The summer of 2020 has notable anniversaries. Marketfest turns 30 years old next month. This month is the 30th anniversary of the release of “A Death in White Bear Lake,” a book by then-Los Angeles Times reporter Barry Siegel.
The author’s ability to set the scene of a tranquil All-American City against the unspoken brutality of a child’s abuse and death showed it could have happened anywhere. The White Bear Press recently talked to Siegel from his home in Sherman Oaks, California, to ask him about his time in White Bear Lake researching, interviewing more than 100 people and writing this true crime book with such staying power.
Q: June is the 30th anniversary of publishing of the book, which tells the notorious and tragic story of the 1965 murder of 3-year-old Dennis Jurgens in White Bear Lake. You researched the book in 1988, after writing articles about it for the L.A. Times. What was your job at the Times?
A: “I had a really very unusual assignment at the L.A. Times, and it is one of the reasons I stayed there that long. I was a roving national correspondent and did that for 25 years. I wasn’t covering basic news events. It was more like I teach now, literary journalism, narrative nonfiction writing, storytelling. I would travel around the country and look for something happening somewhere that kicked up some issues and seem to be worth a long-form narrative. I would fly to wherever it was and immerse myself in it. It was a great beat. It was more like a New Yorker beat than a newspaper beat. I was very fortunate the editor-in-chief of the paper at the time, Bill Thomas, was very supportive of this long-form narrative writing. When I proposed it to him, he gave me his blessings.”
Q: What prompted you to write those original news stories for the Times?
A: “This is interesting. I started the roving national beat in 1980, so I had been doing it all that decade already. I spent a lot of my time scanning the horizon, looking for the next project. This was happening pre-social media and internet, so I was looking at obscure things. I would go down to the newsstand in L.A. and buy up Sunday papers from all around the country. I also subscribed to small and unusual niche publications. One of them was the weekly ‘National Law Journal,’ which is really for lawyers. One page was devoted to the anatomy of a legal case somewhere in the country ... I was drawn to that kind of story, courtroom drama. In June of ’87 I happened to see a story in there about the Jurgens murder trial that was going on or maybe just concluded … I flew out in November 1987 to start reporting it for the L.A. Times. It really was just one story. But, it was a 15,000-word narrative. They were used to me writing long, but that was longer than normal. They didn’t know what to do with it. When it finally reached the editor-in-chief’s desk, he said ‘We’re going to put this on page one, but we need to split in two.’ They ran it on two consecutive days.”
Q: Of all the stories you’ve written for the Times, why write a book about this story?
A: “I was looking around for my first book project. ‘A Death in White Bear Lake’ was my first book project. I’ve now published eight books, but … it holds a special spot because it was my first. First of all, I was mesmerized by this story from the first time I started working it for the L.A. Times. All of the elements were there. But, when it came out in paper, it drew enormous response from all over the country. I remember box loads of actual snail mail letters arriving. I remember one from Loretta Young, the famous actress, who wrote me from a hotel in Hawaii. She had just read the article. People all over did. My own fascination combined with the fact I was getting this response from other people made me think about a book. The themes the story offered me were very compelling. One of the themes was about how society had evolved … no new evidence was really discovered about Dennis Jurgens’ death between 1965 and 1987. It was just that when they reopened the file all those years later, we saw it differently. Battered child syndrome really wasn’t recognized in 1965. That is part of what interested me. It was a way to write about the way of life into a community … It provides you a window. I was interested how this could happen among so many good people. People who cared. My book jacket says these were people who for all those years never stopped wondering what they could or should have done. They were good people, and I got intrigued with the idea not with the murder or Lois Jurgens but the place where it happened.
“As a side note, it almost didn’t happen. I was talking and working with a publisher at the time, Bantam, Steve Rubin, who I met earlier and he wanted to do a book with me. But, he wasn’t sure about this. He said, ‘It is too local of a story.’ I said all stories are local. I finally managed to convince him. I got that contract and I went to White Bear Lake and lived in White Bear Lake from about April into August of 1988. I rented an apartment … That was quite an experience.”
