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Child Murder : The Town Confronts Its Past

DEATH OF A CHILD: JUSTICE DELAYED: Second of two parts.

February 29, 1988|BARRY SIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — When Dennis Jurgens died at the age of 3 in 1965, authorities here never ruled whether his death was an accident, a homicide or the result of natural causes. They just buried the body in St. Mary's Cemetery, and after a juvenile court hearing, took custody of Dennis' 5-year-old brother Robert. The boys' adoptive parents, Lois and Harold Jurgens, returned to their house on Gardenette Drive, alone but free of any charge.

The failure to rule on the manner of Dennis' death, or to hold Lois Jurgens accountable in some fashion, would prove to have considerable impact on the lives of five other children.

The years eventually obscured the events of Palm Sunday, 1965, as well as the evidence produced at the hearing one month later. Juvenile files customarily remain sealed, private documents. So later decisions were made by people who had never seen the photos of Dennis' battered body.

Child Returned to Couple

First, in 1969, Robert, just turning 10, was returned to the Jurgenses.

The Jurgenses had hired a new lawyer, a lawyer who happened to be good friends with Judge Archie Gingold, who presided over the juvenile court custody hearing. The Jurgenses also had finally agreed to be examined by a county-appointed psychiatrist.

A Ramsey County social worker, Marion Dinah Nord, later told police she had strongly opposed Robert's return, feeling certain Dennis had been killed. But, she said, she had been discouraged by her supervisors and the prosecutor from probing into the past. Assistant County Atty. Paul Lindholm, she said, had told her Dennis Jurgens' file was missing. She told police she was left with the impression that she was not to get involved in why Robert was taken in the first place. She was only to study the question of whether it was OK to return him now.

The doctors on both sides checked out Lois Jurgens and both decided she was OK, Judge Gingold said recently. The prosecutor and the welfare department were no longer opposed to Robert's return.

"I was left helpless at that point," Judge Gingold said.

Then, in 1972, the Jurgenses were allowed to adopt four more children--the Howton kids, three brothers and a sister--from Kentucky.

Again, there were social workers who objected, knowing a child had died in the Jurgens home. Again, their supervisors overruled them.

Kentucky wanted to get the four children off welfare and keep them together in a Catholic home. The Jurgenses' annual salary was now $16,000. They had hired a lawyer to press their case.

Minnesota could see no reason to object. The Jurgenses had a supportive letter from their pastor, Father Bernard Riser. They had been allowed to adopt two children previously. All of the psychological evaluations were favorable. Lutheran Social Services, the private agency processing the adoption request, could see no problems. Yes, a child had died in their home. But the Jurgenses had never been charged criminally.

The Kentucky children endured three years with the Jurgenses before the two older ones ran away in 1975. Later, they told police what life was like in that house.

Lois Jurgens would wake them in the middle of the night to inspect their rooms, beating them if she found dust or hangers crossed in the closet. Once, she grabbed one of the boys by his ears and slammed his forehead onto a protruding nail in the wall.

Sometimes Lois would order Harold to beat them. He would take them to the basement and tell them to cry loudly, while he slapped at his own leg.

Lois' bedroom door squeaked loudly when she opened it--when they heard that noise, they were consumed by fear. Coming home from school on the bus, they could see the Jurgens driveway at a distance, from the top of a hill. If Lois' gold Buick Skylark was parked there, they would cringe.

It was so crazy that it almost seemed normal, one of the boys, Grant, said.

Their former foster mother in Kentucky visited them after they fled the Jurgenses and was horrified. The children she had known as loving, affectionate and happy were now distrustful and disoriented. One of the boys later would spend hours on a psychiatrist's couch, trying to block out the pain.

Another juvenile custody hearing was scheduled, this time in adjacent Washington County, for the Jurgenses had moved there, to the town of Stillwater.

Carol Felix, the Washington County welfare department caseworker assigned to investigate the Kentucky children's allegations, was allowed to read and copy something that most people had long lost sight of--the file on the Ramsey County 1965 juvenile court custody hearing.

Felix was horrified. She became convinced that Dennis' death had been mishandled a decade before. She wrote letters to officials in Ramsey and Washington counties, urging them to re-examine the case. She says she received no answers.

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