Mystery in McCook: The Death of Ida Fitzgibbons

 

 

You don’t have to go far to find a mystery.
For me, it was a single page in a book.

I was reading James W. Hewitt’s IN COLD STORAGE. The book dives into the 1973 murders of Edwin and William Hoyt in McCook, Nebraska. It is a superbly written investigation into the grisly, yet mostly unknown case. However, Hewitt briefly mentions another death that took place in that small town only months earlier. This is the mystery that keeps me up at night.

The Scene:

On the night of April 25, 1973 a woman on the 900 block of West 1st street reported a fire at her neighbor’s house. That neighbor was 80 year-old Ida Fitzgibbons. A fireman reportedly broke into the house, ran upstairs to open some windows for ventilation, and then came back down the stairs only to fall waist-deep into a hole burned into the floor. Next to the hole, he spotted the elderly Fitzgibbon’s body. She was nearly nude. Her lower extremities were burned. Her ankle was broken. A section of clothesline was wrapped around her neck and knotted in the front.  She had been stabbed in the chest with a wooden-handled knife still stuck in her body.  However, at the end of an official investigation, her death would be ruled a ‘suicide’.

The Victim:

Ida Fitzgibbons was a woman that ‘looked 13 years younger than her age’. However, she had  pretty much lived the life of a recluse during her golden years. According to her nephew, John Fitzgibbons, Ida saw no reason to stay in McCook. She was planning on returning to her home town of North Platte, NE, had already bought a house there, and put her McCook home on the market. Tragically, those plans would be cut short.

The Investigation:

You know how the saying goes – ‘at the heart of every conspiracy lies a botched investigation’. Ida’s death was no exception. Again, I have to state my belief that not all law enforcement professionals are idiots nor are they bad at their jobs. We need to realize that they are people just like us and can make mistakes. The guy who makes your sandwich might make a thousand sandwiches perfectly. Yet, if they screw up your order ONE TIME, they will forever be known as the incompetent sandwich artist. However, a death investigation is one hell of a sandwich. That being said, the investigation into Ida’s death is quite the head scratcher. I found myself getting confused just in the TWO pages that Hewitt devotes to it in his book. So naturally, I dug a little further.

First, let’s take a look at the family tree of law enforcement officers that were involved in the investigations. It helps if you have a flowchart handy.  Sheriff William Tumblin and Deputy Sheriff Don Haegen were first on the scene. They examined the house and attended the autopsy which was first conducted by McCook physician Dr. John Battey. According to a report by Tumblin, Battey had concluded that the death was ‘very obviously’ a homicide. And the McCook Gazette ran with this theory in its headlines on April 26th, 1973.

Enter McCook Police Chief Bill Green. Green himself was a former F.B.I man with over 25 years of experience. Allegedly, Green was upset with Tumblin and Haegen’s quick judgment of homicide and promptly had the two removed from the case. He also brought in Nebraska State Patrol Lt. Donald Grieb of North Platte to handle the investigation.  When he was given the case, County Attorney Clyde Starrett said that Ida’s death was ‘probably a homicide’ but decided to put together a coroner’s jury to make the final decision.

This jury remained deadlocked 3-3 and couldn’t come to a decision on whether a crime had been committed or not. So, they turned it all over to the Nebraska State patrol and in December of 1973 the State Patrol sided with the McCook police in saying their outcome of suicide was correct.

According to Green, some of the determining factors included:

  1. All doors and windows were locked when the firemen arrived
  2. The knife wounds seemed self-inflicted
  3. The clothesline had been tied in the front of her neck and loose – making it possible for her to have tied it.
  4. Her broken ankle could have been caused by a fireman tripping over the body
  5. There were no signs of a struggle.
  6. The deceased could have been despondent over loss of a brother and sister, the prospects of caring for an ailing sister, and disposal of house if she moved.
  7. Miss Fitzgibbons had few friends.