Q: You said you wanted to “write about the evolution of our understanding of child abuse because in 1965, this wasn’t recognized.” From the feedback you’ve received for the book, do you think the book helped child abuse be more recognized? Why?
A: “I have no way to scientifically measure that, but I would sure hope so and think so from all the feedback I’ve received. This is 30 years out, and I still get emails and letters from ‘A Death in White Bear Lake.’ Yes, maybe it helped increase recognition. But, by the time my book came out in 1990, recognition had increased. Dennis died in 1965, at a time when we were just beginning as a society to recognize the idea of battered child syndrome … by 1990 we had already evolved as a society. From all the feedback I’ve received, I’d say yes, the book furthered that degree of recognition.”
Q: What was it like for an L.A. Times reporter to come to White Bear Lake in 1988 to research a book?
A: “It is an experience I still remember with a lot of intensity, and I must say it was a pleasure. Keep in mind I was traveling all the time to someplace. All my stories were somewhere else. What was special to me about White Bear Lake? First of all, you live there, it’s just a great, special place. The Midwest is pretty different than buzzy, busy California. I quite liked going there. When I first worked on the Times story I was only there for week or two. It was really something to go back, rent an apartment and move in during those months in 1988. I got to know so many in the community and like them very much. Everyone was so open and friendly. Those pancake breakfasts. I was so deeply immersed in the story meeting new people day-in and day-out. It was a little tough. I was away from my wife at a time when she was pregnant with our daughter. But it was a pleasure and a privilege.”
Q: How were you treated by people you interviewed and met in the community? You interviewed more than 100 people, right?
A: “Yes, that is one of the advantages of living there rather than just flying in for a little while. They treated me wonderfully. This is the upper Midwest. This is White Bear lake. They’re very, very hospitable, friendly. Yeah, you might think there might be some difficulty because of the subject I was revisiting. That really wasn’t the case. They wanted to talk and remember. They also respected what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to get a sound bite for a one-day headline. They treated me very well, made me feel comfortable in that community. It is very crucial I came several months after the trial. There is so much loud noise going on with something like a murder trial. Certain people can’t talk to you (during a trial). I would never have been able to talk to Melinda Elledge and Clayton Robinson, the assistant district attorneys who were prosecuting the case. Mindy and Clayton, I spent many, many hours with them. Ditto for two police detectives, Rob Meehan and Greg Kendell, who were the ones who had reopened the case and reinvestigated it. As a reporter trying to reconstruct from years before, I found that virtually all the people were there and involved in the story in 1965 were still there when I was living there in 1988. No one had moved away … Neighbors of the Jurgens, Bob and Camille Brass, lived across the street, for instance. All of them were willing to talk to me and were friendly, helpful.”
Q: You spent hours at the Press Publications office researching historical bound volume stories from the White Bear Press. How did we treat you? Did those archives help?
A: “The people at Press Publications office were wonderful to me. I spent hours at the Press Publications office researching through the historical pages from the bound volumes of the White Bear Press … not just for stories of the Jurgens case, which there were not that many. I was going to be setting the Jurgens case against a larger backdrop of life in White Bear Lake. So, those editions were invaluable. This was pre-digital age. The only place where I could really open them up was in that conference room. That room was not available to me during the workweek because the editors needed it. The deal was I could come in on Sundays, which was the one day the conference room was available. I could sit there for hours and hours. How could I get in on Sundays? Because there would be one single junior reporter on duty … calling high school sports athletic teams, the coaches, to get the scores for the weekend games for the sports pages. Sunday was not a day I would interview people. Instead, I (read old Press stories) week-in, week-out on Sundays. I had a tape recorder. When I saw a story I wanted to remember, I would just read the story into recorder. I had a nice lady in St. Paul who was working for me doing transcribing. By the way, on Saturdays … I would go to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul and do the same thing with the Twin Cities newspapers on microfilm. I would read those papers circa 1965.”
