remembered the case, as did others involved at the time.
A description of the boy’s body indicated he was covered in bruises, his forehead had a large abrasion and there was a laceration at the base of his genitals. A year earlier Dennis had been hospitalized for severe scalding of his scrotum, blamed at the time to the toddler turning on the hot water while his mother briefly left the room. His nose was blood red and peeling and there were fingernail marks behind his ears. His body was also emaciated, it was noted, like he had been starved.
When prosecuting attorneys at Jurgen’s pending trial had the toddler’s body exhumed in January of 1987, the marks were still there.
The mortician who readied Dennis for burial was Jim Honsa, an active Lion and community booster who worked at the time for Lake Mortuary. He had told investigators that the body would be in good condition even 22 years later. Honsa had used a strong solution in the embalming process and put the organs in a plastic, rather than muslin, bag.
“It was as if the funeral director had foreseen a day when someone would come looking,” Siegel wrote.
Jim Honsa’s daughter Terry remembers her dad coming home in 1965 and what he told her mother: “That little boy did not die from falling down the stairs. Someone killed him.”
Joan Honsa still lives in the same house on Sandra Lane she shared with Jim, who died 11 years ago from cancer. She doesn’t remember much about the case, except it sounded “fishy” at the time. “Jim was relieved someone was eventually charged,” Honsa said. “We had children the same age so it hit him hard.”
White Bear Historical Society Executive Director Sara Markoe Hanson remembers watching the body being exhumed on the television news. “I was shocked,” she said. “I recognized it as St. Mary’s cemetery.”
When the casket was opened, the body was as Honsa said. “The small child was in perfect, if weathered shape, like an ancient man preserved in time. Dennis was dressed in turquoise shorts with a matching vest over a long-sleeved white dress shirt and bow tie. Blond hair still covered the top of the head, as did a crown of withered flowers (placed by Honsa),” Siegel relayed in a chapter called “A Cry From the Ground.”
Medical examiner Michael McKee noticed other features, as well. The bruises were still visible on the now leathery brown skin. So was a “gaping tear in the skin at the base of the penis.” When he inspected the gastrointestinal tract, McKee found a small, oval hole in the bowel. That is what killed Dennis: infectious fecal material had flowed into his abdomen.
Siegel wrote that McKee’s thoughts turned not to the wonders of science, but of religion. “He felt he understood why Dennis Jurgens’ death was now so improbably coming to their attention, and why the boy’s body had remained so surprisingly intact, as if awaiting their inspection, as if frozen in time until the right moment. McGee thought about the book of Genesis.
“Where is your brother? God asked Cain in Genesis. I am not my brother’s keeper, Cain answered. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, God replied.
“That was the reason for this case, McGee believed. Dennis’ blood had cried out from the ground,” penned Siegel.
The author, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for a story of another child’s death in the Utah wilderness, said he still hears from people interested in the Jurgens’ case.
“Someone just sent me a picture of the house in rural Stillwater the Jurgens moved into in 1967,” Siegel said. “People still email me and want to talk about it. So it’s hard to forget.”
Did the story affect him at the time? “It was tough to write about the death of a little boy. When I was living in White Bear Lake, my wife was pregnant with our first child. I was writing the book with my little baby next to me. It heightened my feelings, although they were already strong,” Siegel replied.
He does think fondly of the community. “I grew up in LA so it was like living in a different world. I wasn’t used to going to pancake breakfasts and I remember I was surprised not to have to pre-pay for gas. I liked the people a lot.”
Gardenette Drive families mentioned in the book included Donna and Jim Neely, Cam and Bob Brass, who owned the Ben Franklin store, and Alice and Tom Axelrod. Siegel interviewed more than 100 people for his book, which took about 18 months to write. He was 41 when it published. A Wikipedia excerpt notes the book is “considered by many to be a seminal document regarding child abuse.”
Jill (Neely) Twedt, who coincidentally works at Press Publications, offered her memories of the Jurgens’ house down the street. She remembers Dennis and the fact he and his brother weren’t allowed to play with the neighborhood kids.
Twedt also remembers her mother Donna telling her years later, “We didn’t talk about that stuff then.”
The Gardenette neighborhood was “a great place to grow up,” Twedt said. “The book makes our neighborhood sound creepy, but it wasn’t.”
There is a chapter in the book, “The Bubble Bursts,” about a few untimely deaths after 1965, including a 36-year-old mother of four deaf children and at least one suicide.
Twedt’s older brother Tom Neely offered one vivid recollection. He remembers Lois chasing him with a broomstick if he stepped foot on her lawn. The school bus stopped in front of the Jurgens’ house and Lois made sure the children stayed off her grass. “She came after me like a mad man, with crazy eyes,” Neely recalled.
After the Jurgens moved to Stillwater, Twedt would babysit for the new family at 2148 S. Gardenette. “I would look at those basement stairs and think about Dennis being pushed down them.”
