Nestled in central Iowa’s rolling landscape, the picturesque Jasper County Courthouse and town square in Newton, Iowa is a lovely testament to another time and place – some would say a far simpler time and place.
Appliance company founder Fred Maytag lays buried in the Union Cemetery in town, not far from the plant where the last washers and dryers bearing his name rolled off the assembly line in 2007. That marked the end of the line and a painful time in town for about
1800 Maytag corporate and plant workers who lost their jobs – jobs that had provided for Newton’s townspeople for several generations. Despite the scars, though, the town about 30 miles east of Iowa’s capital, Des Moines, had no choice but to adapt to the changing times. Linked to its city neighbor by a short drive on Interstate 80, Newton might as well be a suburb of Des Moines today, where many of the town’s residents now commute to their city jobs.
Today, the town (population just under 16,000) with a storied past has more modern day problems. Called “Meth Town U.S.A.” by some locals, it struggles with many of the same ugly drug problems experienced in other places, not only in Iowa, but across the country.
Newton wrestles with another ugly secret: a nearly palpable sense of fear for some family members of the young victims of a grisly attack in the late winter of 1983. It’s a story I relate in my book, Dead Air: The Disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit. Some family members of Steven Fisher and Melisa Gregory still search for answers in what is thought by many to be drug-related murders. Who killed the two young lovers at the former Copper Dollar Ranch and why? Over the years, Steven’s mother, Thelma, kept copious notes, determined to see her son’s case solved. Sadly, she went to her grave just over a year ago, still hoping for the only answers she sought in this life, the details now relegated to the cold case files.
Though separated by twelve years, the murders share some uncomfortable similarities with Jodi Huisentruit’s 1995 disappearance case in Mason City, Iowa. One of the most obvious similarities was the presence of John Vansice, the man who served as a common denominator between these two Iowa cold cases. You may recall Vansice lived with his wife and children in Newton before divorcing and moving to Mason City in 1994. He had ties to the former Copper Dollar Ranch and its owners.
There are two more troubling and lingering links between the two cases. Many have alleged inept police work on the part of Jasper County authorities in Newton and the police department in Mason City. Others have gone so far as to say questionable tactics were used by certain officers. In addition, both towns also share the existence of a large and persistent drug presence, cocaine then and meth now. Powerful drug operatives in both towns have rendered authorities nearly impotent.
Over the next few weeks, FindJodi.com’s Gary Peterson and I will share impressions of our trip to Newton earlier this month, and the inextricable links between then and now. Stay tuned.