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Supino charged with Copper Dollar Ranch murders

Jasper County Sheriff’s Office announces arrest of Altoona woman in connection with 31-year-old case

Published: Monday, March 3, 2014 11:01 a.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 11:37 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 1)

The estranged wife of one of the victims of the 31-year-old Copper Dollar Ranch murders was arrested Monday morning and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty announced Theresa “Terri” Supino, 53, of Altoona had been arrested in connection with the murders of her then-20-year-old husband, Steven Fisher, and his then-17-year-old girlfriend, Melisa Gregory. Halferty said officers of the Altoona Police Department and Jasper County Sheriff’s Department arrested Supino at her home.

Fisher was married to Supino at the time of his death and had two young children. Gregory had been dating him for several months following his separation from his wife.

The arrest came 31 years to the day since Fisher and Gregory were discovered brutally murdered. Although Halferty would not say what new evidence had broken open the cold case, he said the investigation would continue.

“For the last 31 years, the deaths of Steven and Melisa have weighed heavy on the Fisher and Gregory families, this sheriff’s office and many in Jasper County,” he said. “The arrest of Ms. Supino does not end this investigation.”

Halferty thanked the Newton Police Department, Jasper County Attorney’s Office, the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation for their assistance in the investigation.

A candlelight vigil was planned for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday evening on the Jasper County Courthouse lawn. Those plans remain unchanged following the arrest announcement. The public is invited to support the victims' families’ and friends by lighting a candle in their memory.

At a similar vigil held last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the murders, Halferty had pledged to keep seeking new information in the case. He urged the public to help in the investigation.

“There are people locally that can help us with this case, and we’re asking you to come forward and talk to us,” he said at the time.

As Chief Deputy of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department, Halferty began looking into the cold case with a fresh perspective in 2003. He said, knowing Gregory from junior high school, her murder had always been in the back of his mind, and when he was in a position to “start digging into it,” he did.

March 3, 1983, the late Jeff Illingworth arrived at the Copper Dollar Ranch on West 48th Street North — about a quarter-mile north of Highway F36 West and about four miles northwest of Newton — shortly before 8 a.m. Illingworth was employed as a foreman at the horse ranch, which was owned by Newton residents Harold Snedeker and Alan Shad, who raised quarter horses and Appaloosas, and worked alongside another employee: Steven Fisher.

Illingworth and Fisher were close friends. Illingworth’s brother had married Fisher’s sister. And Illingworth was the unfortunate person who stumbled onto the scene of a brutal crime that morning.

“He walked up to the barn and saw someone laying there. He could recognize the person as Steve,” Pam DeBruyn, who was married to Illingworth for several years before his death, told the Daily News in 2008. “Then he went inside the trailer and found her (Gregory).”

DeBruyn said Illingworth ran to a neighboring house and contacted authorities. By noon, the ranch was crawling with sheriff’s deputies, DCI agents and lab technicians, reporters and onlookers.

Although the area where Copper Dollar Ranch once was located has changed dramatically over the years, the pole barn where horses were kept still stands on private property. The neighbor who called 911 when a panicked Illingworth showed up on her porch returned to the scene with him that Thursday morning, where she said she also observed Fisher — wearing only blue jeans — lying face-down on the ground near the camper and covered in blood.

Authorities confirmed the identity of the victims through dental records and fingerprints. While Fisher’s family members say his major injuries were to the back of his head, Gregory suffered severe facial injuries.

All family, friends and investigators had were the identities of the victims. There were no weapons to be found, no evidence, no forced entry and — perhaps most importantly — no suspects. No one knew how, or why, for the next 31 years.

• • •

Flashback: Last year’s update

Long-time Newton residents Ida (Cahill) Gregory Reynolds and Thelma Fisher, who spent some of their final days together at Newton Healthcare, did not share a bond forged by typical forces, such as family or friendship. Since March 3, 1983, the two were connection in life for another reason: Both lost a child to the brutal — and still unsolved — Copper Dollar Ranch murders.

Thelma passed away Jan. 24, 2011, and Ida followed 16 months later, on May 15, 2012, with neither one ever seeing justice for their children, 20-year-old Steven Joseph Fisher and 17-year-old Melisa Lynn Gregory. Just days before she died, however, Thelma left Ida’s oldest daughter with one plea.

