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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

Rekdahl, who graduated from St. Paul's Hamline University in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in social work, had been in adoption services for less than one year. She was a good dozen years younger than the Jurgenses. She thought they had a lovely home.

She saw Harold, then 40, as a tall, rather swarthy man of German and Norwegian extraction, with dark brown hair and eyes. She knew he had high school and one year of college behind him, and that he was an only child with strong bonds to his mother. Rekdahl found him friendly and talkative--perhaps too much so, for he often strayed widely from the subject at hand.

Rekdahl thought Lois Jurgens, then almost 37, to be a rather attractive woman, although she was short and a trifle on the chubby side. She knew that Lois came from a large, poor, Catholic family of 16 children, a family that at times survived on welfare. She knew that Lois had finished only the eighth grade. Rekdahl thought that Lois' speech betrayed a bit of cynicism. One might get a first impression that Lois was cold and indifferent, but to Rekdahl, this seemed a defense for insecurities.

Rekdahl did know that Lois had a history of psychiatric problems involving a nervous breakdown in the early 1950s. This had required at least two hospitalizations at the Mayo Clinic and at a small psychiatric hospital called Crestview, where she had received electrical shock treatments.

Rekdahl did not know that a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic had diagnosed Lois Jurgens as having a longstanding psychoneurosis dating to her childhood--a childhood spent in a tension-filled home with an alcoholic, abusive father. The psychiatrist also observed that Lois had an obsession about order and cleanliness. The psychiatrist thought it fortunate that Lois Jurgens could not get pregnant because a child would only compound and complicate her emotional disturbances. He felt that she needed psychiatric help very badly and, without it, might become psychotic.

"She would be a poor candidate for adopting a child at this time," the psychiatrist in 1955 had advised St. Paul's Bureau of Catholic Charities, where the Jurgenses for years had vainly sought children.

Over the course of several visits to the Jurgens home, Rekdahl saw the matter differently. She believed that Lois had opened up a great deal and tried to be as truthful as possible. They had been able to discuss Lois' weaknesses, even her past mental depression, without Lois becoming too nervous or upset or defensive. Basically, she thought that Lois was content and happy, especially with Robert.

Rekdahl found her judgment confirmed by the Jurgenses' priest. Father Bernard Riser of the St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church had known the Jurgenses for years and considered them to be among his parish's best families. He had served as a reference when they adopted Robert. He felt that Lois' mental breakdown was not extremely serious and that she had completely recovered. He very strongly favored the Jurgenses' getting another child.

The same day that she spoke to the priest--Aug. 30, 1962--Rekdahl informed the Jurgenses that they were going to be approved for a second adoption.

The Jurgenses were delighted. They had only two requests. They wanted an infant under a year old, and they wanted a Catholic child.

Nine months earlier, on Dec. 6, 1961, Dennis Craig Puckett, 8 1/2 pounds, had been born at St. Michael's Hospital in Sauk Centre, in nearby Scott County.

The mother was an unmarried 17-year-old, Jerry Ann Puckett, an attractive blonde of Danish-German extraction. She seemed to Scott County welfare workers a hostile and sullen young woman, unhappy and emotionally underdeveloped. Her mother having long ago disappeared, Jerry Puckett had bounced among assorted relatives and county homes for girls.

There were many fateful moments in Dennis' brief life, moments in which his destiny could have been changed. The first came now.

Jerry Puckett was a Protestant by background, but at the time Dennis was born she was intending to take instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. For that reason, Dennis, a week after his birth, was baptized a Catholic. Soon after, Jerry Puckett dropped her plan to convert--but by then Dennis was already registered as Catholic on the adoption rolls.

There is in the Scott County records a description of Dennis in the foster home where he lived his first year: He is solidly built, with blue eyes and blond hair. He is able to turn himself over and is extremely strong, almost ready to stand by himself. He has no teeth yet, but they are coming. He is extremely alert. He has had all his baby shots. He naps both in the forenoon and the afternoon. He eats well.

The foster mother thinks him a "little wild one," but she means this appreciatively and derives pleasure from his antics. She also describes him as a clown, always laughing at himself or other people when they are around.

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