Yet the people of McCook were not so convinced. Sheriff Tumblin himself was the biggest critic of the investigation saying that it had overlooked the physical evidence and facts. Tumblin would soon resign from the State Patrol over their handling of the case and continue to advocate for another investigation.

The Hoyt Murders:

Just over five months later on October 3, 1973, human remains were found floating in the Medicine Creek Dam just twenty-five miles northeast of McCook. The dismembered body parts were later identified as Edwin and Wilma Hoyt – a McCook couple that had gone missing ten days earlier.

What was going on in that town with a population just around 7,000?  Was there a bloodthirsty cult of ‘devil worshippers’ running loose? McCook was in a panic. The town went so far as to strongly suggest that Halloween parties be held indoors and at churches. Door-to-door trick or treating was abolished.

Luckily, the Hoyt murders would soon be solved. Harold and Ena Nokes would ultimately be charged with the murders in spring of 1974. Their connection to the Hoyts was that they were Kay Hoyt’s lovers. Kay Hoyt- as in the daughter of the slain couple.  It is my personal belief (and many others) that Kay was involved with the killing of her parents, but I’ll let you read James Hewitt’s book and make your own decision.

But what about Ida? To this day, many question the way her death was handled.  Even Paul Harvey (yes, THAT Paul Harvey) discussed the case on air, stating “It is easy to see why the authorities had difficulties settling the case. The Police Chief was Green. The Sheriff was Short. The coroner’s physician was Batty, and the Mayor was Blank.”

Aftermath:

Many people were not convinced of the official ruling of Ida’s death as a suicide. Even then- Governor J. James Exon wasn’t buying it and ordered the release of a 280 page transcript (which I have yet to read) of the original findings. The report was made public in 1978 by Red Willow County Attorney Mike Freeman and clearly noted the problems with the investigation. Also in 1978, A Legislative Committee led by Rep. John DeCamp (who would later investigate the infamous Franklin Cover- up) called out the investigation as inadequate, suggesting a cover-up.  Ida’s death  would inspire two bills before the Nebraska Legislature which would authorize the employment of a state examiner and four district medical examiners who could investigate to determine the cause of almost any death not attended by a physician.  However, the two bills would die due to lack of interest.

To this day, Ida Fitzgibbons’ death officially remains a suicide.

Thoughts:

Now, let’s take one more look into this perplexing case.

The last time Ida was spotted alive was by a neighbor entering her house alone at 5:35 p.m. At 6:50 p.m. the fired was spotted and emergency crews were contacted. That time frame allows roughly an hour and fifteen minutes for the act to occur.

When firefighters arrived they claimed that all the windows and doors were locked. However, later the responding official could not remember if he had to cut a screen and unlock a window or not. Fitzgibbons’ nephew John stated that it was Ida’s habit to keep everything ‘locked up’. From what I’ve read, the fire was allegedly started by the burners of her electric stove being left on and igniting the kitchen curtains hanging above. However, according to the map below (from a 1978 article of the Omaha World-Herald), the hole was burned in the middle of the house in the next room. Again, my understanding of housefires is amateur at best, so we will go with the official report on this fact.

 

Image from the Omaha World-Herald

The knife found in Ida’s chest was one from her own kitchen and the handle was burned so badly that fingerprints could not be taken. All of the knife wounds were on the right side of Ida’s body (she was right-handed) and barely ‘nicked’ the heart. According to Investigator Grieb, the wounds showed signs of ‘hesitation marks’, meaning that the stabber (that’s a technical term) hesitated while inflicting the wounds.

The clothesline around Ida’s neck was allegedly loose. Grieb stated that you could ‘put two fingers between it and the neck’. Unfortunately, the ends of the line were charred by the fire so they could not compare it to some clothesline found in Ida’s basement. No accelerant was found at the scene. All of Ida’s valuables, including her purse were still in the house. Nothing had been taken.

