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Wisconsin police crack 1957 case of 7-month-old infant's death

February 25, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Ruby Klokow, 76, pleaded guilty Monday to the second-degree murder of a her 7-month-old daughter in 1957.
Ruby Klokow, 76, pleaded guilty Monday to the second-degree murder of a… (Eric Litke / The Sheboygan…)

On March 1, 1957, a 7-month-old girl named Jeaneen Marie Klokow died at home. Sheboygan, Wisc., investigators ruled that she’d fallen off her mother’s couch by accident.

For decades, that was that.

Except she’d been killed. And decades would separate the medical advances and nagging consciences that resulted in her mother’s guilty plea to second-degree murder in Sheboygan on Monday morning.

“It’s really an incredible thing,” Sheboygan County District Atty. Joe DeCecco said by phone on Monday, and he would know: Prosecuting someone nearly 56 years after the fact required improvisation.

Hours earlier, 76-year-old Ruby C. Klokow formally pleaded guilty to what she’d recently confessed in front of Sheboygan detectives who had revived the case -- she had abused her daughter to death.

Except the second-degree murder charge she confessed to no longer exists under Wisconsin law. The crime scene was long gone -- knocked over years ago where the county sheriff’s department now stands. Case files were missing, and good luck asking the original investigators where they went.

“Half the people that were around then were dead now,” DeCecco said. The other half were mostly too old to remember what happened.

But some memories hadn’t eroded over half a century.

Within the world of criminal investigation, infant-abuse cases can be among the toughest to prosecute. There are often no witnesses other than the suspect, and investigators often must try to find the difference between a loving mother’s bad fall and something more malicious.

A 2008 tip by James Klokow, one of Ruby’s sons, captured investigators’ interest.

James Klokow knew forensic science had advanced, which is why he came forward. He had been bothered by memories of brutality that he related to Sheboygan investigators -- of being locked in the basement and getting so thirsty that he drank water off the floor; of hearing a grandmother’s confession that he’d been thrown against a wall as a child; of watching his mother beat his brother’s toes with a hammer.

He also told investigators that his mother had blamed him for his sister’s death; his mother claimed he’d been crying in another room, and so she had to deal with him upstairs at the time Jeaneen fell off the couch.

Police interviewed surviving relatives and accumulated an unflattering portrait of Ruby Klokow, whose attorney did not respond to a request for comment. A surviving sister of Ruby's, Judith Post, told investigators of the night long ago when she was baby-sitting for her sister. Ruby and her husband, James, came home and were arguing.

“Judith stated ... that Ruby snatched Jeaneen out of Judith’s arms and tossed Jeaneen towards James saying something like ‘here – catch her,’” Sheboygan Det. Paul Olsen wrote in a charging document. “James caught the baby and threw her back to Ruby, with Ruby throwing the baby back to James who failed to catch the baby who fell to the hardwood floor.”

Judith told investigators she thought Ruby had gone to jail in 1959 for killing the baby. Police confirmed Ruby had served time -- but for adultery, a legal relic of that era.

Detectives ultimately got Ruby Klokow to confess to flinging Jeaneen at a couch and causing her death in 1957. The original autopsy found that Jeaneen suffered two brain hemorrhages, a partially collapsed lung and three scalp bruises.

Two medical experts who reviewed the old autopsy reports and exhumed the body, said there was no way Ruby’s original story -- that the baby had simply fallen off the couch -- could be true.

(Scott Klokow, another of Ruby's children, was found dead in his crib seven years after Jeaneen died. No charges have been filed in his death. Ruby's husband, James, is deceased.)

“She stated she shouldn’t have had any children, wished that she never had children, and knew she was ‘mean’ to them,” Olsen wrote of Ruby.

But even with a confession, DeCecco's prosecution had to be creative since laws had changed since 1957.

“We all thought it was important she should be charged,” said DeCecco, who spent two weeks searching through archives and emailing fellow prosecutors and experts to find the laws under which he was required to prosecute Klokow. “They all were like, what year? God, 1957. … Fortunately some people don’t get rid of anything.”

DeCecco, too, was scared of actually taking Klokow to trial. “The jury’s going to be looking at a grandma, not a vicious 21-year-old,” he said.

Also, the jury could have convicted Klokow under a lesser charge that had long ago passed its limitations -- a legal loophole prosecutors would not be allowed to tell unwitting jurors, per court rules, potentially letting Klokow pick up a conviction that resulted in no punishment.

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