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30 years later, cold case remains unsolved

Dozens gather for candlelight vigil to remember Copper Dollar Ranch murder victims Melisa Gregory, Steven Fisher

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 11:58 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 12:14 p.m. CDT

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Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty remembers Melisa Gregory as a friendly classmate he met in junior high. He never imagined that, decades later, he would spend years investigating her murder.

Several dozen people gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Jasper County Courthouse on Sunday night to mark the 30-year anniversary of the murders of 17-year-old Melisa Lynn Gregory and 20-year-old Steven Joseph Fisher at the Copper Dollar Ranch northwest of Newton. Halferty shared his own memories of Melisa during the event and his hope that the cold case will be solved.

“I wasn’t smart enough to ask her [Melisa] out on a date in junior high,” Halferty said, evoking laughter from the small crowd. “I was one of those really shy kids, believe it or not, but my favorite memory of her is that we sat next to each other in a math class. I was scared to death — I was new to junior high — and I just remember how friendly she was to me. I live with that memory, and I’m in a position now where I think it is time. There are people locally that can help us with this case, and we’re asking you to come forward and talk to us.”

At approximately 8 a.m. March 3, 1983, the late Jeff Illingworth, a ranch foreman whose brother was married to Steven’s sister Darlene, discovered Melisa and Steven’s bodies at the Copper Dollar Ranch. The two died as a result of multiple severe head injuries. Local and state authorities converged to investigate the brutal crime, but no arrests were ever made. In 2003, when Halferty was chief deputy, he and others began looking into the case once again.

“Growing up here and knowing Melisa, it’s always in the back of my mind,” he said. “And when I was in a position to start digging into it, I did. There are people in our county who have viable information that can help us. In 30 years, friendships and loyalties change. People in 1983 may not have been able to or were afraid to tell us everything. There are also people that were probably never interviewed who have information, and we’re inviting them to all come forward.”

Halferty said authorities did an extensive investigation of the crime in 1983, noting the case file contained more than 3,000 pages of information when the sheriff’s office began looking into the crime again 10 years ago.

“Despite a lot of local rumor, the prior investigators did a good job,” Halferty said. “They eliminated a lot of rumors, as often happens with a local crime. They did a good job of interviewing at the crime scene, but it never hurts to take a fresh look, and that was our intent. We’re still working with state and federal resources. The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit has given us direction and guidance. We have very good evidence preservation in this case. We’re hopeful.

“Just in the last five to six years, technology has really changed with DNA, so we’re always hopeful that we’ll have a DNA break or that we’ll have someone come forward,” he continued. “I’m optimistic about either one, but I want to stress that there are probably people in this area that could really help us out right now. Whether they’re afraid or they think they’re going to get into trouble, whatever the reason, the timing’s right. It’s been 30 years, the family needs some closure and it’s time. It’s time to end it.”

Several of Melisa and Steven’s family members attended Sunday night’s vigil. Newton resident Lisa Gregory, who was 19 at the time of her younger sister’s death, also asked that anyone with information on the crime come forward.

“I know that a lot of us here knew Melisa and Steve,” she said. “We know what good people they were. Someone out there knows. Anyone who has heard anything, please tell the sheriff’s office. They’ve been working on it very, very hard, and they’re not letting up.”

Those attending the vigil also took time to remember Melisa and Steven’s mothers. Thelma Fisher passed away on Jan. 24, 2011, and Ida (Cahill) Reynolds Gregory died about 16 months later, on May 15, 2012. Angie Illingworth of Ankeny, Thelma’s granddaughter and Steven’s niece, remembered her grandmother’s unwavering determination to see the crime solved.

“It made her who she was,” Illingworth said. “She wrote down every little rumor she heard. She wrote down everything. It made her crazy. I think the hardest part for her was the brutality of it. It really bugged her that he didn’t have a back left on his head — that he lays in the ground that way. We always wanted closure for her.”

Illingworth was 6 years old at the time of her uncle’s murder, and she recalled feeling afraid at times as a child because of what happened at Copper Dollar Ranch.

“If I got scared at night, I didn’t go sleep with my parents,” she said. “I slept under their bed because if somebody was going to kill them, they weren’t going to find me, because I’d be under the bed. That was the level of fear that was instilled in us.”

Authorities confirmed Melisa and Steven’s identities through fingerprints and dental records. Autopsy reports indicate they died as a result of multiple chop wounds to the head, and Melisa’s family could not have an open casket at her funeral.

“It was so brutal — and so intentionally brutal — it’s just unimaginable,” Illingworth said. “And I think people don’t realize there very well could be, or have been, people that were involved that live right here.”

Halferty encouraged anyone with information about the murders to contact the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office Copper Dollar Ranch Homicide Task Force by calling the tip line at (641) 792-0354 or emailing copperdollar@jaspersheriff.org.

“It’s been 30 years — 30 years way too long — to not know, to not have anybody convicted of this,” said Karen Gregory, wife of Melisa’s brother Scott. “It’s time. It’s time for not only families to be able to heal but the community as a whole to heal. We all need as much love in our lives as we can get, and unfortunately 30 years ago, lives were ripped apart — many, many lives that will be touched forever. We appreciate all the support. Anybody who knows anything, go to the sheriff. We just need to know. We need it solved.”

Daily News Associate Editor Mandi Lamb may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 424, or at mlamb@newtondailynews.com.

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