“She actually told me, ‘Lisa, I want you to keep at it,’” Newton resident Lisa Gregory said. “She said ‘I’ll know what happened when I go home. I’ll be there to see them.’ It was really tough.”

To remember their loved ones, and ensure the crime is not forgotten, local family members of Melisa “Mouse” Gregory have organized a candlelight vigil for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the murders, outside the Jasper County Courthouse. Candles will be provided, and the public is encouraged to attend.

“We would love to have everybody — anyone that knew them — come and be with the family,” said Lisa, who was 19 at the time of her younger sister’s death. “We just want everybody to know that we’ve not forgotten it.”

Around 8 a.m. March 3, 1983, a ranch foreman discovered Steven and Melisa’s bodies at the Copper Dollar Ranch, located about four miles northwest of Newton at that time on West 48th Street North. Steven worked part-time at the ranch and was staying in a camper with his girlfriend, Melisa. Death certificates indicate the two victims died as a result of multiple severe head injuries.

“I was sitting watching Channel 13 news, and I had just had my knee operated on, so I wasn’t very mobile,” Lisa said. “I found out on the news that there was a double homicide on Copper Dollar Ranch, and the male was Steven Fisher, and the female was unknown. At the time, they didn’t know if it was Melisa or not. We kept telling [the authorities], ‘We know she was out there. It’s her.’ We didn’t know until 1 o’clock the next morning that it was her, after they had identified her through dental records.”

Scott Gregory of Newton recalled having spent the night at a friend’s house just outside of town the night his older sister was killed. Even though the boys had plans to spend the day riding three-wheelers, Scott said he inexplicably felt the need to go into town.

“For some reason, I felt that. I did,” Scott said. “We walked probably about two miles or so, and John’s brother Larry picked us up. We started to drive into town, and he said, ‘Scott, I’ve got some bad news. One of your sisters was killed last night.’”

The Gregorys said their mother learned of the murders at Copper Dollar Ranch from her landlord while paying her rent. Melisa also had another younger brother, Travis Reynolds, and a younger sister, Tanna Reynolds, who were only 8 and 18 months old, respectively, at the time of her death. Tanna said did not learn about the crime until years later.

“I didn’t even know I had [another] sister,” said Tanna, who has been called “Mouse Jr.” due to her strong resemblance to Melisa. “Mom never told me. I found it all in the basement snooping. I was 11. There were pictures, and I know there was an autopsy report, because I remember reading it — what happened to her and how they had to identify her.”

No arrests have ever been made in connection with the murders.

“It’s still fresh,” Lisa said of the loss. “It’s an open case. They’re working on it. Since Thelma told me to keep at it, I’ve kept at it. We’ve talked to them (sheriff’s office) at least once a month. And I think us being out there with this candlelight vigil is a way of telling everyone, ‘If you know anything, just come up and say so.’"

Steven was married to Terri Supino at the time of his death and had two children, Rocky and Casey. His three siblings still reside in the Newton area. Lisa described Steven as family — "he will always be family," she said — and is hoping for a strong turnout for Sunday's vigil.

“It just feels right to have something like this,” Lisa continued. “We’ve not had anything like this. Tanna said, ‘Why are we doing it now? Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?’ I told her I think we’re all comfortable now and we’re healing. We want this solved.”

The Gregorys admitted that their mother did not talk much about Melisa or the murders over the years.

“She didn’t even put a picture [of Melisa] up until maybe two years before she died,” Scott’s wife Karen said. “She had the picture, but she never hung it up. I said, ‘You know, Mom, it’s OK to remember.’ We cried that day. It was hard.”

“It’s always been hard for her. We had had a talk, and she stated that she didn’t forgive herself because of Melisa," Lisa said, her voice trembling with emotion. “ So I know that she hurt. I told her, ‘Mom, it wasn’t your fault.’”

The Gregory family also is working to establish a fund to raise money for a reward for information about the crime.

“It needs to be solved,” Karen said. “We don’t want another 10 years to go by. There’s somebody out there who knows something. It’s heart-breaking that two mothers passed away before they ever knew.”

• • •

Flashback: Last year’s candlelight vigil

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 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.”

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