February 27, 2024

Twenty-five years later, Copper Dollar murders remain unsolved

Twenty-five years ago today, 17-year-old Melisa Lynn Gregory and 20-year-old Steven Joseph Fisher were found brutally murdered northwest of Newton at the Copper Dollar Ranch. No arrests have ever been made in connection with the case. No murder weapon was ever found. But the Copper Dollar Ranch homicides have not been forgotten — not by local authorities, not by Newton residents and certainly not by family members of the victims, many of whom still reside in the area. Today, the Copper Dollar Ranch no longer stands. Those who served as sheriff and medical examiner for Jasper County at the time of the murders are deceased. The man who found the victims died of cancer a few years ago. An Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent once assigned to the case also is deceased. But even as the case grows colder, there are those who continue to hope that one day the perpetrator — or perpetrators — will be brought to justice in Jasper County’s only remaining unsolved homicide case. “What the people of this community need to know is that there may be one or more murderers among them,” Jasper County Attorney Steve Johnson said. “My only real concern today about Copper Dollar is, ‘Do we have a murderer among us?’” On 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,” said Newton resident Pam DeBruyn, who was married to Illingworth for several years before his death. “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. “Jeff had nightmares for a long time after that,” DeBruyn said. 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. News reports in the months to follow indicated Gregory was found nude inside the camper. Autopsy reports stated the two had died as a result of massive head injuries. In speaking with the Daily News in 1983, a DCI official said information about the murder weapon would likely not be released until an arrest was made and would not comment on a reported statement made at the crime scene that the claw end of a hammer may have been used to beat the victims to death. Funeral services were held. The investigation continued. But 25 years later, the Copper Dollar Ranch murders remain a mystery shrouded in rumor and remembered with apprehension by those who believe a killer is still on the loose. For the family of Steven Fisher and Melisa Gregory, the horrors of the unsolved murder have not faded and the loss still hurts. Steven’s mother remembers the 20-year-old as a devoted son and brother who assisted his paralyzed brother tirelessly. Family members of 17-year-old Melisa remember her as a “little spitfire” who loved horses and spoke her mind. “Whether it’s good or bad, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of it,” said Newton resident Scott Gregory, who was 15 years old at the time of his sister’s death. Thelma Fisher, Steven’s mother, still resides in the Newton area today, along with her other sons, Ron and Billy Fisher, and her daughter, Darlene Illingworth. Thelma said she and her daughter were working at Maytag when they learned about the murders. “I just felt like I had something come up in my throat and choke me,” the 76-year-old woman said with tears in her eyes. “You just can’t believe something like this can happen to your family.” Melisa’s mother, Ida Reynolds, and her sister, Lisa Gregory, said they learned through television news reports that a couple had been killed at the Copper Dollar Ranch, and Scott said he heard through a friend’s brother before any were informed of the girl’s death by investigators. “I went to my bedroom and cried like a baby for the next five years,” Gregory said. The days were a blur. Funeral services for both Steven and Melisa, affectionately called “Mouse” by her family and friends, were held on Monday, March 7, 1983. Despite the massive head injuries, Thelma said the family was able to view Steven’s body and have an open casket during the visitation. “I wanted people to see what the devil they had done to him,” Thelma said. “I felt better because I had pictured him without a face. But I felt really bad for the girl’s family because they couldn’t see her.” Authorities confirmed the identity of the victims through dental records and fingerprints. While Steven’s family members say his major injuries were to the back of his head, Melisa suffered severe facial injuries. “Her face was totally demolished,” said Lisa, who was 19 years old when her sister was killed. “There was no way for them to fix her for us to see. I can remember getting ready for the funeral. Basically they told us there were no weapons to be found, no suspects, no evidence, no forcible entry — they (Steven and Melisa) knew who they were. All we knew was that they were beaten to death. We don’t know how. We don’t know why. It was really a hush-hush thing.” In the months to follow, relatives of Steven and Melisa coped in different ways. Thelma reported information and rumors she heard from community members to authorities. Lisa and Scott tried not to think about what had happened to their sister. “I went to Creston to college. I left right after pretty much — I took off that summer,” she recalled. “I didn’t come home.” Scott admitted 10 years ago he probably would not have talked openly about the incident. “I tried shoving all this thought of my sister being killed into the back of my head,” he said. “Anything that reminded me of it, I avoided.” Although the families of Melisa and Steven were devastated by the events of March 3, 1983, they also remain haunted by incidents of harassment they experienced in the months that followed and the reality that the perpetrator has never been caught. Thelma said she received several phone calls where the person on the other line would ask for dead son before laughing and disconnecting. “I was afraid one of my other kids would get killed,” she said. “I kind-of lived in terror. My eldest son, he himself was terrified. More or less we’ve all been threatened.” Lisa and Scott recalled other family members discouraging them from asking too many questions. “Grandma told us not to really look into it because we could be hurt too,” Lisa said. Steven was married to Terri Supino at the time of his death and had two young children. Melisa, who had been dating Steven for several months following his separation from his wife, also is survived by another sister and brother — Newton residents Tanna Reynolds, who was 18 months old when Melisa was killed, and Travis Reynolds, who was about 8 months old at the time. Several years back, Tanna contacted “Unsolved Mysteries” in hopes of having the television series air a segment on the Copper Dollar Ranch murders. “They sent me a letter back about a week later saying they were sorry for our loss but that they didn’t have anything about that case,” Tanna said. “There’s just nothing out there (on the Internet) about Copper Dollar Ranch.”

Although the investigation in 1983 — and follow-ups into leads received even in the present day — never yielded any arrests or convictions, breakthroughs in other decades-old unsolved homicides give authorities and the victims’ family members hope that one day some piece of evidence will be uncovered and lead authorities to the suspect or suspects. “We’re still looking for the good evidence that will get us to where we can charge someone,” said Jasper County Sheriff Mike Balmer, who was a deputy working the midnight shift at the time of the Copper Dollar Ranch murders. “If anyone has information, we’d like to have it.” In January 2007, law enforcement announced the arrest of Martin Sinclair Duffy in the only other unsolved homicide on Jasper County records — the stabbing death of Colfax resident Karen Weber on April 20, 1986, when the 32-year-old woman’s body was found partially naked on a gravel road just north of Prairie City. Officials said DNA evidence taken from cigarette butts found at the scene of Weber’s death eventually was matched to Duffy through the national DNA database system known as CODIS, and Duffy then confessed to the crime while being interviewed by a DCI agent and Chief Deputy John Halferty of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office. Duffy was found guilty of first-degree murder following a jury trial in Jasper County and was sentenced this past November to life in prison without parole. But the decades-old case was not without its challenges for investigators and the Jasper County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case. “Some of our best witnesses in the Karen Weber case were dead, unfortunately,” Halferty said. “So we had to regroup, replan, find who wasn’t dead. And the interesting thing was we found people who we thought we had talked to and people that we didn’t know about and had missed.” With technology like CODIS proving to be a valuable tool in resolving unsolved crimes, Johnson noted his desire to see the Iowa Department of Public Safety form a cold case unit. Although Johnson would not comment on specific details of the Copper Dollar homicide case, he did address the theory that the murders were drug-related. “There was some known drug activity out there,” Johnson said. “Whether it was connected (to the murders), we don’t know. I personally think these murders were up close and personal.” Johnson, Balmer and Halferty emphasized their desire that anyone with information in the Copper Dollar Ranch murders come forward and call the sheriff’s office at 792-5912. “I think when the Weber case hit the media, it generated some calls,” Halferty said. “Whenever something hits the news, we get some calls from people with information. It hasn’t panned out to be anything yet, but we’d rather have them call and tell us what they know. And don’t assume we know about it.” Sheriff Balmer agreed. “We’re still interested in what they have to tell us,” he said. “We check every lead to see if there’s substance to them at all.” Johnson shared his belief that there are those in the community who know what happened at Copper Dollar Ranch on the evening of the 1983 murders. “There might be people out there with no redeeming social conscience who know who killed Melisa Gregory and Stevie Fisher,” Johnson said. “But they have no interest in justice. We have people who don’t want to get involved until they’re a victim. But when we find out, we will act. There is no time period of forgetfulness.” For the family, there’s no forgetting either. “My son was buried out there with no back in his head,” Thelma Fisher said. “After you go all those years without seeing anything, you just don’t know what to think. But I’ve watched a lot of cold case files on TV. Before they didn’t have the DNA. It gives you reason to hope.”