Out of nowhere, a shot was fired, striking Gerken once in the chest, killing her with a .38 caliber bullet.
Was the murder of Thecla Gerken a case of mistaken identity or a senseless act of a spurned boyfriend?
Nobody can be sure, according to Sarah Enright, since this 105-year-old mystery remains one of Sioux City’s most perplexing cold cases.
“Major crimes were only supposed to happen in big cities,” said the local history library specialist with the Sioux City Public Library. “When it happens in smaller communities, it becomes more noteworthy.”
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Which is why Enright will be presenting “Sioux City True Crime: Historic Cold Cases” as an Institute for Lifelong Learning program, from 10:30 a.m. to noon Thursday at Western Iowa Tech Community College, 4647 Stone Ave.
In addition to the Gerken case, Enright will also examine the case of Donna Sue Davis who was kidnapped from her Sioux City home. The 22-month-old’s body was subsequently found on a gravel road near Dakota City.
Ten months earlier, Jimmy Bremmers, an 8-year-old boy, was kidnapped from his westside Sioux City before being found, decapitated in a pasture.
“Having two kidnappings and murders of children in less than a year sent shockwaves throughout Sioux City,” Enright said.
While no one was ever charged in Donna Sue Davis’ murder, Ernest Triplett, an itinerant salesman for Flood Music, was convicted of the second-degree murder of Jimmy Bremmers.
“At one point, Ernest Triplett actually confessed to the crime but the confession was coerced after he was involuntarily admitted into a mental institution, given drugs by medical professionals while not having legal representation,” Enright explained, noting that Triplett was was sentenced to life in prison.
Seventeen years after Jimmy Bremmer’s murder, a University of Iowa law professor represented Triplett, questioning the legalities of the case.
In October 1972, Triplett’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison immediately.
“Like Thecla Gerken, the murders of Donna Sue Davis and Jimmy Bremmers will probably never be solved,” Enright said. “They will remain cold cases.”
An admitted true crime buff and an avid listener to podcasts like the Peabody Award-winning “Serial,” Enright said real-life mysteries have a unique appeal.
“It’s the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ aspect,” she said. “For an audience brought up on years and years worth of ‘Dateline NBC’ episodes, we always want to find that one elusive piece of the puzzle.”
Indeed, the case of Thecla Gerken got plenty of lurid headlines in archival copies of the Sioux City Journal.
Keep in mind that, in 1917, Sioux City was still a river town with the nickname of “Little Chicago.”
“The Gerken case was so memorable that The Journal revisited the case in a front page investigative piece on the 25th anniversary,” Enright said, taking out a yellowed article with a pulpy headline, “Thecla Gerken’s Rendezvous with Death,” from 1942.
Similarly, the brutal murders of Donna Sue Davis and Jimmy Bremmers were covered extensively at a time when paranoia over Communism and antigay hysteria was rampant.
“Even though people think of the 1950s as being such an innocent time, they really weren’t,” Enright said. “While we think that the media is bad nowadays, they were bad back then as well.”
However, some crimefighting tools have improved, like DNA and the presence of cameras.
“With so many technological advances, you’d think new cold cases would be obsolete,” Enright said, shaking her head. “But they still exist.”
And so do the fans of true crime stories who believe that truth may be stranger — and more lethal — than ever.
“People will always try to get away with murder,” Enright said. “But there will also always be people who will want to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.”