Q: Did you experience people still hesitant to talk about child abuse and this crime 22 years later? Please describe.
A: “This is a good question. This was 30 years ago. I simply don’t remember that at all. I don’t think I did. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t 1965 anymore. I was there in 1988. People seemed not only willing but wanted to talk to revisit to try to understand what happened back then. Part of it is catharsis, I think. A few people would weep. They thought something was wrong. Not a soul was reluctant or hesitant to talk … for the most part, they wanted to. If I recall correctly, I even talked to family doctor who went to the Jurgens’ house on the night Dennis had died. To be honest, I think he was uncomfortable because of his role, but he even he agreed to see me … I don’t think anybody covered it up in 1965 or did something consciously bad … It was hard to believe, to recognize. We didn’t recognize it then. Your neighbor could be abusing her child? It just didn’t compute.”
Q: What was your impression of White Bear Lake? Have you been back?
A: “If you go back and look at the weather records for that period and that year in Minnesota, you’ll see it was a legendary record heat wave/humidity wave. It was 100 degrees temperature and a 100% humidity.
“The picture is in 1990 because the book had just come out and I was doing some promotion, some radio and TV interviews. I’d love to come back another time. I’ve been invited a number of times by various groups and people and I hope I get the chance to at some point.”
Q: You said the story affected you at the time because while living in White Bear Lake you were starting your own family. What advice do you give people who suspect child abuse of a neighbor or relative? Is there a resource you recommend if/when people ask?
A: “You see me holding my daughter there in the photo. She was just shy of 2 years old then (June 1990). I decided to pack up and finish reporting because my wife was pregnant. We were getting close to the deadline (for our baby) to be born. I made it back with two weeks to spare. My daughter was born August 13. She was an infant at time I was writing the book. I did the writing in 1989. The fact I had a young child sometimes literally in the room with me while I was writing just made it all the more intense. As a writer you are always writing about difficult, intense things.
“Advice? Again, I have to say that we live in so much more of an aware time now. Everybody is aware. Teachers, medical, health care people. Everybody is on alert for any signs. I don’t think the Dennis Jurgens situation could happen now. If anybody sees a bruise on a child, they pick up the phone. The book itself … is described as a breakthrough book about child abuse, but that was many years ago. We are much more of an aware society now.”
Q: For those who have read and been captivated by your telling of this story, what surprised you when interviewing or researching this case?
A: “The main thing was that everyone was still there. The cast of characters goes back to 1965 and I am sitting there in 1988. It was surprising and beneficial. The other thing that was surprising: They all knew. They knew something wrong had happened but couldn’t face up to it. This is human nature. They didn’t know in a real direct way, but they were willing to discuss that with me. It wasn’t like something was suddenly discovered in 1988. It was that something was acknowledged.”
Q: You met Dennis Jurgen’s biological mother, Jerry Sherwood, who was the driving force behind discovering Dennis’ death was actually a murder — 22 years later. How would you describe her and her drive to uncover information about Dennis’ death?
A: “I met Jerry and visited with her when I was out there first reporting for the story for the L.A. Times. She was very passionate, strong-minded, angry, but just full of feeling. Obviously, there was a precipitating event that just drove the reopening of the story. She had gone through quite a lot in her life, a lot of difficulties. Remember this child, Dennis, had been taken away from her because she was just 17 and was having other problems and had gone through all kinds of difficult trying experiences afterward. To learn that Dennis, her firstborn, was dead after all these years was very upsetting and angering and part of a larger set of difficult circumstances she had experienced all through her life. She has passed away now. I think I learned this because her other son, Craig McIntyre, once reached out to me and told me that.”
Q: Dennis’ adopted brother Robert testified against his mother at the trial, saying he thought she had killed Dennis. Do you know if that is unusual in these child abuse cases? He was 5 years old at the time of Dennis’ death.
A: “There was an accumulation of some really strong testimony. Obviously, Robert was a key piece of it. It was a dramatic part of the trial and dramatic part of my narrative to tell you the truth. He remembered and chose to testify against his mother. It was both unusual and quite a dramatic part of the whole story.”