During the autopsy there was no soot found in Ida’s lungs. That suggests that she had died before she could inhale any smoke. There was no blood at her broken ankle wound. This suggests that she could’ve been dead before the injury occurred. Her official cause of death was ruled ‘internal bleeding’ acquired from the stab wounds.

Keep in mind, that most of these facts were reported by Investigator Donald Grieb who was put on the case after Tumblin and Haegan were booted.

In most crime investigations a lot of weight is given to the accounts of those who first arrived on the scene.  Sheriffs Tumblin, Haegan, and even Dr. Battey were all convinced that a homicide had taken place.  One interesting observation is that when a Catholic priest was called in to perform Last Rites on the body, officers observed him “looking at the body … turned on his heels and walked out … no prayers or anything.” This priest later disputed the statement and said that he did offer prayers over the body and he did not feel that the death was suicide.

But can we really put a lot of credence into the observations of first responders? Can not their minds be swayed by the violence and danger of the moment? Shouldn’t we wait until after a proper investigation is conducted before we make our own conclusions? Sure, most of the time. The problem arises in such situations as Ida’s death when we are told that the investigation lacked integrity.

Not much is known about Ida. We can only guess as to her frame of mind during those final days. We do know that, on the day before her death, Ida made two trips. First, she went to a local bank, cashed in U.S. Bonds, then had the cash deposited into a North Platte account she shared with her sister. Next, she met with her lawyer to see about writing up a will. Investigator Grieb thought that these were the acts of a sad woman ‘despondent over the deaths of her kin’. However, her nephew John, said that she had just found out that her siblings had not written out a will and the lawyer told her she could write it whenever she had time. She had the time, so they just did it then. This recollection was confirmed by the attorney’s wife.

It’s hard to believe that an 80 year-old women, with no known illnesses, would commit suicide in such a violent way. This was my knee-jerk assumption, but you know what they say about assuming. So, I looked up some statistics.  According to a study published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology the suicide rate of individuals 65 and older is increasing. Out of the 678 suicides studied 78 (11%) were 65 or older. 12 (15%) were female. While a majority of the cases were people suffering from various chronic conditions 20 (26%) had a documented psychiatric illness with depression accounting for 18 (90%) of these suicides.

Here are the statistics that surprised me. The number one method of suicide was a gunshot wound 66(85%).Hanging, incised wounds, and drowning are all far behind. Overdosing 5 (6.4 %) and carbon monoxide poisoning 1 (1.3%)rates were far lower than I had expected. Statistically, the idea of Grandma peacefully heading into the Great Sleep is a wishful one at best.

Herein lies the rub. As I’ve stated in other investigations, suicide is the slippery variable in the equation. We cannot accurately predict if a person is suicidal or not. Some seemingly happy people kill themselves. Some downtrodden people push through it. There is just no way of knowing.

The case of Ida Fitzgibbons – we are left with more questions than answers. Is it possible that the old woman who lived alone had had enough and decided to end it all? Possibly. Was the investigation into her death a shady one? Known details would say otherwise. And who decided that the investigation was botched? Two Sheriffs and a shocked town?

It’s easy to get worked up over such a tragic event. Our sensibility tells us that there’s no way that an elderly woman would end her life in such a manner. Sometimes we don’t want to digest the ugly facts.  I know I didn’t.

For now, I keep the case of Ida Fitzgibbons in the front of my filing cabinet. Maybe someday more evidence will come to light and we’ll find out just what happened on that April night. But 45 years is a long time for ghosts to settle in the shadows.

 

 

 

Sources:

In Cold Storage (2015) Hewitt, James E.

The Year They Cancelled Halloween (2006) Sehnert,Walt, McCook Gazette

Murder? Suicide? McCook Death Still A Bizarre Puzzle (1978) Santiago, Frank. Omaha World-Herald

Elderly Suicide: A 10 Year Retrospective Study (2001) Bennett, Allan T. M.D; Collins, Kim A. M.D

 

[This post was originally published at The Underexplained website on 3.19.18]

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