Another neighbor, Kathy (Bucholz) Rodvald, remembers seeing the hearse parked in the Jurgens’ driveway that Palm Sunday. She was 10 at the time. Two of her brothers still live in her parents’ Gardenette house.
“Our neighborhood was fantastic,” she said. “We were all like a big family. We played kick the can and tag. The adults were all friends. It was the best place in the world to grow up.”
Except the Jurgens weren’t part of the Gardenette social scene. “I can picture the boys still,” Rodvald said. “They were very quiet. I remember going over there and trying to get them to play with us but they couldn’t. And Lois would yell at us if we stood on their street corner. We thought she was a witch.”
When her mother died, Rodvald said Lois Jurgens sent a sympathy card.
The name Bucholz isn’t in the book, she added, because her dad wouldn’t talk to Siegel. “My dad said people minded their own business. You didn’t comment on how someone else raised their kids.”
To Markoe Hanson, the Jurgens’ case was “a dark point in our history. I can’t believe it was 50 years ago already. I remember the exhumation of the grave and the trial in the ‘80s. It was definitely seen as a cover up after the fact.”
Many of the events used in the book’s background Siegel found in Minnesota Historical Society archives, White Bear chamber scrapbooks and an unlimited access on Sunday afternoons to the White Bear Press bound volume collection at the newspaper office.
The state’s historic flood in March of 1965 was mentioned, as was LBJ’s arrival on Air Force One to view the natural disaster. The war was escalating in Vietnam and Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma. Local grocer Bill LeVasseur was elected president of the White Bear Lake Chamber of Commerce in 1965, replacing Bob Brass. The city manager was Ed Bayuk.
Also that January, Lois’ sister (she came from a family of 16 children born to Lois and John Zerwas Sr.) Barbara died of a brain tumor. She was 36. It was noted that Dennis was wearing sunglasses while reciting the rosary at the Lake Mortuary visitation.
Following the trial in 1987, a reporter asked prosecuting attorney Mindy Elledge why it took so long for the case to come to trial. Her reply: “In 1965, people didn’t think white, middle-class families on a nice tree-lined street in White Bear Lake would murder their children. That’s the bottom line.”
The murder conviction received local and national attention. “People” magazine did a story in March 1987 and in 1988, Diane Sawyer did a piece on “60 Minutes” called “No One Saved Dennis.” Siegel also wrote a lengthy two-part piece for the LA Times that became a precursor for his book. Five years later, NBC released a TV movie called “A Child Lost Forever.”
Lois Jurgens was sentenced to 25 years in the Shakopee women’s correctional facility for third-degree murder. She was 61 when she went to prison and served eight years before being paroled.
Harold Jurgens, who visited his wife regularly at the prison, died in 2000. Some thought he had been poisoned by his wife, but an autopsy showed that not to be true. There was also talk years earlier of Lois starting the fire that killed her mother-in-law. The Jurgens’ other adopted son, 5-year-old Robert, was removed from their home after Dennis died and was living with his grandparents. He happened to be in the hospital for pneumonia when their house burned down in November of ‘65.
Robert testified against his mother at her trial, telling the jury he thought she had killed Dennis. He grew up to be a police officer and moved to Crookston.
Another principal character in the book, Lois Jurgens’ brother, Jerome Zerwas, was a White Bear Lake cop who was suspected of covering up the case in 1965. He left the force on permanent disability in 1975 and moved to Elk River, claiming to the end he did not interfere despite testimony to the contrary. Zerwas died in 1997.
Lois Jurgens died May 7, 2013.
Siegel talks about twists of fate on his website and how often critical events arise out of random chance. Some may call it providence. That twist of fate is apparent in this case as well.
A staunch Catholic and member of St. Mary of the Lake Church, Lois Jurgens only wanted a baby of the same faith. It so happened that Dennis’ biological mother, 17 and unwed when he was born, had planned to convert to Catholicism so had her baby baptized by a priest. Sherwood, who was Jerry Puckett at the time, never converted. If Dennis had been baptized other than Catholic, the Jurgens would have rejected him.
Included among the book’s pages is a photo copy of the congratulatory letter announcing the All-America City Award.
The Municipal League letter from Chairman George Gallup to Georgia Hillman, then secretary-treasurer of the White Bear Lake Chamber of Commerce, read “I salute the citizens of White Bear Lake whose effective action has won this award and sincerely hope they will view this honor as a further incentive to play a positive role in the affairs of their community.”
That summer of ‘65, the city celebrated the honor. “There was a June weekend auto show with sport models from Polar Chev and Tousley Ford, a teen dance and giant barbecue that cooked 40 turkeys on a 60 foot spit over 600 pounds of charcoal. Turkey sandwiches sold for 15 cents and cartons of milk for a nickel,” Siegel wrote. And for a week in mid-July, a TV station showcased White Bear Lake.
To paraphrase another book, it’s fair to say 1965 was the best of times and the worst of times in the community; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. Or so the story goes.