Q: The funeral director did something extraordinary in 1965 to preserve evidence. You’ve researched and written eight books and many newspaper articles. Have you ever heard of anything like what Jim Honsa did before in your reporting life?
A: “It did happen … It was Jim Honsa the mortician, the funeral director, in 1965. When they were preparing Dennis’ body for burial. Chapter 37 ‘A cry from the ground’ is the chapter when Michael McKee (the medical examiner in 1986 to 1987 who opened the file and said this is child abuse) is taking the body out of the grave so as to see the cause of death. It was Honsa, when he was preparing Dennis’ body for burial in 1965, who took the internal organs out of the body and put it in a bag full of preservatives because he felt something was wrong. And, in case anyone wanted to come along later and investigate this, he was going to preserve it … I found Honsa in 1988 and he told me all about that. And, Michael McKee told me all about it, too … That chapter gave me chills to write it. Honsa is in it and McKee is in it and they exhume the body at the time. And McKee finds the perforation in the abdomen that caused the peritonitis.”
Q: Has the book stayed in print for 30 years?
A: “I had quite a lot of success and history with this. The hardcover had different editions. The hardcover with Bantam came out in 1990. The next year, 1991, Bantam brought out a paperback edition. Ten years later in 2000, Ballentine, another publisher, had brought out a new edition. I had switched publishers … they secured the rights from Bantam and brought out another paperback edition. Three years ago, 2017, another publisher, Open Road, published an e-book because there weren’t any e-books back when I first did ‘Death in White Bear Lake.’ At the same time they brought out a new trade paper edition (larger size paperback) in 2017. This year, Tantor Media brought out an audio edition, which had not been done before either. And we’ve had some foreign editions, too, Germany, France and such. I have to say it keeps rolling. One of the things I think is happening is it is a book that is sometimes selected for book clubs.”
Q: How did the book sell?
A: “The first edition didn’t get on the New York Times bestseller list, but it was on the bestseller list for the upper Midwest. The paperback did particularly well. It has been (30) years now. The book still sells. It did well, but it wasn’t John Grisham, either.”
Q: Do you still get feedback about it 30 years later?
A: “I am, and it’s really quite something. It is one of the most striking parts of the experience having written and brought out this book. Thirty years later, I have eight books out. ‘Dreamers and Schemers’ is my eighth. Easily, easily the book that continues to elicit the most feedback is ‘A Death in White Bear Lake,’ the first book that I wrote. I hear from people … with e-mails, snail mails. It’s a story that captured and meant something to a lot of people. They often reach out to me.”
Q: What questions are you most asked?
A: “Certain people want to know about Lois, tell me about Lois Jurgens. Some people just write me because they live now or used to live in White Bear Lake, and they want to talk about the community. Sometimes I’ll get a note that I exactly conveyed, communicated what White Bear Lake was like. I love that as a writer. I was trying to use this case as a window into a community and way of life. To move beyond the murder case and just tell me I got the community right was encouraging. A good number want to talk about their own experiences with child abuse. Either them as the victim or them knowing someone. They want to tell me other stories about child abuse. Some of them want me to write those stories. There is a Wikipedia page just on the book. It continues to generate interest.”
Q: If you were to write this book today, is there anything different you’d change or pursue?
A: “Normally, I’d say ‘Of course.’ But, I don’t think so. This book was very exciting, engaging. I thought about it long and hard. I know I wanted it to read like a novel, a real narrative. And I had a lot of time to go over it. I had a wonderful editor at Bantam with feedback page-by-page, and line-by-line. So, there was an intensive editing process. I shared it with a couple of colleagues. There were things in the drafts that I wanted to change, but I changed them. The book that came out was the book I wanted. That is very unusual. All of my writing I could keep on editing. But, with this one we didn’t bring it out until it was where I wanted it.”
Q: How does it compare to the other books you’ve written in popularity, subject matter?
