Good Neighborhood Kid: Murder of Ronald Butler 1977

Murder Victim

Ronald Craig Butler
Student, University of Northern Iowa
Music Teacher, Martin Luther King Center
1954-1977
Cause of Death: Stabbed

Murder Scene and Date

Butler Residence
327 Sumner Street
Waterloo, Iowa
Black Hawk County
October 18, 1977

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By Nancy Bowers
Written April-May 2012

location of Waterloo, Iowa

location of Waterloo, Iowa

Ronald “Ronnie” Butler knew what he wanted in life. The University of Northern Iowa student had his sights set on teaching music and overseeing professional stage productions. When the Waterloo Courier interviewed Ronald in the mid-1970s he enthusiastically described learning set building, costume making, and general stage production in his UNI Drama Department studies.

In October of 1977, the 23-year-old was especially busy with voice lessons and rehearsals for UNI’s production of “The King and I.”

He also sang at his church and cheered residents at three local nursing homes with performances and sing-a-longs.

Then in early October of 1977, the energetic Ronald took on a part-time job at the Martin Luther King Center for Education and Vocational Training.

A Waterloo Courier article about his hiring at the King Center noted:

“[he will be] in charge of the musical education program . . . and teach “theory, individual lessons [in violin and piano], ensemble organization . . . and give the students opportunities to see and hear musical productions in the area . . . .”

Ronald lived with his widowed mother Havanna Butler in a well-kept house at 327 Sumner Street, where the Butler family had lived for 30 years. The quiet neighborhood was close-knit and friendly and everyone was proud of Ronald and his accomplishments and supported the neatly dressed, pleasant young man’s aspirations.

☛ Death of Dreams ☚

Ronald Craig Butler

On the morning of Tuesday, October 18, 1977, Ronald set out from home in his beat-up 1969 Ford.

He first dropped off materials for another instructor at the Martin Luther King Center at 515 Beech Street. He told Center Director Mary Berdell he had a cold or flu and had cancelled his nursing home visit in order to see a doctor.

Between 8:30 and 9:45, a postal employee saw Ronald pick up his mail from the Waterloo Postal Annex building at 512 W. Jefferson Street.

After that, he went to a loan company. By then, however, Ronald was not alone. He was with a slight young man with blond, shoulder-length hair.

The man was still with him when Ronald stopped to make a deposit at a bank. And later, the two were seen walking along Fifth Street between Mulberry and Sycamore.

☛ Something Wrong in the Bathroom ☚

About 3:00 p.m., Ronald’s mother Havanna came home from work.

327 Sumner Street, where Ronald Butler’s mother discovered his body (photo by Gary Fandel, Waterloo Courier.)

She noticed the bathroom door was closed and locked. Immediately, she worried that something was wrong and pushed on the door.

When she managed to get it open, Havanna Butler found her son lying on the floor in his own blood. She placed an emergency call for an ambulance, but Ronald was dead on arrival at St. Francis Hospital.

Black Hawk County Medical Examiner Dr. Paul O’Keefe performed an autopsy at the hospital that determined Ronald Butler was stabbed once in the back and died of a punctured lung.

☛ Investigation ☚

sketch of the Ronald Butler suspect (from the Waterloo Courier).

Waterloo Police Capt. Frank Bemisdarfer headed up the murder investigation.

Waterloo Police examined the Butler home and took the front door screen as evidence.

In the days following the murder, four witnesses came forward who saw Ronald Butler with the other man on the day of the murder; they helped a sketch artist put together a drawing of him.

The suspect was a light-complexioned, white teenager between 16 and 18 who had shoulder-length, slightly wavy blond hair and light eyebrows. He was between 5’6” to 5’10” and weighed about 125 pounds.

This man became the prime suspect in the murder.

☛ Searching for the Unknown Man ☚

Officer Dick Voyek shows the photo and sketch to a motorist in front of the Postal Annex (photo by Gary Fandel, Waterloo Courier).

For two hours on the mornings of October 23 and 24, Waterloo Police stopped all drivers in the 500 block of Jefferson Street, a one-way street that runs past the Postal Annex where Butler picked up his mail the morning of his death.

Police showed hundreds of motorists and Postal Annex patrons a photo of Ronald Butler and the artist’s sketch of the prime suspect.

It was hoped someone who routinely drove past the Postal Annex at that time of the morning would remember something.

Capt. Bemisdarfer said of the traffic stops:

“Anything might help.”

 

☛ Loss of a Neighborhood “Kid” ☚

Ronald Butler’s death shocked his neighbors, who felt a mixture of fear for the area’s safety and for the loss of Ronald.

Leoia Anderson — who lived next door to the Butler family for 30 years — told Pat O’Conner of the Courier:

“We’re just frantic. We’re all very much upset.

What makes it so bad, is they have been my neighbors all this time. I’ve watched that kid grow up.

[Ronald was] courteous, polite, and very talented. He was really well liked. He was always at school and involved with his music. He was always on the go. He was at church on Sundays.

He never did give anyone any trouble. Anyone will tell you the same thing. The kid had never been a problem. He was always a bookworm.”

Leoia Anderson stressed that Ronald’s mother was a very positive influence on him.

☛ Motives and Rumors ☚

Persistent rumors about motives prevailed in Waterloo, although the Police never publicly presented any theories or speculation.

Mary Berdell, the Director who hired Ronald to teach at the Martin Luther King Center, made this public statement concerning the murder:

“I don’t know about the private lives of any of my employees unless the private life begins to interfere with the job. And Ron’s private life wasn’t.

He was dedicated to his work, liked people, and was very conscientious.”

☛ Ronald Butler’s Life ☚

photo by Mary E.

Ronald Craig Butler was born April 15, 1954 in Waterloo, Iowa, to Havanna Bush Butler and Rev. Henry Lee Butler.

After high school, he attended the University of Northern Iowa.

Visitation was at Kearns-Dykeman Chapel. Ronald’s funeral was held on Saturday afternoon, October 22 at the Union Missionary Baptist Church followed by burial in Fairview Cemetery.

Ronald was survived by his mother Havanna Bush Butler, his maternal grandmother Melinda Bush, and his paternal grandmother Mollie Butler

☛ Ronald Butler Homicide Update ☚

In a personal telephone call on May 11, 2012, Captain Tim Pillack of the Waterloo Police Investigations Division told me that the Ronald Butler homicide was designated “closed” in June of 2006.

When the prime suspect learned the department was preparing to file murder charges against him, he committed suicide.

Although this suspect was known to be the murderer, he was never brought to trial and convicted. In terms of receiving justice for the victim through the conviction of his killer, the Ronald Butler is not solved.

The news that law enforcement has identified Ronald Butler’s killer and we will continue to remember his life through this article.
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Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ Captain Tim Pillack, Waterloo Police Investigations Division, personal phone call and email, May 2012.
  • ☛ “Daily record: Emergency Calls,” Waterloo Courier, October 19, 1977.
  • ☛ “A dream ended by violent death,” Waterloo Courier, October 19, 1977.
  • ☛ “King Center adds arts classes,” Waterloo Courier, October 10, 1977.
  • ☛ “Police ask motorists for leads in slaying,” Waterloo Courier, October 24, 1977.
  • ☛ “Public’s aid asked in finding prime suspect,” Waterloo Courier, October 30, 1977.
  • ☛ “Sketch released of prime suspect in murder probe,” Waterloo Courier, October 25, 1977.
  • ☛ “Slaying jolts neighborhood,” Waterloo Courier, October 19, 1977.
  • ☛ “Stabbing–” Oelwein Daily Register, October 19, 1977.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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