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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

The policeman did not, so they carried the body to the coroner's van. Pitera would take photos later that day.

At the hearing a month later, Peterson was asked whether he saw anything unusual as he viewed the body in the crib. As it happened, Peterson at the time was deputy coroner in Ramsey County.

"No, nothing struck me," the doctor replied, "except for these bruises. . . . Other than that, nothing remarkable."

Is it quite customary to see a little boy with so many bruises, he was asked.

"It's not unusual," the doctor said. "I have several children about that age with this same problem. Active children that bruise easily . . . so it's not unusual."

In 1987, testifying 22 years later, Peterson was questioned again about the bruises.

"I can recall seeing some, but it's not very clear. . . . I just examined him to see that he was in fact dead. The only part of him that I saw was his chest and his face. I didn't examine him further."

Did the doctor remember his thoughts on why this child died, his inner feelings that day?

"Well, I do," he replied. "My biggest feeling was that it was a sad situation and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. It was awful. And it was not my position to do anything other than to pronounce him dead."

At 2 p.m. on that Palm Sunday, Dr. Robert Woodburn, the coroner's chief pathologist, conducted the autopsy.

He found bruises running the length of the body--50 to 100 of them, he would say later, the exact number hard to judge because many were overlapped. They were of varying colors--black and blue, yellowish green, reddish--which meant that some were fresh, some old. They covered the legs, the arms, the hands, the head, the shoulders, the back of the head, the buttocks, the small of the back, the middle of the back, the back of the left leg.

There was a large, swollen scrape on the forehead. There was a bluish mark on the right side of the head that started at the temple and extended to behind the right ear. There was a deep, ulcerous lesion at the base of the penis and dark bruises on the tip.

The body was severely undernourished, nearly emaciated. Woodburn could find no subcutaneous fat at all, something everyone normally has in varying degrees.

None of this, however, was what had killed Dennis. During the internal autopsy, Woodburn found a quarter-inch hole in the boy's small bowel. The hole had allowed a fifth of a quart of infectious, purulent fecal material to flow into the abdominal cavity. The perforation, he judged, had occurred one to two days before the child's death. Dennis had died of peritonitis.

It is fair to say that this finding raised considerable questions.

There was no possibility that Dennis had died from a blow to the head, and scarce chance that he had died from a fall on the flat basement floor. To perforate a bowel, the doctors agreed, there had to be severe, concentrated trauma applied to the abdomen--the sort of injury that could be expected in a high-speed automobile accident.

It was just inconceivable to Woodburn that Dennis had been so injured by slipping and falling on a basement floor.

Years later, Peterson would say much the same to the police who were reopening the case, but he did not do so in 1965. VanderWyst, visiting him after the autopsy the night of Dennis' death, told the family physician what Woodburn had found. "Dr. Peterson did not give us any conclusive answers about the condition of Dennis or about his death," VanderWyst wrote in his report for that night.

The next morning, six coroner's jurors were asked to view the body of a dead boy, and to remember everything they saw. Stanley Wiatros was one of them. My God, he thought, looking at the body. How in the heck could that happen?

At the funeral home, Lois Jurgens' brother, Lloyd Zerwas, came to pay his respects. He was shaken. He doesn't look like a tiny little kid, he thought. He looks like a boy of 10. Zerwas wouldn't let the rest of his family view the body.

At the funeral, a crown of roses rested on Dennis' head. A family friend, Barbara Venney, saw the bruises through the flowers. It looked to her as if the roses were placed there to cover up the dark blue markings.

Walter Moore, a co-worker of Harold Jurgens, also came to the funeral. As he viewed the body, he thought: This boy has been murdered.

At first, that seemed to be the conclusion that the official inquiry would also reach.

The first few days of the police investigation by VanderWyst and Sgt. Peter Korolchuk yielded a good deal of information. They talked with more than a dozen relatives and neighbors of the Jurgenses. Several told of having seen Dennis bruised and battered. Some had seen or heard Dennis being beaten. They had seen Lois pull Dennis' ears so hard that blood flowed. A few wondered how the Jurgenses had ever been allowed to adopt children.

Two or three couples signed written statements. Others promised that they would do so.

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