A: “It was definitely the most popular in terms of attention paid. It got reviewed in the New York Times book review, which is really hard to get that kind of attention. It was reviewed all over the place. It was a finalist for the Edgar award. People still write me about it. My first book is easily the most popular.
“Subject matter — throughout my life I’ve been drawn to legal cases; not just in my books, but in my articles for the L.A. Times. So, I had written about legal cases before. It is a window into things. There is a little morality play going on. Right versus wrong. Legal versus not legal. A lot of my stories have pivoted around legal cases and more than one about a murder.”
Q: Your most recent book is “Dreamers and Schemers,” the story about the pursuit by Los Angeles to stage the 1932 Olympics. You’ve also written other true crime books such as “Manifest Injustice,” about a man imprisoned for 38 years for murder who fights for his freedom. Did your time in White Bear Lake 30 years ago writing this book help prepare you for future books?
A: “Yes. What White Bear Lake did, it was my first book. I had been writing long-form narratives for years for the L.A. Times. It was a leap to go from 10,000-word article to 100,000-word book. It was a big leap. I was equal parts excited and scared. I had never written a book. I was a reader of nonfiction narratives and novels. You know that it is the best way to learn to be a writer. Fortunately, I kind of instinctively knew what I was doing writing long-form narratives for the Times. I tried to treat each chapter as its own free-standing article in a way. I took it a chapter at a time. Writing ‘A Death in White Bear Lake’ gave me the experience having done a book. It showed me I could, which is encouraging if you want to keep on writing books. It prepared me for future books.”
Q: Two years after your book was published, there was a TV movie made, “A Child Lost Forever,” starring Beverly D’Angelo, Dana Ivey, Max Gail and others. You were a production consultant on it? What did you think about how it turned out?
A: “Yes. It was an interesting story. I wasn’t too involved. They gave me a credit. That TV movie is based not my book but my L.A. Times article. A production company affiliated with NBC bought rights to the L.A. Times story before the book existed. They bought the rights to use the article in 1988. The credit has to do with me writing the article, not making the movie. As to how it turned out, I watched it once 30 years ago. I don’t remember. It wasn’t based on my book. I know the story too well. It was a TV movie, which is a different form. It is not the book or the story I told.”
Q: Regarding child abuse, what has changed for the better during the past 30 years?
A: “Everything has changed for the better. There is a chapter in the book where I leave White Bear Lake and shift the story to Colorado. That’s where a guy named Dr. C. Henry Kempe was working at Colorado General Hospital and the University of Colorado. He’s the one who first wrote about battered child syndrome. You can just follow the arc from 1965. From the time of Dennis’ death … the recognition about child abuse has just increased more and more. It has changed for the better. There is no doubt about it.”
Q: Tell readers about your latest book, “Dreamers and Schemers.”
A: “It is a nonfiction narrative with one foot in history. It is my first book entirely based on archival research. There was no one to interview. Really, L.A. from about 1885 to the Olympics in 1932. Fascinating experience to do that kind of work. Something I always wanted to try. I always felt literary journalists had one foot in the world of the historians.”
Q: Are you planning to write another book?
A: “People always ask. I should hope so. I have not. I don’t have anything underway right now. It was pretty exhausting to get the last one done on a tight deadline. Then, the school year began. I’m very deeply involved with U.C. Irvine, both as a teacher of writing workshops and the director of the literary journalism program. (Siegel left the L.A. Times in 2003 to start the program). The school year is just ending. It was a weird quarter teaching remotely via Zoom. Now going into the summer, maybe I’ll get a chance to recharge and think of a next project. But, I don’t have it in mind.”
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: “Convey to everybody please how much I loved living in White Bear Lake and how it is a favorite place for me, particularly because it wasn’t southern California. When I was driving home in early August after spending all those months there, I was in my car and remember coming through the mountain pass on (Interstate) 15 to that greater southern California zone. It was like culture shock to me. I hope to come back and visit (White Bear Lake) sometime.”