December 09, 2021

Marshalltown woman’s body found in Tama County in 1973

Case remains a mystery

MONTOUR — Halloween day, Oct. 31, 1973, was typical of many in late fall in Iowa — cold, overcast and threatening rain.

But it also included the discovery of the body of Helen Mae Bown, 61, of Marshalltown, on the bank of the Iowa River northwest of Montour in Tama County. Her body was found that day by Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents. Bown, a widow, had been reported missing to Marshalltown police on Oct. 7.

The cause of Bown's death was listed as drowning but the circumstances never revealed.
Those on the scene of the discovery in 1973 included Tama and Marshall county sheriff's officers, Marshalltown police, agents of the then-named Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Tama County Medical Examiner Dr. C.W. Maplethorpe, as was Tama County Attorney Jared Bauch.

Bauch said recently, “I remember the case and the scene. Ms. Bown had been in the water several days. As I recall, there was an idea that she had been drinking quite a bit at the time she disappeared, and her companions were rough customers. The DCI was on the case from the outset. I think we concluded she got in the Iowa River near Marshalltown and that it was likely a Marshall County case.

“Her appearance in Tama County was probably due to the vagaries of the Iowa River currents. We had nothing to tie her to a Tama County location at the time of her death. We did consider hers to be a suspicious death.”

And it was suspicious to Marshall County authorities. Then-Marshall County Attorney Ron Kaiser convened a grand jury on Nov. 7, 1973, according to a news report in the Marshalltown Times-Republican. He said the reason for impaneling the grand jury “was to present evidence that has been uncovered.”

However, no indictment was handed down and the newspaper report Kaiser said "would not comment" on whether he thought "foul play may have taken place or the nature of the evidence."
The state medical examiner had ruled the death due to "probable drowning."

Over the years no one was ever arrested nor the case of her death ever officially closed.
Recently, current Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper reviewed the Bown case file which he termed "interesting to read."

“I believe it is one of those cases which could be resolved with a piece of information here and a piece of information there,” he said.

Some details of the investigation are not public because the case does remain technically active, Tupper said, admitting “I asked around some of long-tenured police department employees and they were completely unfamiliar (with it).”

Tupper filled in some details not initially reported, however.

Bown was reported missing by a visiting county health nurse who apparently had been caring for Bown at the time. County health nurses then and now often call upon patients who are in their own homes.

In response to rumors which reportedly circulated in Marshalltown taverns at the time, Tupper said, “From some of the details, it does look like officers did investigate multiple possibilities and did review comments people made.”

He said he was uncertain why the then-termed Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (now Iowa Division of Criminal investigation) was called into the case. But he said protocol then may have been similar to today: “What we would now do.”

Helen Bown’s obituary said her husband, William, had died in 1972. The couple had always lived in Marshalltown.

Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera and Deputy Bruce Rhoads both said they have no direct knowledge of the case as neither were serving with the sheriff’s office then.

A native of Red Cloud, Neb., Bown had married her second husband, William, in 1964. She had previously married Orville Berger in 1926 when she was 14 years old. They had two sons.
Bown was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown.

The Bown case was the second time in which a Marshalltown woman’s body would be discovered in Tama County. Earlier that year, the body of Rochelle Lass, Marshalltown, was found on a rural Tama County road north of Montour on Feb. 22, 1973.

That case was solved with the arrest and subsequent conviction of her husband, Dennis Lass, for first-degree murder.

Lass, who had been employed as an insurance adjuster, died in prison in April of 2014 at age 73, while serving a life term.
The couple had lived in Toledo for a period of time before moving to Marshalltown.