Death at the Morticians’ Convention: Murders of Rose Burkert and Roger Atkison 1980

Murder Victims

Rose Z. Burkert
22-year-old Nursing Student
Resident of St. Joseph, Missouri

Roger E. Atkison
32-year-old Repairman, Installer
General Telephone Company
Resident of St. Joseph, Missouri

Cause of Deaths: Struck with Ax or Roofing Hatchet
Motive: Love Triangle

Murder Scene and Date

Room 260
Amana Holiday Inn
2211 U Avenue at I-80
Williamsburg, Iowa
Iowa County
September 12, 1980


By Nancy Bowers
Written 2011

Rose Burkert

Rose Burkert

It was arranged to be a clandestine, romantic getaway for 32-year-old General Telephone repairman-installer Roger E. Atkison and 22-year-old single mom and nurse-trainee Rose Z. Burkert, both residents of northern Missouri. But the lovers’ trip ended in bizarre tragedy on Friday night, September 12, 1980 in Iowa County, Iowa.

Roger Atkison

Roger Atkison

Atkison and Burkert were 265 miles away from home when they stopped at the Amana Holiday Inn (now Clarion Inn).

The motel at the Interstate-80 interchange with County Highway S21 (U Avenue) northeast of Williamsburg and south of the Amana Colonies is a popular stop along the busy highway.

Rose and Roger felt lucky to get the last available room — #260 — because the hotel was brimful with delegates to a morticians’ convention.

☛ Ordinary Evening? ☚

 The motel where the lovers were killed (photo from Clarion Inn)

The motel where the lovers were killed
(Clarion Inn photo).

It seemed like an ordinary evening. The couple had room service delivery, were asked to move their car out of a handicap parking space, and received three telephone calls — two from Rose’s babysitter and one from an unknown party.

During the night, no one working or staying in the motel heard anything unusual.

However, when the couple failed to check out on Saturday, a housekeeper ignored the “Do Not Disturb” sign and opened the door to a nightmarish scene.

☛ Horrible Scene ☚

The wall and headboard over the bed were splattered with blood. Roger, in his shorts, and Rose, fully clothed, were lying face down on the bed partially under the covers — hacked to death with an ax or roofing hatchet or some other sharp-bladed tool. Their heads were battered and several of Roger’s fingers were severed when he raised his hands in self-defense. Investigators called the murders “over kill.”

The TV was still playing, and two chairs were pulled up to the bed as though a casual conversation between friends took place. In fact, it appeared someone felt so comfortable he put his feet up on the nightstand.

Overhead view of crime scene (redrawn by Greg Good of the Cedar Rapids Gazette from a DCI crime scene sketch)

graphic for the Cedar Rapids Gazette
by Greg Good from a DCI sketch

Or perhaps the killer attacked the couple and then sat by the bed to “appreciate” his handiwork, maybe putting his feet first on the nightstand and then pulling up another chair to rest them on.

The room showed no signs of forced entry or struggle and there was no evidence of drugs or firearms. Although the crime seemed to be of a personal nature and not a robbery, the victims’ money had been stolen.

The most unusual clues were left in the bathroom. Toothpaste was spattered around the tub, and the sink where the killer washed his hands was bloody.

But there was something else even odder.

Evidence collected showed that while sitting on one of the chairs by the bed, the killer carved a piece of motel soap, letting chips fall on the floor. He used the soap to scrawl a message on the bathroom mirror and then obliterated everything except one word: “this.”

☛ Years of Questions ☚

Location of Williamsburg, Iowa

Location of Williamsburg, Iowa

In 1992, Iowa County Sheriff James Slockett told Cedar Rapids Gazette reporters Rick Smith and Jeff Burnham that he was convinced the murders were driven by “revenge,” a motive that explains the personal nature of the vicious attacks.

For over 30 years, rumors and questions and even lurid speculations about suspects and motives have persisted among the public.

Could the killer have been Rose’s violent former boyfriend? Or a jealous husband from one of Roger’s affairs with other women?

Or Roger’s uncle-in-law Charles Hatcher, a confessed serial killer who escaped from a Nebraska mental health center around the time of the murders and who later killed himself while in custody?

Was it the hotel bartender who argued with Rose the night of the murder, disappeared without his paycheck, abandoned his truck in Iowa City 22 miles to the east, and enlisted in the military?

Charles Hatcher, Bettendorf Police photo

Charles Hatcher, Bettendorf Police photo

Or Raymundo Esparza, who committed a similar murder in a hotel near an Illinois interstate two months before and was in Iowa City that night?

Could it have been someone else from northern Missouri attending a regional farm convention nearby? After all, the illicit relationship was not a secret in the victims’ community.

Or was it the obsessed farmhand Rose claimed broke into her home and who was thought at the time of the murders to be in the Amana Colonies 12 miles due north of the Holiday Inn?

Did one of Roger’s telephone co-workers, who carried machetes to hack undergrowth around telephone poles, know about the couple’s romantic trip and harbor a grudge? The coroner said that such a tool could have been used as the murder weapon.

Some people hypothesizing about the murder pointed to recent cattle mutilations in Iowa that they believed were preludes to human sacrifice.

☛ Remembering the Victims ☚

Misplaced in the sensational stories and speculation is the fact that two young people lost their lives on September 12, 1980 and that countless other lives of those who knew and loved them have been changed forever.

photo by "NWMGS"

photo by “NWMGS”

Rose Z. “Rosie” Burkert was born in 1958 and was the mother of a young daughter. She is buried in the Maple Lawn section of Saint Joseph Memorial Park in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Roger E. Atkinson was born on May 30, 1948 in St. Joseph, Missouri, one of seven children of Ruth Elizabeth Todd and James Hiram “Harm” Atkison. By the 1990s his wife Marcella, with whom he had no children, had remarried and moved on with her life. Roger, too, is buried in Saint Joseph Memorial Park.

☛ Important Research ☚

In 1992, Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Rick Smith interviewed law enforcement officers, relatives of the victims, and others with information about the double homicide for an article that was part of the series “Murdered, Missing, Unsolved” which he and Jeff Burnham published in the Gazette. That article is an excellent source for further information on the Burkert-Atkinson case.


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.


  • ☛ “2 in motel killed by ax or hatchet” by Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 15, 1980.
  • ☛ “Amana slayings still puzzle authorities” by Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 19, 1980.
  • ☛ “Authorities interview 400 in slayings probe” by Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 16, 1980.
  • ☛ “Cause of death found in Amana homicides” by Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 18, 1980.
  • ☛ “Changing of the guard” by Christoph Trappe, Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 8, 2004.
  • ☛ Iowa Department of Public Safety Division of Criminal Investigation.
  • ☛ “Link between Missouri drifter, Amana deaths” by Judy Daubenmier, Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 25, 1983.
  • ☛ “Little optimism in eastern Iowa murder probes” by Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 21, 1980.
  • ☛ “Man sought in girl’s slaying,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 25, 1980.
  • ☛ “Motel ‘fling” deadly” by Rick Smith from the series “Murdered, Missing, Unsolved” by Rick Smith and Jeff Burnham, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 15, 1992.

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