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Child Murder : The Town That Lived in Silence

First of two parts. Next: A verdict, 22 years later.

February 28, 1988|BARRY SIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — Lt. Clarence (Buzz) Harvey at first did not know what to make of the blonde 42-year-old woman who appeared at the front desk of this town's solitary police station on the morning of Sept. 18, 1986.

Those in the station familiar with the downtown strip joints in nearby St. Paul might have recognized Jerry Ann Sherwood from her earlier tenure at Alary's Club Bar. Her features were still attractive, although the years had added a certain hardness and fleshiness. She had a story to tell.

When she was 17 and living in a juvenile home, she said, she gave birth to a boy, Dennis, who was quickly taken from her and eventually adopted by a family named Jurgens who lived in White Bear Lake. Two husbands and four children later, Sherwood had gone searching for her firstborn, only to learn that he had died years before, in 1965, at age 3.

Birth Mother's Discoveries

From a newspaper notice of his death she had learned that the boy's body bore multiple injuries and bruises. From the death certificate she had learned that the coroner never ruled whether the death was an accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They had just buried the body, and that was all.

They beat my baby to death, Sherwood told Buzz Harvey. This was a murder. They beat my baby to death.

Harvey had been a rookie cop here in 1965, but Sherwood's story triggered no memories. He pulled the file on the ancient case and began leafing through the yellowing pages. As he read, he stiffened in his chair. There was something wrong here. The autopsy report mentioned bruises head to toe. Statements in the police logs were riddled with discrepancies. Why was there no disposition of this case?

What had happened--and how--and why? They would have to find out. This woman was no crank.

So began a painstaking inquiry into the past--an inquiry that in recent months has pulled back the curtains on a decidedly uncomfortable vision.

This is a story about respectable men and women of the middle class--doctors, lawyers, priests, social workers, policemen, neighbors and relatives--whose behavior, taken as a whole, led not to that milieu's promised decency and justice but to a moral outrage, dark and hard to understand.

This is the story of a small boy's murder that went undeclared and unprosecuted for 22 years in a community full of people who knew what had happened.

Such stories are not rare. Most simply remain hidden. The official records say 1,200 children died of abuse in 1986, but many experts believe the figure would reach 5,000 if closer attention were paid to some deaths attributed to accident or blamed on sudden infant death syndrome.

"I don't think this case is an aberration at all," said Michael McGee, the current Ramsey County medical examiner who finally ruled Dennis' death a homicide. "I've been doing this job too long. Do I think this happened just here, just this one? No. There are a lot of dead babies in the ground who were killed."

Heroes abound now in White Bear Lake, visible and proud of their roles in unraveling the mystery of Dennis' death. Villains also abound, but they remain less noticed. In fact, they remain strangely forgotten.

With the advent of highways, White Bear Lake has become a suburb of St. Paul, about 12 miles to the south. But in 1962, before the developers and high-speed roads came, this was more truly a small town, inbred and insular, with a population just reaching 15,000.

There was a time when White Bear Lake was an exclusive watering hole for people from Chicago as well as the Twin Cities. Now the town is most frequently described as middle class. The term is relative. The rows of neatly kept houses, the modern police station and the shopping strips all reflect a level of modest comfort rather than affluence.

Harold Jurgens, an electrical foreman, made $10,000 in 1962, and this placed his family a cut above many of their friends and neighbors. Lois and Harold Jurgens lived in a comfortable, meticulously maintained three-bedroom house with a big, fenced backyard on a large corner lot on Gardenette Drive. Harold Jurgens had converted a breezeway off the kitchen into a large, open family, dining and cooking area. A piano and bass fiddle occupied the living room.

They owned a 1963 Chevrolet pickup and a 1960 Falcon station wagon. They carried assorted life insurance polices worth $10,000. Their investments and savings totaled $2,200. They owed $6,000 on the house and $930 on the truck.

They had a son--a 2-year-old named Robert, whom they had adopted at birth through private channels. Harold was infertile and the Jurgenses desperately wanted to adopt another child.

This was the situation that Gerane Rekdahl, a Ramsey County welfare case worker, found when she visited the Jurgens home on March 1, 1962.

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