Courier Staff Writer
It was frightening to a teen girl to know the killer of another girl the exact same age was on the loose somewhere near town.
“It was scary 40 years ago. It would be now, too,” said Vickie Willie of Blakesburg, who graduated from Blakesburg High School in 1974.
On April 9, 1974, the body of Mary Jayne Jones was discovered in a farmhouse seven miles west of Ottumwa on Highway 34, near Blakesburg. Jones had been sexually assaulted and was shot twice, once in the head and once in the heart.
On Tuesday, law enforcement arrested Robert Eugene Pilcher, 66, of Des Moines, in connection with the 1974 homicide of Jones, 17, of Ottumwa.
“I myself can remember the disbelief that something like that could happen in our small community,” said Willey. “And I can remember us driving past that house and all the official cars parked out front.”
Helen Hannan of rural Blakesburg had children in high school at the time of the slaying.
“They were just kind of shocked that it happened at a place they were familiar with, a place that they rode by every day on the school bus,” Hannan recalled.
Willey said in those days, it was extremely rare to hear about a murder in rural Iowa.
“I remember coming up and down that road, wondering if the killer was still out there,” Willey said. “I suppose I was afraid ... but maybe that was just me.”
Her brother lived just up the road from the farmhouse at the time and drove that road daily. Willey said the officials questioned him and everyone else who drove that road, hoping to find anything “out of the ordinary.”
One unusual fact that is stuck in Hannan’s memory: Her very social kids did not know the Jones girl. Though they went to Blakesburg High School, most socializing was done in Ottumwa.
“I remember my kids were that age, and none of them knew her. Blakesburg didn’t have much other than the school; there was no movie theater, no places to just hang out. They went to Ottumwa for shopping, movies, restaurants. Blakesburg kids all knew a lot of kids from Ottumwa, because that’s where they hung out. Among them, they knew just about everybody around. And I didn’t know anybody who knew who she was.”
In a Courier article from that year, staff writers Terry Hersom and Russ Bauer reported that Jones was a native of Fort Smith, Ark., who had moved to Iowa and lived in Ottumwa for about a year. The Arkansas native was an employee at Henry’s Drive-In.
Jones had been living in an apartment on North Court Street.
The Wapello County sheriff at the time, Bud Erwin, reported in 1974 they were trying to narrow the list of suspects.
In the same month as the murder, he reported, they’d interviewed 300 people. He added that those who knew her, liked her.
Jones’ mother had, by that time, sent a letter to Iowa’s governor, asking that a reward be put out for information leading to an arrest in the case. The girl’s father had been killed years earlier during the Korean War.
Three weeks after the murder, a headline called the murder “unresolved.”
“It’s generally a rule of thumb, if you don’t find the answers within the 48 hours, it’s going to be a tough investigation,” Erwin said three weeks after the murder.
“I was 17. And I remember thinking there’s somebody that killed a young girl,” said Willey. “Back then there were always rumors that they had a suspect, but didn’t have enough evidence.”
This week’s news, however, has meaning for Willey.
“It answers some questions,” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll be closure for the family.”
A final message from Mary Jayne
A letter that Jones had sent to a friend in North Carolina was released to the press 38 years ago.
Though started in March 1974, Jones, a self-professed slow letter writer, didn’t finish the letter until April. The letter was postmarked the day she was found dead in the farmhouse near Blakesburg:
“I like it out here but I still get depressed because I can’t see all of you guys. I really miss you. I’m really on my own now. I am living in my own apartment now. Love it to death. But it can be a hassle getting the rent up sometimes. But I always seem to manage. I seem to enjoy living by myself.”
Later, she writes about a murder that occurred in North Carolina.
“I read that article about that murder to some of my friends and they couldn’t believe it. There’s hardly any excitement like that here. It’s rather a dead town.
“I’m sure I’ve told you about Art ... He’s making more money now, plus for every good day he has he gets a bonus so he’s making pretty good money. He bought me a beautiful ring for Valentine’s Day. Not an engagement ring, but it’s got a diamond on it.
“He still doesn’t want to get married, but he knows where I stand about living together. Forget it. I can’t see it. So, if he loves me enough, he’ll marry